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You may have noticed that this year, 2017, is a big year, for it marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. That’s right, 500 years! As my nine-year-old daughter said to me the other day, “Are you telling me that nobody before us has lived to see this anniversary and nobody after us will either for another 500 years?” Feeling a sense of responsibility, she then exclaimed, “This really is a big year!” October 31st will mark five centuries since Martin Luther posted his 95 theses in Wittenberg, Germany, expressing his discontent with certain practices in the church of Rome—practices concerning the most practical matters of the Christian life, like what one must do to enter the kingdom of God.
That may sound like a fascinating piece of history, but what in the world does that have to do with the church in the 21st century? Well, if you attend a church that reads the Bible in English, believes the Bible is God’s authoritative Word for faith and practice, celebrates the cross because Christ’s death is sufficient for the forgiveness of sins, or teaches that we, as sinners, are right with God by grace alone, then whether you realize it or not your church is deeply indebted to Luther’s Reformation.
You get the point: 2017 is a birthday party not to miss. With all the fanfare, however, perhaps you’re wondering, what was the Reformation all about anyway? You’ve watched a documentary on TV, read a blog or two by a popular journalist, or caught one of the Pope’s tweets (if only Martin Luther had a twitter account!). Despite the social media blast, you still can’t quite put your finger on the essence of the Reformation. Was it merely a sixteenth-century kerfuffle over political power? Was it mainly an overdue revolt due to unbearable social and economic oppression? Or perhaps it was one drunk German’s way of venting to his buddies over a cold beer in a pub after a long day at work (yes, it’s true, the Pope in Luther’s day actually made this claim!)? Minus that last one, certainly the sixteenth century was a matrix of political, social, and economic battles, yet put any one of these at the center, and we miss what the Reformation was really about.
So, what was the essence, the core, of the Reformation? The answer may come as a shock. Numerous Christians to this day think the Reformation was a disgruntled monk’s cry over corruption within the church. But let’s be honest, if Luther’s reformation was merely intended to give the church a moral bath, Luther was late to the bathtub party. Yes, the church did need moral cleansing and desperately so, but moral reformers were nothing new. Numerous forerunners of the Reformation had cried out against the immorality they saw within the church. We would be historically mistaken to think, then, that Luther simply cried out the loudest. No, what distinguished Luther was that his reformation was not different in degree (as if all that was needed was a greater outcry against immorality in the church), but different in kind from those who came before him. In other words, the Reformation was not so much moral and spiritual as it was religious, even doctrinal.
What was it, then, that distinguished Luther’s religious reformation? Here’s your answer: the Reformation was first and foremost about the gospel. Yes, doctrinal reform was the central priority, but the doctrine at the center was the unmerited grace of God in the gospel of his Son. In his well-known book The European Reformations, Carter Lindberg gets this: The “crux of genuine reform,” he says, “is the proclamation of the gospel of grace alone. This requires the reform of theology and preaching but is ultimately the work of God alone.” The “crux of genuine reform” was quite simply this: the gospel of God’s grace was in desperate need of rediscovery.
Luther was convinced that this gospel had been lost due to the influence of certain types of medieval Catholicism. Remember, Luther was a medieval man, and by his day it was believed that when one sinned, one had to complete prescribed works of satisfaction to pay for sin’s penalty. “When the guilt was forgiven by God through the absolution of the priest,” says Scott Hendrix, “the penalty of eternal condemnation was commuted into works of satisfaction which the priest then imposed upon the repentant sinner according to the seriousness of the sin committed.” Unfortunately, few people—except for certain, say, “super saints”—could fulfill such works of satisfaction in this lifetime. Hence the necessity of purgatory in the afterlife, whose fires would purify and give one the opportunity to finish paying off sin’s outstanding penalty.
But what if there was a shortcut—some way, that is, to reduce time in purgatory or even bypass it altogether? This shortcut was found in the power of an “indulgence,” which could be purchased for a price. According to Rome, saints of ages past had been so righteous that their excess merit was accrued in a heavenly “treasury.” Indulgences pulled from this “treasury of merit” eliminated some or, in the case of a “plenary” indulgence, all the sinner’s debt. In fact, indulgences could even be purchased for one’s dead loved ones in purgatory, like a “get-out-of-jail-free” card!
At a popular level, it seemed as if salvation was for sale, especially when advertised by fiery preachers like Johann Tetzel: “Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends, beseeching you and saying, ‘Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance. . . . Will you let us lie here in flames? Will you delay our promised glory?’” And then came Tetzel’s catchy jingle: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
Luther, however, was a good Catholic; infuriated, he was determined to reform the Church from such abuses. But he was also an academic, so in Latin he wrote 95 theses protesting the corruption of indulgences and posted those theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, inviting academic debate. Luther never expected his theses to take the world by storm, but they did when others saw their potential, snatched them up, and (thanks to the recent invention of the printing press) distributed them, making them available in the common language for the common man. Suddenly, Luther’s theses were the conversation piece over every juicy bratwurst.
At this point, Luther had not yet come to a mature understanding of salvation, but in the years following, Luther’s eyes were opened to the Bible’s teaching about salvation, which differed radically from what Rome taught. Man was not made right with a holy God by performing works of satisfaction, let alone by purchasing indulgences. Luther had attempted such a method and it nearly drove him to insanity, as he never knew if he had performed enough good works or whether his merits truly were good enough before a perfectly holy God.
After countless hours of studying and lecturing on books of the Bible, like Romans, Luther now understood that a sinner is declared right before God (the theological word for this is “justification”) not on the basis of one’s works but totally and completely on the basis of the work of Christ. Not only did Christ suffer the penalty for our sin in full, leaving no punishment to be paid (no, not even in purgatory), but he also obeyed the law on our behalf in full. Upon faith in Jesus alone, this perfect record of obedience is transferred (the theological word for this is “imputed”) to our account. Just think, what an incredible, marvelous exchange takes place: our guilt, our sin, is transferred to Christ; his righteousness is transferred to us. How does this happen? Luther shouted: by faith alone!
That word “alone” is key. In Latin it is the word “sola.” As Luther came into conflict with Rome, who was repeatedly unwilling to listen to his case from the Scriptures, it became increasingly obvious to Luther that Rome’s abandonment of the gospel meant that justification by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (solus Christus) had been compromised. And this was no small matter for Luther: “If the doctrine of justification is lost,” Luther lamented in his 1535 Galatians lectures, “the whole of Christian doctrine is lost.” The stakes could not be higher. And Luther was even willing to go to the stake if he must to recover this good news, which the church had for so long withheld from the common Christian. As history would have it, Luther never went to the stake in flames, but many others did, paying with their lives.
Now you can see, I hope, why 2017 is a really big year. As we look at our churches we must be honest: many have forgotten or neglected or even misconstrued the gospel of grace. If real, lasting reformation is to take place, then there must be a rediscovery of biblical doctrines such as sola fide and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the ungodly. Luther knew this, which is why he set his mind to preaching the gospel, lecturing on the gospel, and writing out the gospel again and again until those around him understood that man is only justified through faith alone. “I teach that people should put their trust in nothing but Jesus Christ alone,” Luther told his mentor Staupitz, “not in their prayers, merits, or their own good deeds.” In his new biography of Luther, Scott Hendrix concludes that it is this one sentence that summarizes “the essence” of Luther’s “reforming agenda.”
For that reason, if we could only choose one word to describe the Reformation, it would have to be the word “rediscovery.” The Reformation was a rediscovery of the gospel and the power of grace, and therefore it was an evangelical reform movement at its nucleus. The question that now stares us in the face, as Luther’s heirs, is this: will the church today rediscover this gospel of grace or will it be lost on us once again?
Matthew Barrett is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author of several books, including God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture and Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary. Currently, he is the series editor of The 5 Solas Series with Zondervan. You can read more at MatthewMBarrett.com.