Happy "Reformation Day"!
Have you ever stopped to wonder what Protestants churches celebrate as "Reformation Day" on Oct. 31? It's all about Martin Luther nailing his "95 Theses" to the church door, right? He was protesting something; hence the name Protestant. Sure, but if you're like me, you've probably never actually read what Luther wrote.
So, I went and read it for myself. You can go here to read an English translation of it. What follows is my own paraphrase of what it says, with some of my own thoughts interspersed. Please let me know if you agree or disagree with my paraphrase and if you agree what Luther is saying. As I went through this, I discovered many concepts that even modern day Protestant churches would be wise to listen to.
For those of you who may not be familiar with some of the concepts that Martin Luther is speaking about, here's some background information.
In his 95 Theses, the primary topic that Martin Luther is concerned with is the Catholic tradition of indulgences. To understand what an indulgence is, you first have to understand the Catholic concept of penance. When you are forgiven of your sin, based on your acceptance of Jesus' sacrifice, it doesn't necessarily mean that you are freed from the consequences of your sin. Let's use a simple example to illustrate this. Let's say, in a lapse of judgement, that you leave a party one night a bit more intoxicated than you should be, and, on your way home, you get in an accident and someone gets killed. When you sober up and realize what has happened, you are horrified and remorseful at what has happened. You approach the family of the person that died, on your knees, begging their forgiveness. In an act of amazing grace, the family decides to forgive you. Unfortunately, even though they have forgiven you, that doesn't change the fact that you are probably still going to be headed to jail.
Now, in our modern day justice system, we've got this idea that a jail sentence can be shortened by "good behavior". If you demonstrate that you are truly remorseful and repentant for the sin that you committed, then it is possible that your punishment may be reduced. This "good behavior" is penance. In Catholic theology, you are expected to confess your sins to a priest and he will assign to you, like a judge handing down a sentence, something that you can do to prove that you are sorry and remedy the situation. In medieval times, penance was typically some form of discipline, whereas in modern times, it has been relaxed to saying certain prayers, fasting, a charitable deed, or giving.
To further our example, imagine that, after your sentencing by the judge, you then enter a large population of prisoners at Happy Valley Penitentiary. At this jail, they have a program of community service that has been doing wonderful things for people. The prisoners have been building schools for children, cleaning up neighborhoods, etc. Now, the next time you appear before the judge for a parole hearing, he looks at you and says, "I've heard good things coming out of Happy Valley Pen, I think we can go ahead and take a few years off your sentence." In essence, your sentence is being shortened not by your own good behavior, but based on the good behavior of other people. That's an indulgence.
Catholics also believe that when you die, you're not quite done paying the penalty for your sin. Before you can enter Heaven, you've got to stop off at the spiritual decontamination chamber so that you can finish paying for the sins you've committed. Through this process, the stains of sin are washed off your soul until you are finally purified enough to enter the presence of God. This is Purgatory.
Ok, now that you have that foundation, hopefully you'll understand Martin Luther's ideas a bit better....
95 Theses by Martin Luther, in my own words.
When Jesus said "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near," He intended that the entire life of the believer be one of repentence. i.e. not just a one time act, but a wholesale change of heart and mind.
This cannot be the same as the acts of penance administered by Catholic priests, because a priest only has the power to require you to do something; they cannot change your heart.
But this inward change of heart is not merely internal; a change on the inside will produce a change in behavior too.
It's not enough to repent once; since we continue to sin until the day we die, we must be in a state of constant repentance.
The Pope only has jurisdiction over consequences that are prescribed by the Church; he can't erase the consequences that come from another source.
The Pope, when he declares a sin forgiven, isn't actually doing the forgiving; he's resting on the idea that God will forgive the person because he (the Pope) asked God to grant forgiveness.
God does not grant forgiveness to people who remain in open rebellion towards the leaders of the church; there is no evidence of internal change.
People who have died have no ability to perform the deeds that are typically handed out by a priest to atone for the sins they have committed, therefore the Biblical laws only apply to the living.
It is the grace of the Holy Spirit that the punishments that were prescribed by the leaders of the Church cease the moment you die.
