Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Why Was the Reformation Needed?

Leslie Basham: Next week we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Pastor Erwin Lutzer explains why this historical event matters so much.

Dr. Erwin Lutzer: The most important thing that the Reformation did is it recovered the gospel and answered this question, “How does a sinner stand justified in the presence of a God who is so holy that you can never appease Him?” That’s the gospel itself.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of A Place of Quiet Rest, for Monday, October 23, 2017.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Well, my guess is that you’ve heard some talk recently about something called the Reformation—the Protestant Reformation—which took place 500 years ago. That’s a pretty significant anniversary!

It’s appropriate that we should be having this kind of conversation, because many historians would agree that this is one of the most significant events in Western history. It’s an event that holds a lot of important lessons for us and for the church today. We owe a great debt, in many ways, to the Reformers.

Our guest today and over the next several days is going to be introducing us to the lives, the ministries, the theology of some of these men and some of the issues surrounding the times in which they lived and why this matters for us today.

First, let me introduce to you my friend, Pastor Erwin Lutzer. Pastor Lutzer and his wife Rebecca have been good friends of mine for many years. You may know Pastor Lutzer through his writings. He’s written many books. Many have been helpful to me in my own study.

Some of you have heard his radio broadcast Running to Win. For many years he was the pastor of the historic Moody Church in Chicago, and now he’s involved in itinerant ministry. You’re going to get to know him over these next several days.

We’re going to be talking particularly about his book called Rescuing the Gospel: The Story and Significance of the Reformation. I hope you’ll order a copy of that; we’ll let you know how you can get that book for a donation of any amount to the ministry of Revive Our Hearts.

So that said, Dr. Lutzer, welcome to Revive Our Hearts. Is this the first time you’ve been on Revive Our Hearts? I think it is.

Dr. Erwin Lutzer: I really do think it is, Nancy.

Nancy: What took me so long?! (laughter)

Dr. Lutzer: I don’t know. We’ll have to find out, won’t we? But I am so excited about this Nancy, because I believe that this series is going to be transforming. I believe that because my own desire, during the times we have together, is really to aim very clearly for what Jude said.

Jude said, “Contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude v. 3). By the time we’re finished this series, I want people to be excited about the gospel. I want them to be greatly encouraged to know that the followers of Jesus have always been a small band.

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). But also to see how it is that we stand on the shoulders of people who preceded us and understand ourselves much better.

I look at the Reformation as sort of finding a lost relative. Once you know about him, you say, “Well, that explains a lot within our family!” (laughter) And pretty soon, we’re going to find out.

Even when we talk about Luther’s marriage (which we will in a future program), “Oh, why is it that we go to the altar today to say our vows?” And why is it that Protestants pastors are not celibate as in the Catholic church? Where did all that come about?

Why is it that the impact of Martin Luther’s wedding (of course, there are weddings now that are broadcast all over the world by television) and his marriage was absolutely huge and continues to be?

Well, that’s just one thing, not to mention all the theological issues. I could on for a moment about that!

Nancy: One of the things I love about this period of history is (the Reformation is not our ultimate benchmark) how the people and themes of the Reformation take us back to Christ and take us back to the gospel.

So this is not about elevating some period in history or some human leaders. It’s about elevating the gospel of Jesus Christ and rescuing the gospel, as took place in that day and as we need to take place today.

Dr. Lutzer: Yes. And speaking about exalting Christ, we’re going to be talking a lot about Martin Luther. He was a man with many flaws, and somewhere along the line we’re going to have to mention that.

Isn’t it encouraging to know that God uses imperfect people? I think that I am very much blessed by that fact!

Nancy: For some of our listeners who have no idea what we are talking about, could you just in a sentence tell us what we mean when we are talking about the Reformation.

Dr. Lutzer: Here you have a medieval church with plenty of corruption. All historians agree that it was a church that was in desperate need of reform. I mean, you have for example, during the 1300s at one time there were two popes ruling simultaneously.

Then they are deposed and a new one is installed, and the other two don’t resign. Now you have three popes ruling simultaneously. For thirty-six years you have The Papal Schism, where you have more than one pope ruling simultaneously—each one calling the other “antichrist,” each one trying to destroy the other through war and so forth.

Everybody knew that there needed to be change. We’ll talk about somebody who lived during that period of time who died as a martyr. I can hardly wait to tell that story!

During that period of time is a desperate need for reformation! Not only that, the gospel was covered by centuries of tradition. The reason that we celebrate the 31st of October, 1517 is because that is the day when Martin Luther went to the Castle Church in Germany and nailed his ninety-five theses to the door.

He didn’t know he was going to begin a reformation; he just intended to debate these. As a matter of fact, the theses were written in Latin, but they were translated into German (the printing press had been invented in the previous century). Suddenly, everybody in Germany is reading these, and they are saying, “Ya vol!” (In other words, “It’s about time!”)

It is said that ninety percent of the people were in favor of Luther and the other ten percent were shouting, “Death to the pope!” Now, just do the math for a moment, and you can see here that something began.

We’ll have to talk about all those events, but when we talk about the Protestant Reformation, that’s why October of 1517 is so significant.

Nancy: Some may think (especially if you’re not into history, or you think of history as being dry or dull or boring), “Why should we be talking about something that happened 500 years ago? Sure, it matters to historians and scholars, but why should it matter to us today?”

Dr. Lutzer: There are many reasons. For example, the seeds of freedom of religion . . . We’re going to talk about Luther at the Diet of Worms. I mean, I just almost still get chills thinking about what happened there and how different history would have been if he had recanted. But that actually planted a seed.

There was no freedom of religion back in those days. He was supposed to be put to death! Charles V wanted to put him to death and regretted that he didn’t. But he didn’t for some reasons we’ll talk about. So you have the seeds of freedom of religion.

You have the whole idea of direct access to God—the fact that, now, you don’t have to go to a priest in order to confess your sins or in order to pray, because you are a priest before God, and we all come on the same basis.

Nancy: And that was revolutionary!

Dr. Lutzer: Oh, absolutely! I mean, in those days, if you wanted to get to God you went to a priest who could get to God for you. And now, suddenly, you have the priesthood of the believer.

You also find the great emphasis on Scripture. Later on, we’ll introduce you to the five solas of the Reformation. The first one is (the word “sola” means “only” or “alone”), the Bible alone! This becomes the dividing point—this becomes the break—with the church of the day. Now, suddenly, the Bible alone is going to be above popes and so forth.

There was the whole issue of church/state relations—which gets very complicated. But I will say this: The most important thing that the Reformation did was recover the gospel and answer this question, “How does a sinner stand justified in the presence of a God who is so holy that you can never appease him?” That’s actually the question, and that’s the thing that we’ll keep coming back to—the gospel itself.

Nancy: And that’s the question that every person in the whole world has to face and has to answer.

Dr. Lutzer: It’s very sobering. The Bible does not say that there’s a third possibility. You either have heaven, because you’re welcomed into heaven as if you are Jesus (we’ll have to talk about that) or else you are lost. This dividing line is very, very clearly taught in the Scriptures.

And so answering that question is the most important question, and that was Luther’s question. 

Nancy: And I think it helps to have something of the backdrop of the day. You’ve mentioned this, but expand it a little further. What was it in the church and in the culture in that medieval era that made the Reformation necessary, that gave rise to that?

Dr. Lutzer: What you had was such things as “indulgences.”

An indulgence was a means by which you could pay some money, and you would be remitted for the temporal consequences of your sin—not eternal consequences because only God could do that, but temporal.

It’s something like if you’re speeding along and you’re not just simply pulled over by the policeman. He gives you a ticket, and you have to pay some money. In the very same way, the church said, “You’ve sinned, and what you need to do is to say God forgives you—yes—but there’s still a payment to be made for your sin.”

As a result of that, what you have are tremendous abuses in the church. Then, during Luther’s time, you have a new twist in it. That is, you not only buy indulgences for yourself but also for the dead. 

There was “simony.” Simony was rampant in the church. That’s the purchasing of ecclesiastical privileges by money.

In the midst of all of this, you have some Reformers. A hundred years before the time of Luther you have, for example, John Wycliffe in England. Imagine this, he lives prior to Gutenberg’s printing press. So Wycliffe gathered students around him and taught them how to die for the faith—because so many did!

