October 31st marks the quin-centennial anniversary of Luther’s posting of his “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” Luther presented 95 topics for discussion about the practice of indulgences. Indulgences were pardons granted as part of a person’s penance for having sinned. Where an individual once “paid penance” through some act of devotion, over the years, the practice became paying penance through the donation of coins of the realm. This practice became widespread. Historians report some unscrupulous priests advertised the sale of penances with the slogan: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.” Literally, a person purchased forgiveness and got a document proving that the sin price had been paid. When Martin Luther saw these sales in action during a visit to Rome, he was appalled. He felt that the church was teaching people that they could literally buy their way into the kingdom of God. In fact, the sale of indulgences was, in large part, paying for the construction of a cathedral.
Luther argued that forgiveness and salvation are not commercial transactions. Luther put forth three major ideas which have influenced the we understand our relationship to God. They are: sola Scritpura, “we know God through suffering and the cross, and that knowledge comes to us through Scripture and Scripture alone;” Sola gratia, “Only by God’s grace are we reconciled to God. Nothing we can do earns God’s favor,” and sola fide, “Only trusting in Jesus puts us right with God.”
Even as I mutter to myself about the gullibility of believing that a piece of paper guarantees entrance into heaven, I hear a heavenly throat-clearing. I wonder, in the past 500 years, have we really given up the purchasing indulgences? Or, has the “coin” of such “purchases” merely changed to specific words or deeds? Contemporary culture’s interpretation of what is required to “be right with God” differs. For some, the words, “I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior,” must be spoken in public. For others, sins must be confessed and Holy Eucharist must be received. Still others require works of service. Some, evangelizing.
“Our problem,” states theologian Gary Neal Hansen, “is the heavy load of baggage we bring to the issue.” It seems to be impossible for us to believe that God already loves us and accepts us, that we do not have to do something to earn that love-- Luther’s 59th point: “In Christ I am righteous before God and heir to life everlasting.”
It is difficult to believe that when I live in a world where everything has a cost. Generally, there is “no free lunch.” Luther was preaching the same thing Jesus taught, “God’s grace is sufficient.” I know that. I trust that. Meanwhile, just to be on the safe side, I’d better close this and do three more visitations so God will be pleased with me today!
On this Reformation anniversary, may God reform me. Amen.