History in 5 Minutes: Reformation Day

Posted on October 31, 2011 by


Today is Reformation Day. That means, while most of the world will be celebrating death, candy, and the start of putting on their hibernation weight, a few of us will be celebrating the courageous sacrifices of the men and women who devoted their lives to the teaching and supremacy of the Word of God.

“The Protestant Reformation” is the name we give to the movement that pulled Western Civilization out of the Dark Ages and rejected superstition and ceremony about what the Bible said for what the Bible actually said – and while you’d think there’d be an obvious distinction between the two, most of Europe had been pretty confused about all of this for a long, long time.

You see, the Roman Catholic Church had, for hundreds of years now, controlled Western Europe. The Pope was the leader of the Roman Catholic Church and was a pretty powerful dude. Basically, if you spoke out against the Pope, he could “excommunicate” you, which basically meant that you couldn’t come to church anymore and that (or at least they believed) you couldn’t go to heaven when you died. Popes set up and dethroned kings, raised armies, started crusades, and were fabulously wealthy. Basically, being the Pope meant you were at the top of the world.

The Protestant Reformation really starts with a guy named John Wycliffe. John Wycliffe was an Oxford Theologian who, in the 14th Century, decided that everybody should be allowed to read the Bible (the Catholic Church had banned the reading of the Scriptures to everyone except Catholic priests). The biggest obstacle to this was the fact that the Scriptures were written in Latin. Even in the 1380’s, nobody spoke Latin anymore.

John Wycliffe

Wycliffe gave us the first Bible in the English Language. Centuries later, every new translation of the Bible into the vernacular follows in his footsteps.

So Wycliffe translated the Bible into English. He also preached against the Pope, and against the greed and corruption of the Catholic Church.  This upset the Catholic Church so much that after Wycliffe died of a stroke at the age of 56, the Church actually dug up his body and burned it. We’re pretty sure this made them look more like sore losers than anything else.

Wycliffe’s theological descendants were a group of guys known as the Lollards. The Lollards traveled the countryside of England and France, teaching from contraband scriptures that had been copied by hand and preaching against the Catholic Church.

About this time, a man by the name of Jan Hus (John Huss) began preaching in Bohemia (modern-day Czechoslovakia), preaching the Gospel as he had read it and sounding the alarm against the rampant corruption within the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church did not appreciate this very much, and had Hus burned alive for his “heresy.” In so doing, though, they sparked the flame that would grow into the wildfire that was the Protestant Reformation.

Jan Hus

He may not look like much, but Jan Hus died singing. While being burned to death. We think that's pretty manly.

In 1510, an Augustinian Monk by the name of Martin Luther was shocked by the corruption of the Roman church on a trip to Rome. He was convicted by the writings of Scripture and horrified by one practice of the Church in particular: The selling of indulgences.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther's Pro-Wrestling moniker was "The Hammer."

Years ago a Pope, Sixtus IV, had come up with the practice selling “indulgences” – allowing you to pay a certain sum of money to absolve yourself or a loved one (even a dead loved one) from sin, thus resulting in a fairly major revenue stream for the Catholic Church.

Luther was convicted by what he read in Scripture and outraged by the selling of indulgences and the many other false teachings and corruptions within the Church. So on October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther nailed a formal challenge to those who taught and sold indulgences: The Ninety-Five Thesis. It was the eve of All Saints Day (called All Hallows Eve – our modern Halloween), a day on which indulgences would be sold for the

95 Thesis

Martin Luther's Ninety-Five thesis

Most people count Luther’s nailing of the Thesis to be the official beginning of the Reformation.  When the Reformation started, of course, isn’t important. What is important is that the movement begun by the Reformation is still happening today. Here are some common beliefs championed by all of the main reformed theologians that we, as Bible-believing Christians, still hold to today:

  • The Holy Scriptures alone are our final rule for faith and practice. The Bible is the only inspired and authoritative Word of God, and has authority that goes above and beyond the teachings or traditions of men – including pastors and popes.
  • Salvation is through faith (being made right with God) comes by faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ alone, without any mixture of or need for good works. Good works can be evidence of saving faith, but they never determine it.
  • Salvation is by grace alone. It is only God’s divine grace or “unmerited favor” which saves us.
  • Salvation is through Christ alone. Christ is the only mediator between God and Man – we don’t need to go through a priest to communicate with God, nor do we need to pray to the Virgin Mary or the saints.
  • Glory goes to God alone – We don’t pray to angels, Mary, or saints. And we don’t worship relics or things that man has pronounced as holy. Doing so accords to imperfect vessels the glory due only to Jesus Christ.
John Calvin

John Calvin: Another one of the great leaders of the reformation, and responsible for more fistfights than all other theologians combined.

Today, whether you’re a Protestant or Baptist (or some hybrid of the two), you can trace your theological and cultural heritage back to the giants of the Protestant Reformation. They weren’t perfect men by any means – but they lived and fought passionately for the supremacy of the Word of God over every aspect of reality.

No offense is intended toward members of the modern-day Catholic church. The intent of this article is to briefly outline the beginning of an important movement in Church history for those of Protestant heritage. This author acknowledges that there are many saved by the grace of Jesus Christ within the Catholic Church.