Paul's Passing Thoughts

How an argument, started 500 years ago today, led to the recovery of the gospel

By Al Mohler

But speaking of the present moment, the most important issue in terms of this date, October 31, 2017, is that this very day marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Dated to that date, the last day of October in the 16th century year of 1517, when an Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed a document including 95 arguments, 95 propositions or theses to the door the castle church there in Wittenberg, Germany. This was exactly the customary way that an academic disputation or debate would’ve been started. And as we know Martin Luther was a very troubled Augustinian monk. He was troubled in terms of the abuses of the church, the abuses of medieval Catholicism through the sale of indulgences. Martin Luther saw this as the church having bad practices, preying on its own people, but at the same time Martin Luther came to understand that those bad practices were actually very revelatory of a bad theology. A theology that Martin Luther had already come to understand did not include the gospel of Jesus Christ not only confused that gospel but in many ways out rightly denied that gospel.

Martin Luther’s primary concern was how that he, and he knew himself to be a sinner, could in his words find a gracious God. He was tormented in terms of the knowledge of his own sinfulness and the simultaneous knowledge of God’s holiness. He asked the most basic question a sinner can ask. How could it possibly be true that I could be saved? He meant by that, how can it possibly be true that God in accordance with his own righteousness could ever find me righteous? Martin Luther found in the very words of Scripture, most particularly in Romans Chapter 1 and in Romans Chapter 3, what it meant that the just will live by his faith. He discovered the gospel of Jesus Christ. He discovered what it means for the grace of God to come to the center by the sheer mercy of God and through his saving acts through Jesus Christ our Lord. He came to understand that salvation comes to the one who believes and that justification is nothing that the sinner can either earn or even contribute to, but that the only righteousness that would save is as Luther said an alien righteousness. He meant by that the righteousness of another, the righteousness of the only righteous one, the righteousness of God himself, the righteousness of God’s own son.

Then Luther came to understand, particularly from a text like Romans Chapter 3 verses 21 to 26, what it means that now God is declared salvation in Christ for those who believe. All of this led, of course, to what we now know as the Reformation. It led first to a dispute to a debate between Luther and the Catholic authorities all the way up to the Pope in Rome. It led eventually to Luther’s excommunication by the Roman Catholic Church. It led to the emergence of what we now know as confessional Protestantism, the Protestant churches. It led to the recovery of the gospel and the recovery of the preaching of God’s word. It is rightly summarized in the five historic solas of the Reformation: salvation by faith alone, through grace alone, by Christ alone, on the authority of Scripture alone and to the glory of God, finally, alone. As we will see as we continue through this week, what happened most importantly 500 years ago today was that Martin Luther was used by God to begin an argument, an argument that continues to this day.

The next three days on the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, we are going to be holding a very important conference along with co-sponsorship from Reformed Theological Seminary and Ligonier Ministries. The conference is known as Here We Stand. We’re going to have seven big plenary sessions, helping to explain the meaning and significance of the Reformation for today. You can join us by going to www.sbts.edu/live, and these messages we hope will be extremely helpful in explaining the meaning and significance of the Reformation. A Reformation that is, of course, of historical interest, but even far more than that is of the most relevant contemporary importance.

We’re going to be asking questions like: was the Reformation necessary? Was the Reformation a mistake? Is the Reformation over? Those are huge questions that emerged in the 16th century. They’re questions that continue until this day. The relevance of those questions in our contemporary context is virtually impossible to exaggerate. But the historical consequence we celebrate today, the anniversary we commemorate today is simply massive in its importance. We’re talking about the fact that human history takes place in space and time in historical sequence. We’re talking about the fact that God moves in history in ways that are unpredictable to us but ways that now bring profound gratitude. Gratitude for the fact that God raised up a man who would otherwise be unknown to history, a young Augustinian monk in the little town of Wittenberg, Germany, to begin an argument, an argument on which the entire gospel of Jesus Christ as we now know depends.

Given the short span of human existence, we really don’t get to celebrate very many of these specific anniversaries on anything like this scale. But those human beings who are alive today, most importantly those evangelical Christians who are alive today, we have the opportunity to celebrate what took place 500 years ago on this date. We rightly describe the human being as Homo sapiens, the thinking being. But we are also Homo memribilus, the creature with the memory. That’s a memory that must be fed, a memory that must be taught, a memory that must be true. And it is also a memory that humbles us to recognize how God has moved in the past in ways that explain why we hear and preach the gospel even now.

But of course that serves to underline the most important question for this generation. That question is not, do we really understand what Luther believed and Luther did 500 years ago today? But do we still hold fast to the gospel to faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone? That’s the real question, and one way or another this generation of Christians is going to answer it.

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