The Reformation

Exalting Christ in community and mission

The Reformation

The Reformation. What is it? And why would we remember it in worship? The Reformation of the 16th Century under Martin Luther and John Calvin (and later, John Knox in Scotland, and Thomas Cranmer in England and Wales) was a grass-roots movement, sparked by the priest and theologian, Martin Luther of Wittenberg (in what is now Germany) to return the Church to Biblical principles in faith and practice. John Calvin was a professor turned pastor who applied the principles of Reformation to every area of life in Geneva: education, government, and even labor (“the Protestant work ethic” phrase comes from sociologist Max Weber’s description of the Reformation’s focus on the dignity of work). This led to the “Five Solas” (“sola” being Latin for “alone,” or “only”): Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone), Sola Gratia (saved by grace alone), Sola Fide (saved by faith alone), Solo Christo (Christ alone), and Soli Deo Gloria (our salvation is the unmerited work of God alone). Thus, on October 31st, 1517, Professor Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis (“protests”) on the church door (a sort of community bulletin board) at Wittenberg. What happened next was startling. Dr. Roland Bainton, late historian of Yale, wrote,

“Luther took no steps to spread his theses among the people. He was merely inviting scholars to dispute and dignitaries to define, but others surreptitiously translated the theses into German and gave them to the press. In short order they become the talk of Germany. What Karl Barth said of his own unexpected emergence as a reformer could be said equally of Luther, that he was like a man climbing in the darkness a winding staircase in the steeple of an ancient cathedral.  In the blackness he reached out to steady himself and his hand laid hold of a rope. He was startled to hear the clanging of a bell.”[1]

The entire Continent of Europe and the British Isles were changed forever. America was founded on the principles of the Reformation when both English Pilgrims and other Protestants (Dutch in New York) forged a new land on religious liberty, a hallmark of Reformation thinking. And the force of that Reformation lifted the Bible as the authority over priest and the magisterium (the church government of clergy), placing God as the center of our salvation over our own effort, transforming generations and stirred a world-wide missionary movement that hadn’t been seen since the days of the Apostles. Our own tradition, Presbyterianism, is a direct heir of English-speaking Reformation.

Thus, on the last Sunday in October, we celebrate, not just an ecclesiastical historical date, but the revival of Biblical truth that came from that time, which has changed the world. May we know such a revival again in our own generation!

[1] R.H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Hendrickson Publishers, 2009).

Dr. Michael Milton, Transitional Pastor

Picture: The Martin Luther window at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Charleston, SC (Source: