New…in November

During the month of November, I’ll be tweeting daily Bible verses that focus on God’s work of renewal in our lives.

Follow me at kurt_pastor, and share it with your friends!

new in november 1


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Luther’s 95 Theses: Educated Believers

Educated Believers

Christians are to be taught

Luther’s rhetorical skills are on display in his repetition of the same phrase in theses 42-51:

“Christians are to be taught.” 

Here he presents his positive picture of a life of penitence in contrast to the unjust system of selling indulgences.  Much of what Luther thinks Christians should be taught is a picture of the papal office that is more concerned about the spiritual well-being of the faithful than their money.

But since his selected phrase rings in our ears repeatedly, we begin to get a sense of what will follow as the Protestant Reformation gains momentum.  Christians are to be taught…. and the Reformation spawns churches that take this task as the central activity of the church, gathered around the word of God.  Luther translates the Bible into German so more Christians – regular folk – can be taught from the Word.  The leadership of the church now teaches the people about the proper limits of their position, setting the stage for mutual accountability in governance that will impact both the church and the state in profound ways moving forward.

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Luther’s 95 Theses: Economic Justice

Economic Justice

Saying NO to redeeming souls for the sake of money (82, 84)

In the 95 Theses, it’s revealed that one of the things that infuriated Martin Luther the most about the system of indulgences was that it was oppressive to the poor.  More than once he mentions the scandal of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome being built on the backs of the poor who are paying for indulgences out of spiritual insecurity.  Luther has the masses in mind as he contends against this practice of paying for the removal of barriers on the road to heaven.  He highlights the proper use of God-given wealth – to meet the needs of our households and to share with those in need:

“45. Christians are to be taught that anyone who sees a destitute person and, while passing such a one by, gives money for indulgences does not buy [gracious] indulgences of the pope but God’s wrath.  46. Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must set aside enough for their household and by no means squander it on indulgences.”

Echoing the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:30 & 20:16, Luther states boldly that the treasure of the church – the gospel of God’s grace – is not acknowledged to be of value because it threatens the economic status quo:

“63. But this treasure (of the gospel) is deservedly the most hated, because it makes ‘the first last.’”

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Luther’s 95 Theses: Truth to Power

Truth to Power

Confronting the powerful by “bringing the truth to light”

Preface: “Out of love and zeal for bringing the truth to light, what is written below will be debated in Wittenberg with the Reverend Father Martin Luther…”

Martin Luther is speaking of power, to the powerful.  The touchstone for this is the pope, the most powerful position in the Roman Catholic church.  Overall, Luther is highly critical of the pope.  While Luther attacked the office of pope plenty during his lifetime, here his comments are nuanced.  His criticisms are thoughtfully presented over a series of simple statements, with the bulk of his 95 theses concerning the pope and his part in the system of selling indulgences.  At this point in Luther’s thinking, he is concerned about correcting abuses of power in the position, not getting rid of it entirely.  The pope does have a legitimate role to play in the process of repentance:

“38. Nevertheless, remission and participation [in Christ’s benefits] from the pope must by no means be despised, because – as I said –  they are the declaration of divine remission.”

In Theses 80-90, Luther’s criticism of the pope crescendos through the rapid-fire asking of questions, such as “Why does the pope not empty purgatory for the sake of love?” (82) and “Why does the pope with all his riches not simply construct the Basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of the poor faithful?” (86).  Throughout, Luther is appealing to the virtues of the position of pope, sharpening the contrast between the pope’s job description and how the pope is operating.  Ultimately, Luther contends for a papal office whose power is accountable to a higher power, the head of the church, Jesus Christ:

“79. To say that the cross, emblazoned with the papal coat-of-arms and erected [in the church where indulgences are preached], is of equal worth to the cross of Christ is blasphemy.”

Luther is holding the leadership of the church accountable to resolve these issues in reasonable debate and not simply quiet them through forced submission.

“90. To suppress these very pointed arguments of the laity by force alone and not to resolve them by providing reasons is to expose the church and the people to ridicule by their enemies and to make Christians miserable.”

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Luther’s 95 Theses: Gospel of Grace

Gospel of Grace

The true treasure of the church is Christ’s forgiveness


Thesis 62 is the most quotable of all, and functions as the heart of Luther’s message:

“62. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”

The most valuable thing the church has is not its worldly wealth.  Big church buildings, gold & silver crosses & communion ware, and major land holdings are nothing compared to the good news of forgiveness by God’s grace in Christ, received by faith.  Luther gives charitable mention to St. Laurence’s famous quote that the poor are the treasures of the church (great story!), but that the true treasure is “the keys of the church” (60), meaning the gospel of forgiveness by the merits of Christ and his cross.

“36. Any truly remorseful Christian has a right to full remission of guilt and penalty, even without indulgence letters.  37. Any true Christian, living or dead, possesses a God-given share in all the benefits of Christ and the church, even without indulgence letters.”

The amazing good news is that this treasure beyond all worldly value is free!  It is available to all through faith…paying for indulgences amounts to trying to buy something that has already been provided.  It is the right of the Christian to claim this free gift and their share of the benefits of Christ through faith.

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Luther’s 95 Theses: Christ the Center

Christ the Center

It all begins (and ends) with a name: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ.”

