Church History Lesson 4



The seeds of change had already been sown by others. Politically, the power of the papacy was being challenged. In Portugal, Spain, France, and England, national states were seeking to rise. Emperors felt the restrictions of religion on their decisions, and they wanted more freedom from the Church. Elsewhere, the followers of Mohammed continued to move against the borders of the Holy Roman Empire. After conquering Constantinople and the Eastern Empire in 1453, Islamic armies marched across Eastern Europe until they arrived at the gates of Vienna in 1529. The world was rapidly changing. Religion was not exempted. When Constantinople was conquered by the Mohammedan Turks, the central power of the Eastern Orthodox Church was lost, and national churches soon emerged. Other important things were happening. Christopher (literal meaning: Christ-like) Columbus made his valiant voyage which led to the discovery of the New World.

Also during this period, advances were being made in knowledge. The scientific legacy of the Middle Ages includes the Hindu numerals, the decimal system, the discovery of gunpowder, and the inventions of the eyeglass, the mariner’s compass, and the pendulum clock. The invention of moveable type at Mayence on the Rhine, in 1456 by Johann

Gutenberg, ensured that learning would be widely encouraged and new ideas would be spread. It is significant that the first book printed by Gutenberg was 200 copies of Jerome’s Vulgate Bible. Later, the printing press would be used to bring the Scriptures to the common person in a clear translation that all could read. Once people were able to read the Bible for themselves, many would realize that the Catholic Church had become far removed from the ideals of the New Testament.

According to the Church in medieval times, entrance into heaven was based upon merit. In order to merit eternal life in the presence of God, there first had to be a cleansing by fire after death in a place called purgatory. In addition, there had to be evidence of having lived a worthy life. In order to help professing Christians live a worthy life of merit, which would reduce time spent in purgatory, the Church developed a system of sacraments. 

BAPTISM. In the act of baptism, it is declared that original sin is removed, and the soul is incorporated into the Church. In this way, the doctrine of baptismal regeneration is embraced (cp. 1 Peter 3:21).

CONFIRMATION. The completion of baptism is confirmed by the laying on of hands. During this ceremony, it is believed that the Holy Spirit is conferred upon a person so that they are empowered to live out the ethics of the Christian life (cp. John 14:16,17; Acts 2:1-4).

PENANCE. Realizing that even Christians sin, the Church made provision for penance by confession of sins in the presence of a priest, who was able to declare God’s forgiveness and absolve the soul of all transgressions. Outward acts were expected to be displayed by the penitent, manifesting contrition and faith (cp. 1 John 1:9; Mark 2:7).

HOLY EUCHARIST. In the taking of the Lord’s Supper, the soul is strengthened and refreshed. Union with God is found by assimilation of Christ, who is believed to be literally present in the two elements: bread and fruit of the vine (cp. Matt. 26:26-30; 1 Cor. 11:23-30).

HOLY ORDERS. Select individuals are conferred with spiritual power and the privilege of ministry (cp. Rev. 1:6; 1 Pet.2:9).

HOLY MATRIMONY. This outward ritual was designed to enhance a life-long monogamous union between a man and a woman. The benefits of marriage include grace to find help in life, companionship, enjoyment of the act of marriage, procreation, and the ability to maintain sexual honor (cp. Gen. 2:24; Heb. 13:4; Eph. 5:25).

UNCTION. As the sick and dying were anointed with oil, a prayer for grace was offered (cp. James 5:14-15).


Of particular importance was the sacrament of penance. Daily, people sinned, and daily they needed to know if they could be forgiven. The Church taught that the priest had the power to pardon sins, in the name of Christ, and to release any soul from the eternal punishment which is visited upon sin. However, those who received the sacrament of penance had to express contrition, after an honest confession to a priest. Then, there had to be satisfaction. The priest determined what satisfaction the erring penitent had to make, in order to display outwardly a heart of contrition. It was not uncommon for the priest to instruct the penitent to fast, recite a specific number of prayers, give alms to the poor, go on a pilgrimage, visit a shrine, or even take part in a religious crusade to the Holy Land. The focus of attention was upon doing something to merit the grace and goodness of God, rather than recognizing by faith what God had done and had given to us in Christ’s completed sacrifice on the cross, apart from our own works (cp. Rom. 5:1-2; Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 8:28-29).


Although the system of penance was developed to assist concerned souls in finding comfort after sin, abuse and corruption emerged. The practice of selling indulgences had begun. The theological justification for the granting of an indulgence was grounded in the concept of works of supererogation. Technically, such works went beyond the demands of God’s law and earned a reward. It was believed that Jesus had lived a life of purity and holiness that went far beyond what was necessary to secure the salvation of sinners. Therefore, He must have stored up a rich treasury of merits in heaven that could be appropriated by others. In like manner, the saints have stored up merits in heaven. When a person purchased an indulgence that person was technically giving alms. It was considered the good work of almsgiving because the money was going to the church. Consequently there was credit to that person for doing a good deed. It was stated that God forgives sins. The idea was, however, that there are temporal punishments from God that a person has to do something about. One cannot simply accept God’s forgiveness and not make right the wrong that has been done. The indulgences helped to make right of a wrong, as did a pilgrimage, viewing a relic, or going to Mass. Those things helped a person in this lifetime. Yet as the doctrine of purgatory became more common, people became more concerned about that. So the indulgence was tied very quickly to purgatory. In the end, the matter was not influenced by a theological history but rather by a financial history. It was an effective means of raising money.

John Tetzel

In the quest for more gold for the Church, official spokesmen were sent into the countries of Europe to raise money. One of the best of these “gospel hucksters” was a man named John Tetzel, an eloquent Dominican Friar. Legend has it that Tetzel would tell audiences, with a flair for the dramatic, “Whenever a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!”

People like Tetzel, who was actually working for one of the banks of the Holy Roman Empire from which the pope had borrowed a significant amount of money, could work the system. There was a particular indulgence Tetzel sold that was supposed to be a special indulgence, a jubilee indulgence for the remission of all sins. If you bought an indulgence from him on a given day, your whole future could be secure.



Forerunners of the Reformation

Although theological thought was in disarray, and the heart of the gospel had been replaced by man.s works, nevertheless there were many brave and intelligent men within the Church.s bosom whom God raised up to serve as forerunners to prepare the Church for a Reformation. The essential doctrines of Christianity such as the atonement, the incarnation, Scripture as the only infallible rule of faith and life, and justification by faith alone had not been totally lost within the visible Church of Christ.

The most important figure of the literary Reformation was Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (d. 1536). Erasmus with biting irony and great sarcasm attacked the abuses and luxuries of Rome, attacked the doctrines of the Schoolmen and the convents. He started his adult like as a monk, but found himself eventually in the courts of princes, noblemen, and on the faculty of the great University of Paris. Erasmus was one of the most prominent and popular men of his time; he was known for his sheer genius and powerful ability to communicate through his teaching.

Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Saxony. Luther’s family was part of the emerging middle class, and his father had ambitions for Martin to study law. As a law student, Luther abruptly discontinued his studies in order to join a monastery. While traveling in July 1505, Luther was caught in a severe thunderstorm. Sudden destruction, judgment, and eternity, with all their terrors, appeared before his eyes. Encompassed with the anguish and horror of death, Luther made a vow. If the Lord should deliver him from this danger, he would leave the world and devote himself entirely to God.

For Luther and others, the Augustinian Order offered a rigorous lifestyle and abundant opportunities to study Scripture.  In the year 1510, Luther was provided an opportunity to travel to Rome as a companion to an older brother in the Augustinian Order. His heart was thrilled at the great privilege of making a holy pilgrimage. Once in Rome, Luther moved from place to place in religious excitement. “I remember,” he wrote, “that when I went to Rome I ran about like a madman to all the churches, all the convents, all the places of note of any kind. I implicitly believed every tale about all of them that imposture had invented.”

Luther climbed on his knees the Scala Santa, believed to be the stairs (transported from Jerusalem) which Jesus once climbed to reach Pilate’s judgment hall. As he climbed the stairs, praying a pater noster on each step (a standard Catholic prayer), doubt crept into Luther’s mind. When he came to the top step, he stood up and silently asked, “Who knows whether this is true?”

While many of his religious experiences in Rome were exciting, as Luther continued to tour the historic city, what he saw and heard shocked his spiritual sensitivity. There was open graft, corruption, and immorality. The holy city was not holy at all. Though he remained a loyal Catholic for the time, the seed was sown in Luther’s mind that the Church needed radical reformation.

