What You Need to Know About the Reformation

 

The Christian church celebrates the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year, specifically October 31. There is much to celebrate however it is difficult to do so if you’re not quite aware of exactly what happened in the Reformation or how God used Martin Luther to literally change the course of Christendom as we now know it.

Luther's Fingerprints

Think about the most basic truths you understand and know about Christianity. What are they? How did you learn them? Who taught them to you? Why do you believe them to be true? Did your upbringing help or hinder what you believe about God, Jesus, and the Scriptures? Do you own (or at least have access to) a Christian Bible? We often take the answers to those questions for granted, but once you begin to see what reformer Martin Luther did 500 years ago, you begin to see his fingerprints all around you today.

The Beginning

As with any good narrative, it is appropriate (not to mention, important) to understand the world in which young Martin Luther lived and grew up. Most of the basic tenets of the Christian faith as laid out by the Apostles in the Scriptures had all but disappeared in the life of the church. Such travesty of doctrine had been instituted that polluted the minds and damned the souls of the common follower.

The Church in Error

Works Righteouness

Perhaps, the most despicable error of the church at that time was the erroneous doctrine of works righteousness: that God’s favor was able to be earned through a person’s good works. Prior to the Reformation, the church had completely forsaken the truth that humans are granted salvation and personal relationship with God through grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone. They had utterly forsaken their dependance on the finished work of Christ’s life, death, burial, and resurrection for the forgiveness of their sins. They instead trusted in their ability to keep the commands of God, and passed on this demonic doctrine of works righteousness to the people. Thus young Luther’s life was filled to the measure with the “ritual” of his current-day Christianity.

Pay Our Way to Heaven

This idea of working to earn God’s favor was perpetuated by the church partly because it was highly profitable for them to do so through the institution of indulgences. Indulgences were something that a person who was still living could purchase in order to provide forgiveness of sins for their deceased loved one. This allowed them to pass on to heaven from the “waiting room” called Purgatory (where one’s sins were purged in order to enter heaven.) The sale of indulgences provided the necessary income to build lavish cathedrals, structures, and buildings. However, the instruction that any amount of money could purchase a ticket to heaven was a despicable lie.

The Word Lost

Arguably however, the greatest tragedy of all was that the Scriptures themselves had been all but lost to the average parishioner. Luther was born into a time when the Bible, which was written to and by the common man, had been snatched from his grasp. Its contents were known only to an elite few. This is perhaps why and how the other errors of doctrine emerged: the common person did not and could not know what the Bible (and therefore God) actually said. They were left to trust the misguided, corrupt, and greedy leadership of the church.

Jesus’ Church Will Stand

However, Jesus’ words about his beloved church rang ever true: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” (Matthew 16:18b). Although the light of the church was almost out, God graciously and sovereignly chose to blow the breath of his Spirit into a few key men.

In the 14th century, John Wycliffe, an Oxford scholar, theologian, and seminary professor, brought a portion of the church back to the authority of the written word of God, through his solid teachings and writings on the Bible. Towards the end of his life, he completed a translation of the Bible into the English language from the Latin Vulgate, called Wycliffe’s Bible. He had such a notable impact on what would soon come that he is fondly called the “morning star of the Reformation.”

Then in the 15th century, John Huss (Jan Hus) emerged at the University of Prague as a highly competent theologian and faithful priest. He had acquired and then devoured the teachings and writings of John Wycliffe and rose as a mighty Bible teacher and leader in Prague. He is known as a pre-reformer and the servant of God who paved the way for Martin Luther in the next century.

 
 

The Call of the German Reformer

So young Martin Luther was born, and unknowingly placed directly in the divine plan of God, chosen to be a tool to rescue God’s straying church. Will the church’s flickering flame grow to a mighty blaze or succumb to a scorched wick? Make sure to check out the next post in the LUTHER series to read how the reformer steps out in faith (with several notable stumbles along the way) to follow the call of God on his life, one so important and decisive that it still matters to us 500 years later.


 

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Courtney Cherest

Courtney Cherest currently resides outside of Washington, D.C. and serves as the Communications Director at a local church in the area. She earned her bachelor's degree in biblical studies in 2003.

By God's grace, Courtney has been able to work in communications and leadership with incredible ministries and organizations across the country.