Pages Navigation Menu

Only

Thomas J Parlette

“Only”

Romans 3: 19-28

10/29/17, Reformation/Memorial Sunday

 

Bible translator John Wycliffe was condemned to death for translating the Bible into English, but he died before the authorities could catch up with him. So strongly did church officials feel about the necessity of enforcing this sentence that they dug up and burned Wycliffe’s body anyway. Author Benson Bobrick describes the full extent of this unusual in abstentia punishment:

“This last decree was finally, and relunctantly, carried out in the spring 0f 1428 by Richard Flemyng, then Bishop of Lincoln, who acted on peremptory orders from the Pope. With the new Primate of England looking on, Wycliffe’s remains were disinterred and burned on a little arched bridge that spanned the river Swift (a tributary of the Avon river), and his ashes were cast into the stream. From thence the prophecy arose:

“The Avon to the Severn runs,

The Severn to the sea,

And Wycliffe’s dust shall spread abroad,

Wide as the waters be.”(1)

Eighty-nine years later, perhaps some of Wycliffe’s ashes found their way to Wittenburg, Germany and inspired Martin Luther to continue to reform the Christian Church.

On Tuesday, we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, commonly associated with Martin Luther nailing 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on Oct. 31st, 1517.

The movement unwittingly launched so long ago has ended up having enormous influence over the past 5 centuries. Politically, socially, economically, culturally, and in many other ways, the Reformation has helped to mold the world we live in today. But in the midst of recognizing the undeniably wide-ranging impact of the Reformation, we need to remember that it began with and was built on specifically religious concerns dealing with faith and practice.

As the church in the West had passed through the Middle Ages, much well-intended religious clutter had come to overshadow the message about peace with God through Jesus Christ as proclaimed by the apostles and taught by the early church. Nobody was deliberately trying to obscure the message, it’s just that lots of other religious stuff had gotten in the way. There was too much focus on practices, advice, commentary, expectations, traditions, ceremonies, church issued decisions, declarations and policies. All of this other stuff demanded so much attention that by Luther’s time, even a monk committed to the sternest way of life and Christian fidelity imaginable, couldn’t possibly fulfill every requirement. The original message of Jesus was getting lost.

By the time of Luther, a couple of centuries of pained Christians had already been crying out for the church to be renewed and reinvigorated from top to bottom. But it took the anguished search of someone desperate to find peace with God to kick-start a movement that neither he, nor anyone else could have controlled or foreseen.

Luther’s own search, along with that of many others who became fellow Reformers, served to get rid of the extraneous clutter and rediscover the basics of the Christian faith.(2)

So Luther posted a sign on a church door in the bustling University town of Wittenberg, Germany. The sign was actually a tract that consisted of 95 debating points or talking points, which Luther hoped would be the basis of a discussion about some of the practices of the church that Luther, and others, had a problem with.

The tract was called “Disputations of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” It was written in Latin and printed by a local printer. The printing press was a relatively new invention at the time, and some argue that without the invention of the printing press, neither the Protestant Reformation not the American Revolution could have happened.(3)

Luther’s 95 propositions were printed on a folio sheet and tacked to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Church doors were often used as a place to post announcements and advertisments, much like the garage sale posters and pictures of lost pets that you see stapled to telephone poles or taped up in grocery store windows.

And Luther’s post caused a stir almost immediately. The posting of the 95 Theses was quickly recognized as the beginning of a religious, theological and cultural change of enormous proportions as early as 10 years later. On the 10th anniversary of his posting, Luther himself and a few of his buddies got together for a pint at a local pub to celebrate the “trampling out of indulgences.”(4)

Philip Melanchthon, another Reformation figure, regards this date, October 31st, 1517, as the beginning of the Reformation in his 1548 book, “A History of the Life and Acts of Luther.”(5)

In 1617, 100 years after the posting of the theses, October 31st was celebrated by a procession to the Wittenberg Church where Luther was believed to have posted the document. According to one source, “An engraving was made showing Luther writing the Theses on the door of the church with a gigantic quill. The quill penetrates the head of a lion symbolizing Pope Leo the Tenth.(6)

The major issue of Luther’s post, as the title suggest, was indulgences. Indulgences where sort of like “get out of jail free cards.” These indulgences released people from needing to repent of the bad things they had done. The more serious the sin – the higher cost of the indulgence.

