This year, nearly a month ago on October 31st, we celebrated the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. The act of nailing a document to the door was not, in and of itself, that unusual, but it was its content that was to make history. As mentioned, the act itself was not that unusual; the nailing of documents to the door was a call to debate, and the defense of one side or another was posted for all to read and thus respond.
What Martin Luther did was to call into question one of the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church: that of “justification”. That is to say, that one is saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9) (Sola Fide, Sola Gratia). The Truth is found in the Bible alone, and not in what the Church may say it is (Sola Scriptura). Further, that Jesus Christ is our only Lord and Savior (Sola Christus). And finally, we live for the Glory of God alone, not for the Church or anyone therein (Soli Deo Gloria).
These themes contained in Luther’s theses were put forth to convince the Church that they needed to change and reform their practices which had corrupted their doctrine. The Church had been allowing people to “buy” their way into heaven. The money, of course, went to the Church allowing them to expand and beautify their churches. It had also led to the placing of “unqualified” individuals into positions of authority in the Church, as they were able to buy a Bishop position, or even Cardinal. The Church wanted to be the “go-between” between God and the people, setting the rules based on their interpretation of Scripture (to which few had access).
The Catholic Church had been the only Christian denomination for more than 1,000 years and, during that time, had grown to be more of a political force than a spiritual one. They did, however, use their spiritual authority to convince the political leaders to “cooperate” with the Church, when it suited their needs. They had lost sight of their true mission, which was to share the gospel and grow up life-long followers of Christ. It became, rather, an international multinational enterprise designed to enrich its members.
Luther defended himself at a “trial” in Worms, Germany and was fortunate to have royal supports who protected him from the Church, or he would have been “eliminated” as a heretic, as those who had come before him had been. Luther found sanctuary in Germany and was able to translate the Bible into German for the general public to begin to know the Word of God directly and personally.
Once the earthly power of the Church had been broken, others followed Luther in defiance of the Church. What would become the Protestant Reformation had begun and there was no turning back. The Church did begin to push back against the “heretics” who now taught that Scripture was the final authority and not the Church. For the next 300 years numerous conflicts within and among nations were largely based on religious grounds. Thousands of people were killed defending what each thought was the “true” religion.
While there were negative consequences of this Reformation, there were many positive ones. There was a gradual spread of the Bible in native languages, and although Bibles were still hard to come by (because of the expense of the printing), it was able to be read by those who were literate.
The Reformation also allowed for the questioning of “authority” on the political level, as it had been questioned on the spiritual level. Ultimately the founding of this country was based on a willingness to question the authority of the King which had been born, in part, out of the Reformation. The Reformation laid the ground work for the justification of questioning kings and princes, whose actions did not line up with the Word of God. The Founding Fathers studied the writings of the early Reformers to find the scriptural justification for the American Revolution. Such works proved critical to the Americans who were reluctant to defy the “lawful” king without scriptural justification.Tags: 95 thesis, Martin Luther, Reformation, Sola Christus, Sola Fida, Sola Gracia, Sola Scriptura, Soli Deo Gloria, the 5 solas