The Protestant Reformation
Why it still matters to Pentecostals
The date was October 31, 1517. An unknown monk and university professor approached the door of the Castle Church in the small town of Wittenberg, Germany. His purpose? To post provocative theses for debate — 95 of them, to be exact.
This is what scholars did in those days. They posted theses in public to provoke debate. And the door of the church was not an unusual place to post them. Thus, the occasion of posting these theses would not have attracted any attention. Most of those witnessing it would not have given it a second thought. Martin Luther could not have possibly known that this seemingly uneventful occasion would eventually lead to a momentous change in the course of Church history.
The invention of the printing press 77 years earlier allowed people to reproduce and disseminate Luther’s Theses. His words captured the attention of many, including Church authorities, who joined in publically opposing him.
Luther remarked much later in his life: “I would never have thought that such a storm would rise from Rome over one simple scrap of paper.”
But what a scrap of paper it was! Luther’s major goal in the 95 Theses was to reform the sale of indulgences and correct the theological assumptions that accompanied how the Church practiced this sale at the time. Indulgences were part of the larger doctrine of penance.
The Church of Luther’s day had gradually begun to shift the emphasis of its message from what God did to save humanity through Christ to what we should do to convert and to strive for godliness to escape the fires of judgment. With this change, the Church elevated the importance of penance.
Penance consisted of contrition of heart, confession and a penitential act. Within this third category (penitential acts), the Church allowed ecclesiastical authorities to award an “indulgence” to penitent sinners, which involved the lessening of the temporal punishment the Church imposed for sin. The intent was not to justify anyone before God or secure eternal salvation. Church officials could award an indulgence in response to different acts they considered worthy of recognition.
When the Church started offering indulgences for sale, however, some made exaggerated claims about their effect in delivering people or their loved ones from purgatory. Luther observed that many among the uneducated population believed indulgences could in fact secure salvation. Their sale detracted attention from the need for true repentance and faith for salvation.
It led people to think that salvation was available for purchase and that the basis for its magnanimous blessings were the merits of the saints. Such ideas could have crowded out the gospel itself. Greedy for financial gain, those who sold indulgences sometimes spent more time doing this than preaching the gospel.
Luther’s responses in his theses were to the point. In thesis after thesis, Luther directed the attention of the Church from tradition to the authority of God’s Word, from the purchase of indulgences to true repentance, and from human merit to the abundant adequacy of God’s grace for salvation. Most striking in this regard was thesis No. 62: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”
Though Luther’s Theses were provocative and bold for their time, his thoughts were only present there in seminal form. In 1520, he released a few essays that allowed him to bring to full expression his key ideas. The problems he confronted in those writings went beyond indulgences. His purpose was to clarify the very foundations of the Church’s faith. What were his central ideas?
First, Luther trumpeted the biblical idea that Christ alone (solus Christus) won salvation for us. In his Lectures on Galatians, Luther remarked, “There is nothing under the sun that counts for righteousness except Christ alone.”
All our self-generated righteousness falls short of divine glory, for we are sinners (Romans 3:23). In Three Treatises, Luther wrote concerning our recognition of ourselves as sinners: “When you have learned this you will know that you need Christ, who suffered and rose again for you so that, if you believe in him you may through this faith become a new man in so far as your sins are forgiven and you are justified by the merits of another, namely, of Christ alone.”
In Christ, God’s Son became human so that through His life, death and resurrection, humanity could gain reconciliation to God. Luther was thus adamant that Christ alone is the mediator of salvation for humanity (1 Timothy 2:5).
In saying “Christ alone,” Luther pointed to the only source of salvation there is: God’s self-giving to us in Christ. Since salvation comes only in God’s self-giving to us, only the divine Son of God through the Spirit can mediate salvation. In saying this, Luther directed his guns against the idea that both Christ and the Church mediate salvation. No, Christ alone is the mediator of grace, the foundation of the Christian life (1 Corinthians 3:11).
The Church does indeed play an instrumental role in facilitating our encounter with Christ in the power of the Spirit. But Luther was quick to point out that the Church’s proclamation of the Word of God and observance of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are essentially acts of Christ in His own self-giving to us as the sole mediator between God and humanity. Such things are ultimately not in our hands, but in Christ’s.
Luther quipped in Three Treatises, for example, that the priests are not the “lords” of Baptism or of the Lord’s Supper, but mere servants, duty bound to administer these ordinances as Christ wills and in service to Him. As Luther wrote of the Church: “The church has no power to make new divine promises of grace ... since the church is under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For the church was born by the word of promise through faith, and by this same word is nourished and preserved.”
From this chief idea of Christ alone, Luther proceeded by noting that salvation is by grace alone (sola gratia). That some rejected as heresy the idea that in all we do “only pure grace alone counts before God” baffled Luther (from Luther’s Spirituality). How else can it be? All that we have comes from the goodness and mercy of God (James 1:17). Under the banner of “grace alone,” salvation through “Christ alone” exists within a larger framework — namely, a gracious God who loves humanity and acts to save them for no other reason than undeserved love or favor.
Luther was well acquainted with the image of the wrathful God sometimes highlighted in the popular culture of his time. He himself wrestled with this one-sided image of God. The harder he sought to please this God through his own accomplishments, the more he felt under divine wrath, and the more uncertain his status with God seemed to be.
In Lectures on Galatians, Luther wrote of his early years as a monk: “When I was a monk, I made a great effort to live according to the requirements of the monastic rule. I made a practice of confessing and reciting all my sins, but always with prior contrition; I went to confession frequently, and I performed the assigned penances faithfully. Nevertheless, my conscience could never achieve certainty but was always in doubt.”
Amid this turmoil, Luther discovered that the grace of God alone is the foundation of salvation. His response was exuberant. He was able to see every good thing as a gift from God. He was able to read the entire Bible in an entirely new light. He wrote, “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire scripture showed itself to me” (from Luther’s Works, Vol. 31).
Luther never doubted the reality of divine wrath for those who continue to oppose God’s grace. But he found in the good news of the gospel a God whose essence is love (1 John 4:9), who wills to save and not to condemn (2 Peter 3:9). The Cross became in Luther’s thinking the place where God most profoundly revealed His heart. In the face of Jesus Christ, he found the mirror image of a loving Father, and proceeding through Christ toward us, an offer of new life in the Spirit that seeks to take up humanity into the divine embrace.
The principle of “grace alone” means that there is no possibility for humanity to save itself. One cannot meet God partway or do anything that would make one worthy of salvation. Every single step one takes toward God is possible only by the grace of God manifested in Christ and bestowed by the Holy Spirit. Salvation, therefore, is not by grace and works, but simply by grace. Ephesians 2:8-9 is quite clear in this regard: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.”
This is not to say that works are unimportant to the flourishing of the Christian life. Works are indeed vital as the goal or purpose of the grace bestowed upon us. In Three Treatises, Luther wrote movingly that just as the Heavenly Father has freely come to our aid in Christ “we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians.”
God saves us so that our lives may bear fruit and become a source of blessing to others: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). We do good works, but only because we are God’s handiwork. Though good works are a vital part of the Christian life, we receive salvation by grace alone.
Luther proceeded from there to stress that salvation comes through faith alone (sola fide). In saying “faith alone,” Luther understood the longer formula of “by grace through faith alone.” “Grace alone” is the foundation of “faith alone.” This foundation of grace is necessary to avoid turning human faith into a new means of attaining salvation through human effort.
Our Reformation heritage can help us by pointing us to the full significance of a life founded on Christ alone.
God’s Word sparks and sustains faith in our hearts (Romans 10:17). God accepts our faith as the means of receiving Christ purely by grace. Faith may waver, but the deeper basis of salvation is God’s grace alone. In fact, faith by nature does not trust in our accomplishments when it comes to salvation, but only in what God has done to save us.
So, as with grace, we receive salvation through faith and not works. Luther was fond of highlighting the Bible teaching that faith rather than works justifies believers (places them in right relation with God). “To the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Though works are vital to faith as a living reality (James 2:26), the faith that saves us trusts only in God for salvation.
Indeed, as James affirms: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (James 1:17-18). James is thus fully aware that salvation comes only by the grace of God.
When James speaks of becoming righteous through faith and works (James 2:21-24), he speaks of the works of faith, and not of works that presume to earn salvation. He speaks of faith in action. The righteousness or justification of which he speaks in this context is thus not acceptance from God, but rather the vindication of faith as authentic, as a lived reality, for faith without works is dead (James 2:26).
Luther received resistance from Church authorities for his “Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone” message. A lot was at stake for them. The Church used its imagined role as mediator of salvation to bolster its power in the world. It’s easy to see how Church authorities could feel threatened by Luther’s shifting the power to save from the hands of Church authorities to the hands of Christ alone, by grace through faith alone.
To justify his resistance to these authorities, Luther included in his message the idea that the supreme standard for truth in the churches does not reside in the bishops or in tradition, but rather in Scripture alone (sola scriptura). When asked to recant his writings at his trial in 1521, Luther refused, adding famously, “I am bound by the scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”
This is not to say that church leaders or tradition cannot illuminate the Scriptures for us. But the Scriptures for Luther are foundationally self-interpreting. One interprets Scripture by the standard of Scripture’s own overarching gospel, the gospel of Christ. Subsequent tradition has value only in helping us understand that gospel, and it’s important to measure all such tradition by that standard. Though faithful tradition has existed throughout the centuries as vital to the Church’s witness, only the Scripture is the chief authority in the churches, the supreme measure of our faith and practice (2 Timothy 3:15-16).
