The Pardon of God verses the Pardon of Men
Now, we begin to see the all-important truth, that true pardon is found in God alone through faith alone. The preachers of indulgences were saying that they had the ability to sell men the very pardon of God. Luther frowned upon this as something despicable and dangerous. He states in Theses 33, “Men must be on their guard against those who say that the pope’s pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to Him.”
Why is this? He tells us why. In Thesis 36, he declares that “every repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.” Why is this? Because, as he goes on to say in Thesis 37, “Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon.”
By this, the whole idea of a priest is shoved aside. Men do not need priests, but they need preachers who will tell them about God. “For these ‘graces of pardon’ concern only the penalties of sacramental satisfaction, and these are appointed by man” (Thesis 34), but they are not the pardon of God in the gospel. Because of Christ’s death for Him, the Christian has access to the treasury. It is God alone that pardons our sin against Him, and we must find that pardon in Christ. Ryle remarks upon that truth,
“Let us consider how great must be the authority of Him, who has the power to forgive sins! This is the thing that none can do but God. No angel in heaven, no man upon earth, no church in council, no minister of any denomination, can take away from the sinner’s conscience the load of guilt, and give him peace with God. They may point to the fountain open for all sin. They may declare with authority whose sins God is willing to forgive. But they cannot absolve by their own authority. They cannot put away transgressions. This is the peculiar prerogative of God, and a prerogative which He has put in the hands of His Son Jesus Christ.”
Let us think for a moment how great a blessing it is, that Jesus is our great High Priest, and that we know where to go for absolution! We must have a Priest and a sacrifice between ourselves and God. Conscience demands an atonement for our many sins. God’s holiness makes it absolutely needful. Without an atoning Priest there can be no peace of soul. Jesus Christ is the very Priest that we need, mighty to forgive and pardon, tender-hearted and willing to save.
And now let us ask ourselves whether we have yet known the Lord Jesus as our High Priest? Have we applied to Him? Have we sought absolution? If not, we are yet in our sins. May we never rest till the Spirit witnesses with our spirit that we have sat at the feet of Jesus and heard his voice, saying, “Son, thy sins be forgiven thee.”
But how may a man obtain this pardon that is found in Christ alone without any need of indulgences? It is here that Luther directs us to something profound. He states that, as we see in Thesis 36, “that every truly repentant Christian has the right to this full pardon of God in Christ.” Only those who repent of their sins and believe in Christ, regardless of the church.
The great historian of Luther’s theology Julius Kostlin wrote in his analysis of the 95 Theses:
“Already in Thesis vi. he trenches very seriously upon the claim of the Church to a mediating office in the dispensing of the chief blessing of salvation, the forgiveness of sins. It is evident that at this point also he is unwilling to concede to the Church any real authority. We shall find that his conception, which in this particular still lacks positive and clear conviction, assumed at the next stage of the conflict a definite form, granting that a real impartation of the forgiveness of sins through the agencies of the Church should indeed be maintained, but in such a way that the Church should no longer be conceived of as exercising a directive, mediating authority, but that the attainment of salvation should be made to depend entirely upon the divine promise of grace, on the one hand, and, on the other, upon the appropriating faith of the individual.”
Well, what is true repentance? He defines this in the first three Theses. First he states, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” Then after saying that this required he defines it negatively by asserting, “This word cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.” A person can go there until his death and never truly repent and find pardon. It is something inward, but it is more than that: “nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.”
He is saying that a person must believe in the gospel and from that belief turn from the wickedness that offends God. And this is the gospel that shook the world. It is a gospel that reaches the heart. It is a gospel that turns men’s attention from men to God, from the Church as a dispenser of grace to the God who has all grace in Christ, from the voice of pardon peddlers to the voice of Christ in the Scriptures, saying, “Be of good cheer; they sins be forgiven.”
But this gospel of free and gratuitous pardon in Christ does not make a man lax in his sin. Rather, it is obtained by a contrite heart. It is appropriated by a faith that is ever conscious of its own wickedness and ever turning from that wickedness out of a love for God. The true Gospel makes a man careful in his walk. Later Luther will say,
“After this he acquires a hearty confidence in God, believing that He will condone his folly and not blame him for it, since he did not know any better, although he is much ashamed of it and wishes that it had never happened; he also resolves, since he has fared so well, never to sin any more or to do anything that might make him unworthy of the benefit received as if he were ungrateful and forgetful; he furthermore learns to work out, confirm, and preserve his salvation in fear and trembling … this is forgiveness of sins.”
True Assurance Verses False Assurance
The last thing that I presently wish to bring forth from the Ninety-five Theses as something relevant to us is the instance upon true and false assurance. In many ways, this is the real issue. Luther was shocked at the way in which the indulgences were being used to move people away from the full gospel and, therefore, from the real pardon of God. The Ninety-five Theses were not first the work of a theologian as much as the work of a concerned pastor, who was seeing the sheep of his fold being lulled to sleep by a false security.
