The Reformation and Twentieth-Century Protestantism
Prof. David J. Engelsma
October 31 is the anniversary of the Reformation of
the church—"Reformation Day." On the 31st of October in the year 1517,
in Wittenberg, Germany, the monk and university professor Martin Luther
nailed to the door of the great Church a list of 95 propositions, or
theses. That act and those theses became the source of that mighty
movement within the church which we know as the "Reformation of the
church." We do well to commemorate and celebrate this event of the 16th
century. For it had the most tremendous significance for the true church
of Jesus Christ. It was the most important act of God upon the church
for good from the death of the apostles to the present time.
The date, October 31, 1517, only marks what later
proved to be the beginning of the Reformation. When Luther posted his 95
theses on the door of the church, he had no intention of starting the
Reformation. He had no plan whatever of separation from the church whose
headquarters was Rome and whose head was the Pope. His purpose with the
theses and the discussion of them which he hoped would follow was the
correction of certain practices and the teachings that produced those
practices. He wanted the existing church to reform itself. In the 95
theses, Luther revealed himself as still very much tainted with the
evils of the church as she then existed. For example, he as yet regarded
the Pope as the rightful head of the church, and he was willing to allow
the practice of indulgences in the church, if only the gross abuses were
corrected. He himself had to develop in the truth, which, however, he
did speedily, so that by 1520 he recanted his former allowance of a Pope
and indulgences. The Reformation, therefore, was not Luther's intention,
but the will of God. It was not Luther's achievement, but the work of
God. Luther himself said, after the Reformation had sprouted and
flowered: "like a blind mule I was led by Him."
Nor was the Reformation of the church a movement that
was perfected through Luther and that ended with his death. It continued
and advanced through other Reformers of the 16th century, especially
John Calvin. It proceeded with power, and with blessing for the church
in the great Synod of Dordt and the Westminster Assembly of the 17th
century. It goes on today, over 450 years after its beginning. But the
seed of this plant was sown on October 31, 1517. Whether Luther knew it
or not, the 95 theses contained the truth that must shake the world and
radically reform the church of Christ.
It is tragic that the churches today, the Protestant
churches, have so little knowledge of the Reformation and so little
interest in it. It is still worse that they are unconcerned about the
truth that the Reformation proclaimed. The grimmest reality of all is
the extent to which the churches have forsaken that truth and, by this
fact, sink away again into the same evil condition that necessitated the
Our time is a time of the re-establishment of
relations with Rome by Protestants. Even those churches with the best
reputations for orthodoxy are busy with "dialogues." Huge chunks of
Protestantism speak of the imminent possibility of a close relationship
with Rome in the World Council of Churches. Certain seers are laying
plans for total organizational reunion. From a practical viewpoint
alone, knowledge of the 16th century Reformation is necessary in our
The Historical Event
The issue over which the Reformation began was that
of indulgences. This practice of the church motivated Luther to publish
the 95 theses. The subject of the 95 theses was the indulgence-question.
Indulgences were pieces of paper which the church sold to the people for
the remitting of the punishment of the people's sins. The
indulgence-business which the church engaged in was the sale of the
forgiveness of sins for money. Buried away in the law-books of the
church at that time was the theoretical explanation of this practice.
The church said that, for every sin, there were two kinds of punishment
which the sinner had to suffer: the eternal punishment of hell and a
certain temporal punishment. Christ by His death paid the former debt;
each sinner had himself to pay the latter. This, he would have to do
either in this life or in purgatory after death. The church, so the
theory ran, could help the sinner out in the payment of the temporal
punishment. For Christ had given the church a treasury of merits. These
were the merits that had been piled up by certain saints who in their
life had done more than God required of them in His law. These merits
the church could and would apply to a sinner's account - at a price. The
sinner bought these merits when he bought an indulgence. The benefit to
him was that he would escape that much punishment either in this life or
in purgatory. Indulgences could also be applied to the dead in
purgatory. One could buy them for departed loved ones and thus spare
them much torment in purgatory. These were the careful distinctions and
the theory in the statute-books. In fact, the people were ignorant of
these distinctions and simply viewed indulgences as forgiveness, total
forgiveness, of their sins. This was also the message proclaimed by the
sellers of indulgences, and this was the conception of indulgences which
the Popes and bishops wanted the people to have.
The current Pope at Rome was Leo X. Leo wanted to
complete the magnificent cathedral at Rome, St. Peter's. Needing money,
he authorized an indulgence-selling program throughout Germany. A
super-salesman in Germany was the monk Tetzel. He sold near Wittenberg,
where Martin Luther labored. Tetzel outdid himself in making extravagant
claims for indulgences. One of his favorite claims was expressed in a
As soon as
the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from
In the 95 theses, Luther blasted this ditty
expressly: "They preach human doctrine who say that the soul flies out
of purgatory as soon as the money thrown into the chest rattles" (Thesis
27). It was then that Luther wrote the 95 theses, not only against
Tetzel but also against the general practice and theory of indulgences.
At the same time, the theses set forth the truth concerning the pardon
of sins and the righteousness of sinful man before God.
Once these theses were published, the breach between
Luther and the church headed by the Pope widened rapidly. In 1520, the
Pope excommunicated Luther. A severe struggle followed, for the Pope, in
alliance with the emperor, exerted much effort to destroy the church now
reformed and existing separately from the Roman Catholic Church. In the
course of this struggle, in 1529, the ministers allied with Luther drew
up a document in which they expressed their objections to the teachings
of Rome. In the document, they said, "We protest." The adversaries
seized upon this term and began, derisively, to refer to the members of
the church now reformed as "Protestants," a name that has stuck.
This was the occasion, the historical occasion, of
the Reformation. The main issue, that of the forgiveness of sins, makes
plain what the Reformation was, at its very heart.
The (Doctrinal) Essence of the Reformation
The Reformation of the 16th century was not an act of
personal revolution by an insubordinate monk at Wittenberg. This is the
analysis of it that Rome gives. Luther had no axe to grind. He had no
intention of revolting against the existing institute of the church.
The Reformation was not a political movement, or an
economic one. Such is the analysis of it by secular historians.
According to this view, it was the assertion of independence by the
German nation, the arising of a nationalistic, patriotic fervour, and
the overthrowing of a foreign domination. Or, it was nothing more than
the expression of resentment by the Germans at the flow of their gold
into Italy. Politics and economics came to play some part later on, but
the Reformation was not political or economic.
Nor was it a movement that merely corrected some
abuses and excesses within the church at that time. Of late, the Roman
Catholic Church has been willing to make this somewhat more favourable
judgment of the Reformation. It is now admitted that the Popes of that
time were worldly, that the selling of indulgences had gone to extremes,
and even that the preaching, teaching, and life of the church had become
very weak. This is also the analysis of the Reformation that is popular
among Protestants themselves in our time: The Reformation was necessary
to correct certain abuses, especially abuses in the behaviour of the
church-leaders and in the practices of the people. This analysis has the
most important implications, which these "Protestants" are also now
willing to draw out. The abuses no longer exist in the Roman Catholic
Church. The Popes are no longer the worldly men which they were then.
Indulgence-peddlers no longer hawk indulgences with extravagant claims
and ditties. The people now have Bibles and are permitted to read them.
Therefore, the Reformation no longer applies; it is merely a historical
event, belonging strictly to the past. And what prohibits re-union with
Against all of these analyses of the Reformation, we
must utter a vehement, uncompromising, final, "NO." The Reformation was
a work of the Holy Spirit in the sphere of the church of Jesus Christ
that effected a radical re-forming (a forming anew) of the church after
the image of the Son of God. Especially the analysis of the Reformation
as a movement for that time, directed merely to some abuses, needs to be
utterly repudiated. Even though this was the amazing concession made by
one of the main colleagues of Luther, Philip Melanchthon, as late as
1530, at the time of the composition of the Lutheran Augsburg
Confession, this analysis is wrong. The Reformation proclaimed the
truth over against the lie. It stood for the Word of God over against
the words of man. It proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ over against
"another gospel" which is no gospel. It sought the salvation of the
people of God out of the stark awareness that they were being threatened
with eternal damnation. The significance of the Reformation was that it
sought the true church over against the false church, and Christ over
against Antichrist. The life-and-death significance of the Reformation
for that and all time, Luther voiced already in the 95 theses of 1517:
"Those who believe that through letters of pardon they are made sure of
their own salvation will be eternally damned along with their teachers"
To see this significance of the Reformation, we must
note that the Reformation was doctrinal in essence and we must look at
the outstanding points of controversy, the main issues.
