The Reformation Movement

by Andy Sochor
via Unmasking Sophistry, Vol. 4, No. 2, April-June 2024

In terms of general “church” history, it is difficult to overstate the importance of the Reformation Movement. As we have already studied, the Roman Catholic Church dominated the world – religiously and politically. As “Christianity” became the official religion of the Roman Empire, those who would not conform to the “official” doctrines and practices of “the church” would often face the threat of persecution. However, because “the church” continued to slide further and further into apostasy, those who were faithful New Testament Christians were among those whom the authorities could target for their supposed “heretical” teachings. The political power of the Roman Catholic Church also meant that civil rulers needed to submit to the will of the pope.

The Roman Catholic Church still exerts a strong influence in the world today, but not nearly to the extent it did for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. In the sixteenth century, there would be a movement that would wrest power away from the Roman Catholic Church – religiously and politically – and completely change the religious landscape of the “Christian” world. This movement became known as the Reformation Movement because it sought to correct the corruption and abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. In the previous lesson, we learned about some early reformers. These individuals and groups also saw the problems in the Roman Catholic Church and stood against them, yet they were dealt with swiftly and severely. However, their efforts helped pave the way for the Reformation Movement, which would make a much broader and lasting impact.

One note before we begin… Later in this series, we will discuss the Restoration Movement of the nineteenth century. This would be similar in some ways to the Reformation Movement of the sixteenth century. Both movements were made up of people who saw problems in the current state of the religious world and wanted to correct them. Yet they differed fundamentally in their approach. The Reformation Movement set about to reform the church that grew out of the apostasy that the apostle Paul warned about – the Roman Catholic Church. The Restoration Movement sought to restore the Lord's church by returning to the New Testament and uniting upon the doctrines and practices found there. In a future article, we will discuss the Restoration Movement in more detail.

What Set the Stage for the Reformation

In addition to the efforts of the early reformers we discussed in the previous article, a few other factors helped make the Reformation Movement successful.

First, there was an “awakening” in Europe. This brought a new interest in literature, art, and science. This also led people to think differently and independently, so they were comfortable questioning what they previously believed and arriving at conclusions different from what “the church” wanted them to believe. As this continued, people would be exposed to new ideas from others who were also rethinking things.

Second, Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1455. Prior to this, producing books and other printed materials was a slow and laborious process. Yet this new invention made it possible to disseminate books and information more quickly, leading to revolutionary change. Notably, the first book printed was the Bible.

Third, there was a growing spirit of nationalism. Today, nationalism often has a negative connotation, yet it led to a positive outcome in this case. In his book, Church History, John D. Cox notes that this “growing spirit of nationalism…fed the desire for greater freedom in religion. Patriotism caused many to resent the idea of submitting to foreign rule over their own national churches. They disliked the idea of the pope, in another land, appointing their church officers” (p. 54). The conditions were right for a movement to launch. All it needed was someone to put it in motion.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was credited with starting the Reformation Movement. Of course, we have already discussed others who made similar attempts before Luther. And as we will notice in a moment, others championed the cause of the Reformation. Yet Martin Luther played a pivotal role in his attempt to reform the Catholic church.

Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany, on November 10, 1483. Initially, he intended to study law but changed his mind and entered a monastery when he was twenty-one years old. By 1508, he was preaching in Wittenberg and teaching in the University.

In 1510, Martin Luther visited the court of Pope Leo X in Rome. This was the beginning of his disillusionment with the Roman Catholic Church, as he observed how irreligious and corrupt the priests and leaders were. This led him to lose respect for the pope, which would undoubtedly embolden him later when he took a public stand against him.

Pope Leo X had plans to complete the Cathedral of St. Peter in Rome. However, this was a costly endeavor, and funds were lacking. So, the pope authorized several agents to go out and sell “indulgences” to raise money for the project. These were pieces of paper that could be used like money to buy the forgiveness of sins – either sins that had been previously committed or ones that might be committed in the future. They could even be used to help a deceased loved one escape from Purgatory (we discussed this error in the previous article).

John Tetzel came to Wittenberg to sell these indulgences on behalf of the pope. Luther vehemently opposed this, and in October of 1517, he posted his famous ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. In these propositions, he condemned the sale of indulgences and issued a challenge for a debate. These ninety-five theses were condemned as heresy and burned. The controversy over these matters continued, and Luther's views spread to others. He was later excommunicated.

Luther's attitude was commendable. He rejected the illegitimate authority of the pope and attempted to take his stand on the Scriptures. When he was called to retract his teaching at the Diet of Worms in 1521, he said, “Unless I am persuaded by means of the passages which I have quoted, and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the word of God — I cannot and will not retract . . . Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise so help me God.” As we will notice in the next article of this series, Luther and his followers may not have perfectly put this into practice, but the sentiment is commendable.

Other Notable Reformers

Martin Luther played a chief role in the Reformation Movement. Yet others helped further the cause as well.

William Tyndale (1484-1536)

Tyndale was from England and aimed to make the Bible available to the common people in their own language. He labored to translate the Bible into English in the face of suffering and persecution. He succeeded in doing this but was eventually betrayed by a friend. He was strangled and burned at the stake on October 6, 1536.

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1564)

Zwingli was a reformer from Switzerland. His approach to Scripture differed from Luther's. Luther's philosophy was that anything not explicitly prohibited in Scripture was permitted. Zwingli believed anything that could not be proven from the Scriptures was prohibited. Several New Testament passages could be used to commend Zwingli's approach (Matthew 7:21-23; Colossians 3:17; Hebrews 7:12-14).

John Calvin (1509-1564)

Calvin was born in France. While studying law in Paris, he learned of Luther's teachings, deserted Catholicism, and fled to Geneva in Switzerland. He developed the system of “Calvinism” that continues to influence the religious world today heavily. This can be summarized by the “T.U.L.I.P.” acronym – total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. Much more could be said about these doctrines, but we do not have space in this article to do so.


The Reformation Movement forever changed the religious landscape of the world. One of the positive outcomes of this was that it weakened the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and led people to question the errors they had been taught throughout their lives. Men like Martin Luther endeavored to take their stand on the word of God. This is truly a noble aim! Unfortunately, this movement failed to return to the doctrine and practices of the New Testament church. Rather than people uniting upon the words of Jesus and His apostles, they were fractured into many different denominations.


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