At high noon on the last day of October, 1517, so the legend goes, Martin Luther marched up to the door of the university church at Wittenberg, Germany, and there posted 95 theses or debating propositions. By this act he announced in good medieval fashion that he was willing to defend the truth of his theses against all comers.

Luther’s theses dealt largely with indulgences. The pope had commissioned a priest, Tetzel, to sell indulgences in central Germany to raise money for the completion of St. Peter’s Cathedral at Rome. The exact meaning of these indulgences is uncertain. Ever since Tetzel’s day, historians have argued over their precise theological definition. It is quite clear, however, that many who purchased indulgences valued them as permits to sin without fear of punishment.

In any case, Luther became so incensed at their sale that he advertised his debating topics, which included not only a discussion of indulgences, but also set forth what was of far deeper significance: his basic understanding of the biblical gospel that undergirded his objections to indulgences.

According to Luther, we are saved not as a final reward for living a good life. Rather, we are saved wholly by God’s gracious work of redemption in our behalf and on the sole condition of faith, that is, personal trust in Jesus Christ as divine Lord and Savior.

Luther came to this knowledge of the gospel only after severe struggle. In his early years in the monastery he had accepted the common doctrine of his day that salvation is by the grace of God through faith plus churchly and moral good works. But his soul was in agony. “If salvation is by doing good, have I done enough? Is God satisfied? Am I safe?” Luther didn’t know. But as he studied the Bible, he discovered that the answer to those questions is no.

God loves all men. In spite of their sin he receives them freely into his favor and fellowship if they repent of their sin and turn to him in Christ by faith. This is the first great principle of Protestantism and the true fundamental of biblical Christianity.

The second principle of historic Protestantism follows from the first. When Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, he had no intention whatsoever of any break with the church of Rome. He was advocating no new theology. He was only rebuking a wicked priest and laying a theological foundation for that rebuke in the teaching of Holy Scripture.

But to his astonishment, others didn’t see it that way. Luther appealed to the pope, urging him to administer appropriate discipline to this mercenary monk who was deceiving the people and despoiling the church. To his dismay, however, the pope exonerated Tetzel and instead charged Luther himself with heresy.

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In the discussions and debates that followed, Luther returned again to the source of his conclusions—the Scriptures and Jesus Christ, the Lord of Scripture. Loyalty to his Lord and Savior drove him back to Holy Scripture. The Bible, in fact, is the instrument by which Jesus Christ exercised his Lordship over his obedient disciples. This is the second great principle of evangelical Protestantism—the divine authority of the Bible as God’s Word to man, the only entirely trustworthy guide for all of man’s thought and life.

These two principles dare not be separated. They are related, as Luther himself put it, like baby and crib. Christ is the baby. He alone is the object of our adoration and worship. Scripture is the crib, and we treasure it because it is the bearer of Christ. Unfortunately, some today seek to remove the crib of scriptural authority and retain only the Christ. But the baby taken out of its crib and laid in the street will not long survive. The crib is made for the baby and is essential to its welfare.

By the Holy Scriptures we come to our knowledge of Christ and his salvation, and by that same Holy Scripture Christ instructs us so that we may become his believing and obedient disciples. Christ the Lord and Savior stands behind his written Word of Scripture, and we who celebrate Reformation Day on October 31, 1979, are grateful for Martin Luther and the great truths of the Reformation that he enunciated clearly and faithfully.

Evangelicals gladly trace their historical roots back to Luther. Not that evangelicalism began with him. But it took on its basic structure and became a recognizable movement within the nominal Christian church with Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Evangelicals themselves insist that the ancient church was essentially evangelical and that evangelicalism even in its darkest hours never disappeared altogether from the church catholic. Nor are the precise boundaries of evangelicalism easy to draw.

Still Luther claimed for his followers the name evangelical at least as early as 1520. At one point he even declared that “evangelicalism is Christianity.”

