Five centuries ago today, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation that changed the world. The Reformation was a recovery of the gospel of Jesus Christ and a movement that brought people back to God’s Word. For hundreds of years, the Bible had been locked away by the Roman Catholic Church. Suddenly, God began to raise up Reformers who would seek to reform what had been deformed by the Roman Catholic Church over the centuries. God had other plans—and the internal movement eventually exploded into an external protest that rocked the world.
When Martin Luther walked down the cobblestone streets of Wittenberg, Germany to nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the front of the Castle Church’s door—he was looking to have a localized debate. That was the common form of social media in Wittenberg—long before Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. Some of Luther’s theology students removed the document that contained ninety-five statements that called out errors pertaining to the sale of indulgences and issues of authority within the Roman Catholic Church. They took the document to a printer and had it duplicated and soon the regions far and wide were reading Luther’s statements and it was far more than a local debate. It was the spark that would ignite the blaze of the Reformation.
The German Bible of 1522
As the controversy continued to brew, Luther would continue to stand his ground. In 1520, he received an official Papal Bull from the pope himself calling him a wild boar loose in God’s vineyard and demanding that he recant. Luther did the unthinkable. He gathered with a group of people, including his students, on the outer edge of Wittenberg and publicly burned the document. Luther was drawing a line in the sand.
The following year, in 1521, Luther was summoned to stand trial at the Diet of Worms. It was there that he refused to recant, stating publicly that he was “bound by the Scriptures he had quoted and his conscience was captive to the Word of God and it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” When Luther said, “Here I stand” he was saying to the emperor and the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church that he was standing on the gospel and they were standing on something other than the gospel.
While Luther was on his way back to Wittenberg after his bold stand at Worms, he was kidnapped by his friends and taken to the fortress known as the Wartburg Castle. He was given freedom to hide out there and during this time something extraordinary took place. Luther gave himself to the work of translating the New Testament Bible from the original Greek into the German language. He labored at the rate of 1,500 words per day. In 1522, the work was completed, and it would be the German Bible that would revolutionize worship in Germany. The German Bible would allow people to hear the gospel preached in their own tongue as opposed to Latin murmurings.
The English Bible of 1526
Over in England, in the city of Cambridge, a group of Catholic priests would gather in the White Horse Inn to talk theology. It was in that small gathering that these men would read and discuss the writings of the German monk named Martin Luther who was causing a massive firestorm in Europe. God would save these men and they would renounce their Catholic doctrines and cling to the pure gospel of Jesus Christ alone. Out of this small group would come nine martyrs. One of these men was William Tyndale.
After committing himself to the translation work of the English New Testament, through a series of providential moves, Tyndale would end up in the city of Worms where he would complete the printing of the Bible. It would be placed in cotton bales and smuggled up the Rhine river into England. Just as in Luther’s Germany, when people in England received the Word of God in their own language it was like throwing gasoline on an open blaze. The Reformation exploded. With the explosion of the Reformation came the intense persecution of the Roman Catholic Church. William Tyndale was hunted down, arrested, and burned in the street on October 6th, 1536. But the flames of the Reformation were now burning far greater than the flames of persecution.
The Geneva Bible of 1560
As persecution continued to rise, people fled England for cities of refuge. Geneva had voted in the Reformation, and this attracted many people to Switzerland. One such man to make his way to Geneva was John Knox. It was while in Geneva that he was used by God to develop the world’s first study Bible. The 1560 Geneva Bible was printed in English and had the commentary notes of the Reformers below the biblical text and in the margins. It was well organized and included illustrations and maps for the first time in church history. This Bible became known as the Bible of the Reformation.
The Bible was well received by the people of the Reformation, but it was vilified by the Roman Catholic Church because of troubling words in the commentary section of the Bible. The 1560 Geneva Bible translated Revelation 11:7 as, “And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that cometh out of the bottomless pit, shall make wars against them, and shall overcome them, and kill them.” The study note attached to this verse stated the following, “That is, the Pope which hathe his power out of hell and cometh thence.” From the political protest that developed, the 1560 Geneva Bible was labeled “Calvinistic,” a term of derision.
The Pilgrim and Puritan Movement
In the fall of 1620, 102 colonists sailed for the New World on a well known sea vessel known as the Mayflower. These Separatist Christians renounced the religious practices of the Church of England and believed that the Church of England was beyond redemption. Rather than trying to work for reform within the Church of England—they pursued religious freedom. They looked beyond the borders of their own land to the New World.
When these families stepped off the boat onto the ground that we now call America, they took their belongings with them to start a new life. They also had in their possession the 1560 Geneva Bible. It would be the Bible used in the planting of the first churches of the land that we now know as America. In 1630, another wave of people would arrive known as the Puritans. These people sailed for the new world looking for freedom to practice their religion without the persecution of the Roman Catholic Church.
Eventually these people would have growing families and growing churches that would lead to a growing population who would lead to the founding fathers of America. While America was not founded as a Christian nation, it was founded by many Christians. It was a nation established with the freedom of religion as a foundational principle. As we look back through history, we must ask ourselves an honest question. Would America exist today without the Reformation? What if Luther had never drafted that document known as the Ninety-Five Theses and nailed it to the front of the Castle Church door in Wittenberg in 1517? Certainly without the Reformation, the religious climate in Germany and England would have been far different. Without religious persecution people would not have had a reason to flee to the new world.
As we look back today, on this 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation—not only was this a recovery of the gospel and a return to God’s Word—it was a movement that changed the world. As these Reformers labored to provide the Bible in the common man’s language—the Reformation flame burned more intense each step of the way. That’s why the motto of the Reformation was, post tenebras lux—after darkness light. We stand on the shoulders of Luther and the other Reformers to this very day. R.C. Sproul has stated, “The Reformation was not merely a Great Awakening; it was the Greatest Awakening to the true Gospel since the Apostolic Age.” Like any true movement of God, it was built upon the Word of God. As we look back at Luther and consider his work in the Reformation, we can be grateful for his many books, his debate with Erasmus, his powerful sermons, and his polemical tracts—but his “Magna Carta” was the German Bible that became the engine of the Reformation. As we continue in the protest of the Reformation let us give all glory to God. The Reformation is not over.
Soli Deo Gloria