Sunday, October 25, 2015

October 2015 - Remembering the Reformation

On the 31st of October 1517, 498 years ago, a Catholic monk of the Augustinean order nailed 95 statements to the door of the Wittenberg castle - church in Germany. These 95 theses were crisp, bold protests directed against the severe abuses of the papacy in Rome. The main issues contained in this protest : 

1. The exploitation of the German people by the Italian pope who wanted money to build the very expensive St Peter's basilica in Rome.
The way in which this was done was by the sale of indulgences. The Catholic church of that time had developed a doctrine of purgatory, a place which they taught was the intermediary state between death and hell. They said that if you had lived a very sinful life, you could get time off for yourself (or for others) in purgatory if you bought these indulgences. A Roman Catholic monk called Johann Tetzel (1465 -1519 AD) encouraged by Albrecht, archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg was instrumental in all this [1]. This money was raised in response to Pope Julius’ II and later Pope Leo’s desire to reconstruct St Peters Basilica, thus to become the biggest church building in the world. The tragedy was that the money raised came from feeding simple and uneducated people who were fed with superstitions like purgatory, by telling them that there was actually a chance after death to get delivered from hell.

This was simply too much for Martin Luther and he lamented :
"...before long all the churches , palaces, walls and bridges of Rome will be built out of our money . First we should rear living temples, next local churches, and only last of all St Peter's, which is not necessary for us. We German's can't attend St Peter's… why doesn't the pope build the basilica out of his own money? He is richer than Croesus. He would do better to sell St Peter's and give the money to the poor folk who are being fleeced by the hawkers of indulgences."

This sentiment expressed by Luther evoked a heartfelt "Jawohl" among the German people who had for some time felt exploited by the Italian dominated Catholic Church. The Italians did in fact not think much of the Germans , who were thought of as barbarians, and so when bishop Albert of Mainz forwarded Luther's 95 theses to Rome, Pope Leo, successor of Julius II, apparently said:
"Luther is a drunken German. He will feel different when he is sober!"

2. A second point that Luther made was that if there was a purgatory, the Pope could not have any power over purgatory. Luther was a very clever and shrewd thinker. He said:
"If the pope had the authority to say that souls could get off time in purgatory, through buying indulgences, why in the name of love does he not abolish purgatory by letting everyone out? If for the sake of miserable money he released countless souls, why should he not for the sake of most holy love empty the place?"

3. Thirdly , Luther attacked the foundations of the Roman Catholic system. He maintained that the whole issue of buying indulgences, in order to get souls out of purgatory, was in effect an undermining of the doctrine of salvation by inducing a false sense of security. Imagine for a moment, you could buy your way out of hell (or into heaven) by means of money! If that were true every pastor should become a modern "Tetzel", encouraging everyone to use all means at our disposal to buy our way out of sin and into heaven. Luther clearly demonstrated that the Roman Catholic understanding of salvation was utterly corrupt and contrary to Scripture. He then began to show from the Scriptures that salvation was not something that could be given by human hands, but by God alone.

What did Martin Luther do or say, that caused this great Revival?

1. He said nothing new. He simply pointed out that what was happening in the church was nothing but corruption, and he simply drew people’s attention back to the Holy Spirit inspired Scriptures. Hence the first Reformation slogan became SOLA SCRIPTURA . Luther had no regard for what pope or church said . His primary concern was this: What says the Bible? Luther felt driven by God to re-form what had been de-formed! He said,
"I simply say that true Christianity had ceased to exist among those who should have preserved it - the bishops and the scholars."

2. He spoke as a converted man ! Through his studies in the Scriptures, particularly as he began to lecture on the book of Romans in April 1515, he himself was converted. He began to emphasize the doctrine of "justification by faith" , as opposed to the Catholic emphasis on "justification by works". The Catholic church at that time had made people believe that good moral and ritual actions would be enough to enable sinners to achieve salvation and to find favour in God's eyes. As Luther studied the writings of Paul however, he discovered that salvation was possible only because God makes it possible through Christ's death (SOLA CHRISTUS) on the cross and by His grace alone (SOLA GRATIA), and this through faith alone which is the gift of God (SOLA FIDES). Since salvation is then the gift of God it therefore cannot be bought. It cannot be secured by living a good life or doing good works.

