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The five foundations of the Reformation

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the outbreak of the great Reformation. In this article, the first of a series spanning the year, we look at what underpinned this massive historical, political and religious upheaval. The Reformation changed the map of Europe, shifting power from the ruling religious establishment and liberating millions in both faith and politics.

Despite the massive upheaval that resulted, it was built entirely on one small word and its variations. Of course many more words followed, but this one word is the foundation of them all. That word is the Latin sola, which means “alone” or “only.” Interestingly, it is the common word of the five cryptic and defining beliefs of the Reformers—and the Reformation.

The five foundations of the Reformation highlight its five distinct and defining points of difference and belief. Although these foundations are never used together as a creed, each was held as a basic and specific belief of Reformation doctrine:

Sola Scriptura—“By Scripture alone,” meaning that the Bible is the only source of spiritual authority;

Solus Christus—“by Christ alone,” meaning that there is salvation through no other;

Sola fide—“by faith alone,” which was perhaps the theme of the Reformation;

Sola gratia—“by grace alone,” meaning that salvation is always a gift, never earned; and,

Soli Deo gloria—“by giving glory to God alone,” and not to any other person or thing.

Where did these five foundations come from? Why were they so important to the Reformation? And are they still relevant today?

By Scripture alone

The Bible is the only authority in matters of religion for Christians. People, regardless of their ecclesiastical status, their edicts or the decisions of their eminent councils, cannot abolish or change the plain statements of the Bible, because it is the Word of God.

The apostle Paul, writing to the young minister Timothy, said, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16, italics added).

The Reformers were exceptionally clear on this point. As Martin Luther said in his great defence at Worms when he was asked to recant, “If I cannot be proved wrong by words from the Scriptures or by some other clear reason—for I do not believe in the pope or in the councils alone, since they have been shown often to err and to contradict themselves—then I am bound by those passages from Scripture that I myself have quoted. As long as my conscience is bound by the Word of God, I cannot and will not recant, because going against conscience is unsafe and threatens salvation.”

Just as Paul commended the believers at Berea for their study of the Bible to prove the new Christian doctrines being presented to them (Acts 17:11), so Christians since the Reformation have upheld the divinely inspired Scriptures to be our only source of divine guidance.

By Christ alone

Christ is at the centre of all belief and doctrine for the believer. When Jesus walked and talked with His two disciples on the way to Emmaus following His death and resurrection, He referred them to the Hebrew Old Testament. Then He showed them how all of these writings, including the prophecies, pointed to Himself. This is good counsel for us today. If any church fails to uphold Christ as its centre and object of devotion, it cannot be counted as Christian.

The apostle Peter, when brought before the Sanhedrin, declared of Christ that “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Jesus Himself said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). Only in Jesus do we have salvation. He is our Authority. He is, as the Bible states, our “all and in all” (Colossians 3:11, NKJV).*

By faith alone

Faith—fide—is the means by which we receive salvation. We cannot be saved by anything we do. Our salvation is only in Jesus, in whom we believe, in whom we have faith. No action on our part can deal with our sins and our sinful state. The Reformers probably used this sola more than any other. They never tired of the mantra “saved by faith”: saved through the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf.

In fact, the Reformation began with sola fide when Luther read in Paul’s letter to the Romans that “the righteous will live by faith” (1:17, italics added). Instead of seeking forgiveness by works such as prayers, vigils, scourgings and climbing stairs on hands and knees, Luther took the simple step of faith given in God’s Word.

Luther preached a great deal about how faith alone can save human beings. So when a Roman delegate named John Tetzel arrived in Germany and began to sell church-endorsed indulgences for the forgiveness of people’s sins, Luther was incensed. Tetzel had been sent by the archbishop of Mainz to raise money for the construction of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome through the sale of indulgences: the purchase of forgiveness for sins past and future.

Luther saw that the people were being hoodwinked by the established church and that true salvation in Christ was being ignored and shamefully exploited for monetary ends.

And so it was that he posted his famous 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenburg Castle Church. To Luther, who was an astute and devout biblical scholar, how we are saved is not merely important but paramount to belief, for without it, there would be no point in devotion.

And what was truth in those Reformation days remains truth today. On the authority of the Bible, nothing we do can earn us our salvation. Rather, salvation is a gift, given to us as we trust only in Jesus. It is this trust, this belief, that is called “faith.”

By grace alone

By grace—gratia—we are saved. Regardless of the life we have led, whether good or bad, we all stand condemned before God as sinners, except for the grace He extends to us through His Son, Jesus. We have no merit that we can present to God to compensate for our sins. Nor can we claim the merits of others who may have lived a good life before us, no matter how elevated their good works may have been. Saints and sinners alike must accept Christ’s merit.

Paul said that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9). The Reformation helped to make this clear at a time when this truth had been lost.

God has provided everything we need for our salvation. And it is all found in Jesus. We just have to accept it. The Reformers brought this into focus, elevating it to where it can be neither ignored nor refuted.

