500 Years Later: The Birth of Protestantism
“Post tenebras lux; after darkness, light.” These words were the motto of the Reformation. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Holy Catholic Church found herself victim of a series of scandals and abuses. One needs only to google the name of Pope Alexander VI or Pope Leo X to discover the controversies in which the church was involved. But something was stirring in a small German town in the Fall of 1517. A young radical monk was about to launch one of the greatest and most influential movements the world had ever seen. Light was about to shine in the darkness.
There are always dangers when corrupt leaders have too much power. When the practice of indulgences was introduced, the very message of the gospel was at stake. Indulgences was a practice that the Catholic Church introduced as a way to grant remission of temporal sins for their parishioners. People who were financially able could buy an indulgence and pull from the excess merit of past saints to cover a variety of sins. As the buying and selling of indulgences spread, the popular slogan, “A coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs,” began. It was quickly becoming possible for people to buy their way into heaven.
With the backdrop of these events, a young and restless monk was beginning to wrestle with who God was and who he was himself. Martin Luther was intelligent and zealous, but he was also deeply conflicted. He would spend hours a day in confession, telling his priest of all the sins that he had committed. In fact, if the priest did not leave the confessional fast enough, Luther would immediately re-enter and begin his next confession. Over time, a sense of immense guilt dominated Luther’s life. At one point, Luther even confessed to struggling with disbelief. He said, “I did not believe in Christ: I regarded Him only as a severe and terrible Judge portrayed as seated on a rainbow,” (Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval). Luther’s works were granting him no assurance of salvation.
After years of penance, pilgrimage, and service, Luther decided to begin lecturing through the book of Romans. Through his study, God began to open his eyes to the wonderful grace that was offered through Christ. A great burden was being lifted from Luther’s shoulders. While reading and studying Romans 3, he read these words, “Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28). Luther was beginning to realize that it was not his deeds that justified him, it was faith. This put him in direct opposition to the practice of indulgences.
Martin Luther began to draft counter points to the practice of indulgences, hoping to start a discussion that would lead to reformation in the Catholic Church. Little did he know, he was about to start a much larger movement. On October 31st, 1517, Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. A spark was ignited, and the Reformation began.
As his Theses were distributed, much debate began, and as this movement grew, Luther became labeled as an enemy of the Church. His thoughts would become more developed, more robust, and he would have great influence on young Christian men and women who would follow after his example. Because Luther protested the practice of indulgences, the Protestant tradition of Christianity began to take shape. Zwingli, Calvin, Bucer, Melancthon, and Simons (among others) would succeed him, carrying the torch of reformation.
But why does any of this matter? Why should we care about a monk who vandalized a church door 500 years ago with his radical ideas? Why does the Reformation matter?
The Reformation matters because the Gospel matters. Out of the Reformation came the teaching that man is saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, in accordance with Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone. These points are known as the pillars of the Reformation or the Five Solae of the Reformation.
There are those of us who still live as though we save ourselves at times, at least in part, including myself. We seek to do everything to the very letter of the law, becoming perfectionists, seeking to prove to God that we are worth saving. But what was recovered during the Reformation is the truth that we are justified before God by grace and through faith. Paul writes in Ephesians, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Like Luther, this truth can set us free.
The very fact that I can sit here and type a passage from the English translation of the Bible is also a direct outworking of the Reformation. Because men like Luther, Huss, and Wycliffe viewed Scripture as the supreme authority for Christian life and practice, they began to write the Bible in the language of the people. Let us say with Luther, “My conscience is captive to the word of God,” and may we not forget the blessing it is to have the Scriptures in our own language.
With the ability to read the word for ourselves, we can behold the beauty of Christ for ourselves. We began to see verses in their context and see that Christ is the only mediator between us and God. Through the Bible, we see Christ for who he is: supreme creator, sovereign Messiah, prophet, priest, king, and Son of God. We have a perfect mediator who paid our debt and is able to understand what we are going through. He is far superior to any earthly priest or confessor. We trust in Christ alone, the author and perfecter of our faith.
On this year, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, let us seek to conform our lives to the Word of God. May we rest in the finished work of Christ alone. May we trust that our justification before God is through grace alone, by faith alone. I pray that we would all continue in the spirit of Reformation, seeking to live lives that are informed by Scripture. May we always be reforming. “Semper Reformanda.”