In a small cell in the tower of the Black Cloister (a residence for monks and nuns), Luther tried to earn salvation by good works. Cheerfully did he perform the most menial tasks. Happily did he pray and fast. With grim determination, Luther flogged himself until he fainted from the self-inflicted pain. Because of this religious ordeal, his body deteriorated until Luther looked like a skeleton. His cell remained unheated despite harsh winters. He maintained all night vigils and only rarely would he sleep on a mat for comfort.

One day, toward the end of the year 1515, Luther was alone in his cell with a Bible. The Scriptures were opened to Paul’s letter to the Romans. Luther’s eyes rested upon verse seventeen in chapter one which declares that, “The just shall live by faith.” 52 Suddenly, the sunshine of radiant, Gospel truth broke through the dense clouds of spiritual darkness. “The just shall live by faith!” In a moment of Divine illumination, Luther understood. He had been trying to earn salvation by works. But “the just shall live by faith!” Romans 1:17 became to Luther the gates of Paradise. After years of trying to merit the merits of Christ, Luther was finally converted.

Concerned about the way that this practice misrepresented God’s Word and exploited the people, Luther responded by writing a collection of theses against the sale of indulgences. Luther posted these Ninety-Five Theses on the church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. He was only thirty-four years old. When Luther nailed his theses to the door of the Castle Church, he was not doing anything uncommon. The door of the Castle Church served as a public place for gathering information for the University. By putting his document in this public place, Luther was simply inviting a scholarly debate on the merits of his proposition. This was the custom of the period. Within four weeks the Ninety-five Theses, which had been written in Latin, was translated into many languages, printed and carried with incredible speed to every country of western Europe.

Having boldly issued a challenge to the Church regarding the selling of indulgences, Luther was forced to defend his position. It would not be easy spiritually, physically, or psychologically. Luther found himself almost alone. Friends he thought he could count on to agree with him, had withdrawn their support–deciding that he had been too rash.

Luther wrote a general answer to his critics in a book called Resolutions. Addressing it to the pope, Luther made a point by point defense of his propositions. Upon receiving Resolutions, the Pope was discerning enough to realize the far reaching implications of Luther’s arguments, if left unchallenged.

A summons was sent for Luther to appear in Rome. Such a summons was serious for he easily could be charged with heresy in the sight of the Church. If convicted in Rome by the pope of being a heretic, Luther could be put to death by fire immediately. Frederick the Wise, a local prince and very politically powerful intervened and persuaded the pope against this. Later he sent a delegate with papal authority to hear Luther recant his beliefs. When he refused, pope issued a bull (Latin: bulla, a seal; refers to any document with an official seal), that definite statements by certain monks against indulgences were heretical. Without being mentioned by name, Luther and the world knew that he was being regarded as a suspected heretic.On June 15, 1520, the pope issued a bull excommunicating Martin. On June 15, 1520, the deed was done. Martin Luther was made to be a marked man, assigned to an eternity in hell by the very Church he had tried to serve so well.

Then, on December 10, 1520, Luther burned the document in public at the gates of Wittenberg. Gathered around him to witness this burning were University professors, students, and ordinary people from towns and villages. Into the fiery flames, Luther also tossed copies of canon laws on which the Church of Rome relied for maintaining its authority over the souls of men. As Luther watched the papers turn into ashes, he knew that this was his final act of renunciation of the Roman Catholic Church.

Charles V ruled over a larger portion of the earth than any man since Charlemagne.It was to this powerful secular monarch that Pope Leo X appealed, for help in handling the spiritual crisis created by Martin Luther. What Leo wanted was for Charles to help bring Luther to repentance, or to the place of physical execution. Therefore, after much discussion, Charles was persuaded to summon Luther to appear for questioning before him in the city of Worms on the Rhine. Luther received the royal summons with sadness. He knew he had to go to the Diet or Supreme Council of the German rulers. He was wanted by the papal court and by the royal crown. And so, on April 2, 1521, Luther started to go to the place where he was certain he would die.

In the royal room, a table had been placed with the many writings of Luther spread out. The audience grew silent as the Church official spoke. He had only two questions to ask: “1) Are these your writings; and 2) do you wish to retract them, or do you adhere to them and continue to assert them?”

The official demanded a simple and plain answer. Luther was surprised. He thought he had come to defend himself by debating the merits of his works. But there was to be no defense. There was to be no exchanging of ideas. Luther had been asked two questions. He had to respond on the spot. Luther replied to the inquiry of the Church official. These were his writings. He would admit that. Did he wish to retract them? On that question, Luther asked for more time to respond. The secular members of the Diet consulted and agreed. Luther would be given more time. Court would reconvene twenty-four hours later.

On the following day, Thursday, April 18, 1521, at the appointed hour, Luther returned to face Charles V and the princes of Germany. He had spent much of the night in prayer. He was ready to give the Diet an answer to the second question as to whether or not he would denounce his own writings. Once more the sweltering crowd in the room grew silent. Griped with emotion, from the depths of his soul, Luther answered the question (Prov. 16:1): “Your Imperial Majesty and Your Lordships demand a simple answer. Here it is, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scriptures or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning I stand convicted by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s Word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

Amazingly, he was allowed to leave, but was later kidnapped by friends and taken to a castle where he spent the next 10 months under protection of Frederick the wise, and during this time he translated the scriptures into German, which would be printed for the German people. In 1525, he married an ex nun, and they had 6 children.

The reformers used some Latin phrases to express what they believed.

  • Sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”)
  • Sola fide (“by faith alone”)
  • Sola gratia (“by grace alone”)
  • Solus Christus or Solo Christo (“Christ alone” or “through Christ alone”)
  • Soli Deo gloria (“glory to God alone”)

Heroes of the Faith

Ulrich Zwingli

Ordained as a priest in 1506, he became pastor of the church in Zurich in 1519. Like Luther, he had not intention of breaking with the church, but he began to attack the practice of indulgences, and after Luther burned the papal bull, he was inspired to make a systematic attack on the roman church. Images were removed from the church buildings in Zurich, Mass was abolished, altars, relics and processions were discarded. He had a great influence on all of Switzerland civil war resulted in 1529, between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants. In 1531, Zwingli was brutally killed in battle.

Privately Zwingli also started challenging the customs of medieval Christendom he thought unbiblical. He had struggled with clerical celibacy for some time (and even admitted that as a young priest, he’d had an affair). In 1522 he secretly married. That same year, he broke the traditional Lenten fast (by eating sausages in public) and wrote against fasting.

John Calvin

A Frenchman, a scholar, was influenced by early protestant leaders in France, and because of persecutions of protestants he spent years being hunted and wandering under assumed names. Through a set of circumstances he ended up in Geneva, and stayed to help with the reformation efforts there.

From Calvin people learned afresh the biblical doctrine of predestination. To “predestine” means to establish or arrange beforehand all that shall come to pass. It means to foreordain. God has predestined all things according to the counsel of His own good will (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:5,11).

John Knox, under the influence of Calvin, reformed the church in Scotland, which would become the Presbyterian church. The people rebelled against Mary Queen of Scots, and by 1570, the Presbyterian church was firmly established.

The translation of the bible has been one of the most influential factors in the history of the church. William Tyndale translated the bible into English, through bitter opposition and persecution. almost all vernacular Bibles were confiscated and burned. Tyndale’s illegal translation was the first of the new English Bibles of the Reformation, and the first to draw directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, and the first to take advantage of the new medium of the print, which allowed for wide distribution In 1535, Tyndale was arrested and jailed for over a year. He was tried for heresy, choked, impaled and burnt on a stake in 1536. The Tyndale Bible, as it was known, continued to play a key role in spreading Reformation ideas across the English-speaking world.[2] The fifty-four independent scholars who created the King James Version of the Bible in 1611 drew significantly on Tyndale’s translations.

Reformation in England

Different than other countries who had outstanding Christian leaders of reform, changes in the Church in England were made by the king.

Henry the VIII was married to Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella.It had been arranged when he was 12, and though as an adult he wanted the treasure that would come with her, he wanted a divorce as she did not produce a son. She had a number of children that died at birth or soon after.  Henry had appealed to the pope and he was putting off a decision, but Henry wanted to marry his mistress.

