500 Years of Reformation

| October 4, 2017

October 2017 is the 500th Anniversary of start of the Reformation, when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg.

We may think of this as solely a seminal event in Christian history but it was much more than that. The Reformation changed the world.  It set a new course for Christians to follow, but its impact reached far beyond religion.  It overthrew the established economic and political orders.  It laid the foundation for the Enlightenment; and it freed science from the confines of suffocating ecclesiastical oversite. It is impossible to understand how we got here, that is, the development of the modern world, apart from the Reformation.

All of these things the Reformation did – but what the Reformation was, was a return to three essential principles of Christianity, best expressed in the famous Latin phrases: Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide and Sola Gratia.

Each phrase has the Latin word sola, which means “by itself” or “alone.”

Sola Scriptura means “by scripture alone.”  This is a declaration that the Scriptures are the Word of God, and are the authority, solely and alone, for all matters of what we believe.  There are other writings, there are church traditions, creeds, and teachings.  Sola Scriptura does not mean that the Bible is the most persuasive of these, or that it is the highest authority.  Rather, the Scriptures are the only authority.

As Paul wrote to Timothy:

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (II Timothy 3: 16)

Sola fide, means “by faith alone”, that neither good works nor religious observances are a means for salvation — it is by faith alone.  As we read in Romans 1:  For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes …  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”  Paul writes that the gospel is “from faith to faith” meaning that it begins with faith, ends with faith, and is faith throughout.

Sola Gratia means “by grace alone.” It means that salvation is given to mankind as a gift of God, by His grace alone, and man’s efforts add nothing to His saving work. Church tradition taught that people earned God’s favor.  The Reformers, based on the authority of Scripture, taught that God gave salvation as a gift.

As Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus:  For by grace you have been 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)

Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide and Sola Gratia are central and foundational to Christian life.  But throughout history, these concepts have been challenged and denied.  They were denied in the days of the ministry of Jesus, by Scribes and Pharisees who laid heavy burdens of law and religion upon the people. They were denied in Luther’s day, they are denied by some religious leaders today.

And always, the Spirit of God has stirred up and raised up godly men and women, to live by the Scripture and by faith, and to call Christians back to these central tenets – as in 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany.

In the days before the Reformation, Christendom was a very religious place and there was much that the Church did that was good.  The great historian Will Durant wrote, “They had their virtues. They labored to redeem Rome from the ugliness and squalor into which it had fallen…They drained marshes, paved streets, restored bridges and roads, improved the water supply, established the Vatican library…enlarged the hospitals, distributed charity, built or repaired churches, embellished the city with palaces and gardens…gave employment to painters, sculptors and architects whose works are now a treasured heritage of all mankind. They squandered millions, they used millions constructively.” [Will Durant, The Reformation (1957)]

They were also the preservers of the Holy Scriptures. The words of the Bible that the Reformers would later use to confront the Church were actually preserved and studied in church buildings by its priests and monks, from whose ranks most of the reformers came. These men were employed by the Church to study, teach, and in some cases, make copies of the Scriptures.

But the central tenets of Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide and Sola Gratia had been forgotten, and the Church had gone from being a liberator that removed the burdens of the people, to an oppressor that added them.

Certainly, there were voices raised in godly protest, calling the Church back to the Gospel.  Two hundred years before, John Wycliffe in England and later John Hus in what is today Bohemia taught that a person was justified, or declared righteous, by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.  They placed their hope in the Scriptures; and Wycliffe set about translating the Bible into English. He died in 1384.  31 years later, in 1415, by a decree of the Council of Constance, the Church declared him a heretic, dug his remains up, burned them and then threw his ashes into a nearby stream. In that same year, Hus was martyred for his faith.

These reformers, and other like them, were shaking not just religious belief, but political thought as well.  As they preached justification by faith, to all and on all who believe, because (in the words of Scripture) there is no difference, they were preaching an equality of mankind by the truth of the Scriptures, thereby undermining the claim of “divine right” to rule by kings, lords and dukes, and laying the foundation of the modern world.

The political freedoms that we enjoy today, that all are created equal, is born out of the theology that there is no difference between us in God’s sight.  Today in America, and the Western World generally, it is accepted as obviously true, but when Wycliffe, Hus and other reformers were preaching, it was a revolutionary idea.

The tremors caused by men like John Wycliffe and John Hus would become an earthquake in 1517, 500 years ago, when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses.  Luther was a devout Augustinian monk, who despite his own religious efforts, could find no relief from the guilt he felt.

As Luther studied and taught the Bible, particularly from the Book of Romans, he was convinced that men are justified by faith, apart from any good works they might perform. He was meditating upon Romans 1:17, and the truth of the verse hit him. The just shall live by faith, Paul had written, and Luther now read it as if for the first time, and it was that small verse that changed his life. In 1517, He posted his 95 Theses – 95 points of dispute – and changed history.

Then Luther did a second thing that transformed the world: he translated the Bible into German, so that men and women of his own country could read the Bible for themselves.  The Scripture was set free from the Latin, and made available, not just to scholars, but to anyone who could read.

Today, there are more than 2,000 translations of the Bible into common languages throughout the world.  It all started with Wycliffe, followed by Luther, and the world has never been the same.

In 1999, as the millennium drew to a close, A & E Biography listed the 100 most influential persons of those 1,000 years.  Their list included Albert Einstein, Napoleon Bonaparte, Galileo Galilei, Thomas Jefferson, Wolfgang Mozart, and William Shakespeare.   Martin Luther placed third on their list – behind only Johann Gutenberg (whose invention, the printing press, Luther used with great effect) and Isaac Newton.

We live in a world that the Reformers made.  In 1517, Luther posted his 95 Theses “out of love for the truth and for the purpose of eliciting it.” He changed the world of his day. His one act and the impact of his teaching continues to reverberate in ours.


Category: Faith

About the Author ()

Email | Website | Mark Francis is the President of Urban Francis, LLC, a commercial electrical contractor in Baltimore, Maryland.  He attends and serves at Forge Road Bible Chapel.