From the Vault of the ACR. First released as an editorial entitled ‘Forgiveness’, November 14, 1977.
Last week was the 460th anniversary of the reformation. On the eve of All Saints Day 1517 Martin Luther, a monk, Doctor of Divinity and Professor of Theology at Wittenburg in Germany, nailed up on the door of the castle church, which was the town notice board, his 95 theses, and invited discussion on these short statements of doctrine.
They were about indulgences, which were being sold in the town to raise money for the building of St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. An indulgence was a way of seeking forgiveness of punishment due for sin. Tetzel, the monk who was selling them as the Pope’s agent, was saying that when the purchase money hit the bottom of his collecting box the soul flew out of purgatory to heaven.
So the reformation started by Luther criticising these popularly held notions about purgatory.
In a nut shell the reformation may be said to be about this question of how to obtain forgiveness from God.
It may not seem very relevant these days as most people don’t feel the need of forgiveness.
They have forgotten that God is their creator, that he sustains their life moment by moment and that he has fixed a judgement day (Acts 17:34). For those who are aware that they will have to give an account of their lives to God on the awful day of judgement, the question of forgiveness is a very important one.
Many people think that being sorry for the wrong they have done and asking for forgiveness is all that is needed.
This is not much in advance on those who don’t think there is any need of forgiveness at all, for both have too shallow a view of wrong doing and sin. It cannot just be ignored, or obliterated by a moment’s compunction.
To those who think thus Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1100 AD), rightly warned ‘You have not considered the exceeding gravity of sin. It is better that the whole world should perish than that any of God’s creatures should even momentarily disobey his will’. Sin is serious.
Is there any way to avoid its consequences of condemnation and punishment? How can we be forgiven? The natural answer is by trying very hard in the future and, the church in Luther’s day added, by bearing voluntarily now some of the punishment which sin deserves and having the rest forgiven through the sacraments.
Indulgences were part of this thinking. By paying money towards the building of St Peters the purchaser relied on the Pope to substitute the merits of the saints for his own sinfulness.
Martin Luther saw that the Bible had a very different and much more wonderful way by which the guilty conscience could be sure of its forgiveness. He had come to realise as he read the Bible in his monastry that the Bible taught that we are forgiven solely for Jesus’ sake. Jesus’ righteousness in His life and in His sin-bearing death is completely sufficient for the forgiveness of all. Not how good we are, not even how good we are with His help, is the ground for God’s forgiveness of us, but only Jesus’ goodness and our relationship to him through faith.
When we acknowledge him as Lord as indeed He is, we are incorporated into Him, and in Christ, God sees not us but Christ’s merits, which are perfect.
Put another way, from the moment that we turn to Christ we are completely forgiven for His sake and since Jesus has promised that no one will ever pluck us out of His hand, we know that we will always be approved by God, now and on the day of judgement.
An important consequence follows; we have the joy of the knowledge of our forgiveness.
This is not possible in the old system of seeking forgiveness partly by Christ and partly by our own merits, for we never know whether these are good enough. There is always uncertainty, fearfulness as to what the verdict will be.
But it is God’s purpose that we should know that we are saved, that we should rejoice in His friendship and live for Him with all our efforts, not in order to get to heaven, but because we are already there in spirit through the complete forgiveness of our sins for Jesus’ sake and for His sake only, not for anything in ourselves.
This is the message of the reformation that we are forgiven now and on the judgement day only for the merits of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and since God has promised it we know it is true and rejoice in its certainty.
God has promised forgiveness to all who believe in Jesus as Lord; and believing in Him, we know the promise is true to us, and we experience as a seal of God’s approval and forgiveness, the presence of His Spirit in our lives. We know it is true because He has promised, and we know it has come true because He gives us His spirit when we believe.