The Herald Weekly Vol XV : 40

Reformation’s 500th Anniversary (1517 – 2017)

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation which brought about significant religious and societal changes that reverberate to this day.

What is the Reformation all about?

The Reformation started 500 years ago with a monk hanging 95 Theses, or topics for debate, on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. It was the eve of All Saints Day in 1517 – a day which most know as October 31 or Halloween. As the rest of the world revel in “trick or treat” activities, most Protestant Christians remember Oct 31 as “Reformation Day”. With the hanging of the Theses on the church door by Martin Luther, a young monk, pastor, and university professor, the Protestant Reformation was born.

The matter which greatly bothered Luther was the sale of indulgences in the medieval Roman Catholic Church. During those times, it was believed that when a person died, his sins remained to be atoned (forgiven) with acts of penitence (payment through acts such as good works by the deceased’s family). If his sins were not “paid for”, his soul remained in purgatory instead of moving into heaven. An “indulgence” was thus a sum of money paid to the church on behalf of the dead so that he or she could be released early from purgatory.

Selling indulgences became quite a money- making activity for the Church, with the catch phrase, “As soon as the coin box rings another soul from purgatory springs!”

Luther felt that the selling of indulgences and the theology of purgatory was contrary to his understanding of the biblical witness of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. As a professor of the Wittenberg University at that time, he challenged the proponents of indulgences to a debate. His nailing of his 95 Theses on the church door was not to rebel against the pope or the church, or inciting people to revolt against the church. It was his desire to link the theology and practice of the church closer to what was in the Bible.

The 95 Theses were written in Latin, a language read and understood by very few during Luther’s time. None of his fellow university professors wanted to debate his points. Those selling indulgences certainly did not want a public questioning of their practices. When no one responded, some of Luther’s university students translated his document into German – the language of the people. As more people began to understand what his theses meant, many shared Luther’s concerns, and soon the idea spread into a movement which spread all over the world.

This year, Christians commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The Five Solas are five Latin phrases that emerged from the Protestant Reformation best summarized the early Reformers’ basic theological principles in contrast to certain teachings of the Roman Catholic Church of the day. “Sola” is Latin, meaning “alone” or “only” and the corresponding phrases are:

  • Sola Fide, by faith alone
  • Sola Scriptura, by Scripture alone
  • Solus Christus, through Christ alone
  • Sola Gartia, by grace alone
  • Soli Deo Gloria, glory to God alone

The Reformation in the 16th century had some negative impact as the early leaders in the Protestant movement soon ended up quarreling among themselves. As a result, churches split and various branches or “denominations” developed. Consequently, whenever there was a small disagreement in any church, more splits took place, and this resulted in new denominations. The movement, which intended to bring believers closer to the teaching of the Bible, ended up with so many Protestant denominations today. This has greatly undermined the unity of the church, which Jesus Himself was teaching His disciples: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (Jn 13:34-35)

As Protestant churches and communities commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, there are attempts to reconcile the division between the Roman Catholic and the Protestant churches in the signing of declarations in order to bring these churches together. This appears to be good, but we need to be very careful. The Roman Catholic doctrines of salvation attained by good works, penance and human traditions are still being upheld.

Major changes in the Protestant Church after the 16th century Reformation

1. Salvation is by Grace Alone through Faith Alone.

The unbiblical practice of selling indulgences to the people was the “tinderbox” which set Luther’s heart on fire. The money-making scheme of the Church offended him. He made this “discovery” when studying Romans 1:17 which says “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith”. Today, salvation through Christ alone is the most important gospel message preached in Protestant churches.

2. The Centrality of the Bible

God’s Word from the Bible takes precedence over the traditions of the church. As followers of Christ, we follow the teachings taught in the Bible. We should never be forced to believe that forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God is by any other means – even if propounded by any church leader, pastor, priest, elder or teacher. Worshippers must be able to leave the sanctuary with a better understanding of God’s Word, than remember the jokes or personal anecdotes mentioned in the sermons.

3. Being able to read and understand the Bible

Latin was the lingua franca, the learned language for scientific and political affairs, and used as a trade or vehicular language. It was the official language used by the Roman Catholic Church especially in their theological works, lithurgical rites and dogmatic declarations. The Latin Vulgate Bible was dominant in Western Christianity through the Middle Ages. The common people were not taught Latin, and therefore did not understand Latin. Thus, many church goers could not understand what was being taught in church, and were not able to read the Latin Vulgate Bible on their own.

Luther translated the Bible into the German language, and it had a huge impact on the people. Bible translation began because of the Reformation. The Bible has been translated into many languages from the biblical languages of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. It has been translated into more languages than any other book in the world (469 languages with a complete Bible, and 2527 with at least some portion of scripture translated – as mentioned by the United Bible Societies in October 2011)

It is our privilege to be able to read the Bible in English, Mandarin or in other languages commonly used in our country.

4. Preaching as the primary focus

Luther and the Reformers replaced the church altar with the pulpit, placing it in the centre of their churches that were redesigned. Preachers were to base their sermons of the Bible, not only church traditions. This showed the emphasis of the Scriptures in the reformed churches. Church services were conducted in the commonly used languages, rather than the Latin which has been the early practice.

Many churches today tend to shift the centrality of the church to other activities – music, dancing, social work and other non-essential activities. May God help us to always remember that we come to worship God on Sunday, and to hear His Word being preached.

5. Congregational Singing

By “re-introducing public worship, the reformers displaced virtually overnight a thousand years of high church ritual. They condemned the Gregorian chant, objected to the distractions of elaborate vocal and instrumental music, the dangers of overly theatrical performances…” (Chuck Fromm, New Song: the sound of spiritual awakening”, in A Study of Music in Revival), July 1983).

6. Independence of church ministers

After the beginning of the Reformation, the church saw no biblical mandate for celibacy of the clergy (that means, “church ministers to remain single”). Thus the Reformers were able to get married. This was a sign of reformation and independence from the Church of Rome. Luther also advocated the right of congregations to select their own pastors, than accept the church father assigned by the Pope.

7. Believers’ Access To God

Luther saw that it was unbiblical for the priests to be seen as the mediator between God and man. He saw that the Bible taught that believers have direct access to God. He understood the “priesthood of believers” as taught in 1 Pet 2:5,9: “Ye laso, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ…But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of Him who hath called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”

We have benefitted from the reforms (or changes) adopted by Luther and the Reformers because they had the courage to be committed to the teaching of the Scriptures. Beloved, I pray that we will continue to read our Bibles, and allow God to help us understand and apply His Word into our lives every day.

Pastor Bob Phee

Leave a Reply