Romans 3:23; Rom 1:16, 17, 22-32; 2:1-10, 17-24; 3:1, 2, 10-18, 23.
In a few days we will be marking the 500th anniversary of October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Luther’s temerity in publicly challenging the sale of indulgences soon went viral, to use a twenty-first-century term, and western Christianity would never be the same again. At the heart of Luther’s revolution were passages in the first three chapters of the book of Romans that led him to a new understanding of the human condition and how fallen humanity is saved through the grace of Jesus Christ.
Luther began teaching Paul’s epistle to the Romans to his students at Wittenberg University in 1515 and perhaps the old adage is true: you only really learn something when you teach it to someone else. This was certainly true for Luther, for it was while he was preparing his lectures that he discovered Paul’s teachings on grace and faith. He would later in life refer to a moment of illumination, a spiritual breakthrough where he suddenly realized that he was saved through faith in God’s grace. Christ’s death on the cross had saved him and he was free from the anxiety, fear, and anguish that shaped his life as an Augustinian monk. Up until then, Luther believed that his sins were inescapable and all the methods of sacramental repentance only left him more despondent. He even reached a point where he came to hate God. Careful attention to Paul’s words, however, freed him from his agony. He now believed that God’s grace meant unconditional forgiveness and that faith was the mark of that grace in God’s elect. He would eventually define this process as “justification by faith.” While Luther liked to think of this insight as a sudden flash of inspiration from the Holy Spirit, the evidence from his sermons and notes indicates a gradually unfolding understanding of grace and faith beginning in 1515 and growing through and following his famous act with a hammer in October of 1517.
No text was more important to Luther than Romans 1:16-17: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’” (I am using the 1611 KJV simply because it seems appropriate to use a Reformation-era Bible when discussing Luther and the emergence of the theology that inspired the Protestant Reformation. Better yet would be to use Luther’s own German translation or Erasmus’s 1516 Greek New Testament.) In these verses the entire Gospel, the good news of Jesus, now made sense to Luther. Romans 3:23-24 reaffirmed that salvation was a free gift: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Where once Luther had been frightened by Paul’s words, he now took comfort in Romans 3:12: “There is none that doeth good, no, not one” (also see verses 3:10-18). Perfection was not necessary and, in fact, was not only impossible, but a false theology that destroyed the gospel of Jesus Christ. Luther saw the devil nowhere more clearly in his day than in a theological structure that taught that sins could be accounted for through the church’s system of penance, mortification of the flesh, and the purchase of indulgences. As he read through Romans, however, he became increasingly angry at what he believed was a fundamental corruption of the gospel.
Luther’s anger grew until he felt compelled to publicly attack the most appalling manifestation of what he now firmly believed to be a broken and anti-Christian theology: the sale of papal indulgences, especially those peddled through the circus-like hucksterism and grandiose claims of Johann Tetzel. An indulgence was, technically, a symbolic monetary payment that took the place of a physical penance. Such an indulgence only represented forgiveness of sin if it was joined by a repentant heart. Tetzel, however, was pushing indulgences as a direct way to buy salvation, both for the purchaser and, depending on the indulgence, for relatives who had passed away and were suffering in purgatory. While the Pope and the local Archbishop liked the money Tetzel was generating, Church authorities were quick to blame his excesses for the calamity which was soon to engulf the church. Mocked by reformers and made a scapegoat by the Church, Tetzel would die a broken man a few years later. Perhaps the only one with any sympathy for Tetzel, shockingly, was Luther, who wrote to the dying Tetzel with words of comfort.
Five hundred years ago, Luther walked to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg and either supervised, directed, or held the hammer himself, though that was not something university professors generally did themselves, as the theses that would launch the Reformation were nailed to that public noticeboard. It was a Saturday and the day before the second busiest holy day of the year. Hundreds, likely thousands, of people would be attending the All Souls’ Day services the next morning. The crowds were drawn by the promise of reduced time in purgatory if they gave an offering and venerated Europe’s largest relic collection (18,970 relics). Frederick the Wise’s holy relics were housed in the Castle Church and were brought out for display once a year, on All Souls’ Day, for a special papal indulgence. Over 40,000 candles illuminated the objects and created an awe-inspiring setting. If a penitent venerated all the relics, a total of 1.9 million years would be removed from that person’s sojourn in purgatory. Thus, the moment that Luther chose to post his challenge to indulgences was not an accident, but carefully chosen to not only undermine Tetzel’s traveling show, but also to garner attention as the crowds gathered from across the region for the special yearly indulgence. While the initial reaction was not as big as Luther had expected, his 95 Theses could not be ignored. A papal excommunication was inevitable unless Luther would back down and recant. That was something Luther would never do. For many Christians, October 31 would remain All Hallows’ Eve, Halloween, but for the Protestant world, Reformation Day was born.
