We’re coming up on the 504th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. While there were many efforts to make considerable changes to the proliferation of rank heresy in the church before Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and John Calvin, October 31, 1517 marks the point of no return. When Luther posted his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, it set in writing the reality that an impasse had been reached.
Like many names, “Protestant” started as a derogatory term. These people were protesting something, so what was it? And are we still protesting today? These wringers bring us to today’s word.
Protestantism. noun. A church movement beginning in the 16th century that set out to correct the doctrinal and practical errors of the Roman Catholic Church.
While there were many concerns of these rough-housing protesters, two were essential to the Reformation.
First, people are justified before a holy God by faith alone. There is nothing of merit in ourselves that is worthy of saving. To be forgiven our sins, God must act and God must act alone. Faith is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-10). God grants us faith (or belief) apart from works (Philippians 1:29).
Within Roman Catholicism, to this day, the church officially teaches that baptism as an infant removes the effects of original sin. The only sins for which you are accountable are those you commit from that point forward. When a person exercises faith, God grants you a measure of grace to obey him. You are free to obey him or not, and your standing before him waxes and wanes depending on your level of obedience. Venial sins harm your soul, and mortal sins can in effect undo your justification. Catholics do not believe that God can justify sinners and he himself still be just.
If faith itself is a gift, then what must we do to be saved? We must confess Christ is Lord in faith! Before God grants us saving faith, we act according to our sinful nature. A fish does not have a choice to breath water. A sinner does not have a choice but to live sinfully.
Once we are regenerated, or born again, only then are we able and free to believe in Christ. We are justified by faith alone through grace alone. There is no room for boasting in Reformed theology. And because sinners are justified by faith in the finished work of Christ, we can be truly be justified, and God can still be just. His wrath has been satisfied by another.
Some have argued that God elects those who he foreknows will believe, so he looks down through time and elects those who will summon faith. That's twisted logic. And eventually, everyone who argues that faith is not a gift but something that man must have winds up believing justification by faith alone through sheer logic.
Was there something about the person who believed that deserved saving? Was he smarter than those who didn’t believe? Was he more virtuous? Was it sheer chance? Was he simply more aware of his fallen condition? The most ardent defender of Arminian theology will answer “no” to all of these statements. In principle, people may be Arminian, but in practice, they are Reformed.
Second, the Bible is the final authority for the life and practice of all Christians in every period of time across all cultures. Rome upholds Scripture as authoritative in tandem with tradition. They claim the tradition to be apostolic, but the Pope can also add to this tradition through declarations. For instance, the immaculate conception of Mary was not dogmatic (official church teaching) until 1854. Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven wasn’t official until 1950.
Good grief, dispensationalism is older than Mary’s assumption.
Protestants do not believe in nuda scriptura, or “nothing but Scripture.” Sola Scriptura is a technical term meaning that Scripture alone is the final arbiter of God’s revealed truth. Tradition has a place in the church, but it is secondary. Reason has a place in the church, but it secondary.
Any novel doctrine must be compatible with the clear teaching of Scripture and should be necessarily suspect. Roman Catholics will tell you that doctrines such as purgatory and the immaculate conception were just old doctrines with recent formulations. There is a glimmer of truth in that, but these doctrines were not widely accepted. That’s also a terrible test of truth. Reformers refuted these ideas 300-400 years before their dogmatic formulations.
The Reformation spawned a series of reforms within the Catholic Church itself. From 1545-1563, Catholics held the Council of Trent. It began as a response to the critiques of the Reformers. But it was at this council that the bishops restated their opposition to justification by faith alone, reinforcing Catholic belief that grace cooperates with works for salvation.
Trent also reinforced the authority of tradition as equal to the authority of Scripture. Catholics were equally bound to what the Pope said as to what God said.
Trent confirmed the doctrine of transubstantiation of the eucharist, or the “real presence” of the body and blood of Christ in the mass. Instead of a memorial meal, despite physical appearances, bread becomes flesh and wine becomes blood. The mass is a true re-sacrifice of Christ every time is is performed.
1,000 words is a hysterical attempt at summarizing the Protestant faith and the primary components of the Reformation. But all this is to say that we can take the clarity of our beliefs for granted if we forget that real people fought real battles, some even being burned alive or drawn and quartered, for the truth of the word of God.
The Reformation was not so neat and tidy as we often explain it. There were fits and starts. There were a variety of responses to the Catholic doctrines and practices. Sometimes people even got a little savage. One Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, helped establish laws to drown adults who wanted to be re-baptized because they no longer held to infant baptism.
Luther did not discover justification by faith alone for the first time. Augustine, in the 300s, did not discover it, either. It’s not too much to say that Abraham, whose faith was counted as righteousness, did not discover it, either.
Truth is not discovered. Truth is revealed.