It was October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther, as tradition has it, nailed his famous 95 theses on the Wittenberg church door, inviting a disputation on the matter under his chairmanship. Although the disputation never took place, he had unknowingly launched the Reformation with this act.
The Church’s sale of indulgences had been a means to raise funds by offering spiritual merits in exchange for money. It proved to be a tremendously lucrative source in the business of soul saving, strengthened by the teaching that the dead had to expiate their sins in the flames of purgatory before passing to paradise. “As soon as the money in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory’s fire springs.” After all, alms-giving was a good work. It was a splendid bargain for the buyer and the seller. Little wonder that some of Luther’s parishioners acquired indulgences when their sale was offered in a nearby town.
That’s when the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary, took action “out of love for the faith and the desire to bring it to light…” He was troubled by such practices and questioned their validity. His answer, as we know, was: sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide — only Scripture, only grace, only faith.
Luther firmly believed in and relied upon the Bible as the source of truth. In his study of the epistles of the Apostle Paul he had come across verses which had given him the understanding that only through faith in Christ’s redeeming passion does the Christian receive salvation. Luther’s perception of the gospel was this: Christianity consists entirely in the belief in Christ; the substance of Christ’s teaching is unimportant. Or in his own words, “The Gospel does not teach us what we must do or leave undone, but says: God has done this for you, has made His Son flesh for you, has had Him gone to death for you.”1
All good works, from mere monastic exercises to the most fruitful self-sacrifice, are of no account before God and have no effect and value in His sight. All we can do is to throw ourselves on Christ’s mercy and believe in Him, to act and suffer in faith. By “good works” Luther meant especially those forms of ritual piety recommended by the Church — fasting, pilgrimages, prayers to the saints, Masses for the dead, indulgences, processions, gifts to the Church; but he also included all “works, whatever their character.”2
Christianity is a continual exercise in feeling that you have no sin although you sin, but that your sins are thrown on Christ.3 Luther defines love and charity as purely spiritual qualities, stating that for Christians there must be a spiritual way of approach, but “for the rough people, for Master Everybody one must set corporally and roughly about the task, and force them with the sword and the law, and to be outwardly pious, as wild beasts are kept with chains and cages.”4
Of course he does not question the need of charity and love for a healthy social life, but not as a criterion for faith, justification, and salvation. Faith deals with a person’s eternal standing before God but not with his temporal standing in the world. The efficacy of the sacraments depends on the faith of the recipient and not on his forms and formulas. Faith is an individual matter, producing a mystical (invisible) church.
The book of James presents a litmus test for those who would claim to possess saving faith. James stressed the importance of faith working together with works. He called faith by itself (not having works) a dead faith.5 According to James, those who don’t realize that faith without works is useless, can be described as foolish. Luther rejected the book of James as "an epistle of straw" since it did not agree with his doctrine of "justification by faith alone."
As recorded in John 2:23-25, there was a time during a Passover in Jerusalem when many believed in Christ, actually in His name,6 seeing the signs which He did. But Yahshua did not entrust Himself to them, because He knew what was in them. The Greek text indiscriminately says believe, but Yahshua distinguishes what kind of belief it is, as to whether a person believes in his mind or his heart.
Paul distinguished, too. He taught that salvation was dependent upon believing in the heart, and he also explained that such faith results in obeying and comes by hearing a qualified preacher, or a “sent one,” as he calls it.7 This is completely in line with Christ’s teaching, who made it clear that no one could receive Him without receiving the one whom He sends.8 The qualification for such a sent one is John 7:18 (seeking the glory of the one who sends), and the qualification for receiving faith is John 7:17 (being willing to do God’s will). So faith is ministered from someone who is doing God’s will to someone who is willing to do His will.9
Receiving faith in this way is believing in Him the way Scripture teaches, with the promise that such a one will have rivers of living water flowing out of him.10 And this water will flow over to others, giving everlasting life to them as well.11 That’s the Spirit and the bride saying, “Come!”12 And this bride has prepared herself through doing the righteous deeds of the saints.13 In other words, nobody is qualified to proclaim the gospel except those who are doing the righteous deeds of the saints.
Deeds are obviously very important, so much so, that Christ gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good deeds.14 So the redeemed doing good deeds is obviously the purpose of His redeeming sacrifice. For by grace you have been saved through faith for works — not just to go to heaven.15
This says it all: Saved by God’s doing alone, for the purpose of carrying out the works He has ordained for those He saves. That’s why saving faith can only come to those who are willing to do His will. After all He bought us with His precious blood for a purpose. Would anybody in his right mind go into a store and buy something with his precious, hard-earned money that wouldn’t be useful to him or serve him?
