How one man’s understanding, convictions led to worldwide reform

By Rob Jackson
Special to The Alabama Baptist

On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Castle Church door. Luther’s desire was not to break from the Roman Church, yet God used this priest and theologian to set in motion an unstoppable movement in Christianity. His understanding of a gracious God who justifies by faith alone and is revealed in Scripture alone opened the door for the Reformation and birthed Protestantism.

In reality the time was ripe for a Reformation. Europe experienced much death and anxiety during the 15th and 16th centuries. The aftermath of the bubonic plague, which wiped out almost one-third of the European population, was heavy on their hearts. This period was an age of death, anxiety and guilt. It also was a time of corruption in the Church. Without access to the Scriptures, many people were confused and sought to appease God through good works, penance, flagellation, purchasing of relics and so forth. Luther, as a young monk, struggled with this very problem of guilt. He sought to please God, to satisfy God. But how? At times, he would fast until his body was emaciated. In the cold German winter, he would sleep on the stone floor of the monastery without any covering, shaking from the cold. He would confess sin after sin to his superiors. Still, the nagging question remained: “Have I done enough to satisfy God?”

Righteous live by faith

Everything changed when God spoke to Luther as he studied the Scriptures. In particular, the reading of Romans 1 cleared up his confusion and obsessive guilt. It was as if a light went off as he read, “The righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, the righteous shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17). Luther understood justification is by faith alone apart from any merits or works. This insight forever altered his theology. Luther’s eyes were opened, and his heart was enlightened: “I felt as if I had been born again.” He acknowledged that Scripture is the supreme authority in all spiritual matters, a principle known as Sola Scriptura — by Scripture alone.

Teachings askew

Sola Scriptura, although embraced by Augustine and the early Church, was not taught by the Church. Without the foundational role of Scripture, many aspects of the Church’s teachings were askew. For example, salvation was seen as from and through the Church with an emphasis on works and merits. Curialism, the teaching that the supreme authority was in the hands of the papacy, was not to be challenged. With this enormous amount of power, some popes sold government and Church positions, promoted their illegitimate children to high positions in the Church and increased in power and wealth.

The masses of people, many who were uneducated, were taught that they needed to keep the Church and their priest happy in order to stay on good terms with God. A poor peasant family, seeking the favor of God, would need to pay for their marriage to be blessed, pay to have their child baptized (so the child would not go to hell if he or she died), pay for blessings on crops, pay to be buried, pay for indulgences and so forth. In fact, private penance for a fee became a part of the sacramental system. Indulgences were sold with the promise that people suffering in purgatory could be set free. Many people believed they could buy an indulgence to receive forgiveness of sins or even purchase their salvation. Luther considered these practices non-biblical nonsense. Johann Tetzel was one friar that especially incensed Luther with his “hawking” indulgences. Tetzel is reported to have preached, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” Luther, especially enraged with the fallacy of indulgences, formally stated his case by posting the 95 Theses.

In essence, without the authority of Scripture, gullible people would believe any teaching or tradition regardless of its lack of biblical support. Take note — Luther didn’t seek to jettison all traditions. Instead, he wanted to elevate Scripture back to its rightful place as the ultimate authority given to the Church and Christian community. Human traditions, according to Luther, must be judged against Scripture and not vice versa. Luther argued, in “Avoiding the Doctrine of Men,” that to base the authority of the gospel on the traditions of the Church is “false and un-Christian.” Just as heaven is higher than the earth, Luther stated, so are Scriptures higher than traditions. When traditions or doctrines of men contradict Scripture, the traditions are always wrong; “the one must lie and the other be true.” In “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” Luther remarked, “What is asserted without the Scriptures or proven revelation may be held as an opinion, but need not be believed.” Luther explained that Scripture alone is the sole authority — “let this be enough,” he remarked.

In 1521, Luther appeared before the Emperor at the Diet of Worms and was ordered to recant what he had written. Luther’s offense was in defying the pope and the Church by questioning their right to sell indulgences. Furthermore, he was challenging the authority of the pope by demanding all dogmas and doctrines be accountable to the teachings of Scripture. Luther replied to the demand to rescind, “I cannot and will not recant. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.” There was no turning back. Luther was risking his life on the sufficiency of God’s revelation in Scripture alone. He was, in essence, “standing on the promises of God.”

Luther’s stance helped restore the principle of Sola Scriptura in the mind of the faith community. Translations of the Bible in the common language coupled with the advent of the printing press spread the truth far and wide. Luther began to see the realization of his dream of everyone having access to Scriptures from “the farm boy at his plow, the milkmaid at her pail, as well as the learned clerics and scholars in the university.” Luther, promoting the authority of Scripture in the power of the Holy Spirit, began a monumental awakening which placed the supremacy of the Bible squarely in the middle of this Reformation.

Birth of Protestantism

The Reformation changed the Church and ushered in Protestantism. As we reflect on this watershed moment in the life of the Church, we must ask ourselves the role the Scriptures play in our lives. The Bible is readily available; many of us have multiple copies in our homes. How seriously do we take the Word of God? Do we study it daily? Do we memorize it? Do we share it with others? Are we willing to risk everything, even our lives on the truthfulness of Sola Scriptura? Perhaps we need a renewal in our passion and zeal for the sufficiency of Scripture. Perhaps, like Luther, we need to risk our all as we too cry out, “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.” Sola Scriptura and the Reformation should remind us to get busy: “Standing on the promises that cannot fail / When the howling storms of doubt and fear assail / By the living Word of God I shall prevail / Standing on the promises of God.” May the truthfulness of our gracious God who justifies by faith alone and is revealed in Scripture alone, swing open the door for another revival and awakening in our land!

EDITOR’S NOTE — Rob Jackson is pastor of Central Baptist Church, Decatur. He holds a master of divinity degree and doctor of philosophy from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.