Today is All Hallow’s Eve, or the Eve of All Saints’ Day. Though this day is popularly called “Halloween”, there’s a better way to remember this day. On that day in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The story is worth telling, so here’s a brief version.
Albert of Brandenburg, was a son of one of the noble families in Germany and an elector of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He also was serving the Church as bishop of Magdeburg and bishop of Halberstadt. These positions afforded him income from the citizens. He was offered a third bishopric, that of Mainz, in an irregular arrangement with Pope Leo X. In those days the pope would raise money for his enterprises by charging fees to noblemen who wanted a church office. Albert wanted to be bishop of Mainz in order to extend the power of his family over additional territory in Germany. He negotiated with Pope Leo who settled with him on the price of 10,000 ducats (about $400,000). Since the citizens of Mainz were already poor from paying for previous bishops, Albert had to borrow the money for this fee and related expenses. Pope Leo agreed to an eight-year plan to help Albert pay this debt through the sale of indulgences in Albert’s territory. Half of the proceeds would go to Albert to pay off his debt, and the other half to Pope Leo (in addition to the original 10,000 ducats!) to help finance his work on the basilica of St Peter’s. Through these indulgences the poor citizens of Mainz ended up paying for Albert, after all.
Albert was Luther’s own bishop. Luther probably didn’t know the details of the arrangement, but likely knew that half the indulgence income would go to Albert. It wasn’t just the financial aspect that troubled Luther. Indulgences were originally imposed to spur the penitent to be truly contrite. But the Church had redefined them to be payment that secured release from temporal penalties, and a means of drawing off the merit of the saints. This led to the popular idea that buying them removed not just temporal penalties but eternal punishment for sin, even without true contrition. Though Luther already had concerns about indulgences before 1517, what led to his public complaint was this sale by Albert. Luther’s own parishioners were returning to Wittenberg with their indulgences. They had been promised the full and perfect forgiveness of all their sins, restoring them to their baptismal innocence. Furthermore, they were promised relief from all punishments in purgatory, even for sins committed against God . These indulgences could be purchased for dead relatives, and Tetzel, the indulgence preacher, played on the emotions of those who thought they had relatives in purgatory.
Luther was scandalized. He saw that these falsehoods were giving his people false hope of salvation for themselves and their loved ones. This would lead to spiritual complacency and worse, damnation. He wrote this:
Those who believe that, through letters of pardon, they are made sure of their own salvation, will be eternally damned along with their teachers. (Thesis No. 32)
A false gospel had arisen. The Lord used Luther to stand against it and engage all Christendom in an open debate on the true gospel.
We should wonder: how could the Church of Jesus Christ get so confused about the nature of the gospel? How could the Church of Jesus Christ be so disordered in its practice of the gospel?
Luther understood at least part of the reason. He wrote a disputation on his concerns, asking for scholarly dialogue. We call it “The 95 Theses.” On the eve of All Saints’ Day, 1517, he posted his disputation on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. He also sent a copy to Albert, his bishop, with a letter pleading that Albert correct these abuses.
Luther realized how the church had reached this state: church leaders were sinning even as they preached and practiced of the gospel. Listen to what he wrote in theses 62, 63 and 64:
62: The true treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.
63: This treasure, however, is deservedly most hateful, because it makes the first to be last.
64: While the treasure of indulgences is deservedly most acceptable, because it makes the last to be first.
Those have to be read carefully. Luther understood that churchmen were gratifying the flesh even as they preached and practiced the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was doing something similar to what the apostle Paul did for the churches of Galatia: he was clarifying the gospel and teaching church leaders how to preach it and practice it.
When we are preaching or practicing the gospel, it is not as if we are automatically put into some sin-free zone. The gospel deals with overwhelming realities: a holy God…sin…grace…forgiveness. We do not readily accept or even understand these realities. We find them uncomfortable. And the Devil always aims his barbs at us: trying to deflect our understanding and practice of the gospel. We face numerous temptations, temptations that arise from our own flesh.
Elders might think that since they have Matthew 18 memorized, they know all they need to use the gospel with an offending brother. Foolishness! It’s one thing to know the procedure that Jesus gives; but it takes a lot of prayer, other biblical knowledge, wisdom and deep love of God and love for the sinner for elders to begin to use Matthew 18 well. The gospel is the power of God at work. It is not simply a matter of our following certain methods. We never become experts at gospel reconciliation. Jesus is the expert; and we are his servants.
We will spend our whole lives learning the depths of God’s holiness, our sin, its various effects on us, our loved ones and the world. Our focus must always be on the gospel as the power of God: it is his sovereign, gracious working by the Holy Spirit that is key, not our maturity. We would do well to heed Luther’s very first thesis:
1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ in saying: “Repent ye,” etc., intended that the whole life of believers should be penitence.
Luther teaches us to be humble before every, single matter of sin and forgiveness. Because without the power of the Holy Spirit at work, our best thoughts and actions are nothing, and accomplish nothing.
The amazing thing is that by grace, the Holy Spirit does work, even through our shallow grasp of these things. When we acknowledge our limitations and trust in God’s power alone, He works and we grow in grace. Christ teaches us the deep things of the gospel as we work together. He teaches us more and more…
about the holiness of God,
about the appalling wickedness of sin,
about listening to a sinner and loving them,
about the intricacies of the human heart,
about the powerful and wonderful grace of God.