Paul then goes on to tell the Ephesians what these righteous deeds of the saints are that they’d been saved to do. In Ephesians 4:12,16 he makes it clear that this work of ministry of the saints is for the building up of the Body of Christ. In other words, these works represent church life. Now we can see why the apostles established an actual, real community when they established the church.16 It wasn’t an invisible church, as Luther fancied, but it was a city on a hill, as Yahshua taught – a light to the world, where everybody could observe the church life, the good works of the saints, and glorify God in heaven.17
Since the church was such a city on a hill, we can see the works. They are obvious. They were of one heart and one mind. They lived like a big extended family, having their meals together with joy and gladness of heart. They had been forgiven, cleared from guilt, and they obviously enjoyed being with each other. Nobody claimed anything he possessed as his own, but they had all things in common. There was nobody among them that lacked anything. They simply did not live for themselves but laid their lives down for each other, being continually engaged in the deeds of love and charity they’d been saved for. And they knew that they had passed out of death and into life because they were loving each other in works and truth.18
To Luther the teachings of Christ were not important because all that he knew about works was that they were of no benefit or merit in regard to salvation. By this thinking, he reduced the gospel to only the redeeming and atoning sacrifice of Christ on behalf of sinners. It became the gospel of going to heaven. However Christ and His apostles preached the gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore to the apostles the teachings of Christ were very important, because teaching others to keep the commandments of Christ would establish His kingship or the Kingdom of Heaven.
In His last words to them He had commissioned them to make disciples and to teach these disciples to observe everything that He had commanded them during the years He had spent with them. In obedience to this teaching they established the community in Jerusalem.
Christ wants a visible church, because He wants to demonstrate to the whole world what life under His rulership is like. Luther had no wish to establish a church along these lines, as is clear from his attitude towards those who wanted to implement these things from the gospel:19
The Gospel does not make goods common, except in the case of those who do of their own free will what the Apostles and disciples did in Acts iv. They did not demand, as do our insane peasants in their raging, that the goods of others – of a Pilate or a Herod – should be common, but only their own goods. Our peasants, however, would have other men’s goods common, and keep their own goods for themselves. Fine Christians these! I think there is not a devil left in hell; they have all gone into the peasants.
Of course Pilate and Herod were not part of the church and what the apostles established was binding only within the church. But in the church, where by the Holy Spirit the love of God had been poured out in the heart of every believer, everybody just did what love demanded. For how can the love of God be in a person who has the goods of the world and yet closes his heart while seeing his brother in need?20 It is interesting to note that James, in his epistle of straw, would call such behavior a dead faith, or a faith without saving power.21
At first, in the community in Jerusalem, there were no needy among them. Some years down the road, however, someone wrote a letter to the community in Jerusalem reminding them that, “Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.” He was charging them to remember those who led them, who had spoken the word of God to them, and warned them to not be carried away with various and strange doctrines.22 In essence, the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews was calling them back to the standard the apostles had established in the beginning, as this is the pattern and foundation of how the church is to be, yesterday, today, and forever.
The gospel is the gospel because it is the gospel. In other words, the gospel cannot change and still be the gospel. And the gospel will prove its authenticity by bringing forth the same fruit it did when it was authentic, as at Pentecost after Christ’s ascension. And what it brought forth was authentic as well. The quality of life, the selfless love it produced in the disciples, showed that Christ resided in that place by His Spirit. So when a little while later, persecution arose against this church, Christ Himself defended it, saying, “Why are you persecuting Me?”23
This is the faith that was once for all delivered to all the saints.24 Not just a doctrine, but the faith. Faith is persuasion, the persuasion in the atoning sacrifice of Messiah for the remission of sins so that the Holy Spirit can be imparted, and the persuasion to do the deeds one has been saved for, in the visible church of the redeemed. This is saving faith.
It’s instructive to see how Luther moved from tolerance to dogma as his power and certainty grew. One comes across many contradictions along the way and sees that his teaching is not to be easily understood.
Luther’s apologists have had to advance excuses for these inconsistencies for centuries, while his enemies eagerly point them out. But there is no revelation outside of having the commandments of Christ and keeping them.25 The commission of the apostles was to make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to keep everything they had been commanded by Christ.26 All those who were devoted to that teaching were together and shared all things in common.27 There is no revelation apart from that life. Untaught people do not have these commandments. Hence untaught people do not live the life that comes as a result of keeping the commandments. Untaught, unstable and unprincipled people twist the Scriptures to their own destruction.28