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January 2017 - To Wittenberg and Truth

To Wittenberg and Truth

Johann von Staupitz was growing more and more concerned for Brother Martin.   Luther’s spiritual head and father confessor had watched Luther struggle mightily with his faith in his early years at the Augustinian monastery, and noted how Luther could not be consoled or assured of his salvation no matter what he did.  Luther’s frustration had grown such that once when Staupitz told Martin to look to Christ, love Him, Luther replied that he hated Him!  How could he love a God who would demand such perfection from fallen and sinful creatures?!  Staupitz then decided that Luther should immerse himself in the scriptures in the hopes of finding some peace in Christ rather than terror, and so he sent him to the new Wittenberg University to pursue a doctorate in theology, teach the bible and preach in the parish.   It was there while beginning to have the truth of God’s love and nature revealed to him in Christ through the Bible that Pastor Luther was hearing some disturbing words from his parishioners – some of his members were refusing to come to confession before receiving the Lord’s Supper because they had purchased an indulgence. 

            An indulgence was a paper issued by the pope that would give the bearer/purchaser so many years off of their sufferings in purgatory, depending on the amount given.  People were taking it further than intended, holding to the paper as a means of basically buying their salvation (and thus no more need to confess sins that had been paid for with their hard earned money) – and probably not in a small part because of the efforts of indulgence seller extraordinaire John Tetzel.   Tetzel was a Dominican monk with exceptional skill in selling these “tickets to heaven”.   Luther once wrote of him:  Meanwhile I hear that Tetzel preached terrible, horrible articles, of which I now will name a few, to wit: That he had such a grant of authority from the pope that even though a man had violated and impregnated the holy virgin Mary, the mother of God, he could forgive it if the man deposited a fitting sum in the money chest. Likewise, that the red cross of in­dulgences, bearing the papal arms, was as mighty as the cross of Christ when it was set up in church. Likewise, that if St. Peter were present, he would have no greater grace and authority than he had. Likewise, that he had no desire to change places with Peter in heaven; for he had saved more souls with in­dulgences than St. Peter had saved with his preaching. Likewise, that when a man deposited money in the chest for a soul in pur­gatory, the soul left purgatory for heaven as soon as the coin touched, and tinkled at, the bottom of the chest. Likewise, that the grace of indulgences is the very grace whereby man becomes reconciled to God. Likewise, that it would be unnecessary to have remorse or sorrow or repentance for sin if a man bought (I should say redeemed) indulgences or letters of in­dulgence; and he also sold pardon for future sin. He urged this matter with horrible insistence, and it was all done for the sake of money.

            Tetzel would eventually be disciplined for his abuses, but it did serve the good purpose of getting Luther to examine more closely the practice and theology of indulgences.  Wanting to discuss and debate his thoughts on the subject he posted his 95 Theses disputing the power and efficacy of indulgences on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31st 1517.  Those hammer blows on that door would of course have historic reverberations for Luther had no idea he was hitting Rome where it hurt – in the pocket book!  Pope Leo X had issued these latest indulgences to help fund the very expensive upkeep of his army, the governance of Rome and of course, the building of St. Peters Cathedral.  As Luther’s printed and distributed 95 Theses gained traction and influence throughout Germany, indulgence purchases significantly dropped and got the attention of Rome, leading eventually to a serious questioning of Luther before Cardinal Cajetan, and as you know leading to the Reformation of the Church (a return to the pure teachings the early church, the teachings and practice of the Apostolic Church).

            We find ourselves at the beginning of a New Year, a time that we often use to meaningfully be rid of our past and mistakes, and look forward to a fresh start and new beginnings.  For Luther, the events of these early years in Wittenberg also signaled the beginning of something new.  As Luther was beginning to grow in his understanding of scripture and the Truth of the Gospel of Christ against the false teachings that had been creeping into the Church for thousands of years, he was beginning to finally experience the True Peace that forgiveness in Christ is meant to give – the Peace with God that Staupitz had known he had been yearning so desperately for at the monastery.  Luther would of course struggle throughout his life with depression and attacks from the devil and enemies of scripture, but he now had the sure foundation of the Loving Christ Who had paid for all of his sinful guilt assured to him in God’s Word and in his baptism!  So it is for us!  We too can look away from our own failings and the attacks of satan and instead look to our baptism and the promises attached to it and be reminded and thankful of this grace/forgiveness, the truly clean, fresh new start and clean slate we have in Christ every single day!!!!   It doesn’t matter what we say of ourselves or what satan may accuse us of, all that matters in what God says of us in Christ, and that is that we are absolutely clean and forgiven in Jesus’s shed blood now and forever more!  There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, and my dear family in Christ, by God’s gracious work alone you are in Christ!





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