It is often said that John Wycliffe was the morning star of the Reformation because of his work in translating the Bible into English. The story goes that once the printing press was invented a couple of centuries later, everyone had access to the Bible in English, and upon reading the Bible everyone discovered the truth. As important as John Wycliffe’s work was, it is simply not true that everyone had private access to the Bible the minute that the printing press was invented. Even though it was the Reformers’ great desire for everyone to have this access, this did not widely happen until the eighteenth century. Furthermore, one may have a Bible in his hands, but one must understand and accurately interpret the Bible.
This brings us to what I believe is the true morning star of the Reformation: Martin Luther’s rediscovery of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. Luther came along after years of darkness because of Medieval corruption regarding the doctrine of salvation. The Medieval church had a high view of the Bible and a heavy focus on grace. They did not teach a pure salvation by works (really, nobody in history ever did). Rather, they taught that one is saved by God’s grace. This grace, however, is freely given by God so that the sinner may sufficiently cooperate with it in order to produce sanctification (intrinsic holiness). This sanctification, then, becomes the basis by which one may finally be justified and make it to heaven. Roman Catholicism officially adopted and codified this teaching.
Luther, however, broke away from Rome and sparked the Reformation when he discovered a key distinction in Scripture: the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. This distinction was a key component in sparking the Reformation and bringing liberty not only to himself but many others for generations to come. This occurred as he was wrestling with Paul’s statement in Romans 1:17: “for in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed.” Luther writes about his struggle and the relief he found when he discovered the gospel in distinction from the law: