Martin Luther nails his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg
Romans 3:19-28, Jeremiah 31:31-34
At Hallowe’en this year we shall be commemorating 500 years of the Reformation, for it was on 31st. October, the eve of All Saints Day, in 1517, that Martin Luther posted his famous 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. In those days the church door functioned as a kind of public notice board ( for those who could read). All kinds of public notices were nailed to the church door. So Martin Luther’s action was not the act of vandalism it might at first seem to be to us!
But why did Luther post this notice on Hallowe’en? Well, on the eve of All Saints Day the Castle Church was open to the public. People came to view the large collection of relics of the saints which were held there. It was believed that if you viewed these relics you could obtain a reduction in the time you would spend in Purgatory. In fact it was considered equivalent to buying an indulgence for your sins. So there was a significance in Luther choosing that day to put up his notice.
Well, I’m not going to go into Luther’s 95 Theses now, but I do want us to think about what the Reformation stands for. What does it mean to be a Protestant? In what ways do we differ from our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters? In what I am now going to say I do not want anyone to see it as some kind of attack on non-protestants. It’s just that I believe strongly that we ought not to be ashamed of what we believe as Protestants. In these ecumenical times you quite often hear people expressing regret for the Reformation – as if it was an unnecessary splitting up of Christendom. Well, I don’t regret it. It was a necessary return to Biblical truth at a time when the Church had lost its way.
Discarding the untrue
Reformation is about discarding those things which are not Biblical, and which are untrue, and at the same time holding on to Biblical truths which might have been forgotten over time. That is what Luther and Calvin and all the other Reformers were trying to do. And that is what we should be trying to do also.
So what were the things they discarded?
· The sale of indulgences – you could pay money so that your sins would be forgiven and you would spend less time in purgatory ( it was thought).
· The doctrine of Purgatory itself – it’s not taught in the Bible.
· Praying to the saints.
· Offering worship to the Virgin Mary
· Praying for the souls of the dead
· Bowing down to images of saints and angels
· Bowing to the altar and worshipping the bread and wine of the Eucharist as the actual body and blood of God: the doctrine of transubstantiation.
· The power of the priesthood, who were believed to be able to forgive people’s sins.
All these things were thrown out by the Reformers. (However, many of these practices were brought back into the Church of England with the Anglo-catholic movement of the C19th.) You will notice in Presbyterian churches we don’t offer prayers to the saints, or pray for the souls of the dead. Nor do we believe that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper actually turn into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
These are the things which we don’t do, but what are the things we do do ? Let’s not be too negative. We might, as Protestants, have a tendency to stress the things we protest about rather than the things we positively stand for. So I want to rectify that – here are the things the Protestant Reformation stressed, the Biblical truths they rediscovered and emphasized:
The priesthood of all believers
Before the Reformation if you wanted to get close to God you thought you had to go to a priest. You had to confess your sins to him. He alone had power to absolve you. He alone could bring God near to you and he did this by offering you the Host – the sacramental wafer which was the Body of Christ.
When you prayed you didn’t unusually pray directly to God the Father, or to the Son. You prayed to the Virgin Mary, or to one of the other saints, or to your guardian angel. They were closer to God – they would act as intermediaries between you and God.
When the Reformation came people realised the truth of the Apostle Paul’s words to Timothy :
For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 2:5)
So, in the name of Jesus you can pray directly to God. In Old Testament times only the priests could enter the Holy Place in the Temple to draw near to God. But now, under the New Covenant, we all have access to God.
In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. ( Ephesians 3:12 )
We are all priests. Hence the expression: “Priesthood of all believers”.
Justification by faith
Before the Reformation you struggled hard to find peace with God. Luther himself had been a monk for many years. He had fasted and flagellated himself and prayed, and yet somehow never got right with God. He was aware of his sins and also became aware that none of these disciplines of fasting and penance could wash them away.
Then, one day as he was studying the Letter to the Romans he came upon this verse:
For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.
( Romans 1:17 )
Luther realised that it was only the grace of God which could save him. He threw himself on the mercy of God and trusted Christ for his forgiveness. Luther realised these great truths : no need to make pilgrimages to the graves of the saints, no need to fast on Fridays, no need to flagellate himself, no need to pay the church for indulgences. All he had to do was truly repent of his sins and trust in Christ. This is the great liberating truth of our faith – Jesus saves.
Centrality of the Bible
“Scriptura sola” – the Bible alone – was the Reformers’ great motto. Before the Reformation you could only get the Bible in Latin. Only priests could read it and only they could interpret what it said. Also the tradition of the church was held to be of equal importance to the Bible.
So, if the Church taught about purgatory, and indulgences, and Mary being perpetually a virgin and sinless, and Papal authority, these things must be true – even though they are not in the Bible! With the coming of the Reformation people threw out these ideas as erroneous and returned to the pure teaching of the Bible. They also had it translated into the language of the people – German, French, English, Welsh – rather than in Latin.
The Lord’s Supper as a memorial
Before the Reformation the Lord’s Supper was seen as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It was believed that the bread and wine actually changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. The priest offered the Body and Blood of Christ as a sacrifice at the altar – just as the Old Testament priests offered the sacrificial animals. Every time the Mass was celebrated Christ was offered again for the sins of the world. But the Reformers realised the truth of these words from Hebrews:
Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. ( Hebrews 7:27)
The Lord’s Supper is a meal we share in memorial of our Lord. We take bread and wine as symbols of his Body and Blood. They remind us of his sacrifice on the cross. We do not sacrifice him again.
You won’t find crucifixes in our churches because Christ is not still on the cross. Instead you will see the plain, empty cross – a sign that Christ has risen and is alive today.
No, I can’t agree with those who decry the Reformation and seem to want to apologise for it. We cling to the truths rediscovered by Luther and the other Reformers. And a Reformed church is not just one which was reformed 500 years ago – it’s a church which is continually reforming – always looking for new insights in God’s word, and new ways to reach out with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
[An earlier version of this sermon was first blogged in 2008 under the title “Reformation”.]