Martin Luther stood up to a religious system that misinterpreted and misused the Scriptures and unleashed the Protestant Reformation. But did his religious revolution totally restore the Bible as the source of truth in Christianity or, are there aspects of biblical truth many Christians are overlooking?
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Castle Church in Germany, listing changes he maintained were needed to the Catholic Church. Luther felt the church had become mired in human traditions and non-biblical doctrines.
Six years earlier in 1511 Luther, a humble monk, visited Rome and was shocked and disillusioned with its opulence and the immorality he witnessed in the catholic clerics. He particularly objected to the selling of indulgences, which was the catholic teaching that if a person performed a pious act and paid money to the church, he could reduce the amount of time he, or a loved one, spent in purgatory. Needless to say the Catholic Church and the clergy profited immensely from this practice.
Luther finally concluded that Christ’s sacrifice paid for human sins, and all a person had to do was believe in God’s promise of grace, and not in the elaborate ceremonies of Catholicism or any human works. Luther then went even further and in 1520 published ‘The Babylonian Captivity of the Church’ claiming that the papacy was antichrist and, as a result, was declared a heretic.
Then, between 1521 and 1522 Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German. For over 1,000 years the Catholic Church had maintained power by making sure the Bible didn’t get translated into common languages. Even the mass was said in Latin. It was now possible for literate people throughout Germany to obtain a copy of the Scriptures in their own language.
Perhaps Luther’s most lasting legacy is his teaching that justification—being made right before a righteous God—is through faith alone. This is the belief that since all human beings are sinners, and our very nature is corrupted by sin, no one can earn eternal salvation through any good works or rituals before God. But Luther had a problem—the New Testament book of James appears to teach something different than faith as simple belief. James wrote, ‘Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” (James 2:17-20).
Luther saw this as an affront to Paul’s teaching. In his Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude, Luther claimed James’ letter is “in direct opposite to St. Paul, and all the rest of the Bible, it ascribes justification to works…” ( Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings by John Dillenberger).
But the New Testament books of Paul and James aren’t contradicting each other. When the teachings of these inspired writers are combined, we see living faith is more than simple belief. When a person surrenders his will to God, and in faith accepts Christ as Savior and Master, then God will guide him with His power to do good works and obey His commandments.
Salvation is more than God’s forgiveness. Salvation is God’s work in human beings to create eternal children. It’s a work we participate in as we faithfully submit to His working in us.
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