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The sixteenth-century Reformation is one of the most significant events in the history of the world. Its far-reaching impact was manifest not only in the church, but on nations, cultures, governments, and economies. The world changed in 1517. These broad changes make it important to investigate the context of a movement that could have such drastic effects. Obviously, a brief article on this topic cannot be exhaustive. It can only skim the surface of this fascinating topic.

The purpose of the article is not merely to list historical facts and circumstances. Rather, we desire to set forth God’s sovereign control and direction in the Reformation. The Reformed believer bows in grateful worship of the God who powerfully directed all people and events, both in the church and in the nations, to lift His church from apostasy to a new and higher level of purity.

Too far gone

The church on earth is never perfect. Composed of sinners with a depraved nature and an imperfect understanding, the church in this world will always contain seeds of error. The sad situation of the church just prior to the Reformation was due to seeds of error from the ancient church (AD 0-500) that were allowed to grow in the medieval church (500-1517), and that were, in fact, deliberately cultivated. The result was disastrous! The weeds of error and corruption choked out truth and righteousness. The church apostatized to the point that she became the false church. She still confessed Christ in word, but she rejected His rule, denied His saving work, and totally corrupted His worship. Many were the cries for “reform.” But history would demonstrate that the church was too far gone to be brought back. Let us briefly consider her sad state of apostasy at the turn of the sixteenth century.

Salvation—by works

The errors concerning fallen man and his salvation had previously arisen in the ancient church. Pelagius (c. 400) taught that every man was born in the same state as Adam, namely, neither good nor evil, but neutral—able to do good or evil. This, he claimed, was every man’s state for his entire life. He always can do good, even to the point of living in perfection. However, following the clear biblical leading of Augustine, the church officially rejected the errors of Pelagius. Augustine proved that fallen man can only sin. Grace alone saves a man and makes him able to do good.

But the victory of Augustine was short-lived. The church slipped into a modified form of Pelagianism, allowing that man is born not dead in sin but with a deadly spiritual sickness. He will perish without the saving assistance of the Good Physician. Fallen man is able to use the grace God gives him, though that grace is resistible.

In the height of the medieval scholastic theology, this error developed more completely. The word to the unbelieving sinner was: “Do what is in you.” That is, make an effort to obey God—you have it in you to try. If you try, God will reward you with saving grace.

The church preached that salvation is earned. Man can merit with God. And from that developed the full-blown system of works-righteousness that Martin Luther attempted to follow. How can man escape hell and be right with God? He must earn it through penance and good works, through self-denial and personal sacrifice. The cross was made of none effect.

Worship—externalism

The ancient and medieval church had fallen into the serious error of making accommodations in worship for pagan people they sought to bring into the church. The pagans had their idol gods, feast days, and ceremonies. The missionaries were specifically instructed to turn the pagan feasts into Christian celebrations for various saints. The worship of saints flourished, and images of Jesus, Mary and the saints were substituted for the pagan gods. Worship was not a matter of the heart, but purely external. At the center of the worship was the mass—a dramatic production performed by the priest. When he spoke, it was in a tongue unknown to the people—Latin. The people came to watch, not worship.

And the church conferred grace—in things. In the wafer of communion, in the bone of an ancient martyr, the hair of Mark, or the cross of Peter. Make a pilgrimage! Go to the relics! The cross of Christ was buried under layers of man-made ceremonies and rituals. Worship became an abominable idolatry.

Church rule—by man

The rule of Christ was subverted by the hierarchy established in the medieval church. It began innocently enough—the church encouraged believers to have respect for the special offices in the church. Before long, however, the officebearer, especially the preacher, was lifted up above the ordinary believer. He was called a priest, because he offered a sacrifice (the mass) for the people and interceded on their behalf. The priest would be better than the people, denying himself marriage. He drank the wine of communion.

And then the levels of church office developed—priests and bishops, archbishops and cardinals…all the way to the pope, arrogantly claiming to be the Vicar of Christ. The pope, not Christ was the head of the church on earth. The rule of Christ was effectively denied.

