The Swedish Reformation

Great movements in history:
Great movements in history always have behind them great ideas - some for evil and some for good. The New Testament Gospel of Christ was the great idea which changed the world for good -- and is still changing it. This is because the Holy Spirit of God uses the Word of God to change people's lives. Even in a most unlikely place like Communist China with its population of 1.375 billion the Gospel is spreading throughout the land with anywhere from 80 to 130 million believers gathering in fellowship - more than the number of Communist Party members which stands at about 78 million. Contrast Europe where Christianity is shrinking in ever-smaller numbers. In Germany, the cradle of Reformation, percentage of church attendance is in the single digits -- in Sweden, about 2% attend church.

The evil ideas of Mein Kampf were behind the conflagration of WWII, Das Capital the nefarious impetus for even greater destruction and death in Russia and China - not to mention disaster in other countries like Cuba, Cambodia and North Korea. Yes, ideas have repercussions in the ebb and flow of history.

We will be tracing the advance of New Testament truth, the greatest of all ideas, into Sweden. "I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the Gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith, from first to last, just as it is written: 'The just shall live by faith.'", Romans 1:16-17 (the Old Testament quote from Habakkuk 2:4).

The Reformation in Germany:

The flame of the Gospel, the greatest of all ideas, reached Germany in the 1500s (after prior periods of illumination to be mentioned later) and became manifest in the Protestant Reformation under Martin Luther. Roman Catholicism had degenerated to the point at which parchments dispensing forgiveness of sins (indulgences) were for sale - the proceeds to be raised for the construction of St. Peter's basilica in Rome (among other things). Thousands of relics were bought and sold at exorbitant prices - splinters of the Cross, drops of Mary's milk etc, -- a shady commerce to say the least. Money was even charged to view these relics and to venerate them. Through financial payments time could be reduced in purgatory for one's loved ones. By these means and others Church lands and wealth under the control of bishops and archbishops came to rival that of princes -- while the masses worked hard to eke out a living. This was true throughout Europe. People were woefully ignorant of New Testament truth having only the trappings of Roman Catholic tradition - much of which obscured the Gospel rather than bringing it to light. The Bible was not taught to the people since it was thought only clergy could really understand it.


Into this stagnation Dr. Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the university church door in Wittenberg, October 31, 1517 - challenging the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church . Receiving his Doctorate of Theology from the University of Wittenberg, Luther became a popular teacher of the Bible as students came from all around to hear his ground-breaking teaching on the book of Romans and other Scripture - truths which were liberating to those who had only heard Roman Catholic tradition. Frederick III of Saxony (otherwise known as Frederick the Wise, or Frederick the Elector), founder of the University, became interested in Luther's teaching and felt he should be protected against the threats of Rome since Luther had become a marked man - excommunicated by Pope Leo X in January, 1521-characterized as a "wild boar" in his Papal Bull. Three months after his excommunication, Luther was ordered to appear before Emperor Charles V in the city of Worms -- with princes, church officials, and especially Cardinal Cajetan, in attendance. (Luther's protector, Frederick the Wise, was also there.) In short, Luther responded to charges of heresy brought against him by stating he would recant anything he wrote if it could be shown that what he expressed was contrary to the Word of God in Scripture.

Luther championed the three pillars of the Reformation: 1. Justification by faith alone (sola fide) and not by human effort (Romans 1:17; 5:1); 2. Only Scripture determines Church doctrine (sola scriptura), not church tradition (2 Timothy 3:14-16); 3. the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5,9) i.e. all believers have direct access to God through Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). For these principles and his denunciation of the sale of indulgences authorized by the Pope, Luther was condemned as a heretic by the Edict of Worms, May 25, 1521. He was thereby made an outlaw by the Church and could legally be captured and killed.

Frederick the Elector knowing Luther's life was in danger, "kidnapped" him as he left Worms and hid him in Wartburg castle. Frederick was not ignorant of Jan Hus' execution by being burned at the stake one hundred years earlier in 1415 - even though Hus was promised safe conduct by the Roman Catholic Church to the Council of Constance. (Luther had also been given a promise of safe conduct to the Diet of Worms, but Frederick did not trust this promise.) Hus, who had been influenced by John Wycliffe, (known as the Morning Star of the Reformation), was condemned at the Council of Constance for the same basic reasons that Luther was condemned at the Diet of Worms - the preaching of Scripture as opposed to human tradition.

Frederick did not realize it, but Luther's time spent in hiding at the Wartburg Castle was essential to the German Reformation. In just eleven weeks Luther translated the New Testament from Greek to German in 1522 - an amazing feat (the whole Bible to follow in 1534). This translation and subsequent printing provided the most important means of lighting the fire of spiritual life and truth throughout Europe. When the Word of God is read, believed and applied to life, there is always a revival of spiritual life in the individual and the culture.


