By Jeanie Layne
Last week, we launched into a basic overview of the setting of the Church leading up to the Protestant Reformation. While we skipped over many details, hopefully it provided you with a 30,000-foot-view of why the Reformation needed to happen. Let’s continue today to consider key figures, themes, and points of application from the Reformation.
Where did the Reformation take place and who participated?
While reform in the church occurred throughout much of Europe during the 1500s, the Reformation is often considered to have begun in Germany. You may remember from last week that Desiderius Erasmus published his critical Greek New Testament in 1516. A Catholic friar by the name of Martin Luther read that Greek New Testament. Luther had previously studied the book of Romans for a lectures series for his students at the University of Wittenberg. As he studied Romans, he understood Scripture to teach the concept of “justification by faith” as opposed to a justification by works. With this new understanding of justification in mind, he read Erasmus’ Greek New Testament and became convinced that the system in the Catholic church of doing penance for sins was unbiblical. Rather, Luther was convinced that both faith and justification were the gifts of God, given freely and never earned by man.
Luther wrote a set of ninety-five theses, which he mailed to the Archbishop of Mainz on October 31, 1517, and this event traditionally marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Tradition tells us that Luther’s theses were nailed to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, translated into German, and circulated throughout Europe, spurring on the Reformation throughout the continent.
Luther’s ninety-five theses focused primarily on the sale of indulgences. In them, Luther made assertions like, “Any true Christian, living or dead, partakes of all the benefits of Christ and the Church, which is the gift of God, even without letters of pardon” (#36), and, “A wrong is done to the word of God when in the same sermon an equal or a longer time is devoted to indulgences than to God’s word” (#54). While Luther primarily intended to stir conversation within the Catholic Church, the Church did not take kindly to Luther’s rebellious teachings. Though Luther was excommunicated by the Catholic Church in 1521, his ideas had already begun to take root.
Luther was eventually hidden away for safekeeping by a high-ranking benefactor, and while in exile, he completed a translation of the bible into German, making the Scriptures accessible to the everyday people. In addition, while he was in hiding, other leaders in Wittenberg continued to make progress towards reform. Several of the monks left their monasteries and married, as they understood Scripture to teach that celibacy was not required of them. Worship practices in the church were simplified, and the mass was held in German instead of Latin. Finally, a leader named Philipp Melanchthon began to offer communion to everyone in the congregation, when prior, only the leaders of the church had been able to take communion.
The Reformation spread through Europe in places like Switzerland, through the leadership of men like Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin, and more slowly into England alongside the formation of the Church of England. Ultimately, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin—and every other reformer—had challenges that sometimes mar their legacies, some of which we’ll dig into next week during our look at a few “heroes” of the faith. None of these men were perfect, yet God used these leaders to initiate needed changes within the Church.
What were a few key themes of the Reformation?
Let’s consider very briefly a few key themes of the Reformation. These teachings, known as the “Five Solae,” explain the ways that Protestant Christianity conflicted with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
Sola Scriptura – “By Scripture alone” teaches that Scripture should be the controlling factor over church tradition and affirms Scripture should be used to interpret Scripture. Everything taught by the church should be found in the inerrant Word of God.
Sola fide – “By faith alone” teaches that faith alone is required to receive justification (or righteousness) before God. No good works are required to earn salvation. While good works may be the fruit of salvation, good works cannot earn salvation.
Sola gratia – “By grace alone” teaches that salvation is a result of the undeserved favor of God. Man can never merit righteousness on his own, and God must graciously gift man with salvation.
Solus Christus – “Through Christ alone” teaches that there is one mediator between God and man. Jesus Christ is the only means to salvation. There is no need for clergy to serve as mediators, as Christ alone forgives sin and secures righteousness before God.
Soli Deo Gloria – “Glory to God alone” teaches that all glory should be given to God alone. No saints or clergy should receive glory that should be given to God, as God alone is capable of accomplishing salvation.
Finally, what does the Reformation mean for us today?
If not for the Reformation, we may not have Scripture in our language, we may not have access to a printed copy of it, or we may not have the ability to read it and know it for ourselves.
If not for the Reformation, we may still function in a grace-less system of merit, where people manage their own salvation through good works or financial restitution. The true gospel is one of free and undeserved grace towards sinners, and the Reformation secured the beauty of the Gospel from the clutches of a works-centered righteousness.
If not for the Reformation, the Church may have succumbed to the immoral and sinful habits it had developed. God is not glorified when His people are indistinguishable from the world around them. Rather, the Reformation ensured that the Church is distinct, acting as salt and light in a tasteless and darkened world, and bringing glory to God in the process.
If not for the Reformation, the approval of priests and human mediators would be required to accomplish repentance or forgiveness of sins. The Reformation reminded us that Christ alone serves this function in the Church, and He is personally accessible to the believer.
Ultimately, this matters to us because God does not leave His Church alone to fend for herself. Rather, He cares for the Church, restoring her to life when she begins to die. God graciously provided reformers, scenarios, and means by which His Church would be protected, and the Reformation reminds us to care for the Church, too. Thanks be to God for the ways He protects His Bride, the Church.