Martin Luther and the Forgiveness of Sins – Ephesians 1:7-8
Martin Luther and the Forgiveness of Sins
The Sunday before October 31 is sometimes called Reformation Sunday. The day is called that because on October 31, 1517, the German monk, priest, preacher, and theology professor Martin Luther published 95 complaints against the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences. 2017 was the 500-year anniversary of that world-changing event.
Redemption, Forgiveness, and Grace
Luther wrote those 95 complaints regarding the practice of selling indulgences, which dealt with the forgiveness of sins. I thought we should begin with what the Bible says about the forgiveness of sins, from Ephesians 1:7-8: In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence
Ephesians 1:7 says, In Him we have redemption through His blood. The Him is the Beloved of Ephesians 1:6. In Him we have redemption and nowhere else. There is no possible redemption outside of Jesus and His redeeming blood.
The word “redemption” always implies a price being paid for the freedom that is purchased. Here the price is His blood – the death of Jesus on the cross.
It is important to understand that Jesus did not redeem us by His sinless life or His moral example, but only by His death in our place – by His blood. It wasn’t the bare power of God that saved us; it was His power expressed through the death of Jesus, through His blood. It wasn’t the love of God alone that redeemed us; it was His love expressed through the death of Jesus, through His blood.
However, we should not take a superstitious or mystical view of “the blood.” It was not the material substance of Jesus’ physical blood that saved anyone, but His real and total payment for the sins of man in His whole person on the cross. This is what the New Testament means when it talks about “the blood.” It is likely that the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus were splattered by His actual blood; yet that application of the blood of Jesus would not save them. Only faith, trusting and receiving, in the actual, literal death of Jesus in our place brings salvation.
As Ephesians 1:7 says, all this comes to the believer according to the riches of His grace. The redemption and forgiveness given to us comes according to the measure of the riches of His grace. That is a huge measure! It is not a “small” redemption or forgiveness won by Jesus on the cross. It is immense.
Ephesians 1:8 tells us more about this grace, which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence. There are some who think that it is unwise of God to lavish such redemption and forgiveness on guilty sinners. But it was in all wisdom and prudence that He gave this to us.
Having considered Ephesians 1:7-8, we can think some more about Martin Luther
The Starting Point for the Reformation: The Sale of Indulgences
In 1514, Luther became a local church preacher and pastor in Wittenberg. He did this along with his responsibilities at the University. It was his heart as a pastor and mind as a Bible teacher that started the controversy over the sale of indulgences.
In Roman Catholic theology, there are two penalties for every sin – the spiritual penalty and the temporal penalty (the here-and-now penalty). In Roman Catholic thinking, the priest can take away the spiritual penalty of your sin; but you have to deal with the temporal penalty yourself. The idea is that every sin has inescapable consequences.
When you buy an indulgence, what you are really doing is buying penance – a good deed that must be done to answer the temporal penalty of sin and receive forgiveness. – a good deed. Often, an indulgence is a monetary form of saying a certain number of “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” prayers, or going on a pilgrimage, or whatever else.
In 1343, the sale of indulgences was endorsed by a decree of the Roman Catholic Church. Then in 1476, it was decreed that indulgences could be granted to the dead to help release a soul from purgatory.
Pope Julius II in 1508 and 1513 needed money to finance his wars in Italy, so he did what popes had done before – he turned to selling indulgences as a way of raising money.
In 1513 an important local ruler in Germany made a deal with the pope to sell indulgences in his part of Germany. By a secret arrangement, half the money went to pay off the debt that he incurred in buying his parishes, and the other half went to the pope for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome.
The main salesman for indulgences was a man named Johann Tetzell, a Dominican monk. Tetzell’s sales slogan was “as soon as the money in the basket rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Or, to say it in German: „Wenn das Geld im Kasten klingt, die Seele aus dem Feuer springt.“
In selling indulgences, Tetzell would say, “Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends, begging you and saying, ‘Pity us, pity us. We are in terrible torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.’ Do you not wish to?”
When the indulgence salesmen came to town, they would usually set up inside the local church. While they were there, regular preaching was suspended and actually forbidden. The sermons were given over to the salesmen. Actual drafts of indulgence sermons from this time exist. One sermon reads:
“Do you not hear the voices of your dead parents and other people, screaming and saying: ‘Have pity on me, have pity on me…for the hand of God has touched me (Job 19:21)? We are suffering severe punishments and pain [in purgatory], from which you could rescue us with a few alms, if only you would.’ Open you ears, because the father is calling to the son and the mother to the daughter.”
At the same time, many of the common people didn’t like the indulgence sellers, and they were sometimes attacked.
Johann Tetzell worked the territory right next to where Martin Luther was a professor and a parish priest. Luther hated the work of Tetzell because he thought his people were being cheated and deceived. Luther refused to allow Tetzell to come to his area and he told his people to stay away from him, but they didn’t listen. The people in Luther’s church went across the river and started buying the indulgences that Tetzell was selling.
Angry, Martin Luther did a normal thing for a University professor to do – he invited a scholarly debate on the subject of indulgences. On October 31, 1517, he wrote 95 statements in Latin calling into question the theology and practice of the selling of indulgences. He sent the list to his bishop, the Archbishop of Mainz, and to other religious and intellectual leaders. It is also traditionally thought that Luther posted this list 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
There is some historical question as to if he ever actually nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg. Luther himself never mentioned it, and the only mention of it came much later from Philip Melancthon – who was a reliable source, but only one source and historians like to have more than one source.
However exactly he did it, it made sense for Luther to do this on October 31, 1517 because the next day (November 1) was All Saints Day, and many people would come to the Schlosskirche to see the famous relic collection of Frederick the Wise, which was displayed once a year on that day.
Frederick’s Schlosskirche housed 19,000 relics, worth more than 1,900,000 days indulgence. The relic collection supposedly included a piece of the burning bush, soot from the fiery furnace, breast milk from Mary, and a piece of Jesus’ crib.
Luther’s 95 Theses were immediately of great interest. They were translated from Latin and copies were printed and spread through Germany and all Europe quickly. It is important to say that Luther was not the only one to question indulgences. Many people throughout Europe had complained about them. This explains in part why the 95 Theses spread so rapidly and found such enthusiastic support. Luther was the first to think through a Scriptural response to indulgences so thoroughly.
Here are a few of Luther’s 95 Theses:
Number 27: Those who assert that a soul straightway flies out (of purgatory) as a coin tinkles in the collection-box, are preaching an invention of man.
Number 36: Every Christian who is truly contrite has complete remission both of penance and of guilt as his due, even without a letter of pardon (from the pope).
Number 54: A wrong is done to the word of God when in the same sermon an equal or longer time is devoted to indulgences than to God’s word.
Number 82: They (the laity) ask: Why does not the pope empty purgatory on account of most holy charity and the great need of souls? The most righteous of causes, seeing that he redeems an infinite number of souls on account of sordid money, given for the erection of a basilica, which is a most trivial cause?
Number86: The pope’s riches at this day far exceed the wealth of the richest millionaires, cannot he therefore build one single basilica of Saint Peter out of his own money, rather than out of the money of the faithful poor?
Number 93: And so farewell to all those prophets who say to Christ’s people “the cross, the cross” and there is no cross.
At the time, Martin Luther truly thought he was helping the Roman Catholic Church in doing this. He didn’t think he was rebelling against the church or the pope. He entirely considered himself a good Roman Catholic in what he did.
By the way, Johann Tetzel died in 1519, a disgraced and broken man.
Luther’s 95 complaints were quickly translated, printed, and distributed all over Europe. This began something that had a huge impact on not only the church, but all of society and the world. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Martin Luther is perhaps the most influential, world-impacting man of the last 1,000 years.
Another area where Luther had a huge impact was in music. He was a musician himself and gave a big place to congregational worship. His most famous song was A Mighty Fortress is Our God.
Luther received a flame of Biblical truth from previous reformers like John Wycliffe and John Hus. He passed that torch on to others – and it comes to us. What will we do with it?
How are sins forgiven?
But it all came down to a debate about forgiveness. How are sins forgiven? Who has the authority to bestow forgiveness? Martin Luther pointed the church back to the truth of Ephesians 1:7-8:
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence.
The work of Jesus by His life and at the cross is not limited to the forgiveness of sins. We can say that what Jesus did for us in His life, death, and resurrection has many dimensions.
What Jesus did in His life and on the cross takes us from shame to honor. We had shamed our community and even our God, and Jesus is the One who took our shame upon Himself: Jesus lifts us to honor.
What Jesus did in His life and on the cross takes us from fear to power: We were harassed and attacked by hostile demonic powers, and Jesus triumphed over those powers at the cross: Jesus is our protector.
What Jesus did in His life and on the cross takes us from defiled to clean: We were dirty and damaged by what was done against us, and Jesus bore our curse and defilement in His life and at the cross: Jesus cleanses and restores.
What Jesus did in His life and on the cross takes us from lost to belonging: We were lost in a strange and hostile world, and through His work on the cross Jesus reconciles us to God and each other: Jesus rescues us.
What Jesus did in His life and on the cross takes us from chaos to order: We live in chaos and disorder from sin and all its effects, and Jesus sets things in order through His victory over darkness: Jesus brings order.
What Jesus did in His life and on the cross takes us from despair to hope: We live in despair because of sin and all its effects, and Jesus conquered despair by His death and resurrection: Jesus brings hope.
What Jesus did in His life and on the cross takes us from slavery to freedom: We were born into slavery to the world, the flesh, and the devil, and Jesus defeated those powers at the cross: Jesus sets us free.
What Jesus did in His life and on the cross takes us from death to life: We were dead in our sins, and Jesus defeated death at the cross and through the empty tomb: Jesus brings life.
Each of those is true and important – but it’s also true and important that in His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus takes those who believe in Him from guilt to innocence. We were guilty and needed to be forgiven, and Jesus is the One who took our guilt upon Himself: Jesus forgives us.
What a waste it would be to know about this and to never receive it! You can and should put your trust in Jesus Christ, in who He is and what He did for you – especially what He did by taking your place when He died on the cross. Just as Martin Luther knew the freedom of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ, you can also know it. Today can be your reformation day.