October 31st is Reformation Day. This year’s Reformation Day is doubly significant for those who identify themselves as ‘Evangelical’ because it marks the 500th anniversary of what was to become the moment when the Reformation began. This was when a German monk and Professor of Theology, Martin Luther, nailed 95 objections (called ‘Theses’) to the door of the University of Wittenberg in the customary manner for commencing an academic dialogue. But that nail into the door of Wittenberg’s academy did much more than start a debate among academics and priests. It was quite literally the moment that changed the world.
The first of many biographical sermons which F.W. Boreham preached in his 126 sermon series (and later published in the five volume series Texts That Made History), was on the life of Martin Luther and the text of Scripture which changed his soul. He notes-
Carlyle has a stirring and dramatic chapter in which he shows that every nation under heaven stood or fell according to the attitude that it assumed towards Martin Luther, ‘I call this Luther a true Great Man,’ he exclaims. ‘He is great in intellect, great in courage, great in affection and integrity; one of our most lovable and gracious men. He is great, not as a hewn obelisk is great, but as an Alpine mountain is great ; so simple, honest, spontaneous; not setting himself up to be great, but there for quite another purpose than the purpose of being great!’ ‘A mighty man,’ he says again; what were all emperors, popes and potentates in comparison? His light was to flame as a beacon over long centuries and epochs of the world ; the whole world and its history was waiting for this man !’
F.W. Boreham, ‘Martin Luther’s Text‘, “A BUNCH OF EVERLASTINGS“, Epworth Press, 1920
Martin Luther became aware that the Roman Catholic Church was teaching something about salvation which directly and violently contradicted the Scriptures. He objected to the superstitious and unbiblical practice of Roman Catholic priests selling ‘indulgences’ to deliver dead family members out of ‘Purgatory’ (a place where dead souls went to be purged from their sins and thereby become fit for heaven). Indulgences were certificates issued by the Catholic Church granting release from Purgatory. In reality, these certificates were a pathetic attempt by the Pope to elicit vast sums of money, largely from those least able to afford it and least in a position to know otherwise! Luther confronted the central teaching of the Roman Catholic Church head on – that salvation from sin is only available through the ministrations of the Roman Catholic Church, with the Biblical truth – that salvation from sin is only available through faith in Christ and His substitutionary and atoning death on the Cross.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.
Martin Luther objected to this obscene notion of Purgatory and the sale of Indulgences. He taught what the Scriptures taught about the sufficiency of Christ and His work for our salvation.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Little wonder those inspired by Luther became known as ‘Protestants’. Martin Luther had protested against the teaching of the Roman Church that salvation could be merited by adoration of relics (supposed artefacts of dead holy people). In fact, Luther protested against any teaching which taught that salvation could be derived from any means other than Christ and Christ alone. Later, those supportive of Luther would coin the ‘Five Solas’ (the Reformation’s foundational statements of belief), with Sola Fidé – ‘Faith Alone’, Sola Scriptura – ‘Scripture alone’, Solus Christus – ‘Christ alone’, Sola Gratia – ‘Grace alone’, Soli Deo Gloria – ‘Glory to God alone’.
Originally, Luther and the original Protestants became known as ‘Gospellers’ or Evangelicals (the Greek word for ‘Gospel’ is transliterated into English as, evangel). His attempt to reform the Church failed, but the result of his efforts was a newly formed church, or a re-formed church. This movement of churches would be founded on the Five Solas. It would soon give rise to several gifted Protestant leaders who led Protestants from all over Europe into various communities of Christians which would become known as denominations – which perhaps in the wisdom of God has prevented a repeat of the abuses of another ‘Universal’ Church. These Reformers helped to organise and structure the church communities they led in different ways. But each were committed to the Biblical revelation that Christ is the Head – not any man appointed by men – and the only ‘Vicar’ (vicar means ‘substitute’) of the true Catholic (“universal”) Church.
Thus, to be a ‘Reformed’ church is to be a church of Christ-followers committed to the Gospel of Christ which declares that God alone saves sinners by the merit of Christ alone. This Reformation Day, a day when some are pre-occupied with tricking or treating, spare a thought for Martin Luther and his legacy – a legacy which we are a part of.