Protestant Reformation

“The Word Did Everything”

The European Reformation (Cameron)John Murray calls the 16th century Protestant Reformation “the greatest event for Christendom in the last 1500 years” (Collected Writings of John Murray Vol.2, p.203). The rediscovery of the gospel of God’s grace in Christ turned the world upside-down and changed all of subsequent history.

How does one explain the remarkable power and effect of the Protestant Reformation?

After all, the reformers had none of the technological advantages that we enjoy today, such as the internet, cell phones, radio, television, rapid transit, etc.

They had to rely on the pen, the printing press, and the preaching of the Word of God.

And they faced constant opposition and even violent persecution from many who were in positions of great ecclesiastical and political power.

So what was the secret of the Protestant Reformation’s success? Luther himself writes,

“I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philipp [Melanchthon] and [Nikolaus von] Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the Papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses on it. I did nothing; the Word did everything . . . .” (Euan Cameron, The European Reformation, p.106-07)

Now Martin Luther certainly labored diligently. As one writer notes, “His collected writings in German are over 100 volumes” (Stephen J. Nichols, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World, p.16). But at the end of the day, the real power behind the Reformation was the Word of God.  As Luther put it, “the Word did everything.”

And so if we would see a new reformation in our own day, we too must learn to trust in and rely upon the power of the Word of God. For it is the Word of God that is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). It is the Word of God that does not return void or empty, but always accomplishes the purposes for which God sent it (Isaiah 55:11). And it is the gospel alone that is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).


Martin Luther’s 95 Theses

martin-luther-2524287_1280October 31st marks the anniversary of the beginning of the 16th century protestant reformation. For it was on that date, just over 500 years ago now (back in 1517) when Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. This event is thought by many to be the start of the Protestant Reformation.

The 95 Theses were essentially 95 points of dispute or debate over what Luther saw as the abuse of the Roman Catholic doctrine and practice of the sale of indulgences.

What exactly was an “indulgence”? Philip Schaff writes,

“In the legal language of Rome, indulgentia is a term for amnesty or remission of punishment. In ecclesiastical Latin, an indulgence means the remission of the temporal (not the eternal) punishment of sin (not of sin itself), on condition of penitence and the payment of money to the church or to some charitable object.” (History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII, p.147)

And so the Indulgences were put forward as a way to essentially pay for remission of temporal punishments for sin for the living, or for the release from purgatory for a deceased loved one.  But as one writer notes,

“In practice the ignorant could not help thinking that they were ‘buying’ forgiveness for themselves or their beloved in the hereafter, or at last that by their generosity they were doing a good work which the Pope declared to be effective toward forgiveness in the hereafter. ‘The moment the money tinkles in the collecting box, a soul flies out of purgatory’ – there is no doubt that this proverb was preached.” (Owen Chadwick, The Reformation, The Penguin History of the Church Vol. 3, p.42)

Put in this light, it is easy to see why Luther took issue with this practice.

The Roman Catholic Church used the sale of indulgences to raise vast sums of money to pay for, among other things, the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. So you could say that in some ways what started the Reformation was a church fund-raising program or building fund gone awry. (It always seems to be about money, doesn’t it?)

Luther simply presented his 95 Theses for debate in the hopes of reforming the abuses of  indulgences. He wasn’t seeking a revolution. He wasn’t even arguing against the church’s official doctrine and practice of indulgences per se (at least not yet). He was simply seeking debate and reform. No one even took him up on his offer to debate the issue of indulgences. But his 95 Theses were quickly translated, published, circulated, and read far and wide.

To the modern reader the 95 Theses probably don’t seem all that revolutionary. They do not even explicitly mention the doctrine of justification at all. (To be sure, it was Martin Luther’s understanding of the biblical doctrine of justification that was behind his opposition to the sale of indulgences.)

The first of his 95 Theses is as follows:

“1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

He essentially builds his case from there, point by point (95 points in total).

And perhaps the most important of them all is #62, which says,

“The true treasure [or treasury] of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”

And the very last of Luther’s 95 Theses states that Christians, in following Christ, their head, should “thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace” [i.e. the false peace offered through the sale of indulgences].

