What was the Reformation?
In 1517, a man named Martin Luther posted a list of concerns about abuses in the church. And the world changed.
The Catholic church had been raising funds for work on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. To help defer these costs, a Dominican priest named John Tetzel was commissioned to sell indulgences in Germany. These “indulgences” offered recipients a way of reducing punishment for sin in the afterlife. “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,” Tetzel would say, “the soul from purgatory springs.” To many, it sounded like salvation was for sale.
Martin Luther was a priest and professor at Wittenberg University at the time, and he opposed the practice of selling indulgences. He wrote 95 Theses attempting to demonstrate the illegitimacy of the practice—which tradition states he subsequently nailed to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. “They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory,” he wrote. “Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.” And again: “It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters.”
These statements, and others, rocked the church. Very quickly copies of the document were circulating all throughout Germany, and then the rest of Europe. Luther was suddenly the centre of attention—and church authorities weren’t pleased. They told him to recant. He refused.
Over the ensuing years, Luther and other reformers would come to question other practices and teachings of the medieval church. In the process, they would come to the conclusion that the Gospel—the proclamation of free forgiveness through Christ—had become obscured in the church. Counting the Scriptures, and not the Pope, the highest authority in the Church, they confessed that we are saved by the grace of Christ alone, received through faith and not by works.
This focus on the Gospel—or the “evangel”, as it is known in Greek—led to the Reformers being called “Evangelicals” (the name “Lutheran” came later, and was originally an insult). But these Evangelicals were also “Catholic”—that is to say, they were deeply rooted in the history of the Church and committed to the faithful biblical practices of the Church throughout the ages.
In one sense, then, the Lutheran Reformation was something new: a call for change. But it was change grounded in the history of the church. It was not a call for revolution; it was a call to be re-formed, to return to the earlier teachings of Christianity spelled out in the Bible.
Find out more about the Reformation by reading about the men and women who played a role in this important period of church history. You can also learn more about the major events of the Reformation. Finally, you can also read about the teachings and beliefs of the Reformers and their spiritual descendant here.