What was, or is, the Reformation?

Today is Sunday, November 1, 2020. The day after Reformation Day… but you may not know about the Reformation, or why it is important. The following is a brief summary of the history of the reformation, and the Five Doctrines that flowed out of this glorious moment in the history of Christianity.

Brief Historical Sketch of the Reformation

Martin Luther was the spark that started the most significant spiritual event in the last 500 years. On October 31, 1517, he nailed 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Castle church’s door in Germany. These 95 theses were a list of questions and propositions that he offered for debate with the Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s 95 Theses were also known as the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” 

The church of Rome had abandoned the Gospel by abandoning the core tenets of Biblical faith. It is because of the teaching and practices of the Roman Catholic Church that Luther and others rose in protest. While there are many issues addressed in Luther’s 95 theses, there are two pivotal issues at the heart of the reformation that lead to what we now know as Protestantism. 

The two pivotal issues, the leading causes for protesting the Roman Catholic Church, were the debate over the Bible and justification by faith alone. Luther proposed that the Bible alone has authority over the church and the conscience of Christians. The Roman Catholic Church elevated the church’s tradition over the Bible as the manner in which God revealed Himself. 

The second primary issue of the reformation is that according to the Bible, salvation is by faith alone. The reformers, men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Huldrych Zwingli, Theodore Beza, and others, proposed that the Bible teaches that humanity is justified before God by faith alone. Though this might sound normal to you, the Roman Catholic Church condemned this teaching and still rejects it today. 

As a matter of fact, the Holy Roman Emperor declared Luther’s teaching a “Cesspool of heresies” in 1521. Later in 1534, John Calvin delivered a speech in which he called for the church to return to the pure Gospel of the New Testament. His speech was burned, and the church sought to have him killed. 

From this point in history, the protest of the reformers birthed the Anglican Church in England, the Scottish Reformed Church, and in general, what we now call Protestantism. These are the churches and denominations that rose in rejection of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. 

In the 17th Century, the reformation made its way to the new world through the Pilgrims. Using the Geneva Bible, the reformation teachings were at the heart of the Puritans who settled the colonies that came to be known as the United States of America. Reformation theology was the dominant form of teaching and theology until the influence of what we will call Pietism and Finneyism. Finney references the movement of revivalism that spread through America following the teaching and influence of Charles Finney. 

The Reformation movement is a movement back to the Bible. This is the heart of the reformers and should be at the heart of protestant churches. To help clarify and communicate what the Bible says concerning salvation, the early reformers spoke of what we now call the Five Solas.

The Five Solas

Salvation is by God’s grace alone (Sola Gratia), on Christ alone (Solus Christus), received through faith alone (Sola Fide), to the glory of God alone (Sola Deo Gloria), with Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) as the only, final, decisive, authority on truth. 

Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)

The Bible is our highest authority in the church and the life of a believer.

The Scriptures are our ultimate and trustworthy authority for faith and practice. This doesn’t mean that the Bible is the only place where truth is found, but it does mean that everything else we learn about God and his world, and all other authorities, should be interpreted in light of Scripture. The Bible gives us everything we need for our theology.

The Holy Spirit inspires every word of the 66 books of the Bible. The Holy Spirit also helps us to understand and obey Scripture.

The Bible is about Jesus Christ and His role as God and Savior. 

20 For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. 2 Peter 2:20 (ESV)

4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Romans 15:4 (ESV)

The Bible is the literal Word of God and our authority for all things in the church

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. 2 Timothy 3:16 (ESV)

Sola Fide (Faith Alone) and Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)

We are saved solely through faith in Jesus Christ because of God’s grace and Christ’s merit alone. We are not saved by our merits or declared righteous by our good works. God grants salvation, not because of the good things we do and despite our sin.

We can only stand before God by his grace as he mercifully attributes to us the righteousness of Jesus Christ and attributes to him the consequences of our sins. Jesus’ life of perfect holiness is counted as ours, and our records of sin and failure were counted to Jesus when he died on the cross.

God graciously preserves us and keeps us. When we are faithless toward him, he is still faithful.

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8–9 (ESV)

Solus Christus

God has given the ultimate revelation of himself to us by sending Jesus Christ, Colossians 1:15. Only through God’s gracious self-revelation in Jesus do we come to a saving and transforming knowledge of God.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. Colossians 1:15 (ESV)

The testimony of Scripture is that Jesus is the way to salvation. 

1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 1 John 1:1–3 (ESV)

Jesus mediates and intercedes for us, not a religious ritual or good works. 

25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. Hebrews 7:25 (ESV)

34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Romans 8:34 (ESV)

There is no other name by which a person can be saved. 

12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:12 (ESV)

Soli Deo Gloria (The Glory of God Alone)

Glory belongs to God alone. God’s glory is the central motivation for salvation, not improving people’s lives—though that is a wonderful by-product. God is not a means to an end—he is the means and the end.

The goal of all of life is to give glory to God alone: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). 

 As The Westminster Catechism says, the chief purpose of human life is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

The worship of the American church today stands on the shoulders of the Reformers, and for that I am thankful. I am thankful for the return to the Word, and for the fruit that God has borne through the centuries of the faithful preaching and believing of the Gospel.

2 thoughts on “What was, or is, the Reformation?

  1. Thanks for this review. Always good to see history as where we’ve been, how we got off track by following out own way. How He id faithful to restore us by faith and following His written Word.

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