Martin Luther - Wikimedia Commons


Previous: Revelation 3:1

"I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead." - Revelation 3:1:c-e

Jesus said the Church at Sardis was dead! A "dead" church is no great surprise. There are plenty of them in our time, just as there have always been. These are churches where the evangelistic fire has gone out; where there are few new believers with their catalytic enthusiasm; where there is little sincere hunger to learn God's Word. A dead church might still have a full schedule of meetings, but no intense love for one another, no life-changing appeal for young people, and a shortage of workers and funds for children's ministries. It might be active in caring for social needs, and conducting charities for the poor, but stagnant in its concern for revival and taking the Gospel to the lost.

At this point we turn our attention to the next period of Church history. It began with good intentions, sincere study of God's Word, and amazing courage on the part of a few leaders to stand against the errors that had crept into the Catholic Church. This was the period of the Reformation.

There had been attempts at reforming the Church by others like John Hus, John Wycliffe, and the Waldensians. Dissatisfaction with the Church was high.

For Martin Luther, who was a German monk, a Catholic priest, and a professor of theology, the fact that the church was selling indulgences was the last straw on load of theological problems and unfortunate practices the church had adopted during the Middle Ages. We explained many of these issues in the notes on the previous church - Thyatira.

The Reformation began in 1517, when Martin Luther posted his list of grievances, known as the "95 Theses," on the door of the All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, Germany. He didn't want to start a new denomination. He had hoped that his suggestions would bring about internal change in the Church. However, his ideas were rejected by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

What was good about the Reformation?

As we saw above, Jesus told the Church at Sardis, "You have a name that you are alive." In the big picture of Church history, this was also true of the Reformation period.

Bible Translations and Printed Bibles

One of the most important developments that led to the Reformation was the availability of printed Bibles. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450, and published The Latin Vulgate version of the Bible in1456. This made it possible for sincere Bible scholars to read the whole Bible themselves.

Another Bible that is said to have inspired Martin Luther was Desiderius Erasmus' Greek New Testament, published in 1516. The ability to study the New Testament in the original language has been a key to careful Bible study ever since that time.

Once the Reformation began, the availability of Bibles in the languages of the common man became very important. Martin Luther provided a German version of the New Testament in 1522. William Tyndale published the first English New Testament in 1526. By 1611 the authorized King James Bible was made available to all in the English-speaking world.

Rejection of obvious false teaching and practices

To Luther and the multitudes of people who followed him, the worst practice of the Church was the sale of indulgences. An indulgence was forgiveness of sins from the pope for some special sacrifice by the sinner. The practice originated in 1095 at the call for participants in the Crusades. They were granted by Pope Urban II to knights who would risk their lives for the cause of recapturing Jerusalem and to people who could help finance the cause.

The later doctrine of Purgatory opened the way for the widespread sale of indulgences. As we mentioned before, there were sporadic teachings about Purgatory from about AD 1200, but in AD 1254 the concept was established formally by the First Council of Lyon. By Luther's time the practice of selling indulgences had become intolerable. Pope Leo X, who needed funds to complete the building of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, authorized certain groups to market indulgences. These franchises were highly motivated because they were allowed to keep about half of the proceeds. One authorized seller was Albert of Brandenburg.

[He] advertised that his indulgences (issued by the pope) came with a complete remission of sins, allowing escape from all of the pains of purgatory. Moreover, Albert claimed, purchasers of indulgences could use them to free a loved one already dead from the pains of purgatory that he or she might presently be experiencing.
(Questions & Answers Concerning Indulgences- University of Missouri, Kansas City school of Law

One of Brandenburg's vendors, John Tetzel, made matters even worse. He went from town to town with a procession that included local dignitaries, a cross bearing the papal arms, and the papal bull of indulgence carried on a velvet cushion. In each place he delivered a sermon that promised forgiveness to those who would buy an indulgence. Furthermore, he said, one ought to purchase an indulgence for his friends and relatives who were burning in the flames of purgatory. He created a jingle to help people decide. It was, "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." (ibid.)

