In looking at the history of the Protestant Reformation, we will need to understand first all the core issues that caused it. In their minds, the Protestants were not agitating for a break away from the Roman Catholic Church. Neither were they politically motivated. It was the quest for a truly biblical church that motivated them. The spirituality of the church had sunk so low.

The church was reduced from worshiping the almighty God to merely observing routines of lifeless rituals. However, as has always been the case, the remnant of the almighty God was on hand to be of service to their redeemer, at whatever cost! Among the many errors that the Roman Catholic church taught and imposed on their followers were the following:

Penance: The priest had the power to forgive sins and release a soul from eternal condemnation if the sinner could do something to merit the grace of God.

Indulgences: That the church could give the penitent or repentant sinner an official document declaring that the power and pollution of sin was broken. Even a dead soul in purgatory (purgatory is believed to be a place where the souls of some dead Christians would have to be purified in order to attain holiness required to enter heaven) could get into heaven as soon as the relatives paid for their remission. Usually these indulgences were divided into categories of social classes and the gravity of the sins committed. In simple terms, this was a sale of Salvation and Sanctification.

Transubstantiation: The church taught that the emblems in the Lord’s Supper i.e. the bread and wine literally become the actual and literal body and blood of Jesus Christ. This implied that in partaking of the Lords Supper the soul is infused with Christ’s righteousness and strengthened and refreshed. This was a “miracle” that only ordained priest could perform.

Infant Baptism: It was believed that in infant baptism the original sin is removed, and the soul initiated into the church.

Forbidding the Bible to the laity: The Council of Toulouse forbade the translating of the Bible into local languages. The Roman Catholic Church only recognised the Latin vulgate which the common people could not understand. This denied common people access to the Scriptures.

With these errors among many others, the Roman Catholic Church kept its followers in the dark about the biblical truth concerning salvation. But it could only keep in the dark those in the dark already and not those living in the light of the gospel like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin who among many others were to be God’s instruments to bring about the reformation. However, this was not going to be without a fierce resistance on the part of the Roman Catholics. A closer look at how these three men would protest against the false doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church will suffice.

Martin Luther in German

 Luther was born to devout parents in 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony. John his father was a miner and valued education. At eighteen years, Luther was enrolled at Erfurt University. Three years later he joined the monastery of the Augustinians and became a monk as a result of a vow he had made to a saint called Ann, by whom Luther believed he was saved from certain death when a lightning struck amidst a heavy thunderstorm on a rainy day. Of course, his parents were disappointed at this move, but it was God’s move! Upon entering the monastery, Luther longed for peace with God and therefore he did all could to obtain it.

He was believed to be the sincerest monk who genuinely tried to earn salvation by works such that he was so proud of his humility, but so troubled by his sin such that he cried out concerning his sin to the head of the monastery John Von Staupitz who befriended and helped him understand the gospel. Through earnest study of the Scriptures, the truth of God dawned upon Luther as the Spirit of God enlightened him in his struggle with difficult portions of the Bible such as Romans 1:17. Later, Luther discovered the very gate of paradise in the words “the just shall live by faith…” These words became the fundamental truth of the reformation. Staupitz later persuaded Luther to join the Roman Catholic priesthood and was posted at Wittenberg. Here Luther had an opportunity to share the true gospel of God.

In 1516, Pope Leo X launched a vigorous campaign to sell indulgences across Europe. In Germany, the official sales agent for the Pope was John Tetzel, a master of deceit, who went around Germany selling those pardons with the message that “the moment the money tinkles in my box, that moment the soul springs up out of purgatory.” Two factors motivated this vigorous campaign. The first was the bid to raise money for the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Another matter involved Albert, a young Prince who bought three Church appointments (Two Archbishoprics and one Bishopric) with a huge sum of money he borrowed from a bank.

With Rome’s permission Albert was allowed to engage Tetzel as chief agent for the sale of Indulgences so that he might repay his loan. This caused Luther to write 95 objections to the “gospel” of Tetzel and the tactics of the Roman Catholic Church. On 31st October 1517, he nailed them to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. With those objections, also known as the 95 Theses, the reformation was set on course. The Roman Catholic Church declared Luther a heretic and asked him to withdraw the 95 Theses along with many other of his writings, but Luther refused to do so without being proved wrong from the Scriptures, in his own words Luther said,

 Unless I am convinced by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments that I am in error – for Popes and councils have often erred and contradicted themselves – I cannot withdraw, for I am subject to the Scriptures I have quoted; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. It is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against one’s conscience. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. So, help me God.

And so, it was a no retreat no surrender stance for the Reformer whose life was now under threat after the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated him.

Luther later translated the Bible into the German language and married an escaped nun, Catherine von Bora. Meanwhile Germany was ablaze with the reformation fire. Luther died peacefully at age 63 in Eisleben.

Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland

 In the village of Wildhaus, Switzerland in 1484, Ulrich Zwingli was born of a lower class. He attended a school in Basel and then the University of Vienna. In 1506 at the age 22 he received a degree of Master of Arts and was ordained as a priest at Glarus and there he would serve for ten years. In 1517 he begun to preach against the false doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church concerning salvation and pointed people to the true gospel from the Scriptures. In 1522 he finally broke with Rome while serving as a priest in a Cathedral in Zurich.

He reformed the school system, got married and then abolished celibacy. Like Luther, Zwingli also drew great opposition against his ministry. The City Council organised public debates between Zwingli and the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. After one public debate the senate of Zurich declared that the gospel be taught from the Scriptures and banned the traditions of men. The Bishop of Constance wrote to defend the Catholics, but the application was rejected. With his oratory gift Zwingli succeeded to bring the Reformation to Zurich, but the other twelve cities of Switzerland remained faithful to the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1527, another debate was called but the Roman Catholic representatives tried to prove their points outside the Bible, but could not succeed, and out of frustration, Conrad Tregerus, an Augustinian monk, left the meeting. However, the argument continued for nineteen days with the result that the city of Berne received the reformation also. With other parts of Switzerland reformed, the Roman Catholic controlled parts raised an army of 8000 men and invaded the protestant areas. The protestants led by Zwingli raised a small army of 2700 men. Zwingli was slain alongside hundreds along with hundreds of his followers. Thus, Zwingli died at age 47.

John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland

 John Calvin was born in Noyon, France in 1509. Unlike Luther and Zwingli, Calvin’s father was financially well off and he initially wanted Calvin to be a priest. At age 12, Calvin was sent to Paris to study theology before going to Orleans to study law and where, in 1531, he obtained his bachelor’s degree. Despite the early exposure to theology, Calvin was not yet saved until he had a sudden conversion having been deeply entrenched in Catholic superstitions of the papacy. Before his “sudden conversion” Calvin published a commentary on a book by Seneca, a writer who lived during the Roman Empire. However, at this time the German Reformers had a strong influence on him.

Calvin lived a much-disciplined life, he was very brilliant and committed to his studies, and he took delight in books than in extravagance and wild enthusiasm and his heart grew in love for God and God’s people. At this time Calvin identified with the persecuted Protestants of Paris with his friend Nicholas Cop. It is alleged that Calvin authored a speech for Cop which attacked the Roman Catholic Church and advocated the Reformation, this angered King Francis who ordered their arrest, but Calvin and Cop managed to escape to Basel in Switzerland. Calvin then decided to move to Strasburg but then ended up in Geneva where he was compelled to stay and help William Farrell a French Reformer and together they preached the gospel to multitudes of people winning over the Council of Geneva with their teachings. But they were soon banished from the city for introducing a strict code of discipline which the libertines, an influential group, represented. Calvin then went to Strasburg and became a pastor of a French refugee congregation. It was here where Calvin married a widow called Idelette de Bure.

In 1541 Calvin went back to Geneva after his friend’s regained control of the city council and invited him to return. Calvin made Geneva a haven of peace for the persecuted protestants from England, Scotland and many parts of Europe who prepared a new English Bible translation. It was during this time that in 1560 the Geneva Bible was published. Calvin’s leadership had a lasting impact not only in Geneva but across Europe, and not only in religious but political reforms too. His doctrines of grace also known as “Calvinism” have continued to impact the Church of God even today.


 In conclusion, the reformation was mainly a quest to bring back the church to the Scriptures and restore the proper understanding of biblical teaching of salvation which is by the Grace of God alone. It was an emphasis that salvation is through faith alone in Christ alone and to God’s glory alone. It is from these truths that the Roman Catholic Church had departed to follow the traditions of men because of love for money and power.

It is sad that the errors of the Roman Catholic Church are now resurfacing and parading themselves as the gospel in some evangelical churches, yes even in churches that are supposed to be protestant historically and doctrinally. This can only remind us that the work of reformation is ongoing. The 16th century protestant reformers only set the pace and flagged off the ongoing protests against the damage being done to the body of Christ.


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