Tuesday October 31st was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On that day in 1517 a German Augustinian monk and theology lecturer named Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the university church in Wittenberg.
Luther was protesting against the so-called ‘Indulgence’ scandal by which the Roman Catholic Church of that time made money by selling papal certificates to people who believed that by this means the sins of their dead relatives were remitted and thus their time in purgatory shortened.
Luther insisted on the basis of the Bible that eternal salvation was God’s gift to humanity through faith in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who had died on the Cross for the forgiveness of their sins. Salvation could not be bought by papal indulgences.
Luther’s last four theses - 92 to 95 - summarise his godly protest: ‘Away, then, with those prophets who say to Christ’s people. “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. Hail, hail to all those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “The Cross, the cross,” where there is no cross. Christians should be exhorted to be zealous to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hells; And let them thus be more confident of entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through a false assurance of peace’ (The Ninety-five Theses translated by Bertram Lee Woolf from the definitive Weimar Edition, 1952).
In 1520 Luther wrote probably his most spiritually beautiful book, The Freedom of the Christian. Here are some extracts from the same translation: ‘Faith not only gives the soul enough for her to become, like the divine word, gracious, free and blessed. It also unites the soul with Christ, like a bride with the bridegroom, and, from this marriage, Christ and the soul become one body, as St Paul says’ (Ephesians 5v30).
And: ‘It is not enough just to take the life and work of Christ, and, in preaching, merely tell the story and the chronicle of events. It is even worse to pass over these altogether, and preach about ecclesiastical law or other man-made rules and doctrines….But He (Christ) should and must be preached in such a way that, in both you and me, faith grows out of, and is received from, the preaching.’
And: ‘It follows that, like Christ his head, a Christian must let himself be completely and sufficiently content with his faith, always increasing in this which is his life, his religion, his salvation. It gives him everything that Christ and God possess…as St Paul says in Galatians 2: “The life which I now live in the body, I live in the faith of Christ the Son of God” (Galatians 2v20).’
The Church of England in its gold standard public liturgy, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, was hugely influenced by Luther’s biblical insights. The Prayer of Humble Access in our service of Holy Communion beautifully expresses the New Testament gospel as Luther, by God’s grace, rediscovered it: ‘We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy…’
So, thank the good Lord for the Reformation and for the rediscovery it brought of God’s wonderful good news of eternal salvation through thankful faith in the Lord Jesus Christ for sinful people like you and me.