“1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying “Do penance…” (Matthew 4:17), wanted the entire life of the faithful to be one of penitence.”

This thesis provides the foundational authority for what will follow.  Who is the final authority?  Not tradition, doctrine, & ordained church leaders.  The final authority is Jesus Christ.  His word is valued above all other words.  The final two theses bring Luther’s protest to a conclusion, again focusing on Christ as the Christian’s authority (“their head” refers to Christ as head of the church; see Colossians 1:18):

“94. Christians must be encouraged diligently to follow Christ, their head, through penalties, death, and hell, 95. and in this way they may be confident of ‘entering heaven though many tribulations’ (Acts 14:22) rather than through the [false] security of peace.”

The bottom line: The only sure way to heaven is to follow Christ, no matter how difficult the path.  There’s no need to spend a fortune on a shortcut provided by indulgences.  Save your money and keep on following him.

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Justification – why it matters

Why should the concept of justification matter to me?  Well, it wouldn’t need to matter at all if I was perfect, but since that’s not the case, I’m still on the hook.  It also wouldn’t matter much if everything we knew about God indicated that God doesn’t care at all about how we live.  If you feel like you haven’t read the Bible enough to come to a conclusion on this point, trust me, God cares.  So if God cares how we live, and sometimes I don’t live very well, then I’ve got a problem.  Or since we all find ourselves in this predicament, humanity has a problem.

With justification, we’re comparing God’s requirements with how well we fulfill them.  And we’re actually going deeper – we’re comparing God’s nature (perfect, eternal, infinitely good) with our nature (not so much on all counts).  Justification involves bringing one thing in line with another.  A great example is the tool bar that I see in front of me as I write, because it offers me an option called “justification” (when I hover over the icon the word “justify” appears).  I can choose two different ways to organize the words in each line of text.  The default is what you’re seeing here, with the line ending in variable places in relation to the right-hand margin.

But check this out: I just clicked the icon indicating the word “justify” and this is what happened.  Do you see the right-hand margin?  Now the words are spaced so that they’re in a straight vertical line along this margin.  Not the most important edit in the world, but significant for understanding justification.  The words in the previous paragraph are not justified – they are at odds with (don’t match up to) the right-hand margin.  The words in this paragraph have been justified – they all match the margin.  They are now “in-line-with” or “lined-up-with” the margin.  In this simple example, God is represented by the margin line and we are represented by the words.  Not matching up to God’s perfection and standards, how can our lives be edited so that they line up with them?  Or in other words, more often used, “how can we be made right with God?”

Okay, just turned off the justification button, so we’re back to normal. Normal.  Normal human life doesn’t match up to God’s standards.  This troubled Martin Luther as a young adult, likely because he discovered what most young adults discover sooner or later: you’re in charge of your life now, which means when you mess up it’s on you…there’s no one else to blame.  Luther had lived enough, to sin enough, to know enough that he didn’t match up to God’s standards for living.  What’s your story of this self-discovery of the need for justification with God?

Luther was soon to be convinced that the way the church answered the question of how we get right with God showed a serious flaw in the foundation.  The church pointed people to their actions.  We have to be better people – more faithful, more consistent, more loving, more patient, etc.  Sure, we can’t do this on our own, and we don’t have to.  God gives us tools to help us fix our broken human nature – scripture, redemption, etc.  And so our hope to be right with God is in our hands.  It was up to us to fix the problem using God’s tools – praying particular prayers, giving offerings, and observing the sacraments.  Luther doubted whether sinful people like himself – who already didn’t line up with God’s standards – could get themselves to a right relationship with God by doing a lot of good things.  It seemed to him that the problem was a bigger job than we could handle, even with God-provided tools.

Luther looked at scripture and saw a God who not only provided tools, but was actually in the life-restoration construction business.  God doesn’t just give us tools to fix our lives, God comes in and fixes our lives for us.  And Luther was convinced that this was what happened on the cross when Jesus died.  He noticed how important the concept of faith was for the Apostle Paul as he attempted to summarize what God accomplished through Jesus on the cross.  He came to the conclusion that rather than being pointed to our actions as the way to make things right, we should be pointed to faith.  Believing in God’s power to make us right with himself through the forgiveness of Christ is what justifies us.  Actions are important, but they follow God’s major make-over.  Think of our attempts at living right as using God-provided tools to maintain the home that God did a complete make-over of.  The cool thing is that the one who did all the work continues to be with us in Christ.

All this has been leading up to a simple summary of Luther’s understanding of justification:

“In sum, Luther’s doctrine of justification involved a number of doctrinal convictions:

  • sin has rendered humanity morally dead and thus impotent to effect, or even assist, in salvation;
  • righteousness is found not in doing good works but solely in Christ;
  • the Law teaches that all have died in sin and are incapable of saving themselves;
  • the Gospel offers the promise of salvation in Christ; and
  • when the promise is believed, the believer is united to Christ and receives his righteousness.” [Trueman, C. R. (2012). Justification. In D. M. Whitford (Ed.), T&T Clark Companion to Reformation Theology (p. 64). London; New York: T&T Clark.]

It is Christ who justifies us, getting us in line with God, the fix for problem.  And we receive the benefit of this work through faith.


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