From my experiences, when people speak of Luther’s reformation teachings in commemoration of his posting of the 95 theses on October 31st 1517, the focus is almost always on his rejection of the selling of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins. Inevitably this leads to the “solas of the Reformation” – that one is justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone[i] – being presented as the pistons that drove all of Luther’s reforming agenda. This depiction of Luther’s reforming work that I have observed again and again in numerous Lutheran congregations every Reformation Sunday has led me to see Luther’s reformation work to be primarily focused on correcting false doctrine. What I have just recently discovered however from reading Scott Hendrix’s article “Martin Luther’s Reformation of Spirituality” is that central to Luther’s reformation was not a mere correcting of false doctrine, but that the Reformation had an additional emphasis, if not primary emphasis, on reforming Christian spirituality.
Late medieval spirituality consisted of the selling of indulgences for the remission of sins. In particular, a full indulgence gave the pardon of all of one’s temporal punishment for sins committed up until the issuance of the indulgence. Partial indulgences could lessen, or shorten, the temporal punishments one would receive for his sins. These indulgences were granted by the authority of the pope with the full indulgence coming solely through his auspices. To acquire these indulgences a Christian would have to attend countless masses, take pilgrimages to relics and shrines of saints, give endless cycles of penance, dive full-length into all that monasticism had to offer, and of course fill the Church’s coffer with pecunias multas (lots of money). Luther’s 95 Theses and the resultant doctrinal formations that followed his initial disputation for clarifying the power of indulgences[ii] led to a necessary forsaking of these false spiritual practices for an embrace of a true, authentic Christian life of spirituality.
At the heart of Luther’s reformation of spirituality was his spotlighting that the religiosity of the Church in the late medieval age was wholly of human creation and ordinance – thus not established by God in his revealed Word. Such religious activities were, as such, adiaphora – neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture – thus Luther would come to demonstrate that such self-elected works had no value whatsoever to contribute to one’s righteousness, one’s right-standing before and with Christ. All the spiritual mumbo jumbo of man’s creation, no matter how Christianized it might be made to seem, will actually kill you physically and spiritually, and Luther knew and experienced this suicidal murdering of his body and soul first hand through his fervent devotion to the monastic lifestyle for twenty years. Much in the same way that Paul claimed to be a Pharisee of Pharisees, Luther was a monk of monks! Following the rules and edicts of men to attain eternal life, Luther discovered that they only lead to the ruin of his body and the unending torment of his conscious that knew he was still a sinner rightly deserving God’s righteous judgment.
The epiphany of the salvation in Christ that comes apart from the works of the believer that Luther found in Scripture and stood upon for his salvation didn’t eradicate all spirituality, all Christian living, it simply eradicated the false-spiritualties of the Church of his day, because Christ did give edicts of religious and spiritual activities to those who would follow him, and Luther was not rejecting these, namely, Christ’s commands to baptize, to proclaim the Gospel, to administer the sacrament[iii], to absolve the sins of the repentant and to retain sins and excommunicate the unrepentant, to suffer with Christ and for Christ, and to love and serve all people as Christ would have us to do. Essentially, following Christ and not the pope was the new landscape of Christian living that Luther sought through his reformation work. Christian living and spirituality is thus very much a Lutheran thing.
[i] Sometimes lists contain four or five solas instead of just the three I have provided with the additional two solas being Scripture alone and the glory of God alone.
[ii] Disputation for Clarifying the Power of Indulgences is the title given in the 1518 Basel reprint.
[iii] By sacrament, I am referring to communion.