Last week, I wrote about a few of the 95 statements that I disagreed with. Luther’s concerns were growing and his theology evolving – but, as I pointed out last week, at that point in his life he was still a good Catholic, loyal to the Pope and many of the teachings of the church. As such, this celebrated work should be read and understood in its historic context and its proper place in Luther’s development.
However, there was one issue, at least, that Luther was 100% right on – the main issue at hand. Luther refused to indulgence in indulgences. He believed that they were an unbiblical practice deceiving the masses and one that deserved to be addressed, exposed, condemned, and discontinued. (For those who may not know, the peddling of indulgences was the practice of the Roman Catholic Church selling forgiveness of sins or salvation for money.)
Long before he was given his papal bull, Luther grabbed this theological bull by the horns and sought to wrestle it to the ground. While others before him had questioned the practice of indulgences (see the works of John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, and Joahnnes von Wesel), it was the loudmouth monk who said what he meant, meant what he said, and lit the match that started the firestorm of the Reformation.
With all of that in mind, here are several of the key statements from Luther’s work that I do agree with wholeheartedly. As I was reading them, I was amazed at how many of these statements could still be applied to many prosperity preachers of our own day. Consider.
#1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
Luther kicked-off his now-famous document by highlighting the continual need for repentance in the life of a believer. This may seem, at first reading, to be disconnected from his real issue (indulgences), but Luther understood that, at its core, indulgences were misleading people into thinking that a piece of paper could take the place of contrition. Christians do not repent once, at conversion, and never again. Instead, every day is an effort to turn away from sin and turn to God in faith. Their hope should be built on continual faith in Christ – not owning a piece of paper.
#36. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.
The indulgence preachers had added to the gospel (like some even do, today, saying that tongues or baptism is a requirement for salvation). Luther said, “No!” He understood that the gospel is a free gift, received by God’s grace – not by some papal paper.
#42. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath. 43. Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.
These two statements go together. Many of the indulgence preachers were urging people to buy them at all costs – even neglecting their needy neighbors and their own families. Luther’s response, here, reminded me of what Jesus said to the Pharisees of his day (Mark 7:1-13). They set aside some money to give to God and, as a result, refused to help their aging, needy parents. Jesus blasted them for such pious nonsense. Religious rituals are not an acceptable substitute for real righteousness.
#75. To consider papal indulgences so great that they could absolve a man even if he had done the impossible and had violated the mother of God is madness.
The indulgence preachers of Luther’s day, were kind of like the prosperity preachers of our day. They often made outlandish, unbiblical claims that were absurd. One such claim was that purchasing an indulgence could forgive any person of any sin – no matter how heinous or deplorable. Luther even cites one such specific example. The preachers would tell the masses that a papal indulgence was so powerful it could even absolve a man if he had raped the Virgin Mary (i.e. “had violated the mother of God.”) Luther says that such a claim is “madness” and calls the whole practice into question.
#79. To say that the cross emblazoned with the papal coat of arms and set up by the indulgence preachers is equal in worth to the cross of Christ is blasphemy.
Here is yet another example of the crazy claims made by the indulgence preachers. To show that an indulgence was legitimate (and not a fake, knock-off bought on the black market), there was a special emblem, the Pope’s monogram (“coat of arms”) was printed on it. This authenticating symbol made this paper, according to the indulgence preachers, just as valuable or meaningful as the actual cross on which Jesus died. Such a claim, Luther said, is unadulterated “blasphemy.”
#80. The bishops, curates, and theologians who permit such talk to be spread among the people will have to answer for this.
Luther is picking up, here, on what the apostle Peter said. He predicted the coming onslaught of false teacher even in New Testament times. In 2 Peter 2:3 it says, “in their greed, these false teachers will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.” False teachers, then, and false teachers today, who refuse to repent will receive their final reward in God’s fire.
#94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell. 95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace.
Luther concluded his work by urging all Christians to “be diligent in following Christ” – not the false messages of the day. My how we need that same call in our day. We should not be following anyone or anything apart from our Lord and Savior.