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Church History - The Reformation Print E-mail
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I.  Introduction:

 A couple of weeks ago we ended our discussion of the Medieval Ages by speaking of the Church as being on the verge of reformation.  The corruption in the leadership of the Church, especially the papacy, could not be ignored any longer.  The splits and divisions in the Church needed to be addressed.  More and more people began to recognize the importance of having the Scriptures translated in the people’s own vernaculars.  Thus, the Medieval Church was on the brink of reformation.  To claim that reforming the Church was not even an issue until Martin Luther is an error.  There were many who longed for reform and some who labored for it.  We mentioned Erasmus who was a humanist and hoped for a moral reform.  Yet, the reform he called for did not deal with the primary need in the Church.  As Packer puts it so well in his introduction to Luther’s The Bondage of the Will: “And the nails in the door of the cathedral church were like nails in the coffin of an Erasmian reform.”  Instead, the Church needed theological reform.  The Church needed to recognize the cries of men like Wycliffe and Huss and others who called for radical change.  Luther was not the most likely candidate to call for such reform.  Yet, God in His sovereign plan, chose to use Luther to spark a flame of reform that is still very much felt today.  Luther, along with Zwingli and Calvin and a host of others, were used of God to radically change the course of Church History.  It is these men and events that we will discuss tonight.

II.  Important People of the Reformation:

 A.  First, let us briefly consider the life of Martin Luther.  Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany.  In the middle of his training to be a lawyer he had a strange encounter.  While walking outside during a serious thunderstorm, a bolt of lightning struck the ground close to him and he cried out ‘Help me, St. Anne, I will become a monk.’  In keeping his vow he shortly afterwards became an Augustinian monk.

 Luther was a devout monk.  He was always faithful in his service and paid particular attention to his confessions, often going numerous times per day.  He struggled greatly with his guilt before a holy God.  Eventually, he was sent to Wittenberg and became the professor of Bible at the university there.  Due to this, Luther began to study the Bible fervently.  As he studied, he continued to struggle with the judgment of God and his hope for salvation.  Through this study, the Lord led him to the conviction that justification before God is by faith alone in Jesus Christ (sola fide).  This realization produced a radical shift in Luther’s thought and life and would lead to his split from the Roman Catholic Church. 

 During the time of Luther, there was a priest named Tetzel who was making a fortune selling indulgences for the pope.  Tetzel’s jingle would go ‘As soon as coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.’  What is happening here is that by buying an indulgence a person was able to free their relatives or friends who had died from purgatory.  Since the Pope claimed authority over such matters, he could sell indulgences and make such promises.  The money that was made, which was no small amount, went to support building programs and other financial needs in the Roman Catholic Church.  Tetzel came to an area that was just outside of Wittenberg and Luther heard reports of his practices.  Luther did not agree with the selling of indulgences.  Thus, on October 31st, 1517, Luther nailed his ninety five theses against the selling of indulgences on the door of the Church in Wittenberg.  Seemingly, he did this primarily for discussion of the issue.  Yet, from our vantage point, we see this as the marked beginning of the Protestant Reformation. 

 Even though Luther was not trying to split from the Roman Catholic Church with the nailing of his theses, this very thing did result.  It did not happen overnight, but the split would come.  Following the posting of the theses, Luther continued to write and teach at the University.  Already, many were questioning him.  Yet, things seem to come to a head in 1520 at the Diet of Worms.  This meeting was called by Charles V, the Roman Emperor, who wanted to question Luther on his writings.  Luther stood his ground and gave the infamous response: “Unless I am convicted of error…by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s Word, I cannot and will not recant of anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us.  Here I stand.  I can do no other.  May God help me!  Amen!” 2

 Much more could be said concerning Luther and his life.  I simply want to conclude with some of his writings and contributions.  First, he translated the Bible into German which was a great accomplishment.  Also, he wrote many other books and commentaries that are still in use today.  By writing many hymns, he encouraged the new Church to sing the Bible to one another in their corporate gatherings.  In all this and so much more, Luther made great contributions to the history of the Church.  As we have said before, we would do well to imitate his faith.

 B.  Next I want to talk about Ulrich Zwingli.  The reformation proceeded in stages.  The background stage is what we discussed last week with the Medieval Church and men like Wycliffe and Hus.  The first stage of the Reformation took place with Luther in Germany.  Yet, there is also a history surrounding the Swiss reformation, the English reformation (that we will look at next week), and even the Counter reformation of the Roman Catholics (that we will also look at next week).  Ulrich Zwingli was one of the key players in the Swiss Reformation.

