500th Anniversary of the Reformation – Sola Fide


Throughout much of the world, people are celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. It was 500 years ago on October 31 that Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses on door of the church in Wittenberg (please understand that this was a normal place to post announcements; this was not a disrespectful act). It is important for us, as Baptists, to recognize the role that Luther played in history without bowing to “Reformation Theology.” We can respect the Reformers without revering them.
Over the next few weeks I will examine those areas of the Reformation in which we Baptists can agree, and I will examine those areas of the Reformation in which we Baptists disagree. The Reformation is frequently identified by its 5 “Solas” – Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria. In this post we will look at Sola Fide.
Luther was born into a fairly wealthy family. At the age of 13 he began to attend a school that was operated by the Brethren of the Common Life in Madgeburg, Germany. This Catholic group began in the Netherlands and emphasized the inner life and meditation. One of their goals was to educate Christians and promote the reading of devout literature. While in school Luther became interested in the monastic movement.
Luther did not abandon his studies, however. In 1512, he received his doctorate and became a professor of biblical studies. It was his theological studies that eventually led him to seek changes in the Roman Catholic Church.
While the 95 Theses focus on the problem of indulgences (buying forgiveness for sins), the underlying assumptions are more critical to the Reformation. Luther was not the first to question the Catholic Church. Many before Luther had rejected some teachings of Catholicism and others rejected the Church completely, but they were in the minority and their voices were often unheard.
Although the German authorities had outlawed the selling of indulgences in Germany, the Roman Church continued the practice. In 1517 a friar named Johann Tetzel began to sell indulgences in Germany; that action is what led to the 95 Theses. By this time, Luther was basically committed to the idea that salvation could be obtained through the faith of the individual and by the grace of God. Therefore, he wrote what he called the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” but what became better known as the “95 Theses.” This was not a direct challenge to Catholicism, and it did not address most of Catholic theology. It was an invitation to discuss and debate Luther’s contention that salvation was by faith, that works could not result in salvation, and that the selling of indulgences was contrary to Scripture. We realize, however, that this emphasis on salvation by faith was an attack on the foundation of Catholic soteriology.
In 1518, Luther debated Cardinal Thomas Cajetan for three days. It took a while but on January 3, 1521, Pope Leo excommunicated Martin Luther from the Catholic Church.
Luther had no desire to leave the Catholic Church, and the term “Reformation” reflects that. Luther’s goal was to reform the Catholic Church. Had the leadership of Catholicism been a little less arrogant and more agreeable to some measure of compromise, Luther may well have remained a faithful Catholic. That was not to be, and the first of the Reformation “Sola’s” was established – Sola Fide, Faith Alone. Good Baptists agree with Luther and other reformers that salvation comes by faith, not by works.