5 Lessons From The Reformation

by Reagan McClenny

Scripture: Rom 1:16-17 Nov 5, 2017

This lesson gives a brief overview of the first few years of the Reformation movement, focusing on the life of Martin Luther, and suggests 5 lessons we should learn today based on it.


On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the chapel in Wittenberg, Germany. The original doors were destroyed in a fire, but these bronze doors were erected in the same doorway, engraved with the 95 theses in the original Latin, in 1858.

Luther was the spark to set off the blazing fire of the Reformation movement!

November 10th, 1483, Martin Luther is born to a self-made commoner, the son of a farmer, who became very successful in the copper mining business. His mother was from a higher social class, the daughter of a lawyer. When Martin was born, he was given more opportunities for education than most people of his time…where the rate of literacy is about 10%.

Her attended parish school, and was then sent to one of the best universities in Germany in 1501, where his father hoped he would become a lawyer. He did well in his studies, a brilliant young man, and received a Masters’ degree in 1505. Luther was unsure of becoming a lawyer, and legend has it that his path changed in July of 1505 when he was caught in a lightning storm.

St. Anne (patron saint of miners, like his father), save me…and I will become a monk!

Within months, he gives away all his possessions and joins a monastery known for discipline and commitment to poverty, chastity, and obedience to God.

Luther was extremely committed to his new life. He developed a love for Bible study and religious piety. As one story goes, he was quick to confess any possible wrongdoing, to the point one of the priests taking his confession told him to come back when he had some “real sins to confess.”

In this time, the church was the omnipresent mediator between God and the people. They dispensed the grace of God, and only through the church could you have any hope of salvation. Performing enough good works, as defined by the church, would outweigh the sins of your life. Most people were unable to do so, however, so they are sent to Purgatory where they might spiritually mature and work before entering into the presence of God in heaven.

Luther was struck by his own unworthiness, and cognizant of his own sins, to the point he developed anxiety, intestinal problems, and would go to confession multiple times a day.

In less than 2 years, he is ordained as a priest and enters his theological training, receiving his doctorate in Theology in 1512. He became a Theological Professor, lecturer, and priest for the Wittenberg City Church in 1514.

Two things are happening over the next 3 years:

1. Luther was lecturing through Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. He is especially struck by Romans 1:17—and he begins to believe that salvation could only be found in faith and trust in God alone…not through the mediating presence of the church.
2. The sale of Indulgences has become big business in the church. An indulgence was a letter with the seal of the Pope that declared forgiveness of sins. There was great corruption in the leaders of the church, who came from the higher levels of society, and often were princes in addition to Bishops and Archbishops…including Pope Leo X who spent 1/7th of the Papal treasury on a party for his taking of office. He gained a reputation, as one historian put is, “as a pleasure-seeking, double tongued, politician." As the desire for money to support these leaders’ lifestyles and building projects, most notably St. Peter’s Basilica (considered to be the world’s largest and most ornate church-building), grew…they pushed indulgences more and more.

They suggested that these indulgencies were not only capable of forgiving one’s own sins, but could forgive the sins of loved ones stuck in Purgatory. Indulgencies led to a number of consequences:

1. The superstitious poor were disproportionately robbed. Folks couldn’t feed their families, but are commanded to buy indulgences to save their dead loved ones from Purgatory.
2. People began buying indulgencies instead of other forms of charity. Read Theses 41-54
3. Officially, one must still repent and confess, but practically, by Luther’s own observation as a priest, the indulgences began to replace penitent confession. Why confess sin when you can simply buy your way out of it? Indulgences became a shortcut, a loophole, to commit sin and get out of it.

Obviously none of this set well with the devout German priest. And it is these practices that lead to Luther nailing the theses to the door. Especially the preaching of a Dominican monk named Johann Tetzel, who famously said, “When the money clangs in the box, the souls spring up to heaven.” Sounds like a used car salesman.

So on October 31, 1517 he calls scholars to debate whether the church had the right to do this by posting it on the “bulletin board” of an ancient city…the door of the church building!

The Theses are not 95 things that are wrong with the Catholic church, but what we might call 95 bullet points, each adding to the previous. It touches on Purgatory, the power of the priest, indulgences, and the authority of the scriptures as a guide to right living before God.

Luther is essentially asking, “if the Pope really has this power, why doesn’t he just forgive people by mercy and grace? Why does he have to be paid money to do so?”

Luther went looking for debate, and got a revolution. By the end of the year, thanks to the printing press, his 95 theses have been spread throughout Germany, and Luther is called to speak to the monks of his order in Heidelberg (High-del-burg) Germany. His ideas are provocative, and pope Leo X takes notice and sends emissaries to quiet the rebel.

As hinted at in his Theses, the real issue comes to the forefront. Can a straightforward reading of scripture supersede the traditions and teachings of the church? Even the authority of the Pope, himself? The church, of course, says no. That the traditions of the church carry more authority, and properly interpret the scriptures.

Luther rejects this thought. Scripture, not tradition or the church, was the source for authority. If the tradition contradicts scripture, it is scripture that should be followed.

