This October, we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The date we assign to the beginning of that Reformation is October 31, 1517. Five centuries ago, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed a document, today known as “The 95 Theses” to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. That was the official beginning, though for centuries prior there had been various and sundry efforts to reform the church.
In this month’s newsletter article, we will examine some of the underlying issues at the heart of the divide between Protestants and Catholics.
We observe some odd things within the broad community of what is called “Evangelical Protestantism.” First, many Christians have no idea what it means to be Protestant. For many, they think Catholicism is just another “flavor” of Christianity. “Sure,” they reason, “they may use a lot of candles, robes, and have some mysterious ceremonies, but they’re Christians too.” Those who think this way are Protestants not out of principal or theological conviction, but out of preference and convenience. I can’t tell you how many Christians I have run into that have no idea what the Protestant Reformation was or why it happened. They remember learning something about it in grade school and mistakenly think it has something to do with the Renaissance or the liberation of the human spirit from the oppression of all religions, or even, particularly Christianity.
Second, many Protestants have very “Roman Catholic” theology when it comes to the doctrines of human depravity and the sovereignty of God in salvation. Many Christians don’t believe that man is totally depraved and they adopt an entirely Pelagian or semi-Pelagian view of the human condition. Further, they would argue for the autonomous freedom of the human will and speak of salvation as something accomplished through man’s cooperation with God’s work. In other words, many “Protestants” are very “Catholic” in their Soteriology.
What Was the Reformation?
In 1517 there was a schism within the visible church. Many men and women protested the heretical doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.
It was a singularly unique movement of the Holy Spirit to restore the gospel to the center of the life of the true Church. It was a revival. It was a return to the true gospel. It was a return to the authority of Scripture, to pure doctrine, to truth, to biblical preaching, and biblical doctrine.
Apart from the redemptive events recorded in the New Testament – the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – the Reformation was the greatest single event in the history of the Christian Church. The effects of the Reformation upon redemptive history and thus on world history cannot be overstated. It would be impossible to exaggerate the effects of the Reformation.
The Reformation came at a time of intense spiritual darkness. The gospel had been all but lost under layers of tradition and superstition. The Roman Catholic Church kept the Scriptures away from the people so they did not have the Bible in their own language. Salvation was mediated through the Church, through church functions, through ceremonies, sacraments, and works. The light of the gospel had been eclipsed by tradition and church dogmas. It was a time aptly described as “the dark ages.” After nearly 1,000 years of oppressive spiritual darkness, the gospel was rediscovered and preached again. That is the Reformation.
Genuine born-again believers worked tirelessly to counter the teaching of the Church of Rome with the truth of the Word of God. The light began to shine and shine brightly. In John Calvin’s city of Geneva, the reformers adopted the Latin Phrase “Post tenebras lux” as the motto of the Protestant Reformation: “After Darkness Light.”
Though Martin Luther is credited with starting the Reformation, he was by no means the first “reformer.” The fire of a reform movement had been smoldering for centuries.
One of the earliest notable reformers was a man named Peter Waldo (1140-1205). He launched a spiritual movement that challenged the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. That movement became known as the Waldensian Movement. Peter Waldo is credited with providing the first European Bible translation into a modern language. He was excommunicated in 1184 and he fled to the mountains of Italy where he lived out the rest of his life in hiding.
Two centuries after Waldo, John Wycliffe (1320-1384) was born. Wycliffe opposed the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church and did the immense work of translating the Scriptures from the Latin Vulgate into Middle English. Rome didn’t take kindly to that and immediately made him their target. Wycliffe became more and more convinced of the corruption of the papacy and the errors of the Roman Catholic Church. He died a hated and hunted man in 1384. Thirty years later, Rome exhumed his remains, pronounced him a heretic, burned his remains and scattered them into the Rivers Swift in England.
Jan Hus was born shortly after Wycliffe died. A Bohemian scholar and religious leader, he picked up where Wycliffe left off. He preached that the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church were contrary to the teachings of Scripture. Though he grew in popularity among the people, he was not popular with the Pope. He was eventually captured, excommunicated, tried, imprisoned and then burned at the stake on July 6, 1415.
Along Came Martin
Luther was an Augustinian monk – a student at the monastery in Wittenberg Germany. As he was studying and teaching through Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews, Luther came to saving faith in Christ as he understood Paul’s words in Romans 1, “The shall live by faith.” According to Luther’s own testimony, he finally understood that a man is made righteous before God by faith, not by works, indulgences, penance, confession, or sacraments.