We make a mistake if we think that October 31, 1517, for Luther, was primarily about indulgences. Indulgence selling was a symptom, but the real issue for Luther was grace, faith, and the gospel, as he had discovered anew in his careful study of Romans. Passages such as Romans 3:21-22 left him with no doubt that salvation came only from God’s grace: “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe….” In the preceding verses, Paul had shown that everyone was thoroughly guilty of sin and condemnation under the law (Romans 3:10-18). The human condition was hopeless without God’s grace, a condition of despair with which Luther had been all too familiar. Grace not only offered eternal life, it also meant an end to spiritual anxiety in this life. Luther’s understanding of the human condition and God’s grace shared several theological components with his favorite church father, St. Augustine. Both believed that original sin meant human beings were thoroughly sinful and could only be saved by the gift of grace. Both also believed that faith was “inactive” and predestined by God. What Luther would term “justification by faith” referred to the implantation of faith, by God, into the hearts of those whom God had elected and predestined. Many later Protestants, including Adventists, would mean something much different when they spoke of grace and faith. For them, faith was an “active” choice by believers to accept God’s grace for their sins. They fully agreed with Luther that salvation cannot be earned, that it is completely dependent on God’s free gift of grace through Jesus Christ. They insisted, though, that despite the fall, human beings retained free will, that Christ died for everyone, and that salvation was not predestined, but available to all who accepted God’s grace.
The Dutch reformer Desiderius Erasmus also read the first three chapters of Romans very carefully and, in 1524, was one of the first to challenge Luther’s predestinarian theology. Erasmus wrote that salvation is like an apple growing on a tree. A small child wants the apple, but cannot reach it. Nothing he does can get him the apple, but his father reaches up, picks the apple and then offers it to his child. Erasmus agreed with Luther that human beings can never get salvation on their own and that salvation is a free gift from our gracious father in heaven. However, Erasmus wrote that, like the small child, we have free will and need to do two things: we need to first want salvation; and, second, we have to accept when God’s gift of salvation is offered to us. Erasmus’s coupling of grace and free will would later be developed, within Protestant theology, by another Dutch theologian, Jacob Arminius. It was this view of faith, grace, and choice that would become central to Seventh-day Adventist theology.
The reformation, of course, did not end with Luther, but continued on as countless men and women began to study the Bible for themselves. A revolution had begun that would have incredibly far reaching consequences and scholars continue to debate the reformation’s role in the rise of modern society, including democracy, capitalism, religious liberty, nationalism, human rights, and the scientific revolution, among others. Luther himself was, of course, far from perfect. While we must not ignore or downplay the problematic aspects of Luther’s revolution and life (e.g., Luther’s horrifying antisemitism, violent words against seditious peasants, vicious attacks on Catholics and other Protestant reformers, and his absolute intolerance for Saturday worship and adult baptism), there is no question that his courage and theological insight are worthy of celebration 500 years later.
The Reformation is ongoing. What Luther and other early reformers unleashed, especially the radical idea that everyone should read and interpret the Bible for themselves, continues to shape and reshape global Christianity. The reformation continued on from Luther, through other reformers and many reforming movements, and to each of us when we read and interpret the Bible for ourselves, when we take responsibility for our own spiritual journey. As Luther understood from reading Romans, God’s grace means that there is no ecclesiastical intermediary controlling our salvation. In the years after posting his 95 Theses, Luther wrote that there is a “priesthood of all believers” and that we are all called, ordained, and commissioned by God: women, men, and children. This, then, is both our challenge and our great hope. We each have the responsibility of priesthood, the call to spread the gospel, and we all have the glorious hope of eternal life as the free gift of God. There is no better moment than this 500th anniversary to reaffirm, with Paul and with Luther, that “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.”
Image Credit: WikimediaCommons
If you respond to this article, please:
Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.