What do Christians believe and why? Why are there so many different Christian churches and denominations? Do we all worship and serve the same God? Do we share anything meaningful in common?
Continuing this Sunday, April 17, with the Lutheran Church, we will explore questions about what Christians believe and why in both Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall worship services, as well as in an eight week study of Adam Hamilton’s book, “Christianity’s Family Tree.” The following is a selection from that book:
A Church in Need of Reform
To understand and appreciate Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, we must first understand the state of Christianity in Luther’s time. A word picture might be helpful:
Imagine yourself walking from Kansas City toward Denver without a compass or roads to follow. You may know that Denver is virtually due west of Kansas City, so all you have to do is keep going straight. But what would happen if you got off track, ever so slightly—let’s say by just a few degrees—and you never figured out what you had done? It would hardly be noticeable at first. But the farther you traveled, the greater the difference would become and the farther off course you would be. Finally, rather than arriving in Denver, you might find yourself in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
In the view of Luther, the same was true of the church. Changes that might have seemed minor at first had taken the church farther off track as the years went on, until finally the differences became significant. In the years leading up to Luther’s protest, the church experienced perhaps her darkest period ever. That darkness was not the result of persecutions or threats but rather of the church losing her way. She had gotten off course.
You might think this is simply a Protestant view, but here is an excerpt from the Catholic Encyclopedia dealing with the church in the century leading up to the birth of Martin Luther:
Gradually a regrettable worldliness manifested itself in many high ecclesiastics. Their chief object—to guide man to his eternal goal—claimed too seldom their attention. Many bishops and abbots bore themselves as secular rulers rather than as servants of the Church. Many members of cathedral chapters and other […] ecclesiastics were chiefly concerned with their income and how to increase it. Luxury prevailed widely among the higher clergy. The scientific and ascetic training of the clergy left much to be desired, the moral standard of many being very low, and the practice of celibacy not everywhere observed. As to the Christian people itself, in numerous districts ignorance, superstition, religious indifference, and immorality were rife. From the fourteenth century the demand for “reform of head and members” […] had been voiced with ever-increasing energy by serious and discerning men.” (from the Catholic Encyclopedia Online in it’s article “The Reformation.”)
Luther’s Struggle and Course of Action
This was the state of the church when Martin Luther was ordained a priest in 1507. But it was his personal, spiritual, and emotional struggle, what he called anfechtungen, that moved him to desperation in his search for a God of mercy. Luther had been reared with the fear of God. Jesus was a judge from whom he felt nothing but condemnation. This, coupled with what some believe was a persistent struggle with depression, led Luther to occasional bouts of despair. He was overwhelmed with guilt and felt alienated from a God he could not please. His dispair was at times nearly overwhelming, and this struggle led Luther to search for grace.
It would take several decades for Luther to finally formulate what became the hallmark idea of the reformation he would lead: Human beings are justified or made right with God not by our works, but by God’s work in Jesus Christ. Luther found this message in the gospel as the apostle Paul described it, particularly in Romans, where Paul wrote, “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and its attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are no justified by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:21–24).
As Luther began to find peace and joy in the gospel of grace, he also came to be increasingly troubled by what he observed in the Roman Catholic Church into which he was ordained. The abuse that ultimately served as the trigger for his protest against the Catholicism of his day was the selling of indulgences. The pope was raising funds to erect Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. To do so, a number of preachers were commissioned to conduct what in essence was a capital funds campaign. Most of the people they petitioned would never see the cathederal in Rome, but a powerful spiritual and theological incentive was offered as a way of coaxing them to give. The preachers told people that contributing to this effort would result in prayers offered on behalf of a loved one, in which the church would petition God to accept these acts of devotion (the giving of monetary gifts toward the construction of Saint Peter’s and the prayers for the departed loved one) as a way of ensuring that the loved one would spend less time in Purgatory.
“Human beings are justified or made right with God not by our works, but by God’s work in Jesus Christ.”
This practice infuriated Luther and led him to compose a list of ninety-five statements questioning the practice of indulgences and the state of the church in his day. He posted these statements, or “theses,” on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther’s Ninety-five Theses were reproduced on a relatively new invention, the printing press; and soon his challenge to the church and its practices was spread across the land.
Luther expressed in his writings the frustration that many people, especially among the middle and upper classes, were feeling with regard to the state of the church and its abuses. In particular, he felt that, while the clergy will always play an important role in the church, all men and women can come directly to God through Christ without the intervention of a priest.
When the church refused to acknowledge its abuses, and instead sought to silence Luther, there was a break from the Roman Catholic Church, which Luther deemed apostate; and the Protestant branch of Christianity was born, beginning a movement that came to be called the Protestant Reformation. Within a relatively short period of time, Lutheranism came to be the church of large portions of Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.