After Darkness, Light: Reformation Day History and Reflection
Updated: May 10, 2021
“Post Tenebras Lux,” the Latin phrase meaning “After Darkness, Light,” became the unofficial motto of the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. After years of theological and political conflict, theologians such as Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin, and many others helped usher in a new era of church history. What had been hidden in the dark for so long had come to light in the rediscovery of the doctrine of justification and the authority of Scripture. And this new era can be traced back to an event that happened on October 31, 1517, just over 500 years ago this Saturday.
Pope Leo X had a lucrative deal in place with Albert of Brandenburg which allowed Albert to sell indulgences in his territories as long as half of the sales went to the pope. The construction of St. Peter’s Basilica needed to be finished and many other sites in Rome needed restoration, so this seemed like a prime opportunity for a building program.
Martin Luther, a professor at the University of Wittenberg, was disgusted at the way the Church was profiting off the desperate masses and the twisted theology behind indulgences. This led Luther to write his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences and nailed it to the doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. This act was a declaration of debate. Luther wanted to dispute his ninety-five theses in an academic setting, not realizing the much larger effect his theses would have on history.
THE CHURCH ANSWERS
Needless to say, Pope Leo X was not pleased with Luther’s actions and teachings which had spread with the help of the printing press. In 1520 Leo issued the Exsurge Domine, a papal bull (an official public declaration) threatening Luther and his followers with excommunication unless he recanted.
In a written prayer in the opening of the bull, Leo likened Luther to a “wild boar from the forest” which sought to destroy the Church. At the threat of penalty of an “automatic major excommunication” it was forbidden to “read, assert, preach, praise, print, publish, or defend” Luther’s doctrines and writing. So serious was the Pope’s mission to eliminate Luther’s teachings that excommunication was threatened on anyone “if they presume to uphold them in any way, personally or through another or others, directly or indirectly, tacitly or explicitly, publicly or occultly, either in their own homes or in the public or private places.” The pope would continue, “Therefore we can, without any further citation or delay, proceed against him to his condemnation and damnation as one whose faith is notoriously suspect and in fact a true heretic.”
Luther was given sixty days to recant his teaching, however, on the sixtieth day Luther publicly burned the papal bull along with other Church documents. It was a defiant stand in the face of certain excommunication.
Not long after, an Imperial Diet in the city of Worms was called to put Luther on trial. In front of the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, and many other officials, Luther was asked whether or not he would recant. Luther famously replied, “Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scriptures or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or of councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning I stand convicted by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
Luther’s bold stand would solidify his place in church history as one of the most significant voices in calling the Church back to the Scriptures and the gospel it proclaims.
At the center of the Protestant Reformation was controversy surrounding indulgences. An indulgence, according to the Roman Catholic Church, is “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has been already forgiven…”¹ In other words, it is the removal of the punishment for “venial” sins, or minor sins, that a person needs purifying from in purgatory to be made holy. According to the Church, it has been entrusted with a “treasury of merit” which includes the merits of Jesus, Mary, and the saints² which can be applied to the faithful in this life or in purgatory. An indulgence can be partial, reducing a portion of time in purgatory, or it can be plenary, removing all of the needed time in purgatory. There are many different ways to obtain an indulgence, but in the early 1500s, selling them was clearly the most profitable.
Again, Luther attacked the theology of indulgences and the immorality of the pope in selling them. Luther’s thesis number 62 rightly declared, “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”
THE GOSPEL OF THE GLORY AND GRACE OF GOD
Luther was calling the Church back to a biblical understanding of salvation. Sin can’t be divided up between “venial” and “mortal,” rather, all sin is mortal and deserving of condemnation (Rom. 3:23). Grace is not something that can be merited but is offered out of the merciful and loving heart of God (Eph. 2:4-9). We are justified by faith and not by works, given a righteousness that is not our own but is the righteousness of Jesus (2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9) making us perfectly holy and acceptable to God (Heb. 10:14). Being justified by our faith in the finished work of Christ we have peace with God, now and for all eternity (Rom. 5:1).
While we wouldn’t agree with everything that Luther believed and taught, we stand in complete agreement that “the true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory of the grace of God.”
To most of culture, October 31 is seen as a day of darkness. However, for those who love Christ and His gospel, October 31 can remind us of the light that broke through at a significant moment in church history. Spend time this weekend (every day, really) reflecting on the grace that God has shown you in the gospel. And thank the Lord for courageous men and women throughout history who have boldly pointed people back to Scripture so that the light of the gospel would penetrate the darkness.
¹ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1471.
² Ibid., 1476, 1477.