When we think of the Protestant Reformation, we normally think about Martin Luther, a German monk, and his act of nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the Wittenberg Door on October 31, 1517, as the catalyst that sparked the movement that eventually resulted in the Protestants breaking away from the established Roman Catholic Church and its doctrines and practices. But there are two misconceptions that many have about the historical Reformation, which is commemorated on Reformation Day on the last Sunday in October.
One misconception is that Martin Luther was the only or the primary reformer of that era; whereas, key figures in the Protestant Reformation included England’s John Wycliffe, John Huss of Bohemia, Ulrich Zwingli of Switzerland, Guillaume Fare, and John Calvin. The other misconception is that Luther initially nailed his Ninety-five Theses as an overt act of rebellion against the authority of the established Roman Catholic Church. In fact according to the protocol of that time, the act of nailing written notices to the church door was the standard and accepted method of initiating a debate on a particular topic.
At that time the Church had sunk to immorality and corruption, worldliness and unbelief, a world of incest, adultery, prostitution and drunkenness, of gambling and vice. It was a world devoid of any kind of spirituality or true theology based on Scripture. After graduating with a brilliant law degree at the prestigious University of Erfurt in 1505 at the age of twenty-two, Luther entered the Augustinian monastery there. Here he studied the Bible, including Genesis, Psalms, Romans and Galatians.
It was his intense study of the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek that converted Luther from a scholastic to an evangelical theologian. He was discovering that for all his monastic devotions he was getting no nearer to God.
None of the tried ways of discipline, confession and the sacraments gave him any certainty about God, and as he studied the Bible, a profound evangelical truth broke through into his mind and soul, and warmed his heart intensely.
Luther had been taught that God was far from mankind, and that by means of intellect, good works and spiritual exercises men and women must struggle to him. He discovered that it is quite the other way. Mankind is far from God, and in love and forgiveness God came all the way in Christ and continues to do so by grace through faith.
“By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is a gift of God,” so wrote the apostle Paul. As Luther said, when he saw this, he felt the very gates of Paradise open and he entered.
At that time the selling of indulgences (remissions from purgatory) was a gross scandal. The uneducated folk were taught that they could buy their way out of purgatory, even buy forgiveness for money. It was here that Luther declared the New Testament doctrine of penitence as a total change of heart. From this moment Luther held the world stage.
The next year, 1518, there followed a remarkable chapter at his order at Heidelberg; he opened his heart and declared his new biblical and evangelical theology. That year he was condemned by a papal bull, which he publicly burned on the town’s refuse pit. That deed, on 10 December 1520, when a humble monk, with no basis other than his faith in God, publicly burned the Pope’s bull, proved the firing signal for emancipation throughout Europe: the modern era began at 9:00 a.m. that day.
He was summoned in April 1521 to the Diet of Worms to recant, but he stood his ground. He was outlawed and excommunicated. On the way home he was captured by friends and imprisoned for his own safety in the Wartburg.
There he translated the whole of the New Testament into German within a matter of weeks.
Luther’s Reformed Theology
We have Martin Luther and the early reformers to thank for three foundational truths on which all Protestant
Theology is based:
- Salvation by faith alone through the grace of God, not by works
- The Priesthood of the Believer, eliminating the need for another human to act as an intermediary between man and God
3) Having the Word of God in our local language and vernacular, instead of Latin, understood only by priests and scholars
To learn more about the Reformation, visit www.christianhistoryinstitute.org.
Bob Woods has worked as an engineer at AECOM Technical Services and HBC Engineering, and is a published Christian author. He can be reached at [email protected].