Sermon: Luther, the Reformation, and You

“Luther, the Reformation, and You”
Selected Scriptures
October 29, 2017

You might say that the Reformation began because a church building program went awry.

Pope Leo X wanted to paint the church ceiling, but he wanted a man named Michelangelo to paint it, and because of Leo’s other art expenditures, he couldn’t afford the project. So he struck a deal with a man named Albert of Mainz. Albert had already acquired two bishoprics, and he wanted a third, but church law precluded a third bishopric unless a special papal dispensation allowed it. Leo needed cash for his building project and Albert wanted the bishopric, so they agreed that if Albert paid the large sum of 10,000 gold ducats to Leo, he could have his bishopric. (They apparently settled on the number 10,000 because of the 10 commandments given to Israel.) Unfortunately, Albert didn’t have that amount of cash on hand, so he took out a loan. But then there was the small detail of paying back the loan.

Into Albert’s dilemma stepped a resourceful and scheming monk, Johann Tetzel. The Roman church had already for years been selling indulgences from sin and purgatory — these were essentially cash donations for which pardon for sin would be offered by the church. The higher the donation, the more sins and years from purgatory that could be atoned — it was a “repentance for sale” scheme. And Tetzel would take it to a new level. Working in concert with preachers who would come into a town and preach about the horrors of purgatory, Tetzel would then arrive in town the next day and proclaim, “Can you hear your dead relatives screaming out in pain while you fiddle away your money?” His solution? Make a contribution and reduce their agony. And he even came up with a jingle:

When a coin in the coffer rings,
A soul from purgatory springs.

The plan provided for the payoff of Albert’s loan and then all the rest of the “offerings” were divided evenly between Albert and the Pope; it paid them both well.

But when Tetzel arrived in the territory served by Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk Luther was outraged. If he had been alive today, he would have written blogs, Facebook posts, and then tweeted the saying that was going around in those days:

When a coin goes in the pitcher,
The Pope keeps getting richer and richer.

But not having our technology, he used the accepted form of protest for the day, and posted on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg a series of topics for debate. (This was akin to posting a meeting notice on the bulletin board.) His 95 debate topics were largely about repentance, indulgences, faith, and the papacy. For example:

  • [50] Christians should be taught that, if the Pope were acquainted with the exactions of the preachers of pardons, he would prefer that the Basilica of St. Peter should be burnt to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.
  • [67-68] Those indulgences, which the preachers loudly proclaim to be the greatest graces, are seen to be truly such as regards the promotion of gain.…Yet they are in reality in no degree to be compared to the grace of God and the piety of the cross.
  • [76] We affirm…that Papal pardons cannot take away even the least of venial sins, as regards its guilt.
  • And the first of the theses serves as a good summary of the rest: [1] Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ in saying: “Repent ye,” etc., intended that the whole life of believers should be penitence.

And then these theses were copied and distributed so that what was originally going to be a local debate became a country-wide and then worldwide debate. But Leo X wasn’t really interested in a debate and dismissed Luther’s theses as “The ramblings of a drunken German.…[He’ll] think differently when he sobers up.”

In the following months and years there were a series of appeals, interviews, and bulls (official declarations from the Pope) about Luther. Finally he was invited to Worms for a hearing before Charles, the Holy Roman Emperor and other religious leaders. He arrived for the first hearing on April 17, 1521, 3-1/2 years after he posted his theses. He went hoping for the debate but at the hearing he was asked two questions:

  1. Shown a stack of books, he was asked if they were his writings. “In a voice barely audible he answered, ‘The books are all mine, and I have written more.’” [Bainton, 176.]
  2. “Do you defend them all, or do you care to reject a part?” And he “reflected aloud, ‘This touches God and his Word. This affects the salvation of souls. Of this, Christ said, “He who denies me before men, him I will deny before my father.” To say too little or too much would be dangerous. I beg you, give me time to think it over.’” [Bainton, 177.] The emperor and his consultants deliberated and granted Luther one day to formulate his answer. The next day he returned and said to the renewed question — “They are not all of one sort.” And then he delineated the three kinds of writings they contained, concluding, “If I am shown my error, I will be the first to throw my books into the fire.…[But] I must walk in the fear of the Lord. I say this not to chide but because I cannot escape my duty to my Germans. I commend myself to your majesty. May you not suffer my adversaries to make you ill disposed to me without cause. I have spoken.” [Bainton, 179.] At that Archbishop Eck threatened him that he had no right to accuse the pope or the church or to suppose that he understood the Scriptures that they did not. He concluded, “I ask you, Martin — answer candidly and without horns — do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors they contain?”

And then Luther gave this famous answer: “Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, without horns and without teeth: Unless l am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason — for l do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they often err and contradict themselves — I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since to go against conscience is neither safe nor right. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me. Amen.” [Bainton, 180; Nichols, 32.]

Here I stand. Indeed, he did, and indeed we do also. The emperor decided to give Luther safe passage home, though at least six of the officials that were in that “court” were ready to denounce Luther as a heretic. And after going in hiding for about one year in Wartburg, Luther returned to Wittenberg and resumed his fight, translating the New Testament into German and writing extensively and teaching and training pastors until he died at age 62 in 1546.

This week marks the beginning of those events that led to Luther’s appearance at Worms, in what is traditionally recognized as the beginning of the Reformation (though the truths of the Reformation have always existed in some form since the days of the NT writers — even as far back as Abraham, Rom. 4:1ff). And this morning, in recognition of God’s grace in preserving His gospel through the works of these men, we want to consider the life of Luther in four ways:

  1. A Life of the Word
  2. A Life of Suffering
  3. A Life of Flaws
  4. A Life of Righteousness

Download the rest of this sermon on God’s grace in Luther and the Reformation.

The audio will be posted on the GBC website tomorrow morning.

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