The Antiquities of the County of Suffolk (1846) by Alfred Suckling, record that in the registers of Darsham Church, there are “several curious entries”. Including:
‘A license granted to Mr. Thomas Southwell to eat meat in Lent, aged 82, and sickly, by John Eachard [Vicar], for which he paid 6s. 8d. for the use of the poor in Darsham, according to the statute, March 4, 1638.’
So here’s a church fundraising idea: rather than giving things up for Lent, you can buy a license to allow you to do whatever you like. Chocolate? That’s £10.00, please!
It’s been done before. In 1517, when the Pope wanted to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, he sent a Dominican Friar called Johann Tetzel to Germany to sell indulgences. Tetzel said that you could pay to have someone’s soul set free from purgatory – a sort of ‘get out of jail free’ card for a loved one. Tetzel was a good salesman, with his slogan:
As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.
That might not have been official church teaching – indulgences were really to do with punishments that the church could impose on the living, not the dead. But the way in which they were being marketed caught the attention of an Augustinian Friar by the name of Martin Luther. Luther put together a series of propositions and sent them to his bishop. (He may or may not have nailed them to the door of the church in Wittenberg. If he did, it was not the dramatic gesture it may have seemed – more like pinning something on a notice board.) These 95 theses included one which asked why the Pope, who was one of the wealthiest men ever to have lived, didn’t pay for the repairs himself rather than expecting poor ordinary folk to give their money.
These 95 theses, sent to the Archbishop of Mainz on 31st October 1517, marked the start of the protestant reformation. I don’t think that Luther knew what he had started, nor was he able to control where it led, but part of what he did was to get back to what the bible says, rather than what the church said the bible says, and what had accumulated over the centuries. Luther’s reformation shared with Renaissance humanism a desire to get back to the original sources – ad fontes: the Renaissance went back to Greek and Latin classical texts, rather than relying on mediaeval interpretations of those texts. The Protestant Reformation decided to go back to the bible, rather than on how the church interpreted the bible.
It began with this rejection of the sale of indulgences. Imagine being able to pay to have your sins forgiven and go straight to heaven!
But it turns out that the gospel is even more outrageous than that. What Luther discovered, when he went back to the bible, is that God saves us, not because of our merit, but by grace alone. We receive that grace by faith alone. Salvation cannot be bought because it is offered free of charge. It cannot be earned because it is God’s gracious gift.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
The problem with Lent is that it can make us feel worthy, even self-righteous. But the gospel gives us no reason to boast because none of it is our own doing. It is God’s doing: we are what God created us to be. And part of that is a life of good works – not in order to earn our salvation but simply because that is who God made us to be.