A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on October 31, 2010.
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Tonight many children and their parents will engage in that age-old Halloween custom of going house to house, ringing doorbells and pounding on doors. Halloween is the one night of the year now when friends and neighbors actually interact with each other on their porches and doorsteps. Of course, all the ghosts and goblins will chant, “Trick or Treat!” hoping they won’t have to trick their patrons into giving them lots of unhealthy Halloween goodies.
On this very day—October 31, 1517—493 years ago, on an All Hallows Eve long before our modern customs of Halloween began, a grown man pounded a door. He was pounding on the door of a church, not a home. And he wasn’t trick-or-treating. He was nailing a statement of 95 propositions, or 95 Theses, to the door of Castle Church, the local Catholic church of Wittenburg, Germany. These 95 Theses turned out to be quite a Halloween treat that ultimately changed the world.
The man’s name was Martin Luther. And on this All Hallows Eve, otherwise known as Reformation Sunday, most Protestants, including many Baptists, will honor Martin Luther for sparking what became known as the Protestant Reformation.
Church historians rightly point out that Martin Luther did not cause the Protestant Reformation by himself. Catholics like St. Francis of Assisi had already criticized the Catholic Church’s obsession with wealth, and Erasmus had produced a new Greek translation of the New Testament that encouraged deeper devotion to the scriptures. But no single individual had more to do with the eventual Protestant schism from the Catholic Church than Martin Luther.
Several years ago the Arts and Entertainment Network listed the most influential people of the last millennium. Johannes Gutenberg came in first for his invention of the movable type printing press that made books readily available and affordable for the first time. Isaac Newton came in second for his work in science, physics, and astronomy. Third on the list was Martin Luther who is credited with bringing religion and education to the common people, and for laying the foundation of democracy.
That’s pretty heady praise for a guy who was born into a simple, God-fearing Catholic family over 500 years ago in a small, backwoods town of Germany. Educated in Catholic schools, Luther was a bright student, so bright that his father managed to send him to law school. But when he graduated Luther didn’t practice law. He was too depressed to practice law.
What caused Luther’s depression? It was none of the things we’d think of today, like the loss of a job, or health, or marriage. It was Luther’s obsessive fear that he would lose his salvation.
Remember, Luther grew up in a Christian church far different from today. Today, if you get restless with one church, you have many others to choose from. In those days, you only had one choice—your local Catholic church. And the Catholic view of God was as scary as a Halloween horror movie.
In those days God was viewed as an angry, vindictive deity eager to catch you committing a sin so he could throw you into hell. The church taught people to fear God in the worst kind of way. And then the church played upon those fears to control the people, to coerce them into obeying all the teachings and rules of the church, and to manipulate them into giving so much money to the church that the church became quite wealthy.
Lutheran pastor David Teitz is absolutely right when he observes that the Catholic Church is quite different today. In fact, some say that the Catholic Church, despite its well-known problems, has undergone even more reformation than the Protestant Church in the last 500 years.
At any rate, 500 years ago Luther took the threat of hell very seriously. To avoid hell, he decided to become an Augustinian monk. Eventually, he entered the priesthood, and later entered the University of Wittenburg where he would earn a Ph.D. in Bible and Theology.
But no matter how accomplished he became as a priest and academic, Luther could not shake the fear, the terror that he would eventually spend an eternity in the fires of hell. He couldn’t see how he could ever do enough to be good enough for God.
Just as Luther was about to lose his sanity over his salvation, he was preparing a series of lectures on the book of Romans. He had read Romans many times before in the Catholic Latin Bible called the Vulgate. But this time he read it in Erasmus’ newly published Greek New Testament. In the Latin Bible, the Greek word, metanoia, had been translated as “doing penance,” as in making pilgrimages and buying indulgences. But in his new Greek Bible that word was translated as “repentance” or “change of heart” brought about by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
While reading Romans 3, where the Apostle Paul describes how we are justified by faith rather than works of law, Luther says “the gates of heaven were opened to (him).” For the first time he got it. He got that he didn’t have to save himself because Jesus had already done so through his death on the cross. All Luther and anybody had to do to be saved was respond to God’s grace in faith. Luther was positively astounded by the doctrine of justification by faith, and it changed his life forever!
Meanwhile Pope Leo X and every Catholic cardinal, bishop, and priest continued to teach that you were justified not so much by your faith as by your works. The laity had no Bibles to read, and even the Catholic clergy were poorly trained. They didn’t understand that even Old Testament prophets like Habakkuk spoke of the righteous living by faith. They had never read 2 Thessalonians where Paul says clearly and emphatically that we do not make ourselves worthy of God’s calling. Rather God saves us and makes us worthy through his power and grace. So not knowing any better, 99% of the Christians of Luther’s day performed all kinds of penance to work off their sins, and paid handsomely for indulgences to buy off their sins.
