500 years later, Reformation teachings at the foundation of many local churches

A painting shows Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Church in Germany in 1517.

In the autumn of 1517, Martin Luther, a master of theology, nailed 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Church in Germany.

While his reasons were to have an academic discussion about perceived abuses in the Roman Catholic Church, his actions and subsequent challenges to some of the theology and practice of the Medieval Church would spark a monumental shift in the status quo of western religion and would be known as the Protestant Reformation.

According to Mark Noll, a religious historian, the reformation was about the desire and attempt to return the church to its original foundation of scriptures alone and to correct practices that were inconsistent with biblical teaching.

Luther was not unique in his attempts of reform, as many before had tried various methods, but to little avail. With his 95 Theses, Luther sought to address the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences.

A little background

The influence of the Roman church reached into many arenas of society in the Medieval period: political, academic, administrative and social.

Responsibilities that were first taken on for good reason, later caused a financial strain on church goers.

The power of the church had grown to such an extent in these other areas that the primary duty of caring for souls had become somewhat neglected and abuses had crept in.

Euan Cameron, a historian of the Reformation era, points out the difficulty the business of the Medieval Church had gotten them into.

To support its many political, academic and social activities, the church had to take money from its parish priests and use it for “more fashionable” purposes, according to Cameron.

“The need for money in turn led churchmen to seek for, defend and often abuse their privileges and status, Cameron said. “The people whom it recruited and promoted to high office reflected its needs: lawyers, pen-pushers and politicians first; spiritual leaders second. At every point these features of the late Medieval Church grated against the sensitivities of laymen and certain kinds of churchmen.”

Luther’s conflict

with indulgences

Luther’s objection to the selling of indulgences was an example of what he said was corruption fueled by money. It was taught by some priests that when an indulgence was purchased it would pay for the soul of a deceased Christian to leave purgatory, an intermediate state of suffering where the Christian soul is purged by fire before it can enter heaven.

Finding no scriptural support for indulgences, Luther preached against it to his congregation. However, priests selling these indulgences in a neighboring town were confusing his own congregation on the matter. Luther wrote a letter to the archbishop-elector of Mainz who was supporting this sale of indulgences (in order to raise money to pay off his own debt) informing him of the dangers of the indulgence practice and Luther’s responsibility to correct the errant teaching. He also nailed the 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Church as a way to stimulate academic discussion on the matter.

The Reformation grows

Luther’s 95 Theses, however, were published broadly as were his later teachings on the topic. To some he was a hero, but to the Roman Church he was a threat to be silenced. Eventually Luther’s outspoken critiques of the Roman Church and his pamphlets of Biblical teaching caused he and his followers to be condemned as a heretics of the Roman Catholic Church.

Luther’s initial action to reform the Roman Catholic Church, returning it to Scriptural teaching, started the Protestant movement.

What does it look

like today?

So how does what Luther did 500 years ago affect people today? Lutherans and Reformed Presbyterians had their start with the Reformation. Anabaptists, a group that splintered off from the early Lutheran and traditional Reformed thought (including Amish and Mennonites) also were birthed from this Reformation period.

Five teachings that grew out of the Reformation were:

• Scripture alone is the rule of faith and life.

• People are made right with God by faith alone in Christ.

• People are saved only by the grace of God not by their works of holiness.

• Only in and through Christ can salvation be found.

• A Christian lives to God’s glory alone.

If some, or all, of these ideas sound familiar it’s because many of them are taught in evangelical churches today.

The Bible translated

The translation of the Bible into the common language of the people was a central aspect of the Reformation. So if, you have your own Bible, this too is a result of the Reformation.

Is your worship service simple without highly decorated vestments, bells, smoke and solemn processionals? If so, your simple worship service is a result of the Reformation.

Does the whole church sings worship songs and hymns together in a common language and does the worship service happen in a language you can understand? If so, you are experiencing results of the Reformation.

Lastly, while many horrible things occurred during the period of the Protestant Reformation like religious war and persecutions, we can be thankful that what has remained as a bi-product is a diversity in the church where believers are free to worship as they believe the scriptures teach.

Yasar, a Washington native, holds a master of arts in biblical studies from Westminster Seminary in California and is an associated editor for Beautiful Christian Life. She and her husband Rev. Z. Bulut Yasar, attend New Life Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Loyalsock Township, where Bulut is a co-pastor.