by Barrett Hendrickson
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther's 95 theses were nailed to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. As much as we like to think these theses were about the Doctrine of Justification by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone, that didn't come until later in Luther's study of Galatians.
"When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." Johann Tetzel was a travelling evangelist in the 1500s who sold indulgences for the catholic church. His sing-song rhymes were hugely successful in raising funds for rebuilding St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. He would travel around Europe, backed by the catholic church, promising that giving money to the church would save dead family members from purgatory. Cash was the way to salvation.
Martin Luther saw the flaws in Tetzel’s theology. As Doug has been saying a lot lately, Luther was constantly confessing his sin and seeking proper repentance. However, the way these indulgences were sold eliminated the biblical practice of repentance. It cheapened true repentance and gave it a monetary value. This was the real scandal. And so, on All Saints' Day, November 1, 1517, Luther nailed 95 theses on the door, offering to debate any one of them.
As time went on and he studied the Scriptures, Luther began to realize things about God that had been hidden for centuries. As he studied Paul’s letter to the Galatians he saw that God has given sinners the gift of His own righteousness through faith in Christ. The Christian life is not about earning salvation through one’s own doing, but it is about receiving God's own righteousness as a gift of grace.
As Luther continued to study, he continued to write. Bucking the trend of writing in Latin, the language of academia, he wrote in the people’s German, so that ordinary people could understand the Gospel. He attacked the validity of the papal authority that controlled the interpretation of Scripture. He continued to teach of God's righteousness being His gift received in faith, opposed to the catholic church's claim that grace only flowed through sacraments administered by priests. Luther's explanation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that all who are found in Christ are simultaneously sinners at heart and righteous in status.
Martin Luther is credited with beginning the Reformation of the Church. As the years passed, the Reformation continued through the work of people like Zwingli, Calvin, Bucer, and the Puritans. Because of their tireless work to return the church to its New Testament roots, we now enjoy the sound worship, godly access to Scripture in the common language, salvation through faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, and the Scriptures as the only infallible rule of faith and practice, to the glory of God alone. God has given the believer his righteousness. Our works confirm that gift.
Note: A good, quick read of the history of the Reformation: The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation by Michael Reeves. ISBN 978-143366931