What is the Protestant Reformation?
For many, October 31, 2017 will be just another Halloween, as super heroes, goblins, and farm animals march up to your doorstep exclaiming, “Trick or treat,” as they eagerly wait for candy to be dropped into their buckets. For others, however, October 31, 2017 is truly significant, marking the 500th anniversary of one of the most monumental events in the history of the Church, when Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, issued a public debate regarding the unbiblical practices of the Church at that time.
Luther’s primary concern for the Church was the practice of issuing indulgences, which were guarantees sold by the Church in order to shorten the alleged temporary punishment Christians experienced in purgatory for sins they committed after being forgiven. In other words, the common people of that day were told that they could buy their way out of punishment, and since they didn’t have a Bible in their own language telling them otherwise, they didn’t know any better. The practice of issuing indulgences began in the 11th century in order to apply the meritorious (good) works of the saints to the spiritual demerits of sinners, and by the 16th century the pope was in the business of selling these indulgences to forgive the penalty and guilt of sin.
Martin Luther found this practice absurd. He believed that forgiveness was not bought or issued by the pope but instead that forgiveness came through repentance of sin and belief in the works of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, Luther posted his now-famous 95 theses, or 95 points of disagreement, to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517, seeking a public debate in order to challenge the selling of indulgences and other erroneous practices of the Church. He was not seeking to start a new denomination or a new Christian sect, but rather he was seeking to reform God’s Church, which was corrupt and defiled as a result of unbiblical doctrines and practices. And while Martin Luther was simply calling for a public debate, when he posted his 95 theses to the church door that day he actually set in motion numerous events which would lead to a widespread call for reformation within the Church.
While this call for reformation was unsuccessful in bringing much needed reform to the Roman Catholic Church, it did lead to the recovery of the New Testament church, as men and women once again gained access to the Scriptures and realized that the only true and authoritative rule of faith and practice was found in Scripture alone, not in Scripture plus tradition, nor in the words of the pope. And since the Scriptures were once again properly elevated above the traditions of men, it became evident through God’s Word that salvation is found in Christ alone, by faith alone, by the grace of God alone, all to the glory of God alone. This view of biblical salvation was inconsistent with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, which led Christians to separate from the Roman Catholic Church, even if it cost them their lives. And some did indeed lose their lives in the fight for a recovery of the true biblical Church.
Why does the Protestant Reformation matter to Protestants?
As a result of the Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther set in motion, we now have what are known as Protestant churches – named for protesting the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants consist of various denominations such as Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Baptists. While these denominations have many differences, they all reject the Roman Catholic teachings on salvation and instead believe that salvation for sinners comes by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, as revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures.
Therefore, if you are a member of a Protestant church, October 31, 2017 is a time to celebrate that the Spirit of God works within His Church to bring about renewal and restoration. And while an occasion such as this causes us to ponder the undeserved grace of God, it should also cause us to humbly consider what can happen if the Church fails to guard the truth. After all, that is exactly what occurred during the centuries leading up to the Protestant Reformation.
During Martin Luther’s day, the recognized version of the Bible was a Latin translation, known as the Latin Vulgate. This translation of the Scriptures was the only version most Christians encountered for nearly 1,000 years, even though by the time of the Reformation, Latin was no longer the dominant language in the Western world. You can only imagine the problems this created, as the congregants in the Church were dependent upon the priests to teach them what was in the Latin Vulgate. This led to many abuses in the Church, until men such as Martin Luther and John Wycliffe began to translate the Bible into the heart language of the people. With this recovery of the Scriptures, Christians began to discover that instead of protecting the truth, the Church had been abusing the truth for its own gain. Take, for instance, the main funding of the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, which is the papal enclave within the city of Rome. Astonishingly, the pope was taking the proceeds from the indulgences sold by the Church, which supposedly forgave the penalty and guilt of sin, and was using them to fund this massive building project.
Why does the Protestant Reformation matter to Catholics?
If you are Catholic, the Protestant Reformation is important for you because you now have the Bible in your own heart language. While this is a cause for thanksgiving, I also want to encourage you to evaluate and reflect upon your own convictions in light of the Protestant Reformation. And as you do, you will undoubtedly be brought face-to-face with the critiques of Martin Luther and others who pointed out what they saw as abuses and errors within the Church. I ask you to study the Scriptures and to carefully consider the following questions: Were these men right when they criticized the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of justification? Were they right when they criticized the use of images and icons within the church? What about when they criticized the authority of the Pope?
Why does the Protestant Reformation matter to non-believers?
For non-believers the Protestant Reformation is important because this was a monumental event that took place in history. And because of its significance, people everywhere are forced to examine the validity of the Reformation, a cause for which men and women were willing to die. But just because someone dies for something, doesn’t mean it was something worth dying for. However, the fact that people gave their lives for a cause should compel everyone to evaluate the legitimacy of their deaths and of their willingness to die.
If their lives were not given in vain, then the truth that they sought to recover and defend demands your attention. For they gave themselves to further the great truth that Jesus Christ, the righteous, became sin on behalf of sinners so that all who believe in Him and call upon His name will be considered righteous before God and escape the judgment due for sin. And it is the recovery of this great Gospel truth that stands at the very heart of the Protestant Reformation, of which October 31, 2017 serves to commemorate.
Questions? Comments? Please contact me.
I’d love to talk with you further about these things.
READING RECOMMENDATIONS ON THE REFORMATION:
- 95 Theses
- The Unquenchable Flame by Michael Reeves
- Reformation ABCs by Stephen J. Nichols and Ned Bustard (A great book for both adults and kids!)
- Here I Stand by Roland Bainton
- Theology of the Reformers by Timothy George
- 5 Solas Book Series
 Kelly M. Kapic and Wesley Vander Lugt, Pocket Dictionary of the Reformed Tradition, The IVP Pocket Reference Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 63.