If you own a Bible in your own language, it is a direct result of the Protestant Reformation, and the key figure God used to ignite that worldwide movement of returning to the Bible was Martin Luther: a German monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg.
I grew up attending a Lutheran school until eighth grade. During my time there, I learned a lot about Luther, including studying his catechism. Years later, when I put my faith in Jesus and was born again, I started attending a Calvary Chapel church; and over the years, I have grown in appreciation for Martin Luther and the pivotal role he played in God’s work in the world.
The last day of October is celebrated around the world as Reformation Day, because it was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther set into motion the movement now known as the Reformation, by mailing a letter. Yes, you read that right: on the eve of All Saints Day (Halloween = “All Hallows Eve”), Luther mailed, not nailed, a letter.1 2
The letter was addressed to the Archbishop of Mainz,3 and Luther sent it because he wanted to alert the archbishop that plenary indulgences were being sold in the archbishop’s name by a man named John Tetzel. Tetzel had been sent from Rome the year before to sell these certificates promising the release of a soul from purgatory in exchange for their purchase, as a fundraising campaign for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. Luther assumed the archbishop was unaware that this was going on, and that upon receiving his letter, the archbishop would tell Tetzel to cease and desist. That, however, is not what happened.
As a result of the archbishop’s inaction, Luther, as a professor, decided to organize a scholarly debate on the topic of indulgences: whether they were actually effective in procuring the release of a soul from purgatory. To this end, he wrote up what are now known as the 95 Theses, which he titled: A Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. This paper, which was posted on the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, was an invitation to a scholarly debate, but in it Luther challenged both the selling of indulgences and the doctrine of purgatory as unscriptural. By doing this, Luther was challenging the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching and authority, and insisting that the Bible, not the church, should be the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes correct doctrine.
The posting of the 95 Theses is considered the spark which ignited the Protestant Reformation: a movement which sought to reform the church by shedding man-made traditions and returning to the faith which had been handed to us by God in the Holy Scriptures.
Today, there are nearly 1 billion Protestant Christians in the world.4 In the “majority world,” including Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Muslim world5, Protestant Christianity is growing faster than any other religious movement by conversion.6
Before Luther, there were others who sought to reform the church and bring the Bible to the people. John Wycliffe (1331-1384) published the first English translation of the Bible. Jan Hus (1369-1415) taught the Bible to the common people in Prague. Peter Waldo (1140-1218) commissioned a translation of the New Testament into the local vernacular of southern France. Each of these people were persecuted for trying to put the Scriptures into the hands of the common people.
Over a century before Luther, Hus had protested the sale of plenary indulgences, pointing out that the idea that God’s favor or blessings could be earned in any way, runs contrary to the message of the gospel and the testimony of the Scriptures, and the concept of purgatory is in conflict with the biblical teaching of the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement on the cross.
Martin Luther had long struggled with feelings of condemnation and inadequacy, until his own reading of the Scriptures led him to an epiphany when he read Habakkuk 2:4: “Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; But the righteous will live by his faith.” This led Luther to the other places in the Bible where this phrase is repeated: Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11, and Hebrews 10:38 – where the message is clear: It is not by our own works that we are justified before God, but it is God who justifies us sinners as a gift of His grace, and we receive that justification by faith. After all, the Bible explains, this is how Abraham, the father of our faith, became righteous: he believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3, 22). We receive God’s righteousness, which he has provided for us in Christ, in the same way.
Luther became convinced that everyone needed to be able to read the Scriptures for themselves, and he took it upon himself to translate the Bible into German, a translation that is still in use to this day. Soon the Bible was translated into other languages, including English, as the Reformation spread.
Martin Luther called people back to a belief that the Scriptures are perspicuous (clear), and can be understood by those who read them. He called us back to a belief in the inspiration and sufficiency of Scripture: that it is the ultimate rule of faith, by which we are to measure both doctrine and our lives.
In April 1521, Luther was brought before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, at which Luther was commanded to recant his teachings. Luther refused to do so, famously stating:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason – for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves – I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant.”7
This October, as we celebrate Reformation Day, may we take the opportunity to open the Bible and read it for ourselves, and may we embrace and celebrate the message of the gospel: that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, and that we are justified freely by his grace as we trust in him by faith.
1 Marshall, Peter. 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation. OUP Oxford. 2017.
2 Little, Becky. “Martin Luther Might Not Have Nailed His 95 Theses to the Church Door.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, October 31, 2017.
3 “Luther's Letter to the Archbishop of Mainz (1517).” Historyguide.org, 2002.
4 "Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population." PewResearchCenter. Accessed December 2011.
5 Miller, Duane A., and Patrick Johnstone. Believers in Christ from a Muslim Background: A Global Census II (2015): 2–19. academia.edu
7 “Here I Stand: Martin Luther's Reformation at 500.” Abilene Christian University Special Collections, March 11, 2019.