We are living at an historic moment. October 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation! So, what happened in October 1517? And why pay any attention?
Well, actually the Reformation spanned a much larger period of time than one month. But on October 31, 1517 in Germany Martin Luther took a very bold step that was a key event in the movement of the Reformation. He made a definitive break from the Roman Catholic Church.
Prior to the Reformation, there was only one church in the West: the Roman Catholic Church. Unlike today, there were no other denominations. No Lutheran churches, no Baptist churches, no Methodist churches. If you were a Christian, you had one option for church: the Roman Catholic Church.
However, unrest within the Catholic Church had been building for many years prior to 1517. Some lay people and even some leaders were growing increasingly concerned about abuses within the church, abuses within even the highest levels of leadership. Two significant points of concern were abuses of power and the pursuit of wealth. But probably the largest concern among the troubled church leaders was with how the Catholic Church had strayed from clear Bible teaching on essential matters of the Christian faith.
Indeed, the Church thought it was wrong for the lay people to have the Bible in their own language! Some of the early leaders of the Reformation, such as John Wycliffe (England, late 1300s), worked diligently and at great personal danger to translate the Bible into the common language so that lay people could read it for themselves. Some of the Reformers were actually killed by Church officials for trying to make changes.
The Reformation gained momentum over the years, spreading from England in those early years to countries in Western Europe. Some of the more prominent leaders were John Hus, Huldreicht Zwingli, John Calvin, John Knox and, of course, John Wycliffe and Martin Luther.
Luther had been a monk in the Catholic Church but had no peace in his heart. Rather, he had deep unrest in his soul despite diligently and devotedly fulfilling his religious duties as a monk. As he read the Bible, God beamed the light of His truth into Martin’s heart to show him that sinners are saved by faith alone in Christ alone; not by works. Luther was born again and began to work to address the abuses in the Church. On October 31, 1517 he made public his 95 “theses,” points of debate and disagreement he had with Catholic teaching.
From those couple of centuries of devotion and sacrifice by a number of individuals, four new Protestant “denominations” emerged: Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, and Anglican. The focus of the Reformers has been summarized by five Latin phrases, each containing the common word—sola (=alone):
- sola scriptura – the Bible alone is the only authoritative word from God (not any man’s teachings or pronouncements)
- sola fide – sinners are saved by faith alone (not by any works whatsoever)
- sola gratia – God saves sinners by grace alone (salvation is a free gift of God)
- solus Christus – salvation is accomplished, completely and fully, by Jesus Christ alone (by His righteous life as God in the flesh and by His death and resurrection)
- soli deo gloria – God alone gets all the glory
These phrases will be the themes for my sermons in October, one for each Sunday in the order above.
And why do we pay any attention to the Reformation? Why celebrate its 500th anniversary? Without it you may not have so freely heard the Good News proclaimed … the Good News that you can be saved from God’s wrath by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
And without the Reformation you would not have a Bible—no Bible on your shelf at home, no Bible on the device in your hand, no Bible in which to seek God.
We want to thank God for raising up the Reformers and empowering them for their work. We want revisit the core Bible beliefs of the Reformation and re-root ourselves into them.
Why celebrate the Reformation? It is a huge part of our history as a church. The Evangelical Free Church of America traces its roots back to this powerful movement of God which has been bearing fruit throughout the world for 500 years, and counting.
(If you have been through Foundations 2, you can read pages 133-137 of your notes for an overview of the Reformation.)