Despite harsh pushback, Luther launched theological revolution

Despite harsh pushback, Luther launched theological revolution

By Scott Guffin
Special to The Alabama Baptist

If you were to ask the average Southern Baptist pastor what it takes to have eternal life, you would likely receive an answer highlighting the truth that forgiveness of our sins and the promise of a home in heaven can only come to us by God’s grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide), as Paul noted in Ephesians 2:8–9:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

That pastor might go on to stress — for the purpose of being ultra-clear — that there is nothing at all that we can do to bring about our own salvation; it is entirely the work and gift of God, and we can only receive it through faith in Christ. All of the good deeds that we could amass in a long and productive lifetime of hard work and self-sacrifice would never even come close to earning that which only God can give. It is through His grace alone that we are saved.

Securing salvation

While a statement like the one above might be the “amen”-garnering norm for the average Southern Baptist and most other Protestants as well, such was not the case 500 years ago when western Christianity was almost entirely dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, whose theology, tradition and practice at that time promoted something vastly different than a Protestant understanding of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. On the contrary, the “salvation” offered by the Catholic Church of the 1500s was one that stressed the necessity of works and even went so far as to endorse a variety of monetary transactions that would — so they taught — help a person to gain the favor of God for the purpose of securing their own salvation, and, in some instances, even the salvation of their dead loved ones as well.

Practices to ‘win’ God’s favor

Among these practices was the purchasing of relics, items that were purported to have been connected with Jesus or one of the apostles in some way. Catholic parishioners were urged to buy relics as a way of displaying to God their desire to be close to His Son, therefore honoring Him while also currying favor with Him.

People were likewise encouraged to go on pilgrimages to destinations connected with the faith, which served both as a source of revenue for the Church — as people bought souvenirs and supplies from Church-owned vendors — and as a means of presumably pleasing God.

A third major practice in this regard was the selling by the Church of indulgences, certificates signed by the Pope that supposedly granted to the purchaser (or his dead loved ones) the forgiveness of sins and subsequent release from purgatory or even from hell itself.

It was in this time of such superstitious beliefs and practices that voices within the Catholic Church began to cry out for reform, hoping to return the Church to its biblical grounding. Beginning in the 12th and 13th centuries, proto-reformers like Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe and Jon Hus pressed for the Church to reject corruption, to address immorality within the ranks of its clergy, and to return to biblical theology and practices. The Church’s response was to condemn such dissenters as heretics, and some, like Hus, were put to death as a result. As the centuries rolled on, the Church sought to silence these voices calling for reformation, but it could not. In due time their teachings would begin to gain more and more traction, as their boldness was combined with a wave of cultural and political movements that set the stage for a theological showdown in the early 16th century that would forever change the face of Western Christianity.

The defining moment that set the wheels of revolution in motion occurred Oct. 31, 1517, when a young Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed his now-famous 95 Theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg Castle. Although his initial intention was merely to create an academic theological debate on the matter of indulgences, Luther would step into the shoes and raise the banner of the reformers who had gone before him, igniting a firestorm that resulted in what is commonly recognized as the birth of the Protestant Reformation.

Religious authority

Central to Luther’s arguments in opposition to indulgences was a call for the Church to return to an understanding of Christianity that had been put forward in the 4th and 5th centuries by Augustine — namely, that the Bible should serve as our ultimate religious authority and that salvation cannot be obtained through human works but is rather bestowed only by God through His divine grace. In this regard, Luther was not plowing new ground but rather was seeking to call the Church back to its earlier roots in a deeply biblical understanding of the Christian life.

Negative response

The response of Church officials to Luther was not positive, to say the least. Over the next three years, he was subjected to a variety of papal tribunals where Church representatives argued against his teachings and called on him to recant. Refusing to do so, he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church in January 1521. Unfettered by the threats of Church authorities, Luther continued to stand for and to teach the doctrine of the good news of God’s free grace as set forth in Scripture.

As the newly hatched Protestant Reformation began to take shape and to grow, Luther’s central doctrines of Scripture alone (sola scriptura), grace alone (sola gratia) and faith alone (sola fide) would form the core of the theological revolution that would propel Protestantism on to be a transformational force in Western Christianity and in the world.

Today we as Southern Baptists believe and live in the doctrines passed down to us by those who took principled stands a half a millennium ago, individuals who considered scriptural truth to be of greater importance than their own lives and reputations. Their emphasis on Scripture as the ultimate source of truth led them to discern that salvation is the gracious work of God alone, and it is this understanding that we trust in and in which we find eternal assurance. We know that a salvation that is in any way one of our own making is a salvation that will forever be in doubt. A salvation, however, that is entirely a work of God’s grace stands forever.

EDITOR’S NOTE — Scott Guffin is executive director of Christian ministry for Samford University in Birmingham. He holds a bachelor of science degree in religion and philosophy from Samford and a master of divinity and doctor of philosophy degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.