Soli Deo Gloria II

24 Oct 2017

Why the Reformation?

In our previous post, we thought about why we should take Church history seriously.
In this post we consider why we should celebrate the Reformation - something that happened 500 years ago.

Millions of people who believe what they believe today because of these events and we’ll begin to see just how important the Reformation was, and start to see why it still is important, when we consider the situation before the Reformation.

Church in the early 16th Century

  • The Bible

The only Bible available was a 4th century translation in Latin called the Vulgate.  All reading of the Bible was done on this text in Latin, but only academics knew Latin.  Many of the priests didn’t know Latin either, let alone the ordinary people.  Scripture was meaningless for the masses.

Not only that, but all studying of the Bible was done from this Latin translation not from the original languages and the Vulgate had a number of mistakes in it. For example, in Exodus 34 when Moses comes down from the mountain and his face is shining because he has been speaking with God, the Vulgate has that Moses came down the mountain with horns on his head.

Alongside this lack of Bible, was a rival to the Bible’s authority over Christian teaching: the Pope.

  • Popes

The Pope was Christ’s representative on earth; what the Pope said went. The Pope was the supreme judge of matters of Christian faith and teaching. And so authority rested with the Church rather than the Bible.

That’s bad enough, but consider what kind of men the popes were:

  • When Leo X assumed the throne in 1513 he said this: 'Now that God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it!'
  • Julius II (1503 to 1513) was called the Warrior Pope because he was always going to war, trying to gain more land for the papacy.
  • Alexander VI (1492-1503) was from the infamous Borgia family. Borgia was used as a word for corruption. Alexander tried to bribe his critic Savonarola.  When he refused the bribe, Alexander had him executed on false charges. He also fathered 8 children by his mistresses!

Sexual immorality and financial greed abounded amongst the clergy in general too. A saying of the day was: the closer to Rome the worse the Christian. Martin Luther later said '[they are] a swarm of parasites in Rome, lying in wait for endowments and benefices [i.e. money] of Germany as wolves lie in wait for the sheep.'

What was supposed to be the job of Church leaders? To look after the flock. Not fleece the flock and line your own pockets.

  • Priories

In the medieval world, there were two classes of people: the holy (priests, monks, nuns and so on) and the common, ordinary people. To be a serious Christian meant withdrawing from the world and from normal life into a monastery, convent or priory. The clergy couldn’t marry: they were holy.

  • Penance

One of the more serious errors in that Latin Bible (the Vulgate) was when John the Baptist and Jesus call people to repentance. The original word in Greek (metanoia) meant repent. But the Latin Bible had do penance (poenitentiam agite). So something in the original which had meant a turning of the mind away from the sinful life and towards God became an instruction to do good works. Do penance and be baptised instead of repent and be baptised. This mistranslation meant that if you sinned you were to pay for that sin by working hard.

A whole system of penance had been developed - after confessing sins to a priest a sinner would be instructed to go and do good works in order to pay the debt they owed to God.

Related to this abuse of the Bible, was the doctrine of Purgatory.

  • Purgatory

Here’s our next problem with the Latin Bible: it included books in the Old Testament that were not part of the Hebrew Bible – the Bible that Jesus used and called God’s Word.

In the extra (apocryphal book) 2 Maccabees (12:39-46) there is a reference to praying for the dead. The logic went that since you could pray for the dead, they must be in a place where your prayers could have an effect. From this one verse outside the Hebrew Bible sprang the whole doctrine of Purgatory: an in between place of suffering for purification before attaining heaven.

People could do penance (good works) to get time off purgatory.

Penance and Purgatory came together in something called Indulgences. When the Church needed money for wars or building Churches, the church would sell Indulgences. An Indulgence would allow a person to buy forgiveness for a sin they had committed or even were going to commit in the future. This money reduced time in Purgatory for the sinner. Or you could pay to reduce time in Purgatory for a dead loved one.

Before he understood the gospel, Luther went to Rome. There he climbed the Scala Sancta (the stairs which had apparently once stood in front of Pontius Pilate’s palace) on his knees and prayed the Lord’s Prayer on every step and kissed each one – to try and release his grandfather from Purgatory!

  • Saints

Another problem with the Vulgate was the Latin in Luke 1:28 describing Mary as: gratia plena (full of grace). Instead of a recipient of grace (highly favoured or blessed as our English translations have).  Medieval theologians developed a system where Mary was a reservoir of grace who could be tapped into when needed, and so people worshipped and prayed to Mary.

Likewise, for saints - those who had done more than enough good works, could give grace to help sinners on earth. People prayed to saints asking for their help with their spare grace for their sins.

  • Sacraments

In the medieval Church there were 7 sacraments (Baptism, Marriage, Ordination, Extreme Unction (anointing the dying), Penance, Confession and Mass) instead of the two covenant signs given to Christians in the Bible: Baptism and Communion.

The Mass involved transubstantiation: the idea that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. The Mass was a sacrifice: a re-sacrificing of Christ. Through the priest, grace was given to the people at the mass. The Mass was in Latin which people could not understand and the bread and wine would be lifted up for them to see, but they wouldn’t share in it -  they just watched the priest drinking it.  In order to reduce time in purgatory, you could say mass on behalf of someone dead.

  • Superstition

Without the Bible, there was all sorts of superstitious activity, all sorts of local pagan superstitions were mixed with the Church’s teaching. People’s worldview accepted fairies, goblins and saints, as well as demons and angels.

Luther’s own ruler, Duke Frederick the Wise of Saxony had the world’s largest collection of relics: over 19000.[1] Frederick had been on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and brought back the thumb of St Anne the mother of Mary.

He also had what he considered to be:

  • A tooth of St Jerome
  • Four body parts of St Augustine
  • Seven parts of Mary’s veil which were stained with Jesus’ blood
  • A piece of Jesus’ swaddling clothes
  • Some of the wise men’s gold and myrrh
  • A strand of Christ’s beard
  • A twig from the burning bush

If you viewed these objects and gave money you could get a significant time off in purgatory: up to 2 million years.


This was the situation before the Reformation began in earnest in 1517. It was very dark indeed, and a long way from the gospel of Jesus Christ found in the pages of the Bible: the cross of Jesus has paid for sins for all who put their faith in Him (Romans 3:21-26).

This really isn’t two brands of Christianity battling it out. The Reformation is about going back to the Bible, and the Bible as the authority over the Church instead of the other way round.

That’s why it was and is so important today and we have much to be grateful for.

Why not listen to catch up on our series here?
Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)!

[1] HT Andy Johnston: Convinced by Scripture, (Leyland: 10publishing, 2017), 10.