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What was the Lutheran Reformation?

By Dr. Richard P. Bucher

The Lutheran Reformation was an event in 16th Century Germany and Europe in which God used the monk Martin Luther (1483-1546) to reform the Christian Church of that day. By "reform" we mean to correct abuses and to restore it to what it should be.

However, it is important to understand, that this was not the first or only reformation. Over the fifteen hundred years of church history prior to this, there were many reformations. Heiko Oberman is quite right when he says that in the Middle Ages the word reformation was as popular as the word democracy is today. Many pushed for reforms in the Church of one kind or another.

A reformation in the 11th Century, led by Pope Gregory VII, attacked lay control of the Church, simony (buying church offices), and clergy immorality. In the 14th Century John Wyclif (d. 1384) sparked a reformation in England when he attacked the power and corruption of the Roman Church, rejected celibacy and transubstantiation, and stressed the reading of the Scriptures in the vernacular. In the 15th Century, the Bohemian, Jan Hus (d. 1415), influenced by Wyclif, initiated a reformation among his people by directing the people to obey God rather than the Roman Church authorities. By their false teachings and immorality, they had forfeited the right to be called Church. These are just three examples of the many reformations throughout church history.

Yet, none of these reformations were like Luther's Reformation. Luther also sought to reform various abuses in morals. He also attacked the Pope and the domination of the Roman Church. What made his reformation unique was that it was more concerned with doctrine than life. The heart of the Lutheran Reformation was a recovery of sound New Testament doctrine. In one of his table talks, Luther remarked:

Doctrine and life are to be distinguished. Life is as bad among us as among the papists. Hence we do not fight and damn them because of their bad lives. Wyclif and Hus, who fought over the moral quality of life, failed to understand this . . . When the Word of God , remains pure, even if the quality of life fails us, life is placed in a position to be what it ought to be. That is why everything hinges on the purity of the Word. I have succeeded only if I have taught correctly (WA TR 1:624; LW 54:110).

God's Reformation of His Church through Martin Luther began as a rediscovery of the main teaching of Christianity, that we are declared righteous (justified) by faith in the cross of Jesus Christ. It is not our righteousness (created by our works, efforts, and obeying God's laws) that saves us; Christ's righteousness saves us. And His righteousness is credited to our account when we believe that He died for us.

Put very simply, Luther's Reformation was a matter of taking this rediscovered Gospel, showing that it was Scriptural, and then reforming the Church by it. Whatever in the Church was found to contradict this Gospel of salvation by grace through faith was to be reformed. Anything else (if it edified) could be retained.

Luther's Reformation was concerned with essentials, with the very heart of Christianity. It is for this reason that it swept through Europe and had such amazing results. Without this Reformation, there would have been no salvation, for the Gospel would have remained largely hidden. When we celebrate the Reformation, we are celebrating this rediscovered Gospel that we believe in; and we are celebrating our salvation through Jesus Christ.