REFORMATION: The Significance and Relevance of Luther’s 95 Theses. Part 5, Conclusion.

The Pardon of God verses the Pardon of Men

0200-0365_aufrichtung_des_kreuzesNow, 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.”

gavelBut 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.”

Salvation_400Well, 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!”

Jesus-cross-2He 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.”


jesus-carries-the-crossAs 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, 9596658-royal-crown-from-gold-a-symbol-of-authoritywriting 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!

REFORMATION: The Significance and Relevance of Luther’s 95 Theses. Part 4

The Authority of the Church versus the Authority of God

27_goya_scene_inquisition_wWhen we consider the 95 Theses and its significance, we come to some very important evangelical truths. First, we find the issue over the authority of men versus the authority of God. The church claimed the authority over men’s souls. But Luther says that this is very limited. This perspective was seen in two areas.

On the one hand, the authority of the church is limited to the authority of God.  The origin of indulgences is questionable at best, and no one’s salvation can depend upon it for this reason. It is something that one can do, but he does not have to do it. This is set forth in thesis 47:  “Christians are to be taught that the buying of pardons is a matter of free will, and not of commandment.” Only those things which are found in the Word of God can be seen as necessary for salvation.  In this sense, Luther was setting forth the Protestant view of Biblical and Divine authority, as Philip explains,

“The objective principle of Protestantism maintains that the Bible, as the inspired record of revelation, is the only infallible rule of faith and practice; in opposition to the Roman Catholic coordination of Scripture and ecclesiastical tradition, as the joint rules of faith.”

350px-Galileo_facing_the_Roman_InquisitionThe teaching of the living church is by no means rejected, but subordinated to the Word of God; while the opposite theory (which magnifies the authority of the Church) virtually subordinates the Bible to tradition by making the Church the sole interpreter of the former and confining interpretation within the limits of an imaginary “consensus partum.” In the application of these Bible principles there was considerable difference between the more conservative Lutheran and Anglican Reformation, and the more radical Zwinglian and Calvinistic Reformation; the Lutherans contained many post-scriptural and extra-scriptural traditions, usages and institutions, which the Calvinistic reformers, in its zeal for primitive purity and simplicity, rejected as useless or dangerous; but all Reformers opposed what they regarded as anti-scriptural doctrines; and all agreed in the principle that the church has no right to impose upon the conscience articles of faith without clear warrant in the Word of God.

imagesCA7RJ47PMoreover, both the Bible and history shows that when man demands things what God does not, it has the repercussion of judging the spirituality of men on the basis of manmade schemes and turning them away from what they should be doing.  And this was the case with indulgences.  And Luther asserts this very thing in Thesis 43, “Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons.”  Then he proclaims in the 46th thesis, “Christians are to be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep back what is necessary for their own families, and by no means to squander it on pardons.”

How often men judge others by humanly invented rules and schemes?  They place men in the light of something that is both debated and unproven from Scripture.

Here Ryle makes a relevant statement for all of us to consider:

“It is a mournful fact, that Christians have far too often walked in the steps of Pharisees in this matter. The very same process has taken place over and over again. The very same consequences have resulted. Religious observances of man’s invention, have been pressed on the acceptance of Christians—observances to all appearance useful, and at all events well-meant, but observances nowhere commanded in the word of God. These very observances have by and by been enjoined with more vigor than God’s own commandments, and defended with more zeal than the authority of God’s own Word. We need not look far for examples. The history of our own church will supply them.”

inquisition_-_burning_womanLet us beware of attempting to add anything to the word of God, as necessary to salvation. It provokes God to give us over to judicial blindness. It is as good as saying that His Bible is not perfect, and that we know better than He does what is necessary for man’s salvation. It is just as easy to destroy the authority of God’s word by addition as by subtraction, by burying it under man’s inventions as by denying its truth. The whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible, must be our rule of faith—nothing added and nothing taken away.

Finally, let us draw a broad line of distinction between those things in religion which have been devised by man, and those which are plainly commanded in God’s word. What God commands is necessary to alvation. What man commands is not. What man devises may be useful and expedient for the times; but salvation does not hinge on obedience to it. What God requires is essential to life eternal. He that willfully disobeys it ruins his own soul.

Man’s self-proclaimed theology is often contrived to relieve men of the harder tasks of obedience to God. Luther asserts this about indulgences in Theses 41: “Apostolic pardons are to be preached with caution, lest the people may falsely think them preferable to other good works of love.”  Again, hear Ryle on this:

“The persecution of the Puritans in the time of the Stuarts, on account of canons and rubrics was, in too many cases, neither more nor less than zeal for traditions. An enormous amount of zeal was expended in enforcing conformity to the Church of England, while drunkenness, swearing, and open sin were comparatively let alone. Obedience to man-made ecclesiastical rules was required, on pain of fine or imprisonment, while open disobedience to God’s Ten Commandments was overlooked. Experience supplies painful proof, that traditions once called into being are first called useful. Then they become necessary. At last they are too often made idols, and all must bow down to them, or be punished.”

I cannot help to think that there is much of this going on in our day.  We must remember that we can strain at the gnat and swallow the camel. And many camels have been shoved down our throats because the pettiness of debates that surround useless things. We must always place the priority where God does. Surely this is a lesson from the Ninety-five Theses.

One the other hand, the mission of the church is limited to the mission of God.  The Pope may pray for men, and the church may preach the gospel, but it is God who pardons sin. Luther poignantly puts this forth in thesis 52:  “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.”

What then should the church do? First, she should recognize what her treasure is.  Luther states in thesis 62, “The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”  It is not found in the merits of saints, but it is the merit of Christ.   Second, she should preach this treasure for all to hear and embrace.  In thesis 53, he states, “They are enemies of Christ and of the pope, who bid the Word of God be altogether silent in some Churches, in order that pardons may be preached in others.”

Then again, in thesis 54, he asserts, “Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or a longer time is spent on pardons than on this Word.”  While the indulgence preachers were using bells to grab the attention of men, the church should put the focus upon the real substance that men ought to place their attention –the gospel. Therefore, Luther states in Thesis 55, “It must be the intention of the pope that if pardons, which are a very small thing, are celebrated with one bell, with single processions and ceremonies, then the Gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.”

inquisition71Now, let us apply this to our day.  Do we not see that everywhere the church is being distracted from her real mission by unbiblical practices?  Her treasure is not her programs, her possessions, or what she can do for people; it is what God has done in Christ.  And this must be recovered in our day, and hopefully, the significance of the 95 Theses will help direct us back to that.

“O Zion, haste, thy mission high fulfilling,
to tell to all the world that God is Light;
that he who made all nations is not willing
one soul should fail to know his love and might.  
Publish glad tidings: tidings of peace  
tidings of Jesus, redemption and release.”

Many thanks and a tremendous debt of gratitude to Timothy A Williams for his materials, scholarship and thoughts on this series!