Martin Luther, the 500 Year Anniversary of the 95 Theses
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther changed the course of church history. On that date Luther, a Catholic priest who taught the Bible at the University of Wittenberg (Germany), nailed his protests against the Roman Catholic leadership to the door of the Church of Wittenberg. Luther had been provoked by the sale of “indulgences” by the Pope. His protests were 95 in number so they became known as the 95 Theses that launched the Reformation. I don’t think Luther had any goal of starting a huge movement across Europe that became known as the Reformation, but when his students printed up the 95 Theses they were sent out all over Europe, and everyone who was concerned about the many corrupt abuses of the Roman Church at that time accepted them and they went “viral” in today’s lingo.
In 1505, Luther had entered the Seminary and by 1507 he was an ordained priest. Luther was a very intense young man who became obsessed to find acceptance from God. He went to work, driven to find salvation by his own efforts. He wrote of his quest, “I earnestly tried to acquire righteousness by my own works. I tortured myself with prayer, fasting, vigils, and extreme asceticism”. The problem was he could never feel like he was doing enough, and he never felt like he was holy, “Who was I that I should lift up my eyes to the divine majesty, for I am full of sin”. Luther increased his struggle to become righteous before the holy God. Luther became a pest to his Priest confessor confessing his sins for hours every day. Father Staupitz sent him to Rome hoping Martin could find peace there by visiting the supposedly holy sites and relics in Rome. There were hundreds of relics there such as the rope that Judas hung himself with, the remains of the burning bush of Moses, the actual chains that bound Paul, and the “holy stairs” that Jesus descended from Pilate’s judgment in Jerusalem. How any of these things could have gotten there is beyond me. Of course Luther figured out immediately that these were all scams propagated by the church, but he was encouraged to crawl up the “holy stairs” on his knees kissing each step as he went so that he could be forgiven. Luther painfully climbed each step, and at the top paid his fee, but then he despaired as he thought, “This can’t be true”. He returned to Wittenberg where he received his doctorate in 1512, and was given a teaching position. As he taught the New Testament, he became more and more perplexed as to how a sinner could be righteous in the sight of God.
In 1517, Pope Leo X authorized John Tetzel to sell indulgences to raise money for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. An indulgence was a “get out of hell pass” granted by the Roman Catholic Church. You could even free a dead relative from purgatory as Tetzel’s great line proclaimed, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul in purgatory springs.” Luther was outraged and his many grievances provoked him to write the 95 Theses and nail them to the church door. Luther’s students took them to a printer who published them and copies were sent out all over Europe. A firestorm erupted as the Roman church demanded that Luther recant, but some time just before or during the firestorm, Luther was teaching Romans when he became fixed on Romans 1:17, “for in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith”. He had always been taught that the righteousness in this passage was God’s righteous judgment, but now Luther suddenly realized the true meaning—that the righteousness of God is received by God’s grace alone. Luther wrote, “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered Paradise itself through open gates”. Such righteousness that sinful man needs is foreign to him, but is freely given by God and is received by faith alone.
Luther then preached a series of awesome sermons about being saved by grace, which is received by faith alone with large crowds packing into his church. His first sermon was entitled “Two Kinds of Righteousness”. In these sermons he asserted that only through faith in Christ does Christ’s righteousness become our righteousness. This is the righteousness given in place of the original righteousness lost in Adam’s sin. Christ’s righteousness has been instilled in our hearts as Luther said, “To be righteous is to be human as God envisioned in creation, and now again in redemption”. In preaching these sermons Luther was revitalizing the truth that had been lost for a thousand years concerning the gospel of grace. The result of Luther’s sermons and writings was the Pope’s excommunication decree, which Luther publicly burned. In April of 1521, the Holy Roman Emperor demanded that Luther appear before a religious court called an “Imperial Diet” at the city of Worms, which became known as the Diet of Worms (hard to believe but true). The archbishop demanded that he retract all his writings and sermons, and the next day Luther answered, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or clear reason (for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils since it is well known they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I will not recant anything….I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, amen.” Before the Holy Roman Emperor could arrest him, Luther’s supporters spirited him away and hid him in the Wartburg Castle, and the Protestant movement exploded.
