Dear Readers,


Today is Reformation Sunday, where we remember the momentous event that sparked the Protestant Reformation – the nailing of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Why is this event so significant that we should remember it?

The Dark Ages

To understand the significance of the reformation, one must first consider the condition of Christendom prior to the Reformation. The 5th to the 15th century in Church history is often termed as the Dark Ages. It is a time where Europe was engulfed in a thousand years of gross spiritual darkness. The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) was the dominant force in Europe and controlled the religion, politics and education of the Western world. They banned the Bible from the people from reading the Bible, and forbade the Bible to be translated from the original languages into the vernacular tongues of the times. Only an authorised priest can interpret the Bible on behalf of the people.

In addition, the RCC also taught and practiced the following:

  • Papal Infallibility. The RCC taught that the line of the Popes went all the way back to Peter, who they believed was the Rock of the Church and held the keys to the Church (Matthew 16:13-19).   As a result the Pope has the power to admit or to exclude anyone from the Church. Whatever the Pope speaks is ex cathedra, authoritative and binding. Everyone in the world is to recognise the Pope as the Vicar of Christ and thus supreme over all things religious and political.
  • No Salvation outside the RCC. The RCC taught that since the Pope is infallible and held the keys to the Church, all who did not acknowledge and submit to him will be excommunicated from the RCC. As the RCC claims to be the only true Church, excommunication meant the loss of one soul to be condemned to hell.
  • Salvation by Faith AND Works. The RCC taught that faith in Christ alone is not enough to save. External obedience and good works prescribed by the RCC is also necessary if one intends to enter into heaven.
  • Worship of the Saints. As men did good works, they become closer to heaven. Some individuals, the RCC claimed, actually did above what was required of them as men. These men are so advanced in their holiness that they obtained sainthood, and can now serve as mediators between God and man.
  • Sacrament of Penance. The RCC teaches that God does not cancel out all the punishment that is due to the sinner when He forgives sins. Thus it is necessary for one to confess his sins to a priest and doing good works so that his sins may be absolved.
  • Sale of Indulgences. These were tickets issued under papal authority where one may purchase forgiveness for oneself or for loved ones. The RCC taught that one will enter a fiery place called purgatory after death so that they can be purged and purified to a necessary level of holiness to enter heaven. One can thus purchase indulgences from the Pope in order to reduce the amount of time spent in the fires of purgatory. It was one of the ways through which the RCC was made rich.

This practice of indulgences is significant as it will be the tipping point which sparked of the Reformation.

Luther’s Journey to Salvation

Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483. His father wanted him to study law. However, in 1505, Luther encountered a severe thunderstorm which so frightened him that he vowed to Saint Anne to be a monk should his life be spared. Thus Luther became a devout monk.

Luther was very concerned for the salvation of his soul. He diligently sought to work for his salvation as taught by the RCC. However, the more he did those works, the more vexed his soul became. He was so troubled by the burden of his sins that his frequent confessions began to wear out his superiors.

In early summer of 1512, his superiors decided to transfer him to Wittenberg to study the Scriptures and to assume the position of professor of Bible. This was the turning point of his life as it brought him to close proximity with the Holy Scriptures. His lecturing duties forced him to study the original languages diligently. On August 1, 1513, he began lecturing on the Psalms. This was followed subsequently by lectures on the book of Romans He slowly became convinced of the truth of sola scriptura, whereby the Bible is regarded as the sole supreme authority of faith and practice.

One day as he was pondering Romans 1:17, it dawned to him that salvation is by the grace of God alone, through faith in Christ alone. “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17) The Holy Spirit shone the light of God’s Word through the heart of Luther, and he finally understood it is by faith alone that one can stand justified before God, and not by any work that one can do. The burden of sin has now been lifted from his soul!

As Luther continued to teach the Bible, he became well-known among his students for the skill in which he exposited the Scriptures. God was slowly preparing him to be the instrument which will spark the Reformation movement.

Luther’s Battle for Truth

In 1517, Rome appointed Johann Tetzel to sell indulgences at Wittenberg. As discussed earlier, these indulgences were “forgiveness tickets” which enable one can buy his way to heaven. He was an extremely astute salesman. He would use this attractive jingle to attract the people to buy indulgences – “When the money in my box shall chink, the soul which is in purgatory shall spring!” Luther was filled with righteous indignation at the sale of indulgences because it contravened the Bible’s teaching of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone and in Christ alone. He began preaching against Tetzel and remonstrating with princes and bishops over the sale of indulgences.

However, despite Luther’s best efforts, Tetzel continue to thrive in Wittenberg. Unable to bear with the travesty, Luther finally decided on October 31, 1517, to nail his Ninety-Five Theses on the Church Gate of Wittenberg as a protest against indulgences. This was a public challenge to the authority of the RCC and the Pope. The fires of the Reformation was now lighted

The RCC was infuriated with Luther’s challenge of authority. They were further angered by his denunciation of the Pope as an antichrist. This cause the Pope to issue an excommunication order of Luther in 1520 together with the burning of his works. When the order reached Luther, he tore it into the pieces and cast it into the fire, declaring that it is not the Pope who has excommunicated Luther, but Luther who had excommunicated the Pope.

In April 1521, Luther was summoned to appear in Worms to answer against the charges of the Pope. He was asked to withdraw and deny his writings. Luther spent a day pondering over his answer. The next day, as he stood before the council, he declared:

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. God help me. Amen.

Chaos erupted at the meeting hall. God had used Luther to defend his truth and to bring glory to His Word.


The Reformation was a movement which God used to defeat the spiritual darkness that was threatening to envelope Christendom. In the case of Martin Luther, God used His Word to prepare a man to earnestly contend for the faith, and to magnify His Word. The Reformers were instruments in the hand of God to establish firmly the Five Solae in the Protestant Church today – “Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone); Sola Gratia (Grace Alone); Sola Fide (Faith Alone); Solus Christus (Christ Alone); Soli Deo Gloria (To God Alone Be Glory)”.

Every generation has its fight. The Reformers fought theirs. How about us? May the Lord help us to be like Martin Luther and earnestly contend for the faith that is once and for all given to the saints (Jude 3)! Let us not forget the Reformation and its significance. Amen.

Preacher Clement Chew