The Protestant Reformation
By: Dr. John Neufeld
The Protestant ReformationOne of the tragedies of any culture is that great things that are won in one generation through bravery, conviction, sacrifice, and courageous faith, are forgotten by another generation who take things for granted, and then because of that lose what others have gained for them. The statement in Exodus 1:8, “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” tells us that when the past is forgotten difficult days lie ahead. The famous dictum that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom gets said so that the principles that bought us freedom need not only to be remembered but need also to be pursued.As I record this message, we are closing in on the year 2017. To many people there is nothing very significant about that year. But for the next week I want explain why it is that 2017 is a very significant year indeed for Bible believing Christians, but also for others.2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. But here, I fear that a generation has truly arisen that knew not Joseph, or in this case a generation has arisen that knew not Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others. Let me give an example. Many times, even when I am with Bible believing Christians and I speak about Martin Luther I will hear some think that I am speaking about Martin Luther King, not even knowing that Dr. King chose his name in order to identify with Martin Luther. Or I will encounter some Christians who have heard of some of the not so nice stories of the Reformation and will then immediately discount what was accomplished then.
So let me clear away some of the misconceptions of the reformation. Yes it is true that the reformers of 500 years ago did not fully grasp the separation of church and state. It is true that on some occasions they participated in the persecution of others. It is true that sometimes they vacillated between a medieval church and a biblical one. But there are some other things that are equally true.
Do you think that the Bible is the only source of authority over the life of the believer and over the church? Do you think that whatever you do no matter what your profession, whether you are a pastor or a plumber, that you have a sacred profession? Do you think it is important to know how to have your sins forgiven and receive assurance for eternal life? Do you think it is important to answer the question: what must I do to be saved? Do you believe that it is important to teach people to read and therefore study the Bible for themselves? Do you believe that every Christian should discover their spiritual gifts and understand what their ministry is? Do you love singing together as a congregation? At communion do you partake in both the bread and the cup? Do you think we should always be striving to return the church to the ideal set out in the Bible? Do you think that the preached word of God is central to the life of the church?
If you think these things do you know that all of the things that I have just mentioned were forgotten by the church and they had to be recovered? And that is the story of the Reformation. And my great concern is that today we are living in a day when much of what was recovered is in danger of being lost again and if it is lost the church will again re-embark in her 2nd dark ages. I’ll say more about that this week.
Our faith, the Christian faith, the faith that was given to us by a revelation from God, came to us in history.
Most of us are aware that our faith came to us not just by God declaring his truth, but that he did so in the events of real historical events. God called Abraham to leave his country and his people and to go to the land that God had promised to him. That event happened around 2089 B.C. God called Moses, and through him all of Israel left Egypt to go to the Promised Land about 1446 B.C. God called David to be the King of Israel around 1010 B.C. Jerusalem finally fell to the Babylonians, who burned the temple in 586 B.C. In 538 B.C. King Cyrus of Persia offered up an edict allowing Israel to return to the Promised Land. And somewhere around A.D. 27-30 Jesus of Nazareth began his public ministry only to be crucified 3 years later and then rise from the dead. And so in not too many years we will celebrate 2000 years since the death and resurrection of Jesus and the proclamation that Jesus Christ is Lord of all.
That’s what I mean. God didn’t just reveal his truth to us, but he did so in history, in real events in which he caused his truth to enter into the real historical experience of the human race. Now all of us know that. Christianity is a historical faith. Not just a set of ideas or even of revealed truth, but revealed truth in real and verifiable history. This is what makes our faith to be absolutely unique. We are not a faith of myths, not a faith of proclamations out of the clear blue, but a faith where one event builds on another event as God reveals his truth to us.
But many Christians simply don’t know what happened after the last book of the Bible was written until the present time. Indeed, how did we go from a church that was overseen by the apostles until today where there are three different branches of the Christian faith, that is, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Protestant Churches?
And even saying what I have just said will leave some Christians scratching their heads. What did he just say? 3 branches of the Christian faith? I’ve never heard about it before!
And so today I am going to make matters fairly simple. I want to talk about one of the great schisms of the Christian faith, what it is, and why it happened. Another way of saying it is I want to speak of one of the great aha moments in the history of our faith when people turned back to the gospel. And that takes me to the year 2017. 2017 will mark 500 years since the Protestant Reformation.
Who is Martin Luther?
