MADRID —After a productive week in Malaysia at the Asian Pastors Equipping Conference (aka APEC), Deborah and I boarded a plane to Spain to teach the “same ole boring strokes” and to preach at the sixth anniversary of our Every Nation church in Madrid. There is so much to report from both Asia and Europe, but I thought that since today is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I would have our resident historian write us a guest post on the history and theological significance of the Reformation. William (my oldest son) wrote and taught the Church History course for Leadership 215 and is currently finishing his PhD in history at Vanderbilt University. Enjoy.
On October 31st, 1517—exactly 500 years ago today—a German monk and theology professor named Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg. Though it may not have been his original intention, this simple act sparked a revolution within European Christianity—a revolution that would have massive implications for every area of Western society including politics, education, culture, the arts, and even the economy.
Although Luther’s grievances with the Catholic church—and in particular with the system of indulgences—were very specific to the time and place in which he lived, three perennial questions were behind the ninety-five theses.
The first question was theological: How is it possible for a sinful human to be justified before a holy God? The second question was practical: How do we receive God’s gift of forgiveness? And the third question was epistemological: How can I know with any certainty that God has forgiven me?
These three questions plagued Luther personally for much of his career as a monk; and as it turns out, these questions also plagued European society as a whole.
In 1517, if you were to ask a Christian on the street in Wittenburg to answer these questions, you might have heard something like this:
Q: How is it possible for you, a sinful human, to be justified before a holy God?
A: By God’s grace and by great effort, we can be justified.
Q: How do you receive God’s forgiveness?
A: Through sincere penance and buying papal indulgences.
Q: How can you know with any certainty that God has forgiven you?
A: Because the priest has declared me absolved and the pope has issued the indulgence.
Luther was unsatisfied with these answers.
Reflecting on his frustrations with the system of indulgences, Luther wrote, “For however irreproachably I lived as a monk, I felt myself in the presence of God to be a sinner with a most unquiet conscience, nor could I believe that I pleased him with my satisfactions. I did not love, indeed I hated this just God…”
However, while teaching a course on the book of Romans in 1515, Luther received the life-changing revelation that “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17).
About this moment, Luther wrote: “I felt that I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love.”
For Luther, this revelation gave him new answers to the old questions that had plagued him his entire life.
Q: How is it possible for a sinful human to be justified before a holy God?
A: By God’s grace alone (Sola Gratia). Luther recognized that our justification before God was entirely dependent on His sovereign grace. No good work or human merit could ever accomplish (or even add to) the work of Jesus on the cross. Luther was so convinced of the efficacy of God’s grace in our salvation that he offered this humorous (and slightly dangerous) advice: “Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all.”
Q: How do we receive God’s forgiveness?
A: Through faith alone (Sola Fide). Reading Romans, Luther realized that we receive God’s forgiveness by faith. That’s it. We must simply accept that we are accepted because of the work of Jesus on our behalf. On faith, Luther wrote, “Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures.”
Q: How can we know with certainty that God has forgiven us?
A: God has told us through His Word (Sola Scriptura). And God cannot lie. Luther, who had always struggled with assurance, realized that he could be confident in God’s grace because He could trust God’s Word. For Luther, it was no longer the words of the priest or even the pope that brought assurance but rather the Word of God reminding Him of the truth. On the Bible, Luther wrote, “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me… A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a cardinal without it.”
I sometimes wonder how people in our churches would answer Luther’s three big questions in 2017.
Would their answers sound like Luther? Or would they sound more like the man on the street in Wittenburg in 1517?
Whether or not we know the Latin phrases (Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, & Sola Scriptura), my prayer is that every disciple in our churches would know the truth in their hearts that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).