The 31st October is usually remembered as Reformation Day. It is the day in 1917 that Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. That deed was used by God to trigger the Great Reformation of the church in the 16th century.
During the early part of the Middle Ages (500-800AD) much of Europe was still living in the darkness of heathen superstitions. However, the Lord caused the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to spread through Europe using missionaries such as Willibrord, Boniface and others. It was wonderful that during those difficult years of the early Middle Ages the Word of God was preached in many, many places.
Unfortunately, many missionaries did not preach the pure Word of God but accompanied it with all sorts of heathen ideas. There were at least two reasons for this.
- First, many of those missionaries themselves did not have a Bible. These were the days before printing presses. Bibles were still hand written and therefore very expensive and scarce.
- Second, the missionaries often changed the Gospel by including heathen ideas so as to make it more attractive to heathens. Thus, although the Word of God became a blessing to many, its rich comfort was often overshadowed by superstitions and pagan ideas.
Pagan ideas that became entrenched and led to deterioration in the church included
- The worship of relics. These concrete, visible objects were said to have played an important role in the life of Jesus, or in the lives of the saints, and allowed the people to worship something they could see rather than an invisible God.
- Doing good works in order to earn salvation. This appealed to the heathens because this was the sort of thing they were used to when they served idols. The favour of the heathen gods had been obtained by the gifts and actions of the people. Good works were seen as those which helped the poor and sick in particular. Although helping the poor and sick was a good thing, the people were deceived into believing that salvation could be earned hereby.
The unfortunate result of this corruption of the true Gospel was that people searched in vain for the certainty of faith. Very much afraid of God, they saw Him as a God of wrath who would punish those that did not meet the stringent demands of behaviour and worship expected of them.
Since God was so far away, all sorts of things were invented to bring God closer. These included
- the worship of saints. Mary and thousands of other ‘pious’ people were worshiped and asked to act as mediators between a wrathful, merciless God on the one hand and sinful man on the other. They hoped these virtuous saints, who they thought had done more than the minimum number of good works required, would turn away God’s anger and obtain His favour and so bring Him nearer.
- pilgrimages to ‘holy places’, such as Rome and Palestine, where God was said to be nearer to them than in ordinary life.
Thus what became the established Roman church was steeped in practices which drew people away from the truth and comfort of the Gospel into a life of uncertainty and fear. Continually tormented by the thought that they hadn’t done enough to satisfy God’s justice and to be saved, the people lacked the comfort and assurance of faith.
Martin Luther – before his conversion
Martin Luther was a child of his time. Considering the above, it is easy to understand why Luther’s early life was dominated by constant
- search for certainty of faith; he was very worried about whether he would be saved;
- fear of God, a fear heightened by the death of his friend and by a severe electrical storm both of which confronted him with the nearness of death. Death, he knew, would bring him before the judgement seat of God;
- attempts to appease God’s wrath by doing ‘good works’. These included entering a monastery, punishing himself daily in the hope that God would pity him and so be less severe on him, making a pilgrimage to Rome, praying to saints, and doing a host of other things to satisfy a fearsome God.
But he had it all wrong and God, in His great mercy, would show him the only comfort in life and death. More wonderfully, God would use Luther to show millions of people and to bring about a wonderful Reformation.
Gifted with a clear intellect, Luther was in the course of time appointed to the position of professor of theology in Wittenburg. This led him to study the Scriptures and the writings of Augustine. As we know, it was during his study of the book of Romans that God opened the “door to paradise” for him. He came to see that people are saved not by good works but by faith in Jesus Christ alone, God’s Son in the flesh, Who took man’s sins upon Himself and so satisfied God’s righteous justice upon man’s sins (Rom. 1:17, 3:28 & 5:1). Understandably, Luther’s preaching and teaching changed radically.
Things came to a head when the pope’s representative, Tetzel, came into the district on his tour of selling indulgences in order to raise money for a church project. Although these indulgences were said to forgive specific sins (without requiring repentance) and could even be bought to help others out of purgatory, Luther exposed them as a huge fraud. That exposure occurred on 31st October, 1517, when he nailed his ninety five theses (or statements) to the door of the church at Wittenberg. Therefore this date is regarded as the date of the Church Reformation.
The theses did not mince matters. For example, Thesis 32 said: “Those who suppose that on account of their letters of indulgence they are sure of salvation will be eternally damned along with their teachers.” Luther’s aim was to stimulate an academic debate about the theses. Although this didn’t eventuate, the theses stimulated a wave of interest. They were quickly copied, translated, published and distributed throughout Europe.
Luther continued his studies in God’s Word and as a result discovered more and more the deformation in the Roman church. He published material in which he explained to the believers how far the church had wandered away from God’s Word. His writings were attacked by both Roman Catholics and humanists and, whilst many others agreed with him, he was forced to do battle alone.
As Luther’s publications gained much influence among the people, the Roman church could no longer ignore him. The pope issued an edict (a ‘bull’) in 1520 in which he condemned Luther’s publications as heretical. Luther publicly burned this bull. The pope then sent an excommunication bull. Luther was also called to defend himself at the Diet of Worms, which condemned him as a heretic. It was at this Diet that Luther is said to have uttered the now famous words: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.’
There are two reasons why the Roman church reacted so strongly to Luther:
- It lost a way of getting much money. Luther showed that salvation could not be bought through indulgences or any other means. This not only showed Tetzel up as a fraud but it meant that the church lost a huge source of revenue.
- It lost immense power because the whole structure of the Roman church was organised in such a way that the clergy, through its many sacraments, dispensed salvation to the people. If, as Luther claimed, salvation was through Christ alone, then there was no need for pope and priests to act on behalf of the people.
Teachings of The Reformation
As the Reformation gained momentum it stressed
- Sola Scriptura: God’s Word is the ultimate authority in all our life, not the pope and the priests and the church;
- Sola Gracia: we are saved by grace alone, not because of our good works;
- Sola Fide: we are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ, not by buying indulgences or going on pilgrimages, etc.
It also showed from Scripture
- the priesthood of all believers (all peoples could offer their lives in the service of God);
- the church was not a hierarchy of officials but a congregation of believers;
- saints were not the Roman church’s selection of extraordinary good people, but every believer was a saint because the church was ‘a communion of saints’.
Through God’s mercy Luther rediscovered the Word of God, the Gospel of God’s grace through Jesus Christ alone. God subsequently used him to expose the heresies of the Roman church. This rediscovery of God’s Word was used by God as a catalyst to bring about the Great Reformation of His church.