One of the most important events of history occurred on October 31, 1517 when a priest named Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses (complaints) against the Catholic Church to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. This was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s audacious act of questioning the Catholic Church opened the way for others to protest against and seek for reform of the Catholic Church, and eventually these Protestant Reformers broke away to form a new type of church. Especially in countries touched by the Protestant Reformation, this religious revolution yielded the results of changing the course of history and gaining the extraordinary liberties and privileges people enjoy today, whether Christians or not.
In order to grasp the radical results of the Protestant Reformation, one must know the history of the Middle Ages. The Catholic Church controlled religious understanding and political institutions through the feudal systems of European countries. Catholic cathedrals were the heart of communities, yet bishops and priests held captive God’s Word and claimed to be the only ones allowed to read and interpret it to the people. Having no way to find out the truth themselves, the common people had no choice but to show loyalty and faith in the priests’ teachings if they wanted any hope of eternal salvation. Not only did this lead to false teaching and abuses in the Catholic Church but also to the hindrance of economic growth and scientific, literary, and artistic development.
While Luther was not the first to protest against the Catholic Church, his bold act opened a floodgate of change to end blind loyalty to the Catholic Church so that Christians may enjoy freedoms that last to this day. The Reformers, such as Martin Luther, John Calvin and Philip Melanchthon, articulated ideas that historians have put together into what is now called the Five Solas. They are 1) Sola Gratia (“grace alone”), 2) Sola Fide (“faith alone”), 3) Solus Christus (“Christ alone”), 4) Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”), and 5) Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”). The Five Solas summarize salvation from God as “by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to the authority of Scripture alone for the glory of God alone.”
To reiterate, the ideas of the Protestant Reformation greatly impacted the development of world history, bringing freedom for Christians and non-Christians alike. Like the Declaration of Independence in America’s history, the nailing of the 95 Theses was a key event that led to independence for Christians from the oppressive rule of the Catholic Church. And like Independence Day, the results of the Protestant Reformation have been some of the most impactful and liberating in world history.
Here are 15 world-changing results of the Protestant Reformation:
1. The Protestant Reformation brought spiritual emancipation to all people to be able to be free from sin and guilt and know true salvation as found in Jesus Christ. (See the Five Solas above.)
2. The Protestant Reformation lifted the burden of working for salvation – for one’s self or for dead relatives. Since salvation is by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), one cannot work for or earn salvation, so it is not necessary or effectual to pray for the dead, to buy indulgences to pay for loved ones to suffer less in Purgatory (which is never mentioned in the Bible), or to go on pilgrimages.
3. The Protestant Reformation elevated the Bible to its proper place as the highest authority, above the authority of a church or any man, and during the Reformation, the Bible became accessible to all people (with the help of the printing press), not just church leaders.
4. The Protestant Reformation gave independence from man-made religion and especially the false teachings and abuses of the Catholic Church.
5. The Protestant Reformation provided freedom from superstitions.
6. The Protestant Reformation renewed Christians’ vision and passion for evangelism and missions.
7. The Protestant Reformation gave value and extended education to all classes of people. In holding the belief that all should have access to the truths of the Bible, several Reformers wrote catechisms in “question and answer” format to help especially children and the illiterate learn the essentials of the faith and doctrine – Luther wrote one, Calvin wrote one, and eventually the Westminster Confession of Faith and Longer and Shorter Catechisms came out in 1646. Also, from the idea that all people should be able to read the Bible and learn spiritual truths for themselves came the need to learn to read. Philipp Melanchthon and Martin Luther believed every child should receive an education and founded and restructured many schools.
8. The Protestant Reformation established an abundant catalog of rich theological hymns in the people’s languages as well as created value for psalm singing.
9. The Protestant Reformation bridged the gap between sacred and secular and thus created a pride in doing one’s work. The Reformers recognized that all that one does, including the daily mundane tasks, can be and should be done for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Every vocation is important, not just church jobs. The true teachings of the Bible freed people by breaking down class distinctions (such as the fallacy that church jobs are better than secular jobs) and by putting a final nail in the coffin of feudalism in Europe. Also, knowing that all things are for God’s glory, a door opened for using one’s gifts in all kinds of ways: business and vocational pursuits, economic opportunities, inventions. In pursuing God’s exaltation, people want to work hard for God’s glory in whatever they do, hence the Protestant work ethic was born.
10. The Protestant Reformation broke the control the Catholic Church held over kings and rulers.
11. The Protestant Reformation ended the economic power of Catholic Church, which paved the way for capitalism and money-lending.
12. The Protestant Reformation terminated the oppressive control of science by the Catholic Church and opened the way for real scientific investigation, which has thrived under Protestantism.
13. The Protestant Reformation gave credence to individual conscience and the permission to follow the dictates of individual conscience.
14. Products of the Protestant Reformation, the Pilgrims and Puritans (many of the founding groups of America) were Protestants, and so they established America on Judeo-Christian principles.
15. The Protestant Reformation inspired the government of the United States of America, which is patterned after the Presbyterian form of government. Presbyterianism is a representative form of government after which the Protestant church denomination is named. (Elders and deacons are elected to represent the church members and thus, the church members do not vote on every issue.)
What amazing results and a heritage to celebrate! The Protestant Reformation is indeed an important era of history where the world as we know it was formed.
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If you want to plan a Reformation Day party (October 31) or do a unit study on Reformers, check out our guide here.
Ligonier Ministries has a podcast series called 5 Minutes in Church History, and a series called Luther in Real Time as well as in October 2017, the episodes were about Martin Luther and the other Reformers.
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For younger kids:
Famous Men of the Renaissance & Reformation by Rob Shearer – a great starter book for kids!
Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World by Paul Maier
Martin Luther – Christian Biographies for Young Readers by Simonetta Carr
John Calvin – Christian Biographies for Young Readers by Simonetta Carr
John Knox – Christian Biographies for Young Readers by Simonetta Carr
Reformation ABCs: The People, Places, and Things of the Reformation―from A to Z by Stephen J. Nichols
For older kids:
When Lightning Struck!: The Story of Martin Luther by Danika Cooley
Fine Print: A Story about Johann Gutenberg by Joann Johansen Burch
John Calvin: After Darkness Light by Catherine MacKenzie
John Knox: The Sharpened Sword by Catherine MacKenzie
The Revolt: A Novel in Wycliffe’s England by Douglas Bond
The Betrayal: A Novel on John Calvin by Douglas Bond
The Thunder: A Novel on John Knox by Douglas Bond
Luther in Love by Douglas Bond
Hammer of the Huguenots by Douglas Bond and Will Kelly
Mr. Pipes and Psalms and Hymns of the Reformation by Douglas Bond
William Tyndale: The Smuggler’s Flame by Lori Rich
The Reformation: A History by Diarmaid MacCulloch
The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation by Michael Reeves
Why the Reformation Still Matters by Michael Reeves
John Knox and the Reformation by D.M. Lloyd Jones and Iain Murray
Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin
Martin Luther’s 95 Theses by Martin Luther, edited by Stephen J. Nichols
Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton
The Legacy of Luther edited by R.C. Sproul and Stephen J. Nichols
The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World by Stephen J. Nichols
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe
Resource for Redeeming Holidays:
Treasuring God in our Traditions by Noel Piper
Luther and the Reformation by R.C. Sproul
The English Reformation and the Puritans by Michael Reeves