Thursday, October 28, 2010
Remembering the Reformation
First Published: “Reformation Day” October 31, 1997
480 years ago an event occurred that shook the Christian Church and has shaped the world ever since. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther (an Augustinian monk and professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany) nailed his now-famous “95 Theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Church. This event is often marked as the beginning of the great sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. One Baptist minister has recently asserted that: “The Reformation was the greatest revival of Biblical Christianity since the days of the Apostles.”
Martin Luther, who had been troubled by the Roman Catholic theology of salvation for some time, posted these “95 Theses” as a way of challenging someone to a public debate. He could never have foreseen the effect they would have, nor the chain of events that their posting would set in motion. Though there were several great men in the years prior to Luther whom we might call forerunners of the Reformation (such as John Wycliffe and John Hus), the Reformation proper began with Luther (who lived 1483-1546). Key to his theology was the Biblical truth: "The just shall live by faith."
There had been previous attempts to reform the morality of the Roman Church, which had sagged significantly during the late Middle Ages. But Luther wanted to do more than clean up the poor behavior of pope and priest and amend the institutional abuses of Rome. Luther wanted to recover the Gospel! Though Luther was enraged by the manipulative sale of indulgences (certificates or tokens granting the bearer amnesty or absolution for venial sins), his real target was the Roman system of salvation, and particularly her doctrine of justification by faith and works.
Though Luther originally wanted to work for the reform the Catholic Church according to Scripture, Rome utterly rejected his concerns and excommunicated him on January 3, 1521. We call the early Protestant leaders “Reformers” precisely because they desired to reform the Church and return her to the teaching of Scripture. We call the movement they led the “Reformation” because it produced a renewal of Christianity in accordance with Scripture. The Reformational churches were more faithful to Biblical authority and doctrine than the medieval Catholic Church.
Luther's theology focused on the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which he called “the article of a standing or a falling Church.” He taught, contrary to Rome, that we are justified (accounted righteous before God) by the means of faith alone, apart from the works of the Law. Rome, on the other hand, taught that in justification we are “made righteous” via faith and obedience. Luther’s teaching was but a recovery of the Pauline doctrine of justification. Luther stressed imputed righteousness rather than infused righteousness. That is, God justifies sinners by crediting Christ's righteousness to their account, not by implanting righteousness into them and thus justifying them. Our spiritual forefathers were willing to die for this distinction, for the Gospel was at stake.
This doctrine became known as Sola Fide “Faith alone” (justification by faith alone in Christ alone -- not by faith and works). The other four points of what we might call the "Five Points of the Reformation" are: Sola Scriptura “Scripture alone” (the Scripture as the sole ultimate authority for Christian faith and practice -- not the Pope, the Church, reason or feelings), Sola Gratia “Grace alone” (salvation by God's grace alone, not human merit), and Solo Christo “Christ alone” (salvation by the mediation and merits of Christ alone, not the intercession of priests nor the merits of saints), and Soli Deo Gloria “to God alone be the Glory” (life lived for God’s glory alone).
We presbyterians are singularly thankful for the godly Martin Luther. Indeed, our favorite Reformer John Calvin, regarded Dr. Luther as a spiritual father. And so we all are grateful to God for the great service Martin Luther rendered to the whole of Christendom. Soli Deo gloria.
Posted by Ligon Duncan at 4:22 PM