We’ve finally reached 31 October 2017 – 500 years since Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door on All Hallow’s Eve in the hopes of sparking a debate within the Catholic Church about the nature of repentance and the appropriateness of indulgences.
There are many ways we can celebrate this momentous anniversary, but there’s little point in any of it if we don’t understand what the Reformation was really about. Here’s a very brief guide to the essence of the Reformation, through the lens of the key catchphrases that summarise the truths that Luther, Calvin and their colleagues contended for so vigorously.
THE FIVE SOLAS
“Scripture Alone” (Sola Scriptura)
Protestants believe that many people and things in our lives can carry authority, provide information or act as guides to us. But “Scripture Alone” means we recognise the Bible as the only infallible (i.e. unfailing and therefore reliable) Word of God that conveys His supreme authority to our lives. There are many voices in the world with much to say about God, sin, salvation, happiness and how we approach life now and our eternal future. But only the Bible is inspired by God (see 2 Timothy 3:16) and teaches with certainty “all things that are necessary for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3, LEB).
This belief stands in contrast to the traditional view of the Roman Catholic Church, in which the Pope and priestly hierarchy have the authority to interpret the Scriptures for the laity (i.e. the common people) and make determinations about what people should believe and how they should live.
“Grace Alone” (Sola Gratia)
This refers to the basis for our salvation. God doesn’t save people because they are good, because they do good, or because they’re clever enough to figure out the truth about Him and believe. God saves people who are dead in their sins because of His own gracious and kind disposition towards them. No one earns or warrants salvation at any stage of their lives – if we receive eternal life it’s completely due to God’s mercy and generosity.
This is in contrast to the Roman Catholic view that, in addition to God’s grace, we are saved on the basis of what we do and what we become.
“Faith Alone” (Sola Fide)
This is inseparable from “grace alone,” but it refers to the means by which we receive justification (our right standing or right status before God). God counts the Christian as righteous due to their union with Christ by faith. The believer is fully right in God’s sight from the moment they trust in Christ and what He has done for them (i.e. His perfect obedience, death and resurrection) and they are never more justified than they were at that point.
This is in contrast with the Roman Catholic system, which taught that faith plus works contributed to our receiving of salvation and that our co-operation was absolutely necessary in the process.
“Christ Alone” (Solus Christus)
This refers to the question of who acts as mediator between us and God and whose help we need in order to be saved. Protestants believe that salvation only comes through the person and work of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12) and that we approach God through Jesus alone – as the only Person who is simultaneously divine and human. We relate to God and receive life from Him, through faith in Jesus – and not through any other means or mediators.
This stands in contrast to the Roman Catholic system of many heavenly mediators we can call upon for help (Mary, saints, angels) and earthly priests who stand between us and God/Christ.
“To the Glory of God Alone” (Soli Deo Gloria)
Because an individual can take no credit for their own salvation by grace, and because their church, or priest (or a heavenly mediator like Mary) cannot be credited with bringing about their salvation either – God alone receives all glory for saving sinners. The purpose of our salvation, in the Protestant faith, is for God to be glorified as a merciful and powerful Saviour.
This stands in contrast to Catholicism where the Christian who enters heaven is partly responsible for their arrival there and the Pope, Church, priests, Mary, saints and others can receive some of the credit for aiding them in their salvation.
A FEW OTHER KEY PHRASES
The Threefold Office of Christ (Triplex Munus)
This refers to Jesus being God’s “anointed one” (Messiah/Christ) in three specific senses. He is the Ultimate Prophet who reveals God and His will to us like no one before or after Him has done. He is the Great High Priest who makes atonement for our sins and grants us unrestricted access to God. He is the Supreme King who rules over all and helps us conquer sin, Satan and the world.
This idea was not invented in the Reformation (it’s much older), but as an extension of the Reformers’ belief in “Christ Alone” this understanding of Jesus as Prophet, Priest and King became an antidote to the Catholic system of unnecessary spiritual mediators. Jesus spoke directly to believers through the Word – God did not have to reveal new things about Himself through priests. Jesus opened the way for intimate communion with God, by His blood – Christians didn’t need to come through priests, Mass or the saints. Jesus ruled as King – believers could follow and obey His orders without being enslaved to the invented rules and teachings of the Catholic hierarchy.
Priesthood of All Believers (Presbyterii fidelium)
This is a key idea that flows out of the one directly above. The Reformation abolishes priests as a special religious class, because Jesus Himself did so as our High Priest. All believers, young or old, educated or uneducated, married or single, were priests in the true sense and had the privilege of access to God through Christ and the responsibility to pray and care for other believers.
“Back to the Sources” (Ad Fontes)
A cry of the humanistic Renaissance that became an important principle for the Reformers. The Reformers did not take the Catholic Church’s word for granted when it came to how the Christian faith should be understood and practiced. Instead they went back to the prime source of our faith, the Holy Scriptures, and searched them for themselves. They also read the works of Christians from earlier centuries in an effort to discover what had always been understood as true and what had gradually been introduced or invented by the Church. This was a crucial principle that allowed reform to take place.
“Repent” (Poenitentiam Agite)
The 95 theses that instigated Luther’s programme of reform hinged partly on how to understand the Latin phrase for repentance.
Luther rejected the idea that repentance amounted to doing the acts of penance prescribed by the Catholic Church and instead saw it as a genuine spiritual turning from sin that was expressed in appropriate outward behaviour. Forgiveness from God was not attained through religious performances, donations or any action of the penitent. It was freely granted on the basis of God’s grace to those who turned from their sins and exercised faith towards Jesus Christ.
“Here I Stand…” (Hier stehe ich)
When Luther was called before the Diet of Worms (a political and religious assembly in the Holy Roman Empire) to give an account for his beliefs, the Catholic authorities called upon him to renounce what he had been teaching.
Luther famously replied,
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.
The phrase has become a catch-cry for subsequent generations of Protestant Christians as a symbol of bold defiance towards Catholic pressure to betray the truths the Reformers rediscovered in the Scriptures.
“After Darkness – Light” (Post Tenebras Lux)
This phrase has come to serve as a motto of thankfulness and hope in relation to God’s deliverance of His church out of the spiritual darkness of medieval Catholicism through the light of the gospel recovered at the Reformation. It recalls the messianic hope of Isaiah 9:2 “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” (NIV).
Christians before 1517 were kept in the darkness of ignorance by the church that refused to give them access to the Scriptures in their own language. They were at risk of eternal darkness because the gospel of Christ was obscured by erroneous teachings. But wherever Protestantism has spread, God has brought light to His people through His Word and the clear preaching of the Gospel of His Son.
“Always Reforming” (Semper Reformanda)
Some churches self-identify as “reformed” in reference to the fact that their beliefs and practices have been shaped by God’s Word and the principles emphasised during the Reformation. But while there are no grounds to reinvent Christianity every generation or re-evaluate the core truths that Christians have always understood as both biblical and essential – there remains a need for Christians to have the desire to be continually reformed by the Word of God.
The motto Semper Reformanda drives a stake deep into the heart of the attitude that says “We’ll keep doing things this way at church, because it’s just the way we’ve always done it.” It demands constant obedience to God’s Word and re-evaluation of doctrine and practice when Scripture shows us to be deficient in some areas. We do not foolishly reject history and tradition for an approach that seeks to change the church based on what we “feel” needs altering. But we do recognise that we have not finally arrived at perfect theology, Christlikeness, piety or obedience and that God will continue to show His people where we need to repent and be reformed – until the return of His Son to rule over us directly for all eternity.
Happy 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation!