What was the Reformation, why did it happen, and what role did Martin Luther play?

The Reformation is a period of time between 1517 and 1648 AD in which a group of people, known as the “Reformers” rejected the authority of the Catholic church as the sole arbiter of doctrine and behavior believing that Scripture alone should be the foundation of the Christian faith.

The Protestant Reformers had very different answers to four important questions.

  1. How is a person saved? By faith alone in Christ’s work on the cross vs doing good works
  2. Where does religious authority lie? In the Word of God vs the institution of the Roman Catholic Church
  3. What is the church? The entire body of believers and the priesthood of all believers vs members of the Roman Catholic Church with authority centered in the pope

How the Reformation Began

Absolute authority was in the hierarchy of power in the Catholic church centered in the pope. Since 380 AD when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, the church had been wedded to political power. In the following millennia, the church and the independent provinces sparred for domination with the church holding eternal salvation as the ultimate threat over the heads of those that went against their wishes.

Salvation and grace were believed to be administered through the church and its priests. Excommunication and the denial of sacraments were to be damned.

Who Was Martin Luther?

What sparked this radical shift from centuries of tradition? In the early 16th century, German monk named Martin Luther was desparately searching for peace. Crushed by the weight of his sins, he vigorously followed the teachings of the Catholic church doing penance in order to find relief and communion with God. It was of no use.

No amount of fasting, reading, or prayer brought the peace for which he was looking. He later wrote a hymn describing his state:

In devil’s dungeon chained I lay
The pangs of death swept o’er me.
My sin devoured me night and day
In which my mother bore me.
My anguish ever grew more rife,
I took no pleasure in my life
And sin had made me crazy.

But one day an answer came. Light dawned. Reflecting on the words of Christ on the cross,”My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” The significance of Christ’s suffering as man finally struck him.

He was sinful. Christ was not.

He deserved that punishment, Jesus didn’t.

Jesus suffered in his own place, and in that moment he finally understood Paul’s words in Romans 1:17

For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. (quoting Habakkuk 2:4)

It was not his own works that would make him right with God, but having faith in Christ’s sacrifice and righteousness. Luther wrote:

“Night and day I pondered . . . Until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statements that ‘the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”

Luther found the peace and joy that he sought, a rest that had been waiting for him with open doors the entire time. The second passage of his hymn reflects that contentment.

Thus spoke the Son, “Hold though to me,
From now on thou wilt make it.
I have my very life for thee
And for thee I will stake it.
For I am thine and thou art mine,
And where I am our lives entwine
The Old Fiend cannot shake it.

The Effects of the Protestant Reformation

Luther’s conviction might have stayed within the circle of the congregants of his church if it weren’t for two things.

The first was the efforts of Johann Tetzel in selling indulgences to raise money to complete St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Indulgences were exemption from acts of penance granted by the Roman Catholic church in exchange for a “meritorious work,” which was usually a financial contribution.

You can see how this would have been so repugnant to Luther. If salvation is through faith in Christ alone, not only was penance not required, but indulgences were worthless.

In response to Tetzel’s efforts, Luther wrote a list of 95 theses challenging various positions of the church, including the sale of indulgences. He nailed this list to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg inviting discussions.

This might have stayed a local discussion if it weren’t for another Johann and his recent invention, the printing press. Gutenberg’s press allowed Luther to distribute his message widely and light the fire of the Reformation.