The Reformation—Grace vs. Works

The Protestant Reformation is undoubtedly one of the most important events in history. It is not surprising, therefore, that in this 500th anniversary many people want to remember and praise the great role that has played in the political, economic and cultural progress of Europe; that is, in its modernization. But was the Reformation just a man-made social movement, or is there something more to it? To answer this question we will need to pay a visit to the two main protagonists of the Reformation: the prince of humanism, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and the greatest exponent of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther.

Erasmus was born around 1466 in Holland. Twenty-five years later, at the same time that Columbus traveled to the New World, Erasmus was ordained a priest (a profession which he never exercised). He moved on to study at the University of Paris and traveled throughout Europe. It was especially in England where he got acquainted with humanism and where his passion for the classical languages and the study of the Holy Scriptures started to grow. Not surprisingly, in 1516, He printed for the first time a single Greek and Latin edition of the New Testament. The New Instrument, as he called it, came barely ahead of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, edited in Alcalá de Henares, Spain. Erasmus' New Testament would get the exclusive rights to his work for the next four years and thus would be distributed and studied throughout Europe. It would be even used by Martin Luther for his German translation of the Bible.

But Erasmus would not come to fame only for his biblical translations. In his first writings, Erasmus criticized the Catholic leaders and attacked the doctrine, superstitions and moral corruption of the Roman church. In the Enchiridion, or Handbook of a Christian Knight, the scholar rejected such things as the invocation of saints, indulgences and even monastic practices. In other words, Erasmus wanted to see a reformed church. But how far would he go? Before answering this question, let us talk about Luther.

Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, a small mining town in Germany. Luther's father, Hans, having invested in mining and become somewhat wealthy, would send his son to study in Erfurt in hopes that he would become a lawyer. However, Hans's plans were cut short in a “good” stormy day. Luther, struck by lightning and fighting for his life, called desperately to Saint Ana, the miners’ patron saint of the region. The aspiring lawyer promised to become a monk if she saved him. Two weeks later Luther entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. The young German spend the next seven years in a strict monastic life, seeking the acceptance of God through tortuous prayers, fasting and vigils under freezing winter temperatures.

In 1510, on a trip to Rome, Luther witnessed the corruption of the Roman church. This, however, did not stop the young monk from missing the opportunity to climb the Scala Santa; which, according to legend, could forgive the sins of the faithful. On his knees, step by step, Luther climbed to the top and turning back wondered whether there was any bit of truth in all of that. The pious monk, in spite of all his sacrifices, did not feel closer to God.

Luther would continue with his routine. A few years later he moved on to study at the University of Wittenberg, where he received his doctor of theology degree. There, he was also appointed a professor of Bible. But Luther's life took another unexpected turn.

In 1517, an itinerant Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel passed through the region selling indulgences with the purpose of financing the new St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. These indulgences, according to the friar and grand inquisitor of Poland, were able to save dead people from purgatory, as well as forgive the sins of the living. Luther was zealously moved to do something about it. He wrote 95 theses against this heresy and, following the custom of the time, nailed them on the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church. Unexpectedly, the theses ended in the hands of some stranger who sent it to a print house. Thanks to the new invention of the printing press the theses spread rapidly throughout Europe.

Pope Leo X tried in a number of ways to make Luther retract but the new reformer would not give up. Classified as a drunkard and wild pig, Luther, not only questioned the authority of the Pope but even went on to regard him as the Antichrist. As expected, he was excommunicated and proclaimed a heretic. But, as we shall see, the problem went far deeper than that of indulgences and malpractices: it was a spiritual problem. In order to get the full picture, we must rewind to Luther’s entry at Erfurt monastery. As said before, the young monk had worked day and night to find peace with God. But the more he worked, the more alienated he found himself from God. Luther would recall:

“I constantly walked in a dream and lived in real idolatry, for I did not believe in Christ: I regarded Him only as a severe and terrible Judge portrayed as seated on a rainbow.”

“I earnestly thought to acquire righteousness by my works.”

Thus, Luther spent more than ten years with a question in his mind: how can a sinful man be made right in front of such a holy God? Luther meditated on this thing while sitting in Wittenberg’s Castle Church, but especially with a passage that had been haunting him for a long time:

"For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed by faith and to faith, as it is written: the just shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17)

Finally, by the grace of God, Luther came to understand what these words meant: faith, a gift from God, is what justifies man. Salvation is a gift for the sinner and not a reward for the just. This was the message of the cross, the message of Jesus. It was at that point where Luther felt born again. There, another "face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me" --he would recall.

But the message seen by Luther would not be the same as the message of salvation seen by Erasmus. Already in his first works, Erasmus gave some hints about the concept of free will. In his Enchiridion, for example, Erasmus exhorts the reader to use the Christian weapons of war, prayer, and knowledge, in his struggle for piety and salvation. That is, he teaches to use the weapons by which the Christian can work for his salvation.

"The Divine Spirit lowers herself to your humility, yet you, on the other hand, are to raise up to her sublimity," wrote Erasmus.

Erasmus’ view on free will and salvation could not be more different to what Luther clearly came to see in the Bible. The German priest questioned Erasmus’ view on free will even before nailing his 95 theses. The Dutchman dismissed Luther's statements, but tensions between the Catholic church and the reformers were growing and the Pope needed Erasmus to make a stance in order to shut up Luther. Eventually, the prince of the humanists chose the safest side: Roman Catholicism. Thus, through a series of treatises dealing with free will, Erasmus would defend his honor. Ironically, for him, free will was not a crucial subject. Thus, believing that the scriptures were not clear on this subject, he would approach the subject from a non-dogmatic point. Luther would systematically criticize this vision:

"The Holy Spirit is no Skeptic, and the things He has written in our hearts are not doubts or opinions, but assertions - surer and more certain than sense and life itself.

There was no doubt for Luther: the Scriptures were clear and intelligible; not obscure and incomprehensible, as Erasmus believed. Furthermore, Luther saw great inconsistencies in Erasmus’ assertions, which gave priority to the Church fathers and councils than the Bible itself. This seems somewhat bizarre, since on the one hand Erasmus is defined as a freethinker, and yet, on the other, he uses the traditions and the dogmas of the Catholic church to defend his position."

Regarding free will, Erasmus believed that man was at complete liberty to choose between good or evil, and therefore to believe in God or not. Salvation, according to Erasmus, would take place through a type of synergy between man and God. That is, between human works and God's grace. But, somewhat illogically, Erasmus would admit that free will without Grace could not accomplish any good deeds.

Luther would respond:

"Throughout your treatment, you forget that you said that “free-will” can do nothing without grace, and you [try to] prove that “free-will” can do all things without grace!

Luther knew that synergy was not viable —man is in a state of incurable sin and the only way out is to be justified by the grace of God. If, on the other hand, man was not totally lost, why the sacrifice made by Jesus on the cross? Why die for someone who can work for their salvation?"

Erasmus attempt of building a bridge between the Catholic Church and the reforms would end up failing. The synergistic or ecumenical approach of the Dutchman would not work. Moreover, far from closing the gap, the debate between the two scholars would eventually sentence the Reformation. There was no turning back now.

So, what shall we get from all of this information? Firstly, it would be good to remember that the focus of the Reformation was not the work of man, but the work of Christ. As Luther himself would state, "I did nothing; the Word did everything." Secondly, this event must remind us that in many ways we are living in an age similar to the one of the Reformation. The Word, although translated into thousands of languages, is being forgotten, distorted and trampled. And like Erasmus, the modern Christian runs away from the battle of truth, with the mere excuse of preserving peace and unity. And what is worse, assertions and Biblical dogmas, so defended by Luther, are seen as a disease that must be eradicated.

Let us remember then in this 500th anniversary the true spirit of the Reformation and recall those people who decided to risk their lives for the Truth and who defended with their own lives the Word entrusted to their saints. Let’s remember the true Reformation.