Volume 17, No. 10 (October 2022)
The beginning of the Protestant Reformation is usually traced to October 31, 1517, the date on which Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The 95 Theses were questions, points of disputation and disagreements that Luther had with the established church of his day.
THE DEBT WE OWE
The Reformers, at incredible personal cost, championed the truth of God. They stood against all the political and ecclesiastical authorities of their day, strengthened by a faith in God and in his Word. In a very real sense, we are involved in the study contained in this book because these Reformers stood for the truth of God’s word and helped to return the true faith to the church of Jesus Christ.
Truly these were men “of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:38), whom we rightly we honor as true heroes of the faith:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7)
A REFORMATION OF DOCTRINE
It is important to realize that Luther and the other Reformers were not trying to start a new branch of the church, a new religion, or introduce new teachings into the church. They were seeking renewal and restoration, not revolution. They were trying to recover the biblical gospel that had been lost to the church. It was their goal to restore to the church the New Testament, apostolic teachings about the nature and means of salvation. So they were trying to restore something to the church rather than start something new. It was only when the established church rejected them that they had to pull out and start something new.
The apostolic teachings that the Reformers focused on as their rallying cry were concerned with the doctrine of justification by faith as summarized and identified by five Latin phrases:
1. Sola scriptura (the Scriptures alone)
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16)
2. Sola gratia (by grace alone)
Salvation is a free gift of God’s grace. One cannot do anything to deserve it or earn it.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
3. Sola fide (by faith alone)
This gift of God’s grace is received through faith alone; not through works, but merely by acknowledging and accepting the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.
A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)
4. Solus Christus (in Christ alone)
It is only through Christ, His righteousness, and His redeeming work on the cross that we receive salvation.
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. (1 Timothy 2:5-6)
5. Soli Deo gloria (to God alone be the glory)
God has done all these things in this way that he might receive all the glory.
. . . to the praise of his glorious grace (Ephesians 1:6)
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:36)
God receives all the glory in providing salvation for us by grace, through faith, through the work of Christ, as revealed in the Scriptures to us: these are the great doctrinal emphases of the Protestant Reformation.
A REFORMATION OF WORSHIP
As crucial as this gospel-restoring reformation of doctrine was, there was also a very important reformation of worship as well. As N. T. Wright has summarized it:
The 16th-century Reformers protested against the way in which the Medieval church had turned liturgy and much else besides into a quasi-pagan magic system, which enhanced the power of those who operated it, and did little or nothing to let the true gospel shine out.
Return to the Word of God
The centrality of the Word in worship was restored, read, and preached. Preaching itself was restored to a central role in the worship service. And the Bible was made available to the people translated into their own languages (the invention of the printing press in the 15th Century made it much more feasible to produce and distribute large numbers of Bibles.) Luther himself translated the Bible into German.
Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)
Return to participatory worship
The church in the Middle Ages had reverted to an Old Testament model of priestly activity and congregational passivity. The Reformers sought to restore worship to the people.
This was done, first of all, by conducting the service in the language of the people, so that the people could understand and be engaged. The people were encouraged to take an active role in worship as an expression of the “priesthood of all believers” (see 1 Peter 2:9). The development of congregational song was especially important in this.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)
Luther himself wrote numerous hymns for congregational singing, and John Calvin instituted the singing of metrical paraphrases of the Psalms.
Return to the sole priesthood of Christ
The efforts in the early centuries of the church to defend the deity of Christ led to a neglect of his full humanity, especially as it related to his mediating role in worship. In the Middle Ages the church assumed the need for a human priesthood to mediate between sinful humanity and the exalted Christ, the majestic Judge and King. Prayer was made to Mary or one of the saints as an intermediary.
The Reformers insisted with Paul that:
There is one God, and one mediator between man and God, the man Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 2:5)
They stressed the direct access that every believer has into the presence of God, without the need to go through another human mediator (priest, Mary, or saint):
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19-22)
And so we see the incredible significance of the Protestant Reformation: how God used the Reformers to restore the apostolic doctrine of justification by grace through faith to the church; and how he used them to bring about a reformation of worship, which encouraged the participation of God’s people, the centrality of the Word of God, and the importance of our access through Christ and through him alone.