Reformation 500! This is the news buzzing around the Protestant world this year as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the sixteenth century Reformation of the Church. Martin Luther (1483-1546), a little known Augustinian monk, was troubled about the abuses of the sale of indulgences. So on October 31, 1517, he nailed 95 theses (statements) on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg for interested persons, especially scholars, to discuss. Little did Luther know that he would create such an upheaval in the church.
Indulgences were certificates of pardon, sold by the Roman Catholic Church, to reduce the years of any faithful departed souls in purgatory. It had been in practice for sometime, but it became widespread in the sixteenth century. As the practice grew in popularity the pardons extended not only for the benefit of departed souls, but also for remitting the past, present, and future sins of living believers.
The sale of indulgences was done through persuasive means. John Tetzel, a Dominican monk, sold indulgences with the promise that when the coin hit the bottom of the money chest the soul of the departed loved one would leap from purgatory into heaven. Theses 27 and 28 of Luther are directly aimed at this practice:
27. They preach vanity who says that the soul flies out of Purgatory as soon as the money thrown into the chest rattles.
28. What is sure, is, that as soon as the penny rattles in the chest, gain and avarice are on the way of increase; but the intercession of the church depends only on the will of God Himself.
Yes, everything revolved around money. The church needed money as the new St. Peter’s Cathedral was being built in Rome. The task was enormous as the best architects, painters, and sculptors were employed for this purpose. Getting these gifted persons cost much money and hence the sale of indulgences. The construction of St Peter’s Cathedral began in 1506 and finished in 1626. Today it stands as the largest and most impressive church in the world. If we look at the dates of its construction we will note that perhaps it is closely connected with the rise in the sale of indulgences. Luther was opposed to indulgences, but did he want to divide the church?
Pope Francis recently commented “the intention of Martin Luther five hundred years ago was to renew the Church, not divide her”. I think he understood Luther as a Reformer and not a troublemaker. 500 years is a long time and the Church has come a long way. Atrocities have been committed in the past that need to be forgiven. The High Priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17 calls for unity, “That they may be one.” This does not mean we dissolve all our differences overnight and superficially profess ourselves to be united. Our oneness comes from the Trinitarian model of the oneness of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.It is an oneness of spirit; it is inner, spiritual unity through Christ, not mere uniformity.
All over Germany, and in many Protestant countries around the world, the 500th year of the Reformation is being celebrated with much zeal. At PTS we are having three days of celebration to mark this special occasion (see separate information). I was privileged to be part of a conference in Wittenberg, Germany, hosted by the World Reformed Fellowship (WRF) in October 24-30, 2017. All around we could see evidences of Luther’s life and his influence. A comment during the conference impacted me greatly. It is said (as I recall) that Staupitz, the head of the Augustinian monastery, and Luther’s superior, reminded Luther of all the church celebrations, the feasts, the saints’ days, and the revelry that would go missing if this reformation came about. He asked Luther, “If all this was taken away, what would we have left? “ And Luther is said to have replied, “Christ”. What more do we need?
Dr. Matthew Ebenezer