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Imagine if there was no Reformation! I’m referring to the radical change in Church history that took place in the 1500s. At the time, Christianity was incredibly political. At one time, there were three popes, and it was nothing to go to war in the name of your particular version of Christianity. In fact, even the followers of the reformers often resorted to violence for their particular doctrine. Such ideas are utterly foreign to the New Testament.
So, what was the Reformation all about? What were John Calvin and Martin Luther so up in arms about? As you’re reading this, just imagine if there was never a Reformation. You would not be allowed to read the Bible and definitely not be able to interpret it. The pope would wield tremendous authority over you. And you could not be sure of your salvation. This is what Luther fought against.
Luther had hoped that his new revelations would reach the Jewish people. He figured that with the correct doctrine of salvation, Jews would flock to the gospel. When they didn’t, he turned against them viciously. If Martin Luther had anything, he had a tongue that he unleashed in his writings. His words against the Jewish people were some of the most anti-Semitic in history. This fact should not be overlooked! Hitler used to quote him. Nevertheless, we can also not ignore his contribution to getting the Bible into your hands.
The Five Main Issues of the Reformation:
Rejection of Papal (Pope) Authority
The Catholic Church asserted that the pope had both temporal and spiritual authority. “In line with its emphasis on the democratization of faith, Protestantism rejected any notion of absolute papal authority.” Luther and the reformers maintained that every believer has just as much right to interpret the Bible as the pope. “Luther appears to suggest that ordinary pious Christian believers are perfectly capable of reading Scripture and making perfect sense of what they found within its pages.” Furthermore, the Pope could be “challenged and corrected” on his interpretations—just like anyone else.
However, controversy arose among the reformers when some felt there needed to be a final authority for interpretation.
“In the end, Protestantism took the view that it was better to live with such [theological] questions than to have someone impose a decision from above. Most early Protestant writers took the view that the Bible was clear on matters that were of ultimate significance and that disagreement could be accepted on peripheral matters.”
As we say today, major on the majors in minor on the minors.
Justification by Faith
This was the idea that grace is activated not by works or sacraments but faith alone—sola fide. Luther referred to James and his emphasis on works as “an epistle of straw.” But later on, whether in support of James or not, he captures the essence of James’s emphasis on works. “Luther responded (to those alarmed at lack of concerned with Christian charity) by calming such fears, particularly in his ‘Sermon on Good Works,’ arguing that all he was saying was that good works were the natural result of having been justified, not the cause of that justification.”
The Catholic Church did not teach that you could be sure of your salvation. The New Testament example is people coming to faith and expressing it through immediate immersion in water. That was the moment that they were “saved”—not by baptism. The baptism was just like what some call the sinner’s prayer today. The sinner’s prayer never saved anyone; it is the faith in the finished work of Yeshua that brings grace for salvation. New Testament immersion water was not something you did months after salvation; you did it immediately to express your faith in Yeshua (see Acts 2, 8, 10).
A Return to the Bible
“The renewal of the church, it was argued by many Renaissance writers, lay in a return to its title deeds in the New Testament. A stream was purest at its source.” This was expressed in the Latin phrase ad fontes—back to the fountainhead. The Church had put its faith far more in “church tradition or papal decrees” than in the word of God.
They did exactly to the New Testament what rabbinic Judaism did to the Old Testament. People read the opinions of theologians more than they read the Bible. Just like Judaism, Catholicism also has an oral tradition. Some of that is crucial, as those oral traditions of the creeds put truths into the minds and hearts of the first-century believers and held the body of Messiah together before the New Testament was assembled. But some put equal or even more emphasis on that than the word of God. Sola Scriptura became a popular phrase in the Reformation meaning by Scripture alone.
You see, the Bible was not available to the masses in their languages. The Bible was only in Greek or Hebrew, and then there was the Latin Vulgate. And there were passages in the Vulgate that were intentionally manipulated to support the pope and the bishops. This was exposed through Erasmus, one of the reformers. However, with new translations and the advent of the printing press, the popes and the bishops could no longer keep the people from reading or interpreting the Bible.
“The first printed book using moveable type was produced by Gutenberg in the city of Mainz around 1454. In 1456, the same press produced a printed Latin Bible. This was followed in 1457 by the so-called Mainz Psalter, which established the custom of identifying the printer, the location of the press, and the date of publication on the title page of the work. No longer would copies of sacred texts be dependent on copyists; a more reliable, economical, and efficient means of production was now available.”
The Priesthood of the Believer
At the time, many bishops were getting rich through their positions within the clergy. There was tremendous corruption and abuse. Sadly, we see the same things today in charismatic circles. But one of the ways that they kept the parishioner imprisoned was to convince him that he needed the priest. Without a priest, to whom will you confess your sins?
Luther called for the democratization of the church.
“This theme of spiritual democratization is also evident in Luther’s doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers.’ There was no basis, Luther argued, for asserting that the clergy were superior to the laity, as if they were some kind of spiritual elite, or that their ordination conferred upon them some special ‘indelible character.’”
Erasmus asked, “Why confess sins to another human being when you can go directly to God.” There is certainly nothing wrong with confessing your sins to another (James 5:16), but we can go directly to our advocate, Yeshua (1 John 1:9)
Sacraments and The Lord’s Supper
Luther claimed that only baptism and the Lord’s supper were sacraments. The Catholics had seven. But it was more than that; Catholics had believed for some time in the doctrine of transubstantiation. That meant that after the communion elements were blessed, they became the actual body and blood of the Messiah. Personally, I do not subscribe to this. I believe they’re symbolic. However, I do believe that we would do well to take the Lord’s Supper more often and with more passion.
But there was another controversy. By the time of Luther, it had become customary not to allow the laity (the common believer) to partake of the wine. Apparently, in the 11th century, some folks had carelessly spilled the wine from the chalice from which they drank. To them, this was literally spilling the blood of the Messiah, and so the Church stopped serving the wine to the laity. “So influential did Luther’s attitude become that the practice of offering the laity the chalice became a hallmark of a congregation’s allegiance to the Reformation.”
What About Indulgences?
Very good question! This was the issue that drove Luther in 1517 to nail his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church in Germany. The other issues came later. Catholics believe in purgatory, an intermediate state between death and eternity for purification to appease God. This is nowhere in the Bible. But even worse than that, they began to abuse this concept and use it to raise money. They came up with the idea that by giving a gift to the Church—called an indulgence—you could free your dead loved ones from purgatory. This infuriated Luther.
Luther was initially propelled to fame through a controversy concerning the sale of indulgences in 1517. Luther regarded the sale of indulgences as theologically questionable, running the risk of the commodification of forgiveness – in effect, treating God’s forgiveness of sins as something that could be purchased. In 1517, Luther wrote to Archbishop Albert, protesting against the practice and giving notice of a set of “theses against indulgences” which he proposed to dispute at the University of Wittenberg. These constitute the famous “Ninety-Five Theses,” regarded by some historians as marking the origins of the Reformation in 1517.
Now, imagine a life without the Reformation.