Time measures things. An ordinary conversation, for instance, is usually trivial. A brief exchange with a friend may fade in minutes. After 500 minutes it’s at best a faint recall. And it’s certainly gone after 500 days. Unless, of course, it’s something like a marriage proposal or a new job offer. But a request to pick up some milk at the store might not even make it to the store!
This is what makes our cultural memory of Luther posting his 95 theses so extraordinary. Luther posted his theses in October 1517 and this is October 2017—a full 500 years later—and many of us still recall his protest of that October 31st.
Yet it’s still worth asking what we remember of his “Against Indulgences.”
Here’s a reminder. Luther was resisting the abuse of grace. Or, more to the point, he rejected God’s supposed willingness to shorten the time a departed soul had to spend in purgatory. A traveling priest, John Tetzel, was selling this claim with a clever ditty: “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!”
Grace, in other words, was being treated as a monetized commodity and Tetzel was selling these grace-promises on behalf of Cardinal Albert, the Archbishop of Mainz. Luther’s fame came from his set of theses that treated this scheme as utter and evil nonsense.
Yet Luther’s ministry deserves more attention than one day in October might suggest. He wasn’t fixated on Tetzel’s abuse. Instead Luther’s greater life-burden was about faith—his call to everyone to enter a life of faith that displaces fear. In fact he later called the debate over indulgences a mere “trifle” compared to the importance of Christ’s call to an authentic faith.
Let’s read a bit of Luther, then—from his 1535 commentary on Galatians 5:5—to catch some of what we should still celebrate about him after 500 years.
“Truly devout people have nothing dearer and more precious in the whole world than this doctrine [of faith]; for those who hold to this know what the whole world does not know, namely, that sin and death, as well as other calamities and evils, both physical and spiritual, work out for the good of the elect. They also know that God is present most closely when He seems to be farthest away, and that He is most merciful and most the Savior when He seems most to be wrathful and to punish and condemn. They know that they have eternal righteousness, for which they look in hope as an utterly certain possession, laid up in heaven….”
What Luther understood is that God in Christ has given us a completely Christ-centered solution to sin. Our certainty of eternal life is guaranteed by God’s gracious work through the Son’s death on the cross; and this, alone, is the proper focus of faith. Any other vision—including a view that grace is a commodity we can buy or have as “our own”—is folly.
What may surprise us today about Luther’s teaching was his premise that fear haunts every soul. Today, at least in the Western world, we’re offered a post-supernatural bliss. God, for many, is just an add-on myth embraced by those who don’t understand “reality.” The status of humans as supreme figures in an evolutionary progression is now cemented in place. And in this post-supernatural world the success and significance of wealthy, wise, and powerful people is obvious for all to see.
In Luther’s day, however, life was not so comfortable and predictable. The memory of the Black Death was still in reach. The various diseases and infections of that era meant funerals were a commonplace of life even at a young age. Wars were common and a long life was unlikely.
This deserves a reminder within our main reminder of Luther’s anniversary. Too often we listen to God best when troubles are overwhelming and when death is staring us in the face. So it may be that Luther’s greatest benefit to us—his call to faith in Christ—will become apparent when hurricanes hit, earthquakes quake, fires burn, and wars break out.
For now we may be comfortable and forgetful. But hard times are sure to come. And for that we can be thankful because, by faith, we are pressed up against the God who loves us and is very much in charge.
So let’s enjoy Luther’s memory. And let’s keep reading the Bible that stirred the reformation in his soul. And hold fast to Luther’s faith, especially (but not only!) when the hard days come and we need God’s grace. Luther’s faith offers us an anchor: real hope comes in Christ alone.