Today's post is by guest contributor, Christian Clement-Schlimm. Because it's the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and because of Christian's background in history, I've asked him to share what the Reformation was and what it means for us today.

Growing up I often faced the question, “What’s the difference between Catholic and Christian?” This was not because I was engaging in deep theological study of religious topics, but rather because from grades 3 to 12 I attended Catholic schools and identified myself as a Christian. While my answers to this question changed as I began to understand more aspects of our Christian faith and the faith of my Roman Catholic friends and family, it was a question constantly asked as the other kids noticed a difference. Due to my parents' discipleship and Sunday School training, I would noticeably excel in the required religion classes which largely focussed on the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. On the other hand, I would not participate when the class would spend months learning the Hail Mary prayer in Italian or receive communion during the Masses run by the school priest. In university, the question would still be asked but the context would change. At the University of Toronto, I attended the Roman Catholic college, whose chancellor also happened to be the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Toronto. While, to my memory, the Reformation was never mentioned in my days of grade school, at school or church, it would be one of several central topics when speaking with Roman Catholic friends and classmates on campus, especially those in my history program. It was during this time that I came to fully understand what was at stake and how an event now 500 years old was still supremely relevant to my attempts to share and defend my faith on campus.  

On October 31, 1517 a young clergyman named Martin Luther walked up to the church doors in his small university town of Wittenberg, Germany, and posted a list of grievances with the established Catholic Church of his day. As was the custom of the culture, his initial goal was to simply raise and debate these matters publicly, and respectfully, namely issues surrounding the sale of indulgences (paying the Church institution with the goal of shortening one’s own time or that of a loved one in purgatory, a supposed place of purification after death). The posting of these 95 Theses would eventually be the spark of what is now known as the Protestant Reformation. Despite this seemingly low key beginning, the Reformation would soon become a battle for the Gospel itself as Luther and other “Protestants” (those protesting the established Church) all over Europe would be fighting for the sufficiency of Scripture and God’s grace in the life of a Christian, over and against what they believed to be corruptions of the Christian religion that had developed over the previous centuries. The two main battle cries of the Reformation were Sola Scriptura (Latin for Scripture alone) and Sola Fide (Latin for faith alone).  

Sola Scriptura is now popularly identified as the “formal” principle of the Reformation. This phrase represents the Protestant belief that Scripture alone is the sole infallible (incapable of error) rule of the Christian religion. While Sola Scriptura does not reject the benefit and wisdom of many ancient writings or tradition in general, it does claim that all other sources relating to matters of faith must be tested against the word of God, as it holds the final and supreme authority in Christian faith and practice. This principle was in contrast to the developed belief of the established Church that Scripture was merely one of several infallible guides for the Christian, alongside “Sacred” Tradition and the Magisterium (the leadership of the established Catholic Church). Protestants understood that the rejection of the sufficiency of God’s word was the underlying reason behind many major deviations of the established Church from Christianity, such as the sale of indulgences and even the rejection of the Gospel itself. The Reformers sought to follow the example of the noble-minded Bereans who “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if these teachings were true” (Acts 17:11).

Sola Fide is understood to be the “material” principle of the Reformation. The matter of faith alone was the central issue of the Reformation as it struck at core of the gospel. Luther and his fellow Protestants, looking to the Scriptures as their rule, argued that man was justified (made right) before God by grace alone through faith alone. They believed that nothing man could do, be it attending church, charitable acts, fasting, or any other work, could earn one right standing before God. According to the Protestants, Scripture taught that salvation was totally of God, His gift, His power, and His work. Luther himself argued for Sola Fide and imputed righteousness (that the Christian’s righteousness is Christ’s given to them), making justification totally dependent upon divine grace and Christ’s work. Luther proclaiming that “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Martin Luther, seeking to reform the Church he loved according to the word of God, was eventually cast out by its leaders. Yet, by the grace of God and the moving of the Holy Spirit, many other faithful Christians of Luther’s day, ranging from political and church leaders to the masses of peasants, did away with the anti-Scriptural practices of the established Church, openly advocated for the gospel and protested what we now know as the Roman Catholic Church. Taking up the torch of many before, men like John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, the Protestants called for Churches that would not only be Christian in name, but also Christian in practice. Luther and his contemporaries such as, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and Thomas Cranmer, would spread the principles of the Reformation throughout Europe. Entire states would experience revival as rich and poor alike would embrace the comforting and glorious truth that God’s grace and word are sufficient.