The word “Protestant” found its way into modern European languages only much later. In its original sense it did not arise as a negative word of protest in reaction to Catholic Christianity. Certainly Luther himself never conceived of his message in this way. Rather it was a protestimonium (Latin pro, in behalf of, and testimonium, a testimony or witness)—a positive proclamation of God’s grace in offering sinners full and free forgiveness. A Protestant is one who bears witness to this faith.

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A witness, we should note, has seen or heard something firsthand for himself. He does not rely on hearsay or rumor or on what someone else has seen; he tells what he himself saw out of his own experience. A witness also points beyond himself to the event or scene that he witnessed. A witness has something to tell others.

Twentieth century followers of Martin Luther must ask themselves: Am I a Protestant in this sense? Have I personally experienced Jesus Christ as my divine Lord and Savior from sin and do I place myself under obedience to his written word of Scripture? Do I have something to say to others about my Savior? And as a witness do I point others not to myself but to Jesus Christ, the Savior of sinners and the Lord of my life? May we all truly live as Protestants in Martin Luther’s sense of the term.

A Courteous Condemnation

Every age of Christian history, it seems, has its special temptation to “simplify” the simple gospel. According to theologian Georges Florovsky, the gospel is simplified from a Person to a principle. The cosmic Christ, the Christ-principle, the Logos or what-have-you is acceptable, but the human and divine Man Jesus is a stumbling block and foolishness. Yet, as Peter replied when troubled by Jesus’ hard sayings, there is no other Person, nor any principle, to which we can go, for it is he who has the words of eternal life.

Through the ages, other views have come and gone, and often come back. In the nineteenth century, Albrecht Ritschl “simplified” the gospel into the challenge to fulfill one’s calling with total integrity and fidelity, even as Jesus fulfilled his. His view became an important root of the distorted loyalty that caused even Christian commanders to kill for a demented Führer.

Martin Luther, never a gentle man with words, reserved some of his greatest vehemence for the downtrodden peasants of 1525 who transmuted the evangelical promises of Christian freedom that Luther had rediscovered into the license to overthrow their feudal ties and kill their feudal lords.

In our day, the so-called theology of liberation claims in similar fashion to simplify biblical salvation. Eric Vögelin sees Marxism with its hatred of creation as well as of the Creator as the Gnosticism of our day. Liberation theology is only a slightly Christian-tinted Marxism, like the “Christian” Gnosticism of the second century. Gnosticism saw all reality as fundamentally different from what had been created, and what all men but Gnostics thought it to be. Marxism sees the world order as totally different from what Scripture tells us, and from what all men other than those “enlightened” by Marxism suppose it to be.

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Liberation theology—like Marxism, incidentally—contains valid observations. It espouses some, if not many, moral positions that Christians must also endorse. At best, when these insights only tint our Christian faith, then the theology of liberation may serve as a useful if not dangerous stimulant—like nitroglycerin to the failing heart. But only a mildly Christian tint to liberation theology is as dangerous in our era as Gnosticism was to the early church.

Fundamentalist George Pickering sorrowfully criticized evangelicals who lack the courage to take a stand where a stand must be taken. We are, he implies, so enticed by the desire to be up-to-date and to enjoy the approval of the sages of secular culture that we will compromise every principle; but we do it gradually, so we will not notice that we are forsaking Christ. If that stern charge wounds us, it should also wake us; for if it is true, we will lower ourselves alive into our grave.

The siren call of the liberation theologians is one place where Christians must exercise discernment. Even though we share in the guilt of an oppresive society and are called to much atonement, we must label anything that replaces the biblical doctrine of salvation as another and a different gospel. And with the other gospel verdict, we add, as Paul commands, the damnamus: though it be an angel who proclaims it, let him be accursed. As Peter Berger wrote of starry-eyed students talking of “revolution,” they mean something fine, but he sees dead children in the streets.

Some—not all—of the theologians of liberation mean something fine. But whatever it is, it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ, and there is no nice way to say what Paul says to those who counterfeit the gospel. A courteous condemnation is difficult to pronounce, but sometimes it is necessary. Liberation theology is a case in point.

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