On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk made his way over to the Castle Church doors to post a document containing 95 theses. It was not out of the ordinary for monks and priests to post documents to the doors of the church since this was the way to call for an academic debate. Most of the time, documents like these held small differences which would be resolved with little consequence. But this time things would be different; the content of this document held wild accusations about the church and its teachings, but more than that, the monk who posted the document was a volatile, fiery man who would not leave this matter alone.
The name of the monk: Martin Luther.
The reason for posting this document: a disagreement over indulgences.
The reason for the disagreement: Sola Scriptura
It was a theologian and scholar by the name of Erasmus of Rotterdam who unintentionally sparked this change in the thinking of Martin Luther. Since the popular trend of the time was ad fontes (meaning, “back to the sources”), the study of Greek and Latin classics increased. This prompted Erasmus to compile a full Greek New Testament manuscript – an impressive feat in that day. As he did, he translated the Greek into his own Latin translation which he would dedicate to the pope. The Church had their own Latin translation of the Bible called the Latin Vulgate, but the pope gladly accepted Erasmus’ translation. Little did the pope know that this new version would spark the greatest movement in the history of the church.
When Luther read Erasmus’ Latin translation, he saw that while the Latin Vulgate translated Jesus’ teaching on repentance as, “do penance,” Erasmus had translated it as, “be penitent.” This was a major revelation for Luther since, “do penance,” was thought to mean that forgiveness came through the sacraments and good works, while, “be penitent,” implied that repentance was a lifestyle and disposition of the heart. This was very troubling for Luther. If the pope was wrong about this, what else might he be wrong about? Who was right, the pope or Scripture?
During this time, the Church lacked funds for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, so Pope Leo X decided to commission Johann Tetzel to collect money in exchange for indulgences. Now, indulgences were grants given by the pope to reduce the punishment for sin. So if you sinned, you would want an indulgence in order to spend less time in purgatory (the place between Heaven and Hell). These indulgences were given for praying certain prayers, traveling to a particular place, or doing some good work, but until this time they had not been given in exchange for money.
Luther saw a problem with this new method of giving indulgences. God’s Word had taken him captive and now it was his authority, not the pope. Throughout the Scriptures, it was clear to Luther that the entire life of the believer was to be one of repentance. Indulgences, therefore, could not be a viable means of obtaining forgiveness since forgiveness was offered by Christ on the cross. The Word of God stood contrary to the teaching of the church, and Luther had chosen which one he would believe, he had decided to live Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”).
Although the disagreement with indulgences was first on the list of theses, it was not the disagreement that would change Luther, and later, the world. Luther’s commitment to Sola Scriptura had prepared him for his greatest revelation, Sola fide (by faith alone), Sola gratia (by grace alone), and Sola Christus (through Christ alone). What Luther had come to believe by “beating upon” Romans 1:17 was that the justification of sinners came by the gracious gift of faith in Christ alone, not by the acquisition of indulgences or the increase of good works. This was the major revelation that would spark the Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church believed in justification by faith, but not in the way Luther saw it – not by faith alone.
Fides caritate formata (faith formed by love and good works) was the official teaching of justification by the Roman Catholic Church. They saw faith as the booster and motivator of good works which made a sinner more just before God. Sure, you were justified by faith, but the question remained, were you just enough to be accepted by God? Did you have enough faith to be fully justified? This question haunted Luther because of his daily struggles with sin. But when he realized that God, by His grace, freely declares the sinner just, and faith was the means by which the sinner believed this declaration, he saw that it was no longer his ability or works which could please God. He was free because the Scriptures revealed the glorious truth of the gospel.
The Five Solas, as they are now called, were the key to reclaiming the true gospel which had been hidden for centuries. Justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the Glory of God alone, according to Scripture alone, changed the world. If it were not for the reclaiming of these truths, the world we live in today would look radically different. All aspects of life were impacted by the great Reformation of the 16th Century. The Reformation, its influence reverberating still today, was built on the simple truth of Sola.