How many times had Martin Luther done the exact same thing? How many times had he posted the invitation to a disputation – a debate? The church door was the bulletin board. It was the place you posted items so that the academic community of the University of Wittenberg could see them. Luther was posting an invitation to a disputation along with the specific items he wanted to discuss.
Disputations were an important way that theology was done in the sixteenth century. There was nothing unusual about Luther’s action. The introduction to the Ninety-Five Theses reflects this fact as Luther wrote: “Out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following theses will be publicly discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the reverend father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology and regularly appointed Lecturer on these subjects at that place. He requests that those who cannot be present to debate orally with us will do so by letter.”
In one sense, the Ninety-Five Theses were a failure. No debate ever took place at the University of Wittenberg as Luther had intended. Of course, 500 years later we think of them as being incredibly successful. After all, they started the Reformation.
However on that day in 1517, Luther had no such intention. He had no such expectation. I first read the Ninety-Five Theses when I was at Concordia College, Ann Arbor as a pre-seminary student. I was excited finally to read this key document that had started the Reformation! And it was a complete letdown. Honestly, they are really not all that interesting. They are a discussion of guilt, penalty, indulgences and purgatory – the standard stuff of late medieval theology and practice.
The irony of celebrating 2017 as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is that Luther had not yet made his Reformation breakthrough in 1517. Certainly the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses started the process of the Reformation and Luther’s thought was developing, but he wasn’t actually there yet.
The central issue of the Reformation was this: Does a Christian have to do something in order to have the full blessing of salvation? The theology of the medieval church said, yes. Doctrine had been developed to explain and justify practice to related penance. A person went to confession. They confessed their sins and received absolution.
But that was not the end of it. The medieval church had said that absolution forgave the guilt of sin. The good news was that you were not going to be eternally damned. However, because your sin had offended God, you still owed him a penalty that had to be paid. That’s what penance was all about. It was the penalty that you owed God. The priest assigned a penance that you were to do. But because medieval theology taught that it was a mortal sin if you didn’t complete the assigned penance, confessors assigned a small penance you could be sure to do.
But that didn’t cover the full amount that you owed – not even close. And the bad news was that if you died and still owed penance, you were going to purgatory. There you would be purged by fire in intense suffering until it was all paid off. Only then would you enjoy the full blessing of salvation.
The Church was very clear in teaching that it was much easier to offer the needed satisfaction now during this life rather than suffering in purgatory. People were very motivated to do as much as they could to get rid of the penance they owed And so when John Tetzel came into a nearby area selling plenary indulgences – a guarantee that the entire amount of penalty was removed – he found many buyers. Some of those buyers came from Wittenberg, and so Luther learned about what was happening.
Medieval theology was based on the idea that you had a part to play. God’s grace was a kind of supernatural substance that equipped you to do your part. Your effort was necessary both in being saved and to pay off the penance you owed. The practice of the late medieval Church was built around activities that did this: paying for Masses; going on pilgrimages; buying indulgences.
Yet that was only for people who weren’t really serious about their eternal welfare. If you were, then there was only one course of action to take: you had to become a monk or a nun. Martin Luther was really serious. He had joined the Observant Augustinian Order. And there he learned first by experience and then by study what the apostle Paul is responding to in our text.
Paul begins our text by saying, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.” The words “But now” establish a contrast. Paul wants us to know that what God has done in Jesus Christ has changed everything. He says that the “the righteousness of God” has been manifested apart from the law.
The phrase “the righteousness of God” had been a source of torture for Luther. He understood it to mean the righteousness that God demands. God is holy. He demanded holiness from those who wanted to live with him. After all, Jesus had said, “You shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Luther strove to avoid sin. Where there was sin, it could be forgiven. But of course that left you with penance to do.
His time in the monastery taught Luther a painful lesson: his effort was never good enough. He fell into sin. His efforts only piled up more penance that he had to do. Doing only brought the prospect of more doing in the empty hope of avoiding the fires of purgatory.
It didn’t take a genius to recognize that Luther was exceptionally gifted. So the Augustinian order had him work toward his doctorate in theology, and during that process he began to teach at the University of Wittenberg. He began to lecture on the Scriptures, and this study led Luther to understand why works and doing could never offer peace and comfort. Paul says, “but now” in our text because he has just described the presence of sin in our life. Ever since the Fall, sin had been a power that controlled us.
Earlier in the chapter Paul had stated, “For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” Apart from Christ sin is not just something you do. It is something that rules you. The apostle goes on to quote Scripture which says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
Because this is the case, works and doing can never justify the sinner. It can never offer you peace. The law is about doing, and just before our text, Paul had said, “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. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The law shows you your sin. When you run through the Ten Commandments they show you that you have earned nothing except God’s judgment.
Yet as Luther studied God’s Word he began to realize that “the righteous of God” is not something demanded by God. Instead it is something that God gives. It is his saving action in Jesus Christ to put all things right. It is God’s doing, not our own, because it is a matter of grace alone.
And here grace is not some supernatural substance created by the imagination of medieval theology. Instead it is the grace of the New Testament – the undeserved loving favor of God who gives you forgiveness and salvation as a gift. It is the gift of forgiveness won by Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for you – a gift that is now received by faith. As Paul says in our text, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and 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.”
Medieval theology could offer the Christian nothing except uncertainty. That’s how it is when you try to deal with God on the basis of your works. The question never goes away: “Have I done enough? Have I done it well enough?” Uncertainty will always be there because the nagging answer is, “No.”
Yet when we confess our sin and inability, we are freed to receive God’s gift in Christ. By his death and resurrection Jesus has accomplished what we never could. Now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law. The saving action of God has redeemed you. He has freed you from sin, death and the devil, and so you know that you can be certain about where you stand with God.
Paul says that already now you are justified. This means that because of Christ you already know the verdict of the Last Day. You know that when our Lord returns in glory you will stand before his judgment seat. But because he has already now taken away your sins and made you righteous, there is nothing to fear. Instead, it is something that will be part of your final victory and vindication.
Martin Luther didn’t go to that Wittenberg church door in order to start the Reformation. But that’s what God used him to do. He used Luther to turn his Church away from the traditions of men and back to the Scriptures alone – to the word of God. He used Luther to restore the Gospel – to restore grace alone, faith alone and Christ alone to the life of his church.
The five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation is a time to celebrate. These are precious gifts that we have received. But they are not like family heirlooms that have been passed down to us and are now displayed in a breakfront in the house – never disturbed except by some occasional dusting.
In order for the Reformation to be a blessing to us we must return to the first of the Ninety-Five Theses, now understood in its full Reformation sense. There Luther wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
We live in a world that wants to know nothing about sin. “Freedom” its motto – you are free to do what you want. Yet this self chosen freedom is really slavery to sin and all the destruction it causes. We must reject the world’s way of looking at things and recognize that all of human existence is moving towards the day when everyone will indeed appear before the judgment seat of God. He will justly judge on the basis of his law – on the basis of the way he has ordered his creation. The great surprise for many will be that the almighty God doesn’t care if you can’t believe in “that kind of God”; or if you don’t believe in “those kind of rules.” The almighty God is the Creator. He is the Judge, and many people are in for a very rude surprise.
For the Reformation to be a blessing to us, we must confess this sin for what it really is – sin against God. We must repent and seek to turn away from this sin, even as we turn in faith to Jesus Christ. For the God who is the Judge who is also the One who sent his Son into the world to redeem us from sin. He is the One who already now says that we are justified because of his grace alone. He gives forgiveness and salvation received by faith alone. There is nothing that we have to do. There is nothing that we can do. It is his Gospel gift and so it is as certain and sure as God himself.