Next Tuesday Lutherans and many other Christians too will celebrate Reformation Day, the day when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. For it was on 31 October 1517, after Johann Tetzel, a papal commissioner for indulgences, was sent to Germany to raise money for the Pope, that Luther challenged the Pope’s granting of indulgences to raise money to rebuild St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. In particular he objected to Tetzel saying, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”. “Why”, asked Luther in Thesis 96, “does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?”
The Ninety-Five Theses were quickly translated from Latin into German, and then thanks to the invention of the printing press, within two weeks copies of the theses had spread throughout Germany, and within two months throughout Europe.
In 1520 Luther went on to appeal to the German princes to take the reform of the church into their own hands and to abolish the tributes to Rome, the celibacy of the clergy, masses for the dead, pilgrimages and the religious orders. He also called upon the clergy to reject transubstantiation and the sacrifice of the mass.
Not surprisingly Luther’s books were burnt. When Luther refused to recant, he was excommunicated on January 1518. So began the Reformation.
At the heart of the dispute between Luther and Rome was the doctrine of justification. There was a stage in Luther’s life when he tried with might and main to earn God’s favour: he starved himself and he lashed himself. In 1510 he went to Rome where, as he was crawling up the ‘sacred staircase’ on his bare hands and knees, in his heart he heard a voice saying to him, ‘The just shall live by faith’. There and then he got to his feet. But still Luther remained within the church of Rome. He continued to study the Scriptures and discovered that it is God alone who puts us right with himself. In the words of Luther, justification “begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour. He went on, “It is the chief article of Christian doctrine”, so that “when the article of justification has fallen, everything has fallen”.
So let us turn to one of the key passages in the Letter to the Romans where the doctrine of justification is found. There in Romans 3 Paul declares: “But now… the righteousness of God has been disclosed…. The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe… [all of us] are now justified by his grace as a gift” (Rom 3.21-24). Or as the GNB more simply puts it:
But now God’s way of putting people right with himself has been revealed… God puts people right through their faith in Jesus Christ… By the free gift of God all are put right with him through Christ Jesus.
For men and women to avail themselves of the forgiveness God offers us in Jesus, a response of faith is necessary. In the words of John Stott:
Faith is the eye that looks to Christ, the hand that lays hold of him, the mouth that drinks the water of life that he offers.
Faith is the means of our acquittal before the bar of God. Yet ultimately it is not faith which saves, but Jesus who saves. In that respect the expression ‘justification by faith’ is a misnomer, for the truth is that we are justified by Jesus, and by Jesus alone. Salvation is not a kind of co-operative enterprise between God and us in which he contributes the cross and we contribute faith. It is all of grace, all of God.
So at this time of the year when we remember the massive contribution Luther made to our world, let us celebrate that it is God who puts us right with himself.