Today is the 496th anniversary of what is widely considered the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On this day in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg. This document highlighted Luther’s concerns about various false teachings of the Roman Catholic church such as indulgences. For this work and other writings that followed, Luther was excommunicated by the church by Pope Leo X on January 3, 1521 in the official document Decet Romanum Pontificem.
Now, in Luther’s day, it was well understood that a person who died outside of the Roman Catholic church could not be saved. To be very clear, the excommunication alone did not condemn Luther to hell in the eyes of Rome. However, unless Luther repented and returned to the church, it was the clear teaching of the Roman Catholic church that Luther was destined for eternal punishment in hell. This stance of the Roman Catholic church is given in the following official, dogmatic proclamation of Pope Boniface VII:
We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff (Unam Sanctam, 1302).
That statement seems pretty clear. If you are not subject to the Roman Pontiff, then you are outside of salvation. Now, in recent years, the Roman Catholic church has continued its revisionist history tap dance to redefine words, add lots of loopholes, and basically conform wherever possible to our politically correct, morally relativistic society. So, today I can say that I believe everything that Luther wrote, reject the Roman Catholic churches teachings, declare myself outside of the subjection of the Pope, and yet be considered a brother in Christ by my Roman Catholic friends. What changed? Ironically, it is the Roman Catholic church that has changed despite its desire to try to claim to have never changed, but be the unbroken, unchanging faith of the past 2000 years.
Today, Roman Catholicism is just a big tent where lots of beliefs are tolerated and even embraced. Thus you have Roman Catholic politicians that openly proclaim their support for abortion, birth control, and homosexual marriage who are never scolded, let alone excommunicated. But do not be fooled by big tent Roman Catholicism and the idea that the issues of the Reformation were just a minor misunderstanding. The issues of the Protestant Reformation then and today are vitally important as they are issues regarding eternal salvation. What was true at the time of the Reformation is just as true today. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, as revealed in the Scriptures alone. The dividing line between the true Christian faith and the official teachings of the Roman Catholic church continues to mark the division between eternal life and eternal death.
So Happy Reformation Day as we celebrate that the working of the Holy Spirit through Martin Luther and the other great Reformers to return true Christianity to the faith of the New Testament church. Praise be to God for that great work!