What is the Protestant Reformation?
The Protestant Reformation was a 16th-century movement fueled by the concern of faithful pastor-theologians like Martin Luther and many men before him that the Church be grounded in the Word of God. Martin Luther confronted the teaching of indulgences because he was concerned about the souls of men and made known the truth of the finished and sufficient work of the Lord Jesus no matter the cost. Men like John Calvin preached multiple times a week from the Bible and engaged in personal correspondence with pastors worldwide. With Luther in Germany, Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, and John Calvin in Geneva, the Reformation spread worldwide. Even before these men were around, men like Peter Waldon (1140-1217) and his followers in the Alpine regions, John Wycliffe (1324-1384) and the Lollards in England, and John Huss (1373- 14:15) and his followers in Bohemia were laboring for Reformation.
Some Important People in the Protestant Reformation
One of the most significant figures of the Reformation was Martin Luther. In many ways, Martin Luther, with his towering intellect and over-the-top personality, helped ignite the Reformation and fueled it into a bonfire under his watch. His nailing of the ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, provoked a debate that led to his being excommunicated by a papal bull from the Roman Catholic church. Luther’s study of Scripture led to the confrontation at the Diet of Worms with the Catholic Church. At the Diet of Worms, he famously said that unless he could be persuaded by plain reason and by the Word of God, he would not budge and would stand on the Word of God because he could do no other.
Luther’s study of Scripture led him to oppose the church in Rome on many fronts, including focusing on Scripture over church tradition and what the Bible teaches about how sinners can be made righteous in the sight of the Lord by the finished and sufficient work of the Lord Jesus. Luther’s rediscovery of justification by faith alone in Christ alone and his translation of the Bible into German enabled people in his time to study the Word of God. Another critical aspect of Luther’s ministry was recapturing the biblical view of the believer’s priesthood, showing that all people and their work have purpose and dignity because they serve the Creator God.
Others followed Luther’s brave example, including the following:
- Hugh Latimer (1487–1555).
- Martin Bucer (1491–1551).
- William Tyndale (1494–1536).
- Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560).
- John Rogers (1500–1555).
- Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575).
All of these and many others were committed to Scripture and sovereign grace.
In 1543 another prominent figure in the Reformation, Martin Bucer, asked John Calvin to write a defense of the Reformation to Emperor Charles V at the imperial diet set to meet at Speyer in 1544. Bucer knew that Charles V was surrounded by counselors who opposed reform in the church and believed Calvin was the most capable defender the Reformation had to defend the Protestants. Calvin rose to the challenge by writing the brilliant work The Necessity of Reforming the Church. While Calvin’s argument did not convince Charles V, The Necessity of Reforming the Church has come to be regarded as the best presentation of Reformed Protestantism ever written.
Another critical person in the Reformation was Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the printing press in 1454. The printing press enabled Reformers’ ideas to spread rapidly, bringing renewal in the Bible and all Scripture taught to the Church.
The Purpose of the Protestant Reformation
The distinguishing marks of the Protestant Reformation are in the five slogans known as the Solas: Sola Scripture (“Scripture alone”), Solus Christus (“Christ Alone”), Sola Gratia (“grace alone”), Sola Fide (“faith alone”), and Soli Deo Gloria (“the glory of God alone”).
One of the main reasons the Protestant Reformation occurred was the abuse of spiritual authority. The central issue of the Reformation was the authority of the Lord and His Word. The Church’s most critical authority is the Lord and His written revelation. If anyone wants to hear God speak, they must read the Word of God, and if they’re going to hear Him audibly, then they must read the Word out loud. When the Reformers proclaimed, “Scripture alone,” they expressed a commitment to the authority of Scripture as the reliable, sufficient, binding, clear, and trustworthy Word of God.
The Reformation was a crisis over which authority should have priority, the Church or Scripture. Protestants are not against church history, which helps Christians understand their faith’s roots. Instead, what Protestants mean by Sola Scripture is that we are first and foremost committed to the Word of God and all of it teaches because we are convinced it is the reliable, sufficient, binding, clear, and trustworthy Word of God. With Scripture as our foundation, Christians can learn from the Church Fathers as Calvin and Luther did, but Protestants do not place the Church Fathers or Church tradition above the Word of God.
At stake in the Reformation was this central issue of who is authoritative, the Pope, the church’s traditions or church councils, personal feelings, or Scripture alone. Rome claimed the church’s authority lay with Scripture and tradition at the same level, so this made Scripture and the pope at the same level as Scripture and church councils. The Protestant Reformation sought to change these convictions by placing authority with the Word of God alone. A commitment to Scripture alone leads to a rediscovery of the doctrines of grace because any return to Scripture leads to the teaching of God’s sovereignty in His saving grace.
The Results of the Reformation
The Church is always in need of Reformation around the Word of God. Even in the New Testament, Bible readers discover Jesus’ rebuking Peter and Paul correcting the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians. Since we are, as Martin Luther said at the same time, both saints and sinners, and the Church is full of people, the Church is always in need of Reformation around the Word of God.
Undergirding the Five Solas is the Latin phrase Ecclesia Semper Reformanda est, which means “the church is always to be reforming.” The Word of God stands individually and collectively over the people of God. The Church must not only preach the Word but always be listening to the Word. Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
The Church during the Reformation, like today, needs Reformation, but it should always be reforming itself around the Word of God. The Reformers came to the conclusions they did not only through the study of the Church Fathers, which they had extensive knowledge of but by studying God’s Word. Dr. Michael Horton is right as he explains the need not only to hear the Word individually as people but collectively as a whole when he says:
Personally, and corporately, the church comes into being and is kept alive by hearing the gospel. The church is always on the receiving end of God’s good gifts and His correction. The Spirit does not lead us apart from the Word but directs us back to Christ as He is revealed in Scripture. We always need to return to the voice of our Shepherd. The same gospel that creates the church sustains and renews it.[i]
Ecclesia Semper Reformanda Est, rather than being restrictive, provides a foundation for the Five Solas to stand upon. The Church exists because of Christ, is in Christ, and is for the spread of the glory of Christ. As Dr. Horton further explains:
When we invoke the whole phrase — “the church Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God” — we confess that we belong to the church and not simply to ourselves and that this church is always created and renewed by the Word of God rather than by the spirit of the age.”[ii]
4 Things Christians Should Know about the Protestant Reformation
- The Protestant Reformation is a renewal movement to reform the Church to the Word of God.
- The Protestant Reformation sought to restore Scripture to the church and the primary place of the gospel in the local church’s life.
- The Reformation involved a rediscovery of the Holy Spirit. John Calvin, for example, was known as a theologian of the Holy Spirit.
- The Reformation makes the people of God small and the person and work of the Lord Jesus big. Augustine once said that describing the Christian life is one of humility, humility, humility, and John Calvin echoed that statement.
The Five Solas are not unimportant to the Church’s life and health but instead provide robust and genuinely evangelical faith and practice. On October 31, 2020, Protestants celebrate the work of the Lord in the life and ministry of the Reformers. May you be stirred by the example of the men and women who have gone before you. These were men and women loved the Word of God, loved the people of God, and longed to see renewal in the Church for the glory of God. May their example encourage Christians today to proclaim the glory of the grace of God to all people for His glory.
[i] Michael Horton, “Semper Reformanda,” October 1, 2009, Table Talk Magazine. Accessed October 18, 2022. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/semper-reformanda/
Dave Jenkins is happily married to his wife, Sarah. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon. Dave is a lover of Christ, His people, the Church, and sound theology. He serves as the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, the Host and Producer of Equipping You in Grace Podcast, and is a contributor to and producer of Contending for the Word. He is the author of The Word Explored: The Problem of Biblical Illiteracy and What To Do About It (House to House, 2021), The Word Matters: Defending Biblical Authority Against the Spirit of the Age (G3 Press, 2022), and Contentment: The Journey of a Lifetime (Theology for Life, 2024). You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, or read his newsletter. Dave loves to spend time with his wife, going to movies, eating at a nice restaurant, or going out for a round of golf with a good friend. He is also a voracious reader, in particular of Reformed theology, and the Puritans. You will often find him when he’s not busy with ministry reading a pile of the latest books from a wide variety of Christian publishers. Dave received his M.A.R. and M.Div through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.