Celebrating 500 years of Reformation
This year on the 31st October we celebrate 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was not a world-renowned name in 1517, but his act would prove to be a decisive catalyst in bringing reformation to the church.
The Reformation was a protest against the Roman Catholic Church who were not seeing the gospel clearly. Martin Luther confronted the corrupt and confused practice of selling indulgences to absolve sin. An indulgence was a certificate that you could purchase which would guarantee the purchaser (or the person for whom it was being purchased) that a certain amount of time in purgatory would be cancelled. The practice was offensive because it denied the free grace of God to forgive sin, but even more so, the particular special indulgence that was being sold at that time was to raise money to build St. Peter Basilica in Rome.
Luther’s “95 theses” were 95 questions or statements that he put forward. By nailing them to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church he was inviting public debate. In fact, it was probably far less dramatic than a “nailing them defiantly to the door” – he probably hung them on a nail matter-of-factly to announce an ensuing academic debate. The two main tenants of the 95 theses were that the Bible was the only rule for faith and life (not the Pope or church edicts), and that salvation was not attained by any work and could not be purchased, but came only thought the free grace of God by faith in Christ. Although these ideas were not new, Luther’s stated them in a way that quickly gained popularity and brought him into direct conflict with the Catholic Church and the Pope.
“Here I stand. God help me. I can do no other”
In the four years following the publishing of his 95 theses, Luther was summoned to two church diets (assemblies) to defend his position. his writings were condemned by the Pope, he was found to be a heretic and finally he was ex communicated from the Catholic Church after refusing to recant. His now famous words, “Here I stand. God help me. I can do no other”, show his humility and deep conviction.
Luther would be forced into hiding, but in the next ten years he would produce a German translation of the Bible. This is debatably his greatest achievement. Up until that time all people relied on the priest, monk or friar to tell you what the Latin Bible said, but now people had the freedom to read, hear and interpret the Bible for themselves in their own language.
Martin Luther is one of the most influential figures in Western history. The Protestant church broke from the Catholic Church because Luther (and other reformers like Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, John Knox, and William Tyndale) stood firm against the false gospel being taught by the Catholic Church. This is not to say that he got everything right (his anti-Semitic views being one example) but he certainly shaped the core of what is today the Protestant church (all churches that are not Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Coptic).
Today we should give thanks to God for the conviction and determination of people like Luther. They recovered what has become known today in evangelical circles at the “Five Solas”:
- Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.
- Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
- Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
- Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Saviour, and King.
- Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.
Although the context of 2017 is very different from the context of 1517, we still need these guiding principles to protect us from straying into a false gospel of “earning salvation by works”, or of looking to any other person or document as the authority in our Christian lives.