October Milepost: Ninety-Five Theses

Organizations like ours don’t simply descend from the sky. We are immersed in a story larger than ourselves. We are threads in a larger fabric. We have “taken root downward,” to borrow an image from Isaiah, that we might “bear fruit upward” (Isaiah 37:31).

This month we reach deep into the “soil” in which we are planted. There we will find a bright young monk named Martin Luther. Luther had a beef – and a revolutionary insight – that would utterly transform his life. They would come to transform our lives, too.

On October 31, 1517, five hundred years ago this month, Luther posted Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This was kind of like posting to one’s blog or Facebook feed. Luther was looking for dialogue.

Luther had discovered something about the grace of God: it was free. He had learned something about faith: it was a gift from God. He had discovered something about the Bible, too: you could trust it. And you didn’t need some Special Authority to tell you how.

These insights remade Luther’s heart completely. They gave him something to beef about, as well. If grace were free and faith a gift – if Scripture could be trusted and didn’t require an intermediary to apportion its truths – it would seem preposterous to cut the grace of God into little pieces, let’s say, then print it out on paper coupons and sell them on the corner like lemonade. It would seem crazier still to sell the coupons at outsized prices in order to build a fancy cathedral.

Yet this is precisely what was going on, and what motivated Luther’s theses. The coupons were called “indulgences,” and they were marketed as a scheme to finance the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The transaction went something like this: give me a dollar; I’ll give you a coupon; the coupon will get you into heaven. “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings,” chimed one particularly successful salesman, “the soul from purgatory springs….”

Luther would have none of it.

Luther insisted that if grace were truly grace, it must stand alone – it must be only grace. You can’t parcel it out and write it on coupons. You can’t slice it and dice it and sell it for a profit. “Grace,” as a concept, does not permit the consecutive conjunction – as in, “grace and your worthy works,” or “grace and your impressive reputation,” or “grace and a coupon signed by the pope.” Grace does not work in this way. Grace cannot work in this way – and still be grace. It stands alone, or it is not grace at all.

Luther’s detractors coined an epithet for the Reformer and his followers. They were called “solarii” – a bit of Latin that may be roughly translated, “sola-ists” or “only-ists.” They thought the word pejorative: for Luther and his followers, it was “only this” and “only that,” and so on. Sola fide. Sola gratia. Sola scriptura.[1]

Well, this is an epithet that we will happily accept. We are, indeed, “only-ists.” “Onlys” like these are the motor of our faith.

We are driven by “sola scriptura” – Scripture alone! Where should we turn for a reliable estimation of the human condition? Where should we learn about sin? And wherever should we turn for an estimation of God’s remedy for the human condition, and his astounding solution for sin? “God caused Christ, who himself knew nothing of sin, actually to be sin for our sakes, so that in Christ we might be made good with the goodness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21, Phillips). Wherever would you learn about that, unless it were announced to you? You couldn’t make it up if you tried! This you must receive, clearly and simply, based in “sola scriptura.”

We are fueled by “sola gratia” – grace alone! I have known many, many good missionaries through the years. Yet not a one has earned their way into heaven, in spite of their goodness. Not a one earns heaven for others, either. Who can capture God’s favor, somehow? Who can dole it out? It can only come by grace. “Sola gratia!”

And we live our lives by “sola fide” – faith alone! Christ knocks; we open the door. Christ offers; we receive. Christ leads; we follow. And we do not “follow” on our own steam! Christ himself enables our following, prompts our receiving, and by pure and powerful grace meets us – on both sides of the opened door. “The bodily life I now live, I live believing in the Son of God, who loved me and sacrificed himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, Phillips). We live by faith. “Sola fide!”

These are the insights that fueled the Reformation. This is our root, too: we are, you might say, “only-ists.” But these “onlys” are enough.

1 See Martin Luther: His Life and Teachings, by James A. Nestingen (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1982), p.27ff.

Other posts in this Mileposts series:
April Milepost: Hans Nielsen HaugeMay Milepost: S.A.M.P.L.June Milepost: Briefing Course 2017!July Milepost: W.M.P.L.August Milepost: The Narrative Comes HomeSeptember Milepost: Ebenezer!October Milepost: Ninety-Five Theses

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