Happy Reformation Day (Three Walls)

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther (1483–1546) posted the 95 Theses protesting among many things the sale of indulgences.

#27 There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately the money clinks in the bottom of the chest.

His goal was to reform the Roman Catholic Church. The result was the Protestant Reformation.

95 Theses
95 Theses

As we celebrate this important day in history we turn to another of Luther’s writings, the Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Respecting the Reformation of the Christian Estate, which was written in 1520 after determining that reform of the RCC was not likely. Here he addressed the issues that prevented reform from occurring.

The Romanists have, with great adroitness, drawn three walls round themselves, with which they have hitherto protected themselves, so that no one could reform them, whereby all Christendom has fallen terribly.

  • Firstly, if pressed by the temporal power, they have affirmed and maintained that the temporal power has no jurisdiction over them, but on the contrary that the spiritual power is above the temporal.
  • Secondly, if it were proposed to admonish them with the Scriptures, they objected that no one may interpret the Scriptures but the Pope.
  • Thirdly, if they are threatened with a Council, they pretend that no one may call a Council but the Pope.

… Now may God help us, and give us one of those trumpets, that overthrew the walls of Jericho, so that we may blow down these walls of straw and paper, and that we may set free our Christian rods, for the chastisement of sin, and expose the craft and deceit of the devil, so that we may amend ourselves by punishment and again obtain God’s favour.

The rest of this part of the work is dedicated to dismantling these walls. On the first wall the temporal and spiritual powers mentioned are the false divisions setup between clergy (Spiritual Estate) and laity (Temporal Estate). Luther correctly argues that no such division exists because no person is more spiritual than another because of the office they hold. Each person that is in Christ is both a priest and a member of the body of Christ. Therefore those holding offices in the church are not exempt from being rebuked and corrected by those who do not hold offices within the church.

It has been devised, that the Pope, bishops, priests and monks are called the Spiritual Estate; Princes, lords, artificers and peasants, are the Temporal Estate; which is a very fine, hypocritical device. But let no one be made afraid by it; and that for this reason: That all Christians are truly of the Spiritual Estate, and there is no difference among them, save of office alone.

As St. Paul says (1 Cor. xii.), we are all one body, though each member does its own work, to serve the others. This is because we have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, gospel and faith, these alone make Spiritual and Christian people. …

Thus we are all consecrated as priests by baptism, as St. Peter says: “Ye are a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter ii. 9); and in the book of Revelations: “and hast made us unto our God, kings and priests.” (Rev. v. 10.)

From this Luther will argue that all Christians have the liberty to interpret the Scriptures.

Therefore it is a wickedly devised fable, and they cannot quote a single letter to confirm it, that it is for the Pope alone to interpret the Scriptures or to confirm the interpretation of them: they have assumed the authority of their own selves. …

Besides that, we are all priests, as I have said, and have all one faith, one gospel, one sacrament; how then should we not have the power of discerning and judging what is right or wrong in matters of faith?

What becomes of St. Paul’s words: “But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man” (1 Cor. ii. 15); and also, “we having the same spirit of faith.” (2 Cor. iv. 13.) Why then should we not perceive as well as an unbelieving Pope, what agrees, or disagrees with our faith? … Therefore it behooves every Christian to aid the faith by understanding and defending it, and by condemning all errors.

A recent posting (which I recommend you check out) at the Parchment & Pen by Sam Storms gives us these three important facts to keep in mind when interpreting the Scriptures:

  1. private interpretation does not mean that we should rely solely on our own judgments, ignoring the insights and research of others;
  2. private interpretation does not mean that we have the right to “distort” the Bible in accordance with our own conceptions;
  3. private interpretation does not mean that we can ignore the history of interpretation in the church.

Luther than concludes that

[t]he third wall falls of itself, as soon as the first two have fallen; for if the Pope acts contrary to the Scriptures, we are bound to stand by the Scriptures, to punish and to constrain him, according to Christ’s commandment; … But as for their boasts of their authority, that no one must oppose it, this is idle talk. No one in Christendom has any authority to do harm, or to forbid others to prevent harm being done.

Luther wisely pointed out three walls that prevented reform in the RCC. However we should not just read these in recognition of the Reformation and ignore the fact that these walls need to be seen as warnings for us today as well. We should all take the spirit of the Reformation to heart and guard against them in our ministry.

Those who hold positions of leadership in the church should be careful to avoid building these walls as the serve those they lead thus falling into the error of the Pope and bishops.

  • The first wall we must guard against is thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought (Rom 12:3; Phil 2:3) or believing that we are more spiritual than others (Luke 18:9-14). We are all sinners in need of grace and we are all members of the body of Christ through faith with different gifts (1 Cor 12:11-12).
  • The second  wall we must guard against is having both the courage to contend earnestly for the faith while also being humble in our approach to the Scriptures being willing to listen and engage in honest discussion over our differences in interpretations.
  • The third wall  we must guard against is the pride and stubbornness that refuses correction when we sin or go astray (Prov 13:18). We must be willing to grow from the often difficult process of being sharpened by others (Prov 27:17).

Members of the body of Christ who do not hold an office of leadership are also prone to all these temptations and must be on guard against them in their own lives as well. We must recognize that we are to obey our leaders who are in authority (Heb 13:17) but we also must be willing to be reformers making sure we have good accountability for our local church leaders, we are acting as good Bereans studying the Scriptures (Acts 17:11), and are willing to confront error and sin as needed in a Biblical manner (1 Tim 5:19; Matt 18:15-17).

Modified from original posted on October 27, 2010

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