Many Protestant churches throughout the world commemorate in some form or another “Reformation Sunday”, the first Sunday after 31 October. As a former Roman Catholic myself, I find some irony in this. Sometimes it seems like going back to celebrating special religious days upon which the Church of Rome is so fixated (e.g. Col. 2:16).

But the Reformation was obviously one of the great turning points in the history of the world. One of the most significant events which precipitated it occurred when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the Wittenberg Church door on October 31st 1517. It was the equivalent of publishing a Facebook post, and as these things are wont to do on social media sometimes, it created a firestorm of controversy.

At the heart of the entire debate was the sale of indulgences. An indulgence is a piece of paper—or church certificate—which guaranteed the person who purchased it that a certain amount of time in purgatory would be remitted as a result of the said financial payment.

As I said earlier, I grew up in the Catholic Church and can confirm that this is something which is still practised today. Especially before a funeral mass, the priest is often given a significant amount of money as a good work to be credited to the deceased person’s spiritual account.

It is the sale of indulgences which goes to the very heart of the question as to how can a person be saved. Is it possible to buy your way into heaven in co-operation with one’s own moral efforts and good works? Or is it based on Scripture alone, through Christ alone, by grace alone, by faith alone, and to the glory of God alone?

Luther and other Reformers such as John Calvin, rightly understood the sale of indulgences to be anathema for it completely undermines the person and work of Christ. Through his death on the cross, resurrection from the dead, and then ascension into heaven, Jesus has become our perfect sacrifice and High Priest. It is also why he himself could triumphantly declare just before he died – Tetalestai, or in English “It is finished!” (John 19:30)

What Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and many other Roman Catholic theologians re-discovered was that salvation was a gift to be received through faith (see Rom. 4:4-5). In fact, even our ability to trust in Christ is something which we are graciously given from God. As the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-10,

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Or again, as Paul says in Titus 3 verses 3 to 4,

“At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy.”

All of which goes to the very heart as to why the Reformation still matters. We are either trusting in Christ, and him alone, or we are trusting in ourselves and our own good works. Two very different ways of salvation are being taught. Martin Luther described his own experience of salvation as follows:

“I felt that I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase, ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakable sweet by virtue of a great love.”

What Luther discovered was the difference between man-made religion and biblical Christianity. As David Cook once put, it is the difference between DO and DONE. More formally, Luther declared:  justificatio est articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae—”justification is the article by which the church stands and falls.”

This is also why the Reformation still matters. Either our zeal for God is based upon human tradition or the authority of Scripture. And we are either seeking to establishing a righteousness of our own or we are submitting to God’s righteousness for us in Christ.

There is no other way through which we can be saved. Not only do we need to proclaim this truth to the world but we need to keep on applying the truth of the Gospel to ourselves as well. As Luther said, “We need to hear the Gospel every day, because we forget it every day.”

– Mark Powell