In just a few days, Christians all over the world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of what is known as the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther nailed a list of concerns to the community bulletin board, which happened to be the door at the Castle Church in Wittenberg. These became known as the 95 Theses.
Luther’s goal wasn’t really to change the world. It was to begin an academic debate (academics love debates) about some theological ideas he had recently discovered. But his 95 Theses were quickly translated, copied, and distributed all over the world. They literally transformed the western world.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact of the Reformation. It didn’t just change churches; it was a religious idea that disrupted the political and civil structures of the world. It changed governments, economies, social systems, and education. It led to numerous wars including the Thirty Years War and Eighty Years War. Yet, it did have massive theological implications that shape the way you and I understand the Gospel and read the Bible.
The causes and outcomes of the Reformation defy a simple explanation, but I will be daring and try to oversimplify the theological component like this: the Protestant Reformation was a rediscovery of the Gospel itself which had been all but lost.
The Roman Catholic Church (which was the only church in town) had confused, hidden, and warped the teachings of the Scriptures beyond recognition. Since common people couldn’t read the Bible, they had to trust church leaders to tell them what it said. The problem is, the church leaders didn’t understand what it said! This along with corruption led to all sorts of gross abuses, the most famous of which was the selling of indulgences. It was claimed that indulgences, if purchased, could get your loved ones out of purgatory, a place of suffering between heaven and hell where Christians must go so that all their remaining sins could be paid for.
Martin Luther, a bookish monk, had been reading his Bible. And as he read Romans (my son’s namesake), he began to realize that God’s righteousness was not something that could be earned or bought from church officials but that it was a gift, freely given to all who have faith in Christ alone. Luther was one of the very, very few people who saw that you didn’t have to earn God’s forgiveness. It was a gift that was given.
Now I know that salvation by faith alone may not sound like a novel discovery to you. But that’s the point. You know this because the Reformation happened.
God used Martin Luther and other church leaders to turn the world upside down. One author, Steven Lawson, says, “The Protestant Reformation stands as the most far-reaching, world-changing display of God’s grace since the birth and early expansion of the church.”
The key outcome of the Reformation was the re-discovery of the doctrine of justification by faith: that man is made right with God not by works but through faith in Christ alone. On this truth the whole Gospel depends.
There were other key Reformation doctrines, often known as the Five Solas. God’s Word is our highest authority (Sola Scriptura), and it teaches that salvation is a gift given by God because of his grace alone (Sola Gratia). This gift is received through faith alone (Sola Fide) in Jesus Christ (Sola Christus). Because of this great work, every bit of glory must always be given to the Triune God alone (Sola Deo Gloria).
You may not be very interested in or aware of church history, but we should be. The history of the church is the story of redemption. It’s the story of how God is gathering and sanctifying all the people he died for. And we are wrapped in that great story. Church history is the ongoing story of God’s grace.
In reflecting on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I can’t help but think of a passage I read in my devotions yesterday morning. I read about a child who was coming. He was coming to....
give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:77-79)
Praise God for that son—Jesus!—who broke into our dark world to rescue us, a people sitting in the dark shadow of death, trying to earn our salvation through good works. But we should also praise God for those who came after him, telling that good news and bringing light to the nations. Somewhere during the Middle Ages that dark shadow of death seemingly returned and the hope of the Gospel seemed lost. But all that changed in the Protestant Reformation.
All of us who know Christ know him because someone told us about him. Perhaps a parent or a Sunday School teacher. And someone had to tell that person, and the person before, and the person before that. Somewhere down that line, some 500 years ago, stands Martin Luther and the reformers, proclaiming at great risk to their own lives the knowledge of salvation in the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness that is not for sale but available as a free gift. Salvation is available for all who believe through faith, in Christ alone.
So this year, especially on October 31, pause to remember and thank God for the person who told you about Jesus, and then go tell someone about Jesus yourself.