Last week was a very special anniversary. The 31st October marked 500 years to the day that a young monk, Martin Luther, nailed a list of 95 thesis to the church door in Wittenberg. By so doing, he intended to spark a public debate about some of the issues he saw with the Catholic Church.
Although he hadn’t yet come to a full realisation of the level of the issues with the church, he had begun to study the Bible carefully and in its original languages and was beginning to see the points at which the Catholic Church was in discord with the plain teaching of the Bible. He was persuaded that significant reform was needed in order to bring the church back in line with the message of the Bible. A handful of others were also beginning to make the same discoveries at the same time.
This reformation was not just an unfortunate happening, but a recovery of the gospel. The abuses of the church were such that it distorted the gospel, giving people a false hope in a law-based human-centred dependence. The gospel of grace needed to be recovered in order for people to hear and be saved. So the 500 year celebration is exactly that – a celebration.
Within the last century, as scholars and theologians have looked back over this reformation period in history, they have summarised up by teasing out five statements that are key aspects of the teaching of the reformers. They are united by the word “sola” which is Latin for “only” or “alone”.
Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura): Whereas the Catholic Church insisted that church tradition and the declarations of the Pope held as much (if not more) authority as the Bible, the reformers taught that it is scripture alone that is our foundational knowledge for all things of faith, and this is the measure of any tradition or teaching of the church.
By Grace Alone (Sola Gratia): Whereas the Catholic teaching was that a combination of God’s grace with our merits of penance and good works, as well as the merits of the saints, the reforms insisted that it is God’s kind gift of love in grace that saves us.
Through Faith Alone (Sola Fide): Whereas Catholicism had for a long time taught that we are considered in the right before God by our works as much as by faith, those seeking to change the church explained the teaching of scripture – that it is only by dependant trust in Jesus and his atoning death that his righteousness is credited to us and by which we are declared in the right with God.
In Christ Alone (Solus Christus): Whereas it was held that our merits and the merits of the saints contribute to our salvation alongside the work of Jesus and that the saints as much as the Son can mediate between ourselves and the Father, the reformers upheld Christ’s life, death and resurrection as the only focus of our faith, as the only source of our salvation, and him as our only mediator between ourselves and the Father.
To God’s Glory (Alone Soli Deo Gloria): Whereas the works-based self-merited system of the Catholic Church brings glory to humans for having achieved their own salvation by working hard and being good enough, the basis for true salvation, as taught by the reformers, gives all the glory to God and to him alone.
These are not five irrelevant teachings of the past, but ongoing truths that the Bible itself teaches, that the Catholic Church still denies (even if their language has become more ambiguous) and that are crucial for us to hold to. Moreover, it is so easy for us to fall into the same pitfalls in other ways, such as by giving too heavy weight to traditions of the past, or by slipping into works to pay back for our grace. And so, the reformation is not merely something of the past, but something that continues today.
(If you’d like to know more about Luther and his 95 theses, then make sure you’re at prayer meetings over the coming year as Jonny will be covering them to help us in our praying. Originally published in the November edition of our Church Magazine.)