Lutheran Church – Celebration of 500 Years since Launch of Reformation



Rugby Stadium : Durban: 22 October 2017

Bishop of the South Eastern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Southern Africa, Bishop PP Buthelezi; Deans and Pastors who are present at this special celebration; members of the congregation of uMphumulo Mission; Brothers and Sisters in Christ.

I greet you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to salvation and eternal life with the Father.

It is wonderful to be here with the congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as we celebrate 500 years since the start of the Reformation. This movement began with the courageous act of one man, but it has continued and spread through the faith of many, in many places, who have taken their stand for biblical truth.

The actions of Dr Martin Luther on 31 October 1517 changed the way we approach our faith and changed our relationship with the Lord. Whenever we read from the King James Bible, we do so because of Martin Luther. When we sing hymns in church, worshipping together with words that we all understand, we do so because of Luther.

It is because of Luther that we are able to collectively declare the Apostle’s Creed. Because of Luther we call ourselves Christians, and because of Luther we understand that the veil of the temple was torn so that we can approach the Lord directly, as a royal priesthood, made righteous through Christ.

We therefore have abundant reason to celebrate.

Today we as Christians embrace the Five Solas that emerged through the Reformation. Sola Scriptura – the Bible alone is our highest authority. Solus Christus – Christ alone is our Lord, Saviour and King. Sola Gratia – We are saved by the grace of God alone. Sola Fide – We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ. Solis Deo Gloria – We live for the glory of God alone.

While these truths seem self-evident from scripture, they were not always understood, or taught. Five hundred years ago, the Roman Catholic Church had drifted away from some of the teachings of scripture, to the point that indulgences were being sold. These were letters that confirmed forgiveness of sins, as though forgiveness could be purchased from the Church.

In 1516, when Dr Martin Luther was chair of theology at the University of Wittenberg, the proceeds from indulgences were being used to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Dr Luther’s Bishop, Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Magdeburg, needed to contribute a considerable amount towards this building project. He therefore sought permission from Pope Leo X to sell a special indulgence, and he appointed the Dominican Friar, Johann Tetzel, as his general commissioner.

Tetzel had been sent to Germany from Rome as papal commissioner for indulgences, for he was an exceptional orator. In today’s terminology, he was what we would call a slick salesman. Tetzel travelled from village to village, preying on the fear of the masses. He preached fire and brimstone, and the message that salvation could be purchased for just a few coins. He even claimed that the souls of those who had died could be liberated from purgatory, if the living were willing to pay.

In his own words, Tetzel said –
“Behold, you are on the raging sea of the world in storm and danger, not knowing if you will safely reach the harbour of salvation. Do you not know that everything which man has hangs on a thin thread and that all of life is but a struggle on earth?
…Don’t you hear the voices of your wailing dead parents and others who say, ‘Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, because we are in severe punishment and pain. From this you could redeem us with a small alms and yet you do not want to do so… We have … fed you, cared for you, and left you our temporal goods. Why then are you so cruel and harsh that you do not want to save us, though it only takes a little? …You may have letters which let you have, once in life and in the hour of death, full remission of the punishment which belongs to sin.”

When we hear these words now, we feel a righteous anger, for we know the truth of the gospel that salvation is a free gift from God. It cannot be earned or purchased. It cannot be sold. None of us deserve it, yet it is freely given.

Dr Martin Luther understood this, and he wrote to Archbishop Albrecht enclosing his “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy Indulgences.” The Archbishop did not respond. Thus Dr Luther took the iconic decision to nail his document to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg.

Naturally, this attracted a good deal of attention, but it was only a few months later, when some of his friends translated the document from Latin into German, that Luther’s ideas really caught fire. Within two weeks, copies of Luther’s 95 Theses had spread throughout Germany. Within months all of Europe had seen them and students began to flock to Wittenberg to hear Luther speak.

The essence of Luther’s message is contained in Ephesians, Chapter 2 –
“But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

Dr Martin Luther stood his ground. His refusal to renounce led to his excommunication from the Church by Pope Leo X. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V condemned him as an outlaw and a heretic, giving free license for anyone to murder Martin Luther.

Today, we give thanks that the plans of God are greater than the plans of man. Luther was rescued and continued to write, producing catechisms that enabled the ordinary man to understand the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. He translated the Bible from Latin into German, making it accessible to all. His translation influenced William Tyndale whose English translation, the Tyndale Bible, became the precursor to the King James Bible.

Thus Luther sparked the Reformation.

As we celebrate 500 years of faith and truth, I would like us to consider for a moment the reason that Tetzel’s propaganda found such fertile soil. At that time, without modern medicine, when the connection between hygiene and disease had not even been made, sickness and death were common. People lived in fear of illness and loss. Many were suffering and grief was unavoidable.

Into that stew of suffering and fear, Tetzel arrived with hope. But he wasn’t trying to alleviate suffering. He was trying to capitalise on it. Thus his message was not one that set people free, but one that placed them into deeper bondage.

As a leader I have always been very conscious of the motive behind messages. We live in a time and a country where suffering is still a daily experience. Many of our people are hungry, frustrated or living in despair. The field is ripe for someone with a twisted motive to mislead South Africans. Look, for instance, at how quickly racial tensions spread when Bell Pottinger began its strategy of division.

We need to be vigilant, particularly those who have responsibility over others. I am speaking about pastors who lead their congregations, parents who have authority over their children, community leaders and traditional leaders, and certainly politicians and government officials. Ours is the task of protecting the sheep, from the wolves that appear as wolves, and from the wolves who dress up in sheep’s clothing.

We dare not allow anyone to capitalise on the fears and suffering of our people, whether it is for financial gain or political power. We are here to alleviate suffering and to lead people into freedom. If the people we serve are not thriving, if they are not becoming more free, our job as leaders is not being done.

So as we celebrate the Reformation, I encourage us all to consider our hearts. Let us look within and identify the motive behind our message. Are we speaking liberty, peace and joy? Or are we spreading the gospel of fear?

Everyone has a sphere of influence, simply because we all interact. Even if you’re not a leader in any sense, your words and your actions still affect the lives of those around you. Thus I ask you, even you, to consider your heart, and to become a messenger of good news.

When people see you coming, don’t let them say, “Ah, here comes trouble” or “Here comes the latest gossip”. Let them look at you and see the joy of the Lord. Then be ready to give a reason for your smile.

How can we resist the joy of the Lord? His grace is sufficient for us. His mercies are new every morning. And His salvation is free to all who believe. That is the message we celebrate today. Thanks God for the good news of the gospel.