Luther questioned many doctrinal practices that had evolved in the Roman Catholic church that, upon deep and serious study, he found were contrary to the teachings of Holy Scripture (The Bible).
Luther, a monk in the Augustinian order of Roman C
atholic monks was so serious about his faith and devotion to Christ that, when attending Confession, he had a hard time finishing for fear of forgetting a specific sin he might have committed. Augustinian priests would joke that they dreaded hearing Luther's confession because he would repeatedly get up to leave but then quickly return to the confessional booth, having remembered yet another specific sin. This reflected a deep torment that Luther felt under Roman Catholic doctrine. "If I must do good works and pay penitence to be saved, how much is enough?!"
The Roman church (as Luther would later, somewhat derisively, call the Roman Catholic Church) taught that salvation came not just through faith in Jesus Christ as clearly taught by Paul in Romans 3:19-28 but, rather through a combination of works and faith. Many of these necessary works were ritualistic. The Roman church, in this context taught that the Rite of Confession was a work of penitence necessary for salvation rather than a comfort to sinners, as the bible teaches.
Luther's differences with the Roman church centered around not only that church's false teachings about the role of works versus faith in salvation (many of which persist to this day) but also the root cause of many of those false teachings, specifically they were a lever to perpetuate the political power that the Roman church exacted on the Kingdoms of Europe that were collectively, at the time, called The Holy Roman Empire. Exploited the sins of the masses enriched the church with "indulgences", kind of a tax on sin extracted from the masses and the power of perceived salvation or damnation held sway of the kings and princes of Europe in the Dark Ages.
After posting his 95 Theses, Dr. Luther was called before the ruling priests and bishops at the Diet of Worms and told that he must recant them or face excommunication and possible death. His response was eloquent, sure and bold. He denounced the authority of priests and bishops to judge men and their worthiness for salvation, just as Jesus Christ had denounced the "holy" rule of the pharisees 1,400 years earlier.
The key excerpt from Dr. Luthers response at Worms is this:
"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"
What Christians and the Christian-curious should understand about Reformation Sunday might include the following:
- Reformation Sunday is not really about Martin Luther but about Jesus Christ. Luther was one of many reformers active during The Enlightenment who railed again the Roman church's false and corrupt teachings. He is separated from those in that he survived being burned at the stake through the expedient of political connections.
- Reformation Sunday is about Jesus Christ because we are saved by faith in the resurrected Christ not by works or alms to a political and authoritarian church. And it is about Christ himself because Christ is God and died on the cross that we may be saved by faith in Him!
- In the era preceding Luther, for hundreds of years (the Dark Ages) the Holy Roman Empire vested its power over a population that was largely illiterate. They could not read scripture for themselves, so it was interpreted for them by priests and bishops who had a vested interested in perpetuating their power and rule over the people, directly and through monarchs and nobles who acquiesced consistently to the Roman church.
- Therefore, Luther, as an Augustinian Roman Catholic monk was a reader and studier of scripture. But, being a seeker of truth, saw the truth of salvation by faith alone throughout the Old and New Testaments, and, perhaps, most pointedly in the writings of St. Paul. Such as today's sermon text linked above and here (Sermons post a few days after Sunday).
- Luther is recognized for his reformation work not just by the Lutheran church but also by virtually all Protestant denominations, with whom, incidentally, he differed as sharply with as he did with the Roman church, primarily on issues of faith and works with regard to salvation.
- Luther did not seek to leave the Roman church. He sought to reform it. It was his sincere notion that his 95 theses would open a welcomed debate about the true scriptural meaning of salvation in Christ and the that much if not all of Roman clergy would share in his joy and feeling of liberation when he read and finally understood Paul's writings in Romans 3: 19-28.
- Once he was excommunicated, Luther sought to name his new church the German Christian or German Catholic Church. "Lutheran" was actually a derogatory term at the time.
- While the Roman Catholic church has softened its doctrinal positions on many of the issues raised by Luther, many still exist. Most particularly, Roman Catholics are still burdened with a false and works-righteous view of salvation, a critical departure from scripture that is manifest in their communion doctrine, the monastic system and compulsory celibacy in the priesthood (a slippery slope to many problems in the Roman church still today).
- Finally, as Lutherans, we are still excommunicated from the Roman church. The proclamation of excommunication levied by Dr. Luther at the Diet of Worms has never been rescinded. Although we read that, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the reformation next year, a statue honoring Martin Luther will be erected in Rome in a square named after Dr. Luther.
Next year will an exciting one for Lutherans as we celebrated 500 years since the Reformation. We hope you will join us in learning about Martin Luther and, more importantly, what Jesus really means to us humans. How we are already saved by him simply by believing in him, irrespective of what we do.
Scripture Alone! Grace Alone! Faith Alone!