Priests are preaching out of ignorance when they tell someone on their deathbed that they are going to have to carry out the rest of their "sentence" in Purgatory. Let's say part of your punishment is that you need to work at a soup kitchen for a month. It would be ridiculous for the priest to tell you that you'll have to do that even after you're dead.
This incorrect practice must have crept in while the leaders of the Church were not paying attention.
In days gone by, you used to have to put things right first, before you were forgiven. Or, put another way, if you stole something, you have to first give it back before you can be forgiven. It was a way to test and see that you were truly sorry for what you had done.
Once you're dead, the rules put in place by the Church no longer apply. The Church is an Earthly institution; once you leave this Earth, you are no longer bound to it.
If you have lived in rebellion against God all your life, when you finally approach the end of your life, it's likely that you will feel a great deal of fear. This fear is amplified according to the amount of bad deeds you've committed.
When you are brought to face the full weight of the things you've spent your life doing, the anguish you will feel is essentially a punishment itself.
The extremes of Heaven and Hell can be represented in emotional terms as hope and despair. Purgatory is a middle ground between the two, but leads toward hope; it can be thought of as a place of "Wow, look where I almost ended up!"
If Purgatory leads into Heaven, then despair should naturally tranform from fear into joy as one realizes the narrow escape from destruction and the promise of living eternally with the Author of Love Himself.
It doesn't specifically say in the Bible what happens to a sinful person after death. Does the sinful condition, that a person died in, become permanent? It seems reasonable that the soul of the person can shed the sins of the past and be cleansed even after death.
Just because we might be personally certain that we will be in Heaven, this doesn't constitute an "iron-clad" guarantee; it's still God's prerogative.
When the Pope says he frees you from all the consequences of your sin, he's only freeing you from the consequences that the Church has placed on you. He can't free you from any natural consequences. For example, if you do something horrible, one consequence is that the community may shun you. There is nothing that the Pope can do to free you from this.
Because of this, anyone who tells you that if you perform a certain act or say a certain prayer, you'll be released from any and all consequences, is incorrect.
If you're in Purgatory, how can you pay for sins that you needed to pay for when you were alive? Or, to use an example, if you steal from someone, how can you repay them if you're in jail?
If it were even possible to completely free someone from all consequences of their sins, wouldn't it require someone who is completely free from inward sins of the heart? And wouldn't this person have to be as close to perfect as a human being can get? This would mean for most everyone else who isn't perfect, they're out of luck; no mortal man can fix that for them.
Then to tell the general public, these less-than-perfect people, that they can be forgiven of all their sins and get some sort of universal "Get Out of Jail Free" card, is simply wrong.
The Pope's power over Purgatory is just like a priest has over their congregation; it doesn't come from any merit of their own; it's given by God. God is the "owner and operator" of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, not the Pope. Or in other words, the Pope is like a bouncer outside the gates of Heaven; he may have limited say over who gets in and who doesn't, but he doesn't own the place.
The Pope doesn't have the keys to Purgatory on his keychain; when the Pope decides to free someone from Purgatory, he has to go ask the Lord.
There was a saying in Martin Luther's time, "so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out." This was part of a fundraising campaign to raise money for St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Certain church officials were circulating the idea that if you donated to this cause, you would free someone from Purgatory. "And if you call now and take advantage of this one time offer, you'll get this certificate from the Pope himself saying that you have forgiven of all your sins! Act now! Don't delay!"
That money being given to the church was certainly increasing the treasury and by the same token increasing greed. However, since the Pope, can only ask God to grant his request, he has no way of guaranteeing that the money was having any affect on the afterlife.
How do we even know if the people who are in purgatory really even want to be bought out of it? There are legends told that St. Severinus and St. Pascal were willing to endure the pains of Purgatory for the benefit of the faithful.
There is no complete certainty in spiritual matters. Sometime we don't even know if our own hearts are completely repentant, much less being sure that we've been completely freed from all punishements.
When people pay money to help out people in Purgatory, are they really doing it because they truly want to help? Or are they doing it because they want to appear to be good people and increase their own standing? Truly humble people are an extreme rarity.
People who think that by paying this money they can buy their own salvation aren't understanding the process and are likely to wind up in the wrong place. Just because they gave their money and show up with a letter from the Pope that says they don't need to do any penance doesn't mean that will have any bearing on their ultimate destination.
