Celebrating Gospel Faith @ 500

by Mark Bonnington

When, 500 years ago this coming Halloween, in a university city in eastern Germany, a non-descript, thirty-something monk took an evening walk and nailed a notice to the doors of the local Abbey church, no-one took much notice. Martin Luther was outraged that the local diocese had authorised the sale of post-mortem forgiveness in the form of ‘indulgences’. An indulgence was (and is) an advanced payment for a priest to say mass for the person after their death (or for another dead person) to speed the passage of their soul through purgatory and into heaven. As the ditty went: ‘as soon as the coin in coffer rings, so the soul to heaven springs’. Worse, the money was being exported from Germany to build St Peter’s basilica in Rome (yes, the one on the postcards). It was lucrative business but terrible theology.

Luther objected that this was terrible distortion of Biblical faith. He also had a good eye for publicity. He knew that the next day would be a big one. Queues of pilgrims would file past his notice as they came to venerate the saints whose bones went on display in Wittenberg Abbey church on All Saints Day. So he posted things like this (and 94 other ‘theses’): ‘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.’ This is typical Luther—simple, witty, hard-hitting and direct. But the notice was in Latin.

It took another couple of years for Luther’s teachings to emerge from the swirling sea of ideas challenging the corrupt and confused church of his day.  Reform took off when he published his ‘95 theses’ and other works in German. He distributed them widely and so  appealed to the rulers and ordinary people for change in the church over the heads of clergy and theologians. Three years later, Luther was being censured (he burned the official papal letter in public) and excommunicated as a heretic, but it was too late and the reforming cat was out of the ecclesiastical bag. Soon Luther had to hide for 18 months in fear of his life. As well as writing, he used the time to translate the newly-published Greek New Testament into German so that everyone could read the Word of God for themselves. He emerged urging the establishment of new schools for men and women and theological education for all.

The English Reformation and British evangelicalism were influenced more directly by the more radical Reformation in Switzerland that followed Luther by just a few years. This came first through Zwingli and his theological offspring in Zurich, and later Calvin in Geneva. But all the key foundations of evangelical faith were laid by Martin Luther. For sure, Luther was a child of his time. He was reacting against some terrible excesses and desperate to keep the church together, and he got many things wrong. But the key principles of reform were laid down by Luther and he ignited the fire of change across Europe.

In recognition of Luther’s courage and contribution we will spend our ‘vision and values’ month in September 2017 looking at five of the key principles of Luther’s reform that still shape evangelical faith today. With time these have been distilled as the ‘five solas’. ‘Sola’ refers to the Latin for ‘alone’ in phrases that we translate as: by scripture alone (sola Scriptura), by grace alone (sola gratia) by faith alone (you get the idea), through Christ alone and for the glory of God alone. To put it differently: Luther wanted to put the Bible before tradition, grace before sacraments, faith before works, Christ before the Church and God’s glory above all else. Luther saw that the church had become the master of the gospel not its servant.  His teaching turned the tables, calling the church back to the Bible and (re-)establishing its life on gospel principles.

Some have described the Reformation as ‘a disaster’—for dividing the church—or as ‘a sad necessity’. Luther had no intention of splitting the church—he wanted it to reform—but once the principle of gospel truth before church authority was established change was inexorable. Evangelicals gladly celebrate Luther’s Reformation and what has flowed from it as a rediscovery of the Archimedean point for the life of the church: the gospel of God’s grace in Christ set out in Holy Scripture. The key directions of this gospel trajectory were set by Luther—he challenged the control of the church over grace, the record of the church on holiness and the understanding of the church on doctrine.

As a person Luther is a humane and attractive figure. Calvin the lawyer was probably a better exegete, logician and systematiser but just nothing like as much fun. Luther conversed and wrote in lively, witty German. He tried out his thinking at the table as he ate and drank. People around him laughed as they talked theology and rethought the implications of the gospel for the life of the church. Luther was someone you’d want to sit down with just to see what provocative and challenging conversation he would draw you into next. He is someone from whom to imbibe deep and centred theological conviction, consistent concern for the health of the Church and a passion for the gospel, for the Lord Jesus Christ and for the glory of God above all else.

So this Autumn we turn as a church to celebrate 500 years of gospel faith. To recall Martin Luther is not to rest from Scripture for five Sundays. Indeed his Reformation is largely the reason we focus on preaching on Scripture systematically. Instead we want to hear the Bible afresh in the company of one of the great interpreters of Scripture – one to whom we owe a continued debt of gratitude for his contribution to shaping gospel faith for the last half millennium.