Reformation 500—Your Seven-Day Countdown
500 years ago in the year 1517, Pope Leo X began raising money to build the grand basilica St. Peter’s by selling “indulgences” (a “Get Out of Hell Free Card”) to sinful, wealthy elite. He explained a person could purchase forgiveness from the Pope, who would then grant the extra credits not needed by saints who died with a surplus of good deeds. These merits were stored in a “Treasury of Merits” controlled and allocated by the Pope. Anyone could purchase forgiveness from the Pope, “If the price is right.” Even more, “indulgences” could be purchased for the dead—transporting the soul of a loved one to heaven for all eternity merely by paying the appropriate sum.
The Ninety-Five Theses: In response to the power grab and abuse of the common people he saw being perpetrated by the Pope, Luther wrote his 95 Theses (a list of 95 grievances against the Pope and the church). The subtitle of the document carries the strength of his feelings, “A Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” Luther tacked the document to the door at Wittenberg Cathedral with the intention of defending his position against Catholic leadership in an open forum or series of debates. It is important to note Luther never intended to break from Catholicism, but to “reform” what he saw as a pattern of abuse within the church’s leadership.
In the 95 Theses, Luther laid out his objections to indulgences and also took aim at a priesthood that had grown lax, shallow and corrupt. In statement after statement, Luther built his case against both indulgences and the abuse found within the priesthood. Luther’s tongue was biting, and his manner was caustic—he took no prisoners with statements like: “Indulgences are the nets with which the church fishes for rich men,” “Men must be on guard against those who say that the Pope’s pardons are the inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to Him,” “Christians are to be taught that the Pope’s pardons are harmful, if through them they lose their fear of God.” Luther even dared ask why the Pope did not empty all of Purgatory by emptying the treasury of all its merits? (read the complete document at http://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html)
To be fair, Luther also instructed on right Christian conduct stating: “He who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons”; “Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes by him, and gives his money for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the Pope, but the indignation of God.” Luther argued that personal confidence in entering heaven came not through the purchase of an indulgence but through tribulation, hardship and effort.
The Pope responded by charging Luther with heresy and ordering him silenced. But the prince in Germany as well as the local church protected Luther and allowed him to continue his critique. The battle lines were drawn and the future understanding of Christian faith was in the balance.
QUESTION: Luther saw a church beholden to money and Christian leaders who had lost their voice being more devoted to materialism than to Christ. Do you see any similarities today? Has Christian ministry become a non-prophet society? Let me hear from you…
Side Note: On October 31, 2017 churches and Christians around the globe will pause to acknowledge the contributions of an unknown priest at the time names Martin Luther, whose 95 Theses tacked to the door of the Castle at Wittenberg ushered in the greatest Reformation since the Apostle Paul. Luther’s influence upon the church and upon society cannot be overstated, so over these next few days I will attempt to give you the nuts & bolts of the Reformation for you to consider anew.