The History of the Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was one of the most significant events in the history of the church, since the life of Christ and the founding of the church. Men like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox and John Calvin all began to question many of the different practices and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, which was at the time the only Christian church in Europe. These “reformers” did not believe that the pope was infallible, that Christians should be praying to saints, that the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper turned into the real body and blood of Christ, or that the sacraments of the church all by themselves could take away sin. Originally, many of these men were part of the Roman church and did not intend to start a new church; they wanted to reform the church, and because of this were called Reformers. But the church leadership rejected their protests and excommunicated many of them, including Martin Luther, perhaps the most prominent figure in the early Reformation. So they had no choice but to start new churches, and these churches were known as Protestant churches, because they began as protests against the abuses of the Catholic Church.
The Protestants taught the “Five Solas” in contradiction to the teaching of the Catholic Church:
-Sola Scriptura– The Scriptures are the only infallible authority for faith and life. This rejected the teaching of the Roman Church which puts the traditions of the church on an equal level with the Scriptures. Likewise today, the opinions of men, scientific discoveries, or the standards of a culture can never override the word of God.
-Sola Gratia– We are saved by grace alone, meaning that nothing in us merits the great gifts that God gives us, but that He gives them solely because He is gracious and good. The Roman church taught that the sinner cooperates with the grace of God to receive salvation. Man always seeks to add his own merit to God’s grace so that he can take credit for his own salvation. But the Scriptures teach that we are saved by grace through faith, so that no one can boast before God.
-Sola Fide– We are justified by faith alone. “Justification” means that our sins are forgiven and we are regarded as being righteous before God in Christ, solely because we believe in Jesus Christ. Jesus said that he who believes in Him will have eternal life, and He did not add any conditions to that one, faith.
-Solus Christus– Christ alone is the mediator between God and man. The Protestants rejected any idea of a priesthood or saints that stood between God and man, that dispensed grace from God to man. They taught the “priesthood of the believer”, that every believer stands as a priest before God. The clergy serve in the church as leadership and as teachers, but they do not occupy some higher position in a hierarchy between man and God. Further, the Protestants rejected any idea of a pope or bishop as the vicar of Christ and condemned the practice of praying to saints or angels.
-Soli Deo Gloria– To the glory of God alone. Mary and the saints should not be worshiped and bowed down to, or have holy days dedicated to the remembrance of their good works. Only God can be worshiped, and only God should be given credit for our salvation and our good works, since God is completely sovereign in bringing about the salvation of sinners.
The two major groups early on in the Protestant Reformation were the Lutherans and the Reformed. The Lutherans were those churches which followed Martin Luther’s doctrine most closely, while the Reformed adhered more closely to the theology of Calvin and Zwingli. They differed on the nature of the Lord’s Supper; the Lutherans believed that the physical body of Christ was present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, while the Reformed believe that Christ is present only in a spiritual sense. The Lutherans also denied the doctrine of election that the Reformed taught. Finally, they differed on worship- the Lutherans believed that they could worship God in any way not explicitly forbidden in Scripture, while the Reformed believed that God could be worshipped, and must be worshipped, by the means which He Himself taught us in His word.
Reformed churches today follow in the footsteps of these believers who were blessed by God to preserve true doctrine in the face of severe opposition and persecution by the corrupt medieval church. We believe that the Scriptures are our only infallible guide and authority for all that we do in the church and in our lives. We seek to be faithful to Christ’s command to preach the gospel and to make disciples of all the nations.