By glory to God alone

The final sola summarises them all: glory to God alone—Dei gloria—His Word, His Son, His gift and His grace. If we believe this and accept His gracious offer in faith and trust Him to deliver on His promises, we have salvation. Paul summarised this again in his letter to the Romans: “For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever!” (Romans 11:36).

And our response to God is that in our lives, whatever we do, whether it’s commonplace daily activities or sharing truth to thousands from a pulpit, we do it all to His glory. That’s why Paul said, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

The great Reformation brought to light—and highlighted—these five foundations of salvation that had been hidden for centuries behind ignorance, myth and tradition. And the passing of 500 years has neither annulled nor improved them.

* Bible verses marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

How luther discovered righteousness by faith

On a hot and sultry day in the year 1505, a young law student named Martin Luther trudged along a rutted road leading to the German village of Stotterheim. Suddenly, without warning, the sky became overcast, a gusty wind whipped through the trees and torrential rain unleashed its fury on the lonely traveller. Peals of thunder rocked the countryside, and a bolt of lightning dropped from the black clouds, sending Luther reeling.

Terrified by the thought that he had been struck down by the Almighty, Luther cried aloud to his patron saint: “Saint Anne, help me! I will become a monk!”

Neither Luther’s enraged father nor the persuasive arguments of his friends could change his mind, and two weeks later he entered the monastery of the Augustinian Order of Hermits to become a monk.

There Luther was taught to be afraid of God and the so-called “demons that surrounded him.” As his sense of sin and guilt deepened, he zealously set about to rid himself of sin and to save his soul by his own good works.

He shrank from no sacrifice, whether it was physical pain or mental stress, in his quest for God’s approval. He later said, “I was a good monk, . . . if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. . . . If I had kept on any longer I should have killed myself with vigils, reading and other work.”

But despite his rigorous efforts to satisfy what he thought was an angry God, Luther never felt that the ledger was balanced. The harder he tried, the more sinful he felt. Inner peace and tranquillity eluded him. He felt that he could not do enough to merit God’s forgiveness and favour.

Luther finally concluded that if forgiveness rested on his own behaviour and his good works, he was a lost man.

He then turned to the church, which promised forgiveness through indulgences, penances and gifts. When the Augustinian monasteries selected him to head a delegation to Rome in 1510, Luther was overjoyed! No city on earth had so many holy relics or spiritual indulgences. He grasped the chance to earn the merit he so desperately needed and secure the peace for which he longed.

“In Rome I was a frantic saint,” he said. “I ran through all the churches and catacombs. . . . I celebrated several masses . . . and almost regretted that my father and mother were still living, for I would have liked to redeem them from purgatory with my masses and other good works and prayers.”

Luther was determined to earn all the merit he could while he was in Rome, and one of the things he did was to climb Pilate’s staircase on his hands and knees—something people still do today, repeating the Lord’s Prayer at each of its 28 steps, and kissing each one as they climb.

Yet even as he climbed the stairs, a disturbing thought kept coming back to him: Was this a valid means of forgiveness? Could a person earn salvation by climbing this staircase? At the top of the stairs Luther heard a voice like thunder that seemed to say to him, “The just shall live by faith.” This was the beginning of Luther’s dramatic change in his theology of salvation.

This nagging doubt accompanied Luther back to the monastery in Germany, where he searched the Bible as never before, determined to find the answer to this question: How is a person saved?

To his amazement, as he studied God’s Word, Luther found no evidence of trying harder or of winning merit to make one righteous. Rather, he found the good news that salvation is free!

As he studied the book of Romans, Luther found the text that would forever quieten his troubled mind: “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17, KJV; see Habakkuk 2:4).

* Bible verses marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Contemporary indulgence

In July last year, the British Guardian online* ran a story under the header, “Vatican offers ‘time off purgatory’ to followers of Pope Francis tweets,” a commentary on a modern twist of the Middle Ages’ papal practice of offering indulgences—time off in purgatory in exchange for confession of sin and good works—describing the initiative as an “attempt to keep up with the times.”

To receive an indulgence, a devotee would register to receive tweets from Pope Francis or attend or engage online with a church event.

The Roman Church grants indulgences to individuals to reduce the time Catholics believe they will have to spend in purgatory after death—and after they’ve confessed and been absolved of their sins. And now, although not for sale as they were by Tetzel in pre-Reformation sixteenth century, the practice is again being offered.

Said the Guardian newspaper, quoting the Vatican’s sacred apostolic penitentiary, a court which handles the forgiveness of sins, “Indulgences these days are granted to those who carry out certain tasks—such as climbing the Sacred Steps, in Rome … a feat that earns believers seven years off purgatory,” adding that attendance at major church events such as the Catholic World Youth Day, in Rio de Janeiro in July last year, or even watching it on television or connecting via social media, would also qualify.

Which is where Twitter comes in, and with Pope Francis’ account bursting at the seams with some seven million followers, there’s a lot of potential. But although the practice has no biblical foundation in respect to the forgiveness of sins, what does is the requirement that a penitent first offer confession and seek forgiveness, although in practice the application of this is also at variance with biblical instruction.

* Read the complete article at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/16/vatican-indulgences-pope-francis-tweets

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