“On a crisp October night in 1517, the thirty-first to be exact, a black-garbed Augustinian monk made his way undetected to the castle church. The place was an insignificant medieval German town named Wittenberg. With swift, determined strokes he nailed one the most inflammatory documents of the age to the church door, which served as the village bulletin board. Within a fortnight all Europe was echoing the sound of that inauspicious hammer. A month later the hardly-audible taps had become sledge hammer blows assailing the very citadel of the Roman Catholic Church.” (Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand)
The Augustinian monk was named Martin Luther. Certainly, Luther did not understand the eternal significance of his document, yet the Reformation was launched. There had been numerous attempts to reform the Roman Catholic Church (The only church at that time), but they had all been squelched by the Inquisition.
God appointed the 16th century as the time to reform and purify His church. Religious, economic, and political factors, too much to discuss in this blog, had been brewing for centuries and set the stage for the Reformation.
State of the Church in 1500
What was the state of the Roman Catholic Church at the beginning of the 16th century. Simply put, it was corrupt. Indulgences, excessive papal and church wealth, clerical violations of church and biblical rules of behavior, and corrupt doctrine are just some of the corruption, dishonestly, unethical, and unscrupulous activity of the church at that time.
Let me briefly discuss indulgences and the state of preaching during corporate worship at the beginning of the 16th century.
Although reformers had many complaints about the Catholic Church of the 16th century, the practice of selling “indulgences” raised the most opposition. An indulgence was a payment to the Catholic Church that purchased an exemption from punishment (penance) for some types of sins. You could not get an indulgence to excuse a murder, but you could get one to excuse many lesser sins, such as thinking lustful thoughts about someone who was not your spouse. The customers for indulgences were Catholic believers who feared that if one of their sins went unnoticed or unconfessed, they would spend extra time in purgatory before reaching heaven or worse, wind up in hell for failing to repent. As bad as that is, it gets worse.
In later years, the sale of indulgences spread to include forgiveness for the sins of people who were already dead. That is evident in this passage from a sermon by John Tetzel, the monk who sold indulgences in Germany and inspired Martin Luther’s protest in 1517.
“Don’t you hear the voices of your dead parents and other relatives crying out, “Have mercy on us, for we suffer great punishment and pain. From this, you could release us with a few alms . . . We have created you, fed you, cared for you and left you our temporal goods. Why do you treat us so cruelly and leave us to suffer in the flames, when it takes only a little to save us?”
I hope you are speechless. A payment was made for a dead relative to relieve them of their suffering in Purgatory. The result of indulgences was a financial bonanza for the organized church. The church was wickedly deceiving people and robbing them of their hard-earned money.
Wrong and wicked behavior emerges from wrong and wicked doctrine. Let’s answer the question what was the state of preaching in corporate worship.
In the centuries preceding the Reformation, preaching had been in steady decline. Eclipsed by the Mass and rendered non-essential by the theology of medieval Roman Catholicism, preaching had lost the primacy it had once enjoyed in the days of the early post-apostolic church. By the 15th century, only a small percentage of people could expect to hear their priest preach to them regularly in their local parish church. The English reformer Hugh Latimer spoke of “strawberry parsons” who, like strawberries, appeared but once a year. Even then, the homily would often be in a Latin unintelligible to the people (and, perhaps, to the priest).
As for the content of these rare delicacies, they were highly unlikely to go anywhere near Scripture. The vast majority of the clergy simply didn’t have the Scriptural knowledge to make the attempt. Instead, wrote John Calvin, pre-Reformation sermons were usually divided according to this basic pattern:
The first half was devoted to those misty questions of the schools which might astonish the rude populace, while the second contained sweet stories, or not unamusing speculations, by which the hearers might be kept on the alert. Only a few expressions were thrown in from the Word of God, that by their majesty they might procure credit for these frivolities. (The Real Engine Room of the Reformation, Michael Reeves)
As a result, ignorance of the Word and the gospel was profound and widespread. The people were Biblically illiterate, worship was void of the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Word of God was not preached. The result was a dead church.
We have looked at the causes of the Reformation, now let’s spend a moment on the results of the Reformation. Ultimately, Protestantism was born! A renewed and reformed church began. There were five basic “Solas” of the Reformation. These represent the doctrinal unity of the Reformers:
Sola Scriptura-Scripture alone
Sola Fide-Faith alone
Sola Gratia-Grace alone
Solo Christo-Christ alone
Soli Deo Gloria-To the glory of God alone
These heavyweight, durable, trustworthy, Biblical truths, adhered to by the early church, recovered by the Reformers, are certainly the marks of an orthodox, God-glorifying, gospel-centered, Christ-honoring, Holy Spirit-saturated church today. May we herald these same gospel-saturated truths as we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ!