What’s So Special About the Reformation? Introduction

The following is the first of a series of articles written for the local papers in Clayton County, Iowa.

This October 31st is the 500th anniversary of what is known as the Reformation. On this day, the eve of All Saints Day (AKA All Hallow’s Eve; AKA Hollow-een), Martin Luther did something that was not very much out of the ordinary. He posted a set of theses – 95 in all – on the door at the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Saxony, Germany. The theses dealt with the issue of indulgences being sold in order to get souls out of purgatory. Now, this was a theological debate. Again, it was nothing new. The teachers of the universities often had debates on all sorts of theological topics. Students and other theologians would gather for what were known as disputations, or debates, in which one guy would present a series of theses or statements arguing the point he wanted to make. Then there would be one or more theologians on the other side who would give their responses to these statements. Luther was just calling another one of these common debates.

So why are we celebrating this date 500 years later?

This is a good question. Luther’s 95 theses are not themselves entirely Lutheran, after all. They were close, but he still hadn’t rejected the idea that there is a middle stage in the afterlife known as purgatory. He would reject this later, of course. But we can’t quite call Luther “Lutheran” at this time. Instead, this set of 95 Theses sparked the Reformation of the Church, because they challenged the authority of the pope. Specifically, they challenged whether the pope had authority to free Christians from purgatory in the afterlife.

Some of the main issues that were developing at this time for Luther began to take shape more rapidly in the years to follow. One of these issues was the teaching of free will. In a set of theses delivered in Heidelberg in 1518, the year after the 95 Theses, Luther attacked the teaching that natural man has a free will to choose God. This is something that is still taught today by the Roman Catholic Church as well as other protestant denominations such as the Evangelical Free. Luther outright rejected this on the basis of 1 Corinthians 2:14 and Romans 9:16. In one of his theses presented at Heidelberg he wrote: “Free will after the fall into sin exists in name only; and as long as one does what is in him, one sins mortally.” This comment completely strips away from natural man any power to come to God. Luther taught that faith is not the movement of our free will to agree with God’s Word. Instead, he taught that faith was a completely supernatural gift which God plants in our hearts by his Word and Spirit (Rom 10:17; John 3:6).

In other words, faith is not our work. It is completely God’s work. We do not invite Jesus into our hearts or accept him with our free will. No, instead God takes away our hearts of stone and gives us a heart of flesh (Ezek 36:26). This is one of the founding insights of the Reformation, as we shall see.

God writes his law on our hearts so that we have faith in him, so that we know him. And he does this by announcing to us the forgiveness of our sins (Jer 31:33-34). To say that we have a free will that participates in our conversion to God is to deny that natural man is completely dead in his sins (Eph 2:1) and at enmity toward God (Rom 8:7). And it is to leave a little bit of room for our own merit in our salvation, whether you call it good works or free will.

To say that natural man is free to choose God is like saying that a husband who is trying to hide his affair from his wife is free to love his wife. No, he is in bondage to his unfaithfulness. And this is how it is for natural man. This again is why Luther said in his Heidelberg Theses that free will exists in name only after the fall into sin. This, along with other parts of his 95 Theses, was listed by Pope Leo X in his papal bull condemning Luther as a heretic. This bull was written on June 15, 1520. A year later Luther was condemned as an outlaw by Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms. Luther was then “kidnapped” by Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony who gave him protection in a tower at Wartburg. This is where Luther translated the Bible from the Hebrew and Greek into the common German language of the people.

And so the Reformation was launched. Yes, the 95 Theses were the spark. But the flame would grow more and more as the years progressed. As we lead up to the 500th Anniversary of the 95 Theses, I would like to write a series of brief articles presenting what this Reformation was and still is all about. We can sum this up into five “alones,” which are as follows: Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, and to God alone be the glory. In other words, all of our Christian doctrine comes only from the Bible. We are counted righteous by God not by our works, but only by faith in Christ. This faith is given to us only by God’s grace, without any of our own efforts or will. Christ alone has fulfilled all of what was written in the Scriptures for our salvation. And finally, all glory and merit is to be given to God who accomplished all this without the help of any man. My goal in these articles is to give a reader a greater appreciation for Christian doctrine as we look back on this significant event in the history of the church.

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