What is the Protestant Reformation and why was it necessary?

by Matt Slick

The Protestant Reformation is the movement against the Roman Catholic Church that sought to return to biblical theology and avoid the excesses of un-biblical doctrines within Catholicism. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic priest, nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door in Germany.  In so doing, he sought to have a dialogue on matters within the Catholic Church. He sought a Reformation from within, not from without. But, he was not received well and eventually the Roman Catholic Church tried to put him to death.

If you were to read through the 95 theses, you would see that there are numerous topics discussed. But there were a few that are mentioned more than others. For example...

  • The Pope and Papal authority are mentioned at least 44 times.
  • Purgatory as mentioned 15 times.
  • Indulgences are mentioned at least 46 times

At the time of his posting of the 95 theses, Martin Luther still affirmed the authority of the papacy. He had not yet broken completely with the church and so had not yet abandoned many of the false teachings within the Catholic Church. Of particular importance at the time of Luther was the issue of indulgences.  An indulgence is a remission of temporal punishments, in this life or the next in purgatory, that are due to the sins that a person has committed. Indulgences could be purchased, at the time of Luther, for money.


Following are five out of the 95 theses from Martin Luther regarding indulgences. 

  • # 27, “They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.”
  • #32, “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.”
  • #35, They who teach that contrition is not necessary on the part of those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessional privileges preach unchristian doctrine.
  • #53, They are the enemies of Christ and the pope who forbid altogether the preaching of the Word of God in some churches in order that indulgences may be preached in others.
  • #79 To say that the cross emblazoned with the papal coat of arms, and set up by the indulgence preachers is equal in worth to the cross of Christ is blasphemy.  

This issue of purchasing a pardon of punishment was blasphemous then just as it is now. Luther rightly sought to address this issue, and others, within the Roman Catholic system, and he hoped that upon further dialogue, the church would abandon unbiblical practices and return to Scripture. But this would not happen in part because the Catholic Church was using the money gained from the indulgences to build cathedrals and increase its financial reserves.

There are many topics we could focus on regarding the Reformation and the abuses within the Roman Catholic system at the time, but they are beyond the scope of this article. Therefore, we will focus on the primary issue of justification by faith alone. The Bible teaches that no works, no money, no sacraments are necessary to obtain forgiveness of our sins or to obtain the reduction of punishment in this life with the next life. Let's look at Scripture.

  • Romans 3:28, "Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law."
  • Romans 4:1–5, "What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness."

Justification is the legal standing before God where the sinner is declared righteous according to the law. We obtain this righteousness by faith alone in Christ alone and in nothing else. So, Martin Luther, upon examining the New Testament, realized the disparity between the Bible and Roman Catholic doctrines in this (as well as other) areas.

In response to the Reformation, approximately 28 years after Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, the Roman Catholic Church held the Council of Trent between 1545 and 1563 in Trento, northern Italy. Two cannons from that counsel are worth reproducing here.

  • "If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema" (Council of Trent, Canons on Justification, Canon 9).
  • "If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema." (Council of Trent, Canons on Justification, Canon 14).

As you can see, the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church was to condemn justification by faith alone an obvious contradiction to the Bible. Furthermore, throughout history the Roman Catholic Church has reaffirmed its false teaching. Please consider these two paragraphs out of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC).

  • CCC 2068, "The Council of Trent teaches that the Ten Commandments are obligatory for Christians and that the justified man is still bound to keep them; the Second Vatican Council confirms: "The bishops, successors of the apostles, receive from the Lord...the mission of teaching all peoples, and of preaching the Gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain salvation through faith, Baptism and the observance of the Commandments."
  • CCC 1821, "We can therefore hope in the glory of heaven promised by God to those who love him and do his will. In every circumstance, each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere 'to the end' and to obtain the joy of heaven, as God's eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ."

As you can see the Roman catholic churches continued to deny true biblical theology.

What is the truth about justification by faith?

The truth is that we are made right with God by our faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross. Jesus is God in flesh (John 1:1, 14) who never send (1 Peter 2:22). He fulfilled the law perfectly and then bore our sins in his body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24). Since Jesus did everything that was necessary on the cross, the only thing we have left to do is to trust what he has done. Therefore, we are justified by faith (Romans 5:1) and not by any works of the law (Romans 3:28; 4:5). This is biblical theology. Anything that contradicts it is false doctrine.

So, the Reformation was a necessary movement that reestablished the biblical teaching of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. Our good works will never be good enough to merit anything with God (Isaiah 64:6). Only Jesus, who is God in flesh, can offer a perfectly holy sacrifice and set of works that are acceptable to God the Father.

Therefore, the truth is that the Roman Catholic Church teaches a false gospel since it requires works for salvation in direct contradiction to the clear teaching of Scripture.

The Protestant Reformation happened because it was needed.





About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.