The Reformation originated in the
indulgence-question. It had to do with this question: How are my sins
forgiven? How is the punishment of the infinite wrath of God taken away
from me, a damnworthy sinner? The Reformation started here, with this
fundamental question: How am I, how can I be, righteous before God?
Because a righteous man is a man that will be saved, it was the
question: How shall I be saved? The doctrine and practice of indulgences
was an answer of the church to this basic question, an answer that said:
"You must pay for that pardon; you must earn that
righteousness; you must save yourself." Although the selling of
indulgences put this teaching into the crass form—earn salvation with
money!—indulgences were not a mere, temporary excess, but an accurate
reflection of a false doctrine that the church had adopted. This
doctrine out of which indulgences sprouted was the doctrine that the
salvation of man depended, at least in part, upon the works which he
must perform. Man's righteousness before God, the basis of salvation, is
made up of Christ's work and man's own works. His salvation, therefore,
depends upon his own good works. The Reformation passed judgment on this
doctrine, the judgment that it was no mere abuse but the denial of the
gospel itself. The righteousness with which a man is righteous before
God is the work of Jesus Christ and the work of Jesus Christ alone. The
satisfaction for sins, the suffering of the full punishment, the
obtaining of the perfect righteousness which I need, were accomplished
perfectly, once for all, by Jesus in His suffering and death on the
cross. This righteousness is now in Christ, and the way in which it
becomes mine so that I can enjoy it is the way of faith in Christ Jesus
as the crucified and risen Saviour. The way of faith is the way of
trusting in Christ Jesus and His perfect righteousness, whom I know as
the Saviour with unshakable certainty because of God's promise in His
Word. To the question, "How am I just before God?" the Reformation gave
a new, radically different answer, "Not by works which I do, not even
partly, but by faith alone." The Reformation based this on the clear
teaching of Scripture:
Romans 1:17 states, "The just shall live by faith";
Romans 3:28 says, "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by
faith without the deeds of the law."
What this truth means is that salvation is of grace.
Salvation does not depend at all upon man as the basis, but is God's
wholly free gift to man, who is totally unworthy of that salvation and
totally unable to effect it. This is the gospel! This is the good news!
Justification by faith alone means that salvation is of grace alone.
"Faith alone" means "grace alone." As Paul writes in
Romans 4:16: "Therefore it is of faith, that it might be of grace
..." The result of this gospel of grace is peace in the hearts of the
people of God. As
Romans 4:6 continues: "... to the end the promise might be sure to
all the seed ..." This peace is destroyed by any and every teaching that
makes salvation depend on man and on his works. For then man must be in
perpetual doubt that his works are satisfactory. This gospel of grace
Luther proclaimed already in the 95 theses: "The true treasure of the
church is the holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God" (Thesis 62).
There are two other truths that are closely connected
with the truth of justification by faith alone. The first is the truth
that Christ Jesus accomplished everything that was necessary to obtain
righteousness for His people. He did this by His suffering and death,
once accomplished on the cross. He satisfied fully for the sins of all
for whom He died, and obtained their righteousness. After His death, no
payment for sin remained which they had yet to make; no work was left
undone that was necessary for their righteousness. This truth cleared
the decks in many ways. It demolished the fiction of purgatory. It
exposed the basic error of the mass, which by its repeated sacrifice of
Christ for sins denied the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross. And it
set good works in a new, radically different light. They are not our
payment or our earning. But they are deeds of thankfulness on the part
of men who are thankful for gracious salvation. The Reformation did not
destroy or deprecate good works, but it established the only life of
works that are truly good.
The second truth intimately bound up with
justification by faith alone is the truth of the total depravity of man
as he is in himself, apart from the Holy Spirit of Christ and His
regenerating grace. The church at that time taught that man had to
perform good works upon which his salvation depended. Man could do this,
the church said, because he was somewhat good in himself, apart from the
work of Jesus in his heart. After the fall, man is not totally depraved.