3. Luther understood the nature and extent of the fall of mankind. Man was so utterly fallen and dead in his sins (Eph. 2:1), that he could never save himself. Luther accepted Paul's verdict concerning man in Romans 3:9-23:
  • "There is no -one righteous - not even one - all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God!" And…
  •  "all our good works are like filthy rags." (Isa. 64:4) 
How then shall we come before our exalted God? With nothing of our own! What then is our hope? Christ alone! What can we add? Nothing! Only faith in Christ’s person and work brings a sinner to salvation. The sinner is justified by grace through faith, and not by his own achievements.

4. Luther put salvation and works in their proper order: Do not think that Luther was not concerned about good works. He was! But he simply put the order right. Good works and morality are the product of justification and not its cause.

5. Luther believed that the Word correctly preached would be honoured by the Holy Spirit. Luther's rediscovery of the Bible and its authority as opposed to other authorities led to the truth being preached accurately, and hence powerfully, because the Holy Spirit honours His Word, and as a result people are truly converted! Thus the Holy Spirit through Luther started a "fire" that soon was out of control. For the first time the common people understood the Bible, and the Truth as it is in Jesus set them free.

6. Luther translated the Bible into the German language. After he was summoned to stand before the council of Worms in January 1521, he was asked to recant of all his ‘heretical beliefs‘. At this time he made his famous statement:
"My conscience is bound by the Word of God. Here I stand, I can do no other ; so help me God."

The council of Worms condemned Luther to death, but he was providentially taken into protective custody by Duke Frederik the Wise, who gave him protection in the Wartburg castle. Here he translated the entire New Testament into the German language in the matter of 4 months! Thanks to Gutenberg's wonderful invention - the printing press in 1445, the New Testament was now printed into the German language by Melchior Lotter. 3000 copies sold out in 3 months! Keep in mind that the price of a NT copy cost a salary of 2 months! 17 editions follow in Luther's life time! More and more people began to read the Bible in their own language. Some carried with them all the time and learned it off by heart. The spiritual hunger was remarkable!

The Reformation was nothing less than a rediscovery of the Bible after the pattern of 2 Chronicles 34 in which the nation of Israel was revived and reformed according to the pattern given by God in the Bible.

We need another Reformation!

(i) Too many people are caught up in philosophical thought systems that are not biblical. John Mc Arthur, in his excellent book "The sufficiency of Christ" has pointed out three fatal trends which are undermining the modern church, which lead people away from the authority of the Scriptures, in the same way in which the Roman Catholic church withheld the Scriptures from its people in the days of Luther.

a. Psychology : a man - made philosophical system to substitute the Bible and to give alternative answers to man's problems.

b. Pragmatism : a thought system that teaches that “what works must be right…As long as it feels good it is good …” This system of thought is feelings based and not truth based .

c. Mysticism : Even though the Christian faith has an element of mystery , the basis of our faith is to be lived out upon the facts presented to us in the Scriptures. The tendency in the modern church is to ignore the facts, and thus to bypass the Bible, and to look for experiences, dreams and visions to live by. This is easily abused by unscrupulous people who open to door to superstition and to be misled by doctrines of demons (1 Tim 4:1). We must learn to submit to the explicit teachings of the Bible.

(ii) We need a Reformation because the church has grown weak and insipid. The church of God is often weak and compromised by being influenced by the world, rather than influencing and reforming the world by acting as salt and light (Matt.5 :12-16). Our leaders are lukewarm, and her congregations fast asleep! The modern church is hopelessly divided because she has laid the Bible which teaches her how to enjoy unity, aside.

(iii) We need God's help to reform ! We need Holy Spirit anointed preachers who radically believe in God and His Word and who preach it fearlessly, speaking the truth in love. We need preachers passionate for the Word of God, who care little for public opinion when it goes against the truth of Scripture and who are not intimidated by men. We need the truth from anointed lips falling upon anointed ears, so that hearing becomes doing so that God is glorified in obedient lives.

May God be pleased to grant us another reformation before the return of Christ!

[1]  See his sermon on this subject  in  Roland Bainton’s  book : Here I stand , p.78

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