Lifestyle—corruption

The history of the church in the Middle Ages is a concrete demonstration of the Bible’s warning—The love of money is the root of all evil. The clergy became rich, and they could not get enough. They squeezed the life out of the peasants to supply luxuries for the clergy. Covetous men, beholding this luxury, sought the offices of the church for filthy lucre. Offices were sold to the highest bidder. They were mad for money, pleasure, and power. The same spiritual malady infected the monasteries—they became rich, and avarice took control. This transformed what began as an effort to live a separate and holy life, into a life of ease and pleasure-seeking. Far too many monasteries became dens of iniquity.

The vile iniquity of the clergy was reflected in the people. They were, generally, ignorant of the Bible, superstitious in the extreme, and lived, in the words of Luther, like animals. Their life was all of the earth. They scarcely raised their heads, or hearts, heavenward.

Knowledge level—abysmal

As a rule, the people of the Middle Ages could not read or write. This gave the church an excuse to fill the cathedrals with images and painting of saints as “books to the laity.” In many areas of Europe, the clergy, particularly the priests, were an ignorant lot. Preaching was abominable. Virtually no priest knew the original languages of the Bible, Greek and Hebrew. The very real problem of illiterate priests is evident from the printing of a picture-book Bible for priests, so that they could have at least some knowledge of Bible stories to bring into the pulpit!

The schools were largely church-controlled—monasteries and cathedral schools. The education, such as it was, promoted the errors of the church.

The state of the church by 1517, was beyond dire. It was hopeless. The “Christian” church denied Christ as Head and Savior and posited salvation of man by works. She was as defiled and corrupt as any earthy kingdom at its worst, steeped in ignorance, and having scarcely any preaching or knowledge of Scripture. She was too far gone, too far departed.

And yet…

God was in full control. In accordance with His perfect plan, the theology, worship, government, and lifestyle of the church on earth had descended to this unimaginably vile pit. God determined to demonstrate the serious consequences of departure from the truth of His Word. He would manifest again the depravity of man. He would hammer home the truth that man cannot save himself. He could demonstrate the marvelous power of His grace that alone does save. He would raise up the church with Christ as Head and Savior, established once again on the foundation of truth. The glory of Christ and His true church would shine brilliantly against the dark depravity of the whore of Babylon.

God would reform His church—forming her anew, forming her back to the standard of His Word.

And, therefore, God was carefully preparing all the circumstances and determining the events that were necessary for the great Reformation.

God changed the political landscape that had previously enabled the pope to impose his will on kings and nations. The feudal system was breaking up. In addition, the people were increasingly more supportive of their king rather than the corrupt pope, when the two conflicted. And, in the providence of God, the new emperor was a nineteen-year-old Spaniard elected by seven German princes, the head of which was elector Frederick III. These changes made it possible for a ruler (Frederick III) to protect Luther and the Reformation.

God had also prepared Islam for the future “protection” of the Reformation. The Ottoman Turks took over Constantinople in 1453 and continued the spread into Europe. By 1512, they overcame Hungary, and in 1529, they besieged Vienna. Emperor Charles V, virulently anti-reformation, was frequently forced to deal with the real threat of Islam, preventing him from delivering the crushing blow to the cause of the Reformation.

God prepared the way for the Reformation through education. Universities were established in the Middle Ages. By the time of the Reformation, many were providing quality education…in order that the Reformers could be well educated men. And, the Renaissance and the rise of humanism resulted in a return to the classics— Hebrew, Greek, and church fathers like Augustine! The Reformers could work with the Scripture in the original languages. They could read and quote Augustine in defense of the doctrines of grace.

New inventions were directed by God for the good of the Reformation. The “discovery” (from China) of paper and printing with movable type, was perfected in the West in time to serve the Reformation—Bibles, pamphlets, and books could be mass produced.

That is not all. The all-encompassing direction of God is seen in that, with a view to the spread of the Reformation, God determined the discovery of new worlds. Persecuted saints would have an escape! The church would be preserved!

So much more could be brought forward to demonstrate God’s sovereign preparations. But space prevents it.

All the above is plain from the perspective of 2017. The people living in Germany in 1517 could not have put all these factors together. They saw a church hopelessly corrupt, with no possibility of change. Man could not know the purposes of God and that He deliberately brought the church of Christ on earth to that abominable condition. Nor could anyone imagine, least of all Luther, that that God was carefully making preparation for the most significant event in the history of the church of the new dispensation—the great Reformation of Christ’s church! Soli Deo Gloria!