What must I do to be saved?
Martin Luther was a man, born in 1483, and on Oct. 31, 1517 he posted the 95 Theses, 95 statements on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. The primary tenants discussed in the statements included the selling of indulgences, the authority of the Pope, the forgiveness of sins, and the soothing of consciences. To better understand what Luther was fighting against with his 95 Thesis, it will be helpful to understand what was believed by the church at that time. And to better understand how they arrived at those beliefs, we are going to take a brief jog through large spans of history, because to understand what was going on in the church at that time, it is helpful to know the interplay between the church and the civil realm, and the jostling for authority and power that was done over the centuries.
Jesus walked on the earth, taught his disciples many things, including who he is, what the significance of his life, death, and resurrection are, and what it is to live as a part of the kingdom of God. Then Jesus died as he said he would and God raised him from the dead. Then Jesus ascended and you have the time of the early church. His disciples made more disciples. When one person asked Paul “what must I do to be saved” the response Paul gave was “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” At the earliest time of the church, the Roman leaders viewed Christians as a sect of Judaism. This was actually in their favor because throughout the Roman empire, the official religion, that everyone was to follow, was the Pantheon of Roman Gods, mostly stolen from the Greeks. However, for reasons that I am not going to get into, the Jews were more or less “grandfathered” into the Roman empire with their own God. The Jews were allowed to not worship the Roman Pantheon and were free to worship their God without Roman interference. So the Christians, being considered a sect of the Jews enjoyed a brief period of peace from the Roman leaders. But then in time, there were Emperors who identified Christians as enemies of the state, and Christians experienced significant persecution. In spite of this, however, Christianity continued to spread southwest into northern Africa and northwest into Europe. After centuries of going back and forth between times of great persecution and times of peace, Constantine is crowned emperor, and establishes Christianity as the religion of the empire. This seems like a good thing for Christianity, after all, not being killed just because you believe in Jesus Christ as Lord is good. But this also lead to an opportunity for a power struggle. Even before Constantine was the emperor, bishops were appointed in various regions of the empire for the sake of good order when theological questions arose. In this new found peace with the civil realm, there arose an opportunity for strife to occur within the church. Who should be understood as the premier authority on things concerning God. There are the bishops who were close to where Jesus himself walked that claimed they were descendants of the teachings of John the disciple. Then there was the bishop of Alexandria, who had the privilege of the finest education in the land. It would be like someone claiming that in addition to studying theology at one of the Concordia seminaries, they first graduated from Harvard Law School, and there had access to some of the rarest writings of the early church. Then there was the Bishop of Rome, who claimed to have apostolic succession from Peter, the one who Jesus said to “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” This Bishop was called Papa, that is Pope. He claimed that he should be seen as the supreme bishop because the keys that were given to Peter by Christ were supposedly passed down from Bishop to Bishop, Pope to Pope. In time, throughout the Western Church, where the Emperor typically came from, the Bishop of Rome ultimately became the supreme authority of the Church, viewed as God’s mouthpiece. Then another significant thing happened shaping the relationship between the Church and the civil realm. The Pope was at war with a neighboring territory, and called on the King of the Franks, Charlemagne, to come and give aid. The king answered the call and defeated the enemies of the Church. Then, while Charlemagne was kneeling to pray during Christmas Mass, the Pope put the imperial crown on Charlemagne’s head. This might seem like a nice gesture of gratitude for saving him, but in that act, the Pope was declaring that he had the right to crown the emperor, thus putting the church above the civil law with respect to the civil realm. From that point onward until the time of the reformation, the Pope was seen as the ultimate authority in the Empire, in both the church and the civil realms.
Now, between the time of Charlemagne and the time of Luther, there was also a shift in the understanding of the grace that is given to humans through Christ. Grace was understood as something that was given, which allowed a Christian to be able to do the good works that God calls his people to do. Without that grace, a person could not satisfy the demands of the law, but theoretically, after receiving this grace, then a Christian could satisfy those demands. So on the one hand it could be said in that understanding that it is only through Christ that a person can be saved, but it can also be said that a person by his own works becomes in a right relationship with God. To use a metaphor that seems fitting to me in Colorado, imagine that there is a ski lift that goes up to heaven. You have heard about this ski lift, but you are unable to find it until someone gives you what you need to find it. However, you also, after being given what you need to find it, you need to satisfy the payment for the lift ticket. To satisfy the payment, a person has to do enough good works, while also avoiding doing bad things, to be allowed on the lift to heaven. That was more or less the system in place when Luther was alive. The grace of Jesus was more of a catalyst for the Christian than it was satisfactory payment.
So when the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, the most powerful man in the Empire declares that one of the ways that you can store up for yourself credits in your account with God is through giving money to support the building of a Cathedral in Rome, people jumped all over it. Add to it that they were also told that loved ones who had already died are not yet in heaven, but can be if you pay on their behalf now, of course the simple people would do that. The supposed system of God necessitated good works, and what was money compared with eternal life. When the people asked, “what must I do to be saved” the response of the Pope was give to build this church.
Luther however read passages of the bible like our readings for today, which tell of a different understanding of grace, and a different system of humanity’s relationship with God. He risked everything when challenged the edicts of the Pope. Luther said “if the Pope has the authority to get souls out of purgatory, then why doesn’t he do it for free?” He also said that the Pope has more money than anyone else in the whole realm, why does he not pay for the Cathedral himself rather than taking from the poor people of the realm? Luther also noted that the buying and selling of indulgences only secures people on their way to hell, for their trust, their security of their standing before God gets placed on themselves and their money and not on believing in the Lord Jesus.
Luther understood that when it says in Romans “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” It is the grace of Christ that justifies and not the works of man that justify him. What is more, this grace, which is more than just the ability to do what is right, comes as a gift. To try my ski lift analogy again, there is a man who has a terrible accident. He is broken beyond the ability to walk or even to crawl. The only thing he can kind of do is shimmy on the ground, but that won’t get him very far. His only source of healing necessitates him to be on the lift, where at the top he can be made whole again. But he can’t get there on his own. He also doesn’t know for certain that if he gets on the lift, the help he needs is at the top. All he knows is that someone has just lifted him up, and put him on the lift, paying for the lift ticket and all. This same person told him that at the top of the lift is what he needs, just don’t shimmy off the lift.
To speak of the reality that is in Christ a different way, we turn to our gospel lesson. Jesus says to the Jews, who had believed in him, “if you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” But they answered him “we are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say “you will become free?” Jesus responds “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
A person who sins is a slave to sin. A slave with respect to his master has no rights to argue, no ability to do something different. If the master tells the slave to jump, then the slave jumps. If the master tells the slave to slap someone in the face, then the slave slaps that person in the face. And if sin tells its slave to lie, or to steal, or cheat, to act sexually immoral, to cause enmity, to act with jealousy, fits of anger, envy, to get drunk, what rights does the slave have against his master? Sin whispers in your ear, only be mindful of your own needs, and wants and self-interests, and never be mindful of the desires of God, or the needs of your neighbor, and its slave obediently follows. Jesus is saying that the hold that sin has upon a fallen world is significant. The fallen world is not one that can quit anytime it wants, it is full on addiction. Like a disease, sin infects the whole of a person and they are unable to remove it on their own. But imagine that there is a kingdom, with a King, and the son of the king. The son is out walking one day in the marketplace, and he sees a group of slaves being dragged by their master. The Son says to the master, what is the price for these slaves, and the master snarls that they aren’t for sale. The Son proclaims “I am the Son of the King, you have no authority over me, now tell me the price of those slaves.” The master responds, your life is the price. The Son then pays the price, and then is raised from the dead. The son then makes those former slaves to not only be slaves in his household, but instead the former slaves are established as heirs of the kingdom, with all the rights and privileges there in. Who the Son sets free, is free indeed. You who have been set free, are not bound to then work to prove your standing with God through your own good works. You have been justified fully. You are no longer a slave to sin, needing to do whatever your former master says. As a claimed child of God, you are free to walk in the ways of your adopted Father. When sin tries to remind you of who your former master is, you are free to tell sin no, and to tell sin you will no longer follow its commands. You are free to proclaim that Jesus is your Lord and savior, and that because of the new reality that he has established you do not need to focus solely on self-interests, but instead are free to follow the will of God and care for the needs of others. You are no longer a slave to anything, you are a child of God.