Sunday, October 22, 2006

Here I Stand

"Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me."

These were Martin Luther’s closing words at the Diet of Wurms in defense of his 95 theses, posted on the door of the Wittenberg Church three years earlier, protesting the pope’s sale of indulgences. His 95 theses had spread like wildfire around Europe, and the pope, realizing that this “drunken German monk” had stirred up a massive controversy, demanded that he recant 41 of the 95 theses which were criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church.


In essence, his criticism centered around the pope’s desire to raise money for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, certainly a worthy task, since it sorely needed restoration. The pope chose to send papal commissioners throughout Europe to sell “indulgences” for cash. The commissioners announced that anyone wishing to ensure that their loved one in purgatory would quickly make their way into heaven needed only to pay the price, and “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

Luther had previously preached against the sale of papal indulgences, but had never before challenged the papal hierarchy in a direct way. The controversy stirred by his criticisms threatened the ecclesiastical authority of the Catholic Church and even the secular authority of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. It was only by dint of some plucky and independence-minded German princes that Luther was spared capture and death as a heretic at the hands of Charles V and the pope.

In the 95 theses and in later teachings, Luther argued that the pope could only absolve Christians of guilt in connection with church-appointed discipline; in other words, if the church (the pope, bishops, or priests) had enforced a penance against a Christian for a sin committed, then the pope could pronounce absolution as far as the Church was concerned. As for the sin itself, only God could forgive and pronounce the sinner clean.

Further, even if the pope were able to confer absolution, Luther argued, shouldn’t he do so entirely for the sake of love, and not for money? He believed that the pope himself was rich enough to repair St. Peter’s basilica without the hard-earned money of the poor but faithful and fearful Christians that the sellers of indulgences preyed upon. Luther felt that Christians should give to the poor rather than buy indulgences.

Also, Luther believed that if the pope held any power to help sinners, it lay in intercession before God, not in proclaiming man-made absolutions. He urged the pope to intercede on behalf of Christians, not take their money.

Finally, he called upon Christians to avoid the temptation to “buy” salvation. Instead he urged them to take up the cross and “be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell; and thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace” (theses 94 and 95).

Luther’s stand, excommunication, and the schism which followed ushered in the Protestant Reformation and ultimately the Catholic counter-Reformation, both of which brought wide-ranging changes in the exercise of ecclesiastical and temporal authority. No longer did the lords of church and state make unilateral demands of the people, and more importantly, Church tradition (the pontifical law which was based on edicts and rulings of the pope, and not necessarily Scripture) was no longer considered equal to the Scriptures in ultimate authority.


OK, there are a myriad of points to be made, but since I’m neither a historian nor a theologian, I’m severely limited in the breadth of my conclusions. First, Luther challenged Christians to seek personal connection with Christ, and trust only in his atoning blood for salvation, not in the edicts of popes or the purchase of false assurances. We would do well to examine our present ecclesiastical situation and make sure we are not promoting a form of works-righteousness in place of God’s unmerited favor toward us.

It is so easy for church leaders to impose a set of behavioral rules and regulations which, while instituted to help the Christian reach a higher level of personal discipline and perhaps a greater measure of sanctification, in fact become a rule book which determines who is saved and who is not. Because no church or denomination can have an exhaustive list, and because internal sins (jealousy, envy, lust, greed, malice, deceit and many others) are very hard to monitor and measure, the list usually involves external markers that are easily seen and measured.

In the churches most influenced by the holiness and Pentecostal movements, the list has included smoking, drinking, dancing, going to movies, card-playing, and whether girls should wear make-up or short skirts. In mainline denominations (non-holiness churches like Presbyterian, Episcopal, Anglican, and even Luther’s own denomination), the list today often runs along politically correct lines: intolerance, environmental abuse, chauvinism (see my earlier blog), homophobia, and even specie-ism (abrogation of animal rights).

I am not prepared (and neither are you, I suspect) to fully debate which of these behaviors is most sinful or the converse of which is most holy. That debate might be helpful to clarify grey areas, but that is not how or why those sorts of debates are usually held. Most debates about holy or sinful behaviors are held more like the Diet of Wurms than like St. Thomas Aquinas’ disputations. Rather than coming closer to a Christian truth or reaching a greater unity in the faith (as Thomas Aquinas attempted), we usually end up trying to find someone to label as a heretic and burn at the stake (if only in effigy).

The second point I want to make about Luther’s stand is this: he did not go looking for a fight, but when he found that papal edicts and pontifical laws oppressed Christians and preyed upon their fears in order to increase the wealth and authority of individuals, he refused to stand by and watch. When he was excommunicated and his very life threatened, he continued to follow his conscience:

“Unless I shall be convinced by the testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear reason . . .I neither can nor will make any retraction, since it is neither safe nor honorable to act against conscience. God help me. Amen.”

Having found the key to salvation in the statement “the just shall live by faith” (Hebrews 10:38 and Habakkuk 2:4), he refused to back down. He was not willing to live under an authority that oppressed people with rules and regulations that were man-made. He resisted these unnecessary intrusions into the life of the Christian, and staked his very life on two simple creeds: Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) and Sola Fide (salvation by faith alone).

In Matthew 23:4, Jesus denounced the Pharisees because “they tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (NIV). Our ecclesiastical leaders would do well to encourage godliness but avoid tying up these heavy loads of traditional rules; we as Christians would do well to strive to live godly lives and refuse to be burdened with a yoke of slavery to dead works of the law. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (NIV).

Standing requires balance, strength, and awareness; the disoriented, the weak, and those asleep cannot stand by themselves. Luther never imagined that his 95 theses would lead to a world-wide reformation of Christian belief and practice. He only knew that he could not go back to what he knew to be false. He had no choice, so he stood. And there he continues to stand as a model for us. May we say with him:

Here we stand, we can do no other; God help us all.

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