501 years ago today, the history of the church, of Europe, and of the western world were forever changed in the town of Wittenberg Germany. Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses, a list of grievances against corrupt and unbiblical practices within the Catholic Church. The impact of this event continues to ripple throughout the Christian world.
Luther was not the first person to call for reform in the church.
Other movements perhaps had followings but didn’t have political support. Luther had that. Which afforded him a certain level of personal safety, though his martyrdom seemed inevitable at times. Another key difference between Luther and influential reformers who preceded him was the invention of the printing press. This allowed a mass volume of pamphlets to be produced. Luther was also likely helped by the fact that other reformation movements spread elsewhere in Europe during this time. Amid church abuses, Europe was at a tipping point. And while Luther was not the first to call for reform, it was his ministry that most significantly tipped the Reformation movement over the edge.
Less than 20 years later in England, Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church and started he Church of England in 1534. Reforms were also happening in Switzerland, most notably, the city of Geneva, eventually under the leadership of John Calvin. The Anabaptist movement sprung up who favorited believer’s baptism over infant baptism. These groups were not always in agreement, and some of them had severe conflicts with each other, but they were all in agreement that all was not well within the Church, and that there were changes which were necessary.
Against Church traditions that had become entrenched in Europe, the reformers did not think that they were doing something new, but rather were taking the Church back to its Biblical foundations.
By the sale of indulgences, it was believed that people could pay a price to have sins removed from themselves or for people for whom they had purchased the indulgences. But the issue with this was that the Catholic Church was overstepping its bounds on what saved a person. The Church was not the arbiter of what brings salvation, it is God’s grace alone received through faith alone in Christ alone. The gospel is not man’s gospel (Galatians 1:11).
The Catholic Church believes and believed that the seven sacraments impart grace by nature of being sacraments. While the Mass was in Latin and could not be understood by all people, the justification for this was that the sacraments still inherently imparted grace to a person, regardless of if they could understand. But this undermined faith. That’s not to say that Catholics (then and now) never value faith. But it can be easy to focus on sacraments and works apart from faith.
Interestingly the sacrament of confession was one which caused great angst for Martin Luther. Beginning as a devout Catholic and constantly aware of his own sinfulness, Luther lived in an ever-present awareness the this life did not live up to God’s standards of holiness. He had no assurance of salvation and lived in an exhausting cycle of constant confession. Luther would confess multiple times a day, sometimes for hours at a time, as he tried to remember every sin he committed, every hint of pridefulness, everything he should have done but hadn’t.
One verse that Luther had despised in the scriptures was “the righteous shall live by faith” which is found multiple times in the Bible (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Habakuk 2:4).
But Luther knew he wasn’t righteous.
In his conversion story, Luther said:
“For I hated thatword “righteousness of God,” which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers…Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner beforeGod with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he wasplacated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God whopunishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuringgreatly, I was angry with God.”
But Luther would eventually be struck by the verse which had brought him such distress. The gospel was not about living up to the righteousness of God. It was about living for God in faith. And for Luther, that changed everything.
“At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.'” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith isrighteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and hadentered paradise itself through open gates.”
Faith is a gift from God and that people are declared righteous by God as a result of faith in the gospel.
We are justified by faith. This became a hallmark of Luther’s theology. And it became invaluable to Protestantism. We are justified by faith, not by faith and works. Not through faith and Church. Not by faith and any of the sacraments (though baptism and the Lord’s Supper are things which all Christians ought to do and are commanded to do).
A critique of this view and an unfortunate consequence is that many take the “faith alone” view to mean that disingenuous faith is enough, just giving some vague assent to a gospel a person doesn’t really believe in. That wasn’t what Luther believed.
At the beginning of his 95 Theses, the first theses talks about how all of life is repentance. Faith is an all-encompassing reality and driving force of life. Living by faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That we cannot earn salvation of our own merit but that it is entirely by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Happy Reformation Day!
This post was originally published October 31, 2017 as “500 years of reformation.”
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Josh Benner is the associate pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in Minnesota.