Key Players in The Reformation
As we approach the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I decided to take a break from exegeting the hymns for a few weeks, so I could focus on some key players in the most momentous event in church history since the Apostles left the scene. Sadly, I have found that very few churches spend much time looking back at the lessons and leaders of the past, and wind up making some of their same mistakes. It is true that if we ignore the lessons of the past, we are doomed to repeat them. So many amazing men and women have stood for truth, battled heresy, spread the gospel, and lost their lives so that we can have the freedom to worship in truth today. Men like Athanasius, Augustine, Chrysostom, Wycliffe, Hus, Tyndale, Luther, Calvin, Knox, Owen, Bunyan, Edwards, Whitfield, Spurgeon, Packer, Sproul, MacArthur, etc. have spent their lives and ministries studying, preserving, and preaching the truth in God’s Word. We owe them a debt of gratitude.
The first leader of the Reformation I want to look at is Martin Luther. Luther as born in 1483 in Eisleben, Saxony. In accordance to the wishes of his father, Luther began to study law, but that was short-lived, for in July of 1505, he experienced the first of several events that changed his life forever. In the middle of a thunderstorm, a lightning bolt struck the ground just yards from where Luther was standing. In fear, he fell to the ground and cried “Save me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk!” Making good on his promise, Luther left the study of law and joined the order of St. Augustine.
The second event that changed Luther’s thinking in a dramatic way, took place in Rome. Luther was sent there in 1510 where he witnessed the corruption of the Roman Catholic church in shocking clarity. There, he climbed the “The Holy Stairs” which were said to be the same stairs Jesus climbed when He appeared before Pilate 1500 years earlier. The belief was that God would forgive some of the sins of those who climbed the stairs on their knees. Luther did so, repeating the Lord’s Prayer, kissing each step, and seeking peace with God. But when he reached the top step, he looked back and his thought was, “Who knows whether this is true?”
The third and final experience that led Martin Luther to that fateful day in October 1517 was the arrival of John Tetzel. Tetzel was a corrupt Dominican monk who offered the sale of indulgences. This was the practice where commoners could purchase from the church a letter that allegedly freed a dead loved one from purgatory. This enraged Luther and in an effort to start a conversation on the fraudulent practices of the Roman church, on October 31st, 1517, Luther nailed a copy of 95 grievances, or 95 Thesis to the “Church bulletin board” or castle church door, which was a common practice at the time. The 95 Thesis was not written in the common German language, but in Latin that most people could not read, but some of his students translated, copied, and distributed his writings and the rest, as they say, is history.
Around this time, Luther was obsessed with Romans 1:17, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, 'The righteous shall live by faith.'" Luther said, “… by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous, shall live.’ There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous, shall live.' Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 34, 337)
With this newfound understanding of Sola Fide, or salvation by faith alone and not faith plus works, Luther began to see the Word, AND the church in a new light. He attacked the papal authority itself, for he believed scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) was the final authority for the church. In the summer of 1520, the pope issued a “bull”, or edict, in which forty-one of Luther’s teachings were deemed to be heretical, scandalous, or false. Luther was called to repent and recant his writings at the “Diet of Worms”. His most famous words were spoken in answer to the charges, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”
These words became the “battle cry” of the Reformation and changed the world forever. Martin Luther was a professor, theologian, author, teacher, hymn writer, and preacher. He translated the Bible into German, and today remains the single greatest influence on all of western civilization.
Bill Itzel has been a worship leader and singer/songwriter for over 30 years and is based in Westminster, MD. His family tours and leads worship around the country. Bill and his family attend Belcroft Bible Church in Bowie, MD. This is a blog about congregational worship and the latest news in the The Itzel's ministry.