The Reformation in 90 seconds


The alarm went off at 3:30am and I groggily crept out of the house to catch my flight to Berlin. I then jumped on a train to Wittenberg, a small town 70 miles southeast of Berlin.

Wittenberg has a population of 50,000 and was made famous by Martin Luther back in the 16th century. On the day of my visit in October 2017, I was joined by crowds of other (mostly American) enthusiasts.

The crowds were there to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the day Luther posted his 95 theses on his church door. Prior to my visit, I knew a bit about Luther – namely that he was a fiery character with a beer cellar and was a great Reformer. On the flight I read more: he was an Augustinian monk in the Roman Catholic Church but was plagued with the guilt of his sin. Despite his regular confessions and penance, Luther had no peace or sense God’s pleasure towards him.

In 1511, Luther moved to Wittenberg and took up post as a lecturer in Biblical Studies at Wittenberg University. He was soon to discover that monks working for the pope were raising funds for the building of St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome by selling pieces of paper called 'indulgences'. One of these would grant the owner pardon from a certain length of time in purgatory. Somewhat ingeniously, you could also buy them on behalf of people already dead as well – and so buy your loved ones out of punishment! 

Studious Luther could find nothing about this practice in his bible so he called for a robust discussion on the topic. He made a list of problems he had with the current abuses of indulgences and proposed some solutions. On 31 October 1517 Luther nailed this list to the university notice board in Wittenberg.

Martin Luther

This day is now known as Reformation Day because it sparked a debate around a far more important issue: who has the final authority on matters of faith and teaching in the church? God or the Pope? Scripture or the Holy Catholic Church? 

Luther wanted everyone to be able to read Scripture, rather than having to rely on the church's interpretation of it. So, with the help of his friend Philip Melanchthon, Luther translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into German. The New Testament translation was completed in just 11 weeks – much to the dislike of some Catholic leaders!

This love of God’s word was one of the great rediscoveries of the Reformation and is summed up in the saying ‘Scripture Alone’. It is in Scripture alone that we can learn of God’s salvation plan. Luther later discovered that the solution to his guilt was not his rigorous works of penance and confession but God’s ‘Grace Alone’ poured out in Christ Alone’. And this work of God cannot be bought by money like indulgences but comes through ‘Faith Alone’ so that God might get all the ‘Glory Alone’. (The five solas of the Reformation)

Praise God that because of Luther and many other Reformers, the truths within the Bible were rediscovered and did not remain hidden in a foreign language. Scripture was made available to all, so that we can read the Bible for ourselves and find that salvation is still only found in Christ alone. 

Alex is a mission partner in West Africa.

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