Salvation Before the Protestant Reformation

Martin Luther's questioning of church teachings on salvation began the Protestant Reformation.
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Salvation is the forgiveness of sins, or evil deeds, and a requirement for a Christian to be reconciled with God. Without this reconciliation, a person cannot enter heaven upon death. The Catholic Church, the only Christian religion before the Protestant Reformation began in 1517, taught during the medieval age that followers could achieve salvation through a variety of means. Grace, faith, good works and indulgences were all ways to become one again with God. This Catholic hegemony over Christian thinking ended when Martin Luther, a German cleric, questioned this multiplicity of routes to salvation in his 95 Thesis, which he nailed to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517. In this work, Luther challenged church doctrine on salvation by arguing that only faith in God could save a soul from eternal damnation. This challenge became the impetus for the Protestant Reformation that ended the Catholic monopoly on Christian theology.

1 Grace

Grace refers to God’s ability to place favor upon any individual. As the creator of humankind, God, according to Christian doctrine, remains unbound by rules. It is thus within God’s purview to grant salvation upon any person he so deems. This favor is totally undeserved, as Catholicism teaches that all people are born with original sin. God’s grace can open the avenues for people to earn salvation through actions, as well.

2 Faith

Faith is the personal, and freely chosen, decision to follow God’s moral laws. The Medieval Catholic Church (476-1500) taught that people must choose to accept God’s grace. Because humans cannot, in Christian theology, understand God’s plans, this acceptance has to be on faith alone. It is an act of faith to accept that God would use his power to allow a human, conceived in sin, to enjoy salvation from hell upon death.

3 Good Works

The Medieval Catholic Church taught that salvation came partly through a person's actions. These so-called good works included charitable giving, such as aid to the poor. Catholics also expected to achieve salvation through routine prayer. Others undertook acts of abstinence, most prominently fasting.

4 Indulgences

Catholics believed they could also obtain salvation by purchasing indulgences, documents issued by church officials forgiving sins. By purchasing these documents, Catholics believed they would receive a reduction of the inherent penalty for their sins. This reduction would lead to less time spent in purgatory, a temporary site for souls unprepared to enter heaven because of remaining sins.

5 The Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation changed the way Europeans viewed the issue of salvation. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses initiated the Reformation by claiming individual faith was the only means to salvation. The Reformation, in general, proclaimed that individuals had a personal relationship with God beyond the reach of the church. In the 1530s, French theologian John Calvin, who was living in Geneva, would further alter European ideas about salvation with his theory of predestination. According to Calvin, people could do nothing to save their souls because God had already decided the fate of every person.

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.