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The Age of Reformation

By Jeremy Cagle

October 31 is a special day for many people in the world.1 It is Halloween, a time when children dress up, parents pass out candy, and whole neighborhoods come together to play make-believe. But it is an even more important day for people in the church because October 31 is also known as “Reformation Day.” It is a day set aside to celebrate the Protestant Reformation.

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Church at Wittenberg, effectively starting the Protestant Reformation. In one sense, the Reformation was underway long before Luther came around. However, in another sense, Luther’s action started the entire thing. As he nailed his theses to the door of the church, the Reformation was being nailed to the hearts of men and women all across the world.

Before we begin, it might help to define some terms to understand what Luther was so upset about. The term “protestant” means “to protest.” This movement started as a protest against abuses in the Catholic Church. It was not a passive event but an active one. It was an all-out attack on wrongs that were being perpetuated in the name of Jesus Christ.

It was also a reformation. The term “reformation” means just what it says: this was a re-formation, not a re-creation of the church. The Reformers wanted to take the church back to the Scriptures, back to the way God intended it to be. They did not want to do away with it. They were not attacking the idea of the church as much as they were attacking the exploitation of it.

Now, in saying that, one might wonder: What was the church like before 1517? What was it that made men like Martin Luther so concerned? To answer that, it might be good to give a quick summary of church history.2

When the last apostle died in the first century, the church was under heavy persecution. In fact, all of the apostles were martyred except for one, and many of their followers were treated the same way. The early Christians were crucified, beheaded, burned alive, skinned alive, stoned, impaled, drowned, and imprisoned. And this went on for years until the Roman General Constantine saw a vision of a cross over the Milvian Bridge in Italy with the words “In this sign, conquer” above it. He took that to mean that the cross should be painted on the shields of his soldiers, which he did, and he won battles. He won lots of battles.

In fact, he won so many battles that he became Emperor of Rome and, as a way of saying thank you to the Christians, he legalized their religion in A. D. 313. He then went one step further and made it the official religion of the Empire, forcing the church and the state to become one. Now Christians ran the world. Now the persecuted became the persecutors. Those who had been crucified, beheaded, burned alive, and skinned alive as Christians were given the power to do the same thing to their enemies. And many of them did. As one Pope put it, they used the state as the sword of the church.

Constantine later moved his capitol to the east, but the city of Rome stayed put in the west and so did the Roman Church. Soon it began mediating disputes between other churches. Then it began to give orders to other churches and, finally, it gave orders to kings. There is a famous story of the Roman Emperor, Henry IV, standing outside the Pope’s castle for four days in a blizzard begging for his forgiveness.3 That was the world that the Reformation occurred in. The Roman Catholic Church controlled everything.

This period was known as the “Dark Ages.” In the 5th Century A. D., shortly after Constantine’s death, the Roman Empire fell to the Barbarians and the world entered a time of absolute darkness. People were in the dark scholastically because they could not read. The printing press would not be invented until 1455 so books had to be copied by hand, which meant that there were few available.

People were also in the dark economically because catastrophes like the Bubonic Plague kept the population low. One plague wiped out ¼ of Europe’s workforce in a single year. It is hard to recover from an event like that. The people lived in a dark, hand-to-mouth existence.

Worst of all, they were in the dark spiritually because they knew nothing about the true God. They were taught what is called “infused righteousness” or the idea that righteousness is infused to you like a bone. When you do a good deed, it gets infused to your other good deeds until you eventually earn your way into Heaven.

This was taught several different ways in the Catholic Church. It was taught through the observance of relics. The people were told that they could visit the skull of John the Baptist or a piece from the holy cross or some hair from the Virgin Mary and pray to it and it would be infused to their soul. They could earn their way to Heaven with that good work.

The people of the Middle Ages were also taught that they could donate money to the church, giving them more righteousness. Johann Tetzel, the priest and opponent of Luther, famously said: “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”4 In other words, money earns salvation. The more money you give to the church; the more chance you have of being saved.

Finally, they were taught to take the Mass. The people were told to come to church and watch the priest perform transubstantiation where he changed the bread and wine into Jesus’ actual body and blood. They were told to sit still and watch as he brought Jesus down from the cross and gave Him to the congregation in the flesh, preparing them for Heaven and saving their souls from Hell.

Again, it was a period of total darkness. The people could not see anything. They were as blind as blind could be and the question that needs to be answered in this article is: How did that change? What happened?

When the Reformation was going on in Geneva, the city posted signs that said, “After darkness, light,” but how did the light get there? How did we go from the Dark Ages to the Age of Reformation? To answer that, we will take a look at five major principles and five major players of the Protestant Reformation.


The Reformation began with the principle of Sola Fide or, in Latin, “Faith Alone.” Salvation comes by faith alone, without works. It is not based on infused righteousness but on “imputed righteousness.” Imputed righteousness means that righteousness is imputed or transferred to your account. It means that Jesus lived a perfect life and, through faith in Him, you are saved. His perfection is imputed to you as Donald Grey Barnhouse famously put it: “You don’t need a change of life. You need an exchange.” Salvation is an exchange of life.

This is what the Book of Galatians is all about: salvation through faith alone. Galatians 3:6-7 says:

Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.

Galatians 3:23-26 also says:

But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

The Law was given to lead us to faith in Christ. The Ten Commandments were not given to save us but to show us the hopelessness of trying to be saved on our own. We are saved through faith in someone else. Jesus was perfectly righteous and, if we believe in Him, we receive the rewards of His perfect life.

One man who taught this during the Reformation was Martin Luther. It is hard to talk about Sola Fide without talking about him. Luther was born in 1483 in Germany to a family of coal miners, but his dad wanted him to be a lawyer. However, in his teenage years, he got caught in a lightning storm and prayed, “God, if you get me through this, I will become a monk,” and he did. He survived the storm, entered a monastery and, while there, he almost killed himself trying to gain infused righteousness.

He said that if a monk could be saved by monkery, it was him. He did everything he could to earn God’s favor. He fasted. He prayed. He went days without sleep, all to work his way into Heaven, and all to no avail. He said that he felt like God hated him until one day he read Romans 1:17, which says, “The just shall live by faith,” and it all clicked. Salvation is not by works. It is by faith alone.

This made such an impact on Luther that he began to write about it. He wrote several books such as The Bondage of the Will, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church and, most importantly for us, The 95 Theses. He actually wrote the theses and nailed them to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany without any intention of publishing them, but they started an uproar in the church at large. The printing press had just been invented so his followers took that document and spread it all across Germany, leading to Luther’s trial at the Diet of Worms. The Catholic Church did not approve of his enthusiasm for Sola Fide and, as a result, they called him to account for it. Here was his response to his judges:

Since your majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God.

I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen.5

From there, he was kidnapped by a friend and held hostage in his castle so the authorities would not kill him. He proceeded to spend two years in hiding where he translated the Bible into German, and he went around dressed up as a knight named Sir George so he could not be recognized. When he got out, he continued to write and teach. He would say that, “The only contribution we make to our justification is our sin which Christ so graciously forgives,”6 and, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing . . . The Word did it all.”7

On account of his work, Germany would eventually overthrow the yoke of the Catholic Church and set up its own government. Luther would go on to marry a former nun named “Katie” and have a family. He would also continue his work of reforming. Until the end of his days, Martin Luther served as a major influence on all the Reformers who followed in his footsteps.


Sola Scriptura means “Scripture Alone” and it refers to the fact that all of the Reformers held to Scripture alone as their authority. They said that the Bible was their sole standard for life and godliness, which was a radical break from the Catholic Church. In the words of one Catholic Council in recent years, “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God . . . has been entrusted to the living office of the Church alone.”8 In other words, the church is the standard for life and godliness. The Catholic Church is the only one who can give an authentic interpretation to the Word of God.

The Reformers disagreed. They held that the Bible can be interpreted correctly by any man and any woman and, therefore, Scripture alone is our authority.

John Calvin was a great example of this. He was born in France 20 years after Luther and knew him as a friend. In fact, Calvin’s life mirrored Luther’s in that his father wanted him to be a lawyer too but, at Law School, Calvin was converted after reading the Bible and he soon began propagating his newfound faith, leading to his expulsion from school. At that point, he began to roam around Europe until he landed in the remote town of Geneva, Switzerland. He was originally planning on spending one night there but he ran across a Reformer named William Farel who encouraged him to stay. Their interview went like this:

John Calvin: “I have to leave to pursue my studies.”

William Farel: “A curse on your studies if you do not stay here and help us.”

John Calvin: “Okay. I will stay.”9

In fact, Calvin ended up staying in Geneva for the rest of his life because he did not want to be cursed. He heeded Farel’s warning and became the pastor of the local Protestant church in town.

He also continued to pursue his studies. He would go on to write The Institutes of the Christian Religion, the first systematic theology in church history, and commentaries on almost every book of the Bible. He started a Seminary to train pastors and send them out to preach.

And he preached as well. Since the Bible was not translated into French yet, Calvin simply translated it on the spot in his sermons. He preached Sunday mornings on the New Testament, Sunday afternoons on the New Testament or the Psalms, and every morning of the week, every other week, from the Old Testament. In doing so, he took his Greek and Hebrew Bible with him into the pulpit and gave the meaning of the passage as he spoke. This was all because he believed that Scripture alone was his authority. He believed that the people must hear the Word of God.

He would say:

The true pastor ought to have 2 voices:  one for gathering the sheep and the other for driving away the wolves.  [The Scripture supplies him with the means to do both].10

At another time, he said:

As far as sacred Scripture is concerned, however much men try to gnaw at it, nevertheless it is crammed full of thoughts that cannot be humanly conceived.  Let each of the prophets be looked into:  there will not be found one who does not exceed human measure.11

The Scripture is God’s Word. Man did not write it himself. God wrote it. John Calvin believed that and so did all of the Reformers.

Like Luther, Calvin went on to get married and settle in to a domestic life. He died in his 50’s of poor health.


The third principle is known as Sola Christus or “Christ Alone.” Salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone. You do not have to earn it or add to what He has done. You simply have to trust Him to be saved. Galatians 2:20 says:

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.

The word “crucified” in this passage is in the past tense, showing that salvation has already occurred in the life of the believer. It is not happening over and over again at the Mass. It does not need to be repeatedly infused as we visit relics and give money to the church. Christ has been crucified, we have been saved, end of story. All of the Reformers believed this and taught it to their people.

One man who taught it passionately was Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli led the Swiss Reformation before Calvin got there and, like Luther, was a Catholic priest before being converted. He was also blessed with an extraordinary mind. He played the lute, the harp, and the violin. He taught himself Greek and proceeded to memorize all of Paul’s letters in Greek. Not in French, the language that was spoken in Switzerland. Zwingli memorized Paul’s letters in Greek.

He was also a very complex individual, which can be seen in the way he died. He died fighting the Catholics. He led his army into the Battle of Kappel and was cut down from his horse. He did not carry a weapon with him or attack anybody. He just rode out with the troops and died.

That oddity in his behavior should not take away from his contributions to the Reformation, however, as Zwingli was a strong proponent of Sola Christus. He even fought with Martin Luther over this.

Luther also believed that salvation was through Christ alone, but he believed that the body and blood of Christ were somehow found with the Lord’s Supper. He did not believe that they were in the Lord’s Supper; he believed that they were somehow with it. The Lord’s Supper did more, to Luther, than represent salvation. It was tied to it and Zwingli disagreed. He said, “I have no use for that notion of a real and true body in the Lord’s Supper.”12

What he meant by that is that the real and true body of Christ had already been crucified. It had already sat down at the right hand of God. So there was no need to tie it to the memorial of the Lord’s Supper. The Supper was a reminder of the body of Christ. Nothing more. It pointed to Jesus’ body in Heaven; it did not bring that body down to earth.


All of this brings us to the fourth player and principle of the Protestant Reformation: the principle of Sola Gratia or “Grace Alone.” Going right along with the other ones, Sola Gratia states that salvation is not by works; it is purely by grace. It is a gift. You do not earn it.

The people in the Dark Ages believed that salvation was earned. They thought that if you do enough good works, you will go to Heaven. God will infuse them all together and reward you with paradise. The Reformers said that was impossible because man was too sinful. God must grant salvation freely or He would never grant it at all. Galatians 2:21 says,

I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.

One man who taught this during the Reformation was John Knox. Knox was born in Scotland in 1514, just three years before Luther posted his 95 Theses. Little is known about his early life. What is known is that he did not have an interest in the Reformation until he served as a bodyguard for the Reformer, George Wishart, who was murdered under Knox’s watch. After the murder, the former bodyguard took up preaching Wishart’s doctrine. This landed him in a French slave ship where he spent the next two years serving in hard labor. Upon his release, he fled to Geneva to study under John Calvin and then on to Scotland to lead the Reformation there.

In Scotland, it was said that Knox behaved like a man on fire. He did not preach as much as he burned. He incited riots as he spoke. Eyewitnesses said that he beat the pulpit so violently that they trembled too much to take notes. He wrote a pamphlet calling Mary, Queen of Scotts “a most odious person in the presence of God” and a traitor because she did not embrace the Reformation. He would pray out loud, “Lord, give me Scotland or I die!”

