LESSON 1: THE REFORMATION IN GENERAL
BIBLE READING: 2 Kings 23:1-25
Since the middle ages all of Europe was under a cloud of spiritual darkness. However, people became dissatisfied with the Roman Catholic Church, which was the only church at that time.
The reasons for this dissatisfaction were:
- The terrible worldly, immoral and perverse lives of the clergy. Monks and nuns would indulge in gross sins. The monasteries, scattered throughout the country, had initially been intended to serve as centres of divinity, piety and devoted service to God. Instead they often became centres of worldliness.
- The clergymen, bishops and priests etc. were called to be examples of meekness, chasteness and piety, but instead many had turned into greedy, proud tyrants who kept their parishioners in blind ignorance and submission.
- The Church of Rome collected a lot of money from the church people through the sale of indulgences. That money flowed to Rome and huge churches were built there, for example the St.Peter’s Cathedral in Rome with all its extravagant ornaments was financed with money received from the indulgences. This continual flow of money to Rome enriched the church greatly but impoverished Europe.
- People were dissatisfied with the Roman Catholic doctrine. The doctrine of salvation by works gave no real satisfaction to the human soul. The real burning questions of the soul were not answered.
We fix the starting point of the reformation at 31st of October 1517. That is the date when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the chapel at Wittenburg. Before that date there were pre-reformation movements, but we may designate this date as the formal beginning of the reformation.
However, Luther himself had at that time not intended to break away from the Roman Catholic Church. He did not plan the reformation. Neither did Luther develop a scheme to secede from Rome. The reformation arose through the events which followed.
The impact of Luther’s 95 theses was formidable. They were copied and spread throughout Germany in a few weeks. They were circulated into neighbouring countries. Luther had to give an account of his theses. The end result was that he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X. Then on December 10, 1520 Luther burned the excommunication notice with some other papal decrees outside the city of Wittenberg. That date can therefore be considered to be the official breach with the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformation was a fact.
The writings of Luther spread quickly throughout Europe. Many of these books were smuggled across borders and sold illegally since they were forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church. Many foreign students came to Wittenberg to hear Luther teach and preach. After some time they returned to their own countries and promoted the reformation there too.
At the same time there was a Roman Catholic priest in Zurich, Switzerland, whose name was Huldrich Zwingli. He made a very significant move when he decided to depart from the Roman Catholic liturgical way of preaching.
The Roman Catholic Church had the system that every year all the priests would preach weekly on a specific prescribed portion of God’s Word. Every year it would be the same schedule they had to follow. Often the preaching was dull and, overall, greatly neglected. Sermons were very short and meaningless. The same texts were preached on year after year while vast portions of God’s Word were neglected.
Zwingli no longer preached according to the prescribed liturgical schedule. Instead he started to preach consecutively through the Scriptures. In this manner he opened up God’s Word to the people. Then it became clear to all who heard him that God’s Word taught differently than the official doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. The end result was that in 1524 in Zurich the Roman Catholic mass was abolished and the protestant religion was officially introduced.
At the same time there was a young Frenchman named Jean Cauvin, who changed his name to Jean Calvinus, which became in English: John Calvin. He would become one of the foremost leaders of the Protestant Reformation. He was born in 1509 and around 1530 Calvin was converted and adopted the protestant religion. He soon started to write religious works and in 1536 he was appointed to work in Geneva to promote the work of the reformation there. Many foreigners came to study in Geneva to hear Calvin.
In this way the Reformation was spread even more throughout Europe. In spite of much opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, the fire of the reformation could not be quenched.
All these developments were significant. The reformation was actually taking place. The basic principles of the reformers can be summarized as follows:
- Sola Scriptura: The Scriptures alone. The Holy Word of God is the only rule for faith, life and doctrine.
- Sola Gratia: By grace alone. Sinners are saved not by their own efforts or merits but only by the free grace merited by the Lord Jesus Christ.
- Sola Fide: By faith alone. Sinners are justified only by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and not at all by our so called good works.
- The Roman Catholic pope had no authority to be the head of the church, but only Christ is the lawful Head of His Church. The church has to obey the ordinance of Christ and not the proclamations of the pope.
- The Roman Catholic mass is idolatry, as it teaches that bread and wine are changed into body and blood of Christ and should be worshipped.
- There is no purgatory, but all go after death either to hell or to heaven.
- The insistence on celibacy of the clergymen is non-Scriptural.
HOW THE REFORMATION SPREAD
How was it possible that the reformation could spread so rapidly? We can state certain reasons for the rise of the reformation:
- The above-mentioned dissatisfaction with the Roman Catholic Church existed throughout every level of European society.
- There was an awakened interest in the Word of God. This interest was triggered mainly by the work of Desiderus Erasmus (1469-1536). He was a Roman Catholic scholar and a humanist. In 1516 he published the New Testament in its original language; namely, Greek. Certain theologians started to read the New Testament in Greek and this stirred an awakened interest in the New Testament. So far it had only been known basically in the official Latin translation of the Roman Catholic Church. Now, with the original Greek manuscript of the New Testament, God’s Word was as it were rediscovered. The result was a surging desire to hear and to preach God’s Word as it was originally written.
- There was an awakened interest in the church fathers. These are the early theologians from the early history of the Christian church. At that time the church was not as deformed as it later became. The reading of the early church theologians influenced the reformation.
- The invention of the printing press to publish books. By this invention books could be reproduced relatively quickly and be distributed throughout vast areas of Europe. The ideas of the reformation could be spread quickly.
- The Work of God. All the previous reasons for the rise of the reformation are given from a human point of view. Above all things we must acknowledge that the Lord God was leading all things so that His church would be awakened and revived. The Lord would again let the Light of His Word shine in hearts of sinners. The blessed truths of God’s Word would again be discovered and His name glorified. This is the fundamental cause for the rise of the reformation.
God’s Spirit was quickening His church. The Lord was clearing away the deep darkness that had covered the church for centuries. The light of the reformation was arising.
- Why was king Josiah’s work a reformation?
- Mention various aspects of his reforming work.
- Compare his work to the 16th century reformation.
- Why is reformation a work of God and the responsibility of man?
- How does reformation take place in personal life
* This Bible Study was produced by the Youth & Education Committee of the Free Reformed Churches,1997, under the title, “Church History.” It is aimed at a Senior Young Peoples level.
Click on the tag “Bible Study: Free Reformed Church History” below for more lessons in this study