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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Why Did Martin Luther Start the Protestant Reformation?

A year ago today marked the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This date marked the beginning of the end of the sovereign reign of the Roman Catholic Church upon Western culture. Since this time, Christianity, which up until that point had been fairly united,[1] has taken on many different expressions and beliefs.

What most people don’t realize is that Martin Luther didn’t intend to separate himself from the Roman Catholic Church. And what most people also don’t realize are the beliefs that Luther held about God, humans, and salvation. In this article, I will be sharing why, based on my research, I believe Luther started the Protestant Reformation, and the primary way in which his soteriological (doctrine of salvation) beliefs were distinguished from those taught by the Roman Catholic Church.

Luther’s Revelation

Martin Luther was on his way to becoming a lawyer, but had a close encounter with death which frightened him into becoming an Augustinian monk. He quickly rose to become professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany.[2] But Luther was unsettled about something.

Luther strove for perfection, otherwise known as holiness. He took the monastic discipline as seriously as humanly possible. Yet, in his exhausting attempts to make himself holy, he still recognized the great magnitude of his sin compared to the righteousness of God.

To compound his distress, the gospel seemed like nothing more than bad news to a bunch of sinful people. As Luther read Paul’s letter to the Romans, this partial verse stood out to him: “In [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed…”[3] Luther had been taught that this verse meant God had sent Jesus to earth to reveal the full and terrible reality of his divine righteousness, which in turn revealed the horrific state of humanity’s unrighteousness.[4] Where was the good news in this message, especially when humanity needed to “do their best,” which was first and foremost an act of the will to love God, in order to earn God’s grace and favor?[5] As Luther once wrote about this verse:
As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath![6]
The word “gospel” by definition means “good news.” How was this gospel good news?

But by God’s grace and mercy, Luther’s eyes were opened to understand Paul’s intentions when he wrote this statement. The full verse is, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”[7] As Luther then wrote:
There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith.[8]
In other words, God, although a fair and just judge, ascribes Jesus’s righteousness to his people, not because of anything they’ve done to earn to it (their unrighteousness makes them completely unworthy of it), but because he chose to do it. This means the faith by which they receive it is also a gift from God. Now, this was good news. It was good news that Jesus paid for the sins of a bunch of unrighteous sinners so that they could be offered the free gift of his righteousness.

Luther’s 95 Theses

This revelation led Luther into further questioning of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. For example, if righteousness isn’t something that can be earned, then why were people offered an opportunity to purchase indulgences from the church in order to “earn” their way out of purgatory faster? Early in 1517, Luther constructed 97 theses for debate at the university which was a common practice at the time. To Luther’s disappointment, his 97 theses garnered little attention.[9]

Later that year, on October 31, 1517, he constructed his famous 95 theses and sent a copy to his bishop and Prince Albert, one of the archbishops. A copy also fell into the hands of a man who owned a printing press who saw its marketing potential, mass produced it, and had it distributed throughout Germany. Luther’s stances in his 95 theses were relatively conservative as he spent most of it addressing the issue of selling indulgences; he did not question the authority of the pope or the existence of purgatory.[10]

Luther did not intend to separate himself from the Roman Catholic Church, but rather, he wanted to bring reform to it. But in the years shortly following, the church continued to alienate him more and more and reached a climax in 1521 at the Diet of Worms (a trial). Luther was put on the stand and asked to recant of his new beliefs. After refusing to recant, he was declared a heretic and excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.

For the rest of his life, Luther continued to alienate himself further and further from the Roman Catholic Church. He put much of the institution into question, including the authority of the pope, and even went so far as to call the Roman Catholic Church the Antichrist prophesied in the New Testament.[11]

Martin Luther’s impact continues well beyond his lifetime, specifically his doctrine of salvation. It very quickly spread throughout Europe and impacted the theology of many contemporary reformers including John Calvin, the first Protestant to write a comprehensive book of theology. Protestants owe much of their doctrinal beliefs to the work of these two men.

How has Martin Luther’s legacy impacted your life?

[1] At that time, Christianity had already suffered one major division during the schism of 1054 when the Eastern Orthodox Church broke off from the Roman Catholic Church. In Europe, the church was still united due to the quick arrest and at times, death, of all people who expressed disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church.
[2] Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 155.
[3] Romans 1:17a.
[4] Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 150.
[5] Lane, A Concise History, 155.
[6] Martin Luther, “Preface to Latin Writings,” in Luther Works, 55 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1955-76, 34:336-37.
[7] Romans 1:17.
[8] Luther, “Preface to Latin Writings,” 34:336-37.
[9] Lane, A Concise History, 155.
[10] Ibid., 156.
[11] Ibid.

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