5 Fundamental Church Reforms to Thank Martin Luther for
Christians of every denomination owe a great debt to Martin Luther, yes, even Catholics. I know that he is not a popular person in the halls of the Roman Catholic Church. I attended Catholic schools for high schools and college and experienced the scorn with which Luther is viewed – at least in my experience. There remain strong feelings about Luther and the Reformation 500 years later. While this is understandable given their viewpoint and theology, it doesn’t change how much the worldwide church owes to the former monk. This is because a large number of your every day Christian practices and beliefs that are central to your modern faith only became accessible to regular people as a result of the Reformation. The things you take for granted as important parts of your walk as a Christian were simply impossible prior to Luther’s nailing his 95 Thesis to the door at Wittenberg. The Protestant Reformation is one of the most dramatic and underrated turning points in history, with many of the benefits being essential to life today. It would have never happened had Luther not had the courage to state:
My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.
Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.
You may never agree with his theology, but it is incredibly important to understand the far reaching impact of Luther and the many other Reformers, as you go forward in your own faith.
If you are open to looking further, here are the 5 Reasons Why Catholics be Grateful to Martin Luther:
1 – A Bible in Your Hand
Do you have a Bible in your home? If your answer is “yes, obviously”, you are reaping a benefit from the Protestant Reformation. Unless you are approved clergy or ruling nobility, it was virtually unthinkable that you would own a Bible, much less regularly read it. This was somewhat the result of the cost involved, but also due to the fact that the church prior to the Reformation simply did not want a Bible in your hands and actively sought to prevent you getting one.
The vast majority of people in the world, pre-Luther, had never touched a Bible, much less read or owned one. This was partly due to logistics as paper and printing were expensive. Yet, it was also a reflection of the prevailing view of the role of the Bible and “regular” people held by the Roman Catholic Church. Put simply, if you were not a churchman or a member of the most wealthy nobility, the Bible was thought to be not for you, at least not directly. The common man did not have the nature, innate intelligence and ability, or right before God to be blessed with the Bible directly. Not only that, the Scriptures would be defiled by coming into contact with the working man.
Martin Luther challenged these elitist views of the existing church hierarchy. He based his objections on the best of sources – the Bible itself. He read of the power of the Word and its work among the early church which was made up of mostly common men. He saw in the Word how Jesus did not choose the religious, but the fishermen and tax collectors to be His disciples. This fundamentally transformed his view point of the purpose of the Bible. It was not an academic treatise reserved solely for clergy, but a book for every single follower of Christ. Therefore, when Luther translated the Bible into German or published one of his works, he distributed it directly to anyone who was willing to read it. Huge crowds would gather to hear him teach or debate with “official” church men. Luther believed that the Bible was for the common man and had faith in the power of the Bible to benefit them, regardless of social status. The right of all Christians to read the Bible was a foundational principle of the Reformation, as a result.
These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. Acts 17:11
These beliefs are what transformed the Bible from something that you and I were not worthy to own, to the book that you are able to read whenever you have the desire to do so. For this, every Christian owes Luther a great debt.
2 – A Bible in Your Language
Today, you likely have available to you not only a Bible in your language, but multiple versions of the Bible in different formats and language styles. You can read it in English, if that is your language, and compare multiple translations against each other to see where they differ. This sort of access to the Bible was simply impossible before Martin Luther and the Reformation. Not only did the church before Luther limit itself to the ecclesiological language of Latin, barring rare exceptions, but it also tried to actively and violently suppress use of local languages. Many men died while trying to get the Bible to their own people in their own language.
The events of the first Pentecost of the church are recorded in Acts. On that day, among other things, the Holy Spirit came to the church and effectively translated the speech of the disciples into the language of his listeners. It was a miracle of God done to ensure everyone understood Jesus’ wonderful message.
4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Acts 2:4-12
Despite this, the church prior to Luther, clung to Latin as the official church language – the used it for the Bible and their services. They missed the irony that neither Jesus nor the Apostles spoke or wrote in Latin and the clarity of the Holy Spirit’s translation work on Pentecost. The church was so strongly opposed to translations into English, for example, that when William Tyndale was working on his English translation, he was hunted down and eventually killed for doing so. Having read Acts 2, in spite of the threat of death hanging over him, when Luther translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek, he deliberately chose to do so into the vernacular of the common German of his day. Rather than hold onto the language of a long dead empire, he put the Bible in words and terms that the people of his day used and understood – of course without altering its meaning. The reasoning seem simple now, the Bible does no good if you can’t understand the language, but it was revolutionary for its time. It was only Luther’s refusal to follow the dictates of the church that led to today’s viewpoint.
You may say that this shift into publication in local languages was inevitable. Yet, despite the Reformation, Acts 2, and the obvious logic involved, it was not until the 1960’s that the Roman Catholic Church did away with Latin as the language of their standard service.
3 – You Expect that You Can Understand the Bible
Most modern Christians approach the Bible with an underlying assumption that was not present before the Reformation. That is, you read the Bible with the pre-determined expectation that you will understand what is contained therein. This does not mean you immediately comprehend everything and become a Bible scholar. Rather, that in varying degrees, you think that the words contained in the Bible were put there for you to discover and be taught by. It may take work, study, and training, but if you want to, you can hear from God through the pages of the Bible as a regular old Christian. This belief was not even within the realm of possibility prior to the Reformation.
In the political systems that existed prior to the Reformation, the vast majority of people in the world were viewed as living one step up from cattle. They were virtually owned by their landowners and there to be used for their benefit. This carried over to the church, whose leaders came from the same class as the secular Lords and viewed the masses in a similar light. The people who came to church were there to be told what to do and not do, to be told about God, and to serve the church. They were certainly never there to take the Bible in their own hands to try and hear from God themselves. This idea was not only viewed as foolishness, but thoughts like that were borderline rebellious and would also result in terrible things. The regular folks surely could not be allowed to think for themselves.
