Spiritually earnest people were told to justify themselves by charitable works, pilgrimages, and all kinds of religious performances and devotions. They were encouraged to acquire this “merit,” which was at the disposal of the church, by purchasing certificates of indulgence. This left them wondering if they had done or paid enough to appease God’s righteous anger and escape his judgment. This was the context that prompted Luther’s desire to refocus the church on salvation by grace through faith on account of Christ by imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. To those spiritually oppressed by indulgences and not given assurance of God’s grace, Luther proclaimed free grace to God’s true saints:
God receives none but those who are forsaken, restores health to none but those who are sick, gives sight to none but the blind, and life to none but the dead. He does not give saintliness to any but sinners, nor wisdom to any but fools. In short: He has mercy on none but the wretched and gives grace to none but those who are in disgrace. Therefore no arrogant saint, or just or wise man can be material for God, neither can he do the work of God, but he remains confined within his own work and makes of himself a fictitious, ostensible, false, and deceitful saint, that is, a hypocrite (Luther W.A. 1.183ff).
Instead of the treasury of merit that was for sale, Luther protested, “The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God” (Thesis 62).
Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and teaches theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and Knox Theological Seminary. Justin wrote On the Grace of God and co-authored with his wife Lindsey Rid of My Disgrace and Save Me from Violence. He is also the editor of Christian Theologies of Scripture. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at JustinHolcomb.com.