Thursday, November 1, 2012

Martin Luther and the Reformation: The Priesthood of all Believers

A must watch video on one of the most important events in post-
biblical Christian history. (Our second most popular video on YouTube.)
Direct link to video:

Martin Luther and the essential topic of the Priesthood of all Believers.
Filmed on location in Eisenach, Germany.
Direct link to video:

On November 1st, All Saints Day, in 1517, there would be a special indulgence issued by the church. An unknown Catholic monk named Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany, the evening before confronting this and other abusive church practices. Indulgences were literally the selling of forgiveness—the church actually offered papers for the remittance of sins for payment rendered. 

The indulgence of All Saints Day in Wittenberg was especially odious as the church had accumulated numerous relics.  Claims of pieces it said to have amongst its collection would make even the most unskeptical person blush with embarrassment over the unbelievable things the church offered as part of the relic practice: a thorn that pierced Jesus’ brow, a tooth of St Jerome, four pieces of Augustine’s body, four hairs of the Virgin Mary, a piece of Jesus’ swaddling clothes and a piece of straw from his crib, a hair of Jesus’ beard, and a twig from Moses’ burning bush.  Those who made the stipulated contribution on the designated Day of All Saints and viewed the relics could receive for themselves or their dead relatives 1,902,202 years and 270 days off their own or their dead relatives’ time in purgatory(1) (a place invented by the Medieval church located between heaven and hell where one must still suffer for hundreds of thousands to millions of years to pay off sins).

Johann Tetzel who was hawking indulgences for the pope made a dramatic plea: “ Listen to the voices of your dead relatives beseeching you saying, ‘Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.’ Hear your departed father or mother say, ‘We bore you, nourished you…are you so cruel that you are not willing for so little to set us free?  Will you let us lie here in these flames?’”  A master salesman, Teztel got many buyers of indulgences, which pushed Luther to a response.  The hideous indulgence traffic had started with the equally hideous crusades and it was time to say something.

While he was only putting up the Theses as a subject for debate with other theologians, his words ended up lighting a spark that exploded into the Protestant Reformation.  A group of students took hold of the Theses and reprinted them and began to distribute them all over the region in different universities and towns, and the furor over his confrontation of such unbiblical practices morphed into an international conflagration. The German population, when reading Luther’s, words responded with a boisterous, “Ja wohl!”

Sometime prior to this, Luther had been struggling trying to find peace with God.  Even though he had followed all of the rituals prescribed by the church, including long hours fasting, hours and hours confessing sins, doing penance over and over, even using indulgences, he felt further away from God after doing these rituals than when he first entered the monastery. 

He was sent away from the monastery to study the Bible, just to get him out of the priests’ hair with his endless confessions. In fact, his superior, frustrated with him, had told him he should go out and commit some real sins before coming back to confess. As he began to study the Bible he found out that its teaching was radically different than what he was being taught in the church system; the priests didn’t study or read the Bible so they wouldn’t have been aware of the differences since they just followed the order of church-prescribed rituals. 

As Luther mulled over Paul’s teaching in the New Testament, especially in Romans and Galatians, he began to see that Christ had already paid for his sins.  He states he began to understand what Christ had done and how He justifies us through faith in the work He did for us on the cross. Luther says that he was “born again” when the Holy Spirit opened his eyes.   He thus began to preach on Paul’s teachings in his epistles, but instead of being heard, the powers that be in the Catholic hierarchy attacked and persecuted him instead. 

Luther was naturally a low key and soft-spoken man, but as he was persecuted he took his stand upon God and His Word and a lion seemed to come forth from within as he stood up for the truth.

Along with the important foundation of “justification bygrace through faith”, which became an established principle of the Reformation, another of the important principles that Luther saw in the New Testament was “the priesthood of all believers.”

