Most major events in history were ignited by a single act... things you can actually point to in time and space. World War II began in 1939 when German tanks rolled over the border into Poland. The Montgomery bus boycott was ignited in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the way home on the bus. The Protestant Reformation began on October 31, 1517 (500 years ago this Halloween) when a Catholic monk named Martin Luther tacked the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Castle church’s door...
Excuse me, who are you?
Me? I’m Martin Luther.
And pray tell, what are you doing?
Oh, I’m just nailing this poster onto the church door.
‘Just’ nailing a poster on the church door? Have you never heard of a bulletin board?
Ugggh... never mind. Well, it better be important whatever you’re nailing up.
Oh, it’s really important!
So, what’s it about - a church pot luck?
No... more important than that.
Are you starting a new Sunday school class?
I give up; what are you posting?
It’s the 95 theses.
The 95 Thesis? What’s that?
These are 95 theological issues I would like to debate with the Church!
So, you have a beef with the Church?
I have 95 beefs with the Church.
What sort of issues? List one:
# 31 “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.”
Whoa! So, you don’t believe that a letter of indulgence from the Pope has any power to forgive sins and save a person, huh? In fact, you think it probably will have the opposite affect!
Because only God can forgive sins!
What about the Pope?
He can only pardon transgressions to church laws – not God’s commandments!
Hmmm... so where’s our hope for salvation? People want to know!
#62 “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God”.
Salvation by the grace of God... sounds biblical Mr. Luther. So, the Word of God is above the word of the Pope?
Most certainly! #79 “To say that the cross emblazoned with the papal coat of arms, and set up by the indulgence preachers is equal in worth to the cross of Christ is blasphemy!”
Well, you certainly have some strong objections here, Martin Luther. But tacking them on this church door isn’t going to get them in the Pope’s hands, you know.
I know. But if I can create some buzz among the people, perhaps they’ll set up a debate with me!
I don’t know Martin – if you cross swords with the Pope you could end up excommunicated... and even dead!
Here I stand... I can do no other!
Luther was a relatively unknown priest serving in a less prominent church at the time. Who would have guessed he’d become the leader of the Protestant Reformation? But he did – because he had the courage of his convictions. He was willing to publicly question the actions of the church and critique it considering scripture. He questioned the practice of selling indulgences - a piece of paper with the Pope’s seal upon it, that granted forgiveness for sins committed and guaranteed personal salvation. The church was using the sale of indulgences to raise money to build the Vatican and fill it with expensive artwork.
Luther was the right person for the job because he’d experienced his own personal struggle with justification. As a monk, he tried everything he could think of to feel worthy before God but nothing worked - not scrubbing floors or other heavy manual labor – not hours of prayer – not even regular trips to the confession booth. Finally, Luther happened upon the book of Galatians and his eyes were opened to the truth that we are saved not by works, but through faith. “Just as Abraham believed and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, so you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham.”
Righteousness is a result of faith, not works.
So, the scriptures led Luther into the light of God’s peace... but then he heard about pieces of paper that the Church was peddling to offer people that same sense of peace. Luther was furious over this, saw it as a money grab and he challenged the practice.
His rebuke likely would have been ignored by the Church (since he lacked a platform and prominence), except that the printing press had just been invented, and someone tore down the 95 theses and copied them all over Germany! With such grand circulation, the Church could not ignore Luther, so a debate was held. Luther argued he was right because scripture said so - John Eck, Church representative argued he was right because the Pope said so. So, one appealed to the authority of scripture and the other the authority of the Pope and the longstanding tradition of the church. Ultimately, Luther was condemned for blasphemy but was never brought to trial because he went into hiding for a year (under the protection of Frederick the Wise – a German prince). During that time, Luther translated the Bible into the German language so people could read it themselves.
Now there was a second Reformer who also showed great courage of faith during the Reformation. John Calvin was slightly younger than Luther and was a student of his writings. In 1533, Calvin was converted rather suddenly to the Protestant point of view. This put him at odds with the King of France, Frances 1, who thought Protestants were heretical and sought to blot them out. This prompted Calvin to sit down and write the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536 in hopes of convincing the King of the merits of Protestantism... perhaps even convert him!
Calvin: AHEM (several times, as if trying to get the preacher to stop speaking)
Well, I would be writing the Institutes – if someone would stop talking!
Bill: Oh – excuse me. And who are you?
Calvin: Why, I’m John Calvin, of course. The man you’ve been speaking about? And I am currently working on a draft of my theological work: The Institutes of Christian Religion to send to King Francis the First of France. The Catholic priests who oppose me and my fellow reformers are trying to associate us with the Anabaptists! You know – those radical “don’t baptize your baby” folks?
Bill: Nodding Yes, yes, I’ve heard of them. You and the other reformers in France were called the Huguenots, correct?
Calvin: surprised So they are teaching a thing or two at Seminary!
Bill: (Offended) Uh, yeah.
Calvin: Anyway – I am addressing this book to King Francis so that he’ll hear us Protestants out rather than persecute us! I just know it’s going to work. (Back to writing)
Bill: (to Congregation) Well, it didn’t work... but it was very popular among the reformers. Calvin’s first draft, written in 1536, was six chapters long –
Calvin: (interrupting) Six chapters about the basics of the Christian Faith! From the knowledge of God to a chapter about Christian liberty and political theology!
Bill: Calvin added to it over the next few years, expanding it to seventeen chapters!
Calvin: (Confused) I did?
Bill: Yes! And before Calvin died it grew to four separate books with 80 combined chapters!
Calvin: (More confused) Before I died? Wait – when do I die? No – never mind! God has already preordained my death and that’s all I need to know.
Bill: Predestination! A theological concept about election that separated Protestants from Catholics.
Calvin: Precisely – all events have been preordained by God, including your salvation and damnation! It’s only up to God if you’re saved or damned.
Bill: We use more politically correct language than that now Calvin.
Calvin: Oh, ahem, excuse me – salvation and condemnation? Is that better?
Bill: Yes, thank you.
Calvin: You’re welcome. But what important is God’s sovereignty - a big point about the reformation! Our salvation is because of God, there’s nothing we can do to earn that for ourselves, or for other people! God’s grace is freely given to us and it is revealed to us through the gospel of Jesus Christ!
Bill: Right – which is a lot like Luther and very much against the indulgences of the Roman Catholic Church.
Calvin: Don’t get me started on that pay to win salvation Ponzi scheme! (Scoffs) Micro transactions for the soul! That’s not how it works! Anyway, I’ve got to get this in the mail to Francis and then I’m off to my meet with William Farel – another French reformer who has invited me to stay in Geneva. I’ll see you later!
Bill: Bye, Calvin! Don’t forget to write! (chuckles)
Calvin’s writings couldn’t sway the King, but they did become the theological foundation for the Protestant movement. One person who read them was William Farel of Switzerland. He was able to convince Calvin to come to Geneva and help transform it into a bastion of Protestantism. Geneva was the Protestant answer to Rome. Elders were ordained with geographical districts; Calvin’s theology was put into practice... strictly!
One of the students of Calvin while in Geneva was John Knox of Scotland. He used Calvin’s theology and practices to set up the Church of Scotland. In 1560, Presbyterianism became the official religion of Scotland and a new confession of faith - the Scot’s Confession – was adopted.
The Protestant Reformation was a chaotic time in the life of the church and because of it some of the divisions that resulted have yet to heal completely. But much good resulted from it, too. The open Bible on our communion table is a symbol of one of the greatest things that came from the reformation... namely the accessibility of God’s Word to all. Until Luther translated the Bible from Latin into the tongue of the common person, only clergy and the most educated of people could read it for themselves. And Luther also introduced congregational singing into worship – he borrowed popular tunes of the day and changed the lyrics so that they were hymns of praise. So, the people sang.
And Calvin helped revive the importance of the sermon in worship – something that had diminished in importance because of the importance of the sacrament. Some churches didn’t even have a sermon. And he also gave us a new form of church government where elders ruled instead of priests and bishops.
But perhaps the greatest legacy that the Reformers gave us is the notion that we need be continually open to reform. Change in the church is a good thing - it’s proof that the Spirit continues to speak to us and lead us to a deeper understanding of God and God’s ways. So, the PCUSA’s motto is “The Church Reformed and Always Reforming.” No, we have not arrived at perfection... we are still growing into God and finding our way but we believe by the grace of God we become the body of Christ and we believe by the grace of God we are the body by which Christ continues to bless his earthly ministry.
So, we dare to preach the truth into this lost world of ours and call people to Christ. Ours is a message of great hope in a despondent time...for “With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”