What Caused the Reformation?

Nathan Busenitz | October 31, 2017

In answer to the question, “What caused the Reformation?” many people might point to Martin Luther and his 95 Theses. But if you were to ask Luther himself, he would refuse to take any credit. Instead, he would put the focus entirely on God and His Word.

Near the end of his life, Luther declared, “All I have done is put forth, preach, and write the Word of God, and apart from this I have done nothing.…It is the Word that has done great things.…I have done nothing; the Word has done and achieved everything.”

Elsewhere, he proclaimed, “By the Word the earth has been subdued; by the Word the Church has been saved; and by the Word also it shall be reestablished.”

Noting Scripture’s foundational place in his own heart, Luther wrote, “No matter what happens, you should say: There is God’s Word. This is my rock and anchor. On it I rely, and it remains. Where it remains, I, too, remain; where it goes, I, too, go.”

Luther rightly understood what caused the Reformation. He recognized that it was the Word of God empowered by the Spirit of God preached by men of God in a language that the common people of Europe could understand. When the people’s ears were exposed to the truth of God’s Word it pierced their hearts and they were radically changed, by God’s grace and for His glory. It was ignorance of Scripture that made the Reformation necessary. It was the recovery of Scripture that made the Reformation possible.

It was that very power that transformed Luther’s own heart, a power summarized in the familiar words of Hebrews 4:12, “The Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.” The rhetorical question of Jeremiah 23:29 makes this same point—“‘Is not My word like fire?’ declares the Lord, ‘and like a hammer which shatters a rock?’”

During the late middle ages, the medieval Catholic Church had imprisoned God’s Word in the Latin language, a language the common people of Europe did not speak. The Reformers unlocked the Scriptures by translating them and boldly proclaiming their truth. Once people had access to the Word of God, the Reformation became inevitable.

The common thread, from Reformer to Reformer, was an undying commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, such that they were willing to sacrifice everything, including their own lives, to get the Word of God into the hands of the people.

They did this because they understood that the power for spiritual reformation and revival was not in them, but in the gospel (cf. Romans 1:16–17). And they used the Latin phrase sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) to emphasize the truth that God’s Word was the true power and ultimate authority behind all they said and did.

It was ignorance of Scripture that made the Reformation necessary. It was the recovery of Scripture that made the Reformation possible. And it was the power of the Scripture that gave the Reformation its enduring impact, as the Holy Spirit brought the truth of His Word to bear on the hearts and minds of individual sinners, transforming them, regenerating them, and giving them eternal life.

As we look back on the Reformation today, we do well to remember that the catalyst behind any lasting revival is not human ingenuity or cleverness. Rather, it is the faithful preaching and teaching of the Spirit-empowered Word of God.

 


Nathan Busenitz avatar
Nathan Busenitz is the Dean of faculty at The Master's Seminary. He is also one of the pastors of Cornerstone, a fellowship group at Grace Community Church.

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