Luther saw the teaching that all believers are priests clearly in New Testament Scripture: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” (1 Pet. 2:9) However, the Catholic system had fabricated an idea, foreign to the New Testament, that priests stood above regular “lay” people, both spiritually and authoritatively, and thus were superior.  Titles for example like “Mother Superior” for the headmistress of a convent are not mere niceties but actual acknowledgements that this person is superior and others are less than that person.  In fact, the pope is a semi-god in the Catholic system and an intermediary between God and man, which then follows the Catholic teaching that one must be part of the Catholic church to be saved, since the pope must mediate between God and man for a person to be saved.  This, of course, all goes completely against what Jesus taught: 

But you must not be called 'Teacher,' because you have only one Teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters together. And don't call any person [in the church] 'Father,' because you have one Father, who is in heaven. And you should not be called 'Master,' because you have only one Master, the Christ. The only ‘superior’ among you is the one who serves the others. For every man who promotes himself will be humbled, and every man who learns to be humble will find promotion. Matt 23: 8-12

I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one comes to the father except through me. John 14:6

Martin Luther and his English contemporary William Tyndale both worked to get the Scriptures into the vernacular language of their people.  Since the Bible was only allowed in Latin and not to be possessed by common people according to Canon church law, the church was able to control people’s spiritual understanding.  These reformers’ proclamation that they would make the common ploughboy more knowledgeable of the Scriptures than the priests in the Catholic system was not a pipe dream.  All they had to do was get the Scriptures into the hands of the people in a language they could understand, and this did indeed happen since the priest didn’t read or usually have any knowledge of what the New Testament taught.  The reformers sought to liberate the people to understand the finished work of Christ and that in Christ there is a priesthood of all believers.

William Tyndale was an Englishman who was friend’s with Martin Luther and was greatly influenced by Luther’s translation of the Bible into German and sought to do the same for the English.  The two would meet at the White Horse Inn to share a pint and discuss theology.

Both worked in spite of severe persecution and attack on translations of the Bible into the common tongues of their people.  When Tyndale had translated the New Testament into English he had pocket-sized New Testaments smuggled into England from Belgium, which became hugely popular throughout the island nation. Tyndale had to flee England to try and survive severe persecution launched against him for his reformed ideas.

Luther had done his translation while evading arrest and burning at the stake and hiding in the Wartburg castle; there he translated the Bible into the common German tongue.   While Luther survived his ordeal, Tyndale however, was hunted down and strangled by the religious authorities and then burned at the stake.  He gave his life for seeking to translate the Bible into the contemporary language of his day; they would have done the same to Luther had he not been hidden by his elector at the Wartburg. 

Tyndale’s legacy lives on today. Many, however, are not aware of the fact that, according to scholar David Daniel, about 90% of the King James New Testament was the work of William Tyndale.  His influence on the English language is probably larger than any other single person as well and goes beyond even people like Shakespeare, as he coined phrases still in wide usage to this day in the English speaking world like: “salt of the earth,” “scapegoat,” “apple of my eye,” etc.

Luther’s and Tyndale’s idea was simple yet revolutionary, and subsequently opposed vehemently by the church. Tyndale was in fact murdered by that institution for seeking to reach the common man with the Gospel: Luther and Tyndale both wanted and worked to get the New Testament Scriptures into the hands of the common people in their own language, believing that this would result in the individuals’ understanding easily opening up to the finished work of Christ on the cross for them. They would likewise understand that they have been made a new nation of priests and kings forever in the kingdom of God, a kingdom where Christ alone rules and reigns in love and His subjects are lifted up by humbling themselves and not by exalting themselves over others. The greatest in the kingdom of God is one who serves others, not lords it over others.  They wanted to shine the light of Christ rather than keeping the people in the dark like the church system had sought to do. 

Thus, the believer in Christ is made new and forgiven by virtue of what Christ has done for him; Christ’s blood has washed and cleansed him and clothed him in righteousness.  That glorious blood has also made the simple believer of the crucified Christ a priest in the risen Son’s glorious kingdom forever—Hallelujah. 

Let’s remember the price paid by Christ for our sins and the price paid by His followers who went before us so we can have His liberating word!!!  

(1)--Here I Stand by Roland Bainton--an excellent in-depth biography on Martin Luther.