It’s Reformation Day. Today we remember October 31st, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed a document to the door of the Wittenberg church (All Saints Church). It was a list of “95 theses” for debate.
Johann Tetzel was raising money to built St. Peter’s basilica and the Sistine Chapel. Ceilings like that don’t come without a cost. He told people to give money so that they could buy forgiveness for themselves and others. In place of genuine repentance, they could pay and have their sins forgiven – past, present, and future. You could even buy forgiveness for your dead relatives who were in purgatory. His theology?… “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” In posting the theses, Luther was reminding us that when Jesus calls us to repentance, he’s not asking for spare change; he’s asking for our lives. All of life is repentance. And our money will not purchase our forgiveness. We need nothing less than Christ’s death in our place. And that’s what God has freely given us in his Son.
In Stephen Nichols’ words, this is ‘how a monk and a mallet changed the world.’ The Reformation was not an innovation. It was in many ways a recovery of the heart of the Christian faith. It was a return to the astonishing and joyful news that in Christ, God is reconciling sinners to himself. We don’t get in on this deal by filling a bucket with coins; the price is paid by the blood of the cross. We’re saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone. A central lesson of the reformation is that the church needs to keep the gospel central and the peripherals peripheral. Luther’s thesis 62: The church’s true treasure is the gospel.
We share with Luther the joy of the gospel. We love the reformation and celebrate it because we love the gospel and celebrate new life in Christ. It’s easy to assume the gospel and let other things become the center of our lives and community. That’s a tragedy.
Tetzel’s message is that our pocket change counts for repentance. Luther reminds us that it’s about the heart; and it’s all of life. Tetzel’s message is that we can purchase forgiveness. Christ’s message is that it’s already bought.