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15. Luther and the Reformation

The Justice of God

Philip Bocht Ó hÚigínn, an Irish Franciscan theologian and poet (d.1487), summed up the late Medieval consensus on the dread of God’s justice. His work Tuar feirge foighide Dé, translates as God’s Patience is an Omen of Wrath.

God’s patience is an omen of wrath, be prepared for the testimony; His displeasure with every man is increasing, so that in the end He will not show mercy. Slow anger is the worst, its significance gives grounds for fear; not to have submitted to His will come against them; sin cannot go unpunished. The gentleness with which he treats us is like the sunshine before a great flood; its beginning is not to be praised; God will yet pursue the offenses. By rejecting wrongdoing, He has belied the proverb, although God’s power extends over everyone, His Righteousness it is that is to be feared most.

This dread of God’s righteousness was not confined to Ireland but a widespread view in Europe at this time. God was to be feared because of His coming judgment against sin. Of all God’s attributes, His righteousness was to be feared most of all by Christians who failed to live up to God’s holy standard.

Luther’s Birth & Early Life

Luther born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. His father was Hans Luder (a mining magnate), and his mother was Margarethe. Luther enrolled in school at 14 years and later enrolled in Law School.

The State of the Church in 1500

The “goose” Jan Hus who had called for Church reform was killed in 1415, and his followers the Hussites broke from the Roman Catholic Church in the Hussite Wars 1419-1434. The Moravian Church emerged later from this movement.

Catholic Theology was dominated by Sacerdotalism at this time. This means that salvation was taught to be accomplished through the administration of the church’s sacraments. The instrumental cause of Justification, it was taught, was in the sacrament of baptism. Justification was achieved by faith plus good works and a person was Justified by God after sanctification was completed.

Catholic Theology taught that faith was a necessary but not a sufficient condition for justification. A person could have their faith intact, and while in a state of faith commit a mortal sin, where faith is not lost, but justification is lost.

This theological system supported the rise of Indulgences whereby the grace of Christ, Mary and the Saints could be accessed through the purchasing of indulgences both for yourself and for dead relatives. The rise of Mary as Mediator was indicative of a view of justification as a process aided by merit and penance. Richard of Saint-Laurent (d. 1250) said, “Mary so loved the world, that is, sinners, that she gave her only son for the salvation of the world.”

The Crisis of 1505: Luther Decides to become a monk

In 1505 Luther was caught in a lightning-storm, in his terror he cried out, “help me saint Anne, and I will become a monk!” Surviving the storm Luther kept his vow, enraging his father who saw his son end a promising career in law. Luther became a distinguished Augustinian monk; he was brilliant and pious, but plagued by his understanding of the law and the justice of God. For Luther Christ was the stern judge who would punish sinner. In fear of God Luther practiced harsh asceticism and long confessions to attain righteousness before God. He read Romans 1 in terror, because he feared the righteousness of God. If God was righteous, then Luther as a sinner was under God’s wrath!

The Crisis of 1510: Rome

In 1510 Luther was sent to Rome on official business on behalf of his monastery. He was delighted at the opportunity to use this trip as a pilgrimage to earn merit and indulgences from God. Luther decided to dedicate this trip to Rome on behalf of his dead grandparents to get them out of purgatory. He regretted that his parents were still alive, because he wanted to get indulgences for their souls too. However, Luther was dismayed by what he saw of the corruption of the Church in Rome.

The Scala Sacra are twenty-eight steps at the Lateran Church in Rome. These stairs were claimed to be from Pilate’s court in Jerusalem were Jesus was tried. Luther, along with many other pilgrims, climbed the steps on his knees praying for his dead grandparents. When he got to the top of the stairs he looked around at the fear and anguish of the other pilgrims on their hands and knees trying to earn merit before God. Disillusioned by what he saw Luther asked himself, “Who knows, if it is true?”

The Crisis of 1515

After receiving his doctorate in theology, Luther began teaching in Wittenberg University. A crisis in his theology had emerged. How can any person be justified before God, when every person is a sinner? As he studied the Bible at Romans 1:17, and meditated on the righteousness of God Luther came to the discovery that the righteousness that God is made available to people who had no righteousness of their own! It is an imputed Righteousness! Luther read the interpretation of Augustine on this passage in Romans 1:17and found Augustine in basic agreement with him. God gave the sinner a righteousness apart from us, an alien righteousness, an Imputed righteousness received through faith in Christ (Rom 4:3, Gen 15:6). God's righteousness and justice was not to be feared, rather it was the greatest gift given to the Christian through faith in Christ. Righteousness before God was not something we achieved before God because of good works, instead, it was something we received by faith from God on the basis of the merit of Christ's work for us! This is the Good News of the Gospel!

The Storm Breaks

The ongoing building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome had almost bankrupted the Papacy. To refill the Church’s coffers Pope Leo X gave permission to Prince Albert of Brandenburg to sell indulgences. In 1517 Luther posts his 95 Theses questioning the sale of Indulgences, among the theses (or points of debate) were the following:

§1 When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent [or do penance in the Latin Bible, Penitentiam agite]” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance

§51 Christians are to be taught that the Pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.

§52 It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters, even though the indulgence commissary, or even the pope, were to offer his soul as security.

Luther was summoned to Rome to answer for his rejection of indulgences, but he refused to go, fearing he would be killed like Jan Hus was one hundred years prior to Luther. Instead, Luther offered a summary of his theology in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518:

“For the righteousness of God is not acquired by means of acts frequently repeated, as Aristotle taught, but it is imparted by faith, for “He who through faith is righteous shall live” (Rom. 1:17), and “Man believes with his heart and so is justified” (Rom. 10:10). Therefore, I wish to have the words “without work” understood in the following manner: Not that the righteous person does nothing, but that his works do not make him righteous, rather that his righteousness creates works. For grace and faith are infused without our works. After they have been imparted the works follow. Thus Rom. 3:20 states, “No human being will be justified in His sight by works of the law,” and, “For we hold that man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3:28). In other words, works contribute nothing to justification. Therefore, man knows that works which he does by such faith are not his but God’s. For this reason he does not seek to become justified or glorified through them, but seeks God. His justification by faith in Christ is sufficient to him. Christ is his wisdom, righteousness, and so on, as 1 Cor. 1:30 has it, that he himself may be Christ’s action and instrument.” (Heidelberg Disputation 1518, §28)

A local trial was conducted in Germany in 1518 in order to determine if Luther was a heretic. Leading Catholic scholar and theologian Cardinal Cajetan of Spain interrogated Luther and instead of addressing the issue of Indulgences and Justification focused on the issue of Papal authority. This was Cajetan’s attempt to shut Luther down and to try and associate Luther’s position with the condemned heretic of the previous century, Jan Hus.

Exsurge Domine 1520

Luther’s refusal to submit to the authority of the Pope on the question of indulgences prompted his condemnation and excommunication by Pope Leo X. Luther’s condemnation was contained in a Papal document entitled Exsurge Domine (Arise O Lord!).

Central to the debate between Luther and the Pope was over the nature of Justificaiton. The English word Justification derived from Iustificare, i.e. to make righteous. In the west, the idea of justification was associated with how a sinner can be made righteous, i.e. it was after sanctification at a point where we exhibit a righteousness acceptable to God. However, the Greek term δικαιόω as used in Scripture means to “declare righteous,” i.e. an imputation by God prior to sanctification. The debate over Justification was over Justification by faith alone. For the Roman Catholic Church Justification was faith plus works, grace plus merit, etc. For Luther and the Reformers of the Evangelical Churches it was by faith alone!

The Diet of Worms 1521

Luther was summoned to a court at Worms and was told to recant his theological writings. There was no debate just an ultimatum to recant or face the consequences. Luther feared for his life and asked for 24 hours to think it over. The next day he stood before the council and refused to recant, boldly declaring, Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders (Here I stand, I can do no other).

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”


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