Aware of the mood of the nation in religious matters, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury,  knew that the time was ripe for a break with Rome. He shrewdly suggested that the matter of a divorce be submitted to the leading universities of England and the continent. In this manner, Henry VIII found men willing to give him biblical sanction for obtaining a divorce. The next steps were both logical and audacious. Henry halted the transfer of financial resources from going to the pope, and then he had Parliament declare him to be the head of the Church of England (1534). The law which passed was called the Act of Supremacy. The provision was made that the king, not the pope, was the head of the Church of England. An annulment was then pronounced by Archbishop Cranmer. Henry VIII was finally free to marry his mistress. Aroyal marriage took place; Anne was already pregnant. The result of this unholy union was a daughter, Elizabeth. Anne did not live to see her daughter reign. She was beheaded on a charge of adultery in 1536. Other wives followed. There was Jane Seymour, who gave birth  to Edward; Anne of Cleves, whom Henry divorced soon after the marriage; Catherine Howard, who was beheaded within a year on the charge of adultery; and Catherine Parr, who outlived the monarch.

When Henry VIII died in 1547, his son Edward VI (1547-1553) succeeded him to the throne. Because he was but a nine year old child, his uncle, the Duke of Somerset, was made regent. When he was only sixteen years old, Edward died unexpectedly of tuberculosis (1553).

His half-sister Mary ascended to the throne of England. Mary (ruled, 1553-1558) was a devout Catholic and proceeded to undo twenty-five years of blood and sacrifice. Reformation leaders were arrested or removed from office.  Mary continued to persecute the Protestants until the day of her death, November 17, 1558. She had needlessly destroyed the lives of over three hundred people by causing them to be burned at the stake. She is worthy of her graceless name, “Bloody Mary.”

The death of Mary brought her half sister, Elizabeth, to the throne of England. Elizabeth I (ruled, 1558-1603) was sympathetic to the Protestant position. Persecution came to an end, as did the threat of a Spanish invasion. Elizabeth would remain single and rule alone. More importantly, she would allow religious reforms to take place. For example, despite strong opposition, Parliament passed a second Supremacy Act on April 29, 1559, making the sovereign of the Land the head of the Church of England. Then, once more, the government rejected all papal authority.



Council of Trent

Many sincere catholic leaders recognized the need for reform in the roman catholic church. There were too many people leaving the Catholic Church. Some of the best and brightest, some of the most sensitive and spiritual, and some of the most gifted men and women were not going to stay in a social structure that allowed abuses to go unchallenged and uncorrected. It was obvious that the Catholic Church had to set its house in order.Furthermore, the Catholic Church had to find a better way than torture to motivate its members to be as zealous as the Protestants were for their cause.


In a little city in the mountains of northern Italy called Trent, a Church council was meeting. Paul III (pope,1534-1549) had initially summoned the council, which would meet sporadically from 1545 to 1563. Twenty-five sessions would be held. The purpose of the Council was to reflect the Protestant initiative, and formulate a confession of faith. A catechism was also adopted. When its work was completed, some obvious Church abuses were corrected by the Council, but the supremacy of the papacy, and the whole system of salvation by works, still stood as foundational truths. In addition, the Council embraced the validity of believing that the seven sacraments could bestow merit on the Christian. Furthermore, tradition was to be valued as much as the Bible, the fourteen apocryphal books of the Old Testament were to be included in the sacred canon of Scripture, purgatory did exist, and there was value in the invocation of saints, images, relics, and indulgences. Point by point the Protestants would continue to resist these basic Catholic beliefs as having no Scriptural support.

In the area of religious doctrine, the council refused any concessions to the Protestants and, in the process, crystallized and codified Catholic dogma far more than ever before. It directly opposed Protestantism by reaffirming the existence of seven sacraments, transubstantiation, purgatory, the necessity of the priesthood, and justification by works as well as by faith. Clerical celibacy and monasticism were maintained, and decrees were issued in favor of the efficacy of relics, indulgences, and the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the saints. Tradition was declared coequal to Scripture as a source of spiritual knowledge, and the sole right of the church to interpret the Bible was asserted. All of its decrees were formally confirmed by Pope Pius IV in 1564. At the same time, the council took steps to reform many of the major abuses within the church that had partly incited the Reformation.

Below are some recommended resources for you.

9 Things You Should Know About the Council of Trent

The Corruption of the Vatican’s Gay Elite Has Been Exposed 

Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther   Available at Amazon, recommended by Ligonier