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What was the Protestant Reformation all about?
Although several notable reforming voices such as Pedro Waldo, John Wycliffe, John Hus and Girolamo Savonarola had arisen throughout Medieval Europe, none of them witnessed the full-scale reform which they all deemed to be long overdue and scripturally necessary.
It was ultimately down to a mixture of favourable socio-political conditions that providentially conspired to help the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, champion the cause of Protestantism in German Saxony and beyond.
Luther was most certainly not alone in his plea for change. Reformation historian Owen Chadwick points out that, “At the beginning of the sixteenth century everyone that mattered in the Western Church was crying out for reformation”.1 The difference between Luther and the rest of Western Christendom was that his longing was for something more than a moral spring clean.
Luther was concerned about getting at the roots of the problem; not just chopping down a few unsightly branches. This sharp contrast between two divergent views was played out in the dispute between Luther and Erasmus in the 1520s. Whereas Erasmus aimed at several moral and academic improvements within Catholicism; Luther was convinced that something much more radical was in order.
Luther’s deep-seated unease can be best comprehended against the backdrop of his spiritual biography. His father, the miner Hans Luder, had sent his precocious son Martin to read Law at the University of Erfurt. However, during a distressing encounter with a July storm in 1505 Luther exclaimed aloud: “Saint Anne, help me! I shall become a monk!”2 True to his word and much to the dismay of Hans, Luther enrolled at a local Augustinian monastery.
But rather than alleviating his sense of guilt, Luther’s time as a monk only served to sink him deeper in his consciousness of pending condemnation. In spite of hours of fasting, confession and penance, how did Luther know if he had confessed all of his sins or not? Was he repenting out of a sincere love for God or out a fear of future punishment? Had God truly forgiven him? If so, how could he be sure?
Such questions accompanied Luther when he arrived in Rome to take care of some monastery affairs in 1510. His desperation reached breaking point as he encountered numerous Catholic priests given over to immorality and the masses blinded by spiritual ignorance. Rome, as far as Luther was now concerned, was a corrupt religious system based upon pagan superstitions as well as an inordinate love for filthy lucre.
Appalled by what he had witnessed in the citadel of Catholicism, Luther travelled back to Germany in despondency. Shortly after his return, his superiors had him transferred to the small town of Wittenberg where his Scriptural knowledge earned him the ‘Doctor of Bible’ post at the newly launched university in 1512.
Whilst at the University of Wittenberg, Luther submerged himself in the Psalms, Romans, Galatians and Hebrews. With his biblical knowhow on the one hand and his indignant hatred for ecclesiastical sleaze on the other, the 33 year old quite understandably reacted when the itinerant Dominican preacher John Tetzel began selling indulgences in nearby areas of Saxony in 1517 to raise money for the rebuilding work going on at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
It was not so much that Luther wanted to abolish indulgences all together at this early stage, but he was resolutely opposed to their misuse. Hence he nailed his renowned ninety-five theses to the church door at Wittenberg, calling for an academic debate.
As can be expected, Luther’s stance was furiously denounced by Tetzel. However, the real clash of titans came two years later at the Leipzig Debate (1519) when Tetzel’s fellow Dominican, John Eck, accused the Augustinian Luther of heresy. With five hundred years hindsight, the Leipzig episode cannot be underestimated given that the key issues the discussion touched upon have remained the same ever since. On the Roman side of the fence, papal authority, indulgences and the existence of Purgatory were strongly upheld by Eck. But Luther cast doubts upon them all in the name of Scripture. Scripture, reasoned the young Augustinian, is the real source of Christian truth and practice.
When word got back to Leo X in the Vatican about the outcome of the debate, the Pope was far from pleased. He proceeded to censor Luther via his Papal Bull Exurge Domine (June 1520) whilst threatening him with excommunication. In an astonishing act of brazen defiance, Luther burnt the Bull six months later. On 3rd January 1521, Luther was officially excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.
