On October 31, 1517, in the not-yet-famous city of Wittenberg, a gifted but largely unknown monk nailed to the door of the church a placard. The placard contained a long list of assertions—ninety-five, to be exact. The monk/priest posted them for the purpose of provoking debate—he declared himself willing publicly to debate any of the statements the next day. His heart was stirred out of concern for his flock, and it smoldered with anger against the sale of indulgences in his parish. Members of his own congregation, coming to confess their sins, insisted that there was no need for them to repent—their sins were forgiven by the purchase of indulgences. No instruction and no amount of admonition could convince them of the need for heartfelt repentance and turning from sin.
It was but a little spark. Ninetyfive theses, intended for debate, with the hope that other pastors would likewise see the danger. The higher goal was that, perhaps, bishops and rulers would put a stop to the manner in which indulgences were being trumpeted in Germany.
But the little spark kindled a flame, and the flame spread like wildfire across Germany and into the surrounding countries. It would change not merely the church in Germany, but Western civilization itself. God worked the greatest reformation ever to occur in His church.
How can the significance of the sixteenth-century Reformation be measured? Assessing the Reformation’s significance is no easy task. Books have been written on this. The burden of this editorial is to express the heart of its significance by examination of two aspects of God’s mighty work. First, the depths out of which God had to draw His church. Second, the majestic height to which God elevated His beloved church in and through the Reformation.
When Calvin summed up the reasons why the Reformation was necessary, he began with worship. God saves a church to worship Him. But in the days of Luther, in most churches, chapels, and cathedrals, the worship of God was perverted to the point that God was no longer worshipped. Rather than worshiping God in spirit and truth (), the people bowed before idols. Statues of Jesus, pictures of Mary, relics of saints, and crucifixes filled the places of worship. In addition, the worship had become external, not spiritual, including rituals, candle burning, mindless kneeling and recitation, and observing priests perform their ceremonies. Choirs replaced even the singing of God’s people. Preaching, if it occurred, was simply a story or moral lesson, neither grounded on nor drawn from the Bible. And all of it in an unknown tongue for most of the worshipers. The people came, kneeled, watched, and perhaps received a small wafer that—so they were told—was the very body of Christ that the priest had offered for sin—for a fee. Idolatry, sacraments that obscured Christ, empty ritual, kneeling at appropriate places and times, with little or no preaching— that was worship, an abomination to the Lord.
The Depths…Church Polity
By the sixteenth century, the church had completely lost the form of government that the apostles had established in the early New Testament church. The offices of elder and deacon ceased to function. Preachers became priests whose main work was at the altar. The clergy had successfully suppressed the people under layers of hierarchy from bishops to pope.
The medieval pope epitomized the evil. Godless popes claimed to be the head of the church as Christ’s vicar on earth. Even though it was not yet officially decided by church council, the pope acted as though he were infallible. But he was an antichrist—the precursor of the final Antichrist—ruling contrary to the Word of Christ, persecuting those who rebuked him for his wickedness and errors, so exalting himself above God that he “as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” ().
The lives of the people—church members!—had sunk to a level almost beyond comprehension. They were ignorant of the Bible. Their lives were carnal, vile, and immoral. And the clergy led the way in fornication (arising out of the unbiblical prohibition of marriage), love of money, and grasping for power.
The Root Cause
But what was the cause? How did it happen that the church became corrupt in worship, government, and walk of life, to the point that this bride of Christ became the whore?
All the corruption in life and worship was rooted in doctrine. The church departed from the truth. Jesus is the truth. Ponder this! The church of God on the earth rejected Christ!
This apostasy began over a thousand years before 1517, when the church could not and would not maintain the doctrines of sovereign, particular grace—the doctrines that Augustine defended to his last breath. The church instead adopted semi-Pelagianism, which teaches that fallen man is not dead in sin, but sick, and in need of a physician. He can do good if he tries, and that good can merit with God. God predestinates to eternal life those whom He knows (in advance) will believe.
In the next millennium, from that seedling grew a tree, yea, a forest of false doctrine. In its preaching the church ignored, if not denied, man’s depravity. The theologians rather defended and exalted the free will of man. Works-righteousness dominated the doctrine of salvation. One earned his way to heaven by his own works (or money), by the merit and assistance of “saints,” and after death by the cleansing suffering in purgatory. One’s righteousness before God was a combination of Christ’s righteousness and one’s own—justification by faith and works.
The carnal in the church lived as they pleased. Those with faith lived in terror. The church portrayed the Savior as an angry judge, coming in wrath to condemn all who failed to keep the law perfectly. The people toiled under the burden of guilt, doubt, fear, and the need to earn their own righteousness.
Living in Western society today, one can scarcely grasp the tyranny of the church, the oppression of one’s conscience, and the hopelessness of salvation. Christians who live in predominantly Romish lands can easily relate.
