“Is not My word like fire?” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer which shatters a rock?"
What Caused the Reformation?
Many people might answer that question by pointing to Martin Luther and his 95 Theses.
But if you were to ask Luther himself, he would not point to himself or his own writings. Instead, he would give all the credit to God and His Word.
Near the end of his life, Luther declared: “All I have done is put forth, preach and write the Word of God, and apart from this I have done nothing. . . . It is the Word that has done great things. . . . I have done nothing; the Word has done and achieved everything.”
Elsewhere, he exclaimed: “By the Word the earth has been subdued; by the Word the Church has been saved; and by the Word also it shall be reestablished.”
Noting Scripture’s foundational place in his own heart, Luther wrote: “No matter what happens, you should say: There is God’s Word. This is my rock and anchor. On it I rely, and it remains. Where it remains, I, too, remain; where it goes, I, too, go.”
Luther understood what caused the Reformation. He recognized that it was the Word of God, empowered by the Spirit of God, preached by men of God in a language that the common people of Europe could understand. And when their ears were exposed to the truth of God’s Word, it pierced their hearts and they were radically changed.
It was that very power that had transformed Luther’s own heart, a power that is summarized in the familiar words of Hebrews 4:12: “The Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.”
During the late middle ages, the Roman Catholic Church had imprisoned God’s Word in the Latin language, a language the common people of Europe did not speak. The Reformers unlocked the Scriptures by translating them. And once the people had the Word of God, the Reformation became inevitable.
We see this commitment to the Scriptures even in the centuries prior to Martin Luther, beginning with the Forerunners of the Reformation.
Forerunners of the Reformation
In the 12th century, the Waldensians translated the New Testament from the Latin Vulgate into their regional French dialects. According to tradition, they were so committed to the Scriptures that different Waldensian families would memorize large sections of the Bible. That way, if Roman Catholic authorities found them and confiscated their printed copies of Scripture, they would later be able to reproduce the entire Bible from memory.
In the 14th century, John Wycliffe and his associates at Oxford translated the Bible from Latin into English. Wycliffe’s followers, known as the Lollards, went throughout the countryside preaching and singing passages of Scripture in English.
In the 15th century, Jan Huss preached in the language of the people, and not in Latin, making him the most popular preacher in Prague at the time. Yet, because Huss insisted that Christ alone was the head of the church, not the pope, the Catholic Council of Constance condemned him for heresy and burned him at the stake (in 1415).
In the 16th century, as the study of Greek and Hebrew were recovered, Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, with the New Testament being completed in 1522.
In 1526, William Tyndale completed a translation of the Greek New Testament into English. A few years later he also translated the Pentateuch from Hebrew. Shortly thereafter he was arrested and executed as a heretic, being strangled and then burned at the stake. According to Fox’s Book of Martyrs, Tyndale’s last words were “Lord, Open the King of England’s Eyes.” And it was just a couple years after his death that King Henry VIII authorized the Great Bible in England—a Bible that was largely based on Tyndale’s translation work. The Great Bible laid the foundation for the later King James version (which was completed in 1611).
The common thread, from Reformer to Reformer, was an undying commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, such that they were willing to sacrifice everything, including their own lives, to get the Word of God into the hands of the people.
They did this because they understood that the power for spiritual reformation and revival was not in them, but in the gospel (cf. Rom. 1:16–17). And they used the Latin phrase sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) to emphasize the truth that God’s Word was the true power and ultimate authority behind all they said and did.
It was ignorance of Scripture that made the Reformation necessary. It was the recovery of the Scripture that made the Reformation possible. And it was the power of Scripture that gave the Reformation its enduring impact, as the Holy Spirit brought the truth of His Word to bear on the hearts and minds of individual sinners, transforming them, regenerating them, and giving them eternal life.
[Editor's note: This post was originally published in August 2019 and has been updated.]