I recently taught a new members class at our church and once again had a chance to briefly review the history of the Reformation. As I was once again reading some of the history of the great reformer, Martin Luther, I was impressed once again with how seriously he took theology. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that Christians no longer want to learn theology. All we need to know is that “God loves me this I know…for the Bible tells me so” It is popular today to be a minimalists in Christianity. We don’t need to know the Bible and Theology, we’re told. Many Christian leaders of large churches take pride in saying that they are not theologians as if that is a positive thing. What has happened to us? Where is our hunger for God’s Word and a deeper understanding of His revealed will?
The truth is that each and every one of us is a theologian. The question isn’t whether or not we are a theologian…the question is whether or not we are good or bad theologians. We make decisions every day based on what it is we believe. Our beliefs affect the way we live. They affect our relationships. They affect our commitments…which one’s we keep and which ones we break. And ultimately what we believe will affect whether or not we persevere in the faith.
Martin Luther, led by the Holy Spirit, was constantly in inward turmoil over his sin. He was tortured by doubts about his standing before God. As a beginning theology student he was taught that God demanded absolute righteousness and that people needed to love God absolutely, and their neighbors as themselves. He was taught that they should have the unshakable faith of Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son and Luther knew he could never meet the standard, and was tortured by his sin. Luther said later that he had hated the righteous God who punished sinners.
In his day, the church taught that salvation was mediated by the church, through confession. During Luther’s years of turmoil, he would wear out confessors. “My conscience would never give me assurance, but I was always doubting and said, ‘You did not perform that correctly. You were not contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.”
His preparation, his reading of the Scriptures with his own discomfort in mind, led him to a new view of the Scriptures.
“At last,” he said, “meditating day and night and by the mercy of God, I began to understand that the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith… I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.”
In Luther’s time, the church had largely turned to a justification by works, or a mixture of faith and works. The power to forgive sins was understood to reside in the pope based on the “power of the keys” given to the apostles, according to Matthew 16:18, and was used to discipline sinners. Penitent sinners were asked to show regret for their sins (contrition), confess them to a priest (confession), and do penitential work to atone for them (satisfaction). Abuses of the idea of penitential work abounded. In Northern Europe the Dominican Johann Tetzel sold forgiveness by indulgences, giving rise to the famous jingle, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings a soul from purgatory springs.” Luther saw that the sale of indulgences represented more than papal power gone awry — the sale of indulgences represented justification based on works. In 1517, Luther posted 95 Theses – statements posted on the equivalent of a university bulletin board — for academic debate over the means of justification.
The events of Luther’s time made his personal rediscovery of justification by faith the spark for the Protestant Reformation. To Luther’s surprise, his 95 Theses captured the attention of Europe, catalyzing the Reformation and the recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone, as revealed in Scripture alone, to the Glory of God alone.
Here’s my questions for your reflection this week. Are you pursuing maturity? Are you growing in your faith? Are you hungry for God’s word? Are you firm in your foundation of the basics of the faith so that you are growing? If your answers to those questions troubles you, then I pray that you will join us at Valleybrook Evangelical Presbyterian Church, as we seek to be and make disciples of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.