The Protestant Reformation – Then and Now

by Anna Ferraro

2017 marks the 500-year anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation – a movement that began in Wittenberg, Germany, and ultimately spread across the globe, calling individuals to find a way to God by believing in His Word, relying on Jesus Christ, trusting in grace, and doing it all for His glory alone – not for or through an institution or a religious system. In the Catholic churches of that day, the act of confession was cheap, the Bible was inaccessible to the layman, and any spiritual answers to the questions of life were withheld from the common man – being holed up in dark churches and Scripture that was hidden in languages that were only read by the papacy.

In the movement, Protestants, as they were called, broke away from the Catholic Church of that day, and embraced a relationship with God, through faith. The movement officially began when Martin Luther nailed his theses of beliefs to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. This thesis was the result of Luther’s personal quest for peace with God through a personal relationship, and Luther’s desire to see others find their own relationship with God through faith in His Word, and not through the institutions of the day. As many effects of the movement endure today, and are being celebrated as its 500-year anniversary dawns, its principles and values are worth pondering.

Adam Dichsen, pastor at Faith Lutheran Church, shared his thoughts on the Protestant Reformation, saying, “Typically, we [Lutherans] do a lot of celebration of tradition and history. … [This time of year gives] an opportunity to look at how the church is being reformed today. [We ask], how does reformation take place, and how does it need to take place? Ultimately, reformation is not the work of a man, but the work of the Holy Spirit.”

Martin Luther stated that while the Reformation was indeed a work of the Spirit, it should be clarified that the Reformation was a work of the Spirit through God’s Word – the Bible. Thus, in essence, the Reformation was a movement that went back to the sources, Ad fontes! Hence, one of the main benefits for us today is our ability to read the Bible. Luther unleashed the Word by translating it into German, and William Tyndale did the same in English. Thus, today, for all spiritual questions, there are answers – even for the layman. And thanks to men like Luther, we can find those answers by digging deeply into the Bible – the Word of God. In his day, Luther said, “I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip [Melanchthon] and my [Nicolaus von] Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.”

Dichsen discussed one of Luther’s motives for the movement, saying, “[I feel that Luther] actually started the Reformation out of pastoral care for the people in his church. He felt that the act of confession was being cheapened in the Catholic church of that day. … [Luther] wanted to make sure that the people did not misunderstand the power of the cross and the theology of the cross – that there is suffering as a consequence of sin, and that suffering was alleviated through Christ’s sacrifice, given to us by the grace of God.” Dichsen concluded with gravity, saying, “Luther’s primary concern was the message of the cross.”

For Luther, the Reformation was also deeply personal. Luther wanted to know if there was a gracious God, and if so, can man have peace with him? Or will man be sent to hell? For years before he presented his ideals publicly, Luther wrestled with them privately. Ultimately, he found his answers in the Bible, specifically, in the book of Romans. There he condensed the words of the Apostle Paul into a definition of salvation that is freeing and incredible – salvation and eternal life are not gained by doing good works, nor can they be granted through any religious group – they are a free gift. One can only gain access to God by believing in His son, Jesus Christ, and thereby receiving the free gift of eternal life in Heaven. Reading the book of Romans settled the questions on salvation, heaven, and hell, for Luther and his contemporaries. Together, they held up core truths about the gospel, saying that salvation is “by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone.”

In the lives of the reformers, these truths played out in practical ways. Dichsen discussed Luther’s view on baptism, saying, “Luther was big on the sacrament of baptism as a daily [figurative] practice. Every day, we die to sin and rise again in new life – what I see as a great need in the church today – the Holy Spirit moving in us to help people to live in that baptism each day, and to see each day as a death and resurrection and to see that it is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that brings us true [eternal] life.”

In addressing some of the conflicts surrounding the Protestant Reformation, Dichsen shared, “Reformation can also and should also be not just a celebration, but also a point for grieving, that there has been division in the church between different denominations.” Looking through history, Dichsen mused, “Sometimes the disagreements caused wars and deaths. Sometimes today there can be hurtful discrimination or attitudes, or competitions. I think just acknowledging this [in the Protestant Reformation in 1517] is one of the first times that it opened doors for disagreements, where people started their own churches. As a result, [the Reformation] created a church divided with different denominations. [Sometimes, it brings] good ways that we can do things differently…. [there are] also times where it can be extremely frustrating.”

As such, Dichsen shared a sentiment that he has heard and felt from Catholics, saying, “There are things that we’re not proud of, like in our own country. Although we are aware of those parts of our nation’s history, we have found ways to move beyond them, and be a more just and loving and inclusive community. … Catholics recognize that about the Protestant reformation. They’re not trying to deny that there was wrongdoing and inappropriate behavior in the Catholic Church [at that time]. In fact, a Catholic reformation followed the Protestant Reformation. In my sense, people that I talk to that are aware of the history and accepting of it, recognized that [the Reformation] needed to happen. They don’t want to demonize Martin Luther. Sometimes, they wish that we could move beyond some of those things that pitted us against each other 500 years ago – and figure out how to move together on the things that unite us.” Dichsen concluded that thought by saying, “As a whole, I see the Roman Catholic church as accepting the celebration of the reformation, acknowledging what happened, [and] seeing it as an opportunity to come together again.”

For Dichsen, the big picture of celebrating the Reformation this year is “not a celebration of the event that took place 500 years ago, but a celebration of a movement of the Holy Spirit that brings us around a shared gospel where we can work together in the future.” Dichsen shared that he feels this happening at the local level, as he meets with Catholics to do volunteer work in various parts of the community. Dichsen shared, “For the most part, differences that are still there don’t get in the way of what we’re doing and why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

But the love for service and being united as a community doesn’t change Dichsen’s values. As the Protestant Reformation rolls into its 500-year anniversary, Dichsen acknowledged the deep implications of the Reformation’s cornerstones, known in Latin as the “Five Solas” – Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura, Solus Christus, Sola Gratia, Soli Deo Gloria (translated- “only by faith, only through Scripture, only in Christ, only by grace, to the glory of God alone). He shared that he desires to see himself and his congregation living out the Five Solas year-round, and allowing them to permeate every area of their lives.

Hence, should we all? For when an individual like Martin Luther offers up his or her life for a cause, and a movement sparks across a nation, it is worth researching. And if that movement spreads across the globe and effects change, and inspires individuals centuries later, it’s worth pondering. Half a millennium later, the “Five Solas” are alive and well – thriving and multiplying in the hearts and minds of individuals around the world, and the layman holds the Bible, where he can learn about how to truly find peace with God.

And so I ask – as the celebration of the Protestant Reformation dawns, where do you stand? If you had lived 500 years ago when Martin Luther said that salvation is “by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone,” would you have aligned with that?

Have you, like Luther, found perfect peace with God? Do you think that salvation is entirely given by grace from God? And since one of the greatest impacts of the Reformation today is the free access we have to the Bible, do you read it? To enter into the spirit of the Reformation, you can, like Luther, read the letter to the Romans, or the Gospel of John. In light of the times and the celebration this year, I invite you to ponder those concepts. And don’t just ponder them alone – to participate in local events highlighting the 500-year anniversary of this historical event, please visit www.faithlutheranjacksonville.com for more information.

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