Part 2 (Main Features of the Reformation)

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century is no doubt the greatest event in the history of the Church after Pentecost. However, it must be borne in mind that this event is so great (in respect to the development of the Church) only for the fact that the pre-Reformation Church had veered greatly from what may be considered biblical Christianity. Indeed, the Reformation is so-called because, through it, the visible Church was literally re-formed. A study of the features of the Reformation is, therefore, an examination of the areas of the visible Church that are brought back to biblical Christianity through it. This second of our four-part series highlights what these areas are, and summarises the ways in which they are re-formed, so as to give an introduction to what constitutes the Reformation. These areas will be examined in two broad categories, namely, Doctrine and Practice.

Admittedly, the Reformation was not at all uniform. The Lutheran Reformation was, for example, never complete because Luther rejected only what was directly in conflict with the Word of God, believing that what is not explicitly forbidden in the Word of God is lawful for the Church. Zwingli and Calvin however went much further. They believe that only what is sanctioned in the Word of God is allowed for the Church, especially in the areas of worship and church government. In this brief survey, it is not possible to enumerate all the features while indicating the extent to which each feature was important to the various sectors of the Protestant Church. Rather, the approach would be to highlight the major features regardless of whether they were uniformly evident in all the groups.

Areas Pertaining to Doctrine

The key doctrinal features of the Reformation is best summarised in five Latin watchwords: Sola ScripturaSola FideSola GratiaSolo Christo and Soli Deo Gloria.

Sola Scriptura

As it may be said that the seed of the Reformation first began to germinate as Martin Luther began to read the Bible in the original languages, so it may also be said that the Reformation began to bloom fully as Martin Luther uttered those immortal words of his at the Diet of Worms in April 1521:

Unless I am convinced by testimonies of the Scripture 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 Scriptures I have quoted; my conscience is captive to the Word of God.… Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. So help me God.

What Luther verbalised that day was but an eloquent expression of the most foundational principle of the Reformation. The Reformation was indeed wholly founded on the Word of God onlySola Scriptura! All the Reformers, like Luther, rejected the doctrines of tradition, councils and popes, wherever they contradicted canonical Scripture, and conversely they sought to build every reformational principle they advocated from the Scripture. This does not mean that the Reformers were individualistic and innovative in their study of Scripture (as many who caricatures the doctrine of Sola Scriptura assert). Far from it! The Reformers recognised that the Church is the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15), and therefore they maintained high regards for the confessional and interpretive consensus of the Church. However, they saw also that the Scripture alone is the perfect and sufficient final authority for all matters of faith and life. Therefore they rejected any interpretations of popes and councils which they understood to be either clearly contradicting the Scripture, or have no basis in the Scripture.

Thus, the Reformation saw the rejection of many unbiblical Roman Catholic doctrines, such as the existence of Purgatory and the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Through the Scriptures, the Reformers also found that there are only two, instead of seven, sacraments; and that there is no scriptural justification for the clear distinction between clergy and laity; neither is the veneration of Mary, saints and angels lawful. Neither is there any basis for believing in the validity of an infallible apostolic succession. It was for this reason that the Reformation was essentially anti-papacy.

Sola Gratia

While this aspect of the Reformation, like all other aspects, may be seen as subordinate to the aspect just discussed, it is helpful to examine it separately because this is an area that is practically denied in many segments of Protestant Christianity today, with the infiltration of Arminianism into the Church. During the Reformation it was not so. All the Reformers believed that sinners are justified (forensically declared righteous by God) and saved wholly by grace through faith. This aspect was the most characteristic feature of the Lutheran Reformation, and was pronounced by Luther to be the article by which the church stands or falls.

Through the rediscovery of Augustinian theology, the Reformers unanimously agreed that man is totally depraved, and that apart from that grace of God all would be lost. Works do not earn us any merit toward our salvation at all. We are saved only by the grace of God: Sola Gratia! This high view of God, and our indebtedness to Him, together with the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God, form the basis of the Christian life of the believer under the Reformation umbrella.

Sola Fide

Although accounts regarding Luther’s point of conversion to Reformed doctrine vary, it is an undisputed fact that the words that had the most impact on him were: “The just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17; Hab 2:4; Gal 3:11; Heb 10:38). It was after a full realisation of the meaning of the verse dawned upon him, that Luther began to repudiate the Romish doctrine that both works and faith are meritorious necessity for our salvation. If man is totally depraved, how could any work be sufficient to merit his salvation? Even our righteous deeds are filthy rags in the sight of God (Isa 64:6)! But the just shall live by faith! We may be saved only because Christ lived a perfectly righteous life on our behalf, and then suffered and died in our place for our sin. We are saved, in other words, by Christ through His removal of our demerit, by His death and by His giving us His merits by His life. Our faith does not save us, though it is an instrumental means of our salvation. It is a gift of God by which we are united to Christ. Works do not serve this purpose. Thus the Reformers insisted that we are saved by faith alonesola fide!

Luther’s attack against the sale of Indulgences in 1517 was based on this doctrine. This is hinted in the ninety-five Theses, which he posted on the door of Wittenberg. For example, thesis thirty-six says: “Every Christian who feels true compunction has right of plenary remission of pain and guilt, even without letters of pardon [i.e., Indulgence]” (Schaff, History, 7.162 [§32]).

The bearing of this doctrine on the Calvinistic and Zwinglian Reformation is that the churches were brought back to New Testament simplicity where external rituals and forms were mostly done away. However, the Reformers were always careful to teach that good works follow regeneration. For example, in hisInstitutes, Calvin teaches that “free will is not sufficient to enable man to do good works, unless he be helped by grace, indeed by special grace, which the elect receive through regeneration” (ICR 2.2.6).

Solo Christo

While Sola Gratia and Sola Fide were explicitly published by the Reformers andSola Scriptura was implicitly advocated by their rejection of the infallibility of tradition, councils and popes, Solo Christo—Christ alone,—did not have an ostentatious place in the history of the Reformation. The reason for this is not that the Reformers were not Christocentric. They were; and eminently so! The reason is that Christocentricity is hard to measure and, in some sense, did not occasion immediate changes in the lives of the people. Sola Gratia wrought humility and gratitude, Sola Fide removed dependence on works, Sola Scripturadislodged unbiblical traditions, whereas Solo Christo had no specific revolutionary influence apart from its effect on exegesis (all Scripture points to Christ) and exposition.

Nevertheless, Solo Christo is a very important reformational principle which was especially developed by John Calvin, who says: “Christ is the beginning, middle, and end—that it is from Him that all things must be sought—that nothing is, or can be found, apart from Him” (Comm. on Colossians 1:12). Elsewhere, Calvin writes:

When we see that the whole sum of our salvation, and every single part of it, are comprehended in Christ, we must beware of deriving even the minutest portion of it from any other quarter. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that he possesses it; if we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, we shall find them in his unction; strength in his government; purity in his conception; indulgence in his nativity, in which he was made like us in all respects, in order that he might learn to sympathise with us: if we seek redemption, we shall find it in his passion; acquittal in his condemnation; remission of the curse in his cross; satisfaction in his sacrifice; purification in his blood; reconciliation in his descent to hell; mortification of the flesh in his sepulchre; newness of life in his resurrection; immortality also in his resurrection; the inheritance of a celestial kingdom in his entrance into heaven; protection, security, and the abundant supply of all blessings, in his kingdom; secure anticipation of judgement in the power of judging committed to him. In fine, since in him all kinds of blessings are treasured up, let us draw a full supply from him, and none from any other quarter (ICR 2.16.19).

The Reformers, moreover, taught that there is only one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim 2:5). Therefore salvation is not to be found through the Church. Man must go directly to God through Christ. The priests do not qualify to be mediators, neither do Mary and departed saints, and neither do angels: Solo Christo, Christ alone is the mediator.

Calvin, furthermore, teaches that Christ is our mediator according to a threefold office of Prophet, Priest and King. As our Prophet, He reveals God’s will for our salvation; as Priest, He is both our propitiation and our intercessor; and as King, He is our redeemer, defender and ruler (see WSC 23–26). The Lord Jesus Christ, in other words, is not merely a historical figure, but our all in all. And if we live and think , then every aspect of our lives will be affected. We would live as did the Apostle Paul: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). Solo Christo, as such, is the unifying theme of the ministry of every of the magisterial Reformers.

Soli Deo Gloria

Like Solo ChristoSoli Deo Gloria—glory to God alone,—was, in a sense, not a revolutionary principle or a principle that stands alone. However, it was a principle that had been eclipsed by the pomp and power of the papacy and of the Roman Church prior to the Reformation.

It was because the Reformers saw that glory must be ascribed to God alone and that God must be glorified according to His self-revelation and the means He has instituted, that they cared not to please men (Gal 1:10) as they sought to bring the Church back to biblical purity. We may say that it was the principle of Soli Deo Gloria that drove the Reformers on in their work.

Areas Pertaining to Practice

It must be noted that while Reformed churches saw practice as being necessarily founded on doctrine, this was often not the case with the Church before the Reformation. The areas pertaining to practice that were re-formed during the Reformation include church polity; worship and liturgy; and the use of the Bible.

Church Polity

With the denial of a separate clerical class, the political structure within the church logically also underwent a reformation. Although organisation in the visible church was considered “necessary for efficient functioning,” it was not seen as necessary because the Church is the dispenser of divine grace. Moreover, the Reformers found no basis for the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic church. Therefore, they generally, did away with much of the complexity of the papal system. However, neither Luther nor Zwingli restored the church organisation according to the apostolic model. It was Calvin who fought strongly for, and attempted to implement, an ecclesiastical system based upon apostolic directives found in the Scriptures.

The church, moreover, was thought of as a community of believers rather than a hierarchy of officials. It is not so much an organisation as a living body (1 Cor 12:12).

A person is saved when he is united with Christ and so becomes a member of the invisible Church. His salvation is quite independent of his membership in the visible church.

Worship and Liturgy

Another important feature of the Reformation was the change in the manner of worship and the use of liturgy. The Reformed churches generally went back to the simplicity of the apostolic churches. In the first place, the use of images was banned in the churches. Secondly, with the possible exception of the Lutheran church, the use of Liturgy was kept to the minimal. The Mass was abolished and the number of sacraments was brought down to the biblical pair—baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Thirdly, the services were conducted in the vernacular languages of the congregations. And fourthly, preaching was given central place. Finally, congregational singing was also introduced into the church. But strikingly, the Calvinistic church, in contrast to the Lutheran church, sang generally psalms, and that without musical accompaniment, for Calvin was convinced that:

Musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law (Comm. on Psalm 33:2).

Secular vs. Clerical Distinction

The Roman Catholic church taught that there is a separate class of people akin to the priests of the Old Testament, who are to act as mediators between God and man. Thus there was a sharp distinction between the clergy (priesthood) and the laity. The Reformers, on the other hand, argued from Scripture that there is no place for such a distinction in the Gospel. The priesthood of the Old Testament was a shadow of the priesthood of Christ, which ceased with the completion of the sacrifice of Christ (Heb 10:1, 12). Today, believers are a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9) on account of our union with Christ, and Christ is our only mediator (1 Tim 2:5).

There is, therefore, no longer any division between the clergy and the laity. The call of God for persons to serve as ministers of the Gospel is unique in that it is mediated through the church, and involves unique spiritual gifts. However, they are not the only ones who are called. God calls people into different occupations, be they in the ministry of the Word, or in ‘secular’ vocations, such as farming, teaching, studying, engineering, soldiering or homemaking (1 Cor 7:20). Each believer is serving the Lord Christ when he heartily performs, as unto the Lord, all that is his duty according to his vocation which God has called him unto by His providence (Col 3:23–24).

Use of the Bible

The Bible (through the principle of Sola Scriptura) was not only the basic doctrinal foundation of the Reformation, it also became one of the most important features in the lives of the Reformed believers. In line with the teaching of the priesthood of believers, it became necessary to make the Bible available to everyone. As a result, in every Reformed sector, the Bible was translated into the vernacular language. Luther completed his translation of the New Testament into German in 1522. By 1532, the Old Testament was completed. The French translations came by way of the humanist Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples in 1523 (NT) and 1528 (OT), as well as by Pierre Robert Olivetan, Calvin’s cousin, in 1535. The first English New Testament was published in 1525 by William Tyndale. The complete English Bible was the Mile Coverdale’s Bible in 1535.

With the authority of traditions and of the papacy removed, and the Bible, widely read, the Bible became the sole authority on all matters of the Christian life to the Reformers and their congregations. Though all branches of Protestantism very quickly saw the necessity of writing confessions and catechisms for the more systematic instruction of the members of the church, as well as to maintain unity within the churches, these creeds were ostensibly founded upon the Scripture and, whenever possible, used the phraseology of the Scriptures. And where these creeds were adopted by the churches as authoritative, they were seen as subordinate standards of the churches which derived their authority from the Scripture where the Scripture is faithfully interpreted. In other words, the Scripture remains the sole authority.


This article is but a very brief survey of the doctrinal and practical features of the Reformation in the areas where it affects the church as well as the Christian life. We have not even touch on its effect on culture and society. But I believe it is not difficult to see that it is indeed the most remarkable event in the history of the Church. It is, as we can see, much more than a breaking of the shackles of Rome. It was almost a rediscovery of biblical Christianity altogether. It would do well for the modern believers to look back, to see our roots; and to see how far we have deviated from the biblical ideals for which our Reforming Fathers paid with their lives—whether it be by the martyr’s death as Zwingli, or the death of one worn out by constant toil and labour as Calvin. May the Lord who made the Reformation possible be our help! Amen.

J.J. Lim