Martin’s struggle with sin
Martin Luther (1483-1546) entered an Augustinian monastery in 1505. Even as a monk, he was tormented by a sense of his own sinfulness as well as his absolute inability to overcome it by his own efforts and merit salvation. Martin firmly believed the Latin Christian theology of his day in that he felt like he was a debtor to God. What he could not believe was that any amount of good works on his part could make him a creditor to God.
Martin’s response: salvation by grace through faith
Martin’s biblical reflections, especially on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, led him to understand that his theology was in fact Plutonian, based on earning credits and avoiding debits, and not biblical. Through Paul and other biblical witnesses, Jesus assured Martin that salvation is by grace through faith. Salvation is by grace; that is, it is ours solely on the basis of God’s unmerited favor. We participate in it, and share it with others, through faith; that is, through our knowledge of, trust in, and loyalty to Jesus Christ. Most importantly, faith is not a good work that merits grace. We merit nothing, ever. Faithfulness itself is also a gift to us of God’s grace.
Punishment for sin
According to the Plutonian theology of Martin’s day, repayment of the debt incurred by committing a sin required one to confess it to a priest, repent of it, be forgiven for it by the priest, and accept punishment (do penance) for it. If, before one’s death, one did not complete all the punishment needed to repay the debt one owed God for all one’s sins, then one completed it after one’s death in Purgatory. Once all one’s debts were purged, then one’s soul could complete the journey to Heaven.
An indulgence was the papal-approved cancellation of the punishment one owed for one’s sins. If one paid a sum of money for an indulgence being sold by an official representative of the pope, one obtained a cancellation of the punishment in this life or Purgatory that one otherwise would need to experience before entering Heaven. Of course, the greater one’s sin, the greater the punishment deserved. The greater the punishment deserved, the higher the price of the indulgence. Pluto was most pleased with this whole arrangement.
Martin on indulgences
When Martin came to understand that all are saved by grace through faith, he realized the complete absurdity of indulgences. Jesus had already suffered all the punishment any and all of us deserved as sinners. Even more, he freely did this in our place and on our behalf.
Martin protesting the sale of indulgences
When Johann Tetzel (1465-1519), a Germanian Dominican friar, began selling indulgences near Wittenberg, Martin, a professor there, posted his objections to this and related practices of the Latin Church. He did so not knowing that this single act of his would spark the Protestant Reformation.
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