Was the Protestant Reformation a Mistake?

On October 31, 1517, a young German monk named Martin Luther nailed ninety-five theses (public statements for debate) on the Catholic church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

His action, prompted by biblical conviction, ignited the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. The Reformation was a biblically-driven movement among God’s people. Realizing the Church of Rome had forsaken the essential truths of Christianity, the Reformers separated from this corrupt church and returned to the Bible alone as their sole authority for doctrine. This return to the Bible led to the glorious rediscovery of justification: sinners can gain a righteous standing before God by faith alone in Christ alone.

Yet 490 years later, many professing Christians—even many Lutherans—believe that Martin Luther’s insistence on doctrinal purity over visible unity was a significant mistake. But was it?

The Dark Ages
Luther’s ninety-five theses were a biblical criticism of abuses in the Roman Catholic Church. Most notable among these abuses were papal indulgences (certificates of forgiveness from the Church), which were being sold by the church to finance the construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Selling forgiveness contradicted God’s Word and made a mockery of God’s grace. One could even buy an indulgence for a relative suffering in the fires of purgatory. Luther saw that the sale of indulgences actually promoted wickedness, as those who bought them felt they now had official church license to sin.

Rather than helping people find peace with God in Christ, the Roman Catholic Church kept them in biblical ignorance. Church officials were commonly guilty of absenteeism (being absent from one’s church), simony (selling church offices), nepotism (giving church offices to relatives), and pluralism (holding many church offices at one time). Clergy regularly kept personal concubines, lived in immorality, and even committed murder. Furthermore, superstitions, sacraments, ceremonialism, relics, and the worship of Mary—a salvation by works—displaced salvation by grace, justification by faith, and the absolute authority of Scripture.

The gross darkness of guilt, ignorance, wild superstitions, and the mystical and magical pervaded the age. A hopeless fear of death, judgment, and hell, combined with the horrors of plagues and high mortality rates produced great confusion. It was an anxious age.

Light in the Darkness
By contrast, the light of the Reformation shone with glorious brilliance. In the midst of a morally and doctrinally bankrupt church, one young monk courageously spoke up for the truth of God’s Word. The courage to do this did not come from himself. Luther had been assigned to study and teach the Bible, so he began to lecture on the Psalms, Galatians and Romans. As he was preparing his lectures on Romans, he wrestled with the truth of Romans 1:16–17:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’”

Here he learned that the simple believer in Christ no longer needed to fear the justice of God. He learned that biblical references to God’s righteousness spoke of the imputed righteousness of Christ received by faith alone, giving the believer a right standing before God. What he re-discovered in God’s Word was the doctrine of justification by faith—that God declares sinners righteous by faith alone based on the finished, substitutionary, atoning work of the cross.

Why is it so important to understand the doctrinal importance of the Reformation? Because today many consider the Reformation an awful mistake, even apologizing to Rome for Luther’s actions. Many say, “Doctrine divides, love unites; we must ignore doctrinal details and unite for a greater good.” Yet would God have us deny the biblical doctrines for which our Christian forefathers so bravely fought and died? If we renounce the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation, then we have rejected the very heart and soul of the Christian faith. Several specific doctrines indicate that the Protestant Reformation was no mistake.

What Is the Christian’s Authority?
First, the Reformation dealt with the question of authority. Was the Church of Rome or God’s Word the believer’s final authority? This was the fight for Scripture alone as God’s rule of faith.

The Roman Catholic Church did not permit the common people to have the Bible in their own language because they maintained that the people would misinterpret it. Thus, it was a crime to own a Bible. As an example, Bible translator William Tyndale was hunted down, strangled, and burnt at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church simply for translating the Bible into the English language. Therefore, while claiming the authority of the Bible, the Roman Catholic Church held the Bible to be authoritative only as interpreted by the Church. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church replaced the final authority of Scripture with their own church law. Instead of trusting the Bible alone, they relied on a combination of human philosophy and the writings of the church fathers.

In contrast, the Reformers believed that only the entrance of God’s Word gives light, and it alone sets people free from spiritual ignorance and sin. Because they believed this, many of the Reformers were also Bible translators and expositors. Both Luther and Calvin wrote biblical commentaries and were involved in Bible translation. The Reformers believed in (and paid dearly for) the authority of the Bible alone.

How Can One Be Right With God?
Second, the Reformation dealt with the question of how a person can be right with God. Was it a process of becoming righteous through Church sacraments or was it by being declared righteous on the basis of the finished work of Christ received by simple faith? This was the fight for justification by faith alone.

The Roman Catholic Church taught (and still does!) that salvation is becoming righteous by personal merit, completely contrary to the scriptural teaching of being declared righteous through the legal imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Catholicism teaches that people must increase their merit through the sacraments, such as penance and the Mass. The Reformers countered that sinners have no merit before God and must depend entirely upon the perfect merit of Christ. Catholicism enslaved people to sacraments dispensed by the church hierarchy, while the Reformers led people to salvation through Christ alone.

How Can One Come to God?
Third, the Reformation dealt with the question of approaching and serving God. Was spiritual service reserved for “super-saints” and the Catholic priesthood, or was each true believer in Christ an individual priest? This was the fight for the individual priesthood of the believer.

The Roman Catholic Church taught that forgiveness must be mediated through a priest or bishop. Continued forgiveness of sins was possible only through the Mass, the re-sacrifice of Christ’s actual body effected only by an ordained priest. In contrast, the Reformers taught that believers have only one Mediator between God and man—Christ alone. Since each believer can approach God directly, he has the privilege and responsibility to read the Bible for himself instead of depending on the Church. Each believer has the privilege and responsibility to confess his sins directly to God instead of a priest. Each believer has the privilege and responsibility to minister and pray for others. All believers are ministers, and pastors are spiritual shepherds who equip the saints for ministry (Eph 4:11–16).

Is the Protestant Reformation Important?
How is our Protestant Reformation heritage important for us today? First, it has left us an example of the necessity of biblical sufficiency. God’s Word is sufficient for our faith, practice, and every personal and relational problem. Second, it has left us an example of the necessity of a biblical doctrine of salvation. Salvation is not an ethical system sustained by sacraments; rather, God declares sinners righteous based on the perfect merits and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our justification (righteous standing before God) is by faith in the atonement. Third, it has left us an example of the necessity of biblical separation. After studying God’s Word and believing the gospel, the Reformers realized they had to leave the disobedient Roman Catholic Church and begin Christ-honoring churches. If they refused to separate, the error would soon overtake the truth.

Let us never betray those godly, separatist Christians who went before us by yoking up with those who deny gospel truth. Sadly, after Luther’s death, even his own assistant, Philip Melanchthon, tried to rejoin the Catholic Church to forge a superficial unity at the expense of biblical purity.

We must not neglect our spiritual Reformation heritage. Unpopular or not, we must cling to God’s Word and pure doctrine. We must not become apathetic toward God’s Word—remember, thousands of Christians suffered persecution and death at the hands of the State and the Roman Catholic Church for their conviction that believers should have God’s Word in their own language.

Let us never allow carnal neglect to take us back to the dark days prior to the Reformation. When the people of St. Andrews, Scotland learned of justification by faith and understood the gospel truth for the first time, they literally tore down the Catholic cathedral in their town out of disgust. They refused to be deceived again! The Protestant Reformation was no mistake. Let us be committed to biblical Reformation truth in mind, life, and action.

January 2008

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