There were many other theological changes adopted in order to return to the teaching of the Bible. Some of these issues were the priesthood (1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 5:10; Matthew 23:9), the meaning of the Mass (Hebrews 9:24-28; Hebrews 10:10-14), and the veneration of Mary and saints (Exodus 20:4-5).

The next year Ulrich Zwingli began the Swiss Reformation in Zurich. He adopted most of Luther's reforms and abandoned certain Roman Catholic teachings, such as clerical celibacy (1 Corinthians 9:5), and papal infallibility (Galatians 1:8). Church historians identified some 15 points of agreement between the two Reformation camps, and one serious difference. The Swiss disagreed with Luther's concept that the elements of the Lord's Supper retained their original nature (bread and wine) while also changing substance to become the body and blood of Christ. He called this concept "consubstantiation." (The Catholic Church called it "transubstantiation," meaning that it no longer was bread and wine, but only the body and blood of Christ.) Zwingli insisted that the elements did not change, but were just symbolic of Christ's body and blood. Luther would not overlook this difference, so the two reformation movements proceeded separately. Luther's followers became the Lutherans. The followers of Zwingli and theologian John Calvin became the Presbyterians, the Dutch Reformed Church, and other branches of Calvinism in Europe.

During this transition Luther published The Christian Nobility of the German Nation, in which he taught the doctrine of the Priesthood of all believers and denied the authority of the Pope to interpret, or confirm interpretation of the Bible. The Catholic Church declared him a heretic in 1521 and formally excommunicated him.

Just a few years later, in 1525, another variation of the Reform movement began. Their adherents believed that the original Reformation didn't go far enough in the process of returning to biblical roots. They believed that only adults should be baptized into the Christian faith. The Catholic Church had taught that babies should be baptized so that, in case they die in infancy, they would go to heaven. These "Anabaptists" accepted the Bible's teaching that baptism was a person's public confession of faith in Christ, and therefore, could not be done by infants (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:38-41; Romans 6:3-11). They considered it harmful to continue with the practice of infant baptism because many people would count on their baptism for salvation instead of developing a personal relationship with Christ.

Anabaptists gradually adopted several other tenants that they felt were more biblical than those of the earlier reformers. Here are some of these reforms and passages they often used in support of them: not taking oaths (Matthew 5:33-37), pacifism (Matthew 5:38-42), and separation of civil government from the Church: meaning that believers must not fill any office or hold any rank under government (John 18:36; Romans 13:1-7). The Mennonites and The Amish are descendants of this Anabaptist movement.

Some of the other major denominations that came out of the Reformation era are the Puritans, the Quakers and the Baptists.

Return to the Bible as the only infallible source of truth

One of the primary tenants of Protestantism was expressed by the Latin words, "Sola Scriptura," which means "Only Scripture," or "Scripture alone." Every aspect of our belief must be supported by biblical principles. Anything that disagrees with the Bible is to be rejected. The pronouncements of church leaders would no longer be sufficient to establish doctrine. It would have to be based on the Bible.

In 1536 John Calvin published first edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion in which he sought to employ this principle of the preeminence of Scripture.

Return to Faith instead of Works for Salvation

Two other corollaries of Sola Scriptura also defined the Protestant Reformation. "Sola Fide" (Faith alone) is the expression of the truth that no one is saved by good works, but only by faith. "Sola Gratia" (Grace alone) relates the fact that we do not deserve the gift of salvation, but it is given because of God's grace (undeserved favor)(Ephesians 2:8-10).

Courage and Conviction

Another good thing that should be remembered about the Reformation is that the leaders, and even the followers, of this movement were people of great bravery and strong beliefs. We owe an incredible debt of gratitude to those who had the knowledge and the strength of character to stand up to the hierarchy of the corrupt Church as well as the kings and other civil authorities who were unduly influenced by the Church.

Let us keep these good facets of the Reformation in mind as we explore the other side of the issue: Jesus' stinging rebuke: "But you are dead."

Next: Revelation 3:1 c-e - Continued


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