An indulgence could also be purchased to shorten the time a loved one needed to spend in Purgatory – a period of purification and cleansing one had to endure before going to heaven itself.

A popular jingle at the time that the seller of indulgences would sing was “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.”(7)

Luther felt that the church was teaching people that they could literally buy their way into the Kingdom of God or purchase God’s favor, when in fact, the sale of the indulgences was fattening the wallets of the local clergy and the treasury of the church itself. Luther argued that sins could not be forgiven nor salvation be gained by making forgiveness and salvation a financial transaction. We cannot buy forgiveness, nor can we purchase a ticket to get into heaven.

From these conclusions came 5 major ideas, or 5 “solas” as they are called in Latin, that have influenced the way we understand our relationship to God to this day.(8)These ideas were not invented by Luther, they have been a part of our faith from the beginning. But Luther and the Reformers reminded the Church that they are the essence of our Christian faith. These 5 Only’s came to summarize what the Reformation was all about.

The first Sola – Only by grace. Recognizing that nothing we do can commend us to God, we rely on divine grace – God’s unmerited goodness toward us in God’s overarching, never-failing love for us in Christ. We rely and depend on God’s grace for our righteousness in Christ, for daily provision, and for all the needs we have in life and in death.

The second Sola – Only by faith. We are not accepted by God because of any good works we have done or could do – we have nothing to offer as payment for the righteousness we need to come before God. That righteousness is received by faith alone – faith in Jesus, the Son of God, who lived, suffered, died, and rose again to achieve righteousness for us. While that faith impels us to serve God as faithfully as we can, in other words, to “do good works”, nothing we do can earn us righteousness before God. Jesus Christ has done that for us, and we receive it only by faith.

The third Sola – Only Christ. Christ alone is our Savior. We do not rely on others to bring us to God. We don’t need a mediator such as a priest or one of the saints to act as a “go between” between us and God. Christ has done that for us. Christ is all our righteousness and our only hope.

The fourth Sola – Only Scripture. Scripture, the revealed and written word of God, is the divine authority for our life and teaching. Everything else – the ancient creeds, the faithful teaching of great Christian leaders, policies made by the church, all carry less weight for us than God’s word. These lesser authorities are still important and useful, but they must be measured against Scripture itself.

And finally, the Fifth Sola – Only to God be glory. Since God has made all things, and controls all things, and in divine love sent Jesus Christ to become the Savior of all those who will believe through the power of the Holy Spirit, this glorious Triune God is the only one to be praised and honored.

These five core affirmations, in which all the Protestant Reformers joined, express the fundamental emphases of the movement begun so long ago when a monk nailed some theses to a church door in Germany. Little did Martin Luther know then that he and a group of fellow travelers were initiating a movement that would respond so clearly and effectively to the long-standing clamor from faithful Christians for the  church to get back on track.

The church has come a long way in 500 years. But the Reformation is not done. It has been said that reforming the church is like remodeling your house. It takes longer than you think, costs more than you expect, and makes a bigger mess than you ever imagined.(9)

And that is certainly true. We’ve had our share of messes in the Church over the years – but as the old Protestant motto says, “We are reformed, and always reforming.” We are always seeking to remove the clutter and remind ourselves of the 5 Only’s. If we can do that, we’ll be celebrating in another 500 years.

May God be praised. Amen.

In honor of the Reformation, will you join me in the litany printed in your bulletin that combines Psalm 46 with Luther’s best known hymn, #275, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God…”

 

1.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No.5, p.73

2.    James R. Payton Jr., Reformed Worship, No. 124, p.3

3.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No.5, p.69

4.    Ibid…p.70

5.    Ibid…p.70

6.    Ibid…p70

7.    Ibid…p70

8.    James R. Payton Jr., Reformed Worship, No.124, p.4

9.    Homiletics, Vol.29, No.5, p.73