There is a famous painting of Knox preaching to one of the Scottish nobles, and in it he is almost leaping out of the pulpit. No one slept through a John Knox sermon. Even his tombstone said, “Here lies a man who neither flattered nor feared any man.”

As a result of his fearlessness, God did indeed give Scotland to John Knox and the whole country changed. When Knox first arrived, there were only 12 Protestant ministers to speak of in Scotland but, when he died, there were more than 700. His impact was incredible, and it was all because of the doctrine of Sola Gratia.

There are not too many quotations from Knox today because his sermons were never published. However, this was his beef with the Catholic Church. They said that salvation was by grace plus works; he said it was all of grace. He said, “Live in Christ. Die in Christ. And the flesh need not fear death.”13 In other words, trust entirely in the grace of God given through His Son and you do not need to be afraid of dying. God will take care of you.

He told Queen Mary in a private interview:

The Word of God is plain in itself.

We affirm that the Mass, as it is now used, is nothing but the invention of man, and, therefore, is an abomination before God, and no sacrifice that ever God commanded.14

As a result, Mary cried, which alarmed the Reformer so Knox went on to say:

Madam, in God’s presence I speak.  I never delighted in the weeping of any of His creatures.  Indeed, I can scarcely endure the tears of my own boys; much less can I rejoice in your Majesty’s weeping.

But, seeing I have offered to you no occasion to be offended, but have spoken the truth, I must sustain your tears rather than hurt my conscience or betray my country through silence.

[We are not saved by the Mass.]15

Like all of the Reformers, John Knox was a bold man. He lit up his country over the glory of grace alone. He taught that we are not saved by works for, if we were, then Christ died needlessly. We are not saved by the Mass because that would mean that we earned Heaven, which is not true. Jesus earned it for us by His grace.

And that brings us to our final principle and player.


It could be said so far that all of these principles go together like the wheels on a car. If you take one of them away, the car loses its balance, and it does not run. They could also be described as the petals on a flower. Take one of them away and the flower is not so beautiful. Having said that, however, it could also be argued that they all point to this final principle: Soli Deo Gloria or “Glory to God Alone.” Glory belongs to God alone. We do not work with God to go to Heaven. God does it all by Himself as Galatians 1:3-5 says in the opening chapter:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forevermore. Amen.

Jesus rescued us from this present evil age so we could give glory to God forevermore. He gave Himself according to God’s will and for His ultimate praise, and one Reformer who taught this was William Tyndale.

William Tyndale was born 10 years after Luther in England and spent his life serving the English people, which was a selfless thing to do because England was the darkest country in Europe. One bishop surveyed a handful of English priests at the time and found that nine did not know how many Commandments there were, ten could not recite the Lord’s Supper, and 33 did not know who said it. England was in total darkness. There was not even a candle burning in the country, and the Lord brought William Tyndale in to help.

He studied languages at Oxford and, as soon as he was able, began translating the Bible into English, which was a capital offense. The Catholic Church said that the Word of God could only be translated into Latin and they killed anyone who did otherwise, so Tyndale translated in secret. He would work in the back of a store room and, before the police came, pack up and move somewhere else. He came from a family of wool merchants who would get his translations out by hiding them in bales of wool. As a result, historians have taken to calling him “God’s Outlaw.” He broke the law to serve the people of God.

And, according to the Outlaw, it was all worth it. Tyndale said that it was his goal to help a ploughboy learn more theology than a priest simply by reading his Bible and that he would not stop until he did it. He also said,

I never altered one syllable of God’s Word against my conscience, nor would this day, if all that is in the earth, whether it be pleasure, honor, or riches might be given to me.16

He would eventually be betrayed by a friend and burned at the stake. The Catholic Church did catch up to him. He is the only Reformer in our list who died a true martyr’s death, but he had an incredible desire to see God glorified among His people. In one of his books, he wrote,

Good works are all things that are done within the laws of God, which God is glorified for and for which thanks are given to God.17

In other words, good works glorify God no matter where they come from. If you are saved, then God is glorified in you no matter whether you are a prince or a priest or a cook or a ploughboy. He went on to explain:

As to what can please God, no good work is better than another . . . You are a kitchen page and wash your master’s dishes but another is an Apostle and preaches the Word of God . . . In one sense, there is a world of difference between washing dishes and preaching the Word of God . . .  But as to what can please God, there is no difference at all . . . There is nothing to exclude the simplest layman from the upper reaches of the Christian life.18

No one talked like that in 16th Century England. Before William Tyndale, the Catholic Church taught that the only people who could glorify God were popes and bishops and priests. No one else had a chance. Tyndale said that, everyone has a chance who believes in Jesus Christ. We can all give glory to God alone through His Son.


