On this day 490 years ago, Martin Luther sent out his 95 Theses to some church leaders. It's also reported that he also posted his proposal at the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, which served as the university bulletin board.
It's not often that a document changes the world like this one did.
You wouldn't expect much from a document written in Latin and intended for academic debate. It wasn't as harsh as a document he had written just a month before. But Luther's 95 Theses sparked something like few other documents ever have.
A sample of what he wrote:
1. When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said "Repent", He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
62. The true treasure of the church is the Holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God.
You can read the 95 Theses online, but here's a summary from a history text:
Repentance is not a single act of penance, but a constant change of heart and mind extending over one's lifetime. The Christian seeks rather than avoids divine discipline. The true treasure of the church is not the superabundant merits of Christ and the saints, subject to papal control, but "the most Holy gospel of the glory and grace of God," freely offered to repentant sinners by faithful preachers.
Luther hadn't anticipated what would happen. The 95 Theses were quickly translated from Latin into German, printed, and widely copied. It was one of the first controversies to spread by the new technology of the printing press. Within two weeks, the Theses had spread throughout Germany; within two months throughout Europe.
On June 15, 1520, the Pope warned Luther that he risked excommunication unless he recanted some of his teachings. On January 3, 1521, Luther was excommunicated. The Reformation had started, and it all began on this day 490 years ago.
The 95 Theses Today
You can go in a lot of directions when you talk about the 95 Theses and today:
- the importance of good theology applied to life
- the role of academics in the service of the church
- technology's influence on the church
- the church's need to be always reforming
Tim Challies is hosting a Reformation Day Symposium, and you can read many articles on the 95 Theses on his site.
What I'm thinking about most today, though, is what lay at the heart of the 95 Theses: a rediscovery of the gospel. The person who has helped me understand why this is so important is Tim Keller, who says:
We never “get beyond the gospel” in our Christian life to something more “advanced.” The gospel is not the first “step” in a “stairway” of truths, rather, it is more like the “hub” in a “wheel” of truth. The gospel is not just the A-B-C’s of Christianity, but it is the A to Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make all progress in the kingdom.
We are not justified by the gospel and then sanctified by obedience but the gospel is the way we grow (Gal. 3:1-3) and are renewed (Col 1:6). It is the solution to each problem, the key to each closed door, the power through every barrier (Rom 1:16-17)....
All our problems come from a failure to apply the gospel...
The main problem, then, in the Christian life I that we have not thought out the deep implication of the gospel, we have not “used” the gospel in and on all parts of our life. Richard Lovelace says that most people’s problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel—a failure to grasp and believe it through and through. Luther says (on Gal. 2:14), “The truth of the gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine… Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.” The gospel is not easily comprehended. Paul says that the gospel only does its renewing work in us as we understand it in all its truth. All of us, to some degree live around the truth of the gospel but do not “get” it. So the key to continual and deeper spiritual renewal and revival is the continual re-discovery of the gospel. A stage of renewal is always the discovery of a new implication or application of the gospel—seeing more of its truth. This is true for either an individual or a church.
If Keller is right - and I think he is - then the most important thing we can do is to continually come back to the gospel, preaching it to ourselves, and continually finding new implications for our lives. That's exactly what Luther did 490 years ago today. It's what we still need to be doing today.