The Protestant Reformation

The Event which Changed the Modern World

Martin Luther - Standing for God, Standing Upon Scripture

The Protestant Reformation was a revival that swept across Europe, breaking the spiritual hold the Church of Rome had over millions of people. It was also a revolution in both church and state which has more than any other event shaped the modern world in which we live. 

However Luther and his followers weren’t trying to reshape the world: they were trying to save it. They had a gospel to proclaim and it is the power of that gospel which we bear witness to today. When God’s Word was made available to the ordinary man in their own tongue it unleashed change that we are still benefitting from today.

The Reformation harnessed the new technology of its day using the printing press to ‘go viral’ allowing Luther to speak directly to the people. When he was finally dragged before the assembled majesty of church and empire in 1521 and ordered to renounce his errors, he refused, insisting that his conscience was captive to the Word of God, a higher authority than any pope, bishop or king.

Aside from the great spiritual benefits we enjoy there are other secular political results which shape the world around us. They include

1. Freedom of Thought

Luther wasn’t an apostle of free speech. He wanted Christians to believe the truth, not whatever they wanted. But by insisting that all human authority was provisional and that conscience can be constrained only by the Bible and the Holy Spirit, he ensured that Protestants who try to police the boundaries of acceptable argument will in the end always fail.

2. Democracy

Luther wasn’t the last Protestant to defy a hostile government. The movement he started led relentlessly in that direction. Protestants asserted not the right to choose their rulers, but the duty to challenge them. In performing that duty, the Scottish radical John Knox wrote in 1558, “all man is equal.”

A generation after Knox, the Scottish King James VI was accusing his Protestant subjects of plotting a “Democratic form of government.”

They insisted that their voices be heard, and, when forced to, they took up arms against rulers who persecuted them. If we all stand equally before God, the ideas like all men being created equal are a logical conclusion.

This was the inspiration for the Glorious Revolution which gave us a balanced more democratic constitutional settlement.

3. Limited government

Protestants have sometimes confronted or overthrown their rulers, but their most constant political demand is simply to be left alone.

Going back to Christianity’s roots in ancient Rome, they have tried to carve out a spiritual space where political authority does not apply and have insisted that that space, the kingdom of God, matters far more than this world’s political priorities.

The Hammer Still Rings Today

The ring of the hammer as Luther nailed his Theses or arguments against the errors of the Roman Catholic Church still echoes through history. 

From a church in Germany his ideas ‘went viral’ as they were carried across Europe through the medium of print. Just as the internet and social media today have revolutionized communications, the printing press made it impossible to suppress the ideas of the Reformation. 

Protestants are ‘people of the book’ with the Bible central to their faith and practice. It’s translation into the language of ordinary people, its mass production and distribution and its study and preaching were the foundations of the Reformation.

The results changed the world as we know it. It ended the Dark Ages, broke up Empires and brought down ruling elites. It shattered the hold that the Papacy had on Europe and paved the way for the nation state, democratic accountable government, the concept of human rights, capitalism, and a host of advances and innovations which form part of the modern world as we know it.

As a Protestant Organisation, we see the actions of Martin Luther on that October day 1517 as the birthday of Protestantism, a day to mark a beginning. However we are aware that that there were many before him who struggled to keep the flame of true faith alight since the time of the early Church. Down through the centuries martyrs have suffered and died for their faith and one of the hallmarks of the Christian faith has always been it has suffered and ben persecuted.

Today when we look around the world we see thousands still imprisoned and persecuted for their faith, indeed in counties where intolerant Islamic regimes are in power we see many Christians still put to death for their faith. This reminds us of our own history and how our forefathers suffered and fought to defend their faith. When we remember the martyrs and commemorate the past we do so to give thanks for their actions and efforts. We also give thanks to God for how he has preserved us and brought us through such times of persecution. Finally we remember in order to learn from the past and to ensure that its mistakes are not repeated. The price of liberty is indeed eternal vigilance and history teaches us that often the greatest calamities befall a people when they least expect it and are least prepared.

The Storm Gathers

The beginnings of the Reformation can be traced back to a thunderstorm in 1505. After surviving the tempest, a promising law student at the University of Erfurt in Germany changed the course of his life. The young scholar’s name was Martin Luther, and the terrible weather set him on a collision course with Rome and would trigger a crisis of faith in Western Christianity.

“Portrait of Martin Luther as a Young Man” by Lucas Cranach the Elder depicts the Protestant founder as a simple, sincere monk.


Luther came from a well off family in the central region of Saxony. Luther was born in Eisleben in November 1483. Shortly after his birth, the family moved about 10 miles away to the town of Mansfeld. A successful businessman in copper mining and refining, his father, Hans, had young Martin educated at a local Latin school and later at schools in Magdeburg and Eisenach. In 1501, at age 19, he enrolled in the University of Erfurt to continue his studies.

In 1505 he was returning to Erfurt after visiting his parents when a violent thunderstorm arose with raging winds and driving rain. “[I was] besieged by the terror and agony of sudden death,” the young Luther later recalled. In his panic he made a terror-stricken vow to St. Anne. He would join a religious order, he promised, if only she would save his life.

Biographies of the founder of the Protestant Reformation point out that a deep sense of religious turmoil probably shaped Luther’s thoughts long before the storm. Even so, following his safe deliverance from the tempest, Luther kept his promise and, to the dismay of his father, abandoned his legal education to join the strictly observant Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. It was a decisive, stubborn act, mixed with a deep sense of religious vocation—an attitude he would display for the rest of his remarkable and turbulent life.

No Peace With Rome

During his first years at the monastery, Luther quickly made a name for himself not only with his brilliance as a theologian but also with his meticulous observance of the harsh rules governing life in the monastery; he fasted, prayed, and confessed. Content with just a table and chair in his unheated room, he would rise in the early morning hours to pray matins and lauds. By the fall of 1506 he had gained full admission to the order. Like many things in life Luther threw himself into this fully and would later comment that

Reflecting on this time of his life, he would later say,“If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I”

Even his supervisor, the head of the monastery, became concerned that this young man was too introspective and too consumed with questions about his own salvation.

But the haunting questions would not subside.

This young monk became particularly fixated on the apostle Paul’s teaching about the “righteousness of God” in the book of Romans, especially Romans 1:17. In that verse, Paul says of the gospel, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’”

But this young man’s understanding of that verse was clouded. Reading it through the lens of the Roman Catholic tradition, he twisted its meaning, thinking that he had to somehow become righteous through his own efforts in order to live a life of faith. But therein was the problem. He knew he was not righteous. Despite everything he did to earn the favor of God, he knew he fell short of His perfect standard.

And so, as he would later recount, he came to hate the phrase “the righteousness of God” because he saw in it his own condemnation. He realized that if the perfect righteousness of God is the standard (which of course it is), and if he as a sinful man could not meet that standard (which of course he couldn’t), then he stood utterly condemned. So, out of frustration and despair, he plunged himself all the more fervently into the strict practices of monastic life, trying his hardest to work his way to salvation. And he grew more and more discouraged and desperate.

Luther continued his theological education after becoming a monk. In 1507 he was ordained by the Bishop of Brandenburg. In 1508 he taught theology at the newly founded University of Wittenberg, where he also received two bachelor degrees

An Empty Journey

So it was, five years after he became a monk, in the year 1510, that this desperate man made what he thought would be the spiritual pilgrimage of a lifetime. He and a fellow monk travelled to the center of Catholic thought and power—the city of Rome.

In 1510 Luther’s studies were interrupted by a political crisis that engulfed the Augustinians. The current pope, Julius II, had decided to merge two opposed branches (the observant and nonobservant) of the order, a plan that horrified Luther’s strictly observant monastery. Luther was chosen by his superiors to defend the views of their monastery before the general Augustinian council in Rome.

In late 1510 Luther made his first—and last—visit to Rome. During his stay, the friar followed traditional pilgrimage customs. Among other observances, he climbed the steps of the St. John Lateran Basilica on his knees, reciting the Lord’s Prayer on each step. It is said that during his ascent he was perplexed to find the words of the Apostle Paul coming back to him: “the righteous shall live by faith,” a tenet that would form a central part of his later doctrine. During his stay, Luther found himself unsettled by the corruption and lack of spirituality he saw in Rome. He saw openly corrupt priests who sneered at the rituals of their faith. He later described his visit: “Rome is a harlot . . . The Italians mocked us for being pious monks, for they hold Christians fools. They say six or seven masses in the time it takes me to say one, for they take money for it and I do not.”

If anyone could help him calm the storm that waged in his soul, surely it would
be the pope, the cardinals, and the priests of Rome

Moreover, he thought that if he paid homage to the shrines of the apostles and made confession there, in that holy city, he would secure the greatest absolution possible. Surely this would be a way to earn the favor of God. The young man was so excited that when he came within sight of the city, he fell down, raised up his hands and exclaimed “Hail to thee, holy, Rome! Thrice holy for the blood of martyrs shed here.”

But he would soon be severely disappointed.

He tried to immerse himself in the religious fervor of Rome (visiting the graves of the saints, performing ritualistic acts of penance, and so on), but he soon noticed a glaring inconsistency. As he looked around at the pope, the cardinals, and the priests, he did not at all see righteousness. Instead, he was startled by the corruption, greed, and immorality.

As the famous church historian Philip Schaff explained, the young man was

shocked by the unbelief, levity and immorality of the clergy. Money and luxurious living seemed to have replaced apostolic poverty and self-denial. He saw nothing but worldly splendor at the court of [the] Pope . . . , [and] he heard of the fearful crimes of [previous popes], which were hardly known and believed in Germany, but freely spoken of as undoubted facts in the fresh remembrance of all Romans.  . . . He was told that “if there was a hell, Rome was built on it,” and that this state of things must soon end in a collapse. (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, VI:129)

A desperate man on a desperate journey, having devoted his life to the pursuit of self-righteous legalism and finding it wanting, went to Rome looking for answers. But all he found was spiritual bankruptcy.

Martin Luther, needless to say, left Rome disillusioned and disappointed. He reported that, in his opinion, “Rome, once the holiest city was now the worst.”  Not long afterward, he would openly defy the pope, calling him the antichrist; he would condemn the cardinals as charlatans; and he would expose the apostate tradition of Roman Catholicism for what it had become—a destructive system of works righteousness.

After returning to Germany, Luther earned his doctorate in 1512. As a professor, he taught several classes at the University of Wittenberg. The spiritual hollowness he had seen in Rome did not break his faith with the church, but scholars believe it continued to disquiet him. Luther’s journey to Rome was a disaster. Yet, it played a critical part in his journey to true, saving faith. A short time later, the fastidious monk discovered the answer to his spiritual dilemma: If he was unrighteous, in spite of his best efforts, how could he be made right before a holy and just God?


The Indulgences Issue

The spark that ignited Luther’s confrontation with Rome was the sale of “indulgences,” which would lessen the impact of, or pardon, a person from their sins. In theory, indulgences were granted by the church on the condition that the recipient carried out some kind of good work or other specified acts of contrition. In practice, indulgences could be bought. The practice was abused by the church, which began relying upon their sale as a way of raising money, especially to pay for costly building projects.

Cameo of Leo X, pope at the time of Luther’s 1517 revolt.


Rome in the early 1500s was under the spell of the artistic projects of the Renaissance. Around 1515, Pope Leo X published a new indulgence in a bid to fund the reconstruction of the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, entrusting Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz, with promoting its sale in Germany.

Enraged, Luther took a stand against the papal actions. On October 31, 1517, he composed his Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, better known as the Ninety-Five Theses. According to tradition, he nailed these to the door of All Saints’ Church, Wittenberg, although modern historians are somewhat skeptical that such a lengthy document could be posted in this way. Regardless of how the Ninety-Five Theses were distributed, many found Luther’s arguments explosive. He argued that the practice of relying on indulgences drew believers away from the one true source of salvation: faith in Christ. God alone had the power to pardon the repentant faithful. The pontifical council ordered him to retract his claims immediately, but Luther refused.

An Elector for an Enclave

Luther’s reformation was not born in a vacuum, and his fate rested as much on the turbulent politics of the day as it did on pure questions of theology. Wittenberg was part of Saxony, a state of the Holy Roman Empire, a patchwork of territories in central Europe with roots deep in the medieval past. The Holy Roman Emperor was appointed by the heads of its main states, influential rulers known as electors.