So, let me take you back to the year 1517. It was October 31, oh yes, and by the way if you want an alternative to Halloween why not make it reformation day! But I am digressing. It was October 31, 1517 in the small German town of Wittenberg located somewhere in North Western Germany today. There was a church in that town part of a castle.
On that day an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther, armed with a piece of paper and a hammer, nails the piece of paper on the door of the church and with that act literally changes the world.
Now it needs to be said that nailing something to a church door wasn’t the problem. In that day a church door would often function like a city newspaper in which news announcements and other items were often left there. But this piece of paper was very different. It has been called, “the 95 theses. What that paper contained were essentially 95 complaints against the abuses of the church in his day and a demand for change or for reform. Because the printing press had been invented, copies of the 95 theses were quickly mailed all over Europe, and this set the world on fire.
Before we look at what that paper said let’s just trace what gave rise to that piece of paper. In that time, all of Europe laboured under the Roman Catholic church. Reading a Bible for oneself was forbidden. Indeed, all Bible’s that existed were housed in churches and seminaries and the only copies that existed were in Latin. Common people didn’t speak Latin.
If you went to church in those days there really wasn’t a sermon, congregational singing, or any of the things millions of Christians take for granted today. If you had gone to church in Europe 500 years ago, you would have gone to celebrate the mass. You would have received the bread, in which you would have been told had been transformed by a miracle into the actual body of Jesus, and you were given the privilege of eating the flesh of Christ. The cup would have been withheld from you, it was too holy for the common person. Only the priest, a servant of the gospel would have the privilege of drinking Christ’s blood on your behalf. The priest was the intermediary between you and God. You couldn’t go to God on your own.
The way to forgiveness in those days was granted only through the church, that is, the priests and the church hierarchy. The church taught that there were 7 sacraments, or 7 means of grace that imparted God’s grace into your life. They would have included baptism, the Eucharist or what we call communion, confirmation, the confessional, marriage, extreme unction or last rites and the ordination of priests. These 7 functions of the church, so people were taught, is what infused God’s grace into you. Get the 7 sacraments from the church and you receive grace, don’t get them from the church and only hellfire awaits you.
Technically, this was called “the treasury of merits”. The church, it was told, had a treasure chest of the merits of Christ which it could apply to you. And for most people 500 years ago, that was all they ever knew about the Christian faith. But that October 31, 1517 and that piece of paper nailed to the door of the church in Wittenberg was about to change all of that.
What sparked the anger of Martin Luther was the appearance in Wittenberg of a man named John Tetzel, and what has been called, “The Sale of Indulgences.” Tetzel was a very powerful preacher, and he made a bold announcement. Right now, he proclaimed your dead relatives who had gone before you were languishing in purgatory. They were suffering to pay off their sins. But Jesus, and the apostles and the saints, were far better than they needed to be to get into heaven. And so, if you will, they had left what I call “goodness bucks” behind. Think of it this way. Imagine it costs $1,000 goodness bucks to get to heaven. Imagine that Jesus earned billions of goodness bucks, and left them unspent. The apostles and the saints also left unspent goodness bucks. And what is more, the church had them stored up, and now because of an act of grace the church was ready to sell some of them.
Tetzel described in great detail the torments of those who were right now languishing in purgatory. If today he said your heart moves you come and buy an indulgence for your dead mother or father and uncle or an aunt. And as soon as your money hits the bottom of the offering box your dead relative will spring up into heaven.
Well, Luther was filled with rage. And a lot of that rage stemmed from his own Bible Study. When Luther entered a monastery as a young man his mind and heart were filled with the stories of the terrors of hell. And so he did what the church taught him to do. He fasted and prayed, he slept without blankets and afflicted his flesh. He even wrote, “If ever a monk got to heaven by monkery, it was I.”
Eventually, Luther traveled to Rome and participated in climbing the steps to the Vatican on his knees leaving them bloody and sore. When he got to the top he got a paper expressing his absolution from sins, but his first thought was “I wonder if it is so”.
Eventually, a wonderful opportunity came his way. In 1511 he was brought to Wittenberg in order to teach. He was given the privilege of studying scripture, and it was there that everything changed.
The change happened in 1514, and that experience has often been called, “The Tower Experience.” He was in the tower room of his Augustinian cloister, where he spent long hours sitting before an open Bible, pondering its contents. He had been given the task of teaching the book of Psalms and the book of Romans. He was driven to the expression, “the righteousness of God” found first in Romans 1:16. The church taught that this term always referred to God’s justice in punishing sinners and commending the just.
