Five hundred years ago today was October 31, 1517. Michelangelo had finished painting the Sistine Chapel five years earlier, and practically everyone would still believe that the earth was the center of our solar system for another twenty-six years (and most people would still think so even after that). Christopher Columbus had discovered the Americas twenty-five years earlier, and the first pilgrims wouldn’t land at Plymouth Harbor for another 103 years. It was a time of religious wars and Black Plague.
October 31, 1517, was a day the world began to change.
After the days of the early church, as recorded in Acts, Christianity continued to grow. By the 1500s, the European church was headquartered in Rome, Italy, under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, but what likely began with pious intentions had spiraled out of control and even common sense.
The Church taught that its own leaders held even higher authority than the Word of God, and the pope was believed to have the power to forgive sins. Common people were denied access to biblical knowledge and even the Bible itself, with all church services performed in scholarly Latin instead of the common language and rare copies of the Bible (also in Latin) kept away from the people—sometimes even chained to tables in monasteries. Church leaders often lived in great wealth, benefitting off of the poor of the land and through tricks such as “indulgences” marketed as spiritual but really invented in order to bring in more money.
The church needed a reformation.
On October 31, 1517, an exasperated monk walked up to the church in Wittenburg, Germany, pulled out a list of 95 complaints against the church, and nailed it to the door. And Martin Luther ignited the Reformation.
Through the coming years and even decades, the Church underwent a sharp and drastic change, creating a permanent split between what is still known as the Catholic Church and the newer preaching of old doctrines known as Protestantism. Luther and others began preaching from the Bible to the people, sharing with them biblical truths that had long been hidden from them. Central doctrines were rediscovered as reformers taught that only God can forgive sins, that Jesus is our only Mediator, and that money can never buy salvation.
Like the Pharisees before them, the Roman Catholic leaders of the day fought back, charging reformers with heresy and condemning those they could to death. But God was stirring up this rediscovery of His grace, and the Gospel spread.
The Reformation is often summarized by the Five Solas: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria. In other words, Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Christ Alone, and To God Alone Be Glory.
It was the “Alone” that mattered. Before 1517, the Church believed in Scripture, grace, faith, Christ, and the glory of God, but it also taught that man’s works must be added to the mix in order to ensure eternal life and acceptance by God. This lie was blown to pieces by the writing and preaching and testimonies of the reformers.
More than Doctrine
But the Reformation was about more than being right theologically. It wasn’t just about changing outward appearances of religion or exchanging one dead system of works for another.
“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell,” Martin Luther wrote, “tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!’”
It was about seeking God Himself.
If it was only about preaching correctly the minute parts of doctrines and the Scriptures as an end in itself, the Reformation would have succeeded in truth but failed in changing hearts. As Jesus told the Pharisees fifteen centuries earlier:
“‘You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life’” (John 5:39-40).
Through the Reformation, we came to understand again that Christianity is not about obeying a set of rules and earning our own salvation. What a sad and joyless way to live. No—in Christianity, we are invited to follow the Creator God who refuses to be boxed into any system, to know the Savior who gave Himself for our debt when we could never ever have paid it, and to enjoy true life forever.
The doctrines are important. The Scriptures are vital. But they point to God, not to themselves, and call every person to seek God while he can.
Before We Seek Him, He Seeks Us
God could have hidden Himself from us. He could have stayed out of our reach, as the Pharisees and medieval church leaders and so many others have tried to tell us.
But He came.
God Himself came to us, flipping our expectations and turning all our assumptions on their heads—and seeking us. He didn’t wait for us to find some secret key or follow the hidden clues. He didn’t speak in unintelligible code through a shrouded group of prideful elites and bar the rest of humanity from attaining His presence.
He invited all of us to seek Him, and promises He will be found when we do. Not because we check everything off of someone else’s list, but because He loves us and came for us–and died for us.
Five hundred years ago today, one lowly monk in a German village nailed a list of 95 complaints against the medieval church on a church door. Through his efforts, a Reformation was ignited that has revolutionized Christianity since, and the question still stands for each of us:
What—or Who—are you seeking?