In just one week, we will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of the 95 thesis on the door of the Wittenberg Church. It is well to remember the history of what brought Luther to that point. John Tetzel had been selling indulgences in Germany.
For those who do not know what indulgences are, a little explanation is in order. An indulgence is an absolution from sin. For a certain sum of money, one could purchase either an indulgence for oneself, or for a relative who had died and was languishing in purgatory. The money from indulgences sold all throughout Europe was going to the building of St. Peter’s in Rome, and for refurbishing the Roman church’s lagging treasury.
But as outrageous as that sounds, the story is far worse than that. The Roman church’s theology stated that it had a “treasury of merits.” Put in laymen’s terms, the church declared that Jesus, the apostles, and subsequent saints had left merits behind, which were kept by the church. Another way of saying it, was to say that Jesus and the rest were far better than was needed to get into heaven. As an illustration, if it takes 100 goodness bucks to get into heaven, Jesus himself had accumulated billions of them. Others had accumulated them as well. And now, surprise of surprise, the Roman Church had them, and were willing to sell them to you, so that you might skip the terrors of purgatory.
And this is where Luther comes in. In his detailed analysis, first of Romans 1:16-17, and then of Romans 3:21-26, he had determined that the righteousness of God was satisfied in the cross, and that salvation came through grace, and not works. Certainly not the merits left in a treasury contained by the church. Listen to some of the 95 thesis he attached to the door of the church. Thesis #51: “Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.” Or Thesis #52: “It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters, even though the indulgence commissary, or even the pope, were to offer his soul as security.” Or Thesis #62: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” And finally, Thesis #76: “We say on the contrary that papal indulgences cannot remove the very least of venial sins as far as guilt is concerned.” And so, armed with scripture and with a boldness inspired by the Spirit of God, Luther attacked indulgences because they kept men and women from seeing the true gospel. If the gospel is being obscured, church unity must be sacrificed.
It seems to me, that the same principle must be applied to our own day. The modern debate over justification by faith, or about the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ deserves the same fervour. I for one, would not go to war on secondary issues, but major issues deserve all of our attention. Like in Luther’s day, the gospel is always in danger of being obscured by a theology that denies the simplicity of the cross, and of our saviour suffering for our sins.