A bolt of lightning and the Protestant Reformation

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By Dr. Howard E. Dial

“On a sultry day in July of the year 1505 a lonely traveler was trudging over a parched road on the outskirts of the Saxon village of Stotternheim. He was a young man, short but sturdy, and wore the dress of a university student. As he approached the village, the sky became overcast. Suddenly there was a shower, then a crashing storm. A bolt of lightning rived the gloom and knocked the man to the ground. Struggling to rise, he cried in terror, ‘St. Anne help me! I will become a monk.’”

These famous lines from Roland Bainton’s classic, “Here I Stand, A Life of Martin Luther,” set up the story of a man’s spiritual struggle that changed the world. Luther kept his vow and at the age of 23 entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. He threw himself into the rigors of the world of rules. To gain the favor of God, Luther forged ahead with unceasing energy. He prayed, fasted frequently, wore chafing underclothes, slept on the floor, and did whatever it took to somehow overcome the dreaded thought of Christ as judge. How could a sinner be right with God?

The world of Martin Luther was shared with thousands of others in the Europe of that day. Medieval Roman Catholicism had suppressed the gospel of the free grace of God and replaced it with a spiritually suffocating sacramental system. There could be no salvation without the Mother Church. By virtue of the performance of an act (ex opere operato, “from the work worked”) prescribed by the church, God poured his love and grace into the hearts of the individual. The Mass was the centerpiece of the quest for God’s acceptance. The Catholic system required nothing but the doing of the sacraments.

They believed that the sacraments worked by themselves. Irrespective of the faith of those participating . … Being baptized conveyed regenerating power so that you were born again as a Christian. Receiving the bread was like popping another can of Red Bull — spiritual energy to keep you going in your efforts to lead a virtuous life. (“Why the Reformation Still Matters,” Reeves and Chester).

The more Luther tried, the more disillusioned he became. Then a Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel came to town. He had been authorized by Pope Leo X to sell indulgences. The Roman Catholic Church was financially in dire straits, needing money to complete the new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Indulgences were purchased, documents which removed the temporal penalty for an individual’s sin.

The unbiblical reasoning did not stand in the way of an apparent bargain. Indulgences were a convenient way to buy time out of the punishments of purgatory. Tetzel went about announcing, “When the coin the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

Luther was livid. He marched off and posted his now famous Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. The intent was to spark a public debate over the matter of indulgences. It was Oct. 31, 1517.

Two great shafts of biblical light broke into Luther’s soul. Firstly, the matter of differences with the teaching of the church could be settled by Scripture alone, not by the pope’s authority or any church council. Secondly, through a series of lectures on the Psalms, Romans, and Galatians in 1516-1517, Luther encountered “that frightening verse about the righteousness of God, Romans 1:17.” Listen to Luther’s own words:

“At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ There I began to understand the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

Everything changed when Luther saw that a kind and generous God provides the righteousness He demands in the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ. God wants not our goodness but our trust.

The gospel rediscovered by Luther is bound up in the five solas: Sola Scriptura, “Scripture Alone”; Solus Christus, “Christ Alone”; Sola Gratia, “Grace Alone”; Sola Fide, “Faith Alone”; Soli Deo Gloria, “For the Glory of God Alone.”

These truths are central to the Bible. They are not made-up slogans in an attempt to justify the Reformation. Each sola addresses challenges to the gospel at any time in church history, especially in our day.

There is only one way for sinners to be in a right relationship to a holy God. God has provided the perfection we need in the perfect Lord Jesus Christ. We are to come to Him with the empty hand of faith to receive the gift of eternal life.

Heirs of the Reformation can best celebrate its 500th anniversary by spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth.

Soli Deo Gloria.

[The writer, Dr. Howard E. Dial, is pastor emeritus, Berachah Bible Church on Corinth Road in eastern Fayette County, Ga.]