The years leading up to the Protestant Reformation were bursting with excitement and progress. It was the days of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Christopher Columbus. The Renaissance was in full swing and culture and innovation flourished. It was the end of the Middle Ages and dawn of the modern era.
During this time, the mariner’s compass empowered exploration, gunpowder changed the battle scene, and—most importantly—the invention of the printing press revolutionized communication technology. Despite these very bright days for the secular world, the religious world was growing ever darker.
The Darkness of the Religious World
The Catholic Church had buried the gospel in a mountain of superstition, tradition, and bad theology. Prayers were uttered for the dead. Relics were adulated. Services were delivered in Latin, a language that few people knew. Mary and the Saints were viewed as mediators in prayer. Church positions were sold or given to family members. Bishops and local priests were corrupt (some broke their vows and even had illegitimate children). The Pope, who held the keys to salvation, was greedy and underhanded.
Anyone who questioned the authority of the Church was excommunicated or burned at the stake. The excommunicated were denied the sacraments and thus, in the minds of the people, cut off from grace and sentenced to hell. With little separation between church and state, the Catholic Church was able to manipulate much of the political scene as well.
The light of the gospel was almost entirely stamped out.
Few people realized the depth of the church’s corruption. Since the Word of God was not read or taught, people had no way of knowing about salvation by faith. The Latin translation of the Bible, called the Vulgate, which few people were able to read, was not available to the common people. The Good News about Jesus was virtually nowhere to be found. The light of the gospel was almost entirely stamped out.
Before being allowed into heaven, saved people were thought to suffer for their sins in the purifying fires of purgatory. When Pope Leo X ran out of money in the papal treasury, he began selling forgiveness in the form of indulgences, official papers said to free a loved one from purgatory. John Tetzel, a well-known seller of indulgences, used theatrics to convince even the poorest people to pour their savings into an indulgence letter.
The Star Before the Sunrise
As always in history, God had a remnant in these dark days. The Reformation was not a sudden phenomenon that occurred when Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door. A few faithful Christians with access to the Scriptures cast a flickering light in the dark world.
In the mid-1300s, John Wycliffe advocated for reformation principles and translated the Bible into English. He is known as the “Morning Star of the Reformation” for casting the first light. John Huss later followed Wycliffe’s teachings at the cost of his life. Others, like Peter Waldo and Girolamo Savonarola, served as an inspiration to later reformers.
Nearly a century after Wycliffe’s death, a boy named Martin was born to a poor, superstitious Catholic family. His father, a miner, urged him to become a lawyer to make a better living. During a frightening storm, Martin, afraid of God and sensitive in conscience, vowed to enter the priesthood instead. He set out on a path to find peace and righteousness. Despite rigorous discipline and self-inflicted suffering, he found neither.
Martin Luther began to understand that salvation did not come by works.
Setting The World Ablaze
After witnessing the corruption of the Catholic Church on a trip to Rome and later teaching through Scripture at the university in Wittenberg, Martin Luther began to understand that salvation did not come by works but “the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17).
When Luther heard about the sale of indulgences by John Tetzel in 1517, he wrote 95 Theses questioning their power and efficacy. To encourage debate, Professor Luther—a doctor in Bible—posted them on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The door functioned as a bulletin board. Luther never imagined his theses would be mass printed by Gutenberg’s press and kindle reformation fires all over Europe.
By 1521, his teachings on indulgences, salvation, and the church caught the attention of Catholic authorities. He was summoned to appear before The Holy Roman Emperor at an assembly in Worms, Germany, and urged to recent his teachings. He refused to violate his conscience or the Word of God and boldly declared, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.”
Luther stood with courage and conviction, and God responded with a massive spiritual awakening. Luther set the world ablaze.
Shining the Glorious Gospel Light
Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, John Knox, and others spread the new evangelical faith. Salvation by grace through faith in Jesus was preached throughout Germany, Switzerland, Scotland, England, and beyond. Reformers everywhere shined the glorious gospel light.
The priesthood was extended to all believers. The seven sacraments were reduced to two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Transubstantiation, the belief that communion bread and wine turned into the literal blood and body of Jesus, was rejected. Preaching replaced the Mass as the focus of religious services. Services were offered in the common language of the people. Protestantism was not a new faith, but a return to Biblical Christianity.
Protestantism was not a new faith, but a return to Biblical Christianity.
The Reformers’ confidence in Scripture ensured that the results would be lasting. Because of Luther’s German translation of the Bible and its mass printing, people were able to read God’s Word in their everyday language. Never again would darkness overshadow the gospel light. “Post Tenebras Lux,” a Latin phrase meaning “After Darkness, Light,” became a motto in many Reformation churches.
The Reformation is a story of the unstoppable power of the glorious gospel light bursting forth in the hearts and lives of faithful men—a light that was buried by tradition, Latin, and a form of godliness without power. We are recipients of that light, and we are charged with guarding the gospel light in our dark world. “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.
George, Timothy. “Timothy George Lectures on the Reformation.” The Gospel Coalition.
Gonzales, Justo. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day. San Francisco: Harper, 2010.
“Protestant Reformation.” Theopedia.
“Reformation.” Encyclopedia Britannica.
Sproul, R. C. “History, Truth, Faith – Pillars of Christian Orthodoxy: 2011 Ligonier Academy Conference.” Ligonier Ministries.