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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at / Published Life BPC, 8am service, 2000-10-29

Text: Jude 1-4

Today is a special day in which we look at our Protestant heritage and commemorate the 16th century Reformation. This Reformation was a great movement that restored the Truth of God's Word back to the church. We must thank the Lord for bringing about this movement because we are the ones now enjoying all the benefits of it, having the truth of God's Word taught, preached and followed in our church and in all churches that have emerged as a result of this movement. And now the call is given to us to continue in the work of Reformation, according to the call in the passage we read awhile ago from the epistle of Jude: The call to 'earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.'

This Reformation began with a German monk by the name of Dr. Martin Luther who nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg. In just 4 weeks these theses were painstakingly copied out by people and sent throughout Germany and surrounding countries. Many became bold to follow Luther's courage. God raised up many more Reformers who joined in the Protestant movement to proclaim this glorious truth and others truths of Scripture that had become obscured by the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. Among them were: Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, John Hus, John Knox. With one voice they all sounded the battle-cry of the Reformation: 'The Word alone, by Grace alone and through Faith alone, to God be all the glory!' (in Latin: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Soli Deo Gloria)

And today Protestant churches all over the world like ours remember October the 31st as the anniversary of the day when Luther challenged the Catholic Church by nailing his ninety-five theses. However in the midst of all this celebration, something very important is often overlooked. A while ago we saw that the war cry of the Reformation concludes with the words 'To God alone be the Glory.' But when you listen to many Reformation lectures and sermons being preached you might notice that this is strangely missing. Instead of glorifying God for the work of the Reformation, the ones who are glorified are mere mortal human beings. The true wonder of the whole work is obscured - which is the Sovereignty of God over all circumstances.

I would like now to demonstrate that the 16th Century Protestant reformation was the work of God working through frail creatures of flesh. It was God Himself who clearly directed the inclinations in the hearts of men and ordered all the events that took place. We will see that God brought about this work through three categories of circumstances: The first was

I. The Development of Indulgences in the Church 

Indulgences are 'forgiveness tickets' that could be bought with money. The granting of indulgences originated from a good biblical practice in church discipline. The practice where the whole congregation demonstrated grace to a repentant errant member by relaxing the 'satisfactions' which had been imposed on him as requirements for readmission into fellowship. But in the 13th century Pope Alexander perverted indulgences to mean the 'commutation for money of part of the temporal penalty due for sin, of the practical satisfaction that was a part of the sacrament of penance which also required contrition on the part of the penitent and absolution from a priest.' Furthermore indulgences could only be granted by the pope's authority and made available through accredited agents.

Other perversions in the Roman church followed. The church taught the people that if a person�s sins were not satisfied by penance in this life, he would be required to make satisfaction for them in an intermediate place called Purgatory, where saints endured great torments for a long time before entering heaven. The only solution to Purgatory was Indulgences. For a payment of a sum of money, the Pope could use his authority to shorten the time that a saint spent in Purgatory.

In 1467 a papal bull of Pope Sixtus IV extended the privilege of indulgences to include the souls who were already suffering in purgatory, provided their living relatives purchased the indulgences for them. This development pandered to the emotional bonds of relationship between the living and their deceased loved ones - who would not want to see his parents, children or wife delivered speedily from torment? A person could therefore now buy indulgences for himself - to keep himself from going to Purgatory - or for a deceased friend or relative -  to help them escape more quickly from Purgatory. 

I think you can see what motivated the Roman Church to develop these false doctrines. They brought in a great amount of money and wealth into the church. All the huge monuments and buildings in the Vatican were built with money gained through indulgences. So if you ever visit Rome and admire the sculptures and architecture of the grand St Peter's cathedral, remember that it was all paid for by the Catholic Church's teaching on indulgences and purgatory.

Now, besides making the church very rich, indulgences also produced another effect: it made people sin more and more! The sinful nature of man was free to express itself, since forgiveness could be bought so easily with money. Some even bought indulgences for sins they had not yet committed!

And this set the stage for men who thirsted after righteousness to see how wrong this doctrine is and challenge it. Men like John Wyclif in England and Martin Luther in Germany. There were of course many other evil perverted doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, like the worship of Mary, idolatry and transubstantiation. But it was this particular doctrine of indulgences and the evil effects that were evident that was used by God to provoke men to oppose the church and to ignite the fires of the Reformation.

We go on now to look at the second category of circumstances God used. These were

II. The Economic And Political Changes In Rome And Germany. 

What was it that caused the Roman Catholic Church to become greedy for money and thus promote the sale of indulgences? It was the fact that the church had lost a great source of income when the Crusades ended. During the Crusades the church had inherited much wealth and property from many wealthy crusaders who had placed their estates under the care of the church when they went.

When these crusaders died in battle, their estates and property permanently belonged to the church. This brought in much wealth into the church for a time and when it stopped with the end of the Crusades, there was suddenly a fall in income. The church had tasted wealth and enjoyed it. The popes had got used to living in luxury. Because the church had now become so accustomed to receiving so much, she began to look for other means of gaining wealth. You can guess what solution she found: Commercialize the dispensing of forgiveness by the sale of indulgences!

