Five hundred years ago this very day, on October 31, 1517, a young Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. He was hoping to generate an in-house theological debate over “Indulgences”–special dispensations granted (or sold) to people to shorten their time in purgatory. The practice went back to the time of the Crusades, when in 1095, Pope Urban II granted a special indulgence to the penitent who fought. By Luther’s time, Indulgences were being sold to pay for church projects, like the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther firmly believed the Pope would never approve such a practice, hence his desire to debate both the power and the efficacy of Indulgences. In his theses, Luther argued that true repentance comes from the heart, and cannot be bought, and no papal pardon can relieve anyone of the guilt of the least of his sins. However, Luther soon discovered that the Pope was not on his side. In making his argument, he couldn’t avoid statements that undermined the Pope’s authority. Following his arguments to their logical conclusion, with Scripture as his support, Luther became convinced that Scripture, not the Pope, the Church Fathers, or any one else, had authority over the consciences of people.
Thus began what we know today as the Protestant Reformation.
In breaking with Rome, Luther paved the way for the establishment of churches beyond papal control. Like-minded Christians gathered to worship according to their theological convictions–Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc. And while important secondary issues separate these denominations, all true Christian churches are united upon the principles of the Reformation: there is no authority higher than Scripture alone for Christian faith and practice; and salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, by Christ alone, to the Glory of God alone.
Some further reading on Reformation history and theology: