My friend recently posted on Facebook about this year’s 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It was short, sweet, simple.
Someone commented calling the post gibberish and my friend a history nerd.
It was all in good humor—a friend teasing another friend—but I was shocked. I was shocked because the words were coming from a fellow Christian, and a fellow Protestant Christian, and she had no sense of the Reformation’s significance.
I know she isn’t alone.
It’s been said that Christians have very bad memories. (I would say this is generally true of humans.) We easily forget where we’ve come from. We forget our history. We forget that our present was birthed from the past. We are heirs of the ideas and decisions of the people and cultures that came before us. We did not emerge from nothing, ex nihilo. We are irreparably tied to our history.
History matters—not because of nerdiness and not for obsession with fact-collecting. History matters because it reminds us who we are.
How does this relate to the Protestant Reformation?
At the time of the Reformation, there was one Church in Western Europe—the Roman Catholic Church, and one Church in Eastern Europe—the Eastern Orthodox Church. It’s hard to imagine today, when we’re accustomed to a variety of church traditions. In my hometown and its surrounding township, for example, there are dozens of churches, and I can’t begin to list the various denominations these churches represent.
If you attend a church of any tradition aside from the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches, you are a child of the Protestant Reformation. (In many ways, Western history as we know it, including my native United States culture, is also a child of the Reformation, but that goes beyond the scope of what we can talk about here.)
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In honor of the occasion, I’ll be taking the next few weeks leading up to "Reformation Day" on October 31 to reflect on how the Reformation speaks to us today. But first, we need to cover some basic history.
Martin Luther and Reformation Beginnings
The Reformation started with a monk named Martin Luther. He was obsessive and anxious, hyper-aware of his sin and fearful of God’s judgment. As a professor at Wittenberg University, Luther threw himself into the study of Scripture.
As he studied and lectured, he gradually began to see the Bible's teaching differently. God's righteousness, like it's talked about in the book of Romans, isn't about God waiting to smite us. It's about God's gracious gift in making us righteous because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. He gives us His righteousness, bringing us to a place of right relationship, adopting us as His children. And He does this not because of our own merit or worthiness or action but merely by His grace, through our faith in Christ.
For any of us who grew up in a Protestant church, this probably sounds like old news. But for Luther, it was revolutionary. He “rediscovered” this presentation of the Gospel, which now sounds so common to us. It was his reformation breakthrough.
The trouble started when Luther wrote and posted the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. At the time, traveling preachers were selling indulgences. They told townspeople, often poor peasants without money to spare, that if they paid money for an "indulgence," one of their loved ones would be released from Purgatory. They even had an advertising jingle: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs.”
Luther was a concerned pastor. He saw a practice that was taking advantage of poor churchgoers, a practice that was theologically suspect in suggesting people could buy salvation, a practice that was conveniently funding a grandiose building project in Rome. So, he wrote ninety-five objections to the practice and publicly shared them for scholarly debate.
The Ninety-Five Theses circulated widely and quickly, and controversy erupted. The next few years were a whirlwind for Luther. He wrote furiously, explaining the theological views that had slowly been forming during his studies. He publicly debated church leaders and stood before religious and secular councils. He was eventually declared a heretic, excommunicated from the Catholic Church, and made an outlaw. But the “damage” had already been done. The Protestant Reformation was taking Europe by storm.
Reformation Basics: The Solas
I will not take the time to explain all that Luther did and taught for the rest of his life. And I will not detail his followers and the various early fragmentations of the Reformation. If you’re interested, this information is readily available elsewhere. Instead, I want to simply explain the Reformation distinctives, these significant shifts that revolutionized the expression and theology of the Christian Church. We call them the “solas.”
Sola Scriptura: Scripture alone is the highest authority.
This was the starting point of the revolutionary shift of the Reformation. No longer did the judgments of popes or church councils or the traditions of the church bear the authority of what was true. Scripture alone was the judge and standard of truth. It is the authority for our faith and doctrine, and everything must be interpreted in its light.
Solus Christus: Christ alone is our only mediator to God.
We could not come to God on our own, and we needed Him to reveal Himself and come to us. Christ alone is the way for us to be in right relationship with God and know what He is really like. Our salvation was accomplished once and for all by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is the only way of salvation.
Sola Fide & Sola Gratia: We are saved through faith alone, by the grace of God alone.
It is impossible for us to save ourselves or work our way into God’s favor. Our salvation is entirely by His grace, not by any works or good things we have done. We do not add to the saving work of Christ—He has already fully won our salvation. We receive this salvation and are made right with God by responding in faith to what Christ has already done. In a “great exchange,” the penalty of our sin was paid by Christ on the Cross, and we are given His righteousness, declared to be right with God. The simple statement of the Gospel, which we have inherited from the Reformation is: Justification (we are made right with God), by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone.
Soli Deo Gloria: Glory to God Alone
God alone receives glory from our salvation and our lives. Because salvation is entirely His work, and not our own, He receives all the glory and praise from it. The whole of our lives should be lived for His glory.
Luther never wanted to break from the Catholic Church. His intention was always reform—to call the Church back to its roots, back to the basic teachings of the biblical Gospel. But the reformation turned into a break, and produced a new branch of Christianity. This year, we mark its 500th birthday.