Lutheran Church of Elmont
Dear Friends in Christ:
The Eve of All Saints Day 2017, is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Lutherans will celebrate the anniversary for a number of secondary reasons, but one primary reason: the rediscovery of the Good News that by the grace of God for the sake of Jesus Christ, we have been destined for life, light, and salvation. Actually that Good News had been discovered early and often in the history of Christianity, but by the high Middle Ages, the institutional needs of the western church caused the suppression of that Good News. It is actually quite simple, the church as institution benefits when it is by the morality of its members, the good works of its members, the missionary outreach of its members, the giving of its members, the participation of its members, the fear of its members, and the purchase by its members of what the church has to sell that salvation is to be had or expedited. By the high Middle Ages, the institutional needs of the church had become so pressing, that Good News of justification by grace through faith had to be suppressed. Good News was bad for business.
That is the context in which Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door (the only bulletin board they had) at Wittenberg. He wished to debate with other academics the corrupting influence of the doctrine of purgatory and the sale of indulgences by the church. By this time, the purchase of an indulgence could lessen time spent in purgatory for oneself or for loved ones. Printers got ahold of the document and its contents were spread far and wide. It may have been the world’s first twitter storm. Luther was seldom understated and was given to the German habit of overstatement at times to make a point. Here is Thesis 32:
Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation
because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned,
together with their teachers.
He recognized the institutional needs and the corrupting influence indulgences had on the mission of the church:
43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to
the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.
44. Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better.
Man does not, however, become better by means of indulgences but
is merely freed from penalties.
45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes
him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal
indulgences but God's wrath.
Luther insisted that Good News of salvation must have only one price: the blood of Christ. This blows up all human schemes of self-justification:
The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory
and grace of God.
63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to
be last. Matthew 20:16.
64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most
acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.
It is possible that the institutional church reacted as much to Luther’s tone as to his content, although tout le monde knew Germans to be rough, coarse, and brutally honest. Here is Luther on the great building project of St. Peter’s Basilica:
Again, “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than
the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter
with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”
At any rate, officialdom demanded that Luther recant, and put him on trial when he refused. The protection of Frederick the Wise was the only thing that kept him from being executed as a heretic. Positions hardened and the split between the Roman church and the various protestant movements was finalized over the next 131 years. But breathing room was created for the exploration and explication and proclamation of the wonderful news of God’s gracious act of saving sinners through the holy and precious blood and innocent suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Breathe deeply, and rejoice.
Yours in Christ,