The Authority of the Church versus the Authority of God
When 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.”
The 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.
Moreover, 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.”
Let 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.”
Now, 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!