Five hundred years ago, the course of church history took a major shift initiated by a then-Roman Catholic priest, Martin Luther.
The shift for the whole church was pushed by almost all the major forces of the time: economic, political, technological, sociological, etc. However, the push that moved Martin Luther (who primed the pump for all those major forces) was really quite simple and hushed, like the voice of God in the sheer silence that Elijah is said to have experienced in 1 Kings.
Like most major movements in history, it is not an earthshaking bang that began Luther’s journey — it was a quiet moment of revelation, an inspired idea and, in fact, a Word finally understood. That Word was the Word of God whose realization was actually an example of what Luther finally discerned. You see, 500 years ago, the Bible was inaccessible to almost everyone except the educated clergy because it had not been translated from the original Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) into the language of the people. Even the millennia-old Vulgate was in the Latin language, which was the academic language of the scholars. So for the most part, the common folks had to take the word of the clergy from the Pope down as to what the Bible said and subsequently what the Bible meant for ordinary folk.
The level of interpretation heavily leaned toward power and homage to the authorities of the papacy. That resulted in a misunderstanding of that one Word that Luther finally unraveled. In short, the logic went something like this. The final goal is to get to heaven. One can only get to heaven’s perfection by removing one’s sins. Sins are removed by one’s perfect good works or by purchasing from the church an indulgence, which is simply put, a way of buying passage through Purgatory (that’s the afterlife work camp where you work off your excess sins after death) therefore escaping Hell and entering the goal of heaven.
In other words, you work hard enough at being good and you can get to heaven because you are born a sinner and have to get fixed up. And in this understanding, the Grace that comes through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is that you have the opportunity to even have a chance at heaven!
In this context, Luther was an exceptional priest. He went to confession every day to cleanse his sins. He went overboard with prescribed prayers. He was faithful to the highest degree in all that he had been told was expected in order to be allowed through heaven’s door. But, he never felt good enough, or perfect enough, or forgiven enough. He did more than anyone else, even his mentors. He was depressed, in despair to the point where those around him worried about his safety. But then he found that Word.
As clergy, he could read the Bible. His knowledge of Greek allowed him to rediscover the writings of Saint Paul, whose works had not really been studied since the time of Augustine a millennia before. It was there he discovered the “Gospel,” which means “Good News.”
St. Paul says again and again what has become the preeminent statement of belief for Lutherans: we are justified by grace through faith apart from works of the law. And the Good news that Paul states is that ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, with salvation only possible by Jesus’ sacrifice. There is nothing I can do to be saved. God in Jesus does it all. And that Good News takes the pressure off of me, because God has already done it!
Which brings us to an essential understanding to Lutheran theology the unconditional nature of God’s grace and love. There is nothing Luther nor me nor you can do to get to God. God is always the one taking the first action, and all we do is simply respond. Any statement that tries to explain the nature of God’s grace or love that begins with: “If you will first . . .” misses the point entirely. Unconditional means absolutely NO conditions.
God reaches out to his children as a loving parent would, with absolutely no requirements on our part.
This was revelatory for Luther’s time and changed the dynamic of the role of clergy, the church and our works. The clergy should daily proclaim that not only has Jesus paved the way for salvation and promised that salvation to you in the Word and Sacraments, but you yourself can do NOTHING to get saved. But as Paul quickly points out, that does not do away with good works, but precisely frames those good works in a way that makes them a joy rather than a duty. Good works that we do are our response to what God has already done and promised. What we do with our lives understood as redeemed already through God’s grace is actually our “thank-you note” to God.
Our actions are not to bring about God’s love, grace and promises, but are in response to what God has already done!
It is that understanding that what God does is unconditional which empowered Luther to try to straighten out the church’s understanding. And that attempt to course-correct the central doctrine of the church effected all those changes in politics, the economy and society. It freed Luther and the reformers to proclaim that the children of God are not beholden to popes nor priests nor institutions in matters of salvation. Rather, the people of God are free to live in the joy of knowing that even when our best is not enough, God has infinite love and forgiveness, enough for all of us.
It is important to note that the theology within the Roman Catholic Church has not stayed in the 16th century, but has rather embraced much of Luther’s theology over the past 500 years. Sadly, there are churches today that trace back to Luther’s legacy, but who have forgotten this revelation of God’s primacy, and have fallen back to some of the same “works righteous” tenets that Luther so vehemently opposed.
However, it is my hope that just as 500 years ago Luther went back to the original message of what the Good News is, that this 500th anniversary of the Reformation will also draw those who have lost that “Good News” to also rediscover God’s love and God’s grace to be unconditional.
Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 25 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” will appear regularly in the Wilson Times.