Five hundred years ago on October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg. Luther intended these theses, or propositions, for theological debate, but instead they provoked a firestorm in the religious community. Historians point to this event as the symbolic beginning of the Reformation, although men like John Wycliffe and John Hus prepared the ground for Luther, Calvin, and other reformers after them.
Most agree that the foundation of the Reformation was belief in the sole authority of Scripture, or sola scriptura, but when I think of the Reformation, I think of Luther’s chief contribution, justification by faith. The Reformers termed this sola fide, or faith alone. Since this truth is the core of the gospel, we can say that God used Luther to recover the true gospel. I like the way Luther described the gospel in the sixty-second thesis he posted on the door. It reads: “The true treasure of the church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.” Thus, God specifically used Martin Luther to recover the true treasure of the church, the gospel.
The treasure of the church: the gospel
The truth of justification by faith – the center of the gospel – was lost over time. The apostles and the early church fathers such as Augustine taught salvation by faith alone, but as the centuries wore on the church became more ritualistic. By the time of Luther, the established church practiced “justification by faith and good works – the demonstration of faith through various acts, acceptance of church dogma, and participation in church ritual” (emphasis mine). In his early years as a monk, Luther himself was known to keep the monastic rule so strictly with vigils, prayers, fasting, and penance, that he almost exhausted himself to death.
Sometime in 1515, God opened Luther’s mind to understand justification by faith. This doctrine means that we can be acceptable to a holy God only through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins and not by any works of ours (Rom. 3:24-25). As the apostle Paul said, “By works of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight” (Rom. 3:20). Works alone cannot justify us and save us from God’s wrath, but Luther realized that faith and good works cannot justify us either. The established church of Luther’s day became like the Galatian church of Paul’s day: they added works to the gospel. The Galatian church was bewitched by the Judaizers into adding laws of Moses and circumcision to their faith in Christ (Acts 15:5, Gal. 3:1-5). As Paul told the Galatians, works and rituals beyond justification by faith are nothing but “yokes of bondage” which sever us from Christ and make Christ of no advantage to us (Gal. 5:1-4). This is why Paul said the Galatians really had no gospel at all (Gal. 1:6-7). Similarly, the church in Luther’s time, by adding rituals to the gospel, actually subtracted the entire gospel! The ritualism became a yoke of bondage and that is why Luther found this truth of salvation by faith alone so liberating. It is also very liberating to someone like me, who was at one time in bondage to legalism. This freedom is why the true gospel is indeed a great treasure of the church (Gal. 5:1). It can be easily lost to us if we, in our pride or ignorance, add works to it as did the historical church; or, we can lose it by not “holding fast the faithful word” as we have been taught (Tit. 1:9, NAS).
The treasure of the gospel: Christ
The apostle Paul also called the gospel a treasure, referring to the gospel as “gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4, 6, 7). The gospel is all about Christ. He is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). When we are justified by faith in Christ, we are united to Him and his righteousness is imputed to us (Rom. 4:5; 5:19). Our righteousness is but “a filthy garment” to God (Is. 64:6). Without Christ’s righteousness covering us by grace through faith we have no hope of eternal life. Christ is our life (John 14:6) and indeed our treasure – the real treasure of the gospel.
The gospel of Christ is indeed a treasure of the church recovered by God’s grace through Martin Luther in the Reformation. May we individually and as a church continue to treasure the gospel, and even more, may we treasure our Lord Jesus, the One who makes the gospel good news in the first place.
1 “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” Internet Christian Library, www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/web/ninetyfive.html
2 Shelley, Bruce. Church History in Plain Language. Word Publishing, 1982.