On October 31, 1517, 493 years ago, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed a paper to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This in itself was not unusual. In those days the church door served as the town bulletin board. But this particular notice written by Luther was quite unusual compared to the conventional religious wisdom of that time. That paper began the Reformation, a worldwide revolution that has continued relevance today.
The subject of this paper was the sale of indulgences. Martin Luther had 95 things to say about indulgences and hoped someone would be willing to debate them in a scholarly setting. Why was this so revolutionary? Because Luther was starting to lead a charge back into the Word of God. The Church of Luther’s era had built something almost unrecognizable over the foundation of God’s Word—a religion governed by human tradition—a religion by which heaven could be purchased by the consumer. Luther would lead a charge back into the Word of God—a charge to dig back into the foundation—a charge to discover what God really has to say to His creation.
One of the Bible passages that would come to mean so much to Luther was today’s Epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. The parallels between Paul’s situation and Luther’s are obvious, but no less striking. Paul was writing about his own people—the Jewish people at the time of Christ. The Jewish leaders had developed a distorted picture of themselves. By thinking they could fully obey the Law of God, they had developed a pride that was destroying them. The religious system of the Jewish leaders no longer required God. They felt they could fulfill the Law themselves.
But the Law, Paul asserts, cannot make us righteous. The Law shows us our sins. What we do to keep the Law will not make us right with God, because we could never do enough. And it was not only the Jewish people who had a problem with pride. Paul also cautions his Gentile audience. No one is righteous, he says. There is no difference. All have sinned. What then becomes of pride? It is excluded. A person who is truly walking with God has nothing to be prideful about. We are justified, literally, declared “not guilty,” by faith, apart from works of the Law.
The Church of Luther’s time declared just the opposite. Pope Leo X wanted to complete St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Much money needed to be gathered before the mammoth project could be completed. Pope Leo ruled that indulgences—certificates of God’s pardon—should be sold in Germany. Chief among the pardon peddlers was a monk named John Tetzel. When Tetzel rolled into town, bells tolled, organs sounded, a red cross was set up bearing the pope’s coat of arms. Once in the town church, Tetzel would preach about the miraculous power of indulgences. It was proclaimed and believed by most that whoever bought an indulgence not only received forgiveness of sins, but would also escape punishment in purgatory, a kind of holding tank for souls never once mentioned in Holy Scripture.
The pope, Tetzel claimed, had more power than all the apostles and saints, even more than the Virgin Mary, for all of these were under Christ, while the pope was equal to Christ. Tetzel claimed to have saved more souls with his indulgences than Peter with his sermons. He even had a little commercial jingle—way ahead of his time, that Tetzel—“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” As a result, many were led to believe that they did not need to repent of their sins, and that trust in Jesus Christ was unnecessary. Just buy some indulgences, and you’d be straight.
Luther was incensed when he heard about this. He knew that souls for whom Jesus died were at stake! The Gospel of Jesus was being denied by the very organization that was supposed to proclaim it! Luther protested the sale of indulgences because it threatened to destroy a Christian’s relationship with God. As Luther wrote in Thesis # 62: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.”
It is that same concern for souls; that same concern for getting the gospel of Jesus right that moved Paul to write to the Roman Christians. It was of utmost importance that they understood that Jewish tradition did not give Jewish people an advantage with God. Knowing the Law does not save people. Only those who always do exactly what the Law says can be saved by the Law. Since all—both Jew and Gentile—have sinned, all will die.
Luther used what Paul wrote here to demonstrate from Scripture that we are not saved by the things we do. We are saved by what Jesus has done for us. God offered His Son as “a sacrifice of atonement.” We have life “through faith in His blood.” The Church of Luther’s era had deteriorated into a self-serving, self-preserving organization. In almost every important way, God’s Word was only historically incidental to the organization. The immediate needs of the organization and its security took precedence over the Word of God. Luther used this passage and others like it to tear away the human organization where it needed to be torn. The Word itself was the demolishing and reforming force. The Law tore down. The Gospel built up. The Gospel built on the only real foundation—Jesus, the Messiah.
Let’s stop for a moment to consider the question: when is the best time to repair your home? Let’s say you notice a problem with a board on your porch. When should that be fixed? What will happen if you wait too long to fix it?
The Reformation at the time of Luther was a major event because the necessary ongoing repairs had not been done. Forget a loose board; the whole house was about to collapse. The foundation of the Church had been undermined. Because smaller repairs had been ignored, pride in tradition grew as Christ was displaced.
If reformation can be compared to keeping our house in good repair, then it is worth asking today, of ourselves, what do we need the Word of God to fix? What does the Law need to tear out of us? What does the Gospel need to build in us?
If we think of Reformation Day primarily as a day where it’s okay to slam Roman Catholicism, then we’ve missed the point entirely. We are no different than the Jews and Gentiles Paul wrote to. We are not “better people” than the Catholics, ancient or modern. We are always in danger of slipping across the boundary from confidence in what God does for us to pride in what we think we can do ourselves. Perversely, there is even a type of pride we can take in being “heirs of the Reformation” that amounts to a schoolyard attitude of “We’re smart and they’re dumb.”
But pride, of course, is excluded, according to the apostle Paul. How—by the way of works? No, by the way of faith. We are convinced that a person is justified by faith without the works of the Law. Pride is excluded by the faith that the Holy Spirit gives to us. Faith builds. Faith reforms in line with God’s Word.
The Law tears down our efforts to build a proud tradition. The grace of God points us to people who need to hear the Gospel in a way that makes sense to them.
The Law tears down our efforts to “protect the church.” The Gospel sends us to be God’s ambassadors, to take risks in showing Jesus to those who are as of now estranged from Him.
The Law breaks down our self-righteous attempts to make the church an exclusive club. The Gospel opens our hearts to other sinners that Jesus wants to reform.
The Law finds what is broken, what is rotten, what is dead, and rips it out. The Gospel of full forgiveness of sins in Jesus repairs. It makes new things. It reforms us in the likeness of Jesus, as we live through faith in His blood.
adapted from sermons by Rev. Paul Muench and Rev. Andrew Simcak, Jr.