What is the Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation is a movement that began in the 16th century in Europe as a response to a variety of unbiblical traditions that had developed in medieval Roman Catholicism. It is a call to return to the authority of Scripture and to the biblical gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone. It also dawned as a renouncement of various unbiblical beliefs and practices such as transubstantiation, the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice, the supremacy of the papacy, prayers to dead saints, and the veneration of images. Everywhere that the Reformation took hold also led quickly to the translation of the Bible into the common languages of the region and generally to great increases in literacy as priority was given to teaching Christians to read and study the word of God for themselves.

Core Teachings

While reformation efforts sprung up in various places and came to some differing conclusions on secondary issues, the teachings that united them into what we collectively call the Protestant Reformation are:

  • Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) - Protestants affirm that Scripture is the sole, infallible rule of faith. The Bible is the ultimate authority in the Christian life and in the Church. Other authorities exist as established by Scripture (parents, pastors, civil governments, etc.) but these are not infallible nor ultimate in their authority. They are answerable to the final authority, the revealed and unchanging word of God. This is why protestants put such emphasis on literacy and Bible translation, and also why they were careful to distinguish between the true Scriptures and the apocryphal works which some in their time erroneously accepted as Scripture. (It is worth noting that even the Roman Catholic church did not formally define the Apocrypha as part of their Canon of Scripture until after the Protestant Reformation. When the Reformation began, even many prominent Roman Catholics also rejected the Apocrypha).
  • Sola Christus (Christ Alone) - Protestants affirm that salvation is found in Christ alone. His sacrifice is complete, perfect, and wholly sufficient. Salvation cannot be attained in any other way or through any other means. Further, nothing must be, nor indeed can be, added to the sacrifice of Christ to attain salvation; not one's own works nor the merits of saints, Mary, angels, pilgrimages to sacred sites, nor indulgences of grace from the Pope. From beginning to end, salvation is found in Christ alone.
  • Sola Gratia (Grace Alone) - Protestants affirm that salvation is not something that a Christian ever merits or deserves. Forgiveness of sin, regeneration, justification, sanctification, and our future hope of eternal life are all given to us solely by the grace of God on the basis of His benevolence. Salvation is a gift of God's mercy and not a wage based on our worthiness or merit. Salvation, therefore, is a testimony to God's goodness over against our sinfulness and total inability and is never a grounds for human boasting in our selves or our efforts.
  • Sola Fide (Faith Alone) - Protestants affirm that we receive God's grace and salvation through faith alone, apart from any work or merit. We do not come into God's grace through our own deeds of righteousness nor through rites, rituals, or ordinances. We receive God's grace solely through believing on Jesus Christ and the sufficiency of His perfect Sacrifice. Such faith then leads us into good works, worship, and even the ritual life of the local church, but these things are results of having saving faith and do not contribute to our justification before God. They are the fruit of our salvation, not a part of its cause.
  • Sola Deo Gloria (Glory of God Alone) - Protestants affirm that our Salvation, since it is entirely by God's grace and based solely on the merits of Christ's finished sacrifice, is to the eternal Glory of God alone.
  • Substitutionary Atonement - The Reformers all affirmed that, in Christ's self-sacrifice on Calvary, Jesus offered Himself as our substitute. He stood in our place, receiving in His own body our just punishment while offering us the eternal rewards for His righteousness. Our debt was paid and our sentence served by, in, and through Christ who died in our place. Thus, the justice of God is satisfied while the mercy of God is also bestowed on undeserving sinners.
  • Prayer - Protestants teach that all believers, clothed in the righteousness of Christ and trusting graciously in the merits of His once-for-all sacrifice, can approach the throne of God directly in prayer and need not appeal to dead saints or angels as heavenly mediators. Christ alone is our mediator. Indeed, it is sinful and even idolatrous to pray and appeal to anyone but God alone.
  • Communion - While Protestants arrived at a few different positions on the precise nature and practice of Communion (the Lord's Supper), all Protestants affirm the importance of Communion as an act of worship, a declaration and experience of union with Christ by means of His body and blood, and as a time of unity with one another in Him. Protestants deny the Roman Catholic teaching that the communion elements cease to be bread and wine and transfigure into a re-presentation of the physical body of Christ on the altar as a propitiatory sacrifice to atone anew for those present.

