When Martin Luther questioned the central traditions of the Catholic church, Pope Leo X branded him a heretic, commanded that all books containing his teachings be burned and excommunicated the German monk when he failed to recant his ideas.
Although Luther did not set out to create a separation in Christianity, his three central ideas led to the breaking away of his followers from the Roman Catholic church and the foundation of the Protestant church.
Before this event, few questioned the Catholic church’s authority in all things. Afterward, those who followed Luther’s ideas chose to exert freedom of choice in their religious beliefs that became known as the Reformation.
Latin for “faith alone,” it was one of Luther’s main beliefs that opposed Catholic teachings. He believed the Catholic church misled people when they said whoever purchased indulgences would be either free of their sins or would reduce the time sinners spent in purgatory.
Luther did not believe that acts of charity or good works earned God’s salvation. Salvation cannot be earned. Salvation comes only from having faith in Jesus Christ alone.
Latin for “scripture alone,” was also one of Luther’s main beliefs that Bible Scripture was the only authority concerning the business of faith for Christian believers.
Luther denied the pope’s traditional authority to teach the word of God through his own interpretations contrary to Bible Scripture, including teaching believers to pray directly to Mary and the saints.
Luther accused the pope and the Catholic church of distorting Biblical truths and corrupting Christian teaching, and he came to believe that the Bible, interpreted by individual believers, was the only true authority of faith for Christians.
He believed that faithful Christians must consider the Bible Scriptures as the authentic word of God. Guided by the Holy Spirit, they can then interpret its meanings for themselves.
Like Luther in the 1500s, readers of the Bible today can be confident that God has provided, through the Holy Spirit, the ability to understand and experience the truths of Scripture.
Latin for “grace alone,” it is a belief that Luther shared with the Catholic church, with this exception; the Catholic church endorsed that although salvation is made possible by grace, faith and works of men are means to obtain grace. The Catholic church was endorsing a mixture of both reliance on the grace of God, and confidence in the merits of a believer’s own works performed with love.
However, in November 1999, the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity issued the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification that reversed that position. It said, “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.”
For the Lutheran tradition, the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone through Christ alone is the material principle upon which all other teachings rest.
Universal Priesthood of Believers
Along with his basic belief in the Sola Fide and the Sola Scriptura, Luther also believed in the entitlement of Christian believers to experience a personal relationship with God by reading the Bible in their own language, without the interpretation of priests.
He believed each man must be his own teacher when it comes to the Bible.
Rejecting the hierarchical structure of the Catholic church from the pope to priest, Luther declared that all men were priests and that no clerical blessing on a faithful Christian was needed.
Luther said, “a simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it.”
The Spread of Protestant Sects
Because of the Protestant conviction in individual rights of the faithful to have a personal relationship with God and interpret the Bible for themselves, many Protestant denominations have grown out of Luther’s original teachings, each following their own individual doctrine.