There are really only two kinds of people – those who love history and those who don’t! I fall into the first group. But, it’s not so much that I love dates and facts from the past. I find history to be fascinating because it shows us how little human nature has changed over time. Our modernity fools us into thinking we’re more advanced than the people of the past, but the common element of history – no matter what cultural era or place in the world you study – is always going to be the conflict between sinner and saint that goes on in the human heart.
In the Old Testament, Kings like Saul, David and Solomon were blessed with extraordinary gifts and talents. They prospered when they were faithful to God, but they struggled with selfishness when their “Old Adam” took control.
In the New Testament, the disciples of Jesus were sometimes eager to learn and to serve in His name, but they were often exposed as being stuck in their feeble understanding of God’s grace and mercy.
What counteracts this failing in God’s people is the gift of faith that connects us with Jesus and supplies us with power that comes through the Holy Spirit.
In the days of the Lutheran Reformation there was conflict because the medieval church had applied a great deal of human knowledge and understanding to God’s Word. In fact, the whole process of salvation had been taken over by human thinking.
Human reason tells us there’s a price a sinner has to pay to get right with God. But the Gospel tells us the entire cost of our righteousness has been paid by Jesus. His death satisfies our debt in full. His blood redeems us completely. We are united with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. There are no remaining works we need to perform. And we can’t repay God for any of this.
God’s word reassures us that we receive His full forgiveness through repentance. Repentance is a change of heart that has two parts: First, that we are sorry for our sins, and second, that we trust in Jesus for full forgiveness. God is the sole agent of our redemption. All we can do is rejoice and give Him thanks and praise.
Our faulty human intuition finds two problems with that. First, it sounds just too wonderful. We’re a little bit suspicious of valuable things that come free of charge. Secondly, we have a prideful desire to be partners with God in our salvation instead of merely passive recipients of His grace. It makes us feel good to think that we’ve earned something by our works and deeds.
So, over the centuries between Jesus’ ascension and the Reformation, a system of penance was developed in the Roman church. In this system, sinners participated by working off part of their debt to God. Their understanding was that Christ removes the eternal guilt of sin, but sinners need to acquire merits to cover the temporal penalties of their sins.
From this belief – that sounded right to the human sense of equity – came the conclusion that there must be a place between heaven and earth for sinners to work off their unpaid penalties. And so, the doctrine of Purgatory sprung from the guilt-ridden hearts of pious people. And soon, the system was enhanced with the transfer of merits through the granting of indulgences to frightened sinners.
On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther threw the whole doctrine of penance, Purgatory, and indulgences into question. And the rest is history!
By grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, and taught by Scripture alone,