This weekend we recall the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of ninety-five theses on justification. The Augustinian monk did what every other Wittenberg academic seeking to debate work in progress did: he posted his theses for debate on the doors – we believe – of the university and castle church at the centre of Wittenberg. This is how he put it: ‘Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter’.
Little did Luther know that this conventional act of seeking to try, debate and refine his academic thinking on what it means to be made just before God would fuel a wildfire of social and ecclesiastical discontent that would lead to a thorough reform of German church practise, and the establishment of a new denomination that would bear Luther’s name. His ninety-five theses were immediately translated from their original Latin, the language of scholarly debate, into German and other European languages. They spoke into society that had, since at least the mid fourteenth-century, put increasing pressure on the church to adopt essential reforms.
Many of the things that we take for granted in our worship today were on a catalogue of demands that predated Martin Luther: the reading of the Scriptures in the language of the people, singing of hymns in one’s own language, the ability to receive both the bread and the wine of the Eucharist were foremost on the list of demands. As were some broader social demands addressed to the church as one of the largest landowners in Europe: harsh taxation and tithes – the system of charging a levy on the fruits of the harvest – which further widened the gap between rich and poor.
And finally, there was the central issue of how people are made just before God. In an age in which both heaven and earth, Saviour and Satan, were very real places and people for all, the question of how humans would share in the life that is forever, and be deemed worthy of that life, was fundamental. In the late fifteenth-century, an elaborate system of penitence had been developed as a result of more than three hundred years of theological research. People were made just before God, the cutting-edge traditional theologians of Luther’s day believed, by confessing their sins, and by making reparation for their sins: they would undertake an act of goodness to make up for what they had done wrong, or the right they had omitted to do.
So far, so good: a system of checks and balances. I agree that if there were an act of goodness for every evil, then the world would undeniably be a much better place. The problem began when the system became commercialised. Acts of goodness could be outsourced, as it were. Someone else would undertake the spiritual exercise of penance on your behalf, most likely a monk or nun, if you only paid for it. When this system was extended not only to one’s own sins and omissions, but those of one’s dead relatives and friends – payments for parents in purgatory – theologians like Martin Luther seriously began to question the spiritual value of such a punitive and pecuniary approach to justification.
Luther did not set out to be a reformer. He became a reformer by his strongly held convictions on what it means to be made righteous before God. Or rather, what it does not mean to be made righteous before God. And while the event we commemorate this weekend would forever be associated as the beginning of the German reformation, for Luther it was another stepping stone in the middle of a long academic, and personal wrestling with the Scriptures. For more than four years in the run up to 1517, Luther had been reflecting and lecturing on Romans. His Theses were the culmination of his theological research, and his firm conviction that people are not made just by paying the church for prayers offered on their behalf, and certainly not on behalf of those who had already died, but that people are made just by a change of heart.
‘For years’, Luther later wrote, ‘I hated that word “the righteousness of God” … which I had been taught to understand … that God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner. … I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners and secretly … I was angry with God’ (WA 54: 185). It was Paul’s epistle to the Romans, our epistle reading for this morning, that was the sticking point for Luther, particularly the sentiment that ‘“no human being will be justified in God’s sight” by deeds prescribed by the law’. In a system of justification where it was precisely by deeds commanded by a divine law – five monand a Pater Noster for this offence, a couple of decades of the rosary for that – in such a system, no one would ever be made just. Paul said as much in our epistle: ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.
And Luther living, as he later reflected, ‘as a monk without reproach, felt with the most disturbed conscience imaginable, that I was a sinner before God’. In the sight of the infinite and just God, no one could stand righteous: under the terms of God’s own law ‘every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God’ (WA 54: 185). And the laws of the church, Luther then firmly held, reinforced that understanding. Penance and payment for sins committed would never fully remove sin. Which is why, the church taught that people languished in purgatory for centuries being cleansed from the wrongdoings they committed during their lifetimes.
Surely, there would need to be another way to become justified before God, Luther felt. By April 1516, Luther was convinced that there was absolutely nothing that human beings can contribute to their own justification, other than believing that God desires to justify those who love him. Luther had weighed every word of our epistle, and came to believe what Paul meant when he said that we are saved not by the law of works, ‘but by the law of faith. We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law’ (Romans 3.28). Put differently: according to the law, according to our own deeds, humans stand no chance to pass muster before an infinitely righteous God. But when they place their faith not in their own righteousness (or lack thereof) but in God’s righteousness, they acknowledge their weakness and draw on God’s strength.
Luther found great comfort in the central thesis of today’s epistle reading: because Christ who was without any sin at all gave his life freely, those who believe in Christ may live. Paul put it this way: even though ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift’. That gift was bestowed on God’s people when God sent Jesus into the world to live among us, and die for us. When Jesus died, ‘he had passed over the sins previously committed’ (Rom. 3.25). All sins, past, present and future, are covered: not by anything that we can do, but only by believing that God has granted us this incredible gift freely. When Jesus died, all sin died with him, giving all humans the gift of being made right before God if only they believe.
In 1516 Luther wrote: ‘Christ died for me, he made his righteousness mine, and made my sin my own, then I do not have I, and I am free’ (WA 56: 204). And the way in which we may celebrate this freedom, Luther believed, was by opening our hearts to God’s love. Luther wrote that the effects of the salvation wrought for us on Calvary are effective today, because ‘the cross of Christ is distributed through the whole world; each person is always allotted their portion’ (WA Br 1: 25). All of us who believe share in the event of salvation, Luther interpreted Paul, and encourages us: ‘Do not cast the cross aside, but rather take it up as a holy relic to be kept. Not in a golden or silver case, but in a golden – that is a gentle and loving – heart’ (WA Br 1: 25, 1: 37f.). We are to be the reliquaries of the true cross, and enshrine in our hearts the symbol of our salvation. In the same way in which many of us wear the sign of our faith on a chain around our necks, we are to become living bearers of the cross, holding close to the innermost parts of our being the firm and certain hope of our being made just before God, and our being gifted new life forever in God’s friendship.
Luther did end up revolutionising the church. He set out comfort those who, like him, believed that they could never be good enough for God. His insights into the graciousness of God, and the infinity of God’s love fundamentally changed the church. All that is required for us to be made good and just before God, Luther came to believe, is already given us in Christ Jesus. All we need to do is believe in the fruits of his salvation, have faith that the new life he promised is for you and for me, and open our hearts to him in that faith asking to be made just and whole. And this is good news for all who believe, and worthy of our celebrations, that ‘in his divine forbearance God has passed over our sins … and justifies those who have faith in Jesus’ (Rom. 3.25-26). As we give thanks for the insights into the love of God of his servant Martin Luther, it is my prayer that we may be strengthened in faith to believe this truth, and through our faith we may be renewed in grace and transformed to be people whose very hearts are homes for God.
A prayer after Martin Luther:
You, Lord Jesus, are my righteousness
but I am your sin;
you have taken on yourself
what you were not
and have given me what I am not:
open our hearts to your grace,
that we may be strengthened in our faith
and made perfectly whole in hope
for you are alive and renew our lives,
and reign with the Father and the Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.