A Word from Your CBC Team: This blog post is re-posted with permission from northsideindy.wordpress.com.
How It All Began
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther fired the first shot of the Reformation by announcing his famous “95 Theses” to the world that challenged the pope, denied purgatory, and refuted prayers to saints. The fiery rebel knew it was time for a break with the Roman Catholic Church and to start a new tradition. So he nailed his famous dictate in the town square, pumped his fist in the air, and rode off into the Protestant sunset.
Well…maybe not. We like a good cowboy story. The truth is, however, that the Protestant Reformation happened gradually and, in many ways, unintentionally.
For over 1,000 years the Roman Catholic system was the only expression of Christianity in Europe. No one ever imagined it could possibly be any different. So in the early 16th century when Dr. Luther discerned that some recent teachings were less than biblical, and some practices took advantage of the local German people (maybe you’ve heard of the sale of “indulgences”), then he did something that had gone on for generations. He wrote 95 ideas-for-debate and pinned them to the door of the main church building in a tiny town called Wittenberg. Why? Well, that’s what church leaders like himself (he was a monk) did if they wanted to discuss theological topics with other church leaders. He wasn’t trying to announce anything to all the world. He wasn’t trying to stir up the masses. In fact, he wrote them in Latin because that was the language of theologians of the day. So he really wasn’t doing anything controversial. In his mind he was simply the good son of the Catholic Church, doing his duty to engage others theologically, and pastorally look out for the people of piddly ol’ Wittenberg.
Well, what happened? As it turns out, his zealous students, seeing the value of a wider circulation, took the theses down, translated them into German and French—the common languages!—and rushed them off to this new thing called the “printing press.” From there many copies were made and dispersed all over Europe. This threw Luther into controversy and gave other “protestors” the opportunity to rise to public prominence as well (think here of names like Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, Tyndale, Simons). And so a rising chorus of voices challenged the Roman Catholic system in the hopes of reforming the church. Hence the name, the “Reformation.” The goal was never to break with Rome, but to fix Rome.
Now, what were the problems these Reformers thought were so urgent? I’ll mention just two. (1) Over the years the Pope had grown too much in power. And (2) it was taught that works of righteousness were necessary for salvation. In response to the first the Reformers insisted that only the Bible has the ability to bind the conscience and demand our obedience. Popes and traditions are fine but not if their teachings contradict the Bible, and that is exactly what the Reformers found. So they insisted on the principle sola Scriptura—the Scriptures alone have the authority over doctrine and life. Secondly, one of the main teachings of the Bible is that justification is by grace through faith. That is, our right standing before God is through his free and sovereign grace alone that we experience through faith alone. Not by works.
These principles were so important to the Reformers (and rightly so!) that they were willing to fight and endure persecution for them.
But what happened when Rome would not budge on these issues? They couldn’t possibly break up the unity of the Great Church, could they? The unity of God’s people is a major concern for Jesus. In John 17:21 Jesus prayed that his followers “may all be one.” But only a few sentences earlier he also prayed “sanctify them in the truth” (17:17). Well, what happens when convictions of truth prohibit real unity? And that was Luther’s issue. He wanted to maintain unity, but how could he sacrifice truth to do that? It’s not a real unity if it’s not organized around the truth.
Luther said, “Peace by all means; the truth at all costs.” Amen! And I don’t think Jesus ever intended to hide truth behind a façade of unity. Thus, when Rome refused to respond, the Reformers continued to protest and the rest is, as they say, history. Eventually the Reformation came to England too that eventually gave rise to our very own Baptist tradition, equally committed to sola Scriptura and justification by grace through faith alone.
Now, October 31st is known as Reformation Day (so pass out tracts when trick-or-treaters ring your door bell!). And next year will mark the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses. At one point he called the Reformation an “accident” (which is not the same thing as a “mistake”). He wasn’t intending to start anything new or separate from others. But he saw the costly results of bad theology and in service ultimately to Christ he started the debate he wanted.