Today is Reformation Day. On October 31, 1517–495 years ago today–Martin Luther posted his famous 95 Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenburg, Germany. Just to provide some additional context, that was just 25 years after “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
Robert Rothwell has written, “At the time, few would have suspected that the sound of a hammer striking the castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany, would soon be heard around the world and lead ultimately to the greatest transformation of Western society since the apostles first preached the Gospel throughout the Roman empire. … Initially protesting the pope’s attempt to sell salvation, Luther’s study of Scripture soon led him to oppose the church of Rome on issues including the primacy of the Bible over church tradition and the means by which we are found righteous in the sight of God.”
Regarding Reformation Sunday–the Sunday before October 31, when many churches celebrate the Reformation–R. Bruce Douglass, Director of the Reformed Institute of Metropolitan Washington, has written this: “What is the point of celebrating Reformation Sunday? The simplest answer is this: to give thanks to God for the precious gifts we owe to the Reformation—gifts that include the very existence of the churches of which we are a part. And those gifts also include, of course, the availability of the Bible in translations that make it accessible to the ordinary person. That fact alone is sufficient reason, surely, to pause annually and remind ourselves of what we owe to the efforts of those who have gone before us. Reformation Sunday also provides an opportunity to educate the members of our churches about broader themes that help to explain why we practice our faith as we do. To be a Protestant is to follow Jesus Christ in a particular way, but that way is not always well understood, even by people who exemplify it. Most Protestants take for granted that our churches are fallible and always in need of the reforming work of the Holy Spirit, for example. Or that it is right for lay people to participate in the governance of our churches, even on doctrinal matters. Or that it is legitimate for our clergy to be married and have children of their own. But even when we embrace such practices, we often lack a good understanding of why they exist, much less why they are not shared by the members of other churches. This is not something that can be overcome in a single day, to be sure, but an annual celebration of the Reformation is an excellent way to begin the conversation.”
The key figure of the Reformation, of course, is Martin Luther. Who was he? How did he spark what has been called “the most far-reaching, world-changing display of God’s grace since the birth and early expansion of the church”? The short answer is, the long way. Stephen Lawson has included a chapter on Martin Luther in his “Long Line of Godly Men” books, and this is an easily-readable overview for anyone who wants to know more about Luther. But here is a brief synopsis.
After he was knocked to the ground by a nearby lightning strike at the age of 21 Luther called out to St. Anna, the Catholic saint of miners, and promised to become a monk if he survived the storm. He did survive, and he did become a monk, greatly angering his father in doing so (his father thought he was wasting his education).
As a monk, Luther spent years striving to find acceptance with God through works. Luther wrote, “I tortured myself with prayer, fasting, vigils and freezing; the frost alone might have killed me…. What else did I seek by doing this but God, who was supposed to note my strict observance of the monastic order and my austere life? I constantly walked in a dream and lived in real idolatry, for I did not believe in Christ: I regarded Him only as a severe and terrible Judge portrayed as seated on a rainbow.” He also wrote, “When I was a monk, I wearied myself greatly for almost fifteen years with the daily sacrifice, tortured myself with fastings, vigils, prayers and other very rigorous works. I earnestly thought to acquire righteousness by my works.”
What prompted Luther to nail his 95 Theses to the church door was the sale of indulgences by the Catholic church. A practice first begun during the Crusades as a way to raise money for the church, indulgences were a way by which people could buy a letter from the church that supposedly freed their dead loved one from purgatory. Now, it is easy to imagine that if people truly believed they could buy the deliverance of a lost loved one, they would do so, and the church made a tremendous amount of money through this practice. In 1517 an itinerant Dominican priest named John Tetzel began to sell indulgences near Wittenburg so Pope Leo X could pay for a new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Tetzel was fond of saying, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Luther was incensed, and he wanted the issue to be debated—so he posted his Theses on the Castle Church, a practice that was common among scholars at the time who wanted to generate academic discussion. Only Luther’s list was obtained by a printer, printed and spread throughout Europe.
When Luther came to truly understand salvation it was as a result of studying Romans 1:17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.'”
The movement that began with Luther’s 95 Theses came to be known as the Protestant Reformation. And the key biblical truths of that movement have been summarized as “the five solas.” (Sola is Latin for “only” or “alone”).
The Solas of the Protestant Reformation
The Bible alone is God’s revealed word (Matt. 4:4; 2 Tim. 3:16).
Justification is by faith alone. Only through faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross can our sins be forgiven (Rom. 5:1; Gal 2:16).
Only through the death, burial and resurrection of Christ can our sins be forgiven; He is the One and Only mediator between God and man (John 14:6; John 3:16).
Our salvation is a result solely on the work of God’s grace for us (Rom. 2:4; Eph. 2:8-10).
Soli Deo Gloria
All glory for salvation belong to God, and to God alone (Isa. 42:8; Col. 3:17).
The main point of the Reformation? We cannot earn salvation, nor can we buy it. It comes as a free gift from God, which we accept through faith in Christ.
R.C. Sproul has written this: “If we want reformation, we have to start with ourselves. We have to start bringing the gospel itself out of darkness, so that the motto of every reformation becomes post tenebras lux — ‘after darkness, light.’ Luther declared that every generation must declare freshly the gospel of the New Testament. He also said that anytime the gospel is clearly and boldly proclaimed, it will bring about conflict, and those of us who are inherently adverse to conflict will find it tempting to submerge the gospel, dilute the gospel, or obscure the gospel in order to avoid conflict. We, of course, are able to add offense to the gospel by our own ill-mannered attempts to proclaim it. But there is no way to remove the offense that is inherent to the gospel message, because it is a stumbling block, a scandal to a fallen world. It will inevitably bring conflict. If we want reformation, we must be prepared to endure such conflict to the glory of God.”
The gospel message is still a stumbling block, and it will still offend the world. Yet we must not back away from it. We must stand boldly on the Truth of Scripture, “insist[ing] on these things,” as Paul wrote to Titus. Faced with death if he would not recant, Luther refused to budge from his convictions unless he could be shown through Scripture that He was wrong. That did not happen, of course, because he was not wrong. May we be willing to say, like Luther, “Here I stand, and I can do no other, so help me God.”