In June 1519 Luther debates the issue for 18 days against the Pope’s hand-picked theologian, who suggests that Luther is bordering on heresy and reminds him that heretics are burned at the stake. Luther is bold in his response, saying in part, “A simple laymen armed with the scriptures is superior to both Pope and his councils without them.” Luther unapologetically speaks to the common man…using rough language and harsh analogies to revile his opponents. Though some call for a more measured approach, Luther is undeterred.

A year later, in June 1520, Luther receives a papal edict calling for him to renounce his heresy, including 41 of his 95 theses, or be excommunicated from the church. He gives Luther 60 days. Not only does Luther refuse to recount, he burns the edict and writes three books condemning the corruption of the Papacy. In so doing, he was risking his life.

In one of his books, Luther suggests that God’s grace is NOT mediated by the church through the priesthood and sacraments. Instead, Luther argues that baptism makes ALL Christians priests, and ordained priests have no more access to God’s grace than the lowest lay-person. He also attacks the 7 sacraments…saying only Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are Biblical. And Christians are free from the fear of Judgment in Christ, and should follow Christ out of love, not merely fear.

What started as an attack on a money-raising scheme has turned into a full-fledged attack on the structure and function of the Catholic church.

Obviously, Luther is quickly excommunicated, and the Pope calls for his execution. But by this time much of the common people supported Luther!

On April 18, 1521, Luther is called to the “Diet (Assembly) of Worms” by Emperor Charles V and the crown heads of the German empire. With his writings spread out on the table, Luther is asked if he is the author and if he stands by them…he confirms that he is the author, and asks for a day to pray and consider his answer.

He responds the next day by saying,

“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. Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.”

The reformation had just began…

Lessons Learned from the Reformation:

1. The Word of God in the hands and minds of people is an unstoppable force. There were many other “reformers” before Luther and Zwingli…and they were mostly killed without any major effect on the Catholic church! John Wycliffe translated the Bible into English and argued that the Holy Scriptures were the one reliable source of Truth from God, and roughly equated the Pope with the anti-Christ. This, obviously, did not sit well with the church. After being removed from his position, Wycliffe continued to argue for the authority of the Scriptures above the church in Christianity. After his death, he was declared a heretic and posthumously excommunicated, his writings we banned and burned, his body was dug up, burned, and his ashes thrown into the river Swift. Why was this not the beginning of the Reformation? Well, Wycliffe’s main problem was that he was 150 years to early! What made these men so special?

I would suggest that much of the success of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and others in the 1500s was due to the time in which they lived! Specifically, the relatively easy access to the Word of God in the “common” tongues. What happened in about 1440? The invention of the printing press. Gutenberg printed his Bibles in 1452, and by the year 1500 printing presses had spread through much of Europe. At the same time, there were several major translations into different languages from 1517-1569…including Russian, German, English, French, and Spanish. The common man was gaining access to the Book, and with it a personal responsibility in Biblical interpretation and application. This, more than any man or group of men, was the driving force behind the Reformation movement.

2. Expressing Bible things in Bible ways whenever possible is helpful to avoid misunderstanding. Furthermore, if we don’t express things precisely, others will take what we say to the extreme. Luther’s concept of salvation by “Faith only” was not intended to mean faith without ANY WORKS. Yet, that’s exactly what his followers turned it into! We need to be careful when we make statements to confront error that we are precise in what we say. Otherwise, those who are taught will take it somewhere we do not intend.

3. Be wary of the “pendulum swing” from an unbalanced position. For the reformers, it was the swing from a works based religion…past the biblical truth of “there is nothing you can do to earn your salvation…to the faith only position that “there is nothing that God can require of you to accept salvation. We need to beware of the same phenomenon.

I’ve heard a number of older preachers and Christians lament about the overemphasis on preaching on the “issues” a generation or two ago. Not enough sermons on “grace,” practical living, and home and family. Too much fire and brimstone. What do we do? Totally quit preaching on the issues? Only preach on grace or home and family? NO! Do both. As Jesus says to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23, referring to their imbalanced commitment to the outward requirements of the law without the heart, “These you ought to have done, without leaving the other undone!”

4. Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus was the one to establish the Golden Rule to Treat others the way you wish to be treated. And yet, the sectarian, party spirit of denominationalism was found early on…along with the persecution of those who were not “like-minded,” rather than continued study. Though the reformers were persecuted by the Catholic church, they often joined the Holy Roman Empire in persecution of other, smaller groups! Zwingli’s group infamously persecuted the “Anabaptists” or those who practiced believer’s baptism instead of infant baptism, right along with the Catholic church. They drowned them or burned them at the stake. King Ferdinand declared drowning (which he called the “third baptism”) "the best antidote to Anabaptism". This lead to many of these groups to flee to America (most notably the groups that would become the Amish and Mennonite religions). How hypocritical. But it comes back to a lack of willingness to study! The solution is ALWAYS a willingness to study with those who are also willing. When we refuse to study, we are going down a dark road indeed.

We need to be fiercely and fully committed to the restoration of Biblical ideals. One of the problem of the reformation is that they were committed, but only to a point. There is a reason that there is a distinction between the REFORMATION movement and the RESTORATION movement. For instance, Zwingli believed that we should do nothing that wasn’t authorized by the Bible. Yet, he continued to champion infant baptism. He wasn’t willing to throw out the whole accepted system, if necessary…because of the POLITICAL implications.

5. We are fighting many of the same battles today. Let’s fight them in faith.