The Reformation and Luther
The Historical Precedents of the Reformation
The Church Formed: A.D. 33-500
The Church Transforms (changing the face of Europe): 500-1100
The Church Deformed (great abuses of the Church/papacy): 1100-1500
The Church Reformed (recovery of the gospel of the Scriptures): 1500-1700
Europe was Reformation-Ready by sixteenth century. Especially in the late medieval period the Church was increasingly deformed with corruptions from within and errors were propagated, like papal supremacy, transubstantiation, withholding the cup from the people, maryolatry, penance, indulgences, many addictive gross superstitions. Confidence in the Church authority had been greatly shaken. Pope Boniface VIII had a controversy of Philip of France (1302). Philip hired thugs to have Boniface beat to death. Then Clement V was commanded by Philip to move to France (1309-1377). Gregory XI moved the papacy back to Rome (1377) and died. Urban VI was elected, then deposed as an apostate. Then Clement VII was elected. Then came the Papal Schism (1378-1417) when three men simultaneously claimed to be pope. The Council of Constance (1414) got things back together, but began burning Reformers, like John Huss. So a few decades after this Reformation efforts began within the Church (e.g., Erasmus, Jacques Lefevre).
The critical Reformer was, of course, Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther grew up in a humble middle-class family. He began training in law, but turned from that after being caught in a traumatic storm when he vowed, “Help! St. Anna, I will become a monk!" He entered the Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt in July, 1505. He had many pangs of conscience relating to assurance before a righteous God. Though he engaged in a full monastic life of fasts, flagellations, long hours in prayer, pilgrimages, and constant confession, he was troubled. His superior (Staupitz), sought to distract him with an academic career. So he was ordered to teach theology at the University of Wittenberg (1508) and he earned his Doctor of Theology by 1512.
Teaching through the Bible, Luther saw many errors in the teaching of the Church. This came to a head on the matter of “indulgences.” An “indulgence” transferred the justifying benefits of good works to those who donated money to the Church. Luther faced off with Johann Tetzel who appealed, "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." Luther nailed “95 Theses” to dispute the “power and efficacy of indulgences on the All Saints Church door on October 31, 1517. In these he said, “Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.”
The Material Principle of the Reformation
Shortly after this Luther see clearly that faith alone justifies one before God. He wrote: “I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God . . . Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. . . At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, "He who through faith is righteous shall live." Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
The Formal Principle of the Reformation
In 1521 at Martin Luther’s historic interrogation, he declared, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” Being declared a heretic because of this, Luther was protected in Wartburg Castle where he translated the NT into German and thus furnished the Word of God for the growing Reformation.
Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D., is the pastor of All Saints Church in Lancaster, PA. He became a committed follower of Jesus Christ at age 20, discipled in the context of a University Navigator Ministry. As a result of personal discipleship he went on to study at Columbia Biblical Seminary (M.A., Columbia, SC, 1990), as well as a Ph.D. in education and philosophy... read more