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The Reformation’s mixed legacy

Where does the time go? Can it really be 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg? I will not say that it seems like only yesterday, but I will observe that it is an event worth celebrating and lamenting. Why celebrating?

Well, we all know that, having been converted through reading the book of Romans, Luther helped the church to recover the doctrines of grace that had been obscured during previous centuries. In the run-up to that momentous All Saints Eve in 1517, many Christians thought God’s grace to be a quid pro quo affair. If they did what they were expected to do by following all the rules, they would achieve salvation. Of course, the Roman Church had never taught that we can earn our salvation but rightly recognized that only the shed blood of Jesus Christ can accomplish what is beyond our own abilities. Nevertheless, by selling indulgences to fund the construction of St. Peter’s in Rome, church officials certainly created the popular impression that it is possible to purchase salvation.

Sola fide
The Church, moreover, had become a political force in Europe, occupying outright the band of Papal States extending across the middle of the Italian peninsula. But even beyond his territorial holdings, the Pope had claimed the right to depose kings and princes throughout Europe if they fell out of his favour. While in theory the Pope might have used this authority to ensure that kings ruled justly, in practice it led to a power struggle deflecting the church from its divine mandate to proclaim the gospel and to nourish the faith of believers. Not surprisingly, corruption was the result.

What a breath of fresh air, then, for ordinary Christians to hear Luther preach that we are justified, not by our own efforts, but by faith in Christ bestowed by God’s grace. This message resonated with so many people that the Reformation spread quickly across the continent, fuelled by the increasing availability of the printed Bible in vernacular languages.

If you are worshipping at a church where the gospel is proclaimed every Sunday, where the sacraments are rightly administered and where discipline is alive and well, you can thank the Reformers, whose efforts have born great spiritual fruit over the past five centuries.

Division and strife
But with every movement for good comes unintended negative consequences. While the Reformers had no desire to fragment the western church, their efforts did just that, sad to say. What began as a movement to reform the church as a whole ended up leaving separate churches in its wake, including Lutherans, Reformed, Anglican and Anabaptist bodies. Furthermore, while not part of the Reformation tradition proper, Socianians and other evidently heretical sects took advantage of the upheaval to disseminate their own “gospel” at the same time. Over the next more than a century, ecclesiastical fragmentation led to open warfare, culminating in a Thirty Years War (1618-1648) that left some eight million dead.

Weary of open warfare, many European intellectuals decided that religion is intrinsically divisive and sought to anchor social and political order in an ostensibly neutral reason capable of commanding universal assent across confessional lines. The resulting relegation of confessional differences to the realm of private predilections eventually laid the foundations for secularism and outright atheism in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But the saddest consequence of the events of 1517 and following is that they shattered the communion which Jesus had intended all Christians to experience. To be sure, the Reformation was necessary, and I am unequivocally committed to the Reformed Christian faith. Nevertheless, as we observe this significant anniversary, let us keep in mind the ensuing fallout and pray Jesus’ prayer that we might all be one, even as he and the Father are one (John 17:11).  


  • David Koyzis is a Global Scholar with Global Scholars Canada. He is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (2nd ed., 2019) and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (2014). He has written a column for Christian Courier since 1990.

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