The Reformation: What it Was and Why it Matters

Reformation 500
On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Thesis on the door of the  Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. This date is commonly held to be beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s act ignited a fire that burned across Europe, the heat of which we still feel today. Five hundred years later, the Reformation is just as significant now as it was in Luther’s day. In order to see why the Reformation matters, we must learn its story.

The Story of the Reformation
The Catholic Church was in a dismal state, plagued by corruption and marked with doctrinal error. For a season, there were three popes claiming to be Christ’s representative on earth. The question arose, who has authority? The popes, or the church councils that appointed the popes? The authority of papacy was laughable, its morality sorrowful. One of the most notorious papal degenerates was Alexander VI. He became pope by buying his position, had children by mistresses, and held drunken orgies at the Vatican. The Pope of Luther’s day, Leo X, was agnostic. In Catholic teaching, one had to make penance for sin, and what sin remained that wasn’t covered by penance would  have to be paid for in purgatory. Some extraordinary saints had achieved so much merit through righteous living, there was a storehouse, a treasury of merit. The church taught that individuals could purchase this merit for their own sins or the sins of their loved ones in purgatory. These were called indulgences. The church blended sanctification with justification and added works to faith as necessary for salvation. Church services were in Latin so that both the clergy conducting the service and the laity attending the service were ignorant of what was actually being said. The Bible of the day was the Latin Vulgate which isolated people from having the living, powerful, word of God in their own language. The church was ready for reform, and some heroes would rise to the occasion.

Years before Luther were the Morning Stars of the Reformation: British theologian John Wycliffe (1320-1384) and Bohemian professor John Huss (1374-1415). Wycliffe argued that spiritual authority was not the papacy, but Scripture. He rejected the Catholic doctrine that the elements of communion were transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. His greatest achievement and contribution was his translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible into English. Wycliffe died a natural death, John Huss did not. Like Wycliffe, Huss fought for the authority of the Bible over the papacy and denied their right for the issuing of indulgences. In 1414, the Council of Constance condemned Wycliffe and Huss as heretics. Wycliffe’s body was dug up, burned, and his ashes thrown into the river. Huss was stripped of his priestly clothes, bound to the stake and burned. As he was swallowed by flames he recited some Psalms. Before his execution, Huss had said to his captors, “You may roast this goose, but a hundred years from now a swan will arise whose singing you will not be able to silence.”

Huss’s words proved to be prophetic. One hundred and two years after the burning of Huss, Martin Luther (1483-1546) took a mallet to the church at Wittenburg. Luther had been a monk tormented with his inability to live righteously. He visited Rome and was bothered by what he saw there— licentious sin and gross immorality. He was plagued by his conscience and disaffected with the church. His spiritual discontent was slowly building. It was  Johann Tetzel who brought Luther to a full on boil. In Rome, Pope Leo X was reconstructing St. Peter’s Basilica and needed money. To achieve this, Johann Tetzel became a salesman of indulgences. “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,” Tetzel would proclaim. He would play on his hearer's emotions and ask them if they heard the voices of their loved ones crying out from the torment of Purgatory. He brazenly announced that indulgences could free you from Purgatory even if you raped the Mother of God. Luther was disgusted, and formulated his Ninety Five Thesis which were problems he saw in the church that needed reform. At this stage, Luther was a good catholic, and only wanted to see the church made pure. While we look to the the nailing of the Thesis to the church door as an epic moment, it was extraordinarily ordinary. Church doors functioned like community bulletin boards, and Luther was simply calling for an academic discussion. He had no idea what his action would set into motion. Teztel called out for Luther to be burned, and Luther soon found himself in debate with Catholic theologian John Eck. Their debate quickly turned to the question of authority, where Luther identified authority as being in Scripture alone as opposed to the Catholic understanding of authority being in Scripture plus tradition. Eck accused Luther of being a heretic like Wycliffe and Huss, and to Luther’s surprise he discovered that he was indeed teaching what the Morning Stars of the Reformation had taught one hundred years before him. During this time, Luther became truly born again. It was in his reading of the book of Romans, that Luther finally understood the beauty of the Gospel. We could not ourselves become righteous—that was Luther’s agony. In salvation, God declares us righteous and we are covered by Christ’s blood. This was sheer joy to a troubled Luther. He began to write profusely, spreading evangelical theology. In 1520, he was excommunicated by the pope. In 1521, Luther appeared at the Diet of Worms before Emperor Charles V to defend himself. There, Luther was told to recant. It was here, that he uttered these triumphant words
“Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
Following Worms, Luther lived daily under the shadow of possible martyrdom. On his return to Wittenburg, he was kidnapped by Frederick the Wise so that way he could be protected. In God’s providence this proved a fruitful time for Luther’s writing. He translated the Bible from the original languages into German. This translation was a masterpiece and with it, Luther became the father of the modern German language. His translation of Scripture would be as influential on the German language as the King James Version would on the English speaking world. Like Wycliffe before him, Luther gave the people the Bible in their own language. He unleashed the power of the word.  Mercifully, Luther would die a natural death in 1546.

John Calvin
The Reformation was not contained to Germany, it spread across Europe. In Switzerland
Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) and John Calvin (1509-1564) were instrumental. In Zurich, Zwingli attacked indulgences, ended the Mass, and was committed to expository preaching. He would meet his end on the battlefield as a chaplain defending Zurich against an invading Catholic army. In Geneva, Calvin was the great pastor theologian. Like Zwingli, Calvin was committed to expository preaching. He was a master exegete of Scripture. His commentaries are still as helpful today as they were when he published them. He gifted the church with one of the first systematic theologies ever written, Institutes of the Christian Religion. He died a natural death in 1564.

In England, the Reformation found its origin in King Henry VIII's desire for a male heir. When he was not granted a divorce he broke from the Church of Rome and founded the Church of England. Though separated from Rome, Henry did not permit the Bible to be read in the common language. William Tyndale (1494-1536) defied Henry and translated the Bible from its original languages into English. He once said to a Catholic cleric, "If God spare my life, ere many years pass, I will cause the boy that driveth the plough in England to know more the Scriptures than thou dost." For his crime of putting the Bible into the hands of the people, Tyndale was burned at the stake. All English readers owe a great debt to Tyndale. He was a translation pioneer, being the first person to translate the Bible into English from Hebrew and Greek. Additionally,  most of our English translations of the Bible still use some of Tyndale’s renderings. This is especially true for the English Standard Version as the ESV is Tyndale’s heir in the classic mainstream of English translations.

While Henry was a devout Catholic, the man he put in charge of the Church of England Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), was not. During Henry's life, the reformation in England was turbulent and Cranmer was reserved in his reform.  With Henry's death and the installation of his Protestant son Edward VI, Cranmer's restraint ended and he got to work reforming the church. During these golden years of English Reformation, churches were purged of Catholic symbolism, preaching was done in English, the Forty-two Articles of Religion and The Book of Common Prayer were published. In England, the priest performing the Mass was replaced by evangelical preachers boldly proclaiming the Gospel. Things would take a dramatic turn for the worse, however, with the death of Edward. A plan was made to install Protestant teenager Lady Jane Grey as queen. She held the throne for nine days before Mary I took the throne and had Lady Jane Grey beheaded. Following a failed effort to keep England Protestant, Bloody Mary reversed course and made England Catholic. Many Protestant heroes died under her reign, among them Thomas Bilney, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer. Tied to the stake with Ridley, Latimer said these triumphant words, "Be of good comfort, and play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out." After being forced to watch his friends Ridley and Latimer burn to death, an elderly Cranmer would in a moment of weakness sign a recantation. At his own burning, though, Cranmer would redeem himself. Tied to the stake, he proclaimed, " for as much as my hand offended, writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall first be punished there-for." With that, Cranmer plunged his hand into the flames and allowed it to be burned first, before he succumbed to a martyr's death. Some three hundred protestants met their end under Bloody Mary. In God's good providence, Mary's reign was short and she was succeeded by her Protestant sister, Elizabeth I. Elizabeth maintained Protestant theology in the churches, but allowed for Catholic ceremonies and practices to return. It was this "Elizabethan Settlement" that gave birth to the Puritan movement.
Burning of Latimer and Ridley.png
The burning of Ridley and Latimer