Rome exported chest after chest of these indulgences all over Europe. These were actually certificates signed by the Pope which granted the purchaser the right to receive full and perfect remission of all his sins, the right to participate in the merits of all the saints and the relieving of poor suffering loved ones in purgatory. Moreover the indulgences were sold at great discounts and skilled salesmen were employed to promote sales all over Europe. They made great extravagant claims for the effectiveness of these new special indulgences. They said that repentance was no longer a requirement for them. One of the salesmen who said this was a Dominican monk named Johann Tetzel who even had a catchy jingle 'As soon as the coin into the coffer rings, the soul out of Purgatory springs.' Tetzel's salestalk even included such blasphemous statements as 'The Lord our God no longer reigns, He has resigned all power to the pope.'

Tetzel was not only working for the pope but also for an ambitious German prince of Brandenburg. Prince Albert was in debt to the pope as a result of a deal he made with the pope to make him the archbishop of his area for a large sum of money. Hence the pope and Tetzel split the profits from the sale of indulgences between them.

Now the town of Wittenburg where Martin Luther was, was located in a region called Saxony which was actually outside of the area where Tetzel operated. In fact the the prince of Saxony who disliked Prince Albert of Brandenburg did not allow him to come into his territory. At this point it would seem that Luther would never have come face to face with Tetzel in a confrontation over indulgences because he lived in a part of Germany that was free from it. But by God's providence geography comes in to play an important role here, because Wittenburg, though in Saxony, was only a few miles from the border of Brandenburg, where Tetzel operated. Being a very shrewd businessman Tetzel purposely set up his trade of indulgences right at the border town near Wittenburg so that people from Saxony could cross over to buy indulgences.

Right at this point we see several threads of circumstances coming together to prepare the stage for the nailing of the 95 theses. The greed of Rome that developed the doctrine of indulgences to get money, the ambitions of Prince Albert to become archbishop, and the shrewed dealings of Tetzel.

All of these were working together according to God's sovereign providence to ignite the flames of the Reformation.

Now we come to the third category of circumstances God used. These were the circumstances in:

III. The Life of Martin Luther 

If Luther had been any less convicted of the error of indulgences than he was, he would never have written the 95 theses at all. Let us learn a little about Martin Luther. He started out as an Augustinian monk in a Catholic monastery in Germany. And there he was made to study the writings of Augustine and the Catholic Schoolmen, but not the Bible. But one day, as he was browsing through the books in the monastery's library, he accidentally found a copy of the Latin Bible, which he had never seen before. This raised his curiosity to a high degree: he read it over with great excitement, and was amazed to find what a small portion of the Scriptures was being taught to the people.

So he devoted himself to study the Scriptures well in order that he would be able to teach its wonderful truths to the people. He devoted himself so much to Bible study that he often neglected eating and sleeping. As there were no German translations of the Bible yet, he had to study the Bible in Latin, which was really his second language (This would be like a situation where there are no English Bibles at all today and all of us had to study the Scriptures in Chinese!) But Luther knew it so well, that later on he was able even to make the first translation of the Bible into the German language! After Luther's training was finished, he began his ministry at Wittenberg.

Luther was given three roles at Wittenburg. He was a monk, he was a university professor and he was also a church pastor. There was something in each of the three roles with Luther had which urged him to oppose indulgences.

As a monk, Luther belonged to the Augustinian order. This was different from the Dominican order to which Tetzel belonged. A rivalry had always existed between these two orders of monks and therefore Luther felt no qualms at all about opposing Tetzel.

As a professor, Luther had sworn to defend with all his might the faith contained in the Scriptures, and he did this well. In fact, just months before he wrote the 95 theses he had published 151 theses on justification and 97 theses against Scholastic theology. He was a hard-working professor or theology, always intent on improving the curriculum for his students and eliciting the truth.

Therefore when Tetzel's doctrine of indulgences was heard at Wittenburg, Luther had to fulfill his duty as the University theologian to uphold the Scriptures. It was actually quite normal for him to nail the theses to the door of the church because this door also served as the notice board for the university students. These theses were designed by Luther the professor to become the basis for an academic debate which was to take place on the next day. The next day was November 1, All-Saints day when the church hall would be packed both with his students and the members of his church.

We have seen Luther as a monk and as a professor. Now we turn to Luther as a pastor. As a pastor, Luther had experienced the joy of salvation, and knew that his sins were forgiven. He truly appreciated the free gift of grace because he had started an exhaustive study of Paul's epistle to the Romans in 1515. As he studied this epistle carefully he had discovered that salvation was not at all accomplished by doing good works, as he had been taught all along by the Roman Catholic Church. He realised the truth of Romans 1:17 which says: 'The just shall live by faith.' For the first time in his life, Luther believed with all his heart in the Lord Jesus Christ and experienced the forgiveness of his sins. He was born again and his heart was inflamed with a passion to share what he had discovered with others and to preach it to the humble people who were members of the church he pastored.