Pressure to Perform
There is a common condition amongst the human race that causes a great deal of anxiety, worry, fear, depression, and a variety of mental illnesses, and this condition could be called the pressure to perform, to succeed, to be acceptable, to find fulfillment, or even to justify your existence in an extremely competitive world. When I was in China in 2011, I had the opportunity to speak at 5 or 6 universities and colleges, and afterwards they would have informal breakout sessions with Q and A along with much discussion. One of the things I heard virtually every time was the immense pressure the students felt to succeed from their parents, teachers, and government. The one child law in China even multiplied this pressure because parents only had one child to build the family’s legacy or to support the parents in retirement. These Chinese students went to school and studied seven days a week, and fraternity parties like we have in the U. S. are unknown to them. All they know is pressure, stress, and fear of failure. I was recently amazed to read an article in CHRISTIANITY TODAY by David Zahl entitled “Justify Yourself” in which he said a task force on student suicide concluded, “The pressures engendered by the perception that one has to be perfect in every academic and social endeavor leads to distress. In turn distress can manifest as demoralization, alienation, or depression. For some students this leads to mental illness and can end in suicide.” They were reporting on a tragic escalation of the pressure to perform, which was resulting in the worst possible ending. It is as if students feel a pressure to justify their existence that throws them back on themselves, and if they feel their failure is irreversible, they turn to self-harm. In his article, David Zahl then developed the connection between the reformation beliefs of Martin Luther that changed Christianity and the secular beliefs that most of the human race are motivated by, which causes their downfall. The human race is under pressure to perform and be perfect, and their need for self-justification leads to anxiety, anger, depression, and self destruction.
In the same way, Martin Luther had an overactive conscience that was driving him crazy. He even tried the ascetic life of a monk in a monastery, but it brought him no peace. He even became mad at God for demanding his perfection, which he knew was impossible, but then when he properly interpreted Romans 1:16-17, he discovered that there was a big difference between that which can be earned by man and that which can be given by God. Before, Luther had equated God’s Law with the gospel of Jesus Christ, but now he knew they were two different things. Luther wrote in his commentary on Galatians that “The distinction between law and gospel is the highest art in Christianity…virtually the whole of the Scriptures and the understanding of theology depends on the true understanding of the law and gospel.” The distinction comes from the law telling us what we ought to do versus the gospel of Jesus Christ telling us what God has done for us. As Paul wrote in Romans 3:20, “through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” Therefore the law reveals to us as a teacher that we are by nature sinners that need to be forgiven. The gospel reveals to us what Jesus accomplished on the cross so that we are forgiven.
Imagine the paradox that the secular world sees religion as oppressive and binding as they perceive that religion seeks to enforce moral laws against it. Yet biblical Christianity is actually liberating as it sets us free from the pressure to perform. The laws that the secular world may put on itself are conditional, meaning you are a good person if you live up to those standards. The grace of God is offered to us without conditions. You cannot make God love you any more or less by your performance. Christ’s atoning work on the cross is offered with no strings attached, and therefore there is no pressure to perform. When we embrace that concept that we are free from the burden to perform that the world tries to put on us, we also find it inspires us to give and serve and obey. In the novel LES MISERABLES, after the priest helps a mean crooked undeserving Jean Valjean, his life is changed and from that point on his good works were a result of his freedom, not because he was working to become free. In the same way, Luther realized that he didn’t have to be perfect, and that God’s love and acceptance was a free gift received by faith alone. At that point Luther felt liberated to do good works and serve out of a heartfelt desire instead of an obligation to obey laws that demanded perfection.
Twenty First Century Pressure to Perform
In his article in “Christianity Today”, David Zahl likens this concept to today’s “busyness”. When you ask people today how they are, they are likely to answer “Busy”. Today your degree of busyness may determine how well you think you are doing and have a significant part in your self worth. The belief today is that if we are not over occupied we are inferior to those that are. Just as in Christ’s day the legalism of the Pharisees made hypocrites out of them, today people typically have fake phone calls in restaurants or they are constantly sending text messages that may be irrelevant or unnecessary in order to pose as busy. On the online social media we edit our lives to get the response we want from others, not realizing that if that response comes it is not real or deserved. Social scientists reveal that the more time people spend on social media, the happier they perceive their friends to be and the sadder they are themselves.
In the spiritual realm, God’s love and acceptance cannot be merited. When God’s love is acquired freely by faith, and without pressure to perform, grace proves to inspire new life, and service gladly given. Your education has to be earned, your vocation has to be earned, your relationships have to be earned, and your money has to be earned, BUT THE GRACE OF GOD IS FREE. Therefore Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia, “For freedom Christ has set us free, stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal.5:1) He meant for them to thrive in their freedom, and to no longer feel the burden and pressure of having to earn God’s approval. In a 1520 sermon entitled “On Christian Freedom”, Luther posed two propositions that were seemingly contradictory, but biblically true, “A Christian is the most free of all and subject to no one, and a Christian is the servant of all and subject to everyone”. Then he quoted Paul from 1 Cor. 9:19, “Though I be free from all men, yet I have made myself a servant of all”. Luther went on to explain that love is free or it is not love, and love is by nature dutiful and obedient to the one loved. Therefore if you are truly to do good works, they must be done freely, and these good works done in love as service are dutiful out of love for Christ.
Luther went on to preach on the relationship of faith and works, “Works justify no man, but a man must be justified before he can do any good work…for by faith he is free from all law and in perfect freedom does gratuitously all that he does, seeking nothing either of profit or salvation—since by the grace of God he is already saved and rich in all things through his faith”. Then in his conclusion, “Here is the truly Christian life, here is faith really working by love when a man applies himself with joy and love to the works of that free servitude in which he serves others voluntarily and for nought”.