A Few Key Figures

While it is impossible to note every key figure of the Reformation in an article such as this, it is worth noting a few crucial men and some of what they contributed:1

  • John Wycliffe - Often called the "morning star of the Reformation," John Wycliffe taught many of the key truths of the Reformation long before it actually began. Living in the late 14th century, over a hundred years before Martin Luther would come to fame, Wycliffe was an English professor and clergyman who drew the ire of the authorities in his day by proclaiming the supremacy of Scripture as the ultimate authority and the limits of both ecclesiastical and civic authorities. He also taught against transubstantiation (which had only been dogmatized half a century before) and facilitated a translation of the Latin Vulgate into English (completed by his followers after his death) so that the masses could read the Bible in their native tongue. Wycliffe's followers came to be known as the "Lollards" (an insult that meant "mumblers" or "babblers"). They preserved and expanded on Wycliffe's teaching, and were particularly known for rejecting the veneration of images, clerical celibacy, pilgrimages, transubstantiation, and prayers for the dead, while affirming that the Bible belonged to all Christians and should be possessed and read by them. The Lollard movement continued in England for centuries and later helped fuel the protestant reformation in that country. Wycliffe's teachings also took hold in other places, particularly in Bohemia (modern Czech Republic) through the leadership of John Hus.
  • John Hus - Another key forerunner to the later Protestant Reformation. Already a well-known preacher and scholar, Hus became rector of the University of Prague in 1402. Czechs who had studied in England brought Wycliffe's writings back to Prague, and they became the subject of scholarly debate among the faculty. Certain political and ecclesiastical authorities tried to put a stop to this, but Hus protected their right to debate the issues. At first, Hus's primary concern seems to have been academic freedom, simply arguing that professors should have the right to discuss and debate such matters. In time, however, Hus and other scholars and nobility in Bohemia came to embrace and build on many (though not all) of Wycliffe's teachings and to hope for reform in the church. The papacy tried to silence Hus, but this only emboldened him, and Hus began to denounce indulgences, Crusades, and other papal injustices. When the Council of Constance was called to settle the rather awkward matter that there were at that time three rival popes, they invited Hus to defend his teaching. He hoped that this would be the dawn of the Reformation he had been working for, but instead it was a trap. Hus was not permitted to defend his views. He was only given the choice to recant or die a heretic. He would not recant and was burned at the stake. (The council also ordered the body of John Wycliffe to be dug up and burned as well). Hus's Reformation continued in Bohemia, and even Crusades called against the land proved unable to crush it as the Bohemians repelled the invaders again and again. The Bohemian Reformation, however, remained a fairly local affair.
  • Martin Luther - Generally considered the founder of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther was an Augustinian Monk in 16th-century Germany. Keenly aware of his sinful heart, Luther could find no peace in confessions, pilgrimages, indulgences, or any of the other "means of grace" promoted by the church of his day. Still, Luther was a faithful and hardworking Monk who was eventually sent to teach Scripture at the University of Wittenberg. Though Luther had long recited and memorized Scripture as a Monk, preparing lectures forced him to study it in a manner he never had before. Particularly, preparing to teach the Book of Romans, Luther discovered the answer he was looking for. Over the course of careful study and struggle, Luther slowly came to see that God's justice was fulfilled and Christ's gracious substitutionary sacrifice and that we are justified wholly in Him and clothed graciously in His perfect righteousness apart from our own worthiness or merit. This growing exploration of God's grace led Luther also to challenge the sale of indulgences and the value of relics. Eventually, he published his famous 95 theses to in hopes of scholarly debate on the issue. For various reasons, the timing made this act more explosive than Luther had actually intended it to be and brought Him into conflict with the authorities. Luther was still sorting out his own views at the time, but these conflicts brought him repeatedly back to the ultimate authority of Scripture. Accused of teaching the heresies of John Hus, Luther looked up Hus's writings and realized that he did, in fact, agree with Hus in many areas. Luther thus became acquainted with the ideas of Hus and Wycliffe, which only fueled his efforts further. Eventually condemned for his doctrines, Luther went into hiding for a time and began work on a complete German translation of the Bible. The reformation continued under the leadership of others and through Luther's writings for a time until Luther could safely return to public life. The printing press (which did not exist in the days of Wycliffe or Hus) allowed Luther's influence to extend far beyond what anyone could have expected or controlled. It is not without reason that Luther is considered the most important figure in bringing about the Protestant Reformation.
  • Ulrich Zwingli - An intellectual and a scholar of classic literature, Ulrich Zwingli began the reformation in Zurich, Switzerland independently of Luther, though he would quickly learn of Luther and be heavily influenced by Luther's work. Zwingli was part of what was known as the "humanist" movement. Unlike how that term is used today, "humanism" in this sense has more to do with the study of the "humanities," such as art and literature. A slogan of sorts for humanists of the day was "to the source," and many traditions were being challenged through documentary research that proved that they were, in fact, late developments. This led Zwingli to begin taking church teachings and practices back to the original sources in Scripture. He began to gather students to himself and to train them as biblical scholars. Eventually, he and his followers started holding public disputations about central issues of doctrine and practice in the presence of the governing council in Zurich, hoping to lead a gradual reformation of the local church with the approval of the authorities. Though he began this process through his own studies and those of his students, the writings of Luther certainly influenced them over time. Still, Zwingli was no copy-cat and would disagree with Luther on a variety of important though secondary matters. Some of Zwingli's Students, also independent thinkers, were not as patient as Zwingli, desiring immediate reformation. They also began to arrive at more radical views than he did. These eventually became the first Anabaptists, forebears of modern Mennonite and Amish whose conclusions in certain ways also anticipated the later Baptist movement.
  • William Tyndale - An Oxford scholar of the early sixteenth century and fluent in eight languages, Tyndale was well equipped to be a man of great worldly influence. Tyndale was bothered, however, by the way that formal education did not include the study of Scripture. Indeed, he bemoaned that the system withheld the Bible from men until they were so indoctrinated as to be unable to plainly understand it. This became the driving issue of Tyndale's life. He sought, at first, to gain permission to translate and print an English Bible through official means, but the resistance of the authorities to his goals as well as his increasingly controversial views made it clear that this door was closed. As his position in England became more tenuous, Tyndale moved to Germany in the midst of Luther's reformation and began to work on his English translation of the Bible while ministering to the English-speaking minority there. He also produced a number of doctrinal works which helped to fuel the English Reformation. Eventually, Tyndale was betrayed by a friend and arrested, brought back to England, and executed as a heretic by the English crown.
  • John Calvin - The reformation was well underway by the time John Calvin's public ministry began, but His work to carefully articulate and advance a coherent, systematic Reformed Theology made him one of the most important figures in Reformation history. Calvin was born in France and studied both theology and law as a devout Roman Catholic. Calvin wrote very little about his own life, nor did others write about him, and so we do not know how Calvin came to embrace the doctrines of the reformation. We do know that, when the Protestants began to be expelled from France in 1534/1535, Calvin fled with them and became an exile in Switzerland. Calvin did not desire to be a public figure, happy to minister to a small population of French refugees while focusing primarily on his biblical research and theological writings. When Calvin published The Institutes of the Christian Religion, a comprehensive work of Protestant Theology, it was a wild success and eventually led Protestants in Geneva to press Calvin into service in their cause of reform. So it was that Calvin became the lead figure in the Geneva Reformation and, from that post, one of the most influential protestants in the world. Calvin sought to bring unity between all the various branches of the Protestant movement (with the exception of the Anabaptists, as by this point most mainstream Protestants and Anabaptists typically regarded one another as heretics). Even if Calvin's goal of formal unity ultimately failed, through his ministry, his commentaries, and especially through the Institutes, Calvin left his mark on virtually every stream of the Protestant Reformation.



  • 1. These biographical details are taken from the following sources: Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity - Vol. 2 (Harper Collins, 1985); Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volumes 6-8 (Hendrickson Publishing, 1907); William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story: 3rd Edition (Broadman Press, 1996); David Teems, Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice (Thomas Nelson, 2012)