The Protestant Reformation was a movement in 16th-century Europe that began as an attempt to reform the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. When it became apparent that reforming the Church was impossible, the Reformers separated from Roman Catholicism. The result was more of a revolution than a reformation. In time, from these reforming efforts, religious groups such as Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and many others originated.
The beginning of the Reformation is traced to Oct. 31, 1517. Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic monk, posted 95 theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg in what is now part of the German Republic. This practice was the common method of inviting discussion on the stated topics. Luther merely was calling for much-needed reforms within the church that he dearly loved.
Unwittingly, this act catapulted Luther into the international spotlight and began the Protestant Reformation. Ultimately, the Reformation restored to prominence many doctrines that had been obscured in the previous centuries, such as justification by faith alone and Scripture as the supreme authority for the Church.
At the time of the Reformation, the Church had not defined the nature of justification. One of Luther’s theology professors even taught that God justifies those who help themselves. This thought greatly troubled Luther, who believed he never could become good enough for God to then “pick up the slack.” Luther was particularly troubled at the biblical depiction of God’s righteousness in Romans 1:17: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed.” Luther wondered how God being righteous could possibly be good news for sinners.
In an attempt to prove himself of justification, Luther devoted himself to study, prayer, the use of the sacraments, and prolonged periods of prayer, fasting, and confession. After several years of intense struggle, he found relief while reading, in Romans 1:17, that there is “a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.” Luther rejoiced in his discovery that God not only demands righteousness, but also provides righteousness in Christ — and that it is completely by faith. Justification by faith alone (sola fide) became a hallmark of the Reformation.
Luther soon realized that the Church’s fundamental problem was the acceptance of other sources as having equal authority as Holy Scripture. In 1518 and 1519, Luther had debates with Church officials in which he asserted that both the pope and official Church councils had sometimes erred, and that “Scripture alone is the ultimate authority in all matters pertaining to religion.” This principle is called sola scriptura, and it means that Scripture “contains all of the Divine words needed for salvation, for trusting God perfectly, and obeying Him completely.”
Sola scriptura assures believers today that everything God wants to tell us is found in Scripture and that no other writings are of equal value as Scripture for our faith and practice. This principle instructs us that all areas of human thought and life must bow to the Word of God.
Contemporary theologian J.I. Packer observes that the idea that the Word of God alone must rule and no Christian dare do other than allow it to enthrone itself in his conscience and heart was “the essential motivation and concern of the entire Reformation.” As Luther and other Christian scholars focused their attention on the Bible alone, bypassing hundreds of years of tradition, they rediscovered the beliefs and practices of the New Testament church and sought to reform their churches on that model.
If truths such as sola scriptura and sola fide seem commonplace to us today, it is because we stand on the shoulders of spiritual giants — these Reformers — whose hearts were captive to the Word of God.
— Walter Johnson is dean of the College of Christian Studies and professor of philosophy and Christian studies at North Greenville University.