This month marks the 500th anniversary of the event that kicked off the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Roman Catholic pastor and monk, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
As a result of that and the events that followed, the stream of Christianity known as Protestantism was born. A Protestant is one who protests, so what was Luther protesting? And, more to the point what are those of us who call ourselves Protestants today protesting?
Just as Luther’s 95 Theses kicked off the Reformation, there was an event that kicked of his writing of those theses. That event helps us understand what the fuss was all about and what was being protested.
In the years 1516 and 1517 an official of the Catholic Church named Johann Tetzel was traveling throughout what is now Germany selling indulgences. In Roman Catholic theology, an indulgence is “remission in whole or in part for the temporal punishment (time spent in Purgatory) due to sins.”*
In order to raise money for the church, specifically to help pay for St. Peter’s in Rome, Tetzel was going throughout Germany offering people the chance to reduce their loved ones’ time in Purgatory in exchange for money. Here’s a quote from one of Tetzel’s sermons:
Don’t you hear the voices of your wailing dead parents and others who say, ‘Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, because we are in severe punishment and pain. From this you could redeem us with a small alms and yet you do not want to do so.
In the spring of 1517 when Tetzel was near Wittenberg selling indulgences and preaching, Luther heard him and was incensed. Many people view this as the catalyst for his writing and posting the 95 Theses because many of them dealt with the issue of indulgences, such as #32:
Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.
Needless to say, that was not well received by the Roman Catholic Church.
But what is the underlying issue? Is it just that money was being solicited for the remission of sins? That’s exceedingly wicked and unbiblical, but the issue is deeper. The real issue is, what is the gospel? The Reformation sought to answer the question “How can a sinful man be made right with a Holy God?” and the answer the reformers came up with differed substantially from the the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.
The idea of indulgences is predicated on the doctrine of Purgatory. And the doctrine of Purgatory is predicated on the belief that we must contribute to the remission of our sins with our works. The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is not that we receive the righteousness of Christ, what Luther called an “alien righteousness,” but that we ourselves must become righteous. We must enhance or add to the work of Christ with our own works. They rightly understood that to be justified was to be without sin. They also, rightly understood the seriousness of sin and how deeply it impacts every person. Because of this, they believed it was virtually impossible for a man or woman to do enough in this life to deal with all of their sins. So, how can someone who is a baptized Christian still become justified if they die with some of their sins unpaid for? The answer was Purgatory. A place where men and women can finally and fully purge themselves of sin and be made righteous.
The Reformation didn’t just reject indulgences, it didn’t just (eventually) reject Purgatory, it rejected the notion that works in any way contribute to our justification. One of the Reformation “solas” is Solus Christus, in Christ alone. We are justified solely on the basis of Christ’s finished work, His perfect obedience to the law on our behalf and His perfect sacrifice for our sins on the cross. We need not, indeed cannot, add anything to that. To suggest otherwise is to diminish His work and to destroy the Gospel.
There was more to the Reformation than this but not less. Ultimately what Protestants are protesting is a false Gospel that calls us away from trusting in Christ alone to trusting in ourselves and we should continue to protest that today wherever we find it.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9
*The Brown Scapular, a Roman Catholic pamphlet published by Autom.
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