Why the Reformation Still Matters

Why the Reformation Still Matters

Did Martin Luther Stand in Vain?

Here I Stand


On January 28, 1521 in the town of Worms in Germany, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V of Germany, convened a council or “diet” at the demand of Pope Leo X. The primary purpose was to examine the teachings of Martin Luther, the young monk and professor, from Wittenberg, Germany. Dr. Johann Eck, an assistant to the Archbishop of Trier who led the examination of Luther, demanded that Luther recant the beliefs and opinions published in his books. After a day to gather his thoughts, Luther flatly refused. For several days the council bombarded him with questions and badgered him in hopes that he would renounce his statements. Finally, on April 17, 1521, Luther made his position absolutely clear: “Your Imperial Majesty and Your Lordships demand a simple answer. Here it is, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am convicted [convinced] of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted [convinced] by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God's word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen. (Luther”s own recollection of his reply (there was no transcript) from “Martin Luther: Excerpts from his account of the confrontation at the Diet of Worms” [The translation is from H.C. Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church (1903), based on Luther's Opera Latina (Frankfurt, 1865-73] as in www-personal.ksu.edu accessed 8/1/11.

Chaos immediately broke out as Luther left the assembly. Then on April 26, Luther was ordered to leave the city and a few weeks later on May 25, 1521 the Emperor issued the Edict of Worms making Luther an outlaw: “For this reason we forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favor the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said Luther. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.” (Wikepedia “Diet of Worms” accessed 8/3/11)

The dye was now cast and the split from the Catholic Church was more or less cemented; there was no chance for resolution. Several events lead up to this watershed turn of events at Worms.

First and most famously is what has become known as the 95 Theses. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted 95 opinions on the door (a public bulletin board) of the Castle church where he ministered in Wittenberg. I vividly recall standing in front of the church doors in Wittenberg looking at the bronze replica of the Theses and trying to imagine the scene on the that fateful day. Luther’s main concern in issuing these statements was to condemn the unscriptural beliefs and corrupt practices of the Catholic Church. Luther was driven to this action because of the sale of indulgences by papal representatives in essence, soliciting money from people in return for promised forgiveness of sins. Sadly, this was a reflection of the works-righteousness teaching of the church. Johann Tetzel, a priest commissioned by the Pope, was raising money through the sale of indulgences in order to finance the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Wittenberg church members showed the pardons they had bought to Luther and claimed they no longer had to repent for their sins. By posting the theses, Luther intended that the sale of indulgences and other issues be debated at the university in Wittenberg where he taught. The 95 theses were not issued in order to spark a split from the Catholic Church. It has been rightly observed that, “He was not out to pick a fight or to have his own way; his purpose was to uphold the truth, for the cause of Christ.” (Educationalwriting.net accessed 8/3/11).

A second significant factor that contributed to the Worms edit was the widespread publication of the 95 theses in various languages. This coupled with the publication of Luther’s writings infuriated the papal authorities. They simply could not tolerate the popular tidal wave of support for Luther and his followers. This wide dissemination would not have been possible a few decades previously. However, a German, Johannes Guttenberg, had invented the printing press in about 1445. One might argue that this invention alone providentially made the Reformation possible. Consequently, Luther’s writings were being read throughout Europe. Luther understood the power of the Word. Thus, following his being branded as an outlaw at Worms, he spent 10 months in hiding at Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, Germany translating the Bible into German so the common man could read it. It reportedly took him 11 weeks to finish the New Testament! As I gazed at the desk where he did his work, I couldn’t help but wonder if he fully grasped the significance of what he was doing.

The third factor was the papal bull of excommunication. Luther was denounced as a heretic and banished from the church. Christian-history.org gives the following account. “… All of society was Roman Catholic in 1518, and Luther's living came from teaching in the monastery, the cathedral, and the university. He would lose his job, and he would have no means of getting another or doing business, for no one would be allowed to do business with him…”

So, “on June 15 or 16 of 1520, Pope Leo X officially excommunicated Martin Luther. He issued a papal bull expressly denying 41 topics from Luther's books, and it calls for all princes, magistrates, and citizens to seize Luther and his followers, turn them over to the pope, and burn all his writings. It gives Luther 60 days to repent and recant, and otherwise threatens him with being cut off from the church and punished as an obstinate heretic…”

“However this time, rather than leading to the burning of Martin Luther's writings, and perhaps his person, the bull itself was burned publicly by Martin Luther.

On December 10, 1520, he did exactly that. First he burned the bull itself, and then the papal decretals, a copy of canon law, and several writings of Eck. As he did so, he proclaimed, "As you have vexed the Holy One of the Lord, so may the eternal fire vex you!"

Shortly after, he wrote a public explanation called "Why the Books of the Pope and His Disciples Were Burned by Dr. Martin Luther." (from Christian-history.org accessed 8/4/11)

A number of years ago, I made my way to several locations in Germany in hopes of connecting actual personal experiences with some historical facts and faces of the great Protestant Reformation. I was not disappointed. The first was the town of Worms. As I stood on the spot where Luther is purported to have made his statement two observations crossed my mind. First, the spot did not glow as my Lutheran friends told me! Second, I wondered whether the average Christian had much appreciation for the depth of Luther’s convictions that led to this courageous act. It is easy to gloss over. It is easy to assign these events to ancient history. It is easy to forget that Martin Luther was standing for the truth no matter what the potential personal cost. Luther could not have been certain that because of rising public support for him among the German people and the protection of certain German princes, the Edict of Worms would not be enforced in Germany. However, in other countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands, some of Luther’s supporters who refused to recant were burnt at the stake.

I have since added a third question, Did Martin Luther stand in vain? Have Catholics and Protestants resolved their differences? Or better, has the Catholic Church changed its teachings so that the protests of the reformation have been satisfied. Or are we now saying it really didn’t and doesn’t matter? Was Martin Luther’s 95 theses and the resultant flame we call the Reformation much ado about nothing? Further, was the Reformation primarily an economic and political movement rather than a doctrinal or religious phenomenon? Or were the abuses and excesses of the Catholic Church the main problem? Many, perhaps a majority, answer yes. After all, “The Popes are no longer the worldly men which they were then. Indulgence-peddlers no longer hawk indulgences with extravagant claims and ditties. The people now have Bibles and are permitted to read them. Therefore, the Reformation no longer applies…” (prca.org/pamphlet by David Engelsma accessed 8/9/11).

Others answer “no” to these questions. I include myself among this latter group. “The Reformation proclaimed the truth over against the lie. It stood for the Word of God over against the words of man. It proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ over against "another gospel" which is no gospel. It sought the salvation of the people of God out of the stark awareness that they were being threatened with eternal damnation. The significance of the Reformation was that it sought the true church over against the false church, and Christ over against Antichrist.” (prca.org/pamphlet by David Engelsma accessed 8/9/11).

Here is the present reality: there are several Reformation era issues and truths clearly under siege in today’s church, both Catholic and Protestant. That’s why the Reformation still matters. These truths are still worth a stanch “here I stand”. Here are the key truths in question form.

Truths Worth Standing For


What is the authority for faith and practice? I understand this was unpacked for you on Reformation Sunday two years ago. From where do we derive our beliefs and our practices? The Reformation answer was that the Scriptures are the sole authority. Entire groups, including the Catholic Church, continue to elevate church tradition or the opinions of certain men to the level of or above the Scriptures. In my view this is the bedrock issue. Mess up here and everything else crumbles.

Luther was protesting other matters such as the legitimacy of the papacy, teachings regarding Mary, and how a person is justified before God. But the core issue was a question of authority. Is the Bible alone the criterion for truth or do church tradition and teaching and the Pope carry equal authority?

How are a person’s sins forgiven? Or to put it in different terms, how can a person become righteous before the holy God? This is the very core of the gospel itself. I don’t know of a more important and personal debate! The Bible clearly teaches that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. NAU Galatians 2:16 nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.

The Bible’s answer to how a man is saved is sovereign grace through faith in Christ’s substitutionary death alone. On the other hand, payment for forgiveness of sins through the sale of indulgences was the Catholic Church’s answer to this critical question. This was an outgrowth of the larger teaching that man must contribute to his salvation by performing good works which would be added to Christ’s works (contrast with the work of Christ alone). This is a blatant denial of the gospel itself. NAU Romans 3:28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

And yet, how a person is forgiven of sins, shielded from the wrath of the holy God, reconciled with that same God, and made a citizen heaven rather than hell is still debated.

Did Christ actually and finally pay for our sins? The Reformation reiterated the truth that Christ accomplished everything that was necessary for the salvation of his people. “This truth cleared the decks in many ways. It demolished the fiction of purgatory. It exposed the basic error of the mass, which by its repeated sacrifice of Christ for sins denied the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross. And it set good works in a new, radically different light. They are not our payment or our earning. But they are deeds of thankfulness on the part of men who are thankful for gracious salvation.” (prca.org/pamphlet by David Engelsma accessed 8/9/11 )

  • Does man possess a free will? The church taught that men had had the capacity to do the good works that were necessary to salvation under the Catholic scheme (previous section). This was paired with a denial of the Biblical teaching of original sin. So, Luther was soon involved in a debate over this issue and published “On the Bondage of the Will,” a book wherein he denied that man had a free will and argued that he was ruined by the fall and was totally unable to do any spiritual good. He could not choose God. Of course, this biblical teaching is devastating to the Catholic teaching that man could do the very works the Church taught to be necessary to salvation.

