An Epistle of Straw?

Morning Message: John Cline

Text: James 2:14-26; Reader: Linda Adutwum

I am going to visually re-enact portions of what the worship services were like for Martin Luther, who was a Roman Catholic priest in the early 1500’s serving in north-eastern Germany.

First, the priest would put on his gown.

Second, at set times, choral music would be. No congregational singing, though, and as the music was sung by a choir, with the words being entirely in Latin.

Music only –

Third, as the priest led the worship service, they would not face the congregation but be looking ahead to the altar (which was raised up on the highest and furthest away from the congregation).

Fourth, the priest would speak in Latin while facing front, chanting or speaking such phrases as: Dominus vobiscum – “The Lord be with you”; Sic transit gloria mundi –“Thus passes the glory of the world”: Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus –“Outside the Church there is no salvation”; Stat crux dum volvitur orbis – “The Cross is steady while the world turns”; Ora et labora – “Pray and work”; Kyrie Eleison – “Lord, have mercy”; Ecce Agnus Dei – “Behold the Lamb of God”; Dei Gratia – “By the grace of God’; or, Dominus Noster Jesus – “Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Martin Luther had grave doubts about these practices and also about the RC adherence to doctrines such as the veneration of Mary; the veneration of the saints; and the fact that Bibles were printed only in Latin (the so-called “language of heaven”) and not in the vernacular, the common tongue or language of the local people, in Luther’s case, that being in German. The RC Church believed that commoners should not read the Bible but instead should simply follow the orders of the Church for, only by doing so, could they be saved (as is seen in their teaching Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus – “Outside the Church there is no salvation). Most people did not own a bible, let alone read it, because they were told by the RC Church that it would be improper and dangerous for ignorant people such as them to read the Bible. Besides which, the Bible were only in Latin anyways and thus the people wouldn’t be able to understand it. Those practices and doctrines, as well as the most controversial one for Luther, that of the church selling papers (called “indulgences”) to people in exchange for large sums of money given to the church, all led Luther to put down into a paper 95 concerns he wanted to debate. So, on October 31st, 1517, the 506th anniversary of which just passed, the then 34-year-old Luther nailed to the outside door of the Wittenberg Cathedral his paper, entitled, “95 Theses” with the byline, “Out of love and zeal for clarifying the truth, these items written below will be debated at Wittenberg.” Posting such a notice as an invitation to debate on the doors of the church was a common practice. Debates on what was posted were the normal response to such a paper, but to Luther’s horror no debate immediately followed, just official church silence.

Painting of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door…

As mentioned, the biggest issue for Martin Luther was the RC Church selling “Indulgences”, which meant that people could perform a “good deed” by giving money to the RC Church and, in exchange, being given by the church a piece of paper on which was a written guarantee that the departed loved one whose salvation they had given more for, would thus be freed from that non-biblical intermediary place known as purgatory (which the RC Church taught was a waiting place location between this world and the next). Purgatory was thus where a final destination of either heaven or hell as their final destination awaited people’s loved ones’ souls as judgment on their souls was determined. This was a huge money-maker for the RC Church, as, for example, the money the church made from the sale of indulgences was so lucrative that it paid for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica as the Vatican City, the pope’s residence, and the seat of the Roman Catholic Church.

Two photos of St. Peter’s, Rome (one exterior, one interior)…

For Martin Luther the issue was not so much that St. Peter’s and other capital projects, were financed by the sale of indulgences as that the New Testament doctrine of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone, by the grace of God, was dismissed by it. Johann Tetzel, the brains behind the selling of indulgences famously said, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings/the soul from purgatory springs” so it was a very common and popular practice. Martin Luther just wanted to debate its’ merits (as well as his 94 other theses), but the RC authorities ignored his request for two years. Finally, they agreed to a trial in Leipzig, Germany in which he could present his ideas and RC heavyweight theologian Johanns Eck would refute them. Eck prevailed in the heavily biased (kangaroo-like) court and the RC Church officials threatened excommunication for Luther if he did not repent and recant all 95 of his Theses. He refused and went back to Wittenberg.

Though they had won the trial, a huge problem for the Roman Catholic Church had been created by relatively recent and immensely popular and influential invention known as the “Guttenberg Printing Press”. Instead of a single paper being written page by page by its author and then painstakingly copied word for word, the Guttenberg Press could take a piece of paper and have it rolled onto hundreds, even thousands of ink-filled pages in a single run. This meant the papers written by Luther were being printed out in the hundreds or thousands at a time. The demand for them was so great that the paper-deliverers could not keep up. His papers spread throughout Europe almost instantaneously and Luther became one of the most famous men in Europe.

One year after the Leipzig trial – which was really more like a hearing – a formal trial for Martin Luther was held. Due to the Guttenberg press printing off the news of this trial to everyone in Germany and beyond, It became history’s first “media event”. Guttenberg’s vibrant print industry made many of Luther’s works the first “bestsellers” in history. His appearance at the Imperial Diet of Worms was a media sensation. He had already attracted crowds during his two-week journey there from Wittenberg, preaching to massive congregations in defiance of the papal bull. In Worms, the assembly hall was overflowing, supporters and opponents of Luther clashed in the streets, and reports on the proceedings were quickly rushed to the Guttenberg presses and spread throughout Germany. Standing before the emperor and surrounded by the glittering elite of the Holy Roman Empire, the 16th century governing equivalent of today’s European Union, Luther was confronted with stacks of his writings and ordered to retract them. Instead, he renewed his positions and said, “I cannot and will not recant anything, for it is dangerous and a threat to salvation to act against one’s conscience.” Luther’s defiant words would become a declaration of independence for generations of Protestants the world over: “Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me. Amen.” Luther had never intended to leave the Roman Catholic Church but naively hoped to reform it from within. He had always regarded himself as a loyal Roman Catholic until that Leipzig trial. He naively hoped that his 95 Theses would be helpful in helping a “poorly informed Pope to become a better informed one.” At Leipzig, the threat of excommunication from the RC Church was then replaced with the declaration that Martin Luther was a “heretic”, a sentence that carried with it death by burning at the stake. But the sentencing was not just for Martin Luther but for his followers, as well. His works were to be burned in public, and all Christians who owned, read, or published them faced automatic excommunication, as well. Luther was given 60 days to repent and to recant all 95 of his Theses.

Luther was deeply offended and unleashed his fury in numerous papers which were then gobbled up by the public and widely embraced. In those papers, he created a hole from which there would be no climbing out with the RC Church. He railed against the idolatry of the worship of Mother Mary and, the veneration of the “saints”. He called the RC Mass a “dragon’s tail” (with Satan being the dragon referred to); and, strongest of all, he labelled whoever wrote the “papal bull” declaring him to be a heretic – he knew that the author was the pope – the “Antichrist”. Suggesting that the pope was the antichrist was the final straw. Luther now had real reason to fear for his life.

On day 60 following his Leipzig trial, executioners arrived there to arrest Luther for the purpose of transporting him to the place where he would be burned at the stake. However, some of his supporters had hidden him under cover and spirited him away from north-eastern Germany to lodge him in a secret place in central Germany, at the Wartburg castle. There he wrote at a furious pace, penning works with titles such as “Against the Bull of the Antichrist”, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church”, and to the governing secular rulers, “To the Christian Nobility”, in which he made a case for the northern European nations, at the least, to break away from the yoke of the Holy Roman Empire, which was controlled by the pope and to which they paid massive annual taxes. The secular princes seized on the moment and broke away from the Holy Roman Empire.

Most importantly at Wartburg Castle, Luther translated the entire bible into German, the vernacular language, the common tongue, of the German people, an act that infuriated the Roman Catholic Church who did not want the Bible in any language other than Latin. But the Guttenberg Press printed hundreds of thousands of German language Bibles and the Protestant Reformation, spiritually and politically, was in full force. Martin Luther changed the world!

Eventually, Luther emerged from hiding as both states and churches broke away from RC subservience. The newly freed churches gathered themselves together and called themselves “Lutheran Churches”, much to Martin Luther’s embarrassment. Knowing that everything could now change, Luther changed the system in many ways. For example, he officiated at the marriages of numerous formerly single priests and nuns (who had all laboured until the curse of enforced celibacy), and he himself married a former nun named Katherine Von Bora who bore him six children. They also adopted four orphans into their family. They didn’t marry for love but as a statement of freedom, but they did eventually come to love each other. Meanwhile, in that new denomination, Luther put in pulpits and had the pastors preach to the people instead of how it was in the RC church, with no pulpits and the priests having their backs to the people while speaking only to God. The Lutheran Church worship services were changed in language, as well, as they were now in German. And, because the former choral music was sung only by choirs and was in Latin, Luther composed German-language hymns for all the people to joyously sing, most famously being his composition, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” which became the unofficial anthem of the Protestant Reformation. As we sing it later this morning, you might see that the words reflect Luther’s personal and doctrinal battles with the RC Church, as well as his belief in salvation alone through Jesus, the “one little word” of God that provides salvation. Luther was teaching that people are not saved through following papal bulls or the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, but simply through having faith in Jesus, the one who, in his death by crucifixion on the cross and his resurrection from the dead, paved the way to salvation which meant victory over death and our eternal souls being set free from the penalty of sin. Salvation is all God’s grace and doing. You see, Luther had developed a thesis entitled, “by faith alone”, a doctrine he absorbed by reading this from the apostle Paul:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

No good deeds or works and certainly not the buying of indulgences for a loved one can save any person, living or dead, Luther taught. Only a person’s faith in Jesus, which is made possible by God’s grace, can save that person. So, we here are, having at last, we arrived at my reason for preaching this sermon about Martin Luther for the selling of indulgences was claimed by the RC Church to have been taught by James in his letter preserved in the New Testament. The RC Church claimed that James taught that a person could be saved by doing good works, and that the selling of indulgences was a good work. Luther was incensed by this but here is the passage that James wrote which the RC Church quoted:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. (James 2:14-26)

James was concerned that some of the Christians he was writing to were not, in their lives, proving their salvation by the deeds they were doing. James wanted his readers to not just, “talk the talk” but, to “walk the talk” as we say today. Luther was incensed with any talk of good deeds producing salvation and he let his anger at the RC Church get out of hand in the way he viewed James’ letter for he came to label that letter as “an epistle of straw”. Luther had gotten that phrase from one of the apostle Paul’s writings, in which Paul talked about the relative worth of a person’s words and actions concerning salvation.

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15)

So, for Luther, any teaching that salvation could be achieved by doing “good works” or deeds, such as through the buying of indulgences, was simply a salvation message and belief that had been built on a foundation of straw, and which would thus topple over or be burned with fire when truly tested. Now, Luther was right in defending salvation by faith alone, but he was wrong in accusing James of teaching salvation by good works, for really James argued in his letter for salvation through faith which produces good works, taking his cue from the words of Jesus himself, who, in a hard-hitting parable, had said,

“When the Son of Man (that’s Jesus) comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

We must remember that Jesus spoke that parable after first preaching on the necessity of faith, of being born again, of putting one’s life in Jesus’ hands. Jesus taught that a person cannot claim to be a follower of his if they don’t care about others. James concurred with Jesus and thus also taught his readers that salvation came by placing one’s faith in Jesus and then, as a result of it, good works would be expected. James thus advised the readers of his epistle, his letter of instruction,

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:26,27)

The key to understanding the relationship between faith and works is to identify the timing of the works. Are the good works pre- or post-salvation? Paul makes it clear that salvation is never earned through works but that the good deeds afterwards are the result of one’s salvation by faith. Admittedly, James wrote more about post-salvation works but what he was doing was making clear that salvation always results in works and good deeds. So, Paul and James were in complete agreement: works without faith won’t save a person, and, professed faith that doesn’t result in good works isn’t saving faith. So, Faith = Salvation + Works. We’re saved by faith alone, but, once we are saved, faith doesn’t remain private for when Jesus saves us, he transforms us, helping us to not be “polluted by the world” and to thus be involved in seeking the transformation of our society. This comes about by not only believing our faith but by living it out through good deeds such as “looking after orphans and widows in their distress”. Salvation involves our heads (what we think), our hearts (what we love) and our hands (what we do). Let us pray…

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