“Luther’s 95 Theses and the Reformation”

SERMON:  “Luther’s 95 Theses and the Reformation” 「ルターの95箇条の提題と宗教改革」
TEXT: Ephesians 4:17-24


Have you ever been asked, “What does Reformed Presbyterian mean?” Many people think that it means a presbyterian church that has “reformed,” to become either more conservative or more “progressive.” I usually explain that it means two things: first, a church that is guided by elders who are elected by each congregation; second it means a church that believes and teaches the theology of the 16th C. Protestant Reformation. Most people have heard of the Protestant Reformation in European history, but most people do not know much about the theology of the Reformation. I think a good, simple definition of “reformed theology” is that it is a Christ-centered theology that is based firmly on the teaching of the Bible. Reformed theology teaches that man’s salvation depends on God’s grace alone, through faith in Christ our Redeemer, and not on any “good works” that we can do. This was, of course, the original teaching of Jesus and His apostles. But gradually, over several hundred years, the church drifted away from those original convictions. Many new ideas crept into the church’s theology. Most of the new ideas that were added to the theology of the Roman Catholic Church strengthened the church’s authority and extended its influence over society. Many of those new ideas became deeply embedded in the thinking of Roman Catholic Christians during the turbulent Middle Ages. Among those new teachings were the doctrine of “purgatory,” the absolute authority of the pope in all spiritual matters, and the necessity of forgiveness of sins by the Catholic Church. These doctrines vastly increased the prestige and power of the Roman Catholic Church. But they were the teachings and traditions of men, not of God.

By the beginning of the 16th C., many were questioning the practices of the Roman Catholic Church. The popes in Rome had been living in luxury and doing so on borrowed money for many years. Many schemes had been established to increase the revenues of the Vatican. Church offices were bestowed on unworthy candidates in exchange for huge sums of money. Fees were charged to give privileges and exemptions to the wealthy. But one of the worst abuses of papal authority was the sale of “indulgences.” By the payment of a sum of money, one could be assured of forgiveness of sin by the pope himself. In fact, a new form of indulgence claimed to release a soul from purgatory and send him flying to heaven immediately! It was this form of indulgence that led Martin Luther to post his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg University chapel on October 31, 1517. At that time Luther was an Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the university. Five hundred years have passed since Luther posted his 95 Theses, and that day is still commemorated as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation of the Christian Church. Luther’s theses were subjects that he invited fellow scholars to think about and to debate with him. They were written in Latin—the language of scholars, not of the common people. In fact, Luther did not intend for this list of debate points to ignite the “fire” which swept across Europe as the Protestant Reformation. But Luther was convinced that his theses accurately showed the teaching of the Bible. Only gradually, over the next few years, did Luther come to realize that nothing less was needed than a thorough reformation of the Roman Church doctrines. Not only the practices of the Roman Church, but its fundamental theology, must be changed. The church must be restored to a reliable foundation of biblical teaching.

For the next few weeks I want to take up some of those main themes that Luther raised in his 95 Theses 500 years ago. In many ways they are still relevant today. They include the true meaning of repentance, salvation not by good works, but by God’s grace through faith, the finished atoning work of Jesus Christ, and the ultimate authority of the Scriptures. Today I want to consider the radical change that the gospel produces in real Christians. In Martin Luther’s day, this was the basic challenge of the 95 Theses. Will you submit your mind, as well as your body, to be transformed by the truth and power of God? Or will you cling to the familiar doctrines of men that are unsupported by God’s word? Luther believed what the apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians in 4:17-18. “You must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.” Rather, you were taught in Christ “to be made new in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created to be like God in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (4:23-24). In other words, there can be no true Christian faith without a complete reformation of the heart. Jesus likewise said to the scribes and Pharisees in Mark 7:6-8, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written, ‘These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. They worship Me in vain; their teachings are mere human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” That was true in Jesus’ day; it was true in Luther’s day; and it is also true in our day. Too many people claim to know God, but they have not yet taken the first step of true faith. They have not yet asked God to change their hearts, so that they begin to think like Christ, rather than like the society around them. They still “live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds” (Eph. 4:17). But the essence of Christianity is learning to think—and to live—like Christ! It must begin with the reformation of your heart. That is the way reformation came to Martin Luther. That is the way reformation came to the Roman Catholic Church and to the western world 500 years ago. One by one, people were changed by the renewing of their minds. That is how the church was reformed and the course of western history was changed. We need such a change now, too!

II. The Beginning of True Reformation

Let’s consider what such a reformation requires. Please turn to Ephesians 4:17-24. As we examine this passage, let’s compare the apostle’s words to our own experience. There are six things that he solemnly declares and requires from the Ephesian Christians.

First, Paul writes, “you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.” The main point here is that real Christians must live in a way that is different from the unbelievers around them. Our behavior is a reflection of what we think and what we believe. True Christians do not believe what other people believe. Therefore we do not think the way they think. The thinking of unbelievers is “futile,” Paul says. Their thinking—even if they are very “wise” in the eyes of the world—cannot lead them to know and serve the true God. And unbelievers will always live “in the futility of their thinking.” They cannot, by their thinking alone, climb up out of the moral darkness in which they live. But Christians are different. Christians have seen the “light of the world!” As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Therefore, we no longer live like unbelievers, in the futility of their dark minds. Christians should not act like unbelievers. So don’t be afraid to be “different” from people around you.

Second, Paul writes in v. 18 that the unbelieving Gentiles “are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.” This is very important, because it reminds us that sin has damaged the way people think and the way they feel about evil. First, Paul says that unbelievers are “separated from the life of God” because of “the ignorance that is in them.” In other words, they do not know God’s reality—His perfect righteousness, holiness, truth, mercy, or love. Many do not even admit God’s existence, so they certainly do not recognize His power. But it is not merely ignorance of God that has separated unbelievers from God’s life. Verse 18 says that their ignorance is a “willful ignorance.” They do not know God because they do not want to know God. It is because of the “hardness of their hearts.” When someone’s heart is “hard,” he cannot feel sorry when he commits an act that is morally wrong (evil). Our hearts become “hard” when we commit sins repeatedly. Here is one example of how man’s conscience can become hard: In wartime soldiers are commanded to kill their enemy; but they must first become “hardened” to the act of killing another human being. It is sometimes difficult for such soldiers to re-enter ordinary society after experiencing that kind of hardening of their hearts. Killing other people has become a new “normal” way of life for them. In a similar manner people can train their consciences to be silent and insensitive when they commit sins. People who have tasted the “pleasure” of sin want to continue to enjoy that sin, even when their consciences tell them it is wrong. By repeatedly sinning, against the voice of their consciences, people’s hearts become hard. They become unable to feel sad when they do evil. And finally, they become unable to discern right from wrong at all. That is one reason why people cannot know God—it is because they do not want to know the God who is righteous and who will judge their sins. It is such hard hearts that resist the knowledge of God. Christians must recognize that sin has brought darkness and hardness even to their own hearts. We cannot deal with this problem without the help of our gracious and powerful God. But, thankfully, God has provided the help we need.

God has sent us Jesus Christ, and Christ is different from anyone we have ever known! Christians are called to learn from and follow Christ. From Christ we learn who God is. We learn about His goodness and holiness and power. We learn about God’s covenant faithfulness and His mercy. And we are taught to love God just as He first loved us. In Christ we learn to walk with God and to please Him, rather than ourselves. We learn to distinguish between right and wrong, and to choose to do what is right. That is the way Jesus lived, and He taught His disciples to do the same. Hebrews says that Christ is God’s “Son,” “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature, sustaining all things by His powerful word” (Heb 1:3). Colossians 2:9 says, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.” Non-Christians may live “in the futility of their minds,” “having lost all moral sensitivity” (Eph. 4:19), but that is not what Christians have learned from their Lord Jesus Christ! In Eph. 4:21 Paul says something quite surprising. He says that Christians have “heard Christ” and “have been taught in Him.” In other words, Christians have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They have not been taught “about” Christ only; they have been taught by Christ Himself. This is an amazing fact about Christian faith. Those who are brought into this faith and life do not just adopt a new philosophy or way of thinking. They are received into a real relationship with Jesus Christ! This is the third way in which our lives are changed when we become Christians.

Next, Paul says, a real Christian will not only learn the doctrine of the Christian faith, but will actually commit himself to living a Christian life. This is the true test of Christian faith. It is not “how much you know,” but “how well you live” that shows who is a true Christian. The next three things that exhibit a true Christian character are contained in vv. 22-24. Paul says, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires.” This means that the old ways of thinking and living simply cannot be continued. Paul is talking about the necessity of repentance—of recognizing one’s corrupt, sinful nature, and consciously discarding it. True repentance is a decisive act of the will. But it cannot be effective without the powerful help of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, repentance is often called a “gift” which God bestows upon each true Christian by the Holy Spirit. As the apostles in Jerusalem declared in Acts 11:18, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” True repentance is God’s gift, without which no one will successfully “put off the old self,” with all of its sins.

A fifth requirement of true Christian faith is explained in v. 24. It is not enough to repent of one’s past sins; a Christian must also decisively “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” The “new self” is the perfect “image of God” that we see in only one person—Jesus Christ Himself. So I think Paul is speaking of our being “united with Christ”. That is what he wrote explicitly to the Roman Christians in Romans 13:14. “Rather clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” It is Christ Himself who enables us to live pure and holy lives. He is our only hope of living a life that is pleasing to God. These two decisive acts—putting of the old self and putting on Christ, the new self—occur when a person is “born again.” They are the twin acts of repentance—when we stop hoping in our own good works, and faith—when we claim Christ as our only hope of salvation.

There is one more thing that Paul lists in v. 23 as a requirement for true Christian reformation. He tells the Christians of Ephesus, “you must be made new in the attitude of your minds.” There is an important difference between this requirement and the other two matters he mentions in vv. 22 and 24. Unlike the experience of regeneration, the renewing of our minds must continue to occur throughout our lives. (The present verb tense makes this fact clear.) Is your mind being renewed daily? How can it happen? God’s primary way of accomplishing this is through our reading and meditating on the truth of God’s word. The Spirit of God will show you new and life-changing truths from God’s word, whenever you open the Scriptures and read them with care. This is the “secret” of spiritual growth and the renewing of your mind: regular attention to the word of God.


The 95 Theses that Martin Luther posted in Wittenberg 500 years ago challenged the “status quo” of the Roman Catholic Church and society of that day. They challenged Christians to examine their hearts. Would members of the Roman Catholic Church be willing to change their way of thinking and living, if the teaching of the Bible demanded it? The traditions of men are many, and they exert a powerful influence over our lives. But God’s word is more powerful! As Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Rom. 12:2). The word of God can transform hearts and it can renew minds. It happened 500 years ago, and it can happen again today.

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