As America celebrates Halloween, many here and overseas celebrate an anniversary that changed the world.
October 31, 1517 marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which brought change to the church and ultimately impacted culture and society’s institutions as well.
A Catalyst for Change
Luther never intended to start a reformation. When he nailed his 95 Theses to All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg, Germany, he only wanted to initiate an academic discussion among theologians regarding abuses he saw in the church—that’s why the original Theses were written in Latin.
Unbeknownst to Luther, the 95 Theses were translated, copied, and distributed throughout Germany. Interestingly, Luther embraced his new-found fame and continued to write about the abuses of the church—this time in German.
Luther believed in God’s sovereignty in these events. He also saw an opportunity to circumvent the control of the church using the newly developed printing press to distribute his message, which launched an unstoppable movement.
Rediscovered Truth and How to Find It
Luther discerned truth directly from God’s word. And, for perhaps the first time in a thousand years, Luther made truth accessible to common people, not just something dispensed by the powerful.
In his new book, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, Eric Metaxas puts it this way:
Luther had begun by arguing for a view of the truth, but in so doing, he had dragged with him the brand-new idea of truthful argument….by suggesting that there was something called the truth and that this truth might be discovered and embraced outside the worldly institution of the church, he had inadvertently linked the facts of the truth with the way one approached the search for truth. This was itself a revolution, one that is still being fought today….But it is this that has changed everything, and this that is Luther’s principal legacy in the world.
At the core of this truth was an understanding of the scriptures that contradicted much of what the church taught in Luther’s day.
The five key beliefs established by Luther and the later reformers were:
- Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura): Church teachings, doctrines, and practice should be based on scripture alone, which is God’s inspired and authoritative word. Faith is based on scripture alone, not tradition or extra-biblical teachings. Luther and the reformers believed that all people should read the Bible for themselves to learn about God, Christ, salvation, and how to live out their lives.
- Christ Alone (Solo Christo): Salvation is found in the person of Jesus Christ alone. We are saved by the merits of Christ; we need not add anything to Christ to approach God.
- Grace Alone (Sola Gratia): Salvation is a result of God’s grace. We are saved by grace alone without the addition of works through obedience to the commandments.
- Faith Alone (Sola Fide): Salvation is appropriated by faith in Christ alone, and even that is a free gift from God. The medieval church taught that we are saved by the merits of Christ plus good works including baptism and indulgences (donating money to the church).
- God’s Glory Alone (Soli Deo Gloria): The ultimate purpose of everything we do is to glorify God. Luther and the reformers said that glory was to go to God alone, not partly to Christ, partly to the church, partly to Mary, partly to the saints, and partly to the sinner himself.
These biblical truths were the theological pillars of the Reformation and had many significant practical implications. In fact, it is almost impossible to understand modern history apart from the truth embraced by the Reformation.
The Rediscovered Truth Impacts Culture
Luther’s view of the truth impacted many facets of the culture, not just the church. Here is a partial list, gleaned largely from Metaxas’s Martin Luther:
Literacy—If scripture is the Christian’s guide to faith and practice, everyone should be equipped to read the Bible. Following the lead of William Tyndale (who had translated the Bible into English), Luther, among others, translated Old and New Testaments into German. Translation plus the printing press caused literacy and Bible reading to explode in new Protestant nations.
Women and the poor—Luther helped elevate the status of women, emphasizing the importance of marriage and the role of women in the Christian home. He and other reformers encouraged the education of girls. Luther’s writings and preaching demanding economic reforms had a positive impact on the poor.
Law and politics—During the medieval period, emperors and kings and the common people were subject to the law of the church. With Luther, the strong bonds between church and state began to weaken, and by the end of the Reformation, they were tenuous at best.
Religious Liberty—Luther’s argument about individual conscience contributed to the idea of religious liberty. For perhaps the first time, Luther insisted people should not be coerced into faith—laying the foundation for our Western concept of religious freedom.
Worship—Since medieval mass was completely in Latin, Luther introduced preaching, hymn-writing, and congregational singing using the vernacular to teach the tenets of the faith to all, including the poor and uneducated.
Science—The Reformation influenced modern scientific exploration too, according to Davis and Winship in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction. The church controlled almost all scientific investigation in the Middle Ages, so much so that Copernicus did not initially publish his then-controversial findings about the sun being the center of the solar system. Later, Lutheran astronomer Johannes Kepler helped spread Copernican heliocentrism, which was accepted by other Protestant scientists but rejected by the Roman church.
Markets and capitalism—While no one would call Luther a capitalist, the theology of Luther and the other reformers laid a strong foundation for the rise of the free-market system. Historian Glen Sunshine writes that our modern view of capitalism stems from, “Protestantism, notably the idea of work as a sacred vocation built on the priesthood of all believers and the breakdown of the sacred/secular divide.”
A Changed Europe and Western Civilization
The Protestant Reformation rocked Europe at its very foundations and the world would never be the same. Luther’s Reformation complemented and in some ways helped complete the Renaissance by attacking tradition—including a system of church authority that demanded unthinking obedience.
We should all celebrate tonight by going out dressed as monks. If anyone asks, you can tell them you’re dressed as someone who changed the world.
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