Most modern Christians say the reformation of the church began on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg, Germany. That would be true if nothing of its kind was never before attempted, but that is not the case. What made the 16th century reformation attempt most notable is that it was a success. The first attempt started “With the year 1378 Wyclif’s distinctive career as a doctrinal reformer opens.”1 With John Wycliffe (1328-1384) from England and later by Jan Huss (1369-1415) in Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) attempts were made to reform the catholic church, from the errors and abuses of the Roman Papacy. Wycliffe translated the New Testament into the English language from the Latin Vulgate and opposed several Roman Catholic doctrines, the same doctrines Martin Luther and all the reformers opposed. Wycliffe died a natural death in 1384 after a series of strokes2, but in 1415 the Roman Catholic Church pronounced him a heretic and in 1428 all his works are burned, his bones exhumed, burned to ashes and thrown in a river3. Jan Huss carried on Wycliffe’s reform in the church, in his own country of Bohemia; and used Wycliffe’s writings extensively. He was condemn and burned to death by the Roman Catholic authorities. Both of these earlier, would-be reformers, were trained in Latin (the only language that the church legally allowed the Scriptures to be read from or translated in) and could read the word of God. This naturally caused them to question the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. What happen with Wycliffe and Huss when they read the Scriptures happen with Martin Luther, he too saw how the Roman Papacy had apostatized from the Truth that is in Jesus Christ.
Philip Schaff wrote:
“In a real sense, Huss was the precursor of the Reformation. It is true, the prophecy was wrongly ascribed to him, “To-day you roast a goose—Huss—but a hundred years from now a swan will arise out of my ashes which you shall not roast.” Unknown to contemporary writers, it probably originated after Luther had fairly entered upon his work. But he struck a hard blow at hierarchical assumption before Luther raised his stronger arm. Luther was moved by Huss’ case, and at Leipzig, forced to the wall by Eck’s thrusts, the Wittenberg monk made the open avowal that oecumenical councils also may err, as was done in putting Huss to death at Constance. Years before, at Erfurt, he had taken up a volume of the Bohemian sermons, and was amazed that a man who preached so evangelically should have been condemned to the stake. But for fear of the taint of heresy, he quickly put it down.… In his edition of Huss’ letters, printed 1537, Luther praised Huss’ patience and humility under every indignity and his courage before an imposing assembly as a lamb in the midst of wolves and lions. If such a man, he wrote, “is to be regarded as a heretic, then no person under the sun can be looked upon as a true Christian.”4
Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses
If we go through some of the theses we will get a good ideal of the theological reasons for the Luther’s dispute with the Roman Catholic Church. There was, however, numerous moral and secular abuses and corruptions that could be brought forth, those I don’t want to deal with here. Suffice it to say, the Popes, Cardinals, and priest did not care for the Scriptures that taught: Titus 2:11–14 “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (ESV)
The full title is Disputation Of Dr. Martin Luther Concerning Penitence And Indulgeneces. The forward of the dispute will give a good introduction of the author:
“In the desire and with the purpose of elucidating the truth, a disputation will be held on the underwritten propositions at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Monk of the Order of St. Augustin, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and ordinary Reader of the same in that place. He therefore asks those who cannot be present, and discuss the subject with us orally, to do so by letter in their absence. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”5
It was common practice for the professors, at the University of Wittenberg, to post questions for public discussion and try to come to a common consensus on a given ecclesiastical dispute. October 31 was on the eve of All Saints Day which would attract a large crowd and give opportunity for a public debate. No one wanted to debate and nothing happened on November 1, 1517. The Ninety-five theses were taken down, printed and distributed widely and then it all began. Schaff writes:
“Accordingly, on the memorable thirty-first day of October, 1517, which has ever since been celebrated in Protestant Germany as the birthday of the Reformation, at twelve o’clock he affixed (either himself or through another) to the doors of the castle-church at Wittenberg, ninety-five Latin Theses on the subject of indulgences, and invited a public discussion. At the same time he sent notice of the fact to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, and to Bishop Hieronymus Scultetus, to whose diocese Wittenberg belonged. He chose the eve of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1), because this was one of the most frequented feasts, and attracted professors, students, and people from all directions to the church, which was filled with precious relics.”6
In the Theses Luther bewailed the lack of concern of the indulgence hawkers for not requiring true repentance from sin and mortification of the flesh. Theses 2 and 3 gives us his main concern:
2. This word poenitentia cannot be understood of sacramental penance, that is of the confession and satisfaction which are performed under the ministry of priest.
3. It does not, however, refer solely to inward penitence; nay, such inward penitence in naught, unless it outwardly produces various mortifications of the flesh7
Luther is demanding that forgiveness be given only to those who really repent, with a contrite heart and true sorrow of sin, with putting off those sins that caused the guilt. He had in mind the Scriptures which teach:
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (ESV)
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (ESV)
The indulgence being sold were Plenary Indulgences, meaning a person could buy, with money, a certificate that promises the Pope’s forgiveness of all sins whatever they be. Luther disputed that the Pope could forgive sins against the Law of God, but he allow that the Pope could forgive sins against Cannon Law, which are Papal statues and not God’s. He also despised the idea that forgiveness for sins, against God, could be bought with money, for he know: Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Hebrews 9:22); and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:24). In this Luther is putting forth Christ alone for salvation from our sins, and at the same time denying that the sacraments, that is the Eucharist, and acts of penance can result in true forgiveness of sins.
