31 October 2017 marks the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. It is one of the biggest transformational movements in church history. Yet, as Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon of The Methodist Church in Singapore observed, “Most Protestant churches do not observe this day and most Protestant Christians are not even aware of the day”.
So what was the Reformation all about? What impact and significance could a movement that happened 500 years ago have on us today?
Justified by Faith Alone
Martin Luther (1483–1546), a German monk, was no stranger to anxiety and despair. He left law school and joined the monastery in 1505 after surviving a thunderstorm. He lived a strict ascetic life—rigorously praying and fasting, spending cold nights in vigils without blankets, and making frequent confessions. However, he remained tormented by a deep sense of sinfulness and guilt before a holy God, and by his failures to keep God’s law blamelessly and be righteous.
Luther’s confessor arranged for him to teach the Bible, hoping he would find some peace for his troubled soul. It was during his study of the letter to the Romans that he had what became known as his “Tower Experience”. As he pondered over Romans 1:17:
“… I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”
The Spark that Created a Firestorm
Luther was transformed, but his convictions gradually led him to take issue with many of the Church of Rome’s prevailing teachings and practices, especially the sale of papal indulgences. On 31 October 1517, he nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, his parish. He hoped to invite discussion and debate, and move towards reforming the Church to become more faithful to God’s Word.
However, Luther’s actions brought him into conflict with Rome and its leaders. When he stood before them at the Diet of Worms in 1521, he was ordered to formally disavow his views and writings. The next day, he replied with these famous words:
“I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience to the Word of God.”
Luther was excommunicated from the Church of Rome. However, the movement spread beyond Germany as his writings circulated around Europe. Many Christians in countries like Switzerland, England, Scotland and Holland, also eventually broke away from the Church of Rome and formed new communions. This marked the beginning of Protestantism.
The Reformation and the 21st Century
The Reformation had immense ramifications in church and world history, many of which can still be seen and felt today. Besides the emergence of Protestantism, it impacted Western society and culture in many areas. For example, it aided the development of a modern system of law and governance as well as of modern science, and helped establish the liberty of the individual conscience.
At its core, it contended for key doctrines deemed essential to the Gospel itself, such as justification by faith alone, and Scripture as the Church’s ultimate authority. These doctrines continue to be subjects of debate today, and highlight the paramount importance of having a right understanding and application of the Gospel message.
Dr Solomon said, “The realisation that we are each and collectively parts of a larger story, written by the hidden hand of God will bring wisdom, hope, faith and true life”. However one may view the Reformation and its impact, it is doubtless an important movement ordained and greatly used by God. Let us praise and thank Him for all He has done as we remember this important milestone in church history.