A few years ago, when I was still living in Shropshire, I was asked to go into a local school to explain the difference between the Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century. The children were learning about the Tudors, and wanted to know what the differences were. Suffice to say the picture in 16th century England was complicated. On the one hand you have a king, Henry VIII, whose religious thought and practice was Catholic, and would remain so until the end of his life, who nevertheless had got into an argument with the Pope about whether or not he could divorce his wife. On the other hand, you have a number of churchmen who wanted reform and perhaps saw Henry’s dispute with the Pope as an opportunity for reform. Then you have the general population, who probably knew that there were abuses of power within the church, but who nevertheless didn’t really want any change (no change there then).
On 31 October, this year we shall commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. On this date in 1517 a German monk nailed 95 theses (points to debate) to the church door of the University church in Wittenberg, Germany. Essentially, the door served as a notice board, and this monk and university professor, Martin Luther, was calling fellow academics to a debate. His concern, as I told the children in that classroom a few years ago, was how you got saved. People believed, as many still do, that after death there were three possible destinations. The first was rather hot and you didn't want to spend eternity there; the second was a place of purging, Purgatory, where those of us who are destined for Heaven, but who had accumulated sin since their baptism (as we all do) would have their sins purged from them before they went to Heaven. Needless to say, the more sins one had accumulated in life, the longer one spent in Purgatory, and people were rather anxious to avoid too much time there, hence prayers would be offered by the living for the dead, so that time could be let-off. Moreover, the church would give out indulgences in this life, for good behaviour, which would also get you time off in Purgatory. An example of such a good work would be for a rich person to finance the building of the church, or repair of the roof! This practice eventually led to indulgences being offered for sale.
Back to Martin Luther: although well accomplished in good works and piety, Luther had an all-pervading sense of his sinfulness, which meant either Hell or a long time in Purgatory. It’s the kind of thing which kept him awake at night, until one of his superiors instructed him to read St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.
In chapter 5 of Romans we find:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in hope of sharing the glory of God.
In other words, one does not get put right with God by being a “good person” since no one is wholly good, or by doing lots of good things, since one might have mixed motives, for example, trying to win “Brownie points” with God by our good works. One is put right with God through God’s initiative and God’s work.
To quote another New Testament letter:
For by grace you have been saved by faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not the results of works, so that no-one may boast. (Ephesians 2)
Luther had found a way through. He no longer had to convince God of his own righteousness, because, through what God had done in Jesus Christ, Luther and all of us would be saved. Moreover, it was the individual in relationship with Christ rather than the individual in relationship with God through the church that was in a state of Grace, and destined for ultimate salvation. Therefore, the church’s treasury of grace, which through Indulgences it was able to bestow, was no longer necessary. This was the thing which Luther wished to discuss, and eventually created the split between those who agreed with Luther and those who agreed with the Medieval church.
In England, the position was complicated by the fact that the King disagreed with Luther, and yet needed a son, hence his split from the church in Rome. This was followed by the opportunity it gave his churchmen to reform the English church along Lutheran lines after Henry had died.
Where all the churches agree, however, is on the primacy of Grace. Salvation is God’s gift for humanity, in deed, for creation as a whole, it is not achieved by the works of human beings saving themselves.
Vicar’s thoughts for October 2017