What Luther discovered and shared with his congregation was entirely opposed to the system of salvation Tetzel was teaching through payments of money. As a good pastor, Luther could not bear to see his people coming under the influence of this grossly false teaching, and therefore he could not remain silent. Even before Tetzel came, Luther had shown a pastoral concern for the problem of indulgences. There were sermons by Luther against indulgences as early as 1515, 1516 and early 1517. He saw the danger of a false sense of security generated by the Indulgences. When Tetzel came however many from Luther's own congregation crossed the border to Brandenburg to buy indulgences despite his repeated warnings. 

Luther could not help but to protest against this to rid the church of this profane and degrading practice. 

And so we can see in Martin Luther, the Sovereignty of God working to produce out of the circumstances of his life, a man, whose convictions from the various roles of life would combine under the right external circumstances to initiate the Reformation. Being a monk, he was willing to oppose Tetzel who belonged to a rival monastic order. As a university professor, he wanted his students to elucidate the truth. As a church pastor, he wanted to protect his flock against a doctrine that was precious to him because of his own recent salvation experience.

But here we must note that when Luther wrote his 95 theses he still had great respect for the Catholic Church and the pope. It was only two years later in 1519 that he came to realize how unscriptural and evil the church was. It was not his original intention to start the Reformation at all and cause schism within the church. He only expected to influence his students and his church members in his own town towards his point of view concerning indulgences. But God had different designs for Luther's act.

It was Prince Albert of Brandenburg who was used by God to blow up the issue. Earlier on itw as mentioned that he was using indulgences to pay the pope what he owed him. He naturally felt threatened when he heard about the stir Luther had caused against indulgences. In his mind he saw sales dropping drastically and himself unable to pay his debt. So he quickly sent a request to Rome to stop Luther. When Rome received this request it reacted at first with disregard, but later with disdain for Luther's thesis because the pope also began to see Luther as a threat to her lucrative business.

Tetzel thus responded on behalf of Rome by coming up with two sets of counter theses against Luther. He was also angry that his sales had been adversely affected by what Luther had written. This sparked off a chain reaction of big public debates between those who sided Tetzel and those who sided Luther.

It is apparent from all of this that the circumstances leading to the writing of the 95 theses affected the reaction to them to a very great extent.

Under a different set of circumstances, a document which Luther himself later admitted was made with weak convictions against the Papal system, might not have succeeded in dividing the church. God was clearly working to use the weak efforts of men to bring about a powerful change in his church.

The whole Protestant Reformation which we celebrate today was carefully planned and wrought by the Lord. We ought therefore to give God all the glory and praise for this wonderful work! And since it was God who restored the truth to His church in the Reformation, we can be confident that God will ensure that His Truth will continue to be preserved and propagated in the church today, no matter how great the threats may be.

Today we are once again faced with issues of truth and error. There is Liberalism, Charismatism, Neo-Evangelicalism, and not to mention the Roman Catholic Church which is still very strong. More than that there is even an attempt in our time to undo the work of the Reformation, in the ecumenical movement. Two years ago Rome removed its disdain for Martin Luther and forgave him for being a rebel. This was done to open the door for reconciliation of Protestants to the Roman Catholic Church. And some sectors of Protestantism have already capitulated.

These include the Anglicans and Methodist churches. Recently I saw a pamphlet publicizing that on the 15-18 of next month, four local churches are going to host several joint ecumenical gatherings: These include a Methodist church, an Anglican Church, a Syrian Mar Thoma Church, and a Roman Catholic Church. The Neo-Evangelicals signed two documents, one in 1994 and another in 1997 called Evangelicals and Catholics Together document (ECT). The trend today is to go back to Rome. A year ago the Lutheran Church signed a joint declaration with the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of Justification, stating that they have now reached an agreement on this doctrine. This is clearly a compromise, because the Catholic Church has not changed in its stand regarding Justification by faith plus works. The Charismatic movement is also involved in this Romeward march.

John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard churches went so far as to apologize to the Catholic church on behalf of all Protestants. He asked a Catholic archbishop to stand up in the front of the auditorium and spoke these words to him.

Then he asked him as the representative of the Catholic Church to accept his apology on behalf of all Protestants and to forgive the Protestant church for protesting against it. Wimber stated that 'the pope, is very responsive to the charismatic movement, and is himself a born again evangelical, is preaching the gospel as clear as anyone in the world today.' 

Brethren we are living in momentous times. And at times we may become anxious and ask ourselves, 'What if the church today is not strong enough to withstand the huge tide of compromise?' What if Fundamentalist churches like ours become a small minority easily overwhelmed by the growing ecumenical movement?

Then we must look once again to the Sovereignty of God to direct the hearts and minds of men to withstand the trends and to order circumstances that will keep the truth uncompromised. Martin Luther himself realized this principle and wrote about it with conviction in his famous Reformation hymn: 'A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. Our helper He amidst the flood of mortal ills prevailing. The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him. His rage we can endure, for lo his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.'

May the Lord help us to keep looking to Him who is our hope in this day where the need for a continuing work of earnestly contending for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints has now come upon us.

Vision & Mission


To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

February 18 & 25 - Fruit of Obedience

If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. John 15:10