Posts Tagged ‘purgatory’

Forces for change

November 4, 2017

All Saints – 2017

Luther

Marian Free

 In the name of God who speaks through holy men and women in every place and time to challenge, encourage and renew the people and the church. Amen.

In the early sixteenth century in Germany, a monk of the Augustinian Order had been going through “hell”. Martin Luther was obsessed with his own sinfulness and the impossibility of remembering in his sins in order to confess them, anxious lest he forget and therefore not be forgiven. Trying to work out how to become righteous before God, Luther had tried all kinds of self-abasement – sleeping in the snow and lying almost naked in the belfry tower at night. Nothing seemed to work. Luther felt that he could never do enough to earn God’s favour. Luther could see only God the All Terrible, God the Judge, God the Divine Majesty, God the impossible to please.

Luther’s behaviour was extreme, but we have to remember the context in which he found himself. The Roman Catholic Church (THE Church) was focused on sin and judgement. The Doctrine of Purgatory was based on the idea that imperfection had no place in heaven, and that Christians had to be purged of all sinfulness before they could enter eternity. In purgatory all traces of impurity were burned away making a person fit for heaven. The greater the sin, the longer it took to purge, though prayers on someone’s behalf could reduce the time a person spent in purgatory. In such an environment it was impossible to believe in grace and forgiveness, love and goodness but only in demand and judgement, fear and anxiety about what the future might hold.

Indulgences provided an opportunity for the faithful to repent and thus to have their sin forgiven. The more sin forgiven, the less time spent in purgatory.[1] During the Crusades, indulgences were offered as a carrot to get people to join the Crusades. Over time, the practice spread and indulgences became something that could be purchased by the wealthy. A privileged few, included Luther’s own Prince Frederick, were given the authority to offer indulgences themselves thus increasing their own coffers.In this environment, Luther struggled to overcome his perceived sinfulness and achieve some sort of worth before God.

Luther was an academic and a teacher. In 1515-1516 he was teaching on the Psalms and Romans. This forced him to reflect – first of all on the suffering of Christ (God) and on Christ’s sense of abandonment on the cross, and secondly on the meaning of the righteousness of God.

In his own words: “I greatly longed to understand Pail’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience; I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped the justice of God is that the righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into Paradise. The whole of scripture took on a new meaning and whereas before the phrase “the righteousness of God had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in great love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven ….

If you have a true faith that Christ is your Saviour, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This is to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger nor ungraciousness. He who sees God as angry does not see him rightly but looks only on a curtain, as if a dark cloud had been drawn across his face.“[2]

In searching for the exact meaning of the Greek word “dikaisunē”, Luther came to understand that the word rendered “justice” in English, really meant the process by which sometimes a judge suspends the sentence, places the prisoner on parole and expresses confidence in him. (In other words it was less about being judged and more about being set free.) Further, Luther came to see that justification was not something achieved by the individual, but was God’s gift to us through Jesus. A consequence of this discovery meant that Luther was at last freed from his striving and his sense of inadequacy knowing himself secure in God’s love.

Through his study, Luther was exposed to the spirit of the age, which was demanding a return to a simple faith and in particular a reinstatement of the Bible as the sole source of authority for the faith. By now the Bible had been translated from Latin into the vernacular and many people were reading it in their own language for the first time. There was an air of renewal and reform throughout Europe, a desire to return to the heart of a Christian faith that had been over-laden with ritual, ceremony and artifacts and in which a person’s relationship with Jesus had been broken by intermediaries in the form of a plethora of saints.

In 1517, a monk, Johann Tetzel, began to sell indulgences in Germany with the goal of providing funds to renovate St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Now that he understood that salvation could not be bought, but came through faith alone Luther was incensed. He penned a response: “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” and, tradition has it, nailed his 95 Theses[3] to the door of the Castle Church. His ideas spread rapidly and it was not long before he was labeled a heretic, called to Rome and eventually excommunicated.

When at last he returned to Wittenberg, he discovered that his teachings and writings had galvanized a movement that was both theological and political. He himself had little to do with the movement but continued to write until his death.

Luther’s significance cannot be underestimated. His writings captured the spirit of the age and throughout Europe, reform movements sprang up and Protestantism was born. At the centre of this new movement were a firm belief in the Bible as the primary source of authority and that salvation cannot be achieved but only received.

While the Reformation took its own shape in England we as Anglicans heirs and beneficiaries of Luther’s intellect, wisdom and vision.

[1] The practice was, of course, open to corruption and could be used as a source of revenue not only for Rome, but for those whom Rome allowed to dispense indulgences themselves. In the words of the Article XXII of the Anglican Church “the doctrine concerning purgatory …. is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon not warranty of scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

[2] Bainton, R. Here I Stand – The Classic Biography of Martin Luther. Sutherland, NSW: Albatross Books, 1978, 65.

[3] http://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html


%d bloggers like this: