Happy 500th Anniversary!
…of the day the church became the church again.
Church is not an institution, but a people, centered on a Person, the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Pt. 2:4-5). When Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door in Wittenburg 500 years ago today, the so-called church was by-and-large an apostate institution—they’d abandoned the Gospel, both doctrinally and morally.
Historians summarize the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation with “the Five Solas”. Below, I’ll define each of the five Latin expressions, give the historical context, and finally, the Scriptural source.
Sola Scriptura – The Scripture Alone
“Who’s the boss?” This was the central question of the church in Luther’s day. Is it the Pope? The council who elects the pope? Is it church tradition? Or is it the Scripture? In an emotionally intense exchange before his opponents, just before his excommunication, Luther reportedly stated, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
But is “Sola Scriptura” taught by the Scripture itself? In Gal. 1:8, the Apostle says, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” If an Angel or an Apostle contradicts the Gospel, he is accursed, not authoritative. Certainly the same could be said of a Pope or a Pastor, a Council or a Congregation.
Sola Gratia – By Grace Alone AND Sola Fide – Through Faith Alone
Before receiving God’s grace through faith, Martin Luther was a miserable monk. He tortured his body with fasting, refusing to sleep in order to pray—even flagellating himself to enter more deeply into Christ’s sufferings. Later he said that “if anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I.” Luther’s behavior was not unusual. The official doctrine of the Catholic Church was that salvation was not by grace alone through faith alone, but by keeping the sacraments and living righteously.
Both Sola Gratia and Sola Fide are taught explicitly in the Scripture, over and over again. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one many boast.” Grace means God’s undeserved favor and Faith means confidence in God. These two go hand-in-hand, because our confidence (faith) is in God’s undeserved favor (grace)—not in our own goodness. Confidence in our own goodness is pride.
Solus Christus – In Christ Alone
Luther’s contemporary and adversary, Johann Tetzel, is sometimes given credit for the first marketing jingle: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs.” Tetzel was a German Dominican Friar, earning big bucks for selling “indulgences”—that is, pardon for sins.
Luther’s 28th thesis states that power to pardon lies in “the hands of God alone”. Those hands were crucified on Calvary for the forgiveness of sins. If we could be saved by any other means than Christ crucified, then Jesus would have never died on the cross (Mt. 26:36-46). Salvation is found in no other name (Acts 4:12) because He is the only Mediator between God and Man (1 Tm. 2:6). No amount of "indulgences" could ever pay the price for sin, because Jesus' blood alone has paid our ransom (Mk. 10:45).
Soli Deo Gloria – To the Glory of God Alone
Luther’s 86th thesis states, “Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money, instead of the money of poor believers [through the sale of indulgences]?” Luther felt that the Pope and many of the Catholic clergy lived to pursue their own political and financial glory at the expense of the physically and spiritually impoverished.
The message of Christianity is that God alone deserves the glory because God achieved our salvation for us—“so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:9). Through the Cross, God humbles the proud by coming to them in a way they’d never expect (1 Cor. 1:27-29). Through the Cross, God also exalts the humble who receive God’s gift of salvation freely (1 Cor. 1:21-24). If I achieved my own salvation, then I would deserve the glory. God achieved my salvation in spite of me, not because of me—to the glory of God alone!
A healthy body is not one that never gets sick; it’s one that heals itself properly when sickness comes.
The church is the body of Christ, and sometimes it gets sick. Catholics and Protestants agree that the church was exceedingly sick in Luther’s day, that it’s better now, and that we all have much progress to make until Jesus’ final prayer for unity is answered (Jn. 17).
Whether we’ll ever agree on Mary or Purgatory or transubstantiation, I don’t know. But I do know that someday Jesus’ prayer will be answered.
The 500-year-old feud will become fellowship. Catholics and Protestants will truly be a people centered on a Person, the Lord Jesus Christ—Soli Deo Gloria!
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 “Self-flagellation” was an unfortunate practice during the Middle Ages by which persons struck themselves repeatedly with whips to mimic the passion of the Christ.
 Sometimes, Popes would offer additional strange and unfortunate means for earning forgiveness. Pope Urban II promised would-be Crusaders, “All who die by the way, whether by land or sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall be granted immediate forgiveness of sins. This I grant to all who will march, by virtue of the great gift which God has given me.”