500th Anniversary of the Reformation

Posted: November 2, 2017 in Uncategorized

500th Anniversary of the Reformation

Imagine for a moment, having no Bible.  You have a belief in God, and you’ve heard of His Son Jesus, but you don’t know much about Him.  All you know is what has been told to you by your local priest, who may or may not ever read to you from the Holy Scripture.  You know there is a Bible; it’s just in a language you can’t read & only the priest is at least somewhat familiar with it (and even then, he’s not exactly fluent).  You know you need to go to church out of fear of eternal damnation, but when you show up, you’re only a spectator.  You stand/sit/kneel when the priest tells you to, but otherwise you watch him do all the worship.  His back is often to you, and he speaks in hushed tones, with you only rarely hearing what he has to say…not that you’d understand it, considering it’s spoken in a different language.  The one time you truly participate is when the priest has you come up to the front to receive a piece of bread, which he says is the sacrificed body of Jesus.  In that, you’re told, is your only hope of salvation…at least, as long as you do everything else the priest tells you to do in confession, acts of contrition, and more.  In all likelihood, you don’t believe you’ll go directly to heaven when you die – your best hope is to be put in the holding cell of purgatory, and you hope by your good deeds in this life that you may be able to knock off a few hundred years from your sentence.  Even at that point, you’re not really sure what will happen in eternity…it’s all a guessing game.

Such was the position of the typical European “Christian” in the Middle Ages.  They had no Bible of their own, no assurance of salvation, no clear proclamation of the gospel of Christ…nothing of which they could know God and His love for themselves.  There was the rare occasion when a priest would actually teach from the Bible in a way that people could understand, but that was the exception; not the rule.  Most of European Christendom (as well as Christendom around the world) lived in theological ignorance and hopelessness.  The truths of the Bible were kept closely guarded by the professional clergy, which had by & large devolved into just another feudal system, bartering land and power like any other lord/king across the continent.  In fact, the Roman Church had a great advantage over other feudal lords: those landowners might be able to inflict temporary pain upon their subjects; the Church had power over eternal life.  It was spiritual abuse, plain and simple – but it was the norm across the former Roman Empire.

As bleak as it was, things weren’t without hope.  God was still in control, and Jesus was still building His church.  He was just waiting for the right time for the right men to rise, and that was exactly what happened in what has become known as the Protestant Reformation.

The Day:
Approximately 68 miles south-southwest of Berlin is the town of Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther arrived in 1508 in order to teach at the university, as well as engage in pastoral work as a priest.  He was only 24 at the time, and had a storied life already.  Although he started out studying to be a lawyer, a freak thunderstorm caused him call out to Saint Anne (supposedly the mother of Mary, revered among Catholic and Orthodox churches), and he committed himself to be a monk if he lived. (Don’t run in thunderstorms! J)  He became an Augustinian monk in 1505, and by all accounts, became a monk-among-monks, truly devoting himself to the practice.  In 1510, Luther made a walking pilgrimage to Rome (1000 miles by foot!), and found himself disillusioned by the legalistic practices of penance and the open iniquity of the so-called “holy” city.  Back in Wittenberg, Luther completed his doctoral studies and became the chief theological professor of the university.  He began reading through the Bible every six months, and gradually started seeing very clear distinctions between law & gospel.  At some point, Luther was studying Romans 1:17 in the Greek, and the light turned on:

“At last, as I meditated day and night on the relation of the words ‘the righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written, the righteous person shall live by faith,’ I began to understand that ‘righteousness of God’ as that by which the righteous person lives by the gift of God; and this sentence, ‘the righteousness of God is revealed,’ to refer to a passive righteousness, by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous person lives by faith.’ This immediately made me feel as though I had been born again, and as though I had entered through open gates into paradise itself. From that moment, I saw the whole face of Scripture in a new light. … And now, where I had once hated the phrase, ‘the righteousness of God,’ I began to love and extol it as the sweetest of phrases, so that this passage in Paul became the very gate of paradise to me.”

Interestingly, that conclusion seemingly after the famous event that took place 500 years ago yesterday – the one in which an innocent proposition for honest debate ended up shaking the entirety of the European church.

October 31, 1517: Luther had not only become disillusioned with penance, but with the Roman Catholic practice of indulgences, whereby Christians who feared extra time in purgatory could give a financial gift to the Roman Church, and they would grant a dispensation.  The practice was made infamous by Johann Tetzel: “As soon as the gold in the casket rings, the rescued soul to heaven springs.”  It was nothing less than spiritual blackmail & outright abuse. 

(And, it’s still something taught by the Roman Catholics even today.  According to their own catechism under Article 4 of “The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation” and Paragraph X: “What is an indulgence?  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. An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. Indulgences may be applied to the living or the dead.”  This is absolutely false & unbiblical teaching, and ought to have been consigned to the history books 500 years ago.  Yet the current pope Francis declared 2017 to be a special year to obtain indulgences.  The very existence of this false doctrine ought to be a stark warning to all Christians to hold to the Bible alone as our final authority on matters of faith & practice!)

In any case, it was in response to this practice that Luther proposed a debate be held, and he wrote up 95 Theses as a starting point for the debate.  These, he nailed to the door of the church in Wittenberg – not as an act of defiance, but simply for public notification.  His original intent was to keep things scholarly and among theological academics.  And it would have, if it weren’t for the recent invention of the printing press.  His 95 Theses were eventually copied, published, and distributed all over Germany.

1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
52. It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters, even though the indulgence commissary, or even the pope, were to offer his soul as security.
53. They are the enemies of Christ and the pope who forbid altogether the preaching of the Word of God in some churches in order that indulgences may be preached in others.

It should be noted that at this point in Luther’s life, he considered himself Roman Catholic, and upheld many doctrines he would later repudiate.  He (like all of us) was a work in progress.  His full theological break with Rome would come later, but this was the event that first caused some within the Catholic church (including Tetzel) to label Luther as a heretic, worthy of death.

The Reformers:
As dramatic as the events of that day became through history, being the day widely recognized as the beginning of the Reformation, the seeds of Protestantism had been laid long before, by many other men.  Luther was seminally important, but there were far more than only Martin Luther involved.

  • John Wycliffe (1330-1384) – Morning Star of the Reformation.  Englishman who spearheaded the translation of the Latin Vulgate into English.  Was a doctor/professor at Oxford.  Thought the papal state exploited the people through mandatory tithing, repudiated transubstantiation, challenged the practice of indulgences, and believed Christians were saved through faith in Christ alone.  Held to the primacy of preaching, thinking it more important than the sacraments, and that the Scripture is the final authority.  He was so reviled by Catholics that 20 years after his death, his body was exhumed and his bones burned.
    • “Trust wholly in Christ; rely altogether on his sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than by his righteousness.”
  • Jan Hus (1373-1415) – preached in Bohemia (Czech Republic), embracing Wycliffe’s ideas.  Also preached against indulgences and appealed to the final authority of the Bible.  Declared a heretic at the Council of Constance and was burned at the stake.  (Which act was condemned by the common people as Hus had been promised safe conduct to & from the council.)
    • “I hope, by God’s grace, that I am truly a Christian, not deviating from the faith, and that I would rather suffer the penalty of a terrible death than wish to affirm anything outside of the faith or transgress the commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
  • Johann Gutenberg, invented printing press in 1453.  Not only did was the first printed book a Bible, but it set the stage for rapid publication of various works.
  • Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) – compiled and published an edition of the Greek New Testament from the best available resources at the time.  Became known as the Textus Receptus.
    • “Christ desires his mysteries to be published abroad as widely as possible. I would that [the Gospels and the epistles of Paul] were translated into all languages, of all Christian people, and that they might be read and known.”
  • Martin Luther (1483-1546) – Difficult to overstate Luther’s influence upon the church, and upon German culture as a whole.  His translation of the Bible into German was almost the singlehanded force in standardizing the German language.  It was his writings that truly set the Protestant Reformation into action.
    • “If the article of justification is once lost, then all true Christian doctrine is lost.”
  • Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) – What Luther did with the German church, Zwingli did with the Swiss.  He was totally committed to sound Biblical teaching, challenging the traditions of the Roman church.  He is best known for departing from a sacramental view of the ordinances, championing the memorial view of the Lord’s Supper and baptism.
    • “Christ, who has once offered Himself, is to all eternity the perpetual and redeeming sacrifice for the sins of all believers; therefore it follows that the Mass is not a sacrifice, only the commemoration of the sacrifice and the assurance of the redemption which Christ has shown us.”
  • Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) – Archbishop of Canterbury during Henry VIII.  Anglicanism began as a break with Rome due to Henry’s wish to divorce his wife – the theological break came with Cranmer.  He wrote the Book of Common Prayer, still in use by Anglicans today – notable for its heavy reliance upon Scripture throughout the worship liturgy.
    • “Whatsoever … the Church teaches you out of the canonical books of the Bible, believe that; but if they teach anything beside that (I mean, which is not agreeing with the same), believe neither that nor them: for then they are not the Church of Christ, but the synagogue of Satan and Antichrist.”
  • William Tyndale (1494-1536) – Tyndale provided a new English translation…the first to be translated directly from Greek and Hebrew.  It was incredibly influential upon the later King James Version, and upon the English language as a whole.
    • “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy who drives the plough to know more of the scriptures than you do.”
  • John Calvin (1509-1564) – French reformer who settled in Geneva.  He was perhaps the first reformer to write a comprehensive systematic theology.  Calvin wrote Institutes of the Christian Religion, which became incredibly influential in regards to soteriology, but (most importantly) always appealed to Scripture, rather than church tradition. 
    • “We owe to the Scripture the same reverence that we owe to God; because it has proceeded from him alone, and has nothing belonging to man mixed with it.”


