The Wired Word

500th Anniversary of Reformation Is Opportunity to Review the Three Solas
The Wired Word for the Week of October 22, 2017

In the News

This month, many Christians are participating in observances of the 500th anniversary of October 31, 1517, when a sturdy and devout Roman Catholic monk by the name of Martin Luther, a professor at the University of Wittenberg in what is now Germany, released a paper containing 95 statements -- points for discussion -- regarding repentance and forgiveness.

Luther sent these statements, called "theses," enclosed with a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, on  October 31, 1517, a date now considered the start of the Reformation and commemorated annually as Reformation Day. Luther may have also posted the theses on the door of the Castle Church and other churches in Wittenberg in accordance with university custom on that day or shortly thereafter.

Luther had no idea that this action was to touch off a movement that would radically alter both the shape of history and the future of the church. In fact, it was a common practice to use the chapel door as a kind of bulletin board where issues for debate could be posted. What happened, however, was that Luther's "95 Theses" struck a raw nerve, for they undermined a scheme for raising money for St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and for paying off a local archbishop's debts.

The immediate issue that seems to have prompted Luther's action was the sale of "indulgences." An indulgence was a decree cancelling supposed punishment after death for sins that were not properly atoned for in life. This punishment was still due after a sin was forgiven, and the church was the dispenser of these indulgences. However, sometimes instead of just granting the indulgences, a priest would make people pay for them. In fact, people could even buy indulgences for a sin they had not yet committed, or to get a dead person out of purgatory and into heaven.

A Dominican monk by the name of Tetzel was even more enterprising. Raising funds for St. Peter's Basilica and the Archbishop of Mainz, he traveled around Germany hawking indulgences using a slogan worthy of Madison Avenue: "As soon as coin in coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs."

But in addition to indulgences, there were theological issues that troubled Luther. He was, in short, a model monk. He did everything and more that the medieval church said was necessary for absolution from his sins. Yet, he was still overwhelmed by a feeling of his own unworthiness. He felt that he was under God's wrath and all of his devout efforts only intensified his distress.

A turning point came for Luther when the church appointed him to teach theology at the University of Wittenberg. Generally the church did not encourage Bible reading, but Luther had to read it in connection with teaching. He discovered that the scriptures were more interesting than he had supposed. One day, while reading Romans, he came across these words: "we are justified by faith ..."

These things were part of the backdrop that led Luther to post his disagreements with the church. To Luther's surprise, the 95 Theses created an immense sensation (although they were written in Latin for scholarly debate, someone translated them into German, and printed and distributed them widely), and in time, the furor over his statements led to a direct confrontation between Luther and the pope. In 1521, Luther was excommunicated and his teachings were labeled heretical. At one point he had to go into hiding because some sought his life.

Luther, and the many that followed him protested against much that the medieval church stood for, and as a result, they came to be called "Protesters" or "Protestants."

The Roman Catholic Church has long since corrected the abuses against which Luther spoke. Today many Catholic scholars recognize many of Luther's contributions with respect. Protestants today have much in common with Catholics. The Catholic Church leads millions into real fellowship with Christ, and many non-Catholic Christians recognize Catholics as brothers and sisters in the faith.

While the Reformation introduced many changes, including social, political and economic ones, three major points of doctrine emerged, which have shaped and marked Protestant Christianity ever since. They include what are sometimes called the three solas (Latin for "only" ): only scripture, only grace, only faith. Or, as sometimes worded, scripture alone, grace alone and faith alone. (To these, some add Christ alone and to the glory of God alone.) Another way of stating them is scripture over tradition, faith over works, and grace over merit, each intended to represent an important distinction from Catholic doctrine.

Scripture alone refers to the authority of the Bible.

In Luther's day, the Bible was available only in Latin and as such, could be read only by scholars, priests and other persons of learning. Even if the common people had been able to read Latin, the church discouraged them from reading the Bible. Instead, they were taught to rely upon the church to tell them what was important for them to know from the scriptures. Thus, the church and its leaders became the supreme authorities for Christian life.

Luther, however, had found the answer to his search for peace with God through reading the Bible. So for Luther, the Bible became a higher authority than the church. In time, he insisted that every Christian was competent to interpret the scriptures himself or herself without the aid of clergy, but helped by the Holy Spirit. He eventually translated the Bible into the language of the common people.

