By Stephen McDowell
The focal point of the Protestant Reformation was the Bible being translated and made available in the common languages of the people. People began to read the Bible, and when they did these things happened: 1) Individuals were transformed; 2) The Church began to be changed, putting off corruption; 3) The state was gradually reformed. The fruit of the Reformation was revival of individuals, restoration of the church, and reformation of all society.
God uses individuals to change nations and the course of history. Some of those people God used in the Protestant Reformation included Martin Luther, John Calvin, William Tyndale, and John Knox.
God used a flawed, rough, and at times harsh man to launch a gigantic revolution. Martin Luther stood up against the whole force of the religious establishment. “His profound experience of forgiveness in Christ gave him the courage to stand alone against the entire weight of established and entrenched religious deception and blow it to the winds.”[iii]
Many things affected Luther’s development. He committed to become a monk after a narrow escape from lightning – he prayed, “If I survive this storm, I will become a monk!” While at a monastery he read a tract by John Huss, which deeply touched him: “I wondered why a man who could write so Christianly and powerfully had been burned…. I shut the book and turned away with a wounded heart.”[iv]
On a trip to Rome in 1510, he went through every pilgrim devotion possible — from viewing relics to climbing the stone steps of the Santa Scala on his bare knees. “He earned so many indulgences that he almost wished his parents dead so he could deliver them from purgatory.” But he had no peace. The immorality and corruption he saw horrified him. He described the papal court as “an abomination,” writing that it was “served at supper by six naked girls.”[v]
His fellow monks gave him a Latin Bible that he diligently searched for truth. He came to be convinced that “salvation was a new relationship to God based not on any work of merit on man’s part, but on absolute trust in the divine promises.”[vi] This and other truths were contained in Luther’s “95 Theses” that he nailed to the church door at Wittenburg on October 31, 1517. His writings that followed addressed many scriptural truths (such as the priesthood of all believers) and ways to reform the corruption in the church and state (including cutting Papal taxes, reducing bulky government, closing brothels, and reforming university education).
He greatly rocked the boat of the church world and was summoned in 1521 to appear before a papal council in the city of Worms to recant. Friends were terrified at what would happen if he went. Some urged him not to go, others left him, fearing for their own safety. Luther set his face like flint to go, saying: “If there be as many devils at Worms as tiles on the roof-tops, I will enter!”[vii] In his defense before the Diet of Worms, Luther declared:
“I am,” he pleaded, “but a mere man, and not God; I shall therefore defend myself as Christ did, who said, ‘If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil’. . . . For this reason, by the mercy of God I conjure you, most serene Emperor, and you, most illustrious electors and princes, and all men of every degree, to prove from the writings of the prophets and apostles that I have erred. As soon as I am convinced of this, I will retract every error, and will be the first to lay hold of my books, and throw them into the fire. . . . I cannot submit my faith either to the Pope or to the councils, because it is clear as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless, therefore, I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clear reasoning, unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, and unless my conscience is thus bound by the Word of God, I cannot and will not retract; for it is unsafe and injurious to act against one’s own conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other: may God help me! Amen.[viii]
Understanding how dangerous it was to disagree with the church leadership at this time magnifies the boldness of Luther’s statements. In the 50 years prior to Luther sparking the Protestant Reformation, “the Spanish Inquisition alone had burned alive thirteen thousand men, women, and children, and had racked, tortured, and thrown into fearful dungeons a hundred and seventy thousand more.”[ix]
Luther was condemned to death by the state, but since he was promised safe passage beforehand he was allowed to leave. On the road he was abducted by the friendly King Fredrick the Wise who hid him in his castle in Wartburg. Here, he finished much writing, including Scripture translation.
Luther had many shortcomings, especially by modern standards. He was impetuous, rough, sometimes crude, and at times issued shockingly harsh statements. Yet, God used him to help bring about a mighty revival and restore the light of truth to a dark world – even while Luther himself exhibited some of the fruit of that dark world.
Through his belief in Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) and his translation of the Bible (in 1534 in German), he helped establish truth amidst the common people — the truth of justification by faith and the place of the Bible in the life of the Christian. The truth in Scripture is the foundation for all revival. Charles Spurgeon wrote:
That great religious excitement has occurred apart from Gospel truth we admit; but anything which we as believers in Christ would call a revival of religion has always been attended with clear evangelical instruction upon cardinal points of truth.[x]
This was the backbone of the Protestant Reformation. According to Spurgeon, “The Reformation was due not so much to the fact that Luther was earnest, Calvin learned, Zwingli brave, and Knox indefatigable, as to this — old truth was brought to the front and to the poor the Gospel was preached.”[xi]
Revival is not founded on religious fervor, passion or human emotion, but upon truth — truth that is acted upon, truth made known by the Holy Spirit. Some of the truths recovered in the Reformation included: (1) The recovery of the source of Truth, the Scriptures — sola scriptura; (2) Justification by faith; (3) The Lordship of Christ, over men and nations; (4) The sovereignty of God, fulfilling his purpose in men and nations; (5) The priesthood of all believers.
*This article was excerpted from Biblical Revival and the Transformation of Nations. It can be ordered here.
[i] See Mark Beliles and Stephen McDowell, America’s Providential History, Charlottesville, Vir.: Providence Foundation, 2010, pp. 43-44 for more.
[ii] See Foxes Book of Martyrs, Fair Sunshine by Jock Purves, and By Their Blood, Christian Martyrs of the 20th Century by James and Marti Hefley for the stories of some who were persecuted and killed.
[iii] Pratney, p. 27.
[iv] Martin Luther and the Reformation by Beard, quoted in Pratney, p. 37.
[v] Pratney, p. 37.
[vi] Ibid., p. 38.
[vii] Martin Luther and the Reformation by Beard, quoted in Pratney, p. 43.
[viii] From History of the Christian Church by Henry C. Sheldon, quoted in Rosalie Slater, Teaching and Learning America’s Christian History, San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1980, p. 169.
[ix] Pratney, p. 35.
[x] C.H. Spurgeon, The Sword and the Trowel, p. 216, quoted in Pratney, p. 58.