On October 31, 1517, in Wittenberg, Germany, Martin Luther posted his thoughts about some theological topics and the practices of the Church. That simple action began the Reformation — a movement that changed Western society.
One man stood against the corruption of the establishment. Luther’s fight was, of course, one of theology. But it was still one man, a monk, against the massive Holy Roman Empire. Luther was threatened, exiled, condemned and labeled a heretic. But his teaching grew in popularity throughout his life.
Those who follow Luther’s teachings number in the millions. Most Protestant churches today trace their lineage, in some part, to the teachings of Luther. The German language exists as it does today in large part due to Luther’s translation of the New Testament.
Luther’s writings on the freedom of the Christian to serve the government, and the role of the government to establish justice and to protect citizens, have greatly influenced our view of authority. Though he was a theologian, Luther wrote and thought about all of life. He was concerned for the children in his town. He was involved in the politics of his day. He was an academic. He was a family man. He was a revolutionary. He was involved in the lives of the poor and the common man.
Yet this Reformation anniversary is not a celebration of Luther. Even the Lutheran church does not celebrate Luther. Lutheran does not mean a follower of Luther, but of his theological teachings.
Luther and the other Reformation theologians believed that all mankind is sinful, that everyone is guilty of error in God’s sight. They also believed that God will punish those who do what He forbids. The problem is not only that everyone sins, but that mankind’s sinful condition means there is no way to do enough good things to earn God’s love.
The Reformation proclaimed that the solution to the problem is not in man, but in God. Luther and his followers taught that the Bible teaches salvation by God’s grace, through faith, because of Jesus. The message of the Reformation is that the Scriptures teach that God has grace on sinners. He gives forgiveness freely to all who believe in Him. This forgiveness is given through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and His resurrection from the dead. All who believe in Jesus as their Savior receive forgiveness and eternal life. All of this is a free gift from a loving God.
Luther’s teaching, and that of the Reformation, is often summarized in three “solas.” Sola gratia, sola fide and sola scriptura — by faith alone, by grace alone and by Scripture alone. The key to Reformation theology is found in God’s love for people.
By grace alone means that God gives His love freely. People can’t earn God’s love. People can’t earn forgiveness. God’s love is not gained by human efforts, but given freely by God’s grace.
By faith alone means that those who believe in Jesus as God’s Savior for all of mankind receive forgiveness and eternal life. Faith is something God gives to people through His Holy Spirit, working in the Word of God and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. People do nothing to earn God’s love, but receive it by grace through faith.
By Scripture alone means that God has revealed His truth through the Holy Bible. Scripture is the one trustworthy source for the truth about God. The Scriptures are properly read in light of Jesus as the Son of God in the flesh. The Bible teaches that His death and resurrection is the key event in all of history, because there, Jesus died to gain the forgiveness of everyone’s sins. This does not mean that Christians should only read the Bible. Sola scriptura means that the Bible is the only trustworthy source for doctrine and life.
The three solas, by grace alone, by faith alone and by Scripture alone, are all summarized in one more phrase from the Reformation, solus Christus — through Christ alone.
This is really the focus of the Reformation. God’s grace, our faith and the Scriptures are all focused on Jesus Christ. The Reformation moved the focus from the Church to Jesus. Luther and the reformers taught that Jesus is how God relates to us and how we relate to Him. The reformers taught that Jesus is our salvation, that Jesus is the way that God loves.
When Martin Luther understood Jesus as the center of all of Scripture and man’s relationship to God, he saw everything in light of this relationship between God and man. This moved him to teach about the Christian’s role in society, the role of the government, and how individual Christians live out their faith.
Luther cared for the people in his town and worked to provide materials for them, writing the Small Catechism to teach the basics of the faith, and translating the Bible into German so that everyone could read the Word of God.
Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses in Wittenberg, Germany, 500 years ago. Much has changed since then. Many things we encounter daily were influenced by the Reformation. The heart of the Reformation was theology. It was a return to God as the source of mankind’s salvation. It was a focus on God’s love. 500 years later, Lutherans still teach this theology, and rejoice in God’s love.