How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World by Stephen J. Nichols “is built upon two ideas. First, the Reformation matters. Second, history can be fun” (13). Does the Reformation–the issues that burned at the heart of Martin Luther–still matter 490 years after Luther “first tried to draw attention to the ineffective way the church was dealing with the problem of humanity’s sinfulness” by pinning 95 theses to the church door at Wittenburg?
Luther, first, was concerned that the church believed that repentance could be bought. At the time, outside the Sistine Chapel, a ‘resourceful’ monk, Johann Tetzel, stood outside St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome hawking that “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul in Purgatory springs.” It was clever, yes? Tetzel, by the authority of Pope Leo X, guaranteed that when a Christian gave money to the church–to pay for Michaelangelo’s ceiling fresco–a sinner in purgatory would be forgiven (or sins past, present, and future!). Luther, alarmed, simply said that he could be “silent no more,” so he took his mallet and 95 theses and hammered them to the church door “in hopes of stirring a debate in which the best minds would grapple with the problem of buying salvation” (29). That happened, but it was bigger . . . and it still matters today.
Why? Luther’s 62nd thesis said, “The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.” Rome had missed the point–the gospel was no longer the treasure of the church, and Luther was ready to take that issue to debate. But the debate was slow coming. At first, Leo X simply dismissed Luther’s theses, calling them “the ramblings of a drunken German” (29-30). Though the Reformation was slow coming and the 95 Theses stopped short at getting to the heart of Reformation theology, Nichols writes, “you could see the breach in the walls of the dam. The floods soon began” (30).
That first began on All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween), 490 years ago. What did it lead to?
Nichols continues, “In the Heidelberg Disputation of 1517 Luther declares, ‘He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through the suffering of the cross'” (30). For Luther, either salvation was by grace alone (Sola Gratia) or it could be bought. It couldn’t be BOTH. That is when he realized, “At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’ [Rom. 1:17]. There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely faith” (31). That is, justification is by faith alone (Sola Fide) according to God’s rich grace alone through Christ and his death on the cross (Sola Gratia/Solus Christus). So how am I saved? I am only alive with Christ by God’s grace alone for his glory and joy–and my joy. “All of life could and should be lived for the glory of God alone (Soli Deo Gloria, 1 Cor. 10:31)” (32).
How did Luther find that out when the church wasn’t teaching it? Scripture. The day after Luther was asked to recant his writings, he responded to the church:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they often err and contradict themselves, I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me. Amen” (32).
To put it simply, Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) is the “authority for the church. It alone is the very Word of God,” not the pope, not tradition and folk-church (32). 490 years later, these 5 Solas are what the church must not forget, especially that “Scripture reveals those things necessary for salvation” and that “all traditions are subject to the higher authority of Scripture” (cf. James White, The Roman Catholic Controversy). Nichols concludes that the Reformation still matters today. He writes:
“Many churches celebrate Luther and his accomplishments on Reformation Day. It is a day about history, a time to remember what happened in the past. It is also about the present. It is about the power of the gospel to break through the noise and static of the world and to point to Christ. That gospel broke through in the life of a monk bent on getting to heaven through his own efforts. It broke through in a time and a place when the church had lost its way. That God used a monk and a mallet to do it amazed no one more than Luther himself” (38).
Get The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World by Stephen J. Nichols @ Grace Books International.
Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott . . .