From the Elders of Grace Life Church: This post continues a month long look into the Protestant Reformation. See the previous post on “What is the Protestant Reformation?” here. There is much we can learn from church history, mainly, the encouragement from men and women who boldly stood in the face of false teaching. One such example is provided below and written by one of our church members and LifeGroup leader, Josh Bird.
On October 31, 1517, a German monk posted a challenge to debate on the doors of the Wittenberg Church. That German monk was named Martin Luther, and the challenge to debate was on his 95 theses. Today, the posting of the 95 theses is viewed as the beginning of the Protestant reformation. It certainly wasn’t the beginning of the reformation as several reformers preceded Luther, and it wasn’t Luther’s intent to start a reformation.
We romanticize the moment in hindsight. We think of Luther nailing the theses to the door with every hammer blow thunderously shattering against the Catholic church. But that was not Luther’s intent at all. In fact, Luther posting his theses was like posting on a bulletin board. Luther did not even post the theses in German, the common language. He posted them originally in Latin, the language of the academics. Some of his students translated his theses into common German, and once the laity were able to read the theses, a spark ignited into a flame which remains unquenched today.
Luther’s intent was to have an open discussion and debate about what he felt were abuses within the church, particularly with the selling of indulgences. The Catholic catechism defines indulgences as follows: “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which as the minister of redemption dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.”
Under Catholic theology, when one dies and they are a believer, they are not immediately allowed to enter Heaven. They undergo what is called Purgatory. A Protestant understanding may describe this as further sanctification from sins in purgatory until they are allowed to enter Heaven. Indulgences were sold by the Catholic church which would allow a reduction in time one had to spend in Purgatory. Indulgences could be bought on one’s behalf, or on behalf of the dead, such as a departed relative. As John Tetzel, a prominent seller of indulgences stated, “as soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
In the early 1500’s, indulgences were sold to help pay for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s in Rome. Luther felt that this practice was being abused and that the poor were being taken advantage of. Luther stated in his theses that “they preach human folly who pretend that as soon as money in the coffer rings a soul from purgatory springs.”
While the reformation primarily focused on issues of faith and justification, it started as an argument about indulgences. An argument that Luther eventually seems to have won. The Catholic church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567, though the practice of earning indulgences is alive today. But while the Reformers battled indulgences and buying God’s favor, today, there is a popular and prominent theology which seems to focus on the worldly. That false teaching has come to be known as the Prosperity Gospel. Prosperity theology teaches that God is predominantly concerned with a believer’s health, wealth, and prosperity is rampant.
Prosperity theology operates on the assumption that it is God’s will to have financial blessings in this life. Oftentimes this blessing comes in the form of “sowing a seed,” via tithing to the church. One prominent prosperity teacher stated in 2015 that “Jesus bled and died for us so that we can lay claim to the promise of financial prosperity.” He would delete the statement, but he never actually or formally retracted his statement to my knowledge. His further writing seems to show he still believes that logic. He would later go on to say, “He took our sins upon himself and exchanged them for His righteousness so that we could become enriched and abundantly supplied.”
He looks to 2 Corinthians 8:9 as proof for his assertion which says,
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” But if you read that verse within the context of the entire chapter, it’s easy to see where he gets it wrong. 2 Corinthians 8:1-3 says “we want you to know brothers about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify and beyond their means of their own accord.” (Emphasis added).
When we look at the entirety of the chapter, it has nothing to do with obtaining worldly wealth, but a wealth of joy at the great news of Jesus Christ. Out of this joy, the Macedonians gave to continue spreading the word of God and help fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who were in need.
In his book “Your Best Life Now,” Joel Osteen also argues that “God wants us to constantly be increasing, to be rising to new heights. He wants to increase you in His wisdom and help you to make better decisions. God Wants to increase you financially, by giving you promotions, fresh ideas, and creativity.” He then goes on to argue that “you must conceive it in your heart and mind before you can receive it. In other words, you must make room for increase in your own thinking, then God will bring those to pass. Until you learn how to enlarge your vision, seeing the future through your eyes of faith, your own wrong thinking will prevent good things from happening in your life.”
Joel Osteen starts out on bad footing. First, he creates a vision in which a Christian is supposed to be constantly seeking after things of this world, financial gain, promotions, etc. Consider Paul’s words in Philippians 4:12-13, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Contrasted with the constantly seeking more version of Christianity from Joel Osteen, Paul talks of having as much contentment in prison as when he had abundance. Paul can do this because he has Christ.
The next thing to notice about Osteen’s premise, is it’s works-oriented. Notice that we are not responding to God, but it is God who is responding to us. God will not bless us, we are told, until we have enlarged our vision, increased our thinking, and then God will respond by blessing us with good things in our life. Ignoring that prosperity theology has us focus on the wrong thing, financial and worldly position, it also ignores that we can do no good work but by God acting through us. We can produce no fruit unless we abide in Jesus Christ, the True Vine (John 15:4).
While our fight may no longer be against indulgences, we fight against the false teachings of the Prosperity Gospel by standing on the right teachings of Scripture. We proclaim the spiritual and eternal “riches of God’s mercy” (Ephesians 2:4-10; Romans 11:33-36) and we trust that the Lord sovereignly cares for us in the abundance and in the little (Matthew 6:25-34; 2 Corinthians 12:9) and our earthly possessions in no way communicate the strength of our faith. We are recipients of saving grace and we testify to the world that the undeserved grace of the forgiveness of sins is far greater than any earthly wealth or prosperity.
As we come up on the anniversary of the Reformation. It is important to remember that we must always be reforming. We do this by remembering the five Solas of the reformation: Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”), Sola Fide (“Faith alone”), Sola Gratia (“Grace alone”), Solus Christus (“Christ alone”), and Soli Deo Gloria (“To the Glory of God alone”). We must remember that the Bible is our highest authority. That we are saved by faith alone. This faith is through grace alone. Christ is our only Lord, Savior, and King. And we must live our lives to the Glory of God alone. As Scripture refers to the Church as Christ’s bridegroom, we must remember that in sickness and in health, in wealth and in poverty, we have all that we need through Christ.