Things have been very interesting for the Roman Catholic church since Pope Francis was chosen as the successor for Pope Benedict. Francis was something new for Roman Catholics since he is the first South American to become pope. He immediately aroused interest with his informal style. Francis chose not to wear some of the traditional papal clothing, and instead went with the far more simple dress of a regular priest. He showed a desire and willingness to go out and meet crowds in unannounced ways.
The new pope has continued to draw attention because of the interviews he has given. Many of these have not occurred using the normal media outlets of the Roman Catholic church. Instead, Francis has gone outside of normal channels. He has tended to do this in a very conversational manner. And the results have been … interesting.
When you are the new leader of a church that has 1.2 billion members, people take what you say seriously. People have evaluated every single word in the attempt to understand what Francis wants to see happen in the Roman Catholic church. It is clear that he wants to see changes – but the question is how much and what kind of change?
Francis has spoken in a far looser style than his predecessor, and on a number of occasions the mainline media has enthusiastically taken up comments and proclaimed that now the Roman Catholic church was moving toward acceptance of homosexuality or that it would no longer be so firm in the opposition to abortion. On each occasion, the Vatican has then followed up by saying that, no, that’s not what Francis meant.
One announcement about this new “hip” pope caught the public’s attention this summer. The Vatican made known that those who followed the “rites and pious exercises” at the weeklong Catholic World Youth Day on television, radio and through social media could receive an indulgence. It was immediately reported by the media that now Roman Catholics could get time off of a purgatory by following the pope’s “tweets” in the social media format Twitter. Once again, the Vatican had to provide the correction that no, things weren’t quite that simple.
Beyond the Twitter angle to this story, the thing that probably caught the attention of many Lutherans is the fact that the Roman Catholic church is still in the indulgence business. Indulgences are, of course, the very thing that helped to prompt the beginning of the event that we are celebrating today.
In the time leading up to 1517 a three-way business deal had been worked about between Albrecht, the archbishop of Magedburg, Pope Leo X and the Fuggers banking house. Albrecht wanted to become the archbishop of Mainz and Pope Leo X wanted to build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Both of those things cost money – money that Albrecht and Leo X didn’t have. The Fuggers wanted to loan money at interest in order to make money. So a scheme was worked out in which the Fuggers would loan money and then Pope Leo would allow a special indulgence to be sold in Albrechts lands. The money raised by the indulgence would go to the Fuggers and the Pope.
The Dominican preacher, John Tetzel, would head the indulgence sale effort. However, just as the indulgence and twitter story this summer came out garbled, so did the message that accompanied Pope Leo X’s indulgence. You could compare John Tetzel to the personalities who do those “infommercials.” He was there to sell, and it didn’t bother him if he stretched the truth in order to do so. If people came away with the impression that the indulgence did more than church doctrine said, Tetzel wasn’t particularly concerned. He just kept telling people, “As soon as the coin in the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory springs.”
The indulgence wasn’t being sold in Luther’s area. But people crossed over to where Tetzel was selling in order to buy them and then brought them back. In this way, Luther came into contact with the indulgences. He encountered these indulgences at time when he was beginning to wrestle with what God’s word said about Christ, grace, faith and the law.
Although Martin Luther preached regularly and was very pastoral in character, he lived in an academic setting – he taught as a professor at the University of Wittenberg. And so in response to the indulgence, he did what academics of that day were supposed to do. He publicly posted theses – 95 of them to be exact – as he called for an academic discussion.
Luther had no way of knowing what this seemingly minor action would cause. In fact, according to Luther himself, he had not yet made the full Reformation break through. But the controversy over indulgences began a process in which Luther continued to study the Scriptures, and in that process the Gospel came clear.
The Church of Luther’ day, like the Roman Catholic church of today, had no clear texts of Scripture upon which to base her teaching about indulgences. It was instead the Tradition of the Church which supplied this teaching. The Church also taught they while wounded by sin, God’s grace enabled people do their part in the process of salvation. Where they sinned and didn’t fully do their part to correct this, they needed to make satisfaction for this in order to remove the temporal penalties of sin. This could be accomplished by doing penance, or paying for masses to be said, or by purchasing indulgences.
Luther had been taught this theology. Yet as he continued to study the Scriptures – and in particular our text from Romans chapter 3 – he began to realize that this had things all wrong. For starters, he began to realize that such a teaching could only be found in the Tradition of the Church – in the writings of men – and not in the Holy Scriptures that came from God through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And worse yet, he realized that it actually contradicted what Scripture said.
The theology of the medieval Church, and of the Roman Catholic church today, is built on the assumption that people have a role to play in achieving full salvation. God may begin the process but as the current Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church states, “Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.”
Yet what Luther found in Scripture was nothing so positive. In our text Paul says, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” The whole world is accountable, because as Paul has just said earlier in this chapter, “For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” Ever since the Fall we have been under the power of sin. We have been slaves to it. That is why Paul goes on in the next verse to quote the Old Testament that says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.”
It is for this reason that the way of doing – the way of our works – can never bring peace or full fellowship with God. The way of doing, the way of the law, will always show us that we fail to do things in a God pleasing way. Paul says in our text, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
Clearly, the law shows us that we fail to do God’s will. It shows us that we put others things before God. It shows us that we do not love our neighbor as ourselves. But a true understanding of the law also reveals that even when we do the right acts, it is often with mixed motivations. So for example, we do the good thing that helps people – but deep down we know that part of the reason we do it is because of how it will cause others to perceive us.
As Luther knew all to well from his own experience as a monk, brutal honesty reveals the truth of Paul’s words. The works of the law – the way of doing – cannot put us right with God. Instead the way of the law – the way of doing – shows our sin.
But then in our text, Paul goes on to write the words that Luther identified as the key to his new insight into the Gospel. The apostle writes, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” The righteousness of God – the saving work of God that declares us righteous – has been made known apart from the Law.
The Gospel tells us that in spite of our sin we are innocent before God by his grace through faith in Christ. Paul says in our text, “We are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
It is God’s grace – his unmerited and undeserved love – that prompts him to work in this way. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that is the source of forgiveness. It is faith that receives this gift. And because it is God’s gift, there is nothing to earn. As Paul goes on to say, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
As the baptized children of God we now live by faith in Christ. Because we no longer have to seek to do in order to have fellowship with God, we are freed to do in order serve our neighbor in love. Paul says later in this letter, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” As Luther said, we are saved by faith alone, but faith is never alone.
On this Festival of the Reformation we give thanks to God for the work of his servant Martin Luther. We rejoice that in the sixteenth century the Gospel came clear again through his work. Luther reminded the Church about what the apostle Paul had really said. Of ourselves, people are fallen sinners who have nothing they can contribute to being saved. Instead, it is a matter of God’s grace – his undeserved lose. We are saved because of Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. We are saved by faith in Christ apart from works of the Law. And because we know this to be true, we are free to live lives that give service to others.