It needs to be emphasized that all these men had faults, all being sinners in need of salvation (just like the rest of us).  Luther turned virulently anti-Semitic in his later years, Calvin supervised the execution of someone judged to be a heretic, Cranmer justified a royal divorce simply out of obedience to the king, etc.  Yet each of them had a commitment to the Scriptures, and were willing to put their own lives on the line in order that Christians might have it for ourselves.  Whatever our theological disagreements might be with some of them, we can be grateful for how God used them to return the Bible back to the Universal Church.

The Doctrine:
Apart from the translation of the Scriptures into common language (itself reason enough to be grateful!), it was the return to Biblical doctrine that most defined the Reformation.  Although much more could be said, the main themes of the Reformation can be summed up by what is commonly called the 5 Solas, “sola” being Latin for “alone.”

  • Sola Gratia = Grace alone
  • Sola Fide = Faith alone
  • Solus Christus = Christ alone
  • Sola Scriptura = Scripture alone
  • Soli Deo Gloria = Glory to God alone.

Thus, it can be said: We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, known through the Bible alone. To God alone be the glory!

Sola Scriptura = Scripture alone
Although the phrase may be included in a different place within the summary sentence, this concept is foundational to the rest.  Without a proper view of the Scripture as the final authority of God, then there’s no telling where we can end up.  Each of the Reformers came to the conclusions they did because they held to the Bible as their final authority.  That was their last safeguard against the popes and church tradition.

How do we know that Scripture is the final authority?  Because it was given by God.
2 Timothy 3:16–17, "(16) All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, (17) that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work."

  • “Inspiration” = God-breathed. Θεόπνευστος  Because it is breathed out by Him, it carries the full weight of divine authority.
  • Who would you rather trust: Man or God?
  • Because it has authority, it is good/profitable for everything in our lives.

Question: Who has the right to interpret the Scripture?  Answer: God.
2 Peter 1:20–21, "(20) knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, (21) for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit."

  • Scripture isn’t interpreted in private, according to the will of man.  Any man = pope, theological doctor, average Joe, or anyone.
  • Scripture isn’t interpreted apart from the Holy Spirit, because it was given by the Holy Spirit.
  • Who has the Holy Spirit?  Born-again believers.  Thus, believers are to seek God in prayer while studying the Scriptures within their context, and we can trust that our perfect Teacher (the Spirit Himself, 1 Jn 2:27) will guide us to the main point of interpretation.