Luther’s earnest desire was that Christians would place all of their hope for forgiveness and heaven in Christ alone.

Thanks be to God that because of the Reformation, countless souls have done just that, and found true peace with God through faith alone, in Christ alone, by the grace of God alone, to the glory of God alone!

And as John Murray notes, “This heritage is not only one to be cherished; it is one to be propagated.” He reminds us that the Reformation is not just past history, but is also “a present duty” as well. (The Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 1, p.292)



Justification (Shorter Catechism Q.33)

1710_largeThe 500th anniversary of what is commonly held to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation is nearly upon us! For it was on October 31st, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his now-famous “95 Theses” to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther’s invitation to debate these 95 points of doctrine or contention has been called the spark that lit the flame of the Protestant Reformation.

With this momentous anniversary almost upon us, I thought it might be helpful to post something on the protestant doctrine of justification. Justification by faith alone (sola fide) is often called the “material cause” of the Reformation. In other words, it was front and center in many of the debates, discussions, and even trials. The “formal cause” of the Reformation – the underlying foundational issue – was the authority of Scripture (or sola Scriptura).

The doctrine of justification has been called the doctrine by which the church stands or falls (Martin Luther), and the hinge on which the Christian religion turns (John Calvin). So what is it? What is the biblical doctrine of justification?

I believe that the simplest and most helpful definition of justification is found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, where it says,

“Q. 33. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.

So the first thing we see there in that definition is that justification is “an act of God’s grace.” It is an act of the grace of God, and so it is a gift, freely given to all who are in Christ by faith. It is not earned, nor can it be. In other words, the basis of our justification is not found in anything inherent in us at all.

The second thing we see is that justification is a one-time act, as distinguished from sanctification, which is an ongoing “work of God’s free grace” (Q.35). There are no degrees of justification; there is no growth (or decay) in justification. In fact, as Westminster Larger Catechism Q.77 points out, justification “does equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation” (italics added). All genuine believers in Christ are equally, perfectly, and irrevocably (!) justified in Christ and so freed from God’s wrath! That is grace!

The third thing that we see here in this definition of justification is that this act of God’s grace in Christ includes the pardon or forgiveness of all of our sins. What a wonderful blessing (Psalm 103:2-3)! No wonder the Apostle Paul says,

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1, ESV)

Forgiveness and peace with God through faith in Jesus Christ! Is there anything that sinners could possibly need more than that? No wonder the gospel of Christ is good news!

But wait, there’s more! The fourth thing that we see in the Shorter Catechism’s definition of justification is that in it God not only pardons all of our sins, but He also “accepts us as righteous in his sight.” Being forgiven is one thing, but then also being accepted by a holy God as if we were righteous in His sight! Justification is much more than a clean slate! It is having a positively righteous slate or standing in the eyes of a holy God!

How is that even possible? How can sinners be accepted by God as righteous in His sight? What is the basis or ground of this new standing before God? The Catechism adds that it is “only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” When we come to Christ by faith, His perfect, spotless righteousness is reckoned or imputed to our account in God’s sight!

In other words, the Lord Jesus Christ did not just die in our place, but He lived in our place as well! This is often spoken of as the “active obedience” of Christ (in contrast to His “passive” obedience, wherein He suffered and died in our place). His obedience is reckoned as our obedience when it comes to our standing before God!

And how is the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to us and received by us? By faith alone. Period. Not by something we do; not by faith in Christ plus something else – faith alone. And it is by faith alone in order to ensure that it is by God’s grace alone (Romans 4:16).

What a wonderfully full and yet concise definition of justification! And what a beautiful and comforting truth! That is certainly something well worth considering, meditating upon, and celebrating.


“My conscience is captive to the Word of God.”

Here is a great clip from the 2003 film, “Luther.”  This scene is Martin Luther on trial at the Diet of Worms.

May the Lord Jesus Christ grant a fresh outpouring of the spirit of the Reformation in our day, so that His church would be characterized by people whose consciences are captive to the Word of God!