Reformation Remembrance

Who would have thought that an insignificant Augustinian monk could bring about a world changing event such as the Great Reformation? Of course with the Lord nothing is impossible. For it was He Who brought this Great Reformation about by His almighty power.
The Lord chose Martin Luther and rescued him from the false teachings of the church and opened his eyes for the miracle of His grace. Luther saw the need to re-discover the truth of the gospel and the wonderful news that the just shall live by faith (Romans 1:17). By faith ALONE! This simple truth would change the history of the world. It would also shake the foundations of the mighty Catholic church and the papacy.
By reading and studying the Bible, Martin Luther (1483-1546) began to understand that salvation was not something one could earn. Neither long and frequent prayers, nor good works, nor self-abuse by flogging or chastising one’s self in other ways such as sleeping outside without a blanket in the freezing cold winter weather, nor by frequent fasting, could one earn salvation. All these things Luther did, but it did not give him the peace he looked for so desperately.
Then Luther discovered the simple and wonderful truth that would have a great impact on the history of the church. The words of Romans 1:17 “The just shall live by faith” were like a ray of sunshine to Luther and filled his heart with joy and thankfulness. He began to see that salvation was not a prize to be earned by all those things which had filled his life and thoughts so completely and for so long. All his long prayers, fasting and self-abuse were in vain. He learned that it is a free gift obtained through the sacrificial death on the cross and resurrection of Jesus and received by faith.
The central issue of the Reformation was Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. Dr. Luther was convinced that the Catholic church of his day had got it all wrong. He came to realise that not the traditions of the church, nor the pope, but the infallible Word of God has the sole authority over the church and its members and over all of life.
What was at stake?
What were some of the causes of the Reformation? Over many years Bible knowledge had disappeared, and ignorance and superstition flourished. Augustine defined superstition as the dangerous worship of false gods and also included divination, sorcery and magic. At the same time clergy abuse increased. The scandalous lives and greed of the clergy was an abomination. Consequently, many people began to criticise the Catholic church.
Luther exposed these and other unbiblical practices of the established church and rejected the autonomous papal authority. He wished to purify the church from its evil practices. For far too long the true gospel had been obscured and it was high time that the truth of the gospel was rediscovered and again preached from the pulpits. For example, holy mass was sung in Latin by the clergy, a language no-one but the clergy could understand. Luther and other reformers wanted the congregation to sing during the worship services in a language everyone could understand.
Scripture’s authority
Luther learned and came to believe that God’s Word was infallible and is the sole authority and guide for our lives.
When Luther composed his “95 Theses” he was lecturer at the university in Wittenberg. He chose 31st October for the most effective publishing date because the following day it would be All Saints Day, a special feast day in the Catholic church, a day on which many people would be expected to be in town and the churches would be full.
That is why specifically on that day, 31st October, he nailed his theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. In them, among other things, he protested the pope’s sale of reprieves from penance, and the sale of indulgences. What are indulgences? They were certificates or letters which claim to reduce the amount of time that one would have to spend in purgatory. They were supposed to reduce the amount of punishment for one’s sins. The Pope promised perfect remission of all sins to all those who bought one of these certificates. By means of these indulgences people were able to purchase better treatment after death. They could even purchase complete forgiveness for their loved ones, who had already passed away. It was no wonder that when people confessed their sins to the priest there was really no evidence of sincere regret or sorrow for their sins. They had that wonderful certificate and felt quite content with that.
These indulgences promised something that could never be delivered. In fact they were stealing money from poor people, giving them a false sense of security and an unfounded hope. The money raised from the sale of these indulgences funded the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the lavish lifestyle of the Pope and other clergy.
Even though the sale of indulgences was officially abolished by the pope in 1567 the practice of indulgences is still going on today and they continue to play a big role in today’s Catholic church. The newspaper The Guardian reported seven years ago as follows: “In the latest attempt to keep up with the times the Vatican has married one of its oldest traditions to the world of social media by offering “indulgences” to the followers of Pope Francis’ tweets”.
The pope’s reaction
Understandably these 95 theses which included the opposition to the sale of indulgences generated resistance and fierce hostility especially from the pope himself who felt threatened by this obstinate professor of theology. It is therefore no wonder that he did everything in his power to get rid of Luther and even had him excommunicated. On January 3rd, 1521 the pope issued the papal bull by which Martin Luther, God’s faithful servant, was to be excommunicated and cast out of the Catholic church after two months. Luther’s books and sermons were being burned by loyal supporters of the pope. Luther reacted to this by calling the pope the Antichrist. Then, two months after the pope had issued his threat, Luther called some of his supporters and they gathered in Wittenberg, Germany, where they built a bonfire. They burned many of the theological books containing the false teachings of the church and then Luther also threw the papal bull of excommunication into the fire.
God’s timing is always perfect. In the context of this article we can see that in the invention of the printing press, invented at around 1440 by the goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg. This enabled people to distribute information more widely and quickly than was possible before. In that way the printing press was of great benefit to the Reformation. Luther’s 95 theses were distributed very swiftly and before long they had spread across most of Europe.
History often repeats itself, as we know from Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 where it says: “That which has been, is what will be, that which is done what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun”.
May we therefore learn from the lessons of history and remember Reformation Day on 31st October with great thankfulness for what the Lord has done in the history of His church. For this was an event of global and eternal importance. How thankful we should be for what our God and Father has done through His faithful servants. He preserved and defended His church. To Him be glory and honour.

Leo Schoof
Free Reformed Church of Byford

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