Grace alone means that believers are saved from sin as a gift from God based on what Christ did for them through his life, death and resurrection.

Related to this point is what is sometimes termed "the priesthood of all believers." Rather than viewing priests as necessary intercessors between humans and God, Luther taught that every Christian was his or her own priest and could have fellowship with God without benefit of clergy. He said that through faith, each person could confess his or her sins to God and receive forgiveness from God without the intercession of the church.

Faith alone means justification by faith, as opposed to by good works.

The medieval church taught that if one did certain prescribed "works," salvation could be earned, but reading the Bible, especially the book of Romans, convinced Luther otherwise.

When Luther spoke of justification, he meant that God gave righteousness to humans who trust God in faith, that righteousness was a gift of God, totally undeserved by humankind and beyond their reach; therefore it could only come from God, from outside of humanity's own resources. Thus when Luther spoke of justification by faith alone, he meant that there were no good works, acts of penitence, or any other deeds whereby we could earn or deserve righteousness. It had instead to be a free gift from a sovereign God, who himself chose to give it.

By "faith,", Luther meant an act of acceptance of this gift, an act that he called the "great exchange." That is, I give Christ my sin and he gives me his righteousness.

More on this story can be found at these links:

The 95 Theses.
Here He Stood: Lutheran Pilgrims Travel to Germany on Reformation Anniversary. Religion News Service 
Oklahoma Churches Will Mark 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. NewsOK
The Continuing Influence of the Reformation: Our Lives, our Thoughts, our Theology. J.W. Wartick

The Big Questions

1. How has scripture helped you in your life of faith?

2. Where do you need to remind yourself of the idea of "grace alone"? What difference is it making right now?

3. When were you aware that faith was operative in your salvation?

4. If, as Luther claimed, good works are not the way to salvation, what role do they play in being a disciple of Jesus Christ's?

5. Does "the priesthood of all believers" mean church attendance is optional? Why or why not.

Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
Here are some Bible verses to guide your deliberation:

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NIV)
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (For context, read 3:14-17.)

Here Paul writes to Timothy reminding him of the power of the scriptures which Timothy has known from childhood and then makes the testimony quoted above about those scriptures. The NIV translates Paul's description of scripture as "God-breathed." The NRSV renders it as "inspired by God." Both mean the same thing. Divine inspiration means the breath of God moves through the pages of the Bible, making it useful for "teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness."

Of course, at the time Paul wrote, the scripture to which he referred was the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament. The New Testament was still being lived and was yet to be assembled. But Christians affirm that both testaments are "God-breathed."

Questions: When have you sensed the breath of God in scripture? None of us was part of the original reading audience for the books of the Bible. What has caused it to become our book as well?

Ephesians 2:8-9
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God -- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (For context, read 2:1-10.)

Paul speaks of our trespasses and sins, emphasizing that we are saved by God's grace through our faith. Salvation comes as a free gift of God, not as a reward for noble or heroic human works.

God's grace does not always come yoked to good times or happy circumstances. As well as being "amazing," grace can also come as suffering grace, difficult grace, painful grace, costly grace, illogical grace. Yet despite its various guises, grace is always sufficient grace. And it is grace because it comes not because we deserve it, but because God gives it.

Though faith would seem to be an act on our part to meet grace, which is an act on God's part, Paul says that even faith "is not your own doing; it is the gift of God."

Questions: Grace means God took the initiative to save us. Why is that important? If we are saved by God's grace, what is the significance of human achievement? Is there any sense in which faith is itself a form of grace?

Romans 3:22-25 (CEB)
God's righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him. There's no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. (For context, read 3:21-31.)

Luther spoke of "justification by faith alone," he was adding the word "alone" to Paul's explanation of "justification by faith." Luther believed that the word "alone" conveyed the real intention of the Pauline expression and therefore that it helped one to understand the meaning more accurately.

We might illustrate Luther's thought by saying that righteousness is like a cloak that only God can give to cover a man and that in accepting this cloak, the man must be willing to give God the dirty rags, representing sins that he has been wearing.

Questions: What everyday words might you substitute for "justification"? If you had to explain the Gospel from this passage alone, what would you say?

Acts 8:18-19
Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, saying, "Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." (For context, read 8:9-24.)

Simon was a former magician who had converted to Christianity upon hearing Philip's preaching. The apostles Peter and John arrived and prayed that the new Christians would receive the Holy Spirit. Simon wanted this power as well, and was willing to pay for it. But the power was not something that money could buy.

