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  • Writer's pictureDr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.

The Protestant Reformation

“The just shall live by faith” — Rom. 3:17; Hab. 2:4; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38

What is Reformed Theology? What does it mean to be Reformed? To be Reformed means to

ascribe to the theology of the Protestant Reformation. Five hundred and six years ago, on Oct.

31, 1517, a thirty-three year old Augustinian monk, priest, & doctor of the church, named Martin

Luther, nailed a large sheet of paper to the castle church door in Wittenberg Germany, entitled,

“Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” The paper listed 95

theses as propositions to be expounded upon by the author. As you can surmise from the title,

most of the theses referred to some aspect of the doctrine of indulgences, which is a teaching

born in the medieval church that ultimately proposed that a Christian had to, in part, earn his

salvation by becoming actually righteous enough to get into heaven. The indulgence itself was

a letter of remission absolving you of the temporal penalties assigned by the church for specific

sins which otherwise you would have to endure or perform (pay money for example) before you

could be fully justified. The indulgence was said to be within the Pope’s authority to grant

because he had authority over the “treasury of merit.” This treasury was said to hold all of the

“excess” merit of the “saints,” who were held to have earned more than they needed to be

righteous in their lifetimes. The doctrine of indulgences taught that the popes, by decree, could

apply that merit to others.

In 1476, Pope Sixtus IV extended the scope of indulgences to souls in purgatory. Purgatory was

held to be a place of purification or “purging” for departed Christians who had not acquired

enough merit in their lives in order to go straight to heaven when they died, and so they had to

be purged by fire until they did. Rome taught that while Christ’s atonement alone delivered

Christians from God’s eternal wrath in hell, God’s justice still demanded a certain amount of

temporal penalties before the forgiven sinner could be perfectly just and so enter heaven. Thus,

all Christians not achieving enough merit in their earthly lives to satisfy God’s justice would

have to be purged of their remaining impurities by spending time in purgatory. A deceased

Christian might have to spend hundreds, thousands, or any conceivable number of years of

suffering in Purgatory in order to satisfy the temporal penalties required by God for each and

every one of their sins. Sixtus’ extension of the doctrine of indulgences, meant that living people

could purchase indulgences to get their suffering loved ones more quickly into heaven, and end

their temporal, but very real, and possibly very severe, suffering in Purgatory. Within forty years

of Pope Sixtus’ extension, the selling of indulgences had become big business and was seen by

many as Rome fleecing the nations.

The 95 Theses primarily called out the abuses of some indulgence preachers who, out of

personal avarice and greed, were going well beyond the accepted teaching of Rome, which

officially required contrition, confession, and the other parts of repentance before an

indulgence could be granted. Written in Latin, the Theses were intended only for scholars and

academics for the purpose of disputation in person or by letter, as was commonly done in that

day. Thus, Luther was not looking to stir up public opinion or start a movement at all. He was

seeking to be a loyal son of the Church and correct the abuse of some whom he thought were

being unfaithful to Rome. So, for example, Thesis #28 called out indulgence preacher John

Tetzel for saying “Whenever the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!” Still,

several of the Theses called into question the appropriateness of indulgences themselves: “Why

does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love… [than] for the sake of miserable

money?” Thesis #82 (though Luther stated this as an argument from the laity that required a

sufficient answer).

Yet in the providence of God, students at the University copied the Theses, translated them into

German, & widely distributed them to the point where everyone was talking about them. As

one theologian described it. “Luther was a man climbing a stairwell in a dark tower. He

stumbled and started to fall but his outstretched hand seized upon a rope. He was surprised to

hear a bell ringing.” Thus, while October 31, 1517 came and went with little fanfare, we rightly

mark that day as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, the greatest revival and

outpouring of the Holy Spirit since the time of the apostles. May God be pleased to send

another in our day!

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