Watch out for the people who think that these "Get Out of Jail Free" cards that they bought from the Pope even remotely resemble the amazing grace from God by which God repairs our relationship with Him. They're just cheap knockoffs, like a $20 Rolex you can buy in China.
The pardons received from the Pope are only concerned with the punishments that are prescribed by other men, like the priest in your church. While it may get you out of having to do penance, don't even think that it does anything to reconcile the divide between you and God.
These people who think that you don't even need to feel remorse for your sins, that you can just drop a wad of cash and take care of it, like a business transaction, are teaching something that's really against what the Bible teaches.
You don't need any fancy letters from the Pope to be fully forgiven of your sins; all you need is a truly repentant heart.
Everyone, whether they are living or dead, has access the blessings that God pours out. This is from God and there's no need for an official certificate.
This isn't to say that the when the Pope grants someone freedom from penalties that this is necessarily a bad thing in itself. It is still worthwhile to have another Christian intercede on your behalf.
It doesn't matter how persuasive of a preacher you are, you can't really hand out these pardons left and right, and then still expect people to be truly sorry for what they've done.
If you're really sorry about what you've done, you're going to truly desire to make things right again. By reducing this to just tossing money in a bucket, you're trivializing this process of cleansing the heart and robbing people of the reconciliation they really need.
Be careful with this idea of removal of consequences being granted by a man. People are lazy. It's a lot easier to simply get the priest to proclaim that you don't need to make amends, than to actually do something good.
This pardon that you get by donating to the Church is worthless in comparison to the kindness you show to other people.
You're better off taking your money and giving it to the poor than trying to buy yourself out of the consequences. At least in that case another person benefits, aside from just you.
When you show love to people by the things that you do, this love has a tendency to grow and spread. You're effecting a positive change in the world. If you just pay money to lessen your sin debt, it does nothing to better the world.
If you see someone in need, yet you ignore them and you keep your money so that you can buy yourself a pardon, what you've done is a selfish act. You're more likely to anger God than to please Him enough to let you off the hook.
Unless you are someone who's blessed with an overabundance of material goods, you had better look after your family first, rather than blowing it all on a pardon from the Pope.
If you do choose to pay money for a pardon, know that it your choice; no one is requiring that you do this.
The Pope needs your prayers more than he needs your money.
If you decide not to put your faith in a pardon from the Pope, you've lost nothing; you can repent and believe just like everyone else. If, however, you start thinking that you can do as you please and still have a guaranteed spot in Heaven, simply because you have this piece of paper, you're heading for trouble.
If the Pope had any idea what these people were charging for pardons, he'd prefer that St. Peter's be demolished, rather than bilk the people out of their livelihoods.
In fact, the Pope should reimburse these people the money that the scammers took in the Pope's name, even if it means selling St. Peter's to pay for it.
It doesn't matter if the Pope himself stakes his very soul on it; trying to gain salvation my means of a pardon certificate is just plain futile.
The people who try and replace the Word of God with pardons in order to line their pockets are enemies of the Church and the Pope, even though they are doing so in their name.
If you're a church leader and you spend more time trying to get people to give you money than you do teaching the Word of God, you are doing somethong extremely wrong.
The joy and celebration of the Gospel should be a hundred time more enthusiastic than whatever ceremony you use when honoring a gift given to the Church. It doesn't matter how much someone donated; it's never going to top God's gift.
Do we really know what this great pile of "merit", that has been accumulated throughout the years by believers, really consists of? How can the Pope draw upon this when we don't really understand it? Is it possible the Pope is writing bad checks?
This treasure trove that the Pope draws upon certainly isn't the material goods of the Church. That gets collected and stored away; and is typically never handed out to people.
But this treasure can't be the great gift that Jesus gave us either; we don't need the Pope to hand that out, in order to share in that blessing.
St. Lawrence misinterpreted this idea of distributing the "treasure" of the Church to the people. He took all the literal wealth of the Church and gave it all to the poor. While this was a good deed, it misses the point of what the Church's "treasure" is.
It doesn't seem like such a crazy idea to say that the "treasure" of the Church is really the Church itself, given to us by Jesus and, by extension, the Apostles.
It's clear that freeing someone from penalties imposed by the Church doesn't require some sort of "treasury", the Pope has the power to do this all by himself.