It was during this era of the early 1500s that Pope Leo X approved the sale of indulgences in Germany to help pay for the renovation of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, and for the purchase of a new home of the new local archbishop. The chief salesman of these indulgences—a man named John Tetzel—was credited with saying, “As the coin in the coffer rings, the soul into heaven springs.” When Luther’s students and parish members came to him with these extravagantly priced certificates of indulgence, that was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Luther decided it was time not so much to challenge the Catholic Church as to start a conversation with other Catholic scholars about indulgences, good works, repentance, and the like. So on October 31, 1517, the day before All Saints Day when hundreds of worshippers would attend mass, he posted his famous 95 Theses on the church doors, which in those days served as a community bulletin board. If Luther were alive today, of course, he’d probably post his theses on a blog.
Not even Luther could have predicted what happened next. Instead of having a quiet, orderly dialogue among academics, Luther wound up in a firestorm with the top brass of the Catholic Church. Thanks to Gutenberg’s newly invented printing press, Luther’s 95 Theses spread like wildfire. Within two weeks German copies of the theses had spread throughout Germany. Within two months they had spread throughout Europe.
Soon, Luther was required to appear before numerous councils to explain himself and his beliefs. The Catholic leaders of the day were no dummies. They understood if Luther’s radical theology justification by faith alone, as articulated by scripture alone, facilitated through the grace of God alone ever caught on, their entire system of control and wealth founded on a fear-based, hard-earned salvation could collapse like a house of cards. They pressed Luther, and pressed him hard to back away from his views but Luther did not waver.
Finally, in 1521, Luther was hauled before the “Diet of Worms” to be given a chance to recant his views. This would be like testifying before our Supreme Court. When told by Charles V, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, that he must change his views or face the prospect of execution, Luther made the following famous response:
“Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scripture or by plain and clear reasons and arguments—and not by popes and councils who have so often contradicted themselves—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
The Catholic Church did not execute Luther for his refusal to recant his views. But they did excommunicate him and brand him a heretic. And for the rest of his life Luther was forced to live in hiding, under the condemnation of popes and emperors, as well as the constant threat of being burned at the stake.
But the damage to the Catholic Church was done. Luther’s audacious claim that faith and faith alone would save us lit the match that set the fire that fueled the Protestant Reformation for these past five hundred years. In time Baptists would emerge from another even more radical reformation. But that’s another sermon.
Yes, there have been debates about faith and works in the Protestant Church. Yes, some have abused the doctrine of justification by faith and turned it into a license for a lazy, fruitless Christian life. But the most authentic expressions of justification by faith make it clear that true faith will inevitably produce good fruit, that good works don’t secure our salvation, but they always flow from it.
What’s interesting today is that people like Phyllis Tickle are saying that we are in the throes of a new reformation. Phyllis Tickle is the highly respected editor of Publishers Weekly, and acclaimed author of The Divided House and more recently The Great Emergence. Tickle observes in The Great Emergence that every 500 years or so the church seems to go through a dramatic reformation. 500 years ago it was the Protestant Reformation sparked by Martin Luther. 500 years before that it was the “Great Schism” when the Greek Orthodox Church broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. 500 years before that it was the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Catholic monasticism.
Here we are again in 2010, says Phyllis Tickle and other church observers, experiencing reformation. This new reformation would explain why the church landscape is changing so rapidly, why hundreds if not thousands of churches will close their doors over the next few years, why seemingly invincible churches like Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral are declaring bankruptcy.
God is evidently up to something new. And something new has usually been as scary as Halloween for the church of the status quo. In fact, the church of the status quo usually resists the change for all it’s worth, just before it either splits or collapses altogether. Just as no one, not even Luther, understood on October 31, 1517 what shape the future church would take, no one can claim to understand with perfect clarity on October 31, 2010 what our future churches will look like.
Phyllis Tickle does take a stab at it, and suggests that flourishing churches of the future will be marked by the following traits:
1) A renewed sense of social justice, with an emphasis on helping the poor.
2) A resurgence of traditional prayers and rituals that got left behind in the Protestant movement (what we are calling “sacred rhythms” these days in our church).
3) More emphasis upon the mystical and less argument about doctrines.
4) More focus upon living in and for Jesus and less attention to denominations.
5) More emphasis upon direct, intimate experiences of God through the Holy Spirit.
What’s the moral of this history lesson? The church of Jesus Christ is always being reformed, and always will be. Our job as Christians is not to hold on to what we have. Our job is to be asking, “What is God up to these days, and how can we join God in that effort?” And to have the courage to follow God and step out on…you guessed it…faith!
God help us if we don’t say, “Here we go with God. We can do no other! Amen.”