Last year we marked the 500th anniversary of what most folks consider the starting pistol of the Lutheran Reformation – Luther’s hammering of the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Oct. 31. 1517.
With these theses or statements in Latin, Luther proposed a debate among the theologians on the sale of indulgences to purchase time off purgatory. The debate he asked for didn’t happen that year. But the 95 Theses were translated, printed and spread all over Europe. Indulgence sales to support the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome dropped like a rock. Pope Leo X saw the Theses and famously asked: “What drunken German wrote these?”
So here we are on the 501st anniversary of those “hammer blows heard round the world.” Ho hum, right? Not exactly.
In 1518, Luther’s father-confessor and superior in the Augustinian order, Johann Staupitz, gave Luther the chance to defend and discuss his views at the April 1518 meeting of the Augustinians of Germany in Heidelberg.
Luther obliged. In what has been called The Heidelberg Disputation, he explored the topics of free will, grace, and good works with one conclusion: We must trust in Christ, not ourselves. Despair of yourself!
In a church which exalted man’s supposed ability to cooperate in saving himself by good works and which assumed at least enough good in man to meet God half-way, Luther said things at Heidelberg such as this:
“It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.”
“To be born anew, one must consequently first die and then be raised up by the Son of Man.”
“Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.”
“To say that we are nothing and constantly sin when we do the best we can does not mean that we cause people to despair (unless they are fools); rather, we make them concerned about the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”
In these and similar statements, Luther merely repeated the chief teaching of the Bible, that sin stains not just our “thoughts, words and deeds,” but all that we “are by nature,” and that we can be saved only through a God-given faith in the doing, dying and rising of Jesus Christ as our atoning Substitute.
501 years since the 95 Theses – but 2018 marks 500 years since The Heidelberg Disputation – as profound as Paul’s letter to the Romans, that we are “justified freely through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus,” and yet as simple as the little story of the tax collector who prayed: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” and “went home justified.”