Therefore, God can demand of him that he do something to earn salvation
and to effect salvation. The Reformation struck at the very heart of
this error by proclaiming that man had no ability to do good works of
himself, because in himself man is totally depraved. After the fall of
Adam, all men are devoid of any good and have no ability for good. As
Ephesians 2:1 says, "[Man is] dead in trespasses and sins. How then
can his salvation depend upon him and upon what he does?
Within eight years after the Reformation began, by
1525, Luther was engaged in a fierce conflict over the question: Does
man have a free will? One of his foes, Erasmus of Rotterdam, attacked
the Reformation because of its teaching that the natural man was totally
devoid of all good and was wholly sinful and evil. Erasmus wrote
publicly, in a book called On Free Will, that man, apart from
Christ, had a will that could choose for God, for Christ, and for good.
Luther saw this teaching as the source of the whole heresy that
salvation also depends on man's good works. Against the theory of free
will and Erasmus, Luther wrote the book, The Bondage of the Will,
concerning which he said at the end of his life that it was one of two
books he had written which were worth preserving. In it Luther
maintained that the very will of man is bound as a slave to sin: "...
with regard to God, and in all that bears on salvation or damnation, he
[i.e., man] has no 'free will,' but is a captive, prisoner and bondslave
... to the will of Satan."
This immediately raises the question: Why then do
some men believe in Jesus Christ, love God, and live a holy life,
whereas others do not, but remain in their spiritual death of sin? The
answer of the church prior to the Reformation was that this is due to
the men themselves who believe. For all have the ability, but only some
exercise their ability. Once more, salvation depends on man himself.
This, the Reformation denied. No one has the ability; all alike are dead
in sin. The reason why some believe unto salvation is God's eternal
election of them. God has eternally chosen (elected) some men unto
eternal life, as Scripture teaches, e.g., in
Ephesians 1:4-5: "He hath chosen us in Him [i.e., Christ], before
the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame
before him: in love having predestinated us ..." To the elect, God gives
the Holy Spirit who works faith in them and makes them spiritually
alive. God has not chosen all. From eternity He has determined that some
go lost in their unbelief and disobedience. This is God's decree of
reprobation. According to this counsel of God of election and
reprobation, He deals with all men in time and history, as Paul writes
Romans 9:18: "Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy,
and whom he will he hardeneth." God does not elect His people on the
basis of their superiority, for all are alike evil and incapable of any
good. His election also, the source of all salvation, is an election of
11:5). The Reformation confessed sovereign, gracious election. The
only alternative is that which the unreformed church held, namely, an
election that depends on man's own worthiness to be chosen.
It is often said that the doctrine of predestination was the
invention of John Calvin. It is true that the Lutheran
church did not come to give a good confession about
predestination. But this was due to the fact that the man
mainly responsible for the Lutheran confessions was not
Luther, but Melanchthon, the same Melanchthon who in 1530
analysed the Reformation as having to do only with some
abuses in the practices of the church. No one, however, has
ever written more plainly and more strongly in defence of
the truth of sovereign predestination, election and
reprobation, than did Martin Luther, not even John Calvin.
Whoever doubts this, let him read The Bondage of the
Will. The Reformation was one in preaching God's
gracious election as the eternal fountain of salvation by
grace, just as it was one in condemning "free will" as the
fountainhead of the error of work-righteousness, which
What solid, sure foundation did Luther and the
Reformation stand on in order once more to proclaim the gospel of grace
and in order to form the church anew by the power of this gospel? This
was no merely theoretical question in those critical times. Arrayed
against the gospel of justification by faith alone, and all the truths
implied by it, stood imposing foes. The institutional church, vested
with the pomp, magnificence, and authority of many centuries, condemned
the teaching as heresy. Allied with the church, hostile to the
Reformation as a schismatic movement, was the Empire, the civil
authority, which Luther more than anyone regarded as "servant of God."