But as Luther considered this phrase he found it difficult to understand how this quotation from Habakkuk 2:4, which included the phrase, “the just shall live by faith”, could in any way speak of God’s judgment of sinners. Something didn’t fit, and was skewing the way in which Romans was being understood. How could Paul call “the righteousness of God” the “gospel” or the “good news to sinners”? Eventually Luther realized that the “righteousness of God” was an expression that related to Christ’s work on the cross, whereby God could regard the sinner as righteous through the meritorious work of Christ on the cross. This meritorious work of Christ declared how God was righteous and how the sinner could find mercy.
For some time, Luther had been overwhelmed by the enormity of his own sin and the righteous character of God. Now, in his study of the text in Romans, he saw that he needed to produce no meritorious works on his own to be accepted by the righteous God, rather God had already produced that meritorious work in his Son, and hence the justice of God was satisfied.
In a flash, Luther saw that he would be exonerated before God by faith in Christ alone. Romans 3:23-26 now made it plain how Christ could remove his sins and also God’s righteous condemnation and anger in such a way that God could remain just, while justifying the ungodly. A tremendous burden had been lifted off his heart, as he began to experience the joy of fellowship with God without the doubt that his sin had previously produced.
What Martin Luther learned from this experience cannot be understated. The message that sinners are justified by faith recaptured the heart of the message of the ancient church, and brought hope and salvation to countless millions who might have languished under a religion of works and condemnation. But a second, also important lesson flowed from Luther’s tower experience. Luther observed that he had made this remarkable discovery of what Paul was really saying in Scripture, not by letting some random spiritual thought well up within him from an immediate revelation of the Holy Spirit. Luther never said “I kind of felt God saying this to me!” But rather, he knew what God was saying as he sought to understand, the coherent meaning of the words before him, using the tools of Bible study based upon the grammar, the context and the history of the text he was reading.
Please don’t miss this point. The way in which the Protestant, Evangelical church came into being was the result of the historical, grammatical method of Bible study.
And that brings us back to John Tetzel and the selling of indulgences. At first Luther thought that if the church only heard what Tetzel was up to, Tetzel would be in real trouble. Only later did he find that the selling of indulgences and the enormous money it brought in was paying for the papal palace in Rome.
And so we come back to that fateful moment in October 31, 1517 where one monk armed with nothing more than the Bible took on the structure of what had become an unbiblical church.
So what were the 95 theses? They were a demand for the church to rest on scripture. Consider for instance the 6th one. He demanded that the church finally admit that the pope cannot forgive any guilt or sin, except by declaring and showing that it has been forgiven by God through Christ. Or consider numbers 50-51 in which he demands that if the Pope wants to build the basilica of St. Peter’s he ought to do so with his own money, and not by misleading the people of God.
Well, the battle was engaged. Eventually, in order to protect his life, Luther was protected by a powerful German priest, a man named Phillip the Wise. Phillip hid Luther in his castle in a place called Wartburg. There with absolutely nothing to do. By God’s sovereign design, Luther took out his Greek Bible and translated the entire New Testament into the common German language of the day and published it. The year was 1522 when a Bible was made available to the common people that all could read on their own. No longer were they left with the church telling them what it said. They could read it for themselves.
5 principles emerge from the Reformation. They have been called the 5 solas of the reformation. The word “sola” is a Latin word. It means “only”. These 5 solas are still apart of all churches who have come out of the Reformation.
The 1st Sola “Sola Fide” or “faith alone”. If you want to know that your sins are forgiven and that you have eternal life this can be attained only sola by faith and not the church, not ascetics, not even by practicing repentance. Only faith in Christ gains forgiveness.
The 2nd Sola is “Sola Fide” or “Christ alone”. Forgiveness does not come from the church, it comes through Christ and what he has accomplished on the cross. The sacraments do not bring the grace of God, Christ alone is able to accomplish this.
The 3rd Sola “Sola Scriptura” or “scripture alone”. The authority over the life of the believer comes from Scripture, an innerant Bible, and not from priests. The pope can make mistakes, but God’s word stands fixed, and never changes.
The 4th Sola “Sola Gratia” or “grace alone”. The power to believe comes because of grace from God. We are not to imagine that faith is just another work produced by man, rather all things come by the grace of God.
And finally the 5th sola “Soli Deo Gloria” or “to God alone belongs the glory.” The only glory is not the glory of the church, but all glory goes to God alone.
In anticipation of the 500th year of the reformation I want to recapture the 5 solas of the reformation.