Protestant churches, i.e., those that still believe and confess the theology, piety, and practice recovered in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, celebrate Reformation Day on October 31. This is the day, in 1517, that Dr Martin Luther (1483–1546), a German biblical scholar and theologian, mailed to the Archbishop his famous Ninety Five Theses against the abuse of indulgences. According to Roman (Catholic) Canon Law, an indulgence is “a remission before God of the temporal punishment of sins.” According to Roman dogma, Christians who do not complete those temporal punishments (penance) in this life must do so after this life before going to heaven. The church, however, Rome says, has the authority and power to release (remit) someone from those punishments. As a fund-raising scheme in the 16th century, a certain monk, Johann Tetzel (1465–1519), went about Germany selling plenary (full) indulgences. For the price of a donation, Tetzel, with the authority of the papacy and Roman ecclesiastical authorities behind him, sold indulgences by pleading with Christians to rescue loved ones from the pains and tortures of purgatory. He even had a jingle: “When the coin in the coffer clinks, the soul from purgatory springs.” Modern huckster like Kenneth Hagan or Kenneth Copeland are nothing new. Rome had been offering indulgences to the dead since the Council of Constance (1414–17). Remarkably, contrary to oft-repeated claim that the sale of indulgences ended with the Council of Trent, Rome continues to sell indulgences. Just a few years ago, Rome offered an indulgence for those who follow Pope Francis’ Twitter feed. Rome continues to claim the authority to sell indulgences. In §1471 of her Catechism she says that those who are “duly disposed,” who have already been forgiven [by a priest], gain “under certain prescribed conditions” an indulgence. Trading money for services rendered is one of those conditions as in the case of the Great Jubilee (2000) when Rome offered indulgences to those who made a pilgrimage to specified places or who “support by a significant contribution” works of a religious or social nature [emphasis added].
Luther was certainly right when he said, in thesis 28: “It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.”
Still, however valuable and important Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were —they were stolen from his study and printed and they spread like wildfire across Germany and beyond—they were still not exactly Protestant. Luther himself was still very much in transition in 1517. He had completed his lectures through the Psalms and Romans. In the years 1517–19 he would lecture through Galatians, Hebrews, and the Psalms again. By the spring of 1521, he had realized several essential truths:
- Grace is not a medicinal substance dispensed by the church. It is the free favor of God earned for all of God’s people by Christ alone.
- Faith is not faithfulness. Faith, in salvation, is an empty hand that receives Christ and all his benefits. It trusts, rests, and leans on Christ alone.
- We are not justified, sanctified, or glorified by works or through works. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone.
- The ground of our justification is Christ’s righteousness for us and imputed to us. Rome had corrupted the gospel (and corrupts it still) by teaching that the ground of our acceptance with God is our sanctification, which, they teach, is by grace and cooperation with grace.
- The law is not the gospel and the gospel is not the law. The law says: “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die” and “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.” The gospel says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” These are both God’s Word but they are different in kind. The law demands but does not give what it demands. The gospel is good news and it announces that Christ has fulfilled the law for all of his people and that justification, sanctification, and glorification (salvation) is given freely to believers for Christ’s sake alone.
- Scripture alone is the final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life. Rome had taken to itself, on the basis of the myth of an unwritten apostolic tradition, authority that belongs to Scripture alone. In short, Rome had reversed the relationship between Scripture and church. She had put the church over Scripture rather than making the church the servant of Scripture.
To summarize these great recoveries the Protestant used some Latin slogans:
- Sola Gratia: By grace alone. Grace is God’s free favor toward sinners in Christ alone.
- Sola Fide: By faith alone. Faith is God’s gift, a Spirit-wrought instrument through which we trust in and receive Christ and all his benefits.
- Sola Scriptura: According to Scripture alone. The Bible is the final authority to which church authorities and Christian laity must submit. Scripture is sufficiently clear that what we must know for salvation and for the Christian life can be known from it.
The solas make up the charter of the Reformation. AGR is committed to these solas. They inform the sermons that you hear on AGR, our writing (e.g., the AGR Live Blog), and the discussions you hear weekly on AGR.
This is year 501 of the Reformation. Perhaps this is new to you. If you are just discovering the Reformation, welcome! You can find more Reformation resources here. Listen daily to AGR online. Subscribe in iTunes or in any podcast player. If you need help finding a congregation in which to worship, where these biblical and Reformation basics are observed, please use the Find Us page to connect with us.
—R. Scott Clark, Escondido