Against the gospel of grace was hurled again and again the writings of
many church fathers. The foes cast in Luther's teeth the charge that he
stood alone. How, they asked, can you be sure of your teaching? Can all
the church be wrong, and you alone, wretched monk in barbarous Germany,
be right? The climax came at Worms, where in 1521 church and state
assembled to demand of Luther that he recant, and where he stood alone.
Yet, it was there that he said, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God
help me. Amen." How was this possible?
The solid foundation on which the Reformation stood
was the authority of the Word of God, the Scriptures. This was the other
of the two outstanding truths proclaimed by the Reformation. The Bible
alone has authority over believers and over the church. Also this truth
had long since been lost in the church. The authority was the hierarchy,
the Pope and the priest. The Scriptures were almost entirely absent from
the life of the church. Where they still had a place, they were the
exclusive property of the Pope, for only he had the right and the
competence to explain them. The Reformation asserted: "Scripture alone."
The Bible, as the infallibly inspired Word of God, is the sole authority
in the church. In distinction from tradition, opinions of men, even holy
men, and the will of the leaders of the church, Scripture alone governs
faith and life. It is over the church, and the church is not over it.
Scripture is given to every believer, and not to some few in the church.
Everyone can understand it who has faith, for the Spirit enlightens him.
This Scripture plainly proclaims the gospel of grace, said the
Reformers, and therefore we must carry on the Reformation and may not
desist, for to desist would be disobedience to God's own word.
The Application of This Analysis of the Reformation
to Our Day
These truths are "eternal truths." What the
Reformation stood for over 400 years ago is true, as relevant, and as
vital today as it was then. Justification by faith alone on the
authority of Scripture as God's inspired Word is the gospel. The gospel
does not change from age to age; it is never surpassed; it never will
become out-dated; there will never arise a new message that outstrips
the gospel in importance, so that we may lay the gospel aside to
concentrate on the more important matter. This is how we must view the
relationship between the Reformation of the church in 1517 and our time.
This is how we must understand the application of that Reformation to
ourselves. The truths it set forth, we are to hold and hold dear today,
for they were the truths of God's Word. It is possible that we have
deeper insight into those truths—indeed, we are called to have deeper
insight—but we repudiate those who pay lip-service to the Reformation as
some heroic event, while they deny the truths which the Reformation
proclaimed. The Reformation is no historical curiosity which we only
admire, but a living, on-going reality, because of the gospel of grace
What conclusions, practical, urgent conclusions for a
living church and for living believers, can we come to, from this
understanding of the Reformation?
The first is that the Roman Catholic Church has not
changed, not one whit, for the better from the time in the 16th century
when Luther and the Reformation, in grief, had to renounce her in God's
Name. In our day, many Protestants would give the impression that she
has changed, so much so that now it is conceivable to have friendly
relations with her and even to contemplate re-union. The reason why they
say this is that they no longer know what the Reformation was really
about, or care for the gospel. The Reformation was not about nice Popes
and bad Popes, not about meat or fish on certain days, not about any of
those superficial things that Rome lately has bestirred herself with. It
was about salvation by God's grace in Jesus Christ alone! It was about
Scripture, the only authority in the church and over the church! On
these issues, Rome is unchanged. This is not a charge, but a statement
of fact. It is Rome's own confession in "The Canons and Decrees of the
Council of Trent" that justification and salvation depend also upon
man's works and merits, and that they are anathema who preach
justification by faith only. The Second Vatican Council of 1963-1965
reiterated Rome's doctrine that, in addition to Scripture, tradition is
authoritative in the church ("Dogmatic Constitution on Divine
Revelation"). In the same "Constitution," this Council stated that "The
task of authenticity interpreting the word of God ... has been entrusted
exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church," that is, to
the Pope. So little is it true that Rome has changed on any important
matter, that the Council of Trent's blessing of indulgences as "most
salutary, and approved of" stands to this day.
The second conclusion is that the spiritual condition
of so-called Protestantism is to a large extent wretched and
condemnable. It is not only the case that much of Protestantism is
silent concerning the truths of the Reformation in its preaching and
confession, but also that it opposes and denies these truths.
