“Ever Faithful to The Truth May We Be Found”
Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus
St. John 8.31-36
30 October 20022
SOLI DEO GLORIA!
Luther’s 95 Theses should properly be called his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. A Disputation is a debate with pro and con sides. Disputations were part of my seminary training where we were assigned pro and con arguments to defend. High schools used to have debate teams where students learned to defend their arguments in a logical fashion but I suspect that this has gone out of style. These days, in spite of the fact that the media call political candidates on a stage “debates,” they aren’t. Basically, they are news conferences moderated by a selected news reporter with the result that they aren’t pure debates. In disputations both sides were heard by a panel of peers who decided which side had made the better case.
Here is Luther’s invitation:
Out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following theses will be publicly discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the reverend father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology and regularly appointed Lecturer on these subjects at that place. He requests that those who cannot be present to debate orally with us will do so by letter. Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 31: Career of the Reformer I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.; Vol. 31, p. 25). Fortress Press.
Unfortunately, Luther’s invitation to debate never took place because no one responded to the invitation either in person or by letter. Yet, that doesn’t mean that they were never debated because, in fact, the debate went on for many years and still does. The truth of God’s Word continued to be debated during Luther’s lifetime and for all the 505 years since he posted the Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
Luther focuses on “love and zeal for the truth” but there was much more at stake. His chief concern was pastoral. He noticed the effects that indulgences were having on his parishioners because he was the pastor at the city church, St. Mary’s, just a few blocks away. It was at St. Mary’s that he preached most often. Yet, his parishioners were going to nearby Jüterborg and Zerbst to buy indulgences peddled by a Dominican monk name John Tetzel.
An indulgence was a medieval development which began with the Crusades. A penitent sinner who had been excommunicated by the congregation would show sorrow for his sins, confess them orally, render penitential acts to show his sorrow for his sin, and then receive absolution and be reinstated by the congregation. Originally the penitential acts were determined by the congregation, but this was taken over by the Popes who used them to enhance their power and wealth.
Here’s a technical description of the process:
. . .scholastic theologians drew a distinction between guilt and penalty, and classified sins as venial and mortal. Venial, or insignificant, sins merited only small penalties. A sinner who had committed a mortal sin which had not been absolved, however, would suffer eternal punishment. If it was absolved he was freed of the guilt as well as the eternal penalty in hell, but he still had to render satisfaction, that is, the temporal penalty, here on earth or, if he had not done enough here, in purgatory. Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 31: Career of the Reformer I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.; Vol. 31, p. 20). Fortress Press.
The common person could not understand the intricacies all of this, including whether one was truly contrite or only wished to be, called “attrition,” or what we might call “halfway sorry.” What disturbed Luther greatly was that his parishioners believed that in one transaction they could buy an indulgence for money and get rid of all guilt as well as getting rid of the temporal penalty. In short, they believed that they could buy their salvation for money.
The indulgence which set it all off for Luther was the Jubilee indulgence announced by Pope Julius II for the year 1510, the proceeds of which were to build the basilica of St. Peter in Rome. Into this mix came the sordid loans for Albrecht of Mainz who had borrowed money to secure a third bishop’s seat. He borrowed considerable sums from the infamous banking house run by the Fuggers. A big sale of indulgences was to take place on All Saint’ Day 1517 in Wittenberg. So on the eve of All Saints, or All Hallows Eve, now known as Halloween in English—literally, Hallowed Evening—Luther posted his invitation for the Disputation.
As pastor, Luther was concerned for the souls of his people. Luther was dealing with the real issues faced by his parishioners. They were dealing with the guilt of their sins. Where did they go to get rid of that guilt? How were they supposed to do that? Instead of coming to Pastor Luther they went across the river to buy indulgences.
We often think of Luther as hard-nosed, and he was when it came to the truth of God’s Word. It came down to what the Scriptures said, not what the Popes in Rome or the cardinals said. “The Word Alone”—Sola Scriptura—was the only norm for Christian doctrine and teaching. The truth mattered to Luther and, ultimately, to his parishioners, whether they knew it or not.
It must be so for us today, too. While we are not fighting the battle of indulgences, we are fighting the battle against those who subvert God’s Truth and contradict what God has written. We need look no further than the sexual promiscuity of our day. It is the aim of Marxists and their fellow travelers to deconstruct society as God intended. The family must be broken apart. The sexes must be confused, and there are those who identify 147 different genders. Marriage, while it exists—and may soon be gone altogether if they have their way—must be open to same sex couples, thruples, polygamy, and even marriage between humans and animals or furry play things. They don’t go up to the boundary lines, they run far into territory that has always been out of bounds.
