Five hundred years ago, a German monk by the name of Martin Luther sent out an invitation to debate 95 points of doctrine and practice in the Roman Catholic church. His invitation helped launch the great 16th century Protestant Reformation, and Christianity hasn’t been the same since.
By the time the dust settled, what had been a unified church spread across Western Europe and the British Isles had split into five distinct movements that are still present today. Joining the Roman Catholic tradition were new traditions known as the Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican (Church of England) and Anabaptist churches. While each of these movements shared many things in common, there were enough differences to keep the various protestors from joining together to create one unified Protestant church. Instead, each movement took on its own expression of ideas that were critical to the success of the Reformation.
Salvation is free for all
Reformers began by protesting what they viewed as the abuses of the clergy and the hierarchy of the Catholic church. Martin Luther was especially troubled by the fundraising efforts of Pope Leo X. To reconstruct St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the pope had authorized the sale of indulgences. These were a bit like the “get out of jail free” cards in the Monopoly board game. By purchasing an indulgence, one could shorten or even eliminate the time spent paying for sins in purgatory. Luther was outraged by the idea that one could buy forgiveness of sins. If the pope really had the ability to free people from purgatory, Luther roared, he should do it freely, simply out of Christian charity.
By challenging the sale of indulgences, Luther and the reformers who joined him challenged the existing understanding of salvation. The idea that good works achieved merit before God had become prominent during the Middle Ages. Luther’s reading of the book of Romans helped him view salvation in a very different fashion. Salvation, he said, couldn’t be purchased. Salvation was freely given by God as an act of grace and was received solely through faith. Sinners were justified by the righteousness of Christ and never by their own merit.
Luther was pitting his reading of Scripture against the authority of the church. Existing Catholic doctrine maintained that salvation was mediated by the church through participation in the sacraments. Luther argued that Scripture alone held authority, and that Scripture revealed Christ to humanity.
If Scripture was a means of revelation, then it seemed important that people have access to it. For centuries, only a Latin translation of Scripture was used, making it inaccessible to all but the very educated. Now, new translations of Scripture were made in the everyday languages of the people. The reformers began conducting worship services in the vernacular as well so that people might understand what they were participating in.
We take these things for granted: Church services in Spanish, English, German, Chinese or Swahili and the full Bible now translated into more than 600 languages. But this is a legacy of the Protestant Reformation and was made possible, in part, because of what was then new technology. The development of the printing press had an impact in that time like the advent of the internet in our own. Suddenly, people could read and talk about the same things at the same time. In addition to spreading the revolutionary ideas of the reformers, the printing press made it possible to distribute the Bible in new translations meant for the common people.
Restore rather than reform
Reformers agreed that salvation was a gift of God’s grace and not achieved through works and on the centrality of the Bible as the authority for faith and life. But they did not agree on the practice of baptism or the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Most of the protesting groups retained the practice of infant baptism, seeing it as the entry point not only into the church but into the larger society as well. Baptismal records were like birth certificates in that they were used to establish identity. It was a group of radicals who insisted on believer’s baptism and on a separation between the church and the state.
This group became known as the Anabaptists, a derogatory term that labeled them re-baptizers and thus heretics. Many were martyred simply for insisting that adult or believer’s baptism was their first true baptism.
These early Anabaptists, the spiritual ancestors of the Mennonite Brethren as well as many other groups, sought to do more than reform the church. They wanted to restore New Testament church practice. They were especially drawn to the gospel accounts of Jesus. Like other reformers, they understood salvation to be solely the work of God in Christ. But the Anabaptists were radical Bible readers. They wanted believers to follow Jesus in everyday life, much as the first disciples did.
For example, they read Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount as a real-life guide for Christian living. Christians were to practice love of enemies and seek to live at peace with each other. The example of the church in the book of Acts, where people sold what they had to take care of the poor among them, was to be the practice of the Christian community. The Lord’s Supper was understood to be a memorial meal, uniting believers through faith in Jesus. At all times, allegiance was to be given to Christ alone.
Critics of these early Anabaptists thought their emphasis on discipleship looked too much like an emphasis on works and that the practice of adult or believer’s baptism was an indication of disloyalty to the state, as was their refusal to bear arms. For the Anabaptists, however, good works were a natural result of a life given over to Christ. They were the fruit of salvation. As to loyalty, these Christians affirmed the practice of prayer for government leaders but maintained that their primary citizenship was always in the Kingdom of God.
The Protestant Reformation forever changed Christianity, and some changes were unintended, as is often the case with all movements.
Luther and the other reformers didn’t set out to divide the church. However, by successfully arguing that Scripture outweighed the authority of established church structures, they set a precedent for other groups to separate out when they differed on points of doctrine or church practice. Today there are thousands of denominational groupings and many independent congregations around the globe. Jesus’s prayer that believers might be unified hasn’t yet been fully realized.
Likewise, putting Scripture into the hands of people has been a gift, but it has also encouraged an individualistic spirituality based on personal feelings and private interpretation of Scripture.
The separation of church and state, an early Anabaptist idea, has become enshrined as a pillar of democracy. But people still struggle with giving primary allegiance to Christ and not the state.
It is hard to imagine how different our Christian life would be without the changes brought about by the Reformation. The actions of these long-ago reformers changed the way many Christians understand faith and their participation in the life of the church. They remind us that the Holy Spirit continues to be at work. May we be open to what God has in store for us.
Valerie Rempel has served as dean of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and vice president of Fresno Pacific University. She has degrees from Tabor College, MB Biblical Seminary and Vanderbilt University and has served on a variety of Mennonite Brethren and inter-Mennonite boards. In September 2021, she will begin working as the director of accreditation for The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS).