Reflections on the Reformation

A young monk nailed ninety-five propositions to a church door in Wittenburg 465 years ago this month. Reviewing the movement that was sparked by those hammer blows may help to put a hammer in our hands today.

Sigve Tonstad, M.D., wrote this article while completing an internship in internal medicine at the Loma Linda University Medical Center.

On October 31, 1517, a young man dressed as a monk nailed ninety-five statements to a door in Wittenberg. Once more light from heaven was breaking through the darkness surrounding suffering sinners: God had come in search of man.

The movement that was sparked by those hammer blows has defied analysis ever since, though it has been thoroughly dissected. We have often approached it with purely academic and detached inter est, rather than with a burning desire that a similar, complete, and final reformation might be born again, in our lives and in our lifetime. It is my hope that this review of four major aspects of the Reformation might put "hammer" in our hands again today.

Luther had no thought of starting the movement that followed in the wake of his actions. He was never able to account for the enormous consequences of what he preached and wrote. Christ and His work filled Luther's vision; he wanted Him to fill the vision of every man. Luther's work was a message that swept across the lands as a fire out of control, not a movement that happened in response to careful calculations and well-defined objectives. He "was like a man climbing in the darkness a winding staircase in the steeple of an ancient cathedral. In the blackness he reached out to steady himself, and his hand laid hold of a rope. He was startled to hear the clanging of a bell."1

Relationship to life

Luther began by pointing out specific things that had a direct bearing on the daily life of the common man. He did not start his work by writing an academic dissertation on justification by faith. The event that triggered his first public action had to do with the masses, not with the scholars. A man was selling indulgences in the name of the pope, and customers flocked to him by the thousands. Luther's sheep were among them, and they subsequently came to him with the documents in their pockets assuring them of salvation. Luther was indignant. The people were given a false assurance and with it free license to pursue sin with unhampered energy. They were kept in ignorance of God and of the gift to be obtained "without money and without price" (Isa. 55:1).

The Reformer was compelled to action because of the impact on people's lives. The people picked up the torch because they grasped the issue. What Luther expected to be a dispute on campus became the chief subject of discussion all across the nation. If he had dealt in abstract terms, his message would have been relegated to collecting dust on the shelves of the university. As it turned out, his attack on the lucrative system of indulgences exposed the false gospel on which it rested, and the whole Roman structure came crashing down.

A gospel cause

Though Luther's cause was initially acclaimed by humanists and leading intellectuals of the day, it soon became evident that they and the Reformer served different masters. He was far too much in earnest to settle for the easy compromises of Erasmus or to be concerned about his own academic reputation. He was not walking in the spirit of intellectual elitism as a pathway to truth and reform he was walking on a bloodstained gospel road where he saw himself as one of the crucifiers. He did not share the humanists' confidence in man and in enlightenment. Their optimism was foreign to the message he found in the Bible and the truth it brought to view about himself.

While superficially humanism and the Reformation might have been against the same things, they were not far the same cause. One wanted philosophy and revelation; the other saw no hope except in revelation alone (sola Scriptura). One wanted to recover a simple gospel and the best of ancient literature and culture; the other was committed to Christ alone. One sought to cultivate faith in God and the virtues of man; the other declared every thing hopeless apart from faith alone (sola fide). "I am reading Erasmus," Luther wrote, "but he daily loses his credit with me. I like to see him rebuke with so much firmness and learning the grovelling ignorance of the priests and monks; but I fear that he does not render great service to the doctrine of Christ. What is of man is dearer to him than what is of God." 2

Luther did not completely extricate himself from the many pitfalls to human pride and self-confidence that prevailed in the world of the learned as his frequently volcanic language testifies. 3 But there can be no doubt that he was bent on sweeping away all human pretentions to authority in the spirit of Him who had said, " 'Do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers'" (Matt. 23:8, N.A.S.B.).* Tired of endless human dissertations, he wanted God's voice to be heard in and above his own. Here the difference between him and Erasmus was apparent. The latter "was too much the slave of vanity to acquire a decided influence over his age. He anxiously calculated the result that each step he took might have upon his reputation. . . . 'The pope,' wrote he with childish vanity to an intimate friend, at the period when he declared himself the opponent of Luther, 'the pope has sent me a diploma full of kindness and honourable testimonials. His secretary declares that this is an unprecedented honour, and that the pope dictated every word himself.'" 4 Such an endorsement and distinction would have been both senseless and offensive to Luther.

But they differed not only in the goal and center of Christian scholarship but also in its spirit and atmosphere. Erasmus' most famous book, Praise of Folly, was a satire on the problems and outrageous practices of the church. Luther is remembered as an expositor of the Scriptures. Humanism was clear enough in what it opposed, but it could not follow Luther in what he affirmed, what dominated his work with utter singleness. The Reformation was strong because it had a message of its own, not merely a critique of the existing structure. "Erasmus is very capable of exposing error," Luther wrote, "but he knows not how to teach the truth." 5 The students in Luther's classes came away with a personal joy and fuller understanding of salvation, not with a graying enthusiasm from months spent considering problems and reported discrepancies in the Bible. Teaching theology was to Luther the presenting of the gospel as utterly sufficient to save from sin.

Perhaps Luther sensed that this concern with the message of the Bible might be lost by transforming it into a lukewarm battle field of systematic theology and academic dispute. Thus he wrote: "I am much afraid that the universities will prove to be the great gates of hell, unless they diligently labour in explaining the Holy Scriptures, and engraving them in the hearts of youth. I advise no one to place his child where the Scriptures do not reign paramount. Every institution in which men are not unceasingly occupied with the Word of God must become corrupt." 6

Bible message central

In the end it was the central message of the Bible, not the Bible itself, that gave birth to the Reformation. Even Erasmus was, in a sense, a man of the Word, publishing a Greek New Testament that became the basis for many subsequent translations into the native languages of Europe. But "Erasmus was interested primarily in morals, whereas Luther's ques tion was whether doing right, even if it is possible, can affect a man's fate." 7 It was the practices and superstitions of the Roman Church that worried him, more than the foundation upon which they rested. "Luther himself acknowledged afterwards, that in proclaiming justification by faith, he had laid the axe to the root of the tree." 8 His "initial cry was not a castigation of the crew. It was the ship to which he objected. 'Others,'said he, 'have attacked the life. I attack the doctrine.' Not the abuses of medieval Catholicism, but Catholicism itself as an abuse of the Gospel was the object of his onslaught. . . . The Catholic Church had in his opinion too low an opinion of the majesty and holiness of God and too high an estimate of the worth and potentiality of man." 9

The expression "The just shall live by faith" was the theme of the Reformation. With the understanding of that expression began a new life for Luther. "Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justified us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone though open doors into paradise. . . . If you have a true faith that Christ is your Saviour, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God's heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This it is to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger nor unrighteousness." 10

The battle cry of the Reformers was not do but done! To the multitudes steeped in a joyless struggle to obtain and qualify for salvation came the message that what man could never achieve by his own best endeavors, "God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin" (Rom. 8:3, N.A.S.B.). As they rediscovered the everlasting gospel they had the same surprise that men in all ages had faced. The message was not Do your best to get ready, but " 'Everything is ready; come to the wedding'" (Matt. 22:4, N.A.S.B.). Instead of endless exercises and mortifications in this life, plus the purifying horrors of purgatory, came now the good news from the cross: "It is finished"! Jesus had stood in man's place and borne the consequences of his sin. His life and righteousness were freely reckoned to the believing sinner, giving an assurance that no subsequent spiritual advancement could improve upon. The gospel the Reformers preached was the recovery of the main message of the apostles a message about Jesus, His life, and His work.

Not only did the Reformation restore the certainty of salvation by the true gospel, it also swept away false assurances of a spurious gospel. It offered no life insurance for people determined to live apart from God. In fact, the first incisive sentence nailed to that Wittenberg door was a reaction against the traffic of the Roman Church that offered pardon for a small price and "lulled the conscience to sleep." "Our Lord Jesus Christ willed that the whole life of the Christian should be a life of repentance," 11 Luther pleaded before people who were being deceived by the indulgence dealers. The "faith alone" of Luther was not the empty slogan of the neo-scholastics who followed him. "Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith," he exclaimed, "and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises, it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them." 12

In these days of fading ideals and man-centeredness, God is again going to bring back the message so clearly taught by Luther, and plainly and graphically summed up in the words of Paul: "For I delivered to you as of first importance . . , that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3, N.A.S.B.).


* Scripture quotations marked N.A.S.B. are from the New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation I960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, and are used by permission.

1 Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978), p. 64.

2 J. H. Merle d'Aubigne, History of the Reformation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1976), p. 77.


3 As when he answered Erasmus on the question of free will: "My heart went out to you for having defiled your lovely, brilliant flow of language with such vile stuff. I thought it outrageous to convey material of so low a quality in the trappings of such rare eloquence; it is like using gold or silver dishes to carry garden rubbish or
dung." Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1970), p. 63.

4 D'Aubigne, op. tit., p. 43.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., p. 190.

7 Bainton, op. tit., p. 19$.

8 D'Aubigne, op. tit,, p. 98.

9 Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Boston: The Beacon Press, Inc. 1952), p. 24.

10 Quoted in Bainton, Here I Stand, pp. 49, 50.

11 Daniel Olivier, The Trial of Luther (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1979). p. 5.

12 Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Pubns., 1976), p. xvii.

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Sigve Tonstad, M.D., wrote this article while completing an internship in internal medicine at the Loma Linda University Medical Center.

October 1982

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