Wycliffe was in Oxford. He was probably Oxford’s leading scholar, and he gathered these students around him. They became known as Lollards—which was really not a good term—it was one with which they were derided. Wycliffe has all these students copying the Scriptures.

It took about ten months to copy the entire Bible, and these Bibles were then spread throughout England. The authorities said, “If you find them, bring them to St. Paul’s, and we will give you money,” and that’s where they were burned!

When I came out of St. Paul’s cathedral while we were in London some time ago, if you come out the door and you look to the left, there’s a statue to St. Paul (that’s why it’s called St. Paul’s cathedral). But also there is a patch of concrete where the original St. Paul’s statue stood. That’s where the Bibles were burned.

Wycliffe, of course, preached against simony; he preached against indulgences; he said you don’t have to obey a corrupt church. He was supposed to be put to death, but he died a natural death. But, later on, we’ll talk about what happened to his bones.

So here you have Wycliffe doing that. Meanwhile, in Prague, students from Prague are going to England. They’re going to study at Oxford. They’re bringing Wycliffe’s ideas back with them. Finally, Nancy, we’re getting to John Hus. What a story!

He is preaching the gospel in Prague, and as result of that, huge crowds are coming. (Hus came to saving faith, by the way, as a result of Wycliffe’s writings.) The pope issues an interdict that, from now on, there can be no sacraments at all in Prague.

Well, in those days it was believed that in order to be saved, you needed the sacraments. So in effect, this was a sentence to send people to hell! So they rose up against Hus, and he left the city of Prague, and he went to a castle. He wrote a book there on the church and a book that criticized simony.

Then we have the Council of Constance. The Council of Constance is called by a new emperor by the name of Sigismund.

They called Hus to the Council. Hus didn’t want to go, but the emperor said, “I will give you safe conduct if you come here to the Council of Constance to stand charges of heresy.”

And Wenceslas, the brother of Sigismund, said, “You go, and you’ll be able to come back to Prague.” Well, Hus goes to the Council, and they put him in a castle. They try to break him down because of the fact that he would not recant. They gave him bread and water only.

He said, “I would not for a chapel full of gold recede from the truth. I know that the truth stands, and it is mighty forever and abides eternally, with whom there is no respecter of persons.”

In letters written back to his friends in Prague, he said (he prayed in these letters), “Oh, most Holy Christ, draw me—weak as I am—after Thyself! For if Thou dost not draw us, we cannot follow Thee. Strengthen my spirit!”

You know, we may think to ourselves that these people were so brave and so forth. You’ll see a lot of real dependence on God.

Nancy: A sense of weakness.

Dr. Lutzer: Hus is not given an opportunity to defend himself. They put a paper crown on his head with three devils that were vying for his soul, and they said, “We commit your soul to the devil!”

By the way, Sigismund decided that he didn’t have to keep his promise to a heretic—the promise of safe conduct. So Hus is taken. I want to read just couple of lines. Then I want to tell you how all this ended, why it’s significant, and how important it is to the Reformation.

Finally, when he arrived at the place where he was to be put to death, he knelt and prayed. For the last time they asked him if he would recant. He said, ‘God is my witness that the evidence against me is false. I’ve never thought or preached, except with one intention of winning men if possible from their sins. In the truth of the gospel I’ve written, taught, preached—and today I gladly die.’

So they lead him out, and his books are there, and the fire is lit on his books, and he is burned to death.

Before he is burned to death . . . In the Czech language, the word “hus” means “goose.” As a matter of fact, Hus used to sign letters “the goose.” So he said these words, “You can cook this goose, but after me—in a hundred years—a swan will arise. And him you will not be able to silence.”

One-hundred-and-two-years later, Martin Luther nails his Ninety-Five Theses to the castle church door, and this is what Luther said: “John Hus prophesied about me when he wrote from the prison [I guess he said this in his prison before he was put to death] that they may now be roasting a goose [Hus], but in a hundred years they will hear a swan sing which they will not be able to silence. And this is the way it is, if God wills it.” Well, that’s the way it was! The swan became the symbol of the Protestant Reformation.

If you’re in Europe and you look at pictures of Luther, you often see in the background a swan, because of Hus’ prophecy. Even today, don’t we, Nancy, sometimes use the expression, “They cooked his goose”? So 500 years later we still do that.

Nancy: What a reminder that we have to take a big picture of the Providence of God and the redemptive story that He is unfolding. When things look, today—whether in our country or in other parts of the world (thinking of some of these terrorist attacks in churches over the Palm Sunday weekend)—horrendous things done in the name of religion. Yet, it’s not an occasion to fear or to cower or to retreat. But it is an occasion to realize that our God is writing the story. It may be a hundred years from now before we see the unfolding of God’s purposes in all of this, but they will be unfolded.

Dr. Lutzer: You think, for example, of the fact that today we honor Hus. If he had recanted, we wouldn’t be talking about him, would we? Let me give a real important theological lesson here. Scripture says to the church at Smyrna, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).

Let’s go back to Hus. He was actually standing on a table when they put that paper crown on his head and mocked him and said, “We commit your soul to the devil!” Hus said, “I commit my soul to God!” The theological lesson here is that if you are believer in Jesus Christ, even if you are thrown into the hands of the devil, you are still in the hands of God.

Jesus said to the people here in Revelation, “You know, the devil is going to throw you into prison. You’re going to be in his hands . . . but you’re still in God’s hands!” And what is the best example of that? Jesus!

Notice that the Bible says that Jesus Christ was crucified by wicked hands (see Acts 2:23). Wicked hands crucified Jesus. What are His last words on the cross? “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

And, Nancy, just to pick up on what you were saying there, regarding martyrdom: When human hands have done all that they can, when they’ve done their worst, God is still there! The believer is still in God’s hands.

Nancy: Yes.

Dr. Lutzer: We need to be able to believe that. When it says here, “You will be in prison for ten days,” nobody knows what the ten days is. Is it ten years, is it ten days literally? But you know what? When Jesus says, “It is ten days,” all the demons of hell working together in unison cannot make it eleven. 

Nancy: Yes, right. Amen!

Dr. Lutzer: Even when there is persecution in the furnace, at the end of the day Jesus still keeps His hand on the thermostat! We have to believe that. Certainly, that’s true regarding Jesus when He said those words, “Don’t fear those who are able to kill the body” (Matt. 10:28).

Nancy: And that very martyrdom, whether in that era or in others in the past or today, often becomes fuel for the spread of the gospel! You talk about how Wycliffe’s body was exhumed . . .

Dr. Lutzer: Yes, I forgot to mention that. At the Council of Constance, the decision was made to exhume Wycliffe’s body, his bones. He had been dead for thirty years, but they so hated him that they threw them into the river. The belief was that if they were in the river, he’d have a less chance of a resurrection.

They were thrown into the Swift River, which flows into the Avon, which flows into the River Severn, which goes out to the British Channel—which eventually goes to the whole world.

Today we have Wycliffe Bible translators, and we can continue to honor Wycliffe. Those bones didn’t stay put, did they—“dem bones!” So, the point is that Wycliffe also gives us that wonderful example of a faithful man!

Nancy:. . . and that persecution cannot stamp out the influence of the gospel!

Leslie: Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has been talking with Dr. Erwin Lutzer about the Reformation. The 500th anniversary of this event is coming October 31. Between now and then we’ll be exploring how the Reformation reminds us to treasure our salvation through faith alone.

Erwin Lutzer writes about this in his book, Rescuing the Gospel. If you’ve been intrigued by what you’ve heard so far, I hope you’ll get a copy. You can find it in plenty of online stores, but when you order from Revive Our Hearts, you’ll be helping us stay online to bring you more programs like this. When you make a contribution of any amount to keep the ministry going, we’ll say "thanks" by sending you the book.

Ask for Rescuing the Gospel when you donate by phone. Call 1–800–569–5959. You can also donate online and get the same offer. The address is We’ll send one book per household during this series for your donation of any amount.

Tomorrow, find out how the church of the middle ages had become like a garden full of weeds. Nancy continues this conversation with Dr. Erwin Lutzer, exploring the foundational issues that set the stage for the Protestant Reformation. Please be back for Revive Our Hearts. 

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants to help you you treasure the gospel. It’s an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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