It was around about the same time as the Leipzig Debate that Luther went through legendary ‘tower experience’. The exact date is somewhat disputed amongst scholars, yet Luther himself cites 1519 as the year of his theological breakthrough. We could do no better than to quote the man himself at this point:
“Meanwhile in that same year, 1519, I had begun interpreting the Psalms once again. I felt confident that I was now more experienced, since I had dealt in university courses with St. Paul’s Letters to the Romans, to the Galatians, and the Letter to the Hebrews. I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: ‘The justice of God is revealed in it’. I hated that word, ‘justice of God’, which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e. that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust. [...]
“I meditated day and night on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: ‘The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: “The just person shall live by faith”’. I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is, by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith’.
All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g. the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God”.3
Thanks to this revolutionary rereading of Romans 1:17, Reformation theology was birthed. It was Luther’s ‘tower experience’ that singled out the real issue of contention at the heart of the Catholic-Protestant divide, namely, justification. How can a sinner be made right before God? What must people do to be saved from the wrath of God?
Luther was to advocate the Gospel doctrine of justification throughout the rest of his ministry at Wittenberg. Belittling Rome’s doctrine of an ‘infused’ or ‘inherent’ justice which, at the end of the day, left salvation in the fickle hands of human merit; Luther delighted himself in preaching aloud the ‘imputed’ righteousness of Jesus Christ to sinners.
In other words, the ungodly can be put in right standing before God exclusively through the perfect justice (righteousness) of Jesus Christ. No longer, then, was the divine justice longing to torment Luther in the flames of hell; but rather God’s righteousness, Jesus Christ, was imputed freely to him through his faith in the Good News. The justice of the Son of God had been put into Luther’s account. No longer could he be condemned.
Given the soul anguish and depression that tormented Luther throughout his years as a monk, it should come as no surprise that the Gospel of God’s imputed righteousness through faith in Christ transformed him to the core. Such was his love for the doctrine of justification that he labelled it as the article on which the church stands or falls. If the doctrine of justification is lost, he taught, the whole of Christianity is lost.
Over in Geneva, Calvin echoed Luther’s sentiments commenting that justification is the main hinge on which religion turns. The 1530 Augsburg Confession, drawn up by Luther’s right-hand man Philip Melanchthon, defined justification in the clearest of terms: “[Our churches] teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favour and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight”.
History has been correct to underline justification by faith alone as the ‘material principle’ of the Protestant Reformation alongside the ‘formal principle’ of Sola Scriptura. At this pivotal point, all Protestant confessions unite. Without the Scriptural principle of justification by faith alone, there would have been no Reformation. What was really at stake in the Reformation was this very issue.
Is Christ’s righteousness freely imputed to sinners and place in their account so that they are fully justified in God’s sight? Or is it more a matter of Christ’s justice being infused into believers whereby they have to add on their own merit to Christ’s righteousness in order to stand acquitted before God on the Day of Judgment? Gregg Allison has recently outlined the differences between the two systems well:
“An infused righteousness is capable of increase or decrease, depending on the faithful’s participation in the means of grace (the sacraments) or their failure to participate. For evangelical theology, imputed righteousness through a divine declaration means that the ungodly now stand before God as those who have fully met the standard of the law and have rendered perfect obedience to him; there cannot be, nor is there, any need for an increase of righteousness. Neither can righteousness decrease, because justification is a declaration that makes it so. Moreover, Catholic theology’s view of justifying grace being capable of being lost means there is no assurance of justification. But justification according to evangelical theology grants this security”.4
Infused righteousness or imputed righteousness: this was the question that lay at the heart of the Reformation. And it is still this burning question which divides contemporary Protestantism from the Roman Catholic Church.
Reformation-based Protestants believe that there are justified purely and exclusively by the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ whereas Catholicism thinks that salvation is a matter of Christ’s righteousness plus our own human righteousness added on i.e. faith plus human merit equal salvation. The former system gives all the glory to God alone but the latter gives men and women some room to glory in themselves for their salvation.
1 CHADWICK, Owen, The Reformation (Penguin: London, 1990 [first published 1964]), p. 11.
2 REEVES, Michael, The Unquenchable Flame (IVP: Nottingham, 2009), p. 31.
3 Quoted in REEVES, Michael and CHESTER, Tim, Why the Reformation Still Matters (IVP: London, 2016), pp. 21-22.
4 ALLISON, Gregg R., Roman Catholic Theology & Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Crossway: Wheaton, 2014), p. 443.