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Church History: A Biblical View
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Part V - The Reformation:. Lesson No. 28 - The Beginning of the Reformation

I. The Setting

Were it not for the economic and religious conditions of the time the Protestant Reformation may have failed. Other reform movements had sprouted up only to wither under unfavorable conditions. At the beginning of the Sixteenth Century conditions in Germany rendered it receptive to reform. Papal taxation and interference had greatly burdened and aggravated the German people. The wealth, immorality, and tax exemption of the clergy, as well as the beggary of monastic orders, invited contempt. In the religious scene a revival of interest in salvation and a changing philosophical outlook caused by the new humanist movement left Germany with a climate responsive to the ideas of the Reformation. The political situation in Germany was also a crucial factor, for Germany was divided among territorial rulers who practically acted as independent sovereigns within their own domains and who would eventually act to insure the survival of the Reformation.

II. Martin Luther

Martin Luther, one of a few men who significantly altered the course of world history, was born in Eisleben, Germany on November 10, 1483. He entered the University of Erfurt in 1501 and intended to study law but, as the story goes, a narrow escape from lightning moved him to enter a monastery in 1505. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1507. Soon after a journey to Rome (1510-11), Luther began his professorship at the University of Wittenberg, which was thenceforth to be his home.

Throughout his early life Luther had been burdened by a heavy sense of sinfulness. The rigors of monasticism had brought him no peace of mind. He became more and more convinced that the meritorious works of Roman Catholicism were not the means of salvation. Finally, focusing on Paul's statement, "The just shall live by faith" (Rom. 1:17), Luther came to a climax in his convictions. Men were saved by the grace of God manifested in the forgiveness of their sins and the imputation of Christ's righteousness. God's grace was given, not on the basis of good works, but on the basis of absolute faith in God's promises. However, this faith, Luther asserted, was wholly the gift of God.

That which proved to be the catalyst of the Reformation was, not surprisingly, that which offended Luther's convictions concerning salvation, the sale of indulgences. In 1517 Johann Tetzel came to Germany to sell indulgences for the building of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Indulgences meant the purchaser, or the dead for whom they were purchased, would not have to suffer temporal punishment in purgatory for their sins. Tetzel

touted indulgences with great persuasiveness, but Luther found his activities reprehensible. On October 31, 1517 Luther nailed his famous Ninety-five Theses challenging indulgences to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. This was the customary manner of calling for a debate, but this act was the spark which exploded the powder keg of the Protestant Reformation.

Over the next several years the Catholic Church tried by various means to force Luther to recant, but he only drifted further and further away from Catholic orthodoxy. Moreover, Luther found many scholars and much of the German populace in sympathy with his views. Ordinarily, he would have been burned at the stake for heresy, but he enjoyed the protection of Elector Frederick the Wise. The political situation was such that neither the Holy Roman Emperor nor the pope felt confident in moving against Luther. However, on January 3, 1521 the final bull of excommunication was issued against Luther, and later that year he was placed under an imperial ban, which made him an outlaw.

Under the protection of German princes Luther continued to advance Reformation ideas through vigorous writing and preaching. In 1524 he removed his monastic vestments and a year later married a former nun, Katherine von Bora. Six children were born to them. Luther and his wife lived in Wittenberg until his death on February 18, 1546.

III. Luther's Teachings

A. Salvation by faith alone. This doctrine which came as a reaction to the system of salvation by works of merit in Catholicism is a foundation to Protestant theology. Moreover, Luther taught that faith was a gift of God (Eph. 2:8,9). Consistent with his thinking, he denied the free will of man. Actually, the Scriptures teach the very opposite of what Luther taught (Jas. 2:14-26; Jn. 7:17).

B. Denial of papal and conciliary infallibility. This was a decisive and dramatic break with long-standing Catholic belief. For Luther final appeal could be made only to the Scriptures (II Tim. 3:16,17).

C. Permissive view of Scriptural silence. Luther reacted to the seeming excesses of his more radical supporters by declaring that "what is not contrary to Scripture is for Scripture and Scripture for it." He evidently meant that what was not expressly prohibited by the Scriptures was allowable. This view led him to retain candles, crucifixes, and pictures in worship (cp. I Pet. 4:11; II Jn. 9).

D. Denial of clerical celibacy (I Tim. 4:1-5).

E. Priesthood of all believers (I Tim. 2:5; I Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6).

F. Reduction in sacraments. Luther reduced the number of sacraments from seven to two: the Lord's Supper and baptism. Regarding the Lord's Supper, Luther offered the cup to the laity, doubted transubstantiation, and rejected the idea that the Lord's Supper is a sacrifice to God.

IV. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)

(1) _____ Man is saved by (A) works of merit (B) grace alone (C) faith alone (D) imputation of Christ's righteousness (E) none of these.

(2) (T or F) Faith is a gift which comes directly and wholly from God.

(3) The _______ of ______________ raised the protest from Luther which sparked the Protestant Reformation.

(4) How did Luther's views on faith lead to his denial of free will in men?


(5) How was Luther's attitude toward the Scriptures radically different from that of Catholicism?

(6) What was Luther's view of the silence of the Scriptures?


Was his view correct?


What did his view lead him to do?


(7) What were two departures from Catholic belief in Luther's view of the priesthood?

Were these two points Scriptural?

(8) What aspects of Catholic teaching regarding the Lord's Supper did Luther doubt or deny?


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