In October 31, 1517, a 34-year-old monk, pastor, and professor posted a list of 95 points he wished to debate. What Martin Luther did was not unusual. He asked individuals to debate him in person or, if they could not, to submit their points in writing. We call this the beginning of the Reformation—Luther thought of it as another day in his busy life in Wittenberg, Germany, a small city some 70 miles southwest of Berlin.
Luther did not wake up on October 31, 1517, and remind himself: “This is the day to start the Reformation.” The posting of the 95 theses was an ordinary act—that is how church announcements were made. He could not send electronic messages, create a video, or send texts. Newspapers did not exist, and churches did not have bulletins listing weekly announcements. His ordinary act led to extraordinary outcomes that Luther did not anticipate.
Some 500 years later we ask how Luther’s act became an event that is still discussed today. For us, the question is this: Was his act merely an important historical event, or does the Reformation impact our lives today? And more important, what is the future of the Reformation?
The event of October 31, 1517, opened the doors so that a world-changing reformation was launched. Prior to that event what the church said was all-important. Following October 31, 1517, the question was “What does the word of God say?” And the questions were asked not only by pastors and theologians. That happened because Luther translated the New Testament from the Greek into German, a version the people would use. His was not the first German translation, for nearly 20 German translations already existed. Unfortunately those translations were not from the original languages (Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic) but rather from the Latin Vulgate, which the Roman Catholic Church proclaimed to be the only reliable version.1
Luther’s actions changed the preaching in churches. He maintained that there was a lot of bad preaching,2 because the preachers focused on themes that were not grounded in the Scriptures. After the posting of the 95 theses, the focus of preaching changed.
We are reminded that the Word of God must be central in any reformation movement.
Congregations, tiring of hearing priests exalt the Virgin and the saints, hungered for men fluent in the new gospel of faith and grace, and pulpit wars broke out between Romanist and Lutheran preachers.3
The new preaching challenged hearers “to depend the more on God, to deepen their relationship with him personally, and to increase their knowledge of his Scripture.”4 That was a revolutionary concept. God was speaking to people through the Bible, through prayer directed to God and not saints, and through sermons preached from the Word of God.
Tragically, disputes arose among various reformers, and the Reformation turned into fights between various leaders. The message of hope from the Bible was overtaken by bitterness. Disputes arose that may have harmed the Reformation even more than the Counter-Reformation launched by Rome. But it did not stop there. Not too many decades after Luther’s death the focus had become what Luther said rather than what was in the Word of God.
What happened to the Reformation? Did the arguments among those who claimed to be the children of the Reformation end it? The enemy of truth has his ways: “In every age Satan has sought to impair the efforts of God’s servants by introducing into the church a spirit of fanaticism. Thus it was in Paul’s day, and thus it was in later centuries during the time of the Reformation. Wycliffe, Luther, and many others who blessed the world by their influence and their faith, encountered the wiles by which the enemy seeks to lead into fanaticism overzealous, unbalanced, and unsanctified minds.”5
Was the Reformation snuffed out? Is the Reformation merely an unnoticed footnote in history? How shall we deal with these questions?
While many argued with their opponents, others were experiencing spiritual renewal. The renewal was personal, but many benefited. John Wesley, for example, fifteenth child of Church of England rector Samuel and his wife, Susanna, trained to be a minister. Wesley embarked on a mission for the American colonies, a mission that proved to be a fiasco. He returned to England discouraged. But then something unusual happened on Saturday, May 24, 1738. He heard someone reading Luther’s preface to the commentary on Romans, and that changed Wesley’s life. His life was reformed. Thereafter he brought reformation into the lives of many. Many churches were reluctant to allow him to preach, but Wesley followed George Whitefield’s practice of open-air preaching.6 Authentic reformation cannot be snuffed out.
William Miller (1782-1849) grew up in a Christian home, but as a young adult became a critic of the Bible. He, along with his friends, enjoyed mimicking preachers and their style of preaching. Today he is remembered as a preacher of the literal return of Jesus Christ. How did this skeptic become a preacher of a message that brought reformation into the lives of thousands? His preaching reformed the church, but before that, his life was reformed. That reformation took place because Miller was immersed in the Word of God. He writes that “the [Scriptures] became my delight; and in Jesus I found a friend.”7
It was his personal reformation that made him a powerful preacher. Miller did not plan to bring about a reformation. The Reformation resulted from his personal experience, and, more important, because of his study of the Bible. Once again we are reminded that the Word of God must be central in any reformation movement.
Miller’s experience shows that usually reformations are not started by reformers, that is, individuals whose goal is to reform others. Rather, reformations are the result of transformed lives. Others follow because they see what God has done in the life of a person.
It is difficult to predict who will be a reformer. Wesley became a reformer after he experienced devastating defeat. Miller became a reformer after he embarked on a personal study of the Bible.
Argula von Grumbach (1492-1563/68?) was accused of being a reformer because she defended a university student who was accused of “Lutheran” heresy. Von Grumbach, a mother of four children, was married to a man who did not support her views. She found time to publicly chastise university professors for persecuting innocent believers. A prolific writer, nearly 30,000 of her pamphlets were distributed in Germany at a time when the population was about 20 percent of today’s population. She was one of the most active female reformers in her day.8
And then there are those who never joined the Reformation, but who contributed to it. One such individual is Desiderius Erasmus9 (c. 1469-1536), a Roman Catholic whose work made it possible for Luther to translate the New Testament into German. In 1516 Erasmus published a Greek New Testament based on his thorough collection of Greek manuscripts. Starting with Luther’s German translation in 1522, the Bible was translated into numerous modern languages. God needed and used these translations for the Reformation to move forward. The Bible translations into languages understood by the people was the lifeblood of the Reformation.
Some of the Protestant reforms from the past are hardly recognized in the movements that resulted from their work. Though we may not be able to change that, we can still learn from the lives of the many individuals whom God used to bring reformation.
More important, God invites us to be part of His reformation until
the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. We are both challenged and encouraged by these words: “The Reformation did not, as many suppose, end with Luther. It is to be continued to the close of this world’s history.”10 The Reformation will continue, but the more important question for each of us is—How can we be part of that Reformation? Here’s how:
1. Make the Word and prayer central in your life: Before William Miller preached from the Bible, he studied it. Personal Bible study must be the foundation of our spiritual life. Reformation follows Bible study. And prayer. Meaningful Bible study demands an active prayer life. It was customary for Martin Luther to spend several hours in prayer each day. And during prayer Luther did something that seems unusual—he recited the Ten Commandments.11 Prayer and study together open our hearts and minds to God.
2. Be a witness, not a fighter: Many recall Luther proclaiming before Emperor Charles V, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.” Some see it as an affront to the emperor. More likely, Luther was just announcing his position. He was not looking for an argument. When we share the biblical message with others, it is more effective to share how God’s Word impacts us than argue about the Bible. The Holy Spirit will convince others that the Bible is the Word of God.
Will the Reformation Ever End?
Yes, it will—when the Lord Jesus Christ returns. Reformation is not a one-time event, even though the Reformation of the 1500s stands out. Until the Lord returns, God calls upon each of us to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior, to follow Him, and to share our experience with others. That’s how reformers live and that’s what reformers do.
Nikolaus Satelmajer, retired, was editor of Ministry magazineand an associate Ministerial Association secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, in Maryland, United States.