Last Saturday was All Saints’ Day, first mentioned in the 4th century to honor Christian martyrs. Originally celebrated on May 13, the date was changed in 835 AD by Pope Gregory IV to Christianize All Hallow’s Eve, the superstitious pagan festival of the same time.
It is good for us to honor all the saints who have gone before us in the faith, reminding ourselves that we are not the first generation of believers. We owe much of our thought and practice to those believers who have preceded us.
After the ascension of Christ, the increasing persecution of the Christians, and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the believers were scattered throughout the Roman Empire.
For the next two and one-half centuries, the Christians were persecuted for their insistence that only Jesus Christ, not the emperor, deserved their homage and worship. For that belief, many of them lost their lives.
Finally, in the early 300s, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Every Roman citizen was now considered a Christian. As you can imagine, it became difficult for both church and state leaders to distinguish between spiritual and political goals. People even began to assume that they were Christians because they were Roman citizens.
As unbelievers flooded into the church of Jesus Christ, the church, naturally enough, lost some of its distinctiveness of loyalty to Jesus Christ. It also lost its commitment to sacrifice, obedience, and discipline.
Soon, the emperors began to use the church to reward and punish people. The church faded as these caricatures of true Christianity sapped its strength.
There were several attempts to correct these abuses in the first 1500 years of the church. In protesting certain evils, Godly men and women would start a new order of priests, and would lead their followers in well-disciplined, God-honoring lives. This is how the Franciscans, the Benedictines, the Dominicans, and the Jesuits began. Unfortunately, the reforms often faded when the founder died.
The great change came through a man who was a monk, a university professor, and a preacher in Wittenberg, Saxony (which is Germany today), Martin Luther. His original purpose was not to reform the church, but to find favor with God. Luther finally came to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ only after years of severe struggle.
He rediscovered the principle that works follow grace and faith. Now, the meaning of Ephesians 2:8-9 became clear: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not by works, so that no one can boast.”
So, grace and faith come first; then good works. Verse 10 continues, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.”
With this renewed understanding of the New Testament teaching, justification by faith became a great cornerstone of what would become known as the Reformation.
Other great cornerstones of the Reformation were the authority of Scripture (God’s Word is our guide), and the affirmation of the priesthood of all believers (every member of Christ’s body is a priest). The words of the Apostle Peter in 2:9 took on new significance, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
At high noon, on the last day of October in the year of our Lord 1517, Martin Luther marched up to the door of the University Church at Wittenberg and posted his 95 Theses. By this act, he announced in good medieval style that he was willing to defend the truth of these theses against all comers.
While not originating with him, evangelicalism took on its basic structure and became a recognizable movement within the Christian church with Martin Luther and the 16th century Protestant Reformation.
The Catholic church also responded positively to some of Luther’s charges and launched reforms in what became known as the Counter-Reformation.
Luther’s protestimonium was a positive proclamation of God’s grace in offering sinners full and free forgiveness. True “Protestants,” then, are those who bear witness to this faith.
Let us resolve to keep our doctrine and practice pure in today’s church, with a positive proclamation of God’s grace.