We often ask historians to set an exact time and place for the beginning of great changes in history. Tomorrow will be the 499th anniversary of one of those times and places. A professor of Old Testament theology at the University of Wittenberg wanted to hold a discussion concerning the abuse of indulgences. He did what any professor at the University would do. He publicized his desire to debate with other scholars of his day. He wrote down his talking points and posted them on the community bulletin board. At the time, the community bulletin board was the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
The invitation that he posted was entitled Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. In this disputation, he had 95 talking points or theses. Since it was way easier to say 95 theses than to say Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, the popular title quickly became the 95 Theses, and that is the title that most of us know to this day.
When Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses, he had no idea that he had done anything unusual. He didn’t have an appreciation for the recently invented printing press, nor did he have an appreciation for the frustration that boiled just below the surface of European society. Never the less, his little invitation to discuss the power and efficacy of Indulgences was like a spark to the fuse of the powder keg of Europe. Although, Luther wrote the 95 Theses in the scholarly language of Latin, it only took a few days for German translations to start rolling off the presses in Germany, and it wasn’t long after that that they were translated into most of the other languages of Europe.
The thing that led Luther to seek out a debate on the topic of indulgences was his own struggle with what he would later call “The Monster of Uncertainty.” Luther’s career as reformer did not begin with the posting of the 95 Theses. Instead it began with his own personal struggle concerning his own salvation in the quiet of his monastery cell. It was there that he found an unequivocal and satisfying answer to the question which had long perturbed him and many of his contemporaries: “How may I be certain of salvation?”
Luther would later describe his struggle with these words:
I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ ” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.
And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.
With these words, Luther informed his readers that he finally understood the precious words that Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31–32) The goal of the Word of God is to set us free. Yes, we should want to abide in God’s Word simply because it is God’s Word. Yes, we should want to abide in God’s Word because it is the truth. Never the less, in today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that abiding in God’s Word gives us freedom … freedom from sin, death, and the power of the devil. The Holy Spirit not only uses God’s Word to deliver the forgiveness of sins to us … He not only uses it to establish faith in us, but He also overcomes the Monster of Uncertainty with that same Word of God. With the Word of God He gives confidence in the salvation that Jesus Christ earned for us on the cross.
Listen to the beautiful words that the Holy Spirit inspired in the Apostle Paul. For there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:22–25) That word propitiation means that Jesus totally satisfied God’s justice with His perfect life and sacrificial death on the cross. Through Jesus Christ, your salvation is already bought and paid for. It is words like this that the Holy Spirit uses to keep you in the faith that receives eternal life.
Sadly, there are some people who reject the free gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. When the people in today’s Gospel heard what Jesus had to say, they answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” (John 8:33) These were very strange words considering that all they had to do was lift their eyes up to the northwest and see Roman soldiers keeping watch on them from the Antonian Fortress built right next door to the temple. They also seem to have forgotten their exile in Babylon and their slavery in Egypt as well.
But, of course, the freedom that Jesus gives is much more than mere political or physical freedom. The freedom Jesus gives is freedom from sin. Without that freedom, we are all slaves to sin as Jesus Himself said when He answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. (John 8:34) When anyone insists that they do not need Jesus, the Word of God is there to remind them that we are all conceived and born sinful and are slaves to sin until Christ claims us as His own.
So, the Word of God informs us of our need for a savior by showing our sin to us. Then it tells us who that savior is. It tells us what that savior has done. Then the Holy Spirit uses that same word to call us into the faith and keep us in the faith. It is by that faith that we receive the freedom that Jesus earned on the cross and promised in His word.
On this day, when we observe tomorrow’s 499th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the ninety-five these to the church door in Wittenberg, let us remember that the reformation is really not about the man, Martin Luther. Instead, it is about the Word of God making us free.
Martin Luther himself once preached about the Word of God and said, “I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philips and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”
Listen once again to how Jesus began with the Word and showed how it leads to eternal freedom. Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31–32) Amen
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