The purchase of an indulgence was similarly attempting to purchase something that money could not buy -- the forgiveness of sins. One of the 95 Theses declared, "Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers."

The main point of Luther's Reformation was that the forgiveness of sins was free -- it could not be purchased or otherwise earned. It is something God gives a person, not something a person purchases or earns from God, by money or by efforts to please him. That free gift is of the essence of Christianity. A former Muslim, now a  member of a Christian congregation a TWW team member also attends, once said that the knowledge that he no longer had to gain God's favor to escape damnation was such a relief to him that it was beyond description.

Questions: In what ways are you tempted to try to merit forgiveness by pleasing God? Why is that prospect so attractive? Why is that situation so frightful? Discuss the relationship of salvation and trust in God.

2 Kings 23:2-3
The king went up to the house of the LORD, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the LORD. The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the LORD, to follow the LORD, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant. (For context, read 22:1--23:27.)

The religious reformation Luther ignited was hardly the first. The Bible tells of several reforms, of which the verses above are an example.

Josiah was a king of Judah (641–609 B.C.), who instituted major religious changes. Josiah is credited with having established or compiled important Hebrew scriptures as part of the "Deuteronomic reform" that occurred during his rule.

In the 18th year of his rule, Josiah ordered the high priest Hilkiah to use tax money to renovate the temple. While Hilkiah was clearing the treasure room of the temple, he discovered a scroll described as "the book of the Law," which many scholars believe was either a copy of the book of Deuteronomy or a text that became a part of Deuteronomy.

Hilkiah brought this scroll to Josiah's attention, who realized that he and his subjects were not living up to the covenant with God described in the scroll. Josiah assembled all his people, read the scroll to them and encouraged the exclusive worship of God, forbidding all other forms of worship. The instruments and emblems of the worship of Baal and "the host of heaven," were removed from the Jerusalem temple. Local sanctuaries to other gods were destroyed. Josiah also reinstituted the Passover celebrations.

Early, King Hezekiah had done a somewhat similar reform to lead a return to God (2 Kings 18). Later, Ezra and Nehemiah did something of the same thing with the public reading of scripture, interpreting its meaning as they went along (Nehemiah 8) The people cried because they hadn't been keeping the festivals, but they are told to rejoice because now they know the right things, and they're to celebrate. In Revelation, one of the seven churches addressed is urged to restore its former fervor for the faith (Revelation 3:19).

Questions: When has your congregation or denomination been reinvigorated by a reform? How did it begin?

For Further Deliberation

1. For all the good he did, Luther had some terrible blind spots, including that he was viciously anti-Semitic (though that term wasn't in use in Luther's day). Read about it in the Wikipedia article on Luther, in the section titled, "Antisemitism," and discuss together how a person can be seeking to live righteously but be so intolerant of others.

2. Consider this together: Luther gave a great testimony to the sustaining power in faith in Christ in the words of his hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."

And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; 
One little word shall fell him.

Luther said the "one little word" he had in mind is "You lie" (see John 8:44). In the following stanza, Luther then interplays this word of Gospel proclamation with Jesus Christ, the Word, as one who fights for us.

Responding to the News

Luther affirmed the authority of the Bible. Thus we need to read it and let its words soak into our souls and minds. Reading the Bible is not just a nice idea, it is a vital link to God through which he speaks to us.

Luther told us that we are each our own priest. Thus we need to pray. The church priests of Luther's day listened to a person's confessions and then they prayed to God on that person's behalf. Luther said that God was approachable and that we did not need an intermediary. We can each come to him and he will grant absolution. But to come to him, we need to pray

Luther found the only basis for a life of peace with God to be justification by God's grace through faith alone. Thus, while we believe in doing good, we must not rely upon good deeds to bring us forgiveness, but upon the grace of God through Jesus Christ.  Good deeds are the fruit of a forgiven life and not the means of obtaining it.

Read the Bible, pray, trust God for our salvation. These lessons come to us out of history, but the experiences of Christians have shown them to be mighty things for living in a dangerous world. And that is just as true in this 21st century as it was in the 16th.


O Lord, let our doctrines inform us but not become barriers to working together with other Christians that the gospel might be shared and good works in your name might be accomplished. Through Jesus we pray. Amen.