When I think about the Protestant Reformation, an image immediately conjures in my mind of Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, storming up to the Castle Church in Wittenberg, with an oversize hammer in hand; nailing his 95 theses to the front door and dropping the hammer as he walks away into the night amidst shocked silence from the crowd of onlookers. Perhaps I have a vivid imagination, or perhaps I have just been influenced by too many movies and paintings depicting this scene. While this event on October 31st of 1517 is significant, the legend in many ways has grown with the retelling and overshadowed the real force behind the Reformation. Was it simply because a man named Martin Luther flipped over the proverbial table of the papacy, or was something greater driving what took place?
WHAT WAS TAKING PLACE?
Though Martin Luther was pivotal to what God was doing on the continent of Europe in the 16th century, the Reformation was bigger than just one man and his ideas. Perhaps this point is brought out most clearly by Ulrich Zwingli, a Reformer in Zurich who commented on Luther.
“Before anyone in the area had ever heard of Luther, I began to preach the gospel of Christ in 1516… . I started preaching the gospel before I had even heard Luther’s name… . Luther, whose name I did not know for at least another two years, had definitely not instructed me. I followed holy Scripture alone.”
– Ulrich Zwingli
Before Luther ever wrote the first word of the 95 theses, Zwingli had already discovered the truths of the Reformation through the study of God’s Word. Reform has always come to the church through the careful study and application of Scripture. Throughout the centuries God has used men like Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Martin Luther to bring people back to the authority of the Word of God in order to purify the bride of Christ through the gospel. This good news that Scripture reveals is that God by His grace has provided a way for sinners to be reconciled to Him by faith alone in Christ alone; and not by our own works ‘so that no one may boast’ (Ephesians 2:9).
The Reformation was not the philosophical musings of men, it was a movement of God to bring the church back to the sole authority of Scripture and the purity of the gospel. The battle cry of the Reformation was that Scripture alone as God’s Word is the only perfect authority for the church, and that all of Scripture is ‘profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
It has been 500 years since Luther challenged the church in his day to come back to the Scriptures and be reformed by what God has spoken. The same thing is needed in our day as questions are raised regarding who has the right to define truth from error in the culture and in the church. Spiritual revival never takes place apart from the Spirit working through the Scriptures to change the hearts and minds of people. If we want to see a reformation take place in the culture, the church, and in our own hearts, then we must delve deeply into the Word of God as the Protestant Reformers did and submit to the authority of God in all things.