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Reformation Day (1517), Part 2: How It Changed Our World (& Church)

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a two-part series on Reformation Day, which is celebrated on Oct. 31.

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. With a few strokes of a hammer, Luther set in motion a reformation that eventually would be felt in the far corners of the globe. Within just a few generations, the Christian church would include new groups such as the Lutherans, Reformed, Anglicans, Puritans and Anabaptists along with the already existing Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and smaller groups like the Copts, Hussites, Waldenses and Lollards. The echoes of Luther’s hammer could be heard in theological debates over the role of the church’s hierarchy, the proper understanding of the Mass (or Lord’s Supper), the legitimacy of Bible translations, the practice of baptism and the relationship of divine sovereignty and human response in salvation. The nations of Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Bohemia (Czech), England and Scotland would all experience great upheaval and dissension as the Reformation rippled throughout Europe.

While there was great passion and precision in the variety of theological debates of the Reformation period, later pastors and theologians have summarized the emphases of the Reformers in five “solas”: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus and soli Deo gloria (to the glory of God alone). In their own ways, the Reformers affirmed the principle of sola scriptura (Scripture alone) to note that the final authority for faith and practice is the Scriptures. While clear and authoritative, the Scriptures need interpretation and exposition. So, the Reformers spent a great deal of effort working with biblical texts in their original languages and made the preaching of God’s Word the central means for bringing the needed changes to the church. Drawing on the principles of sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone) and solus Christus (Christ alone), the Reformers preached that salvation was through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone.

The Reformers preached that salvation was through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone.

The Protestant Reformers resisted the Roman Catholic hierarchy and its sacramental system as displacing the unique role of faith for salvation. No human works could add to the merits of Christ, which were given by God’s grace to humans who believed. The Reformers contended that God’s work of creation, salvation and final judgment brought about the full proclamation of His divine glory. Perhaps a sixth “sola” would explain the stimulus for many of the Reformation debates. The Reformers taught that in the church alone (“sola ecclesia“) could a person find the true message of Christ and assemble with the body for whom Christ died. So, while the Christian church may have splintered from the blow of Luther’s hammer, the end result was a house (or houses) built on the rock of Christ.

While the Christian church may have splintered from the blow of Luther’s hammer, the end result was a house (or houses) built on the rock of Christ.

This Sunday, as your worship leader leads the congregation in Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God or Getty and Townend’s O Church Arise, you are joining the Reformers’ chorus. As your church observes the Lord’s Supper or baptism as a display of Christ’s work and our faith, you are “seeing” the Reformers’ sermons. As you open your translation of the Bible and read along in the text, you are sitting on the Reformers’ shoulders. As the pastor preaches his biblical sermon expounding the need for faith in Christ, you may be able to hear the echoes of the Reformers’ “amen.”

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Jason Lee

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