B.B. Warfield writes: “The fundamental difference between the two doctrines is the fundamental difference between evangelicalism and sacerdotalism. Evangelicalism casts man back on God and God alone; the faith that it asks of him is faith in God’s saving grace in Christ alone. Sacerdotalism throws him into the hands of the Church and asks him to put his confidence in it — or, in the indulgences, very specifically in the Pope. He is to suspend his salvation on what the Pope can do — whether directly by his own power or in the way of suffrage — transferring to his credit the merits of Christ and His saints.”8
“5. The Pope has neither the will nor the power to remit any penalties, except those which he has imposed by his own authority, or by that of the canons.
6. The Pope has no power to remit any guilt, except by declaring and warranting it to have been remitted by God; or at most by remitting cases reserved for himself: in which cases, if his power were despised, guilt would certainly remain.
21. Thus those preachers of indulgences are in error who say that, by the indulgences of the Pope, a man is loosed and saved from all punishment.”
What upset the Papacy is found in these statements: 1) Luther called into question the pope’s authority, 2) He took from the Papacy the main form of income to finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica, 3) And he called into question the holiness of the Papacy. 4) Luther denied that the sacramental system of the Roman Catholic Church had the power to save sinners from the wrath of God.
These 3 Theses gives us a idea of Luther’s mind on Indulgences:
32. Those who believe that, through letters of pardon, they are made sure of their own salvation, will be eternally damned along with their teachers.
36. Every Christian who feels true compunction has of right plenary remission of pain and guilt, even without letters of pardon.
37. Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has a share in all the benefits of Christ and of the Church, given him by God, even without letters of pardon.
In the 37th Thesis Luther goes to Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins; whereas the Papacy taught that sinners must go through the Church, the sacraments, priestly absolution, Purgatory, and indulgences. At this time in Luther’s life, he had learned that a man is justified by faith alone9, but he did not understand what that faith would cost him. After this conflict with Tetzel, who was the Indulgence preacher in Germany, Luther was called on to recant his Ninety-Five Theses and all of his other works, and ask forgiveness from the Pope; but he refused and said he would not until he was convinced from Scriptures alone of his errors. He was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. He would have been executed, probably by burning to death, if it wasn’t from the protection he receive from Elector Frederick who secretly hide Luther out of public site for several months.
This then is the beginning of the German Reformation; with it a German Bible was translated by Luther, Hymns were written (Most familiar is A Might Fortress Is Our God), his commentary on Galatians is a classic, his dispute later in his life with Erasmus on free-will produced and excellent book, The Bondage Of The Will, Evangelical confessions were written, freedom from Rome, and our Lord Jesus Christ alone knows how many elect heard the true gospel and believed.
Reformation in other countries in 16th century.
Not far from Germany, in Switzerland reformation sprung up when the Germans fled over there along with the French refugees. One notably French refugee is John Calvin (1509-1564), who fled Roman Catholic persecution. He landed in Geneva with all his learning and genius, where he taught the Scriptures several times a week, resulting in his commentaries we use even today. Calvin was the first to write a systematic theology, Institutes Of Christian Religion. Geneva produced their own translation of the Scriptures with notes, The Geneva Bible. Schaff writes about Calvin:
“Calvin was the best theologian and exegete among the Reformers. He never abused reason, like Luther, but assigned it the office of an indispensable handmaid of revelation. He constructed with his logical genius the severest system of Protestant orthodoxy which shaped French, Dutch, English and American theology, and fortified it against Rationalism as well as against Romanism.”10
In Zūrich, Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) lead his own Reformation and formed a Reformed church there.
In Scotland, John Knox (1514-1572) brought his education back from Geneva under Calvin and Beza and organized the Presbyterian Church in his home country.
The great providence of God, in the 16th century, restored the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, by raising up men who could read the Scriptures. With boldness of the Holy Spirit, the reformers defeated lies and the enemies of Christ’s kingdom. It was as if Jesus said “it is time”: Revelation 2:16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. (ESV)
Jerry A. Adams
April 20, 2021 Updated for this blog October 7, 2021
- Schaff, Philip. History Of The Christian Church, Vol. VI, Pg. 318. © 1910 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, Reprinted 1995 by Eerdmans Printing Company.
- Ibid, Page 323
- Ibid. Page 325
- Schaff, Philip. History Of The Christian Church, Vol. VI, Pgs. 386, 387. © 1910 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, Reprinted 1995 by Eerdmans Printing Company.
- Schaff, Philip. History Of The Christian Church, Vol. VII, Pg. 160. © 1910 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, Reprinted 1995 by Eerdmans Printing Company.
- Schaff, Philip. History Of The Christian Church, Vol. VII, Pg. 155, 156. © 1910 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, Reprinted 1995 by Eerdmans Printing Company.
- Ibid. Page 160
- Warfield, Benjamin B. The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. IX Studies In Theology; The Ninety-Five Theses In Their Theological Significance. Page 499. © 1932 Reprinted 2000 by Baker Book House Company
- Warfield, Benjamin B. The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. IX Studies In Theology; The Ninety-Five Theses In Their Theological Significance. Page 510. © 1932 Reprinted 2000 by Baker Book House Company…”It happens that neither faith nor justification is once mentioned in the Theses. It is in the Lectures on Romans of 1515-1516 that the epoch-making exposition of justification by faith was made, not in the Theses. Nevertheless, it is true that the Theses are the express outcome of Luther’s new “life principle,” and have as their fundamental purpose to set it in opposition to “human ecclesiasticism and sacerdotalism.” And it is true that the idea of justification by faith underlies them throughout and only does not come to explicit expression in them because the occasion does not call for that: Luther cannot expound them (as in the “Resolutions”) without dwelling largely on it.”
- Schaff, Philip. History Of The Christian Church, Vol. VII, Pg. 32. © 1910 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, Reprinted 1995 by Eerdmans Printing Company.