Even today, Luther's translation of the Bible is viewed as the foundation of modern German - the standard for speech and literature. Sadly the Bible is no longer the standard for faith and practice, and Germany has largely become a secular country. To the detriment of German society, faith and practice based on Scripture are no longer considered relevant to the general public. This is not what God intended: "His divine power has given to us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. Through these He has given us His very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires." 2 Peter 1:3-4

The Reformation in Sweden: In order to understand the Reformation in Sweden, it is necessary to trace the Reformation in Germany. It was at the University of Wittenberg that Olaus Petri (Olof Petersson also known as Master Olof) and his brother Lars (Lawrence or Laurentius) studied under Luther and Melancthon from 1516-1518. They agreed totally with Luther's Reformation teaching and were filled with zeal to bring biblical reformation to Sweden. In 1519 they returned to Sweden during tumultuous times. King Christian II of Denmark, after defeating the forces of Sten Sture the Younger, marched into Stockholm and was crowned King of Sweden by Archbishop Gustav Trolle on November 4, 1520. Trolle, under pretext of punishing heresy, beheaded 82 of Sweden's leading citizens, many of whom were part of Sten Sture the Younger's Nationalist Party -- thus removing serious threats to the throne. (This event in history is known as the Stockholm Bloodbath, November 8, 1520.) Ever afterward he has been known as Christian the Tyrant in Sweden. Providentially, Olaus Petri was not beheaded by Trolle because it was thought he was German and not Swedish.

Meanwhile Gustav Vasa, (born Gustav Ericksson of the noble Vasa family), whose father and brother-in-law were included in the massacre, began a rebellion in Sweden against King Christian beginning with forces raised in Dalarna -- especially those who had been loyal to Sten Sture the Younger. This rebellion succeeded in throwing off Danish domination, and Gustav I Vasa was elected as king, June 6, 1523, (the National Day of Sweden), in Strangnas at the Domkirkan. He triumphantly entered Stockholm eleven days later on Midsummers Day. This scene has been brilliantly captured by the well-known Swedish artist, Karl Larsson and is displayed on a large mural in the National Museum. (Gustav I Vasa was not formally crowned as king until January 12, 1523.) Thus King Gustav I Vasa is reckoned in history to be the father of Swedish independence. As might be expected, the Stockholm Bloodbath supported by Danish King Christian and the Roman Catholic Church was an event which helped to foster the Swedish Reformation and the creation of an independent Swedish state.


Gustav I Vasa still had opponents within the Roman Catholic Church, and there was a continuing power struggle within the country; however, by 1527 the Riksdag at Vasteras adopted Lutheranism for Sweden. Much church wealth was then transferred by the king to the state in order to settle war debts and to strengthen the crown. Lutheran church officials gradually replaced Roman Catholic ones. Of particular importance was the appointment by Gustav I Vasa of Laurentius Petri, brother of Olaus, as archbishop in Uppsala - in direct opposition to Pope Leo X who insisted on re-appointing Archbishop Gustav Trolle - the one who had the dubious distinction of carrying out the "Stockholm Bloodbath." This act by Gustav I Vasa of appointing Laurentius Petri as archbishop of Uppsala effectively separated the Swedish Church from Roman Catholic Church hierarchy.

As was the case of Luther's translation of the New Testament into German, so the translation of the New Testament into Swedish by Olaus Petri and its subsequent printing was the most important event in the Swedish Reformation. King Gustav I Vasa knew the Swedish Bible would be essential to the Swedish Reformation so he ordered the translation to be completed. Now the Swedish populace could read the Bible in their own tongue -- unleashing the truth which had so long been denied them. Whenever God's Word is read, believed and obeyed, there is always a spiritual revolution - individually and nationally!


Olaus Petri eventually became dean of Stockholm's Storkirkan - his tomb at the pulpit and his statue just outside at the front of the building. His brother, Laurentius, (as mentioned previously) eventually became archbishop of Uppsala.

So it was that two of the most important events in Swedish history coalesced - the beginning of the modern Swedish state with King Gustaf I Vasa and the initiation of the Swedish Reformation with Olaus Petri. There was definitely an interdependence between the two. Three months before he died, September 29, 1560, Gustav I Vasa told the Rikstag in his farewell address: "Comfort and blessing have come to me and to you in rich measure through the true knowledge of the Word of God." (p. 83, Olavus Petri, the Church Reformer of Sweden, Augustana Book Concern, Rock Island, IL, 1918)

August Strindberg, famous Swedish author and playwright produced an 1872 play in honor of Olaus Petri called Master Olof. This play was a "breakthrough" for Strindberg and opened his career as an outstanding dramatist. From the opening lines Olof is speaking to his brother Lars (Lawrence/Laurentius): "I feel myself choking when I think of these poor people who yearn for salvation. They are crying for water - for living water - but there is no one who can give it to them"

Observation: Just as in the case of the German Reformation, the Swedish Reformation has largely died out in the intervening 500 years. Sweden is largely a secular country with a very small percentage of Christians. What caused the light of the Reformation to grow dim? The Bible no longer has much relevance for the general public. 2 Peter 1:3-4 no longer carries much influence: "His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. Through these He has given us His very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires." It has been noted that the Peoples Republic of China which has taught atheism in its schools since 1949 has about 100 million Christians out of its 1.375 billion citizens. Why should the Christian church grow so much in such an adverse environment when Christianity has all but died out in Sweden where there has been no persecution? The loss of Christianity and Christian influence does not primarily come about through persecution but through indifference. The Gospel of Christ is no longer important to the majority of Swedes and has little meaning for their daily lives. This same sort of indifference has spread throughout Europe and is beginning to have its effect on North America.

What does the loss of New Testament Christianity and its influence on culture mean? There is no longer any objective standard of right and wrong - no objective standard of truth. And when there is no standard, morality is indefinable. Each one does what is right in his/her own eyes.


No better description of our day can be found than that of which Paul wrote Timothy about AD 67 by inspiration of the Holy Spirit: "But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God - having a form of godliness but denying its power." 2 Timothy 3:1-5. Isn't this the storyline of many TV programs and movies today? So what is our response? In the Apostle Paul's day the Roman world was no paragon of virtue, so his Spirit-led words to the Philippian church have relevance for us today: "Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the Word of Life ...." Philippians 2:14-15.

As the old Chinese saying goes, "Don't curse the darkness -- light a candle." Or as the Sunday School chorus is sung, "Brighten the corner where you are."

Whether in the US or in Sweden, this is the best advice. We need to be what God calls us to be where we are.

Martin Luther and Olaus Petri were powerful voices for God in their era. We may not be able in influence an entire nation or generation, but we can be an influence to our families and our community.

An addendum, the light of the Gospel during the Dark Ages: After the early Church was born it passed through Roman persecution and eventually reached the mixed blessing of Constantine's Edict of Milan in AD 313. No longer was the Church an object of Roman state persecution, but Church and State became closely associated. Subsequently, the Church came to be organized along the hierarchical lines of Roman government which eventually led to the Pope as supreme head of both Church and government much as the emperor had been. Caesar Augustus called himself Pontifex Maximus, or Roman High Priest. This is a title popes still carry today.

It was Innocent III, pope from 1198-1216, who declared: "Now just as the moon derives its light from the sun and is indeed lower than it in quality and quantity, in position and in power, so too the royal power derives the splendor of its dignity from the pontifical authority." So far had the Roman Catholic Church departed from the teaching of Jesus Christ: "The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." Matthew 23:11. Pope Innocent III had elevated himself to the position of highest authority on earth - something totally contrary to the teaching of Jesus.


With such authority given to the Pope who assumed to act in the place of Jesus Christ (i.e. the Vicar of Christ) it is not difficult to see how human tradition began to be part of the Roman Catholic Church to such an extent that the simple Gospel was lost. Whatever the pope announced ex cathedra came to be accepted as dogma. Jesus observed that Judaism had degenerated to the level of human tradition - just as the Church did in later years. "These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. They worship Me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men." Matthew 15:8-9.

Throughout the Dark Ages there were glimmers of light as men and women of God sought to return to the simple Gospel of New Testament Christianity. Dr. V. Raymond Edmond does an excellent job in his book, The Light in the Dark Ages, (Van Kampen Press, Wheaton, IL, 1949) tracing those outcroppings of light in the midst of darkness.

Just to name a few of those heroes of the faith, Patrick (AD 385-461), Aidan, Columba and Columbanus of Ireland were missionaries to England and the Continent. Their Celtic Christianity had not been dimmed by Roman excesses, and their missionary zeal is legendary. Theirs was decidedly a New Testament Christianity.

John Wycliffe, 1319-1384, is considered the "Morning Star of the Reformation." Dr. Edman writes of him: "Wycliffe's basic positions, as revealed in his writings: the separation of Church and state, papal fallibility, the denial of transubstantiation, the denial of Episcopal domination, the protests against the avarice of the friars with the sale of 'letters of fraternity,' the evangelization of England by preaching, and the translation of the Scriptures into the vernacular of the people, (from the Latin Vulgate to English), arose out of his persuasion that the Scriptures themselves are the supreme and final authority in matters of faith and practice. In his study Of the Truth of Holy Scripture he outlined the basic Christian view of the Word: its inspiration, its absolutely binding authority, its necessity of the knowledge of salvation, its superiority to any human tradition, its interpretation with the help of the Holy Spirit, the right of all Christians to read the Scriptures. To him, salvation was to be found only in Christ, by a turning from sin to a personal appropriation of Christ." (Light in the Dark Ages, p. 290)

We cannot forget William Tyndale (1495-1536), key to the English Reformation and translator of the Bible into English from the original languages. His story is found on the website,, under "Historical Papers," "William Tyndale."

Thank God for those brave souls who down through the ages have not swerved to the right nor to the left but have shown the narrow way to life in Christ through faithful teaching of the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are eternal beneficiaries of their faithful service.