The Reformation – The Broad Picture

The last Sunday in October is traditionally known as “Reformation Sunday,” drawing from the date of October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his “95 Thesis” to the door of the Wittenburg Church in Germany. The Church door acted like a bulletin board, and it was not unusual for topics to be listed there for future discussion or debate. This seems to be exactly what Luther had in mind; a discussion of what the Scriptures taught regarding the 95 issues he was raising.

This idea that Luther simply wanted further discussion has been challenged by some, who think that all along, Luther simply desired to cause the biggest split in Church history. However, the evidence seems to suggest that Luther simply wanted further debate on the issues. Luther was still a loyal son of Rome, at least at this point, and he penned his 95 Theses, not in the language of the common people (German) to stir up the masses into a revolt, but he wrote instead in Latin, the language of the scholars.

Whatever Luther’s intentions or motives, what is clear that some students quickly translated Luther’s words into the common vernacular. Because of the recent invention of Guttenburg’s printing press, the words were then copied at an amazingly fast pace, until Luther’s words spread like wildfire throughout every hamlet, city and county within the nation, and in fact, right across Europe. The immediate effect of this was that it thrust Luther into the leadership role in the emerging Reformation.

Luther’s great hope was that the Roman Church would embrace the changes he saw that Holy Scripture demanded, but as he was to find out, such was not to be the case. Based on the Scriptures, he boldly proclaimed that salvation is by God’s grace alone received by faith alone, in Christ alone. Works therefore play no part in a person’s salvation (Rom. 3:28; 4:4,5; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8, 9; Phil. 3:9) but are merely the by-product of a relationship with God established by God’s grace alone. This, of course, was not the doctrine of Rome and Luther was therefore summoned to appear at the Imperial Diet of Worms in 1521 (a “Diet” being “a formal assembly of princes,” and “Worms” being the town in Germany where they gathered). What was clear was that anyone who opposed Rome’s official teaching was to be regarded as a heretic, and the fate of a heretic was usually death. Luther, therefore, knew full well, what the result of opposing Rome might be.

At the Diet of Worms, Luther was summoned to appear before the Council. Many of Luther’s books were put before him and he was asked two simple questions:

1) if these were in fact his writings
2) if he would recant of them.

It seems that Luther was expecting that his views would be given a hearing, but no. Rome had a position that Luther was opposing and all that was necessary in Rome’s eyes was for Luther to answer a simple question concerning whether or not he would recant of these writings.

To the first question Luther said that the books were his own although he had written others.

As to the question of recanting his material, he asked for more time to think it over, and was given a further 24 hours.

The next day came, and when summoned again, Luther was asked the exact same question about whether he would recant of his writings or not. He replied with these immortal words:

“…Unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture or by evident reason, I cannot recant. For my conscience is held captive by the word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand! I can do no other. God help me!”

Because he had been granted the rite of a safe passage to and from Worms, he left the Assembly. On his way back to Wittenburg, his own followers staged his kidnapping (fearing that Rome would do the same and not let him live) and took him to the Wartburg Castle in Germany, where, in seclusion, he spent the bulk of his time translating the Bible from the original languages into German. Luther’s German Bible provided the people of Germany with a priceless gift: access to the word of God in a language that the common people could understand. Like a lion let out of a cage, the Bible roared its truth to all the German speaking world and both cemented and extended the Reformation.

The second wave of the Protestant Reformation was definitely in agreement with the emphasis on justification by faith alone; yet viewed the Reformation with a broader perspective. The man primarily used by God at this time was John Calvin. Calvin was based in Geneva, Switzerland, and his focus centered on the Sovereignty of God, which resulted in a Christian world and life view, as well as a reformation of worship in the Church. At the young age of 27, Calvin wrote his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” which had a profound effect in establishing the doctrines of the Reformation in a systematic way. Calvin’s writings still have great appeal in our own day. Both phases of the Reformation opposed the errors being taught about salvation and God, and directed people to the truth of the Bible.

A broader view of history would reveal that the Reformation itself began long before Luther, when men like John Wycliffe (1329-1384) and John Hus (1373-1415) stood for the truth of God. Hus paid the ultimate price, a martyr’s death, for doing so.

Wycliffe, with the help of his followers, called the Lollards, and many other scribes, produced dozens of English language manuscript copies of the scriptures. They were translated out of the Latin Vulgate, which was the only source text available at the time. He died a natural death. In 1415, the Council of Constance ordered his remains exhumed and burned. The order was not carried out until 1428, 44 years after his death.

William Tyndale c.1494-1536 also had a monumental role in translating the Bible for the English speaking world, and shared the same fate as Hus by being burnt at the stake.

These men were not only concerned with what the Scriptures taught, but that the common people had access to read the Bible in their own language. It would be a fair appraisal to see these men’s efforts (under God) as foundational to the sweeping changes throughout Europe that Luther and Calvin would bring. Wycliffe, Hus and Tyndale built the bonfire, so to speak, and Luther simply lit the match and held it to the wood! The result – most of Europe was set ablaze with the biblical doctrines of grace.

The Reformers had 5 main slogans, all using the word “SOLA,” which is the Latin word for “ALONE.” It was this word “ALONE” that designated the true biblical Gospel and set it apart from all other pretenders. Urging a return to the Scriptures as the source of all truth, the cry of these Reformers was not simply FAITH!, GRACE!, CHRIST!, THE SCRIPTURE!, or THE GLORY OF GOD! (All embracing a false Gospel could do that.) But the cry was “FAITH ALONE!, GRACE ALONE!, CHRIST ALONE!, SCRIPTURE ALONE!, THE GLORY OF GOD ALONE!” Salvation is by God’s Grace Alone, received through Faith Alone, because of Christ Alone, based on the Scriptures Alone, to the Glory of God Alone.

It is fair to say that without this focus on the Bible as the authoritative word of God, the foundation would not have been in place for the sweeping changes Luther and Calvin would introduce. The Reformation urged a return to the Scriptures as the source of all truth. If properly understood and applied, the Bible becomes the bedrock for both the Church and the State, as every other idea, and opinion submits to its authority, as the inspired Word of God.

So we can think of the Protestant Reformation in three distinct phases; 1) the return to the Holy Scriptures as the sole authority for life, faith and doctrine; 2) the Biblical doctrine of Salvation; and 3) the desire to see Scripture shape every aspect of life.

It is extremely apparent that we need these same correctives in our own day. It is not at all difficult to find a faulty view of God being taught in the pulpits of America with reckless abandon. When we have a distorted view of God, then every other part of reality becomes distorted. When we begin to lose sight of who God really is, we do not understand who we are, and what our life is all about. Our challenge is to constantly be reformed by the Word of God and the Spirit of God.

That is the spirit of the Reformation that we urgently need today, and in that light, the reformation is an on-going process as both in our individual and church life, we submit to the authority of the Word of God. Therefore, the Reformation never ceases, and with the Reformers of old, we cry, “Semper Reformanda,” which is the Latin phrase which means “Always Reforming.”