Luther and the Reformation dramatically challenged these views and prejudices. Luther took his teachings and writings directly to the people. The Reformation, as a whole, established that God spoke to each person, no matter the class, and cared that they understood His message. It rejected the feudal view of people and democratized the very idea of learning in the way that carries over to this very day.
Do you believe that you have the ability to understand the Bible and have an opinion on what Jesus said, you can thank Martin Luther for that.
4 – You Can Take Full Communion
You may do communion differently than I do. You may take wine to my grape juice or have your leader put a wafer in your mouth while I take it in my hand. You also may view the actual communion celebration in a theological light that is contrary to mine. Yet, we both owe the very fact that full communion is available to us, both wine/grape juice and bread, to the work of Luther and the Reformation.
The church at the time of the Reformation did not want the hands of commoners possibly contaminating communion. You may have seen the remnant of this belief if you ever had to kneel with your mouth open to have the bread placed in your mouth, but the practice at the time of Luther was much more meaningful. Before Luther, the people were limited to the bread placed on their tongue and were not even allowed to partake of the wine. This was reserved for the priests who were seen to be above the laity. Jesus commanded that His people do this in memory of me:
Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” Luke 22:17-19
Yet, the church had so adopted the power structures and conceits of the Lords and Kings of that time period it disregarded the direction of the Lord Himself.
The focus of the Reformation on returning the church back to its roots in the early church and the Bible naturally resulted in a rejection of this practice. In one of the early examples of the real application of “Solo Scriptura”, it was reasoned since the tradition and teaching of the Roman Catholic Church clashed with the teaching of the Lord in the Bible, they must disregard the opinions of men and allow the Word to set the path to follow. This resulted in the communion you experience in church today. It would not have occurred without Luther.
5 – You Don’t Belong to the Church
This last point is not about membership in a particular congregation or being part of the universal Body of Christ. This is about ownership, or at least, a viewpoint that amounted to near slavery for you if you were a common person at the time of Martin Luther. As mentioned above, Europe was ruled from about the 800’s to the 1500’s under the Feudal system. This form of government may be vaguely familiar to you. It may seem even romantic with its Lords and Ladies, Knights, and Kings, but for approximately 85% of the population, it amounted to living almost as a slave. Society was greatly segmented and the upper classes exercised nearly absolute power over the lives of the peasantry. The Lords dictated the daily lives of most of the population without much thought to them as individuals and viewed it as their God given right. The philosopher, Thomas Hobbes famously argued in favor of the divine right of kings to cover both the secular and religious realms, advocating the many benefits of a hugely powerful sovereign.
I know this is a bit of history lesson, but it has an important point regarding the church before Luther.
The power and might of the Western Roman Empire that had been centered on Rome completely feel apart around the same time as the rise of feudalism. The Emperor Constantine moved the heart of the Empire to Constantine 500 years prior and had neglected the former capital. The neglect of the Western Empire led to its collapse which left a significant power vacuum in places like the Italian peninsula. The Roman Church stepped into this void and took control as the temporal leaders of the area, in addition to their spiritual job. They adopted a feudal structure in both roles – making themselves into the Lords of both the land and the hearts of the peasantry. The church took over the land from the absent landlords and treated the people like the people they replaces, like the serfs and slaves of feudalism. In many instances, they went further and raised armies to obtain more land and waged war on the neighbors to set up what would become the Papal States. This process and outlook had a direct impact on the operation of the church and treatment of the regular people of that day. The church became the Lord of the land for many of the people in the region. It effectively owned many and kept them in their low state through their management and taxation. Even if you were a free person, the church required you to work on its huge land holdings without pay for 10% of the year in order to meet what they deemed as a proper tithe. There was no choice given in the matter. The princes of the church built great palaces, befitting the ruler of the feudal system, and dictated every aspect of its subjects lives, while it bargained with the secular leaders of the day. As covered above, the serf, peasant, or small farmer had no need for a Bible, they could not possibly understand it and it was the job of their rulers to tell them what God wanted or did not want. Your life and your death was in the hands of the church – with men like Jan Hus and William Tyndale that death could come quickly and violently if the church willed it. You belonged to the church to do with what it wished.
Luther bravely rejected both this demeaning view of you as an individual and the usurping of God’s role by the Vatican. I say bravely because his life was literally on the line when he did so. The pope tried his best to burn Luther at the stake like it had Jan Hus one hundred years prior. The Reformation recognized that you only belong to God and you are exclusively His to command, through the leading of the Holy Spirit and the teachings contained in the Bible. Since Luther taught that salvation was by grace, a gift from God to you individually, by faith, and not by works, this placed the relationship and responsibility for their eternal fates in the hands of the people and Jesus – not one of the churchmen issuing decrees in a far off land. Only God could give and only God could take away, not a threatening church person. Ownership of you was recognized as never being in the hands of any man, but resting with the one and only Lord that mattered – Jesus.
Have you been forced to work at a church for free recently? Is your pastor, priest, or bishop the one who dictates every part of your life and to whom you give much of your wages? You can thank the Reformation if your answer is in the negative.
Martin Luther was far from a perfect man and the Reformation was far from flawless in its execution. There were errors made by the Reformers that ranged from mistakes in judgment to ugly sin. Yet, despite the faults of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Hus, and the many other men of God who influenced it, every Christian has been greatly blessed by their challenges to the existing church of Luther’s day and the changes that the Reformation brought about…and for that, we all should give thanks to Martin Luther.