Much of Protestantism is more hostile to the
Scriptures than the apostate church was at the time of the
Reformation. It denies the infallible inspiration outright. It
implicitly sets aside Scripture as the basis of our faith and life
by its acceptance of evolution and its absurd handling of
Genesis 1-3. It ignores the Bible entirely as it renders its
judgment on the ethical questions of our day, e.g., capital
punishment, civil disobedience, abortion, and sexual morality,
relying instead on science, prevailing opinion, and reason.
Much of Protestantism is one with Rome in making
salvation depend upon man. It boldly proclaims free will and the
dependence of God in salvation upon what man will do with this free
will. It thereby denies total depravity, gracious election, and the
efficacy and sufficiency of Christ's work. In The Bondage of the
Will, Luther wrote that the issue of the enslaved human will was
the fundamental issue of the Reformation. Addressing Erasmus, who
had attacked the Reformation's teaching that man's will is incapable
of choosing the good, Luther said, "You alone ... have attacked the
real thing, that is, the essential issue ... you, and you alone,
have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital
Much of Protestantism no longer bothers to preach
and teach the Scriptures at all. Sermons are moralistic little
stories or harangues on social improvement. The church is in the
streets. The heart of the Reformation and the 95 theses was
expressed in Thesis 62: "The true treasure of the Church is the holy
Gospel of the glory and grace of God."
This large part of Protestantism is worse off than
the Pre-Reformation Church. There is worse ignorance, worse
superstition, worse immorality, and, if we knew, worse terror. Theirs is
a guilt before God that He will punish with the utmost severity, for
theirs is contempt for the gospel which once was showed them.
II Thessalonians 2:10-12 applies to them: "... they received not the
love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God
shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: that
they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in
But what must our response be to the Reformation, who
love the truths of the Reformation, that is, the gospel?
There ought to be a personal response. The
Reformation concerned the individual in a most direct and practical way.
Its truth was personal; it had to do with the question each asks for
himself: How am I righteous before God, now and in the Great Judgment?
As Luther put it, everyone stands on his own two feet here. And the
Reformation arose in a personal way, as Luther himself struggled in
utmost anxiety over that question. The Reformation intended to give
peace, the peace that only the gospel of grace can give, to the
individual child of God. Who can say, "The Reformation does not concern
me"? Of all miserable man's questions, the question, "How can I be
righteous?" is the most pressing, save one.
There ought to be a congregational response to the
Reformation. The 16th century Reformation was the Reformation of the
church. The Reformation intended to give the church the pure
preaching of the gospel, the sacraments rightly administered, and the
exercise of a spiritual discipline. This was its great goal. If we have
this, we have all that the Reformation desired to give. "The true
treasure of the Church is the holy Gospel of the glory and grace of
God." Then, we ought to rejoice and give thanks to God. If one does not
have this, he ought to set about getting it, at once and at all cost.
But there must also be the response, by the
individual believer and by the congregation, of a staunch willingness to
defend the truth of the gospel, which includes the resolution to battle
against its foes. The Reformation stood for the truth, but in the way of
a battle. "We protest," the Reformation-believers said. The Reformation
stood for something, and therefore it also stood against
something. Protestantism at large no longer protests—except against
protesting. It is not against anything. The reason is that it is no
longer for anything, namely, the gospel. It is lukewarm (Rev.
3:16). We will have this willingness to defend the truth and do
battle with its enemies only as it grips our hearts that the gospel is
the revelation of the glory of our Saviour-God in Jesus Christ. This is
the greatest and most pressing issue of all life: How shall God be
glorified? For the glory of God in the gospel we stand. For this we
fight. For this we are willing to die.
And even this, this standing, is not our work, but
God's efficacious grace in us. This is the confession of the
Reformation. All is grace, even the confession of grace. "Here I stand,"
said Luther, "I can do no other."
The true church, the church re-formed, is small and
weak. Opposed to the gospel and to the Scriptures and, therefore,
opposed to her are many, strong, energetic foes. Above all, today as in
the 16th century, the foe is the Devil and the gates of hell.
How shall we stand?
We are not fearful; we do not doubt.
Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right man on our side,
The man of God's own choosing.
Dost ask Who that may be?
Christ Jesus it is He,
Lord Sabaoth His Name,
From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.