“These truths are… as relevant today as then…. Justification by faith alone on the authority of Scripture as God's inspired Word is the gospel. The gospel does not change from age to age; it is never surpassed; it never will become out-dated…. This is how we must view the relationship between the Reformation of the church in 1517 and our time. This is how we must understand the application of that Reformation to ourselves. The truths it set forth, we are to hold and hold dear today, for they were the truths of God's Word… The Reformation is no historical curiosity which we only admire, but a living, on-going reality, because of the gospel of grace it preached.” (prca.org/pamphlet by David Engelsma accessed 8/9/11)

Observations and Lessons


The Catholic Church still teaches a works righteousness. “…The Reformation was not about nice Popes and bad Popes, not about meat or fish on certain days…. It was about salvation by God's grace in Jesus Christ alone! It was about Scripture, the only authority in the church and over the church! On these issues, Rome is unchanged.... It is Rome's own confession in "The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent" that justification and salvation depend also upon man's works and merits, and that they are anathema who preach justification by faith only. The Second Vatican Council of 1963-1965 reiterated Rome's doctrine that, in addition to Scripture, tradition is authoritative in the church ("Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation"). In the same "Constitution," this Council stated that "The task of authentically interpreting the word of God…has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church," that is, to the Pope….” (prca.org/pamphlet by David Engelsma accessed 8/9/11)


Indulgences are still doing a brisk business today. I stood with several others outside a cathedral in Rome where the lettering above the door proclaimed that anyone who entered the doors when opened for special occasions would receive a 1000 year reduction in Purgatory time. I am reminded of Luther’s 32nd thesis "Those who believe that through letters of pardon they are made sure of their own salvation will be eternally damned along with their teachers."


In general, modern Protestantism denies the gospel of grace alone and denies the inspiration of Scripture.  “This large part of Protestantism is worse off than the Pre-Reformation Church. There is worse ignorance, worse superstition, worse immorality…” (prca.org/pamphlet by David Engelsma accessed 8/9/11).

Thus, the need for reformation still exists. In light of the current state of both the Catholic Church and Protestant churches, we might be worse off than we were 500 years ago! We must be reformed and reforming. Unfortunately, “The dean of American church historians, Mark Noll, has recently published a book with a rather provocative title, Is The Reformation Over? Noll and coauthor Carolyn Nystrom offer an answer that will be hotly debated. They say, yes, the Reformation is over. This book represents one particular viewpoint that stretches back to another hotly debated document entitled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (Nichols p 20).

The gospel is still at the core of Christian truth. Five mottos were developed as an outgrowth of the protests and the passion to return to biblical belief and practice. These Latin mottos are called the five “solas.”

  • Sola Gratia, meaning “Grace alone.” Salvation is a product of grace without any consideration of good works or personal merit.
  • Sola Fide, meaning “Faith alone.” Justification is by faith alone plus nothing, and such saving faith is the gift of God.
  • Solus Christus, meaning “Christ alone.” Salvation comes exclusively through the person and work of Christ.
  • Sola Scriptura, meaning “Scripture alone.” The Bible is the sole authority for faith and practice. It is the sufficient and inspired Word of God.
  • Soli Deo Gloria, meaning “To God alone be glory.” All creation exists for God’s glory. God and God alone is worthy of glory and honor.

Note that the first three as I have listed them deal directly with salvation! By all accounts Luther often declared, “The church’s true treasure is the gospel.” (Stephen Nichols in “The Reformation: how a monk and a mallet changed the world”, Crossway Books, Wheaton, 2007 p 17)

Reformation truth is personal. “The Reformation concerned the individual in a most direct and practical way…it had to do with the question each asks for himself: How am I righteous before God, now and in the Great Judgment? As Luther put it, everyone stands on his own two feet here…. Who can say, "The Reformation does not concern me"? Of all miserable man's questions, the question, "How can I be righteous?" is the most pressing….”

Beware of your own capacity to commit the same evil you protest in others. It is well known that both Luther and Calvin stood by and did nothing or actually authorized the persecution of those with whom they disagreed. They took a page from the Pope’s playbook! On October 27, 1553 John Calvin had Michael Servetus unjustly burned at the stake for doctrinal heresy (www.knol.google/k/servetus-calvin# accessed 8/17/11). Luther is widely known to have actively advocated the persecution and even death of Anabaptists and Jews (www.wayof life.org accessed 8/17/11). This is of piece with those who came to America to seek religious freedom and then banished the Baptists!


Final Thought


How do I appropriately sum up this brief sketch of our need to stand for the gospel as did Luther and the reformers? If the Reformation should still matter to us what must our passion look like? Perhaps the following prayer captures it:

“Almighty God, who through the preaching of thy servants, the blessed reformers, hast caused the light of the Gospel to shine forth: Grant, we beseech you, that knowing its saving power, we may faithfully guard and defend it against all enemies, and joyfully proclaim it, to the salvation of souls and the glory of your Holy Name; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.” Prayer for Reformation Day, Lutheran Service Book & Hymnal as cited by Stephen Nichols in “The Reformation: how a monk and a mallet changed the world”, Crossway Books, Wheaton, 2007 p 1.

© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2016. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.