Suddenly Luther saw the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church in a whole new light. Rome taught that forgiveness could be acquired through doing works of penance. The death of Christ was not sufficient in itself to absolve the sinner of all the guilt and penalty for his sin. The sinner would have to be purified of his sin after death in Purgatory. He could take time off his stay in Purgatory by doing certain works, or, the sinner could purchase an indulgence. An indulgence was an official document granted by the Pope that would grant forgiveness for sins in exchange for the payment of money. The Catholic church was building St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and they needed money. So, the Pope granted “indulgences” in exchange for money to fund the building project. Pope Leo X authorized a Dominican monk named John Tetzel to travel the land selling the indulgences.
Tetzel was something like a high-pressure salesman. He was known for his unscrupulous methods. He offered a one-time purchase guaranteeing the complete forgiveness of sins. He promised that one could buy an indulgence for those who were even then suffering in Purgatory, which indulgence would immediately forgive their sins and free them from the fires. He even had a memorable little catchphrase: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.”
He was effective and raised a lot of money. Luther heard him and was incensed.
The 95 Theses
Luther penned the 95 Theses to take aim at the selling of indulgences. On October 31, 1517, the eve of All Saints Day, Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther’s intention was not to leave the church or to launch a largescale revolt. Luther posted his 95 statements to elicit a debate. He wanted to see the abuses corrected.
There are a lot of statements among the 95 that we would agree with. For instance, Theses #21 says, “Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.”
Thesis #27: “They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.”
Thesis #32: “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.”
Thesis #37: “Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.”
There are a lot of things in the 95 Theses that you and I would not agree with. In fact, they contain statements with which Luther himself would later disagree. In those 95 Theses, Luther affirms the authority of the Pope and the Church. He does not question the legitimacy of the doctrine of Purgatory. He does not disagree with the doctrine that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth and a successor of Peter. But after being excommunicated by Rome, Luther would call the Pope “antichrist” within only four years.
The Heart of the Issue
At its core, the divide between Protestants and Catholics is over the gospel. It is over the answer to this question: “How is a man made right before God?” How are we justified? On what basis are we forgiven of our sins and brought to Heaven?
Protestants (and Scripture) affirm that we are justified “by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.” The Roman Catholic Church denies that essential gospel truth. You don’t have to take my word for it. You can listen to what Rome itself has affirmed on the issue.
The Council of Trent
In response to the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent in November 1544. The council was closed in 1563. They addressed several subjects – subjects raised by the Reformation movement. The statements of the Council of Trent have never been denied by the Roman Catholic Church and they stand as Catholic teaching to this day.
The Roman Catholic Church affirms in Canon 9, “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.”
I would affirm everything in that statement that Rome calls accursed doctrine. I affirm that a man is completely justified by faith alone. I affirm that man does not cooperate with grace, and I affirm that it is apart from human will.
They said in Canon 30, “If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema.”
That is exactly what Protestants affirm! Further, that is exactly what the gospel of grace affirms. Rome anathematizes the biblical gospel. According to Rome, if you believe that you are justified by faith alone, you are damned. Catholicism declares that the gospel embraced and preached by Protestant Christianity is accursed heresy. Protestantism believes that the gospel preached by the Roman Catholic Church is accursed heresy. The divide is great indeed!
What Lies Ahead?
We will be celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation by focusing on some, though certainly not all, of the theological concerns that touch on the central issue of the Reformation: The Gospel. Each of the messages during our Sunday Morning Worship Service will highlight a difference that separates Protestants and Catholics. Here is a quick overview of what lies ahead in the preaching during the month of October.
Sept 24 – The Reformation and Another Gospel (Galatians 1:6-9) Jim Osman
Oct 1 – The Reformation and the Sufficiency of Scripture (2 Peter 1:3-4; 19-21) Jim Osman
Oct 8 – The Reformation and the Will of Man (1 Peter 1:3) Dave Rich
Oct 15 – The Reformation and Justification by Faith (Romans 4:4-5) Jess Whetsel
Oct 22 – The Reformation and the Sacraments (Luke 22:14-23) Cornel Rasor
Oct 29 – The Reformation and False Doctrine (Jude 3) Justin Peters
In Adult Sunday School, we will be watching a teaching series by R.C. Sproul titled, Luther and The Reformation. That will begin on Sunday, October 1. If you want to get the historical background of the life and times of Martin Luther, I highly recommend you consider attending that lecture series. Unfortunately, neither the limits on our time nor the intentional focus of our series will allow us to go into very great detail during our sermon series.
If you have any questions that come up through the course of this series, please get them to one of the elders. We will have a Q&A in Adult Sunday School on November 5 to answer your questions.
Happy 500th Anniversary!
Soli Deo Gloria!
 Soteriology is the area of Christian Theology that deals with doctrines pertaining to the salvation of sinners.