 Zwingli was born in 1484.  While studying to become a priest, he was converted in 1516.  By 1523 he was leading the Reformation and calling for radical changes in the Church in Zurich.  By 1526 he had convinced the Church in Zurich through his teaching and preaching to ultimately sever ties with the Roman Catholic Church.  Although Luther and Zwingli agree over much and fought many of the same battles against the Catholic Church, they did not agree on everything.  They had a major disagreement over communion.  For Luther, he viewed communion as consubstantiation (that Christ was present, just not as radical as the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation).  Zwingli and his followers viewed communion as symbolic, the elements were merely symbols of Christ’s body and blood.  This disagreement would ultimately prevent the two sides from ever joining together.  Zwingli also did not believe in the separation of Church and State.  Thus, his fight for reformation led to war in Switzerland.  He was killed in a battle over Zurich in 1531. 

 C.  Last I want to talk about John Calvin and his contribution to the Reformation movement.  Calvin was born in 1509, later than Luther and Zwingli.  Eventually he would become the leader of Swiss Reformation.  He was converted in the 1520s and shortly after began writing with reformed views (including The Institutes).  His great labor was in the city of Geneva.  Here he was able to train many reformers, including John Knox, who took his teachings with them all over Europe.  Calvin has been criticized greatly for his involvement with the execution of Michael Servetus, a known heretic who was in trouble with Rome and the Reformers.

 Probably one of Calvin’s greatest contributions to the Reformation (along with his labor in Geneva and in his training others) was the writing of The Institutes.  With the Institutes Calvin was able to provide the Reformers with a much needed Systematic Theology.  This work would shape the thoughts of many of the Reformers throughout Europe.  Calvin was a brilliant scholar and his theological writings still stand as some of the best of all of Church History.

 Briefly I should mention the issue of ‘Calvinism.’  Obviously there has been much debate over this topic in recent days in the Church, including our own.  In fact, when you get to the heart of the debate and consider Church History, one realizes that the debate has been battled throughout the history of the Church.  ‘Calvinism’ as used today is summed up with the acronym TULIP.  These letters stand for: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints.  This came as a response to the teachings of Arminius and was never formulated in such a way by Calvin himself.  Some have even questioned as to whether or not Calvin himself was a ‘Calvinist,’ arguing that he did not teach limited atonement in his writings.  I bring this up in our Church History course to simply offer two challenges.  First, know your history, know that this debate did not start with John Calvin and that he never passed out ‘TULIP’ pamphlets.  Second, the value of ‘Calvinism’ is found in the degree to which it helps us in understanding the text.  Thus, study the text, study the text, study the text.  I believe Calvin himself would encourage us to labor in such a task.

III.  What can we learn from the Reformation?

 First let me say, any attempt to cover the Reformation in one Sunday will be greatly limited.  Also, trying to identify what we can learn from the Reformation in a few points is a serious simplification.  Thus, I admit that I am being biased and narrow, yet, we have tried each week to identify some practical application from each period and I want to do the same tonight.  Therefore, I offer the following two lessons:

 First, recognize your own place in Church History.  Who knew Luther’s nailing of the theses would spark a Reformation?  Yet, he was simply trying to be a faithful Bible professor.  It was the Lord who chose to use his faithfulness in such a way.  Likewise, Luther did not reform the Church by himself.  He needed people like Zwingli and Calvin.  As Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 12, the Church is made up of many parts and we all have a role to play.  Labor to be faithful in the role the Lord has called you to play, whatever that may be.

 Second, as has been pointed out before, theology matters.  What was the cry of the Reformation?  Sola Scriptura, Sola fide, Sola gratia.  All of these theological battles are still being fought today.  We must appreciate and learn from what God accomplished through the reformers and we must continue the battles today.  May our gratitude for those who have gone before us only spur us on to be faithful in our fight.  And as we have seen Him do throughout the history of the Church, may God grant us grace to labor well.  Amen.

1 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. by J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (Grand Rapids, Fleming H. Revell, 2000), 19.
2 James P. Eckman, Exploring Church History (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002), 50.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Thursday, 16 August 2007 )

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