Luther, an Augustinian monk, doctor of theology, and resident of Wittenberg, is considered by Protestants to have rediscovered the fundamental tenants of Christian faith, thereby seting the stage for a confrontation within the Church that would eventually lead to the Reformation.
The History of the Reformation
The historical trends that brought about the Reformation began centuries before its actual occurrence. In part, the root causes stem from the Church's departure from the foundational teachings of Christ regarding a believer's relationship with God, believers' relationships with one another, and the means of salvation. By the time of the fall of Rome, in the late fifth century, the Church had already adopted many practices contrary to the teachings of Christ.
Particularly, three perceived errors in doctrine stood out as major flaws that were in direct opposition to his teachings, and these later became the basis for Luther's ninety-five theses. The first error created a priesthood that acted as mediator between the believer and God, suggesting that direct communication between man and the almighty was impossible. The second was the establishment of a pope or pontiff who would exercise authority over the entire Church. The third error related to the attainment of salvation through penitent works and charitable acts, rather than through the miracle of faith.
The catalyst that caused Luther to directly confront these issues, however, was the Church practice of granting "indulgences". The custom was based on a verse in the Gospel of John, where Jesus gave the apostles the authority to forgive or retain the sins of humanity. In Luther's time, the Church was engaged in the practice of selling indulgences as a means of increasing ecclesiastical wealth. The Church justified this practice by citing that, although God released the offender from his heavenly obligation, he was still required to pay an earthly price for his sin.
Such payments (or other suitable acts of charity) to the Church released a person from financial or civil obligation incurred as a result of sin. This practice greatly benefited nobles and the wealthy, who could literally pay for their crimes, and correspondingly severely disadvantaged the poor, who could not. The practice also included the selling of indulgences to the families of deceased relatives to release their souls from Purgatory.
It was the "Jubilee Indulgence," authorized by Pope Leo X to pay for the rebuilding of St. Peter's Cathedral, which incited Luther to take action. As the doors of churches were often utilized for posting public notices, Luther, having written his ninety-five theses, placed them on the Castle Church doors on All Hallows Eve, where many who would attend the following All Saints Day observance would read it. However, it was the recent invention of the printing press that allowed Luther's theses to be circulated throughout Europe, thereby bringing him to the attention of Rome and the papacy.
The Church perceived Luther to be in opposition to Papal authority, and, accusing him of heresy, sought to have him arrested. With the support of the faculty at Wittenberg University and the Elector, Prince Frederick III of Saxony, Luther avoided imprisonment and a trial that most likely would have ended with his execution. However, by 1520, he was excommunicated from the Church and labeled as a heretic and fugitive.
The reaction of the Church against Luther and its steadfast refusal to discuss his theses prompted an internal schism that eventually became the Reformation movement. By 1530, the division was set, and an official statement of faith, known as the Augsburg Confession, began the first Protestant Church.
The revival of the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith has become the cornerstone by which the modern church exists. Reformation Day honors the work of the Holy Spirit in individuals who step out and confront the evils of their day through faith. From Luther's time to the present, the Church has been in a near-constant state of reformation, as the Lord continually restores the teachings and gifts that He blessed the Church with at its birth on Pentecost.