The Protestant Reformation is 500 Today


On this day in 1517, an Augustinian friar named Martin Luther posted his famous “95 Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany in protest to the non-biblical views of a preacher of hellfire and brimstone named Johann Tetzel. The author of the article entitled simply “Martin Luther” (Christian History Mag Online) puts it like this,

During his early years, whenever Luther read what would become the famous “Reformation text”—Romans 1:17—his eyes were drawn not to the word faith, but to the word righteous. Who, after all, could “live by faith” but those who were already righteous? The text was clear on the matter: “the righteous shall live by faith.”

Luther remarked, “I hated that word, ‘the righteousness of God,’ by which I had been taught according to the custom and use of all teachers … [that] God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.” The young Luther could not live by faith because he was not righteous—and he knew it.

Meanwhile, he was ordered to take his doctorate in the Bible and become a professor at Wittenberg University. During lectures on the Psalms (in 1513 and 1514) and a study of the Book of Romans, he began to see a way through his dilemma. “At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I … began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith… Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.” . . .

It wasn’t long before the revolution in Luther’s heart and mind played itself out in all of Europe.

“Here I stand”

It started on All Saints’ Eve, 1517, when Luther publicly objected to the way preacher Johann Tetzel was selling indulgences. These were documents prepared by the church and bought by individuals either for themselves or on behalf of the dead that would release them from punishment due to their sins. As Tetzel preached, “Once the coin into the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory heavenward springs!”

Luther questioned the church’s trafficking in indulgences and called for a public debate of 95 theses he had written. Instead, his 95 Theses spread across Germany as a call to reform, and the issue quickly became not indulgences but the authority of the church: Did the pope have the right to issue indulgences?”

We can see that the world as Luther knew it was never the same again. Luther employed the innovation of the printing press; a new means of communicating to his advantage to get the message to spread throughout Europe and the rest of the world. On that day October 31, 1517, the world changed. Without Luther, there will be no Calvin, no Zwingli, and no Anabaptists. At least that is what we think. There were reformers before Luther, Peter Waldo, Francisco of Assisi and John Hus who was burned at a stake in Germany, to name a few.

Richard Rohr a Catholic writes:
For the most part, Roman Catholics have viewed the Reformation as the division of Christendom. Yet we should not have been surprised by Luther’s call to reform! Catholics teach that “the church was reformed but always in need of reformation.” Reformation is the perpetual process of conversion that is needed by all individuals and by all institutions. Otherwise, people and churches become idols.

Christianity has experienced many periods of dramatic change and upheaval, beginning with the Constantinian privileges and separation from the poor in 313. In the Great Schism of 1054, Christianity split between East and West.

In my opinion, this is the way that history and spirituality move forward. Change is never in a perfectly straight and logical line; it happens through the constant push and pull, death and life, that mirrors the Paschal Mystery . . .

It took the Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council of 1963-1965 to admit its mistakes and return to a more Scripture-based Christianity.

Now, by the grace of God, we are all beneficiaries of a Holy Reconciling by a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, formally agreed to by the highest theological authorities of the Vatican and the Lutheran Church in 1999. The declaration affirms that Luther was largely right, but both churches split into our own forms of dualistic thinking and remained in our duelling camps for 500 years. One side made an idol out of the Bible (Sola Scriptura!) and the other made an idol out of tradition (placing all confidence in leadership), but they were much the same in their human idolatry of something other than God. We are still learning the dangers of the dualistic concept of “only”!

Now the Reformed churches and many other denominations have affirmed this important and healing Joint Declaration, although the common churchgoer knows little of it. We are ever so slowly growing up together (how else could it be?)(

361937It amazes me, how the 500th anniversary of  Luther pinning his 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church has entered into scenes from a TV show. Recently, as I watched an episode of NCIS I noticed a car with the sticker celebrating 500 of Reformation (similar to the one on the side). The theme of the Reformation anniversary was worked into the plot of the show. I guess Hollywood does has an interest in the Reformation. Somewhat!

“The Gospel is that you are saved by God’s grace alone by Christ’s atoning blood alone and that is yours through faith- trust- alone. The Gospel is like palliative medicine for the died in Christ. The Gospel is that you are forgiven and justified and loved exactly as you are…FULL STOP.

The work of the Gospel is to unburden you of the crushing weight of that question: “What must I be doing to be doing the works of God?”

The Gospel unburdens you to ask a different question, a question that leads to something more miraculous and even more beautiful.” (Jason Micheli)

Here is a question (really two questions) for all us Protestants and Catholics who continue to celebrate the Romans 1:17 declaration that the “righteous shall live by faith.”  Here I Stand!

What are you going to do with this faith of yours?

Now you have the freedom not to do anything? (Jason Micheli)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s