Why the Reformation Matters
The Reformation is a story filled with larger than life personalities, but it would be a mistake to make our celebration of the Reformation be centered upon personality. The Protestant Reformation is the story of the gospel being restored. This took the form of five major points: God's Word Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Christ Alone, God's Glory Alone.
Our authority is God's Word Alone:
  • Galatians 1:6-9 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
  • 2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
  • Jude 3  Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.
Salvation is by grace alone,
  • Romans 3:23-25 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.
  • Ephesians 2:4-10 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
  • Titus 3:5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,
through faith alone,
  • Romans 4:4-5 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,
  • Galatians 2:16  yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
  • Ephesians 2:8-10 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
in Christ alone,
  • John 14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
  • 2 Corinthians 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
  • 1 Timothy 2:5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,
to God's glory alone.
  • Romans 11:33-36 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
  • Ephesians 1:4-6 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
  • Ephesians 1:11-12 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.

The Reformation matters because the Five Solas are non-negotiable. They are not light statements. They are not trivial. They are essential. Belief in the authority of the Bible alone and salvation by faith alone, in Christ alone, to God's glory alone is the marrow of genuine Christianity.

The Reformation matters because it isn't disconnected history that doesn't impact us. It greatly impacts us because it is our history. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Baptists Brethren, Congregationalists, Mennonites,  Methodists, and Independent Churches can all trace their roots to the Reformation.

The Reformation matters because the chasm between Catholicism and Evangelicalism remains. The Catholic church still affirms the Council of Trent, where Protestant theology was damned, indulgences upheld, transubstantiation maintained, and salvation by faith alone denied. Catholics and Protestants who see unity, only see unity because of ignorance--the Catholic is ignorant of his own church's teachings and traditions, and the Protestant is ignorant of Scripture.

The Reformation matters because the evangelical church today desperately needs reformed. The Bible is not treated as the ultimate authority. For some, feelings, impressions, and folk wisdom are placed on the same level as Scripture. Biblical illiteracy, lack of discretion, and belief in continued revelation demand the need for the teaching of the ultimate authority of the Bible alone. Anxiety about standing before God, and confusion about the place of works in the Christian life proves the need for the instruction of salvation by faith alone and grace alone. Cowardice in a pluralistic world that is too afraid to affirm exclusivity of salvation in Christ show cases the need for the teaching of Christ alone. Personal fixation that borders on self worship in songs we sing, and the pragmatic organization of ministries around the felt needs of individuals begs for the renewed teaching of God's glory alone.

The Reformation matters because it shows us the way forward. The Reformation is most significant because it is the story of the unleashing of God’s Word. Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Luther all gave the common man the opportunity to read the Bible in his own language. As majestic as the story of these big personalities taking on a corrupt church is, the power of the Reformation was not personality. The power all along was the Bible. If the church today would be reformed, God’s Word must again be unleashed. By looking to the past we get direction for our future.
"Take me, for example. I opposed indulgences and all papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God's Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip of Amsdorf the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all. Had I wanted to start trouble.... I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor wouldn't have been safe. But what would it have been? A mug's game. I did nothing: I left it to the Word." ~ Martin Luther
 "For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." ~ Hebrews 4:12
Further Reading
  • The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation by Michael Reeves
  • The Reformation: How a Monk and Mallet Changed the World by Stephen J. Nichols
  • Why the Reformation Still Matters by Michael Reeves and Tim Chester
  • Theology of the Reformers by Timothy George
  • The Five Solas Series
    • God's Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture by Matthew Barrett
    • Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification by Thomas Schreiner
    • Grace Alone: Salvation as a Gift of God by Carl Trueman
    • Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior by Stephen Wellum
    • God's Glory Alone: The Majestic Heart of the Christian Faith and Life by David VanDrunen