While the Spirit can speak to us through prophetic messages and other spiritual gifts, only the Scripture is the privileged voice of the Spirit in the churches. We must test or evaluate the traditions or the prophecies to see whether they are true. But the Scripture is always true, the standard by which we test everything else.
Significance of the Reformation Today
This isn’t an attempt to glorify Luther, for he had feet of clay, as does every servant of God. Neither do we intend to overestimate his role in our reflection on the significance of the Reformation for our time. Luther’s act of posting his 95 Theses 500 years ago is merely symbolic of the drive for reform that has characterized the Church from its inception. And, of course, the Reformation was larger and more diverse than the Lutheran Movement. Reformed, Anabaptist, and Anglican leaders contributed to the onset of the Protestant Movement as well.
Still, Luther’s contribution is of enduring significance for any assessment of the significance of the Protestant Movement for church life today. What is this significance? Why should we celebrate Luther’s act of posting 95 Theses 500 years ago?
In discussing the significance of the Reformation for our churches, it is important to recognize that our context was different from Luther’s. The Reformers sought to discover the objective and certain foundation for faith in the midst of the uncertainties of Christian piety. Pentecostals sought instead to promote the experience of grace in the midst of an overly intellectual understanding of faith as a mere confessional stance. For example, Aimee Semple McPherson wrote that we should not merely confess or profess the God of Pentecost, but we should also possess His nature and presence deep in our souls.
Yet, we should not exaggerate the difference. The Reformers also viewed faith as a living participation in Christ, and the Pentecostals accented a new appreciation of the gospel of Christ in all its fullness. It is thus not surprising that Pentecostals have always viewed the Reformation as a valued renewal movement connected to the revivals of later generations.
For example, McPherson wrote of how the ongoing restoration of spiritual life in the Church involved the message of Martin Luther. When Luther grasped the powerful victory of salvation through Christ, it was as if “a great light fell from heaven.” Through his message, “life again began to surge through the trunk and limbs of the tree.”
McPherson continued by showing gratitude to William Booth of the Salvation Army and John Wesley for their emphasis on consecration and holiness. Lastly, the experience of Spirit baptism, especially as signified in gifts like speaking in tongues, caused the spiritual restoration of the church to flourish.
It is, therefore, important to explore the significance of the Reformation for today’s churches. A few points are worth highlighting. First, our efforts to lift up the abundance of life in the Spirit have sometimes neglected the significance of Christ alone as the standard of spiritual experience. Rather than interpreting the fullness of the Spirit in accordance with the example of the crucified Christ, as the fullness of self-giving love, we have sometimes looked to cultural standards of prosperity and material abundance to describe the flourishing of life in the Spirit.
Here is where our Reformation heritage can help us by pointing us to the full significance of a life founded on Christ alone. Rather than conforming to this world, we must welcome transformation by a Christlike renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2).
Second, we often stress the need to believe more strongly and to live godlier lives. This emphasis is all well and good. But it is also necessary to recognize that our acceptance from God does not rest on the quality of our spiritual progress. It rests on what Christ has done for us.
Moreover, though we have a responsibility to seek God passionately, spiritual progress does not rest primarily in our hands. God is the One who enables us. Faith is always weak to an extent and is utterly dependent on God’s grace to sustain it. The Reformation banner of “grace alone” can remind us of such truths.
Lastly, the enduring power of the Protestant Reformation lies in its call to all churches to return to the Scripture time and again to hear its gospel anew. Pentecostals have always sought revival by insisting that churches return to the biblical text with fresh ears to hear the biblical story once again. In doing this, we have revealed a dependence on our Protestant heritage.
The Reformation stood for the principle of a Church under constant reformation (semper reformanda). Our favored term is revival. But both terms point essentially to the same practice of opening the Scripture time and again and asking Christ to speak to us afresh so that we can repent, believe and obey with renewed commitment and fresh power.
There are times in the life of churches when hearing the voice of Christ through this sacred text in the power of the Spirit becomes urgent. This need could arise because of doctrinal error or unfaithful church practices. It could also be a consequence of spiritual or moral laxity.
The Pentecostal Movement sought to hear the gospel with fresh power at the turn of the 20th century. The Reformation still matters because the enduring significance of our Movement will depend on whether we continue to listen.
This article originally appeared in the October/November/December 2017 edition of Influence magazine.