Solus Christus = Christ alone
Once we affirm that Scripture alone has the authoritative doctrine of God, now we can look to the Scripture to learn what God has to say regarding salvation.  Is Christianity really the only way?  Is a person saved through a combination of the work of Jesus and the work of the Church? (A pertinent question for those in the Middle Ages!)  Scripture tells us that salvation is in Christ alone.

1 Timothy 2:3–5, "(3) For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, (4) who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (5) For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus,"

  • Praise God that He desires all people to be saved!  Because He does, He has made it clear in what way we can be saved.
  • That way is the one Mediator: Jesus Christ.  The Church is not our mediator – Mary the mother of Jesus is not our mediator – no priest or pastor is our mediator…only Jesus.
  • We need a Mediator!  Jesus is our perfect provision, being both God and Man.

Acts 4:12, "(12) Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved."

  • The apostles could not have been clearer.  When arrested for working a miracle in the name of Jesus, and standing before the Jewish Sanhedrin, they offered no apology for speaking the name of Jesus.  Why?  Because He alone is our only hope.
  • There’s no combination of religions – there’s no mixing of dogmas – no choosing of our own personal “spirituality.”  We find salvation in Jesus alone, or we do not find salvation at all. (John 14:6)

Regarding Jesus’ work as our Mediator, there is a religious office for that: a Priest.
Hebrews 9:13–15, "(13) For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, (14) how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (15) And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance."

  • Jesus is our High Priest – Jesus is our true sacrifice.  We cannot cleanse ourselves through our works (through good deeds, acts of penance, etc.).  We have to receive cleansing, and the only way we can is through Jesus.
  • To the Hebrew Christians attempting to go back to the rituals of Jewish religious law, the writer of the book of Hebrews tells them it is futile, because Jesus is already all-sufficient.  To Christians of the Middle Ages looking to spring souls from an imaginary purgatory, or to save themselves from the anger of a vengeful God, the Bible tells us that Jesus has paid it all.  The work is done.  It is finished!

Sola Gratia = Grace alone
Some might object: “I believe that Jesus is the only way to God, but I still need to earn my way into His salvation.  Belief might be the starting point, but I’ve got to work my way from there.”  To them, the Bible is clear: salvation is a free gift of God’s grace.

Ephesians 2:8–9, "(8) For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, (9) not of works, lest anyone should boast."

  • This is the gold-standard of proof-texts regarding grace!  Grace is, by definition, a gift.  It’s not something we’ve earned.  Something earned is a “wage,” and thus something of which we can boast.  Grace is receiving a blessing we don’t deserve, and thus there can never be any boasting at all except in the Lord Jesus.
  • BTW – regardless of what branch of Reformation one follows (Lutheranism, Calvinism, Arminianism, etc.), all Biblical Christians affirm that salvation is a free gift. 

Romans 3:23–25, "(23) for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (24) being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, (25) whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed,"

  • We all need grace.
  • Grace is freely available.
  • Jesus has done 100% of the work.

Romans 6:23, "(23) For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

  • Again, grace is the free gift of God!
  • What’s the gift?  Eternal life.

Sola Fide = Faith alone
So we know from Scripture that salvation through Jesus is simply an act of His grace, but how is His gift of grace received?  Through faith.  Once more, the objection arises that we have to do something to get the grace of God.  Not so.  Grace and faith go hand-in-hand.  If grace didn’t come by faith alone, it wouldn’t be grace.  Thus the means of how we receive the grace of God is through our faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, crucified for our sins & risen from the grave.

Romans 1:16–17, "(16) For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. (17) For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”"

  • This was the Scripture that turned on the light for Luther: the just shall live by faith.
  • We live, why?  Because we are saved – because God has shown forth His power to us in the gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ.  That’s why Paul was unashamed to proclaim it wherever he went – in front of Jews, Gentiles, or anyone.
  • Don’t be ashamed of the gospel!  It is good news: we live because of faith in Jesus!