Parents are told that they have no rights over their children but that the government and the schools have absolute right to teach values. Parents are not allowed to know that their adolescent child wants to undergo gender changing surgery! If I had said that 10 years ago you would not have believed me. No one would have seen it coming except for these agents of Satan himself [John 8.44] who have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped the creature rather than the Creator [Romans 1.18-32]. The wrath of God will come upon all such persons who do not acknowledge God. We must remember and firmly believe that only God is the source of all truth, not men who err and are themselves deceived.
Satan has assaulted all truth from the moment he tempted Adam and Eve with the words, “Did God really say . . .?” Jesus says that if we abide—live—in his truth we shall be free. Where do we go to be free of the guilt of sin? Luther knew that sin lies at the root of all that troubles our hearts. Sin greatly disturbed his parishioners but they went to the wrong place to find relief. They should have listened to Jesus. And that is the answer for us, too. Solus Christus is what we learn from Luther. Christ alone. Only in him is truth—God’s truth.
Lies are poison. Several months ago the powdered baby formula used by millions of American mothers to feed their babies was found to be contaminated. Deadly bacteria called Cronobacter sakazakii could be in it. Since this was the only form of nutrition for many babies it became a life or death situation. Fourteen years ago a similar event occurred because the formula—made in China—had banned chemicals used in plastics.
Does the truth matter? Does it matter what you swallow, spiritually speaking? Jesus seems to think so because he said to the Jews who had believed in him:
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32, ESV)
I have often cited a quote by Hermann Sasse, probably the greatest Lutheran theologian of the 20th century. Writing in 1933 as a German professor he was watching the rise of the Nazi government. What he wrote deserves repeating—often!:
“The lie is the death of man, his temporal and his eternal death. Where man can no longer bear the truth, he cannot live without the lie Where man, even when dying, lies to himself and others, the terrible dissolution of his culture is held up as a glorious ascent, and decline is viewed as an advance, the like of which has never been experienced.” [The Lonely Way. Union and Confession. Concordia Publishing House. 2001, p. 266].
As bad as political lies are, there is one that is worse—the lie to God. Sasse wrote,
Lies have been told in the church because of cowardice and weakness, vanity and avarice. But beyond all these there is in the church one particularly sweet piece of fruit on the broad canopy of the tree of lies. This is the pious lie. [Ibid.]
It is this lie that kills man for eternity.
So we gain a deeper understanding of Luther’s concern for the truth. He found it only in God’s Word, the source of all truth and the only reliable remedy for man’s sin. Our Lord Jesus Christ calls on Christians of every age to remain in the truth of his Word. The word that Jesus uses is connected to a legal disputation. It refers to the party which remains “true to the argument, to stand one’s ground, to remain loyal to a position.” That position for Lutherans remains clear. The oft-used phrase sums up:
“We are justified by grace, for Christ’s sake through faith.”
Sometimes we abbreviate it even further by reciting the “three Solas:” “By grace alone, by faith alone, by Holy Scripture alone.”
Maintaining that commitment to the truth of God’s Word, however, was not an easy thing. It never is, regardless of the age in which we live, because Satan never rests in spreading his lies. He never gives up. Sometimes the issues change, but the truth of God’s Word always stands front and center. Will we continue to confess it or will we give in to the lie? Objective truth continues to be under attack. Everything and anything is allowed because people call it “my truth,” as though there are as many “truths” as there are people. Such thinking is really absurd. If there is no objective truth then 2 plus 2 do not equal four and all mathematics becomes unstable and collapses. Men can get pregnant and menstruate. Literally everything becomes what one wishes it to be, but wishing doesn’t make it so.
With great thanks to God we celebrate this day Luther’s discovery of the revealed truth of God, the pure Gospel, that Christ has fully atoned for all our sins and that he forgives us all through his shed blood. In a few minutes we will recite the Second Article of the Creed and its meaning from the Small Catechism. It is simple, yet powerful and brings the great good news that in Christ we are free from the accusations of our sins and guilty consciences.
The truth of God’s Word is “The Church’s glorious confidence,” wrote the hymn writer Nicolaus Selnecker. You’ll sing his hymn during the distribution today. It’s all about the Truth of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Selneckar calls God’s Word
The bright sword of Your mighty Word [LSB 585.4]
God’s Word alone is our confidence, Sola Scriptura!
“Ever Faithful to the Truth May We Be Found” [LSB 924.2].
In the Name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit.