On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther did something remarkably unrevolutionary: he posted a list of “theses,” a common practice in 16th-century academia. It notified the community of matters to be disputed in an academic debate.
Even the content of these theses was not, on its face, particularly controversial. The familiar thematic emphases of the Reformation — faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone, under the decisive authority of the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone — were yet to be fully articulated.
Nevertheless, in hindsight, we mark this moment as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The heart of its conviction comes in Luther’s first proposition:
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.
Luther was convinced that the Roman Church had departed from a biblical understanding of repentance. Instead of radical life-change, grounded in an embrace of the gospel’s promises, repentance was identified with penance — a performance of prescribed behaviors done to make amends for sin.
Luther was neither the first nor the only person to discover biblical teachings that had been obscured by human tradition. One hundred years earlier, John Huss (c. 1369–1415) argued that the Scriptures, rather than popes or councils, should have primary authority. If this idea wasn’t controversial enough, Huss defied the Catholic Church’s policy of preaching and teaching in Latin, arguing that both the historical transmission of the gospel message and the very nature of Jesus’s incarnation underscored the principle of translation — ideas he had gleaned from British theologian and translator John Wycliffe (d. 1384).
Jesus spoke Aramaic, Paul spoke Greek — therefore, there was no good reason that Huss shouldn’t preach in Czech. For doing so, Huss was burned at the stake in 1415.
When accused at Heidelberg in 1518 and Leipzig in 1519 of being a Hussite, Luther replied that Huss (and Wycliffe) was right. And despite ongoing warnings from papal authorities, some of Luther’s earliest efforts were to translate the Bible and Sunday services into his native German. His contemporaries began to call him “the Saxon Huss.” In 1530, Luther wrote of these reforming efforts,
This which has been begun during my lifetime will be completed after my death. St. John Huss prophesied of me when he wrote from his prison in Bohemia, “They will roast a goose now (for ‘Huss’ means ‘a goose’), but after a hundred years they will hear a swan sing, and him they will endure.” And that is the way it will be, if God wills. (Luther’s Works, Vol. 34, 104)
The Reformation neither begins nor ends with Luther. Wycliffe prepared the way for Huss. Huss prepared the way for Luther. Melanchthon led alongside and after Luther in Wittenberg. Zwingli and Bullinger ran a similar race in Switzerland. Of course there’s Calvin in Geneva, then Theodore Beza after him. And Cranmer, Knox, Latimer, and Ridley in England. And we haven’t even mentioned the remarkable women of the Reformation: Wibrandis Rosenblatt, Katharina von Bora, Marie Dentière, Lady Jane Grey, and many others.
Hundreds of men and women stood with Luther on the sufficiency and authority of Scripture — priests and peasants, maids and metallurgists, nobles and nuns. Perhaps we won’t know their full number until the new heaven and new earth.
Strive to Remember
But we do know dozens, and they are worth remembering. In fact, Scripture commands us to remember godly examples, to consider the outcome of their lives, and to imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7). It serves us by reminding us of both good examples (Hebrews 11) and bad (Joshua 24).
In remembering, we call to mind God’s work in the past for his glory and for the good of his people. We remember so that we don’t foolishly repeat the sins of our forefathers. We look deeply into the past in order to wisely speak into our present.
“We need intimate knowledge of the past,” writes C.S. Lewis,
Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and microphone of his own age.
In 1517, Luther summoned the Catholic Church to remember the gospel: that God alone can cancel a sinner’s guilt — and that God did so through the cross of Christ apart from any work of ours. He and countless other Reformers turned to the Scriptures to remind Christians that the life of faith entails a constant process of remembering God, his word, and his ways, turning away from the false promises of sin, and turning to the true promises of God in Christ.
Here we stand half-a-millennium’s distance from the common but extraordinary moment at Wittenberg, and there is reforming work yet to be done. As we remember the Reformation here at its 500th anniversary, may God awaken us to the subtle errors of our own age. And as we honor the lives of Luther and company, may God grant us repentance and faith to always be reforming.