John 3:16, "(16) For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."

  • This is the gospel, and it is also the good news of salvation by faith alone.  How so?  Because it is not by works we earn everlasting life; it is by believing in Jesus.

Galatians 2:16, "(16) knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified."

  • The issue of justification is important: it is being justified/made right in the sight of God.  How does this come to be?  To medieval European Catholics (and elsewhere around the world), you had to do certain things to achieve this justification into righteousness.  That’s the natural view of the natural man…but it’s anti-biblical; it’s not the gospel.  The people would have known this if they had been allowed to read the Scripture for themselves, but they weren’t.  The Catholic priests at the time barely read the Scripture for themselves; they read Catholic canon law, becoming eerily like the Pharisees of old who specialized in Jewish tradition rather than the Scripture.
  • What the Bible actually teaches about justification is that it’s not something we achieve; it is something that is declared/conferred upon us.  God makes us righteous, and He has chosen but one way to do it: by faith in Christ.  Any work of the flesh is useless and futile.

So put it all together: through the Scripture alone (not tradition) we know that we are saved by Christ alone (not the church, the saints, or Mary), as an act of God’s grace alone (not by means of anything we have earned), through the means of faith alone (as opposed to any work we can do).  Surely that’s a reason to praise God!  It is…

Soli Deo Gloria = Glory to God alone.
There are a couple of different aspects of this: (1) what we do for God, and (2) what God does & is worthy of.

1 Corinthians 10:31, "(31) Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."

  • We are not saved by deed of the law, good works, or acts of penance – but we still do things.  We simply do them from a position of having been saved, rather than trying to be saved (i.e. trying to earn our salvation).
  • Whatever those things are, we do them for the glory of God.  We aren’t lifting up any one church, or any one pope or priest.  We aren’t trying to give glory to ourselves through any acts of justification, or attempt to make ourselves look more “spiritual.”  We do all for the glory of God.

We do all for the glory of God in our individual lives, and among one another as the local church…
1 Peter 4:10–11, "(10) As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. (11) If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen."

  • When God moves through spiritual gifts, who gets the glory?  God!  We act within His gifting & His power, and thus it is all credited to Him; not to us.
  • BTW – this gives us wonderful motivation to do something.  We ought to want to walk within the fullness of what God has for us, in order that we might glorify Him with our lives.  As Jesus said, we want to let our light so shine among men that they might see our good deeds & glorify our Father in heaven. (Mt 5:16)  That will only happen if we act. (So act!)

And again, it’s not just what we do – it is what our God deserves…
Jude 24–25, "(24) Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, And to present you faultless Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, (25) To God our Savior, Who alone is wise, Be glory and majesty, Dominion and power, Both now and forever. Amen."

  • He is glorious!  He has demonstrated His glory through our salvation! 

What has come from the men of the Reformation & the doctrine they rediscovered?

  • We have the Bible: It’s in our hands…use it!
  • We have the Gospel: It’s in our hearts…share it!
  • We have the Church – the priesthood of believers: It is entrusted to us, act in it!

We have much for which we can rejoice!  Praise God for the Reformation – and may He be glorified as we continue to reform, always going back to the Scripture for every doctrine.

At the same time, never forget: the Reformation was only the beginning.  Much was done, but there is still much to do.

  • Countless numbers of people have never heard the gospel of Christ, nor have ever read the Scripture in their own language.  Pray for missionaries and Bible translators.
  • Others call themselves “Christian” in name, but they are stuck in legalistic religious ritual.  Worse yet, many of them belong to historically Protestant churches!  They’ve lost their way, because they’ve lost sight of the gospel of Christ.  Pray for cultural Christians to rediscover the true Christ.
  • The Reformers not only reformed the church, but also their nations and cultures.  Our own culture has seemingly entered a new Dark Age, and its only hope is the light of Christ.  We are the reformers and missionaries to take it to them.  Pray for faith and obedience to do it.

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