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How did the Reformation change the Church?

Five ways the Reformation changed not just the Church, but the world.  By Mark Woods


Martin Luther31 October 1517 – the day the Reformation began. According to some, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church in defiance of the Pope, and the rest is history.


Well, perhaps. Actually it’s not entirely clear that he did it himself rather than sending a servant. It was a perfectly normal way of communicating – a bit like blogging. Even worse, many scholars now believe it may never have happened at all. And it took a little while before the implications of the 95 short statements – about how the Pope couldn’t forgive sins through granting indulgences – really sank in.

Furthermore, Luther wasn’t the first or the only Reformer. Still, 31 October is as good a date as any to mark the beginning of a movement that changed not just the Church but the world. This is how it happened. 

1. It gave us the Bible.

The Reformers believed in going back to the scriptures. While the Catholic Church set store by tradition, the Reformers believed in going back to the source. So, their scholars and pastors read the Bible intensively, and as printing and literacy spread they encouraged their people to do so too.

They preached from the Bible and wanted everyone to understand it, so they translated it; the Catholic Church believed the Bible was dangerous in untrained hands.

Evangelicals’ love of scripture comes straight from the Reformation, because the Reformers taught that scripture alone was authoritative. Hence the famous words of William Tyndale, strangled and burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English: “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many yeares I will cause a boy that drives the plough to know more of the scripture than he does.”

2. It gave us spiritual freedom.

Luther’s key insight was that salvation was by faith alone. He wasn’t the first or the only one to realise that, but because he was a brilliant writer, speaker and publicist, his books and pamphlets spread very quickly. It’s not up to the Pope or his ministers to forgive sins, he said – we trust God and we are saved.

In the Church of the day, forgiveness was obtained through doing penance – acts of charity, prayers, or self-punishment that were supposed to reinforce an inward repentance and were inseparable from it.

Luther used to torment himself – and irritate his confessor – because he thought he hadn’t done enough penance to be saved. But then he realised that salvation wasn’t about what we do, but about what Christ has done.

This was radical because it cut out the middle man. Anyone, without the intervention of a priest, could repent and be saved. It was also threatening to the authorities: the sale of indulgences – effectively tickets to heaven – was an industry bringing in huge revenues to the Church. Luther was hitting the Pope in his pocket.

3. It gave us religious freedom.

Which is not quite the same thing. Before the Reformation, the Church was in charge of spirituality. The Catholic Church, which controlled religion in the West, defined right and wrong theology. It exercised political power through Catholic rulers who all acknowledged – grudgingly, in quite a few cases – that the Pope had some kind of authority over them. After the Reformation, that changed, though it took a while – many Protestant countries were just as intolerant as Catholic ones. Real freedom of religion was a long way off and in the beginning only the strange Anabaptists taught it – but the Catholic Church’s monopoly was broken.

That led to a flowering of theology not just among Protestants, but among Catholics too. They had to think about why they believed what they believed, and to be able to defend it – so the quality of debate jumped all round. It was the beginning of a free market in religion, and everyone had to try to improve their product.

4. It gave us democracy.

The Reformation began as a protest against authority. Luther was deeply opposed to violent rebellion and wrote a truly horrible pamphlet urging rulers to put down a peasants’ revolt with fire and sword. But others were perfectly prepared to resist unjust authority. They read in the Bible about God’s judgment on wicked kings and were willing to take up arms against them.

It didn’t always end well – Zwingli died at Kappel in a battle against Catholic forces, and several others came to sticky ends. Many Continental Protestant countries had absolute and authoritarian monarchies even so, but in England it was the children of the Reformation who chopped King Charles’s head off and gave Britain a true parliament.

Recognising the importance of the individual’s conscience was a step on the way to recognising the importance of the individual’s rights. As the Leveller Thomas Rainsborough said at the famous Putney Debates in 1647: ‘I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.’

5. It gave us fresh temptations.

The Reformation was a wonderful gift from God in which precious truths that had been hidden for generations were discovered and shared with the world. But it also meant the destruction of the old systems of authority. Everyone could read the Bible and interpret it for themselves, so Protestantism was – and is – vulnerable to new heresies growing up.

And human nature is inherently sinful, so the Reformers themselves, and the movements they inspired, were flawed too. Luther wrote anti-semitic tracts; Zwingli had the great Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier racked to get him to change his mind about baptism; Calvin demanded the death of Michael Servetus for denying the Trinity (though, to be fair, he wanted him beheaded rather than burned, his actual fate).

We should rejoice in the Reformation and praise God for the reformers – but we should acknowledge where they went wrong, too.


Image | Martin Luther | Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mark Woods is a Baptist minister and managing editor of Christian Today. This article first appeared in Idea, the magazine of the Evangelical Alliance, and is republished with permission

Baptist Times, 20/10/2017
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