It is very clear that he sees that there are many being deceived with a false security of pardon by indulgences. In thesis 24, he writes, “It must needs be, therefore, that the greater part of the people are deceived by that indiscriminate and high sounding promise of release from penalty.” Then in Thesis 52, he asserts, “The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the commissary, nay, even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it.” Then in Thesis 49 he claims, “Christians are to be taught that the pope’s pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if through them they lose their fear of God.” To such who peddle a false comfort, he states, “Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace!”
He then ends by pointing us to the real comfort of the cross of Christ. In Thesis 93, he states, “Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross!” By that, Luther is concerned with those who speak peace without the cross and offer glory without suffering. Therefore, he says in Thesis 94, “Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell,” and then ends with this in Thesis 95, “And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.”
There is much relevancy here because there is much parallel in to our day. We see two errors in our day. We find men who are have a false peace because of their own ignorance. They are ignorant of the righteousness of God by faith; therefore, they go about seeking to establish their own righteousness. In the end, their false security will be undermined as they face the strict justice of God. But we also find men who lack all confidence because they fail to see the crucified Christ offered to sinners in the gospel; therefore, they are tossed to and fro, seeking peace where peace is not found. This is perennial problem with men. Even in the 1800s, we find this to be the problem, wherein D’Aubigne notes in his discussion of the Ninety-five Theses,
“In our own days, too, we have forgotten this main doctrine of justification by faith, although in a sense opposed to that of our fathers. “In the time of Luther,” observes one of our contemporaries, “the remission of sins cost money at least; but in our days, each man supplies himself gratis.” There is a great similarity between these two errors. There is perhaps more forgetfulness of God in ours, than in that of the 16th century. The principle of justification by the grace of God, which brought the Church out of so much darkness at the period of the Reformation, can alone renew our generation, put an end to its doubts and waverings, destroy the selfishness that preys upon it, establish righteousness and morality among the nations, and, in short, reunite the world to God from whom it has been dissevered.”
As we come to a conclusion over the significance and relevancy of the Ninety-five Theses of Martin Luther, we must ask ourselves some important questions. First, do we know the pardon that comes from God through Christ? We may not have all of the issues of the Medieval church to distract us, but we have our own religious misconceptions that keep us from trusting solely in Christ. We may be placing our trust in a prayer that we made or an experience that we had. There are many and various things with which men may substitute real faith in Christ alone. Yet, they come to the same end—eternal destruction. We must have faith in God alone as He has revealed Himself in Christ alone.
Second, on what basis do you have the assurance that your sins are pardoned for Christ’s sake? Surely, it cannot be anything found in you that is worthy of your assurance. And it cannot be found in the church’s prescriptions for you to do, if they are not found in Scripture. It must be found in the cross of Christ. It must be found in what Christ has done for you. Your assurance of salvation must be rooted in the objective work of Christ. Without this, there is serious doubt of your conversion before God. Luther put it this way,
“This have I done, that we may learn to reject and utterly to abandon that devilish opinion of the whole kingdom of the Pope, which taught that a man ought to be uncertain and to stand in doubt of the grace [and favor] of God towards him. If this opinion be received, then Christ profiteth nothing. For he that doubteth of God’s favor towards him, must needs doubt also of the promises of God, and so consequently of the will of God, and or the benefits of Christ, namely that he was born, suffered, died, and rose again for us, etc. But there can be no greater blasphemy against God, than to deny his promises, to deny God Himself, to deny Christ, etc.”
Third, do you have a true repentance that inwardly sorrows for your sin and turns to God in faith, believing in Christ? It is not enough that we merely preach a faith in Christ that leaves off the necessity of repentance. Early in the Reformation, Melanchthon had to deal with those who believed that. As result, he wrote a manual instructing young ministers what to do, wherein he says,
“Pastors must follow the example of Christ. Since he taught repentance and remission of sins, pastors also must teach these to their churches. At present it is common to vociferate concerning faith, and yet one cannot understand what faith is, unless repentance is preached. Plainly they pour new wine into old bottles who preach faith without repentance, without the doctrine of fear of God, without the doctrine of the Law, and accustom people to a certain carnal security, which is worse than all former errors under the Pope have been.”
Finally, does your repentance manifest itself in outward acts of holiness and does it continue through sufferings and tribulations of life? While faith alone saves, that faith is never alone. It is always accompanied by true repentance and the pursuit of holiness. If you have no desire for holiness, your faith is a sham. Bente, writing on Luther’s view, states the following,
“Repentance consists in this, that the heart of man, experiencing the kindness of God which calls us to Christ and presents us with His grace, turns about, apprehends God’s grace, thanks Him heartily for having spared it so graciously, begins to repent, and to grieve heartily and sorrowfully on account of its sins, wishes to abstain from them, and renounces its former sinful life.”
As you can see, these questions arise directly from our analysis and consideration of the theses. These questions arise from the very principles that brought men out of the darkness into the light of pardon, peace, and life. And most importantly, they are rooted in the truths of the Bible. They are vital for every man to consider before God. How do you fair? How is it with your soul?
Many thanks and a tremendous debt of gratitude to Timothy A Williams for his materials, scholarship and thoughts on this series!