By Pastor Scott Miller
New Life Church
“Since then your majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.”
Those are the words of Martin Luther in April 1521. He uttered these words in response to a council that demanded he recant his books and writings that addressed abuses within the Roman Catholic Church of his day. They were abuses that led to Luther’s infamous nailing of his 95 Theses upon the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, 500 years ago, October 31, 1517. One of the major issues addressed in Luther’s statements was the practice of indulgences. An indulgence was a payment to the church that supposedly resulted in a spiritual benefit for either the person providing the indulgence or a relative that was currently in purgatory – a Catholic belief teaching that after death, a person cannot immediately go to heaven but must spend time suffering for unforgiven sins in order to purify a person, making them suitable for heaven.
These gifts to the church, usually in a monetary form, promised to reduce the amount of time spent in purgatory. The church used these funds for a variety of reasons. Some of the reasons were to pay off debts, build cathedrals, and even build a bridge. Though Martin Luther believed these funds would be better spent helping the poor, he voices his primary concern by saying, “Indulgences are most pernicious because they induce complacency and thereby imperil salvation. Those persons are damned who think that letters of indulgences make them certain of salvation.” A person’s salvation was Luther’s primary concern. How can a person stand before God as righteous? Can a person stand before God as righteous? The answer to those questions is the cornerstone of the Reformation. Where to find the answer to that question remains the undeniable distinction between those who spearheaded the Protestant Reformation and all other religions.
The question ultimately came down to one of authority. Who or what has primary authority regarding the eternal welfare of a soul? The Roman Catholic Church had several authorities – the Bible, tradition, the Magisterium of the church, and the pope as the head of the church. For Luther, the only and final authority was the word of God – the Bible. Due to that conviction, one of Luther’s goals was to get the Bible into the hands of the common person in their common language so they could read the Bible for themselves. Luther was confident that if the common person could read and understand what the Bible actually said, then the common person would see just how far removed the practices of the Roman Catholic Church were from what the Bible actually taught. They would see that practices of the Roman Catholic Church were at variance and even contradictory with the teachings of the Bible, especially with regard to that which is most important – the salvation of a person’s soul.
The Roman Catholic Church taught that justification before God – being righteous before God – resulted from a combination of faith in Christ plus obedience to a variety of commands issued by the Church. Looking at the Bible alone, Luther was persuaded that justification resulted from faith alone. The one verse that grounded Luther’s convictions was Paul’s quotation from Habakkuk in Romans 1.17 – “The righteous shall live by faith.” That one verse led Luther to be embarrassed by his efforts to merit a righteous standing before God. By the authority of the Bible, Luther saw that the necessary righteousness needed to stand before God can only be received by faith – faith in Jesus Christ alone.
In Galatians 2.16, Paul is quite clear regarding the manner by which a person can be justified