10 Facts You Need to Know about the Reformation (Rumors and Legends Dispelled)
1. Martin Luther was concerned with reform, not breaking away from Rome.
October 31, 1517, is the day Protestants celebrate each year as “Reformation Day.” Yet, when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, he did not consider himself a Protestant, but rather a Roman Catholic seeking conversation and reform concerning the abusive selling of indulgences.
2. The Reformation was traditional.
Luther hoped Rome would agree with the 95 Theses, repent for the selling and commercialization of grace (indulgences), and make correction. As Luther wrote in Thesis 62, “The true treasure of the church is the most holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God,” which had traditionally been held by the church as indisputable.
3. At the heart of the Reformation was the belief that the Word alone is authoritative.
In 1518, the pope declared Luther’s theses in conflict with the teaching of the church—why? In part because of the content concerning indulgences and the church’s treasury of merit, but also because the theses were seen as questioning the Pope’s authority. Was the Pope authoritative alongside the Word of God, or was Scripture the sole authority over the tradition of the church? Luther chose to stand on the sole authority of the Word of God, and for this he was eventually excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Leo X and outlawed as a heretic by Charles V at the Diet of Worms (1521).
4. The Reformation was not individualistic, nor was it the achievement of one man.
Even at the Diet of Worms, Luther’s hope was not separation from Rome, but repentance. Luther argued that Rome had broken from the historic and traditional beliefs held by the church. In this, Luther did not stand alone but on the shoulders of believers who came before him in the history of the church who proclaimed the same truths of the gospel—that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Likewise, the Reformation was not Luther’s personal achievement but rather the product of the Word. As Luther said, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”
5. The Reformation was the product of the word preached, taught, read—and sung!
Ever hear the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God?” It’s one of Luther’s most popular hymns today, based on Psalm 46 and written in German instead of Latin, which was the language of the Roman church. Writing hymns in the language of the people gave worship back to the people so they could lift their voices in song and praise. The Reformation was a reformation of worship—and was literally sung into being! If you sing today in your churches, rather than simply hearing polyphonic Latin, you have the Reformation to thank.
6. Luther claimed the “cloaca” was the site of his Reformation discovery.
That’s right, the toilet. “The Spiritus Sanctus gave me this realization in the cloaca,” Luther declared. While historians debate the accuracy of this fact, pointing to several stages of breakthrough in Luther’s life rather than one ultimate breakthrough, we should not miss Luther’s point. Even for us today, but especially in medieval times, the cloaca is a place of filth, degradation, and fleshly humiliation. Luther associated it with the devil. Yet here, into the filth of sin, Christ came, taking on man’s flesh, and thus there is no place unholy for his presence. It is in the darkest, lowest, and most degrading places that Christ is present and powerful. Yet, the devil cannot become flesh, and thus even the cloaca reveals his powerlessness. Only Christ is victorious over sin and darkness.
7. Luther taught us to “sin boldy”—or did he?
This may not mean what you think. In a letter to Melanchthon, Luther wrote,
If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.
In other words, Luther taught us to be bold when we confess our sins to God, for Christ’s sacrifice is greater than our sin, and made only for sinners.
8. The doctrine of justification was central to the Reformation.
Rome prioritized sanctification and taught that justification comes through sanctification, making the two indistinguishable. This conception of soteriology can be seen particularly in the Roman Catholic view that salvation is by both grace and cooperation with grace. Only with both is salvation possible. By contrast, the Reformers stated that salvation is by grace alone, and thus it is an alien righteousness—Christ’s righteousness alone imputed to us, declaring us justified once and for all in the sight of God. Christ lived and died for his people, his sacrifice sufficient to atone for our sins, his righteousness now our righteousness. In this, salvation is not merely possible, but actual; the work we could not do was finished already by Christ and given freely to us. This doctrine of justification has been called by many (including Luther) the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls.
9. The Reformation teaches us to look outward, rather than inward, for truth.
Rome was all about looking inward. But if justification is by an alien righteousness—that is, extra nos—our salvation does not come from within ourselves, but from without—from God. Do you want to know what is true about yourself, dear Christian? Look outward—look to Christ. Christ is the truest picture of your identity, and his righteousness is what God sees every time he looks at you. Luther himself would not even trust his own conscience but looked outward to the “alien Word,” the gospel preached to him from outside.
10. The Reformation was a reformation of prayer.
You are probably familiar with the quote attributed to Luther in which he says, “I have so much to do today that I shall spend three hours in prayer to get it all done.” While it is debated whether Luther really said this, he certainly exhibited it, and he helped many others learn to pray by pointing them to the Lord’s Prayer. As in everything else, the Word of God was the authority for how to pray. The whole point of the Reformation was that humans cannot save themselves, but must depend entirely upon God for deliverance. The Reformers exhibited this dependence on God in their prayer lives where they sought the Lord through his Word for daily help.