So those are the five principles of the Reformation: Faith Alone. Christ Alone. Scripture Alone. Grace Alone. Glory to God Alone. And those are the men who taught them to us: Martin Luther. John Calvin. Ulrich Zwingli. John Knox. William Tyndale.

They were all contemporaries, which is amazing to think about. Many of them knew each other, and they all lived within the same generation and worked to simultaneously turn the world upside down. There would be other great men after them. The Puritans and the leaders of the Great Awakenings did amazing things as well as leaders of the Fundamentalist Movement and many men in our modern time, but it all started right here with the Protestant Reformation.

To say it another way, our modern church did not fall from the sky. It came from a specific place and time. It came from the Protestant Reformation. The Lord used these men to shape who we are today.

They wanted to reform the church according to Scripture. In fact, they even created a Latin phrase expressing this idea: Semper Reformanda Ecclesia, which means “Always Reforming the Church.” The task of reformation is never done. We are always reforming the church, in season and out.19

This leads to a final question: Where do you fit in with all of this? Do you want to be reformed according to Scripture? Do you want to go back to the Word of God?

To ask this another way: Do you believe in the principles of the Reformation? Do you believe in faith alone? In Scripture alone? In Christ alone?

I am afraid that many Christians today no longer believe in the five Solas but, instead, they have adopted the five “Sortas.” They sorta believe in faith alone and they sorta believe in Scripture alone and they sorta believe in Christ alone for salvation, but God says that is not good enough. He will not share His glory with another. He will not allow you to take credit for what He has done.

Therefore, you need to trust in Him completely. Your faith and your trust needs to be entirely in Him. You cannot add to the cross, as the Book of Galatians says: “No one is justified by the Law”20 and, “For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God.”21

Will you believe that today? Millions of Protestants have already done so. Will you join them? There is only one Savior and one way to Heaven. Trust in Him alone. Soli Deo Gloria!






  1. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, I do not have access to my library as I am writing this so some of the quotations and information will not be cited like a normal JTST article. The quotations are from a sermon I preached at Plainfield Bible Church on November 1, 2015. However, I do want to thank our Technical Editor, Melody McNeil and her friend, Jamie Chong, for taking the time to look up the references listed below. If the information is correct, it is their fault. If it is incorrect, it is my own. []
  2. A lot of this material can be found in more detail in Brian Hendricks’ article “The Middle Ages” in this edition of JTST. []
  3. William M. Ramsey, Church history 101: An Introduction for Presbyterians (Louisville, Kent.: Geneva Press, 2005) 32. []
  4. Quoted in Jerry L. Walls’s, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things that Matter Most (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2015). []
  5. Quoted in Roland H. Bainton’s Here I Stand: A life of Martin Luther (New York: Meridian, 1995) 180. []
  6. Quoted in C. J. Mahaney’s Why Small Groups? (Gaithersburg, Maryland: People of Destiny International, 1996) 4. []
  7. Quoted in Lane Hall’s Works of Martin Luther: With Introductions and Notes, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia, Penn.: Castle Press, 1915), 399-400. []
  8. Second Vatican Council, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” no. 10. []
  9. “A Night’s Stay in Geneva” by David Mathis, July 24, 2009 at www.desiringgod.org. []
  10. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979 ed.) 296. []
  11. John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (St. Louis, Miss.: Westminster Press, 1975). []
  12. “Luther Vs. Zwingli 3: Zwingli on the Lord’s Supper” by Trevin Wax, February 12, 2008 at www.thegospelcoalition.org. []
  13. Randy Alcorn, Eternal Perspectives: A Collection of Quotations on Heaven, the New Earth, and Life After Death (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2012). []
  14. Quoted in John Knox and Charles John Guthrie’s The History of the Reformation of Religion Within the Realm of Scotland (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982). []
  15. Ibid. []
  16. Quoted in David Teems, Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2012). []
  17. Quoted in David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994). []
  18. Ibid. []
  19. “Keep Reforming” by John MacArthur, August 29, 2011 at www.gty.org. []
  20. Gal 3:11. []
  21. Gal 2:19. []