At the time that Luther wrote his theses, the elector of Saxony was Frederick the Wise. A humanist and a scholar, Frederick had founded the new university at Wittenberg that Luther attended. Frederick’s response to Luther’s theological challenge was complex. He never stopped being a Catholic, but he decided from the outset to protect the rebel friar both from the fury of the church and the Holy Roman Emperor. When in 1518 Luther was summoned to Rome, Frederick intervened on his behalf, ensuring that he would be questioned in Germany, a much safer place for him than Rome. The church was forced to respect Elector Frederick’s wishes because he would be instrumental in choosing the replacement to the ailing Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I.

Letters of indulgence, like this one granted in 1512, sparked Luther’s revolt in 1517.


Safe under the wing of Frederick, Luther began to engage in regular public debate on religious reforms. He broadened his arguments, declaring that any church council or even a single believer had the right to challenge the pope, so long as they based their arguments on the Bible. He even dared to argue that the church did not rest on papal foundations but rather on faith in Christ.

Luther must have realized early on that his reform movement had a political dimension. In 1520 he wrote a treatise, “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation.” It argued that all Christians could be priests from the moment of their baptism, that anyone reading the Scripture with faith had the right to interpret it, and that every believer had the right to assemble a free council. This declaration was revolutionary for the ecclesiastic hierarchy of the time.


This 15th-century print by Diebold Schilling the Elder depicts the burning of Czech reformist Jan Hus in 1415.

Luther was not the first person to confront the Catholic Church. Writing in the 1370s and ‘80s, Oxford scholar John Wycliffe denounced the wealth of the church, called for a greater emphasis on scripture, and oversaw an English biblical translation. The church condemned Wycliffe, but Oxford University shielded him from arrest. In the 1400s Jan Hus, a scholar at the University of Prague, was exposed to Wycliffe’s works. Hus too believed that scripture was greater than tradition and preached in his native language, Czech. His writings led him to leave Prague for fear of reprisals, but Hus was later arrested in 1414, charged with heresy, and burned at the stake in 1415. Following his death, his followers continued the fight, forming the Hussite movement which spread through what is today the Czech Republic.


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Sola Scriptura - Centrality of the Bible

Luther’s Bible

Sola scriptura (‘by Scripture alone’) was one of the founding tenets of the Protestant Reformation. Reformers such as Martin Luther (1483–1546) believed that the Bible was the one true source of our knowledge of God’s will and that no interpreter, papal or otherwise, was entitled to stand between the word of God and the individual Christian soul. Nor should there be any linguistic barrier to access for all to God’s word.

Luther laid down two fundamental requirements for an adequate German Bible: that it should be based on the original Hebrew and Greek texts, rather than on the Latin Vulgate, and that it should be written in a German that was understandable to all. As none of the German Bibles available met these conditions, in 1521 Luther set about making a fresh translation himself.

By September 1522 copies of Luther’s New Testament (the so-called September testament) were rolling off Melchior Lotther’s press at Wittenberg. Work on the Old Testament and Apocrypha was variously delayed, however, by illness and the many other demands on Luther’s time, leading him to accept the assistance of other scholars, such as Philip Melanchthon; the Old Testament and Apocrypha appeared in instalments between 1523 and 1534.

Luther was a tireless reviser and improver, who strove ‘to make a good one better’, and with each new edition he introduced corrections and changes. Between 1534 and his death in 1546 no fewer than eleven folio editions of the complete German Bible were printed, as well as numerous quarto or octavo editions of specific portions of the Bible – the New Testament, the Psalms, the ‘Wisdom’ books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon). Luther’s translation was immediately popular and publishers struggled to meet the huge demand for copies.

Luther’s translation used what is generally known as Middle German. Editions produced for speakers of High German (the German spoken in southern Germany and Austria) included glossaries of unfamiliar words, while for Low German speakers (those living in the north of the country) fresh translations were made from Luther’s version.

An example of a Low German Luther Bible is shown here. It was printed in 1578 at Magdeburg, a centre of Low German printing, and includes woodcuts, including these striking illustrations of the Apocalypse, taken from the first complete Low German Luther Bible of 1534.

Luther’s translation of the Bible has immense literary, historical and theological significance. It has been described by Hans Volz as ‘far more than a translation … the first work of art in German prose.’ Luther was a fine scholar but he was also a poet of genius and it was the linguistic vigour and beauty of his rendering which gave it, like the King James Bible, a lasting place in the human heart.

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