The true treasure of the Church is really the good news of the glory and grace of God.
The idea of handing out pardons to anyone who is willing to pay is offensive, because it makes the most wicked of men appear to be good, because they are exempt from having to make amends for their deeds.
On the other hand, it is good because it places importance on the good deeds done by humble people.
It used to be that the Gospel was a net that captured the hearts of rich men.
Now we're no longer interested in their hearts; now we're just fishing for their riches.
The people peddling these certificates tout them as the Pope doing you such a great favor, when it's really doing their wallet a great favor.
In reality, the small favor that you may be gaining pales in comparison to the work that Jesus did for you on the cross. It didn't cost the Pope anything; yet it cost Jesus his life.
When these scam artists show up claiming to be offering pardons from the Pope himself, what option does the priest of your local church have? They have to accept it.
But if these travelling vendors start preaching something that isn't truth to the priest's congregation, it's the priests responsibility to fix the damage. So they really need to be on guard.
Don't get me wrong, the Bible says that Jesus gave the Apostles the authority to forgive sins. Anyone who teaches otherwise needs to be shown to the door.
But blessed are the church leaders who guard their congregation against the lure and temptation of the "easy out" presented by the pardons.
The Pope gets angry at those who try to get in the way of him granting a pardon to someone.
But he's going to be even more angry when he finds out how the people peddling pardons are tampering with the message of love and truth.
Do we really think the a piece of paper with the Pope's name on it is enough to free someone from the consequences of committing some of the worst crimes known to man?
A pardon from the Pope can only get rid of specific consequences; it can't remove the actual guilt associated with committing even the tiniest of sins.
It is said that a pardon given out by the Pope is the greatest grace that he can bestow; not even Peter, if he were the Pope today, could have granted something greater.
On the contrary, the ability to grant pardons is the most insignificant ability that the Pope possesses, compared to all the the spiritual gifts of 1 Corinthians 12 that he has at his disposal.
Despite this power, it's repulsive to think that insignia of the Pope, that these men do business under, is in any way equal to the cross of Christ. It's at the cross, that our sins our forgiven; not at the feet of the Pope.
The leaders of the church who let these ideas spread will have to answer for their negligence.
This misuse of pardons makes it difficult to defend the reputation of the Pope against criticism from the people of the Church.
They say things like, "If the Pope has the ability to let people out of Purgatory, why doesn't he just do that for everyone? Wouldn't that be a good thing? Instead, he's just pardoning the people who donate to building St. Peter's church. That seems like such a limited use of his power."
They also ask, "Why do we have to keep holding funeral and anniversary masses for the dead? Why can't the Pope just let them all out of Purgatory and we can be done with all that? If the dead were all pardoned, then there would be no need to pray for them."
How does this work? An evil man can free a saint from punishment with money, yet that saint can't free himself simply by the merit of his intense love of God? Is money more powerful than love?
The old ways of bringing a man to repentence through harsh punishment are gone and obsolete, so why are we still punishing men with monetary fines disguised as pardons, as if those punishments were still in effect?
The Pope has more money than the wealthiest of wealthy men; why doesn't he just pay for building St. Peter's church himself, instead of taking the money from the poor?
What consequences does the Pope remove for people who don't buy a pardon, but instead deserve it by way of a humble, repentant heart? These people are doing things the right way, yet no one give them a break.
How amazing would it be if the Pope would just do for a hundred people the same thing that he does for the one who paid money.
If the Pope's goal is to see more people saved, and not to increase his wealth, why does he sometimes stop giving out pardons?
If we don't answer these questions with reasonable answers and instead just force people to shut up, the consequences will be a loss of reputation and very unhappy people.
If we could just bring these teachings in line with the truth, then the problems would go away.
There's going to be people who shut their eyes and say, "Oh, don't worry about it. Don't rock the boat." We can't listen to these people; it's a problem and it needs to be solved.
It's better to be one of the people who warns people of danger, even if it turns out there is none.
Challenge each other to be sure you are following Christ, not someone else, when it comes to anything related to punishment, death, or hell.
If you follow Christ, you can be confident that you'll make it to Heaven, even if it means passing through many trials. This confidence is more certain than any false promises made by any other man.