Celebrating Our Christian Heritage
The Protestant Reformation
For Christians, every day of the week, every moment of each day is an opportunity to celebrate our great salvation, and all that we have in Christ Jesus. But there are also particular times of the year when we must pause and reflect upon our Christian heritage in a special way. October of each year is such a time. It’s during October when we reflect upon and celebrate the Protestant Reformation.
For some of us, perhaps, we may think of this event with much indifference or even scorn, having heard about some of the “sins” committed by some of our own brethren during that time. But imagine living in a time when the Bible was not readily available or accessible in your common language, when you were dependent upon a group of individuals who read you the Bible and told you what “they” thought the Bible meant. And if you ever questioned their interpretation, you might be mistreated or punished. Imagine not being able to know God or His will for yourself. When “tradition” (a way of thinking and doing things) was more important than what the Bible actually said. Worst of all, imagine not being sure how to be at peace with God, of not being convinced of His love for you and His acceptance of you. See, we take so much for granted and often forget that for us to get to where we are today, we must remember history!
This was the historical context of what is known as the Protestant Reformation, which in most peoples’ opinions officially began on October 31st, 1517. This is what we as a church, local and universal, celebrate during the month of October. It was with this backdrop in mind, and at this “strategic” time, that God used a man by the name of Martin Luther to bring about the 2nd most important movement after the birth of the church in the 1st century!
Martin Luther (known as the “father of the Reformation”) was a Roman Catholic Church (RCC) monk, who became terribly disheartened and disillusioned with the RCC. As a monk, he struggled greatly to experience a sense of peace and acceptance with God. Luther said, “When I was a monk, I wearied myself greatly for almost 15 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.”
So much in despair, he was sent on a pilgrimage to Rome, where instead of motivating him, he witnessed rampant immorality, and the hyper superstition of the RCC in the form of relics & religious icons that you paid money to see. Along with other people, he stood in long lines & paid to see “so-called” monuments, such as the supposed coins paid to Judas for betraying Jesus, the rope with which Judas hung himself, milk from the breast of the Virgin Mary, the burning bush that Moses stood before, and even the chains of the Apostle Paul.
Perhaps the most discouraging was his visit to a church where supposedly the original “steps” of Pilate’s judgment hall were located, that Jesus ascended when he stood trial before Pilate. There he saw people crawling on their hands and knees as they made their way up each step, in the hopes of getting to the top and earning more merits to go into their account, and help their loved ones in purgatory! I recall visiting the RCC in Mexico City a number of years ago, and seeing a similar sight, and it broke my heart.
Well, disillusioned by his visit, Luther returned to Germany, where the worst was still to come. Soon, Luther became a Professor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg. For years, even though he was teaching the Bible, and preaching to the students, he was not a Christian, and did not have peace with God. In the meantime, Johann Tetzel, a popular salesman and swindler, hired by the RCC, to raise funds for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome by selling indulgences, arrives in town. Indulgences were pieces of paper promising people that if they gave of their money they could have the sins of their loved ones forgiven or cancelled. “Buy these indulgences and you will be helping your loved ones in purgatory,” Tetzel would say.
What is “purgatory?” One theologian has said, “purgatory is a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are not entirely free from venial faults (by “venial” they meant sins that were “not mortal” but could be forgiven), or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.” It is a place that a Christian soul goes after death to be cleansed and purged of the sins that have not been fully satisfied during your lifetime! Tetzel was famous for saying, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
As you can imagine, Luther became disgusted. He proceeded to take a piece of paper, and pen what is known as his 95 Theses, and nail them to the front door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Contrary to what many people have thought, Luther wasn’t trying to be divisive, or even break with the RCC. Initially, his desire was to spur on reasonable dialogue and debate. The “overall” point of the 95 Theses was that you could not override the authority of the Bible or buy God’s grace! Preach it!
Long story short, copies of the 95 Theses were printed and spread like wildfire all over Europe. Within a few weeks, the Reformation had begun in other places of Europe as well. Because of this action, Luther was summoned to appear at the “Diet of Worms” in 1521 (nothing to do with eating worms, even though they are a delicacy in some parts of the world!). “Worms” was a town in Germany, and a “Diet” was an assembly held by the leaders of the Holy Roman Empire. It was at this trial that Luther was asked to recant his views against the RCC and Pope. It was there, by the grace of God and in the power of the Spirit of God, that Luther said these words, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me. Amen.”
The result was that Luther was condemned a heretic. On his way back to Wittenberg some of his supporters (fearing for his life) kidnapped him and took him to the Warburg Castle. There he lived in secret confinement, but was very productive, translating the Bible into German (the language of the common people). He did this because he believed the people needed to know the truth for themselves, and be freed from the shackles of the RCC.
The Protestant Reformation was just that, a “protest” against the corruption and exploitation of people by the RCC. For about 1,000 years during the Medieval and Dark Ages, the RCC had become a tyrant in the lives of people. Much has been made about the “Reformers,” that they were “sinners,” and “blew it greatly in some cases,” etc. To all of those things, in so long as they are true, I would agree. They were human beings just like us. In some cases, they did sin, and even sinned greatly. But like some of the Bible characters that we read (Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon), though they were imperfect and sinned greatly, God used them. So that when we look back, we don’t exalt men, but the great God who used them for His glory, and the good of His church, in a very challenging time in the life of God’s people.
Some of their greatest contributions were in the area of Theology, a right understanding and interpretation of the Scriptures, the sufficiency of Christ’s person and work for salvation, and a return to the centrality of the Scriptures and the pulpit, instead of the “mass.” Make no mistake about it, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others believed that the very GOSPEL was at stake, and thus the souls of people! Luther said, “we are beggars…the church’s treasure is the Gospel.” Yet this Gospel had been “hidden” under layer upon layer of RCC practices and traditions.
Let us look back 500 years ago and be reminded of God’s faithfulness to His people, and most of all His zeal for His glory. There are 5 Overarching Theological Principles, known as the “Solas” of the Reformation (sola means “only” or “alone”), that eventually emerged in the aftermath of the Reformation. We will celebrate God’s amazing work during that period of time by looking at each of these 5 Solas in the weeks ahead during the month of October. Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)! Solus Christus (Christ Alone)! Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)! Sola Fide (Faith Alone)! And above all, Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)!