I want you to imagine a time with me. If you want or need to close your eyes to do so, then feel free, just don’t fall asleep on me. I want you to imagine that you are living in a time of economic hardship with a high unemployment rate. It’s a time filled with various epidemic diseases where hundreds and thousands of people are infected. Many, if not most of these infected people end up dying from them. It’s a time when the wealthy get wealthier and the poor only continue to get poorer. It’s a time when one’s trust in the governing authorities is severely lacking. Scandal is running rapid within the country, the government, and the church. The trusting role of leaderships is being questioned. It’s a time where it is believed that you must do something or you must buy something in order to receive something. Nothing is free.
Okay … have that image? Where is that place you were thinking about?
It pretty much sounds like the world in which we live right? The thing is, it’s the same world of the early 1500’s, the world in which Martin Luther lived, the world of the Reformation. Luther and those in Saxon Germany in the 1500’s were experiencing the same economic hardships, the high unemployment rates, the epidemic diseases and plagues, the rich getting richer, the poor getting poor, the lack of trust in the government and those who run it, the scandal running through the church, and the idea that nothing is free which we have today, just over 500 years later. And while some of those things didn’t change during Luther’s time, Luther was involved in a larger and more important change.
That change started when he started to study and dig deep into the Scriptures. His study of God’s Word led him to write and post his “Disputation on the Power and the Efficacy of Indulgences” or better known by as the “95 Theses”. Luther posted his “95 Theses” on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. That sounds bad nailing something to the church door, but that was essentially the community bulletin board, it was the place you posted things to announce something or propose debates.
Luther’s posting of his “95 Theses” was merely the beginning, merely a stepping stone for a movement which he had no idea would become as big as it got. With recent invention of the Guttenberg printing press, Luther’s “95 Theses” spread through Germany and the whole Holy Roman Empire like wildfire. Everyone and anyone who could read Latin at the time, including the pope of the Roman Catholic Church, had a copy. Soon after they were posted, they were also translated into German so that others throughout Germany could read them.
But why the controversy, why the big uproar from Luther and over this piece of paper on the sale of indulgences? Well, the theory of indulgences rested on the idea that while the forgiveness you received from the priest in a regular worship service like this, that forgiveness forgives the eternal guilt, that forgiveness prepares the way for you to heaven. However, the temporal, the earthly punishment of those sins which you commit, while the eternal guilt is forgiven, the earthly punishment remained and it needed to be worked off by the person doing something. That punishment could either be worked off in this life through penance, through doing certain things, praying so many prayers, or the punishment could be worked off after death in purgatory. The purchase of the indulgence made it so that you didn’t have to work off the earthly, the temporal punishment. That was all taken care of. You were forgiven and heaven was yours. All this through a simple piece of paper you bought.
But Luther was like, “Hold on a minute! What about Jesus? What about what he did through his life, through his blood wrenching suffering and death on the cross? Does that mean anything?” Not really if had this special piece of paper … at least so the owner of that indulgence thought.
This was Luther’s complaint though. This was the error of the church which Luther wanted to reform, he wanted to fix. Luther wanted to turn the people’s attention away from the man-made rules and the things which gave them a false sense of hope and turn them to the good news of the Gospel. He wanted the people to turn to the Scriptures. He wanted them to know as Paul says in Romans 3:20, “We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ.” There’s no satisfaction, no comfort found in a piece of paper, there is no true satisfaction or comfort found in doing something when it comes to being made right with God because a person can’t do it. The comfort of forgiveness and the promise of eternal life come by faith. Faith in the One, in Jesus who paid the price for their sins through His crimson red blood shed on a wretched cross and by His victorious resurrection from the dead. That, that is the eternal gospel which Luther preached and taught.
Life in our world, 500 plus years later, is not much different. There is still this sense of false hope found in people when it comes to obtaining their salvation. People think that all I have to do is be a good person. Because I haven’t done anything criminal, because I haven’t cheated on my taxes, because I give money to charities, because I volunteer my time, because I treat people with respect, because I’m overall just a good person … then I’ll get into heaven.
Isaiah says in chapter 64, “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall, and our sins sweep us away like the wind” (64:6 NLT). Our good deeds, our good works, no matter how good we think we are … they are nothing, they account for nothing in terms of getting into heaven. In Luther’s day, buying a piece of paper saying that you have now made satisfaction for your sins means nothing. Psalm 49 even says that, “No man can redeem the life another or give to God a ransom for him – the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough” (49:7-8). There is nothing we can do or pay for what we have done to each other, let alone what it is we do against God. The only way to be saved is for God to come to us.
And even though it makes no sense for God to do that, for Him to come to a people who will reject Him, who live lives contrary to how He would want them too, and who will continue to do their own thing … God did and does come to us. Paul says, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that they might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5 ESV). This is the eternal gospel which the angel in Revelation 14 is proclaiming to those who dwell on earth (14:6), to the people of Luther’s day and to you and me.God comes to us to bring us back to Himself.
Know that Luther throughout the time of the Reformation did not want to break away from the Roman Catholic church. Luther throughout the Reformation did not want to start a new church. He simply wanted to point out errors which he saw so that the church could fix them. Luther wanted the people of his time to know the truth about the gospel of Jesus and to find relief that God is not all wrathful and vengeful. He wanted the people to know that Jesus is the One who took the wrath of God upon Himself, that Jesus is the One who paid the price for all sins, and that by faith alone in Christ alone, one is forgiven, saved, and has the promise of eternal life.
That gospel message spoken in Luther’s day, it is the very same gospel message which we hear today. As good as the deeds are which we do, as much as we try to love our neighbor, and to live a good and decent life … in terms of earning God’s love or forgiveness or promise of eternal life … they don’t amount up to anything. Salvation comes through faith alone in the One who emptied himself of His heavenly glory to born in the messiness of this sin stained world. Salvation comes through faith alone in the One who lived a perfect life under God’s law and then took your and my place under God’s relentless wrath. Instead of you and me or anyone else who has sinned feeling God’s unmerciful wrath … Jesus stepped in. Jesus stepped in for you and willing accepted God’s wrath as He unmercifully suffered and died on that cursed cross. Through His shed blood, through His miserable death … your scarlet red sins have been washed way and you have been made clean. By Christ’s resurrection … the promise of eternal life is yours today. And on that judgment day to come which the angel speaks of in our reading from Revelation … you on that day will rise from your grave to live and worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water (Rev. 14:7b). This is the eternal gospel Luther preached in his day and this is the same eternal gospel given to you and others. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever. Amen.