Lutheranism: Word and Faith
The early Christians (35 A.D) were a faithful loving group. They joyfully received the Gospel and believed in Christ as their Savior and Lord. The Holy Spirit came on each believer and their lives were miraculously changed. Miracles and healings were common in their gatherings.
.And when the terrible persecutions came upon them, the new Christians stood firm and bravely continued to proclaim their faith in Christ. In an attempt to stop the spread of Christianity, many believers in Christ were imprisoned and beaten and many more gave up their lives for the faith. But these cruel persecutions only fanned the flames of Christianity and seemed to spur the Christian faith onward to spread like wild fire across Southern Europe and Asia Minor and Northern Africa.
After several hundred years of enduring severe persecutions, the early Christian Church seemed to finally find relief. In the third century, the Roman ruler, Constantine, declared Christianity to be the faith of the Roman Empire. Now Christians could relax and settle into their church headed now by the state! Believers in Christ called themselves “catholic” meaning “universal”, so the Catholic Church got its’ name. Christians had fought so hard for their faith. The blood of the many Christian martyrs was not forgotten. But now in the third century A.D. with the government and the church intertwined, the future appeared to be looking good for the Catholic Church! Now with power and money behind it, how could it lose? The Christian faith could move ahead, couldn’t it?
But as the centuries rolled on the Catholic Church gradually seemed to move farther and farther off track. Finally, by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the Catholic Church was experiencing her darkest period ever. She had lost her way. The high ecclesiastics, the bishops and popes and church leaders had let power and money go to their heads. Instead of being Gods’ servants of the Church and shepherds of God’s flock, the Catholic bishops, abbots and popes had become powerful rich secular rulers. The church leaders lived in luxury and held great power over to people.
This was the sad state of the Catholic Church when Martin Luther was ordained a priest in 1507. Martin Luther had been raised with the fear of God. He thought of Jesus only as a judge and he constantly felt guilt because of his sin. Some historians believe that he might have suffered from depression. Because Luther was studying for the priesthood he was allowed to read one of the few Bibles available that had been copied by hand. (The printing press was invented shortly before Luther’s lifetime.) As Martin Luther read the Bible for the first time he was amazed to find that the holy Scriptures taught that a person is not made right with God by their good works, or by paying money to the church. Luther read in the Bible that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. And that salvation is a free gift from a loving God. Luther had always worried when he read in Scripture that only the righteous person will please God. He knew that he was not righteous. But when Luther read Romans 1:17 a great weight fell from him and he realized that God made a person righteousness through Jesus Christ. All a person needed to do was to have faith. Here is what Romans 1:17 says: “In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from beginning to end, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”. This passage of Scripture changed Martin Luther’s life! Afterwards he was no longer depressed with guilt as he had accepted Christ as his righteousness. His whole life changed! He described himself as one who was “born again”.
About this time, the pope decided to build a great cathedral in Rome – later to be named St. Peter’s. Of course, the pope would need a lot of money to build Saint Peter’s Cathedral. Priests and church leaders were commissioned to ask their members to give money (called indulgences) to build this Cathedral. The priests told their people that if they would pay money for this building project they would get something back in return.
The money (or indulgences) church members would pay would buy the prayers of their priests and bishops. The priests would pray for the deceased loved ones of the members who paid. Nearly everyone had a loved one who had died and they were told that these deceased loved ones were now suffering in Purgatory! The priests would not say special prayers for the non-paying members loved ones in Purgatory. So, if a church member did give money their loved ones would be freed from this Purgatory much sooner than if they didn’t give money!
The priest was needed to intercede between the Christian and his God. A priest’s prayers and intervention was all important! A preacher named Tetzel came and spoke in Martin Luther’s town. One of his sales pitches went this way: “When the money in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs!” Luther was furious!
How could the Catholic Church make up these stories to raise money? Luther fumed. How could the church leaders tell members that they must pay money to get their loved one’s sins forgiven? God takes money to pardon people from sin? Luther knew that only Christ can take away sins! This practice of the Church pushed Luther over the edge. He composed a list of ninety-five statements questioning the practices of indulgences (taking money to get people out of Purgatory) and other problems Luther saw with the Catholic Church of his time. He nailed these ninety-five statements on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517.. Lutherans call this day “Reformation Day.”
Martin Luther never intended to leave the Catholic Church. He only hoped to reform it. Many other people around Europe were also frustrated with the abuses of the Church in that day and joined in with Luther’s call to the Catholic Church to change. Someone translated Luther’s ninety-five statements from the original Latin to German so that the people could read it also. The newly invented printing press printed Luther’s ninety-five statements and soon they were spread like wildfire across Europe. Luther loved his Church and waited for an answer.
The Catholic Church of the fifteenth century refused to acknowledge Luther’s ninety-five statements. They called Luther “apostate” and refused to believe that they might have any problems. Instead the Catholic Church tried to silence Luther. He had to flee for his life. There was a break from the Catholic Church and the Protestant branch of Christianity was born. The movement was called the Protestant Reformation. Thousands of frustrated Catholics joined Luther in this protest – this reformation. They split from the Catholic Church and formed a new reformed church, the Lutheran Church. Eventually Lutheranism came to be the main church in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.
Several of the main beliefs of Lutherans – reforms that Luther wanted the Catholic Church to consider – were 1) The Priesthood of All Believers,2) Sola Scripture (only Scripture) and 3) Justification by Faith. We will start with the priesthood of all believers. Luther believed that Scripture teaches that each Christian believer can come before God without the priest being the mediator. Protestants believe that Jesus Christ is our mediator and we can all come to God through Him, as Scripture teaches.
In Luther’s day, the priests did most of the worship while the members watched. Luther understood that worship was meant for the whole people of God. Luther translated hymns and the Scriptures and encouraged the people to read the Bible and sing hymns to God and pray directly to God themselves. He maintained that all believers were ordained to serve God and do His work, not just priests. And each Christian had a calling. Believers found great joy through the Holy Spirit in serving God and in Bible study and in prayer.
Luther’s second main affirmation was “Sola Scriptura “or “only Scripture”. Luther believed that the churches should only teach doctrines that can be found in Scripture. That the Bible is Gods’ Word. This led to rejection of many of the practices of the Catholic Church. The practice of paying indulgences to get loved ones out of Purgatory could not be found in Scripture so this was rejected! Praying to saints was rejected since the Bible commands us to only pray to God. The Bible was placed in the hands of the laity and everyone was encouraged to read it and live by it.
And Luther’s third main affirmation was the “Justification by Faith”. Luther had grown up believing that our salvation hinged on our doing enough good works to overshadow our sins. The fact that Scripture tells us that we are saved through faith in Christ was a new truth when Luther first read it in the Bible. “For by faith are we saved through faith and not of yourselves, it is a gift of God, not of works lest any person can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
This truth utterly transformed Luther! He accepted Christ as his Savior and this was the central tenet of Luther’s faith and the faith of the entire Protestant Reformation which we believe was led by the Holy Spirit. Luther’s truths would be picked up by others who would press them further. Next week we will see how another reformer, John Calvin and the Presbyterians grew out of Luther and the Protestant Reformation.
The ideas in this blog are taken from Adam Hamilton’s book, “Christianity’s Family Tree”