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Of whom does Reformation remind you: Thomas Beza? Ulrich Zwingli? James Arminius? John Calvin? Probably all the above. The “Father of the Reformation,” Martin Luther, named after St. Martin of Tours, was very inquisitive and wanted to learn from the sages such as Aristotle, Plato, and Gabriel Biel. But two men who became his tutors (Bartholomaus Arnoldi von Usingen and Jodocus Trutfetter) taught Luther to be wary of even the great thinkers of the ages. Therefore philosophy and “reason” became a headache for Luther, for they could not give him the satisfaction in life he desired. Luther wanted to know about God, and human-kind’s greatest thinkers could tell him only of man.
Becoming an Augustinian Monk, Luther dedicated himself to God in the best way he understood: fasting, long hours of prayer, pilgrimages, confessions. Oh, so many confessions! But he remained empty within. His superior, noting Luther’s personal dissatisfaction, suggested that he study law, and in 1507 he was ordained into the priesthood and assigned to the University of Whittenberg to teach theology.
Things didn’t get much better for this unfulfilled priest/theologian/lawyer, and he continued to question whatever seemed to be a man-made doctrine or rule. No church doctrine was safe from Luther’s critical eye if he thought it was not supported by the Bible. Therefore, he rejected the Roman Catholic Church’s position that man cannot be justified by faith alone and that justification must be supplemented by good works, charity, etc.
Already questioning the concept of selling “indulgences” (buying forgiveness from the Church rather than repenting and asking for God’s forgiveness), Luther was greatly agitated when the Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel, went to Germany to sell indulgences in order to raise money to build St. Peter’s Basilica. These indulgences might have been the catalyst that prompted Luther, in 1517, to write and nail his “95 Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Whittenberg.
Luther did not want to break with the Catholic Church; rather he wanted to reform it from within as pointedly verified in his 86th thesis: “Why does not the Pope, whose wealth is today greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?” This caused great anxiety on the part of the Pope and the College of Cardinals. But Martin Luther’s desire was to know God, and to spend his life helping others know Him. The church-stuff could fall by the wayside because he knew that God should be the center of life, not man’s ideas.
Reformed theologian Charles Spurgeon said it this way: “I cannot know Jesus through another person’s acquaintance with Him. I must know Him myself; I must know Him on my own account. It will be an intelligent knowledge. I must know Him, not as the visionary dreams of Him, but as the Word [Bible] reveals Him. I must know His nature: divine and human. I must know His offices, His attributes, His works, His shame – His glory.”
Martin Luther’s battle cry was “Sola Scriptura!” (Only Scripture!), and Ephesians 2:8-9 “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” This verse negates the idea that human endeavors are needed to help secure salvation.
To the end, Luther wanted the Church to return to the Bible as the foundation for faith, life, and our relationship with Jesus Christ. In his dedication to Christ, and wanting the populace to be able to read the Bible for themselves, Luther translated the Bible into German. This also incensed the Church. Finally, in 1520 the Church, not willing to change its traditions nor able to change Luther, excommunicated him.
But now the Church exit door was unlocked, and many discovered a new-found freedom in worship. Others caught the vision. Christian Revival spread throughout Europe like wildfire. The Pilgrims brought Reformed Christianity to the Americas.
In the process of overcoming new and inherited problems (from the Mother Church), people began to develop their pent-up thoughts, beliefs, and convictions which eventually gave rise to the plethora of “Protestant” denominations.
Editor’s Note: Reformation Day is held Oct. 31.