Last week marked the 500th year since the Protestant Reformation. The actions of an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther changed the world. Luther, a German, was incredibly devout in his faith and troubled by his own sin. Often in spiritual turmoil, he wrestled with how to please God. His frequent confession, fasting, long hours of prayer, going without sleep and intentionally enduring cold nights without a blanket did little to make him feel more worthy in God’s sight. Luther once said, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I.” Instead of bringing him peace, trying to work his way to God made this monk increasingly terrified of God’s wrath. “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.”
Luther later became a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg. During a study of the book of Romans he was struck by one particular verse: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” (Romans 1:17) “At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I … began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith… Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.”
At the time, the Roman Catholic Church was plagued by greed and corruption. Pope Leo X (Giovanni de’ Medici) had lavish taste and had drained the papal treasury. In order to fund the rebuilding of St. Peter’s basilica he allowed the sale of indulgences. Individuals were told that by buying these documents prepared by the church they could release themselves (eventually) or deceased loved ones from purgatory, which was considered a resting place before one was ready to enter heaven. A slogan at the time was “Once the coin in the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory heavenward springs.”
On All Saints’ Eve in 1517 Luther publicly objected to the selling of indulgences. He did not believe the Bible taught that we could buy our way to God. Luther posted his 95 Theses, or 95 points he intended to defend, on the Wittenberg Castle church door. The effects were rapid and immense; It was like a tide that could not be stopped. By early 1518 the 95 Theses had been reprinted in many cities and the history-shattering reform was underway.
Out of the Reformation came “five solas” or Latin phrases. Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) means that the Bible is the Christian’s highest authority. Sola Fide (faith alone) reflects the Bible’s teaching that we are saved through faith in Jesus Christ alone and Sola Gratia (grace alone) that we are saved only by the grace of God. Solus Christus (Christ alone) means that Jesus Christ alone is our Lord and Savior. Finally, Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone) says that we live only for the glory of God.
Luther translated the Scripture into German vernacular so that ordinary people could have it in their daily language as opposed to in Latin. He believed that Christians could have direct access to God, or the priesthood of all believers. Ephesians 2:8-9 is a perfect text for the Reformation’s focus on justification by faith. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”