Whenever I teach medieval church history, the students are aghast at the state of the church. How could the church be preserved? How could there be any believers left?
But God did preserve His seven thousand who did not bow the knee to idols. And in 1517, God began to lift His church from the vile pit of false doctrine, idolatry, hierarchy, and immorality, to the heights of biblical truth and practice.
And note well, the reform hinged on doctrine, specifically, the doctrine of sovereign, particular grace. The truth of fallen man’s total depravity. The truth of salvation by grace alone, though faith alone, in Christ alone. The truth of sovereign, double predestination. The essence of the Reformation was doctrinal reform. As vile and corrupt as the popes were, and as deep as the iniquity penetrated to the entire hierarchy, the Reformers insisted to a man that the wickedness of the clergy was not what made the Reformation a necessity. Rather, it was that the worship of God was profaned. And worship was profaned because the truth was lost.
Although Luther did not grasp that on October 31, 1517, little by little God led him to perceive it. By the time Luther wrote his masterpiece, The Bondage of the Will (1525), he fully comprehended. That marvelous book was written against Desiderius Erasmus, whose Diatribe defended the Romish doctrine of free will over against Luther. In the conclusion to this work on free will, Erasmus offered Luther a compromise. He was willing to reduce the power of man’s will to a minimum. He wrote “For in my opinion free choice could be so established as to avoid that confidence in our merits and the other dangers which Luther avoids….”1
Luther was not taken in. He insisted that the doctrine over which they were debating was “the grand turning point of the course.”2 The Reformer expressed his appreciation that Erasmus, as Luther put it, had
not wearied me with those irrelevant points about popery, purgatory, indulgences, and other like baubles, rather than causes, with which all have hitherto tried to hunt me down,—though in vain! You, and you alone, saw what was the grand hinge on which the whole turned, and therefore you attacked the vital part at once.3
And the doctrine of salvation based on man’s free will destroys proper divine worship. For, insisted Luther,
[I]f I know not the distinction between our working and the power of God, I know not God Himself. And if I know not God, I cannot worship Him, praise Him, give Him thanks, nor serve Him; for I shall not know how much I ought to ascribe unto myself, and how much unto God.4 Not only that, but Luther saw how false doctrine eliminates the need for Christ, the Savior. “And thus, while you establish ‘Free-will,’ you make Christ void, and bring the whole Scripture to destruction. And though you may pretend, verbally, that you confess Christ; yet, in reality and in heart, you deny Him.”5
God reformed His church, lifting her from the depths of false worship, tyranny in church government, and immorality. But to do that, God had to deliver the church from false doctrine. Having seen the truth that man is totally depraved and his will bound in sin, Luther saw that salvation was of God alone, or there was no salvation. Luther repudiated the system of works righteousness. The people of God are justified by faith alone, without works. He rejected a grace for all that could not save. He cast aside the conditional covenant maintained by the schoolmen. If your church yet today rejects these errors, you can thank God for Luther and for the Reformation. If your church has fallen back into those errors, she has begun the slide back to Rome.
The Reformation was not only, or even mainly, about correction. In and through the Reformation God lifted His church to majestic heights. With Scripture established as the right foundation, advances come fast and furious. The Reformers, standing on the shoulders of Luther, rebuilt the church from the ground up. The three biblical offices were restored and functioned. Worship was cleansed, idols removed, and preaching became the central element of worship. The sins of the people (and clergy) were disciplined and lives reformed. Back to the Bible.
But the greatest advances were in doctrine. Every area of doctrine advanced— rejecting the old errors and systematically setting forth God’s truth in one consistent whole. Not without a fight. Only one hundred years after Luther, the whole truth of sovereign grace was threatened by Arminianism. And God preserved His truth in the great Synod of Dordt (1618-19).
Reformed (Reformation) doctrine continued to flourish, the crown jewel of which is God’s everlasting covenant of grace. This is the height to which God lifted the church of the Reformation. To grasp and set forth clearly the goal of God in His work of salvation, namely, His covenant. To set it forth in perfect harmony with the doctrines of grace taught by Martin Luther and John Calvin. To sharpen it over against the Anabaptists, and thus see the place of children in that covenant. To sharpen it against the Arminians, ground it in election, and reject conditions in the covenant.
And then, to live in that marvelous covenant of grace—in fellowship with God! Secure, loved, with your children, looking forward with complete assurance to the full reality of this covenant life in glory. All because…salvation is God’s work. And we contribute nothing.
The significance of the Reformation of 1517.
1 Erasmus’ Diatribe On the Freedom of the Will is found in the series “Library of Christian Classics,” Vol. 17, Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), 35-97.
2 The Bondage of the Will, trans. by Henry Cole, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), 391.
3 Luther, 391.
4 Luther, 36.
5 Luther, 375.