The story of the Reformation is not unknown to most evangelical Christians today. The event that sparked it has resounded through five centuries, this year being its 503rd anniversary. It began when an Augustinian monk, the well-known protestant reformer Martin Luther, nailed his argumentation against the use of indulgences by the Roman Catholic church. He placed it on the castle doors of Wittenberg in Germany. This document is more commonly known as the 95 Theses. The years that followed this was a movement away from the abuse of the Roman Church. This movement is part of what we now know as The Reformation.
Remembering the Reformation and its subsequent events is not a difficult task for the modern evangelical. Anyone who knows their protestant roots knows the remarkable events that happened over 500 years ago. If we ask, however, if they remember the central thrust of those events, we may receive different answers. Remembering history is one thing. But to remember its essence is entirely different.
The Monk of the Reformation
Martin Luther was a faithful Roman Catholic churchman. As a monk, he considered himself blameless before the rites and rituals of the Catholic church. He can be considered perfect in upholding his religious practice as if echoing the words of the Apostle Paul of his Pharisaic past, “… circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless,” (Phil. 3:5-6 ESV). But regardless of his perfect righteousness in his monastic life, he often felt condemned by his own sinful heart before God. His conscience was disturbed regardless of his perfect works. Even more, in a short account of his conversion, he wrote that He hated God and was angry with Him¹.
The Conversion of Luther
In order for us to understand the essence of the Reformation, it’s important to ask how Martin Luther’s life shifted from hating God to being the trailblazer of the movement. How did he go from despising the Lord to truly serving Him?
Apart from being a faithful churchman, Luther was a zealous student of God’s word. He hated God because his perfect obedience to Roman Catholicism still left him feeling condemned as he read God’s word. The Scriptures revealed to him the perfect righteousness of God, and how infinitely far his righteous monastic life was to the requirements of God. It also revealed to him that his righteousness would never be enough and that he needed a righteousness other than his own.
God revealed His righteousness to Luther in the first chapter of the book of Romans in the 18th verse, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith,’” (Romans 1:18). Luther recounts the realization of God’s righteousness in his life through this passage, He says, “… the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith…,”².
Hating God transformed to devotion as Luther started to understand that the righteous requirements of God were already fulfilled by Christ and was freely available to him through faith. He realized that his Roman Catholicism with its rituals and indulgences were man-made rules distorting true devotion to God.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ
The essence of conversion in Martin Luther’s life is the same essence seen macrocosmically in the Reformation’s events. The shining light of the gospel that broke into Luther’s life was the same power that provided him the strength to hammer his 95 Theses against the godlessness of Rome.
In the Roman Catholic church Luther saw the requirement of personal works of righteousness; In the gospel, he saw that God provided the righteousness which was already fulfilled by Christ. In the Roman Catholic church Luther saw the requirement of full submission to the Roman Catholic system; In the gospel, he saw freedom from the doctrines of man to serve God in obedience to His word. In the Roman Catholic church Luther saw the payment of sin via indulgences; In the gospel, he saw the payment of sin in the blood of Jesus Christ. In the Roman Catholic church Luther saw the corrupt hearts of men using God for power; In the gospel, he saw the power of God as the only potent solution to the corrupt hearts of men. In the Roman Catholic church Luther saw that faith in the words of the magistrate was the key to eternal life; In the gospel, Luther saw that faith in Christ was the only way to God.
The True Essence of the Reformation
The Reformation brought countless blessings from God, many of these blessings were a fruit of the Reformation’s events. The five Solas, great historic confessions, and rich protestant traditions in Reformed churches to name a few. But maintaining that the gospel is at the heart of the Reformation is essential to all who partake of this tradition. The biggest blessing is that the word of God which brings forth the richness of the gospel’s message was unearthed from the evil of being silenced. The Reformation, as much as it was affected by it, was not driven by the nail that fastened the 95 Theses to the castle doors but driven by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Need For Reformation Today
Our generation is due for another reformation. Perhaps not in the scale, kind, and manner of 1517, but in the same essence. We might not need another brave man to hammer an enumerated list of all the heresies to the doors of false churches. But the gospel, in all its glory, must take precedence in the life of everyone who shares the heritage of the Reformation. Our household, our marriages, our pulpits, our relationships, our conversations, our witness, our actions, our attitude, our decisions, should be rooted in the truth of the gospel, the fruit of which will surely resound stronger than hammer on a nail.
¹ Luther, Martin. “Martin Luther’s Account of His Own Conversion,” in Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings. accessed October 2020. https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/MartinLutherConversion.pdf