Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Bethany Bullet - October 31, 2012

‘Q’ AND ‘A’

Why is the last Sunday of October celebrated in worship as Reformation Day?

On October 31, 1517 Dr. Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  (Those doors burned much later and today brass doors stand in their place with the Ninety-Five Theses themselves cared into the doors.)   The 95 Theses were prepared for academic debate on the theological issues surrounding the sale of indulgences, their efficacy and power.  Luther’s choice of October 31 was probably prompted by the circumstance that “spiritual pilgrims” were gathering in Wittenberg to adore the collection of religious relics of Frederick the Wise on All Saints’ Day and thus receive an indulgence for their act of piety.  That event combine with the presence of Johann Tetzel a Roman Catholic priest and purveyor of the “jubilee indulgences” from Pope Leo X the funds of which would help build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Tetzel was in nearby Brandenburg selling the indulgence to those who attending his gatherings many of whom belonged to Luther’s congregation and the university community.  The pontiff had declared that indulgences could grant forgiveness for the purchaser or even the purchasers dearly departed.  Luther entered the scene not out a desire to change the church, let alone the world, but out of concern for those whom he served as pastor and professor.  Yet, change the church and world it did and hence from Luther’s time October 31st has observed as the beginning of the Reformation and the last Sunday in October has been observed as Reformation Sunday.

What was “Reformed”?

That the Reformation impacted life in many ways: politically, linguistically, economically, socially and artistically is undeniable.  However, the aim of the Reformers themselves and thus the heart of the Reformation was a theological movement.  This was a Biblical enterprise that rediscovered the foundation of Christianity that had been obscured.  The rediscovery of the doctrine of justification, that is, that one is saved by grace only, through faith alone, apart from works, for the sake of Christ “reformed” the very message of the church catholic (a lower case c in the word catholic means universal) and returned the church to the teaching of the apostles that had been strayed from over the centuries.

Why was the Reformation needed?

For centuries God’s Word and the central teaching therefore, the Gospel, had been obscured, distorted and lost in many areas of the Church of Rome.  False doctrine, superstition and corruption reigned in the Roman Catholic Church by the 1500’s.  Though sanctuaries, through stained glass and statuary alike, presented the message of Scripture to the faithful in attendance, the Church itself taught that salvation was a result of works and ‘co-operation’ with God.  The Church of Rome had gone so far as to officially declare that the source of truth was Scripture, History, Tradition and Clergy.  Of course, since Clergy were the interpreters of the other three, truth was not something which the average Christian could come to know through Bible reading, should they be blessed enough to have access to the Scripture and ability enough to read it in a language other than their daily one.  Rather truth, or so said the church, was something that was the domain of the church and the faithful were simply to do and believe as told.  
Tragically monks, priests, bishops, and even popes taught unbiblical doctrines such as works, indulgences and the merits of graces distribution by the church.  Ultimately people were always left to wonder if they had done enough to appease God’s wrath toward sin and escape the punishment due sinners.  Lost was the certainty Christ brings and the truth of the Gospel which the Scripture declares.  That Gospel which proclaims that God in His love and mercy, grants forgiveness and salvation not because of what we do, but because of what Jesus has done for us.  In a very real way the church had been taken into captivity much as Israel in the days of Babylon and God’s release was needed, and the Reformation was the way in which He brought the end to the churches captivity.

Who began the Reformation?

Ultimately the Reformers would give God the credit for the restoration of the truth of the Gospel and the return to the central teaching of Christianity, justification by grace, through faith, apart from works, for the sake of Christ.  In fact, along with Grace Alone, Faith Alone and Scripture Alone, Soli Deo Gloria, SDG, “To God Alone be the Glory” became one of the core cries of the Reformation.  Liturgically we acknowledge that the Reformation was the movement of the Spirit of God and result of His working through the Word and action of God’s people by adorning the altar in red, the same color that rests on them on Pentecost Sunday.  Humanly speaking a confused and terrified young monk named Martin Luther and an ambitious pope named Leo X are at the heart of the start of the Reformation. 
The monk Martin Luther, a member of the Augustinian order of the Black Cloister, lived in the monastery of Erfurt.   Luther was obsessed with the guilt of his sin and the conviction that God would have no choice but to damn him.  The obsession got to the point that Luther would ‘hog’ the confessional and take so much time that in confession he would wear his hearers out.   Father Johann Staupitz, the vicar-general of the order, noticed Luther’s despondency and assigned him to become a professor of theology and a doctoral student at the new university in Wittenberg.  This was not in an attempt to free himself from the troubled monk but in order to send him to the Scriptures; for it was Staupitz contention that Luther had come to “hate God” and that he need to “eat more, sleep more and learn to love God.”
In time, Luther began to both lecture and preach on St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Passages like “The gospel is the power of God for salvation.” (1:16) & “the righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.  There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”  (3:22-24) & “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were sinners, Christ died for us.”  (5:8) & “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  (8:1) brought Luther to what he called his “Tower experience.”  That is through the text of Scripture he understood the grace of God in Christ and it was as if, “the gates of heaven were opened.” 
At this same time, during Luther’s ‘discovery’ of the Gospel in the text of Scripture the pope, Leo X, was seeking to raise finances for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  One of the chief ways the pope intended to raise the needed money was through the sale of a jubilee indulgence.  These indulgences were declared, by the pope and his emissaries, to absolve all sin and all punishment.  This seemed to contradict what Luther was reading and learning in the Scriptures and thus teaching and discussing in the classroom that salvation was not gained by works, or through religious acts, but by grace through faith.  Luther posted his questions and the apparent contradictions of the teaching of indulgences in the Ninety-Five Theses.  While meant for in house academic debate the theses started a firestorm.  The reason for the storm was the recent invention of ‘moveable type.’  Within weeks the Theses were mass produced and even translated into German.  Not only students would be discussing the implications, so would the local political rulers, the laity and those in the Roman Church who sold and affirmed the teaching of indulgences and works. 
The climax of the events of the posting of this writing was the underlying issue of authority.  Without realizing it at first, Luther in stating that the Scripture opposed the doctrine of indulgences and works was elevating the Scripture over the papacy.  In short order Luther was declared to be a heretic.  Within a year he was summonsed to an imperial diet in Augsburg, though political events required the assistance of the prince Fredrick the Wise of Saxony, Luther’s benefactor and friend, by the emperor and the pope and thus Luther was given safe passage to and from the diet.  This proved to be a blessed event as at the debate Luther declared that “popes and councils can err;” with that one sentence the Reformation dye was cast.  Luther, a Roman Catholic monk and Professor of Theology, had just said publicly that the pope was wrong!   
Within a few years Luther would be excommunicated.  Summonsed to an additional diet, in Worms where when told to recant or else he would say, “unless shown by Scripture and clear reason where I am wrong I cannot and will not recant.  Here I stand.  God help me.”  God did help him.  As did Prince Fredrick who had Luther kidnapped for safekeeping and held in the Wartburg Castle.  While a resident Luther would translate the Bible into the German language as well produce many writings on topics of the faith and state of the church.  Within a decade and a half the events that began with the posting of a few pages worth of thoughts regarding indulgences on October 31, 1517 had changed the world and on June 25, 1530 the Reformers along with the German princes would present the Augsburg Confession formed by Martin Luther and his fellow reformers theology and penned by his colleague Philip Melanchthon.  The final result of which was the birth of the Lutheran Church.
-Pastor Kevin Kritzer


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