October 31, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation of the Church. Although the Reformation began in Germany and primarily concerned the Roman Catholic Church, its effects are felt throughout the world still today.
The Reformation began when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses for discussion and debate among the priests and monks of the Church. The theses were prompted by Luther’s objections to the practice of the Church at that time of selling indulgences for the forgiveness of sins. Although Luther could not have foreseen the impact his simple act would have, it nevertheless changed the course of the history of the world in many ways.
“The Reformation of the sixteenth century is, next to the introduction of Christianity, the greatest event in history. It marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times. Starting from religion, it gave, directly or indirectly, a mighty impulse to every forward movement, and made Protestantism the chief propelling force in the history of modern civilization.” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church)
Luther determined that the Church had gone astray from the basic doctrines in the Bible, including:
- Grace only – Salvation is caused totally by God’s grace, not by the person’s works.
- Faith only – Any person who trusts the Savior will be saved, but even a person’s faith is a gift from God.
- Bible only – The Bible is the only rule of faith and practice.
- Christ only – Salvation is located not in the Church, but in the person of Jesus Christ.
- God’s Glory only – God’s glory, rather than man’s or the Church’s, is the ultimate purpose of all things.
Luther didn’t intend to divide the church; he wanted to awaken the church to reform itself. He realized that Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection accomplished salvation for all mankind, and that good works do not earn salvation. He acknowledged that the Bible has all authority, and not the pope, the Church, or councils. Because the Catholic Church lost sight of those Biblical doctrines and refused to correct its errors, the Lutheran Church was founded. In time, Calvinist, Anglican, Presbyterian, and other protestant churches also came into being.
Politics and Law
Luther put forth the idea of the priesthood of all believers, the equality of all people before God, as stated in the Bible. Although not intended by Luther, this idea roused a feeling of anti-authoritarianism, which then led to opposition to the feudal system of the Middle Ages and the decline of the Holy Roman Empire. Prior to the Reformation, the Church had controlled governing rulers and set politics in its vast empire. Afterward, politics in Lutheran countries became secularized and rulers gained more control over their lands. That eventually led to a movement toward democracy around the world. Luther also saw the use of printed materials as a powerful check on government.
Luther believed that individuals could bring about nonviolent change. Reformers laid the groundwork for freedoms of speech, press, and religion. Other liberties we enjoy also had their foundations after the Reformation: independence of juries, the right not to be imprisoned without cause, and the privilege against self-incrimination.
Luther taught that all callings and all labor could be done to the glory of God. This has been called the Protestant Work Ethic. From this concept, and from the idea of individual equality, came the development of modern laws of property and contracts and the development of free market economy and capitalism.
Luther taught that all education is based on God’s Word, and strongly encouraged education for boys and girls. He wanted them to be able to study Scripture for themselves rather than depending upon a clergyman. There was a huge increase in literacy among laymen during this time. Luther advocated community schools, which paved the way for the public school system.
Prior to the Reformation, the Church had controlled scientific pursuit. The pope disallowed investigation into certain topics. Protestantism encouraged true (not a blind faith in) scientific investigation. Many discoveries and inventions followed.
Before the Reformation, art embraced Catholic ideas. At the time of the Reformation, religious art began to depict Protestant theology and values. There was also a period of iconoclasm, the destruction of religious imagery, not condoned by Luther. He believed art is a reminder of Christ, but not something to be worshipped.
Luther believed that music is a gift from God. Prior to the Reformation, a congregation didn’t sing in church. Luther introduced congregational singing. He believed that music is a very important way to teach theology, and that children should be instructed in music.
Luther believed that church services and the Bible should be in the language of the people so that ordinary people could understand them. He wrote hymns and books and translated the Bible into German, which resulted in standardization of the German language. The printing of these items helped to disseminate them, which also helped to solidify the language.
Marriage and Family
Luther insisted that ministers are ordinary people who should lead normal lives and have the right to marry and have children if they so desire. He championed sex within marriage as a gift from God. He believed that fathers have the responsibility to spend time teaching their families what the Bible says, and wrote his Small Catechism to help fathers in this task. Luther also elevated the role of women in the family.
Luther maintained that Christians are free from the ultimate and exclusive control of the Church and state because God alone is the author of the conscience. “My conscience is captive to the will of God.” The Reformation was the impetus for the right of people to follow their individual conscience.
If there had not been a Reformation, the Pilgrims, the Puritans, and others throughout history, would not have come to America. Martin Luther King, Sr. and Jr. legally adopted their names in honor of Martin Luther. ML King, Jr. later used Luther’s idea of nonviolent change. In addition to many civil liberties in our Constitution, there is a strong connection between “Bible only” and our American idea of the Constitution as the supreme law of the land.
Luther taught what the apostles taught, which pointed to Jesus. After his break with the Catholic Church, he retained the parts of the Church that were based on the Bible, including confession and absolution, liturgy, baptism, and holy communion, among others. God’s church on Earth was preserved in the 1500s through Martin Luther.
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Indianola, Iowa still follows those same practices today. We believe, teach, and confess that:
- The only true God is the Triune God, revealed in Scripture as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
- The Old Testament and the New Testament, the Bible, were given by inspiration of God. These Holy Scriptures are without error.
- God the Father sent His Son, Jesus Christ, into the world. Jesus is true God and true man in one person, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and is the world’s only Savior from sin, death, and the devil. No one can be saved apart from faith in Jesus Christ.