500th Anniversary of the Reformation

October 31, 1517 to October 31, 2017
Text: Ephesians 2:8-10

Lutherans remember October 31st 500 years ago in 1517. The REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER nailed a paper to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This in itself was NOT so unusual. In those days, the church door served as the town’s bulletin board. If someone wanted to debate an issue publicly, they would make it known by nailing a note on the church door. But the particular notice written by LUTHER was quite unusual compared to the commonly accepted Christian beliefs and practices of that time. That paper began the Reformation, a world-wide revolution that continues today.

The subjects to be debated publicly were the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church regarding several issues including one that later related to selling of indulgences. MARTIN LUTHER presented 95 Theses (statements) he wanted to debate. As we celebrate the 500th Reformation anniversary, we will briefly look at the controversy that sparked the Reformation in Luther’s day concerning indulgences.

Our text in Ephesians 2 says, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

It was the selling of indulgences – purchased pardons – that caused MARTIN LUTHER to write his 95 Theses. Pope Leo X wanted to build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Much money was needed before such a mammoth project could be undertaken, so Pope Leo X ruled that indulgences could be sold to raise the necessary funds. Chief among the pardon peddlers, selling indulgences in Germany was a monk by the name of John Tetzel. The people of Germany held these indulgences in high esteem. Tetzel was received in town after town as though he were a mighty monarch. Bells tolled, organs sounded, and a red cross bearing the pope’s coat-of-arms was put up. Once in the town square or church, Tetzel preached about the miraculous power of indulgences. It was proclaimed and believed by the citizens that whoever bought an indulgence NOT only received forgiveness of sins but also would escape punishment in purgatory.

John Tetzel claimed to have saved more souls with his indulgences than Peter with his sermons. He had a catchy little rhyme: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” This new Roman Catholic practice of seemed to imply that you no longer needed to repent. It took the God’s gift of repentance & absolution and placed it in human hands. If you could purchase grace, then it follows that you no longer have to trust in the perfect life and death of Jesus Christ alone.

It was a great capital program, but it was terrible theology. LUTHER was enraged when he heard about this new teaching. Not only were souls at risk, but also the biblical Gospel was in danger. LUTHER protested against the sale of indulgences as a practice that threatened to destroy a Christian’s relationship with God, a relationship trusting only in the advocate Christ Jesus who took our place and punishment. That relationship was established in us at our Baptism, when we received the gift of the Holy Spirit who creates faith in us. The one being baptized is “born again from above,” and adopted into God’s family. “For it is by grace you have been saved” (v.8). King David wrote, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5).

We are all sinners, born spiritually blind, and unable to save ourselves. “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:10-11). “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). “There is NOT a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Eccl.7:20).

This is a bleak picture! We are incapable to save ourselves from damnation! Our sinful nature produces sins of COMMISSION – the things we do, say, and think that offend God. Also, we are guilty of sins of OMISSION – the things we don’t do, say, and think that God does expect from His children. Considering all the sins in thought, word, and deed – doing wrong and NOT doing right – how could anyone think we could ever rescue ourselves? God gives us grace (what we don’t deserve): forgiveness, life and salvation.

Trusting in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we never have to worry if we’re good enough, we never have to wonder if we’ve done enough. Because of Jesus, God no longer holds our sins against us! The righteousness of God no longer has to do with our behavior/works. The righteousness of God has to do with Jesus’ behavior and works. Because of Jesus we have aright-ness or right status with God – the gift of righteousness!

Faith in Jesus Christ does away with the LAW as a facilitator of salvation and restores the LAW as a divine gift to humans. Faith overcomes the misunderstanding of the LAW as something you achieve. And yet all humans, in our sinful rebellion against God, continue to cling foolishly to the hope that our character, life, morality, and works have some worth or value that might make God like us. There is nothing new in 500 years since Martin Luther posted his 95 theses.

There is nothing new since the Garden of Eden. We humans have always thought of our salvation as human-made, self-made, and NOT God-made. We are tempted to cling to the hope that in the end our “good” will outweigh our “bad.” Yet our text reminds us we can do NOTHING to gain heaven.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast” (vv.8-9).

When Jesus in agony uttered the words from the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” (Matt.27:46), He was suffering the punishment we deserve. As this was happening the greatest exchange in the world, in all of history, was being transacted. On Good Friday, the Father transferred the sin of the entire world – yours and mine – unto the Savior. The Father exchanged the Son’s pure righteousness for all the world’s sins for all people for all time. By God’s grace alone: instead of sending us the punishment we deserve for our sins, instead, God sent His Son, Jesus.

Paul reminds us in our Ephesians text of this magnificent promise of God. We were adopted into His GRACE as we were adopted into His family at our baptism. By God’s grace alone: our salvation is the basis for our daily Christian life. Paul reminds us:“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (v.10).

God’s purpose in saving us was also for us to serve Him in His kingdom. We Christians can do good works, we ought to do good works... NOT in an effort to earn salvation...BUT because we already have salvation! Christians want to worship and serve God for the benefit of others in His kingdom.....NOT as a requirement.....BUT as a response to the GOD’s grace. That’s what the 16th century Reformation was about.....and still is today! HAPPY 500th ANNIVERSARY!