The alarm went off at 3:30am, I fell out of bed and groggily crept out of the house to catch my flight to Berlin. I then jumped on a train to my final destination, a small town 70 miles southeast of Berlin. Wittenberg has a population of 50,000 and was made famous by Martin Luther back in the 16th century. I already knew a bit about Luther, namely that he was a fiery character with a beer cellar and was a great Reformer. On the flight I read more, how as an Augustinian monk in the Roman Catholic Church he was a keen student of God’s word but was plagued with the guilt of his sin and so could not find peace or sense God’s pleasure towards him despite his regular confessions and penance. Luther moved to Wittenberg in 1511 and after a year took up post as a lecturer in Biblical Studies at Wittenberg University.
My friend and I arrived in Wittenberg on Tuesday 31 October 2017 with crowds of other (mostly American) Reformation enthusiasts. The crowds were there to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the day Luther posted his 95 theses on his church door. In the previous six years Luther had found that monks working for the pope were raising funds for the building of St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome by selling pieces of paper granting the purchaser pardon from a certain length of time in purgatory. These ‘indulgences’ were somewhat ingeniously being sold on behalf of the dead as well, so you could effectively buy your loved ones out of punishment. And so Luther, finding nothing about buying indulgences in his Latin Bible, called for a robust discussion on the topic. He detailed a number of problems he had with the current abuses of indulgences and proposed some solutions. It was this list that he nailed to the university notice board in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517.
Luther’s challenge on the topic of indulgences raised a far more important issue. Who has the final authority on matters of faith and teaching in the church? God or the Pope? Scripture or the Holy Catholic Church?
Whilst in Wittenberg we spoke with an interesting Catholic man (also called Alex) who said: ‘the fundamental issue is where your authority lies, in Scripture or in the Church as the official interpreter of the Scriptures.’ Amen to that! Luther was keen that Scripture be let loose to be read by everyone, so with the help of his friend Philip Melanchthon he translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into High German. The New Testament translation was completed in just 11 weeks, much to the dislike of some Catholic leaders who were quite happy to keep it in Latin. We saw an original copy of this translation in the Luther museum, alongside other Luther memorabilia like his academic gown and his toilet seat. No joke!
Anyway this love of God’s word was one of the great rediscoveries of the Reformation and is summed up in the saying ‘Scripture Alone’, for it is in scripture alone that we can learn of God’s salvation plan. Luther later discovered that the solution to his guilt was not his rigorous works of penance and confession but God’s ‘Grace Alone’ poured out in ‘Christ Alone’, as Christ died in Luther’s place to save him from his guilt. And this work of God cannot be bought by money like indulgences but comes through ‘Faith Alone’ so that God might get all the ‘Glory Alone’. As it says in Ephesians 2:8-9, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.’
So praise God for Luther’s love of Scripture which led him to challenge the status quo and ask: What does God say in his Word?
Praise God that because of Luther and many other Reformers 500 years ago the truths within the Bible were rediscovered and did not remain hidden in a foreign language, accessible only to the religious elite. Scripture was made available to all, so that we too can read the Bible for ourselves in our homes and in our churches and find that salvation is still only found in Christ alone.
Want to find out more about the Reformation? Come and hear Lee Gatiss or Michael Reeves speak about it at one of the two Crosslinks conferences this November. Come along too if you want to meet Alex Maclean!
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