History of the Reformation
Whether you're reading this in the United States, Canada, or a number of other countries, you're likely somewhere that doesn't have a religion that is officially linked to the State. There may be a particular religion that the majority of the citizens in your country identify with, but it can't be assumed that your citizenship also determines your faith. The most obvious places that still have what I'm talking about are probably certain Middle Eastern countries where Islam is the official state religion.
In 15th century Europe, Christianity, which at that time meant the Roman Catholic Church, was the religion. Religious leaders - the pope and other bishops - and State leaders had a lot of intermingling. While there had been small sects with different leaders that had broken off, there weren't tons of well-established Christian traditions.
Enter Martin Luther. Martin was born on November 10, 1483 in Germany. He claims to have had a rags-to-riches type story. He was born into a peasant family, and yet his father owned a mine and had enough money to send him to school. By 21, Luther had begun to study law.
If you know Luther's story, you know what's coming. Luther didn't particularly enjoy his studies, and ended up falling back on his religious upbringing. The iconic moment in 1505 was when lightning struck near him, he called upon Saint Anne, and if he lived through the storm, he vowed to become a monk. His parents weren't exactly enthusiastic about that.
Nevertheless, that fall, Luther entered a monastery run by Augustinian monks. Luther didn't just go about the duties of a monk, but he tenaciously studied Scripture and theology. He ended up moving his monastic life and educational pursuits to Wittenberg in 1508. As time went on, he began comparing his studies to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Again, this was the tradition he grew up in, he was a part of the Church as a monk, he loved the people, but he came to the realization that the Church had gone astray.
Martin Luther was a sinner.
One of the primary differences today between Catholic and Protestant traditions - which stem from the Reformation - is the difference in recognized sacraments or ordinances. The Catholic tradition has seven, which a person ought to partake in from cradle-to-grave, and their participation is believed to bestow saving grace. Protestant traditions have two, baptism and the Lord's Supper/Communion, which we believe are the only two that Jesus specifically instructed us to participate in. Some Protestant traditions believe that God can give grace to nurture the faith of true believers through participation in them.
One of the Catholic sacraments is penance, where a person confesses their sins to a priest, they repent, and the priest can grant absolution. When the priest says so, they're cleared--forgiven. From his reading through the Bible, Luther began to be deeply troubled by his sin--even though others viewed certain sins as insignificant. He had a fearful faith - if God demanded him to live out his faith in works, how could he possibly overcome his wrongs?
Combine that with one of the worst offenses of the Church in his day - the preaching on and selling of indulgences by Johann Tetzel, and we have a perfect storm for a protest for reforming the church. Tetzel was teaching that people could buy indulgences, which he had been permitted to sell by other leaders, which claimed to be able to help get people out of purgatory - that's a whole 'nother unbiblical issue. As you might imagine, this money had to go somewhere, and not only were indulgences a fraud when you look at Scripture, but there was corruption in where the money ended up.
As Noah mentioned, we get to October 31, 1517, and Martin Luther had enough. He nailed this lengthy document filled with 95 errors of the Catholic Church that needed correction on a church door. This was the community bulletin board, the social media of the day - it wasn't just for the pastor or custodian to see when they went to church. Whatever was up, people read and knew about and talked about.
"Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen." Or something like that...
The next 4 years of his life and beyond would be a struggle. As these matters were dealt with, Luther was considered more and more offensive to the pope and, by the Catholic Church, to God. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, at the age of 37, Luther after much prayer and turmoil proclaimed he would not recant, he would not go back on his belief. What he had put before the Church is what he believed Scripture to say. How can the Church, how can any tradition overlook these matters? The Catholic Church excommunicated him, and would put a death warrant on him - anyone could kill Luther and get away with it.
Luther's teachings, by the grace of God, grew in popularity. His stand provided and coincided with other Reformers taking similar stands in their study of God’s Word. While Luther was deeply troubled in various ways until his death, and certainly was not perfect, God used him in incredible ways to aid in reforming His church. Without his boldness and work, we wouldn't be where we are today.
Dan De Graff