Happy Reformation Day 2014
On October 31, 1517 an Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther is said to have nailed 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This was not an unusual practice, for the door of the Castle Church served as something of a bulletin board for the University, and by posting his Theses there Dr. Luther was inviting debate on the value of indulgences(1). Little did Luther know that this action would set in motion a series of events leading to what we know today as the Protestant Reformation, as many read and copied the 95 Theses and as these Theses spread throughout Germany in a matter of weeks, due to the recent invention of the printing press. The spread of the Theses almost stopped the sale of indulgences, thus drying up the flow of a significant source of revenue into the papal coffers, and thereby providentially prompting the crisis in the church that led to the Protestant Reformation.
But not only had the medieval Roman Catholic Church become deeply corrupted through the crass hawking of indulgences by shameless showmen like Tetzel. The sale of indulgences was but a symptom of the deeper, spiritual and doctrinal corruption that underlay this perverse practice. The medieval Roman Church had seriously departed from the purity of biblical faith and apostolic practice. It had corrupted the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ, burying this gospel under a Mass (yes, pun intended!) of unbiblical traditions and superstitions. In doing so it had enslaved God’s people to servile dependence upon a sacerdotal priesthood and left them in gross ignorance of the Holy Scriptures. But, in God’s good and gracious providence, the great move of God known as the Protestant Reformation burst onto the scene, unshackling multitudes from the chains of the religious treadmill of works-righteousness and vain attempts to merit salvation by human works into the glorious liberty of justification by God’s free grace alone received by faith in Christ alone, and bringing the light of the Holy Scriptures to multitudes trapped in spiritual darkness and ignorance! This great event in church history is certainly something to celebrate!
The great Bible truths which were rediscovered in the Protestant Reformation are often summarized by five Latin “solas” (“sola” = “only”):
1. Sola Scriptura (“Scripture Alone”): This doctrine teaches that Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith and practice in the church, for the Bible alone is the Word of God. This Protestant doctrine is a “protest” against the Roman Catholic view which teaches that the “Holy Tradition” of the church is equally Divinely inspired, equally infallible and equally authoritative as the Scriptures (the “Scripture plus Tradition” view).(2) It is important to understand that historic Protestant “Sola Scriptura” does not reject other sources of authority, such as human reason (rightly used), the early church fathers, church tradition, or human experience. But, in contrast to the Roman Catholic view, it does insist that those other sources are subordinate and fallible sources of authority that are to be tested by Holy Scripture, which is the ultimate and infallible Rule of faith and practice in the church. In historic Roman Catholicism, the Church essentially stands above the Scriptures; but in historic Protestantism, the Scriptures in principle stand above (and sit in judgment over) the Church.
Scripture itself, in many places, attests to this doctrine of “Sola Scriptura.” For example, as the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy in Second Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (ESV) In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith: “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”
2. Sola Fide (“Faith Alone”): This biblical doctrine teaches that we sinners are justified (i.e., “declared righteous”) before God, not on the basis of our own good works or merits or deeds, but solely on the basis of Christ’s merit and sacrifice on the cross, the benefits of which we receive by faith (i.e., trust) alone, apart from works. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV) “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20, ESV) “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1, ESV) “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23, ESV) “And he (i.e., Abram – GLW) believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6, ESV)
In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (answer to Question # 33, “What is justification?“): “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”
And in the words of the Lutheran “Augsburg Confession”: “Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight (Romans 3 and 4 [3:21-26; 4:5]).”(3)
The Protestant Reformation brought great liberty and joy to multitudes of souls who had formerly been shackled to their sense of guilt and trapped in a vicious cycle of desperately trying to appease a holy God of unbending justice and to earn His favor by endless penances, pilgrimages, sacrifices and good deeds, but never attaining to the comfort of being assured of His favor. The Protestant Reformation proclaimed the biblical gospel (“good news”) that forgiveness of sins and a right standing before God are the free gifts of a gracious God, received by simple, child-like trust in Christ alone for salvation! What freedom! What assurance! What joy! Now believers could get off the religious treadmill of trying to satisfy an angry God and be assured that God appeased His own anger by sending His Son to die for their sins. Now believers were free to serve God from the motivation of gratitude and heartfelt love toward a loving heavenly Father, rather than from the motivation of craven fear and dread of God as an austere, unbending Judge. And contrary to opponents of the Reformation, when the biblical doctrine of “sola fide” is properly understood, it does not cater to moral license or immorality, for the Reformers were quick to point out that while we sinners are justified by faith alone, the faith by which we are justified is never alone, but always bears fruit in a life of good works and grateful obedience.
3. Sola Gratia (“Grace Alone”): This truth is closely related to “Sola Fide,” for it is only by God’s grace that we sinners are enabled to believe in Christ for the saving of our souls. In line with Scripture and with great teachers of the historic church like Saint Augustine, Reformers such as Luther and Calvin boldly proclaimed that the human will is in bondage to sin, and only Divine grace could bring a sinner to conversion (faith and repentance). Scripture teaches that because of our fall in Adam, we inherit a sin nature (see Romans 5:12-21). Because of original sin we are not merely drowning in sin, or sick in sin; rather, by (fallen) nature we are dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1-2), dead to the things of God, having no genuine desire to repent, believe or obey. While we have a will and the liberty to make genuine choices, because of our fall in Adam our wills are in bondage to our sin nature (see Martin Luther’s famous book On the Bondage of the Will), and therefore, apart from Divine grace, we will always make choices in line with our fallen nature. Only God’s grace (His undeserved favor granted to those who deserve His disfavor) can remedy fallen man’s desperate plight. The Protestant Reformation rediscovered the biblical emphasis on salvation from first to last being by God’s grace, and by God’s grace alone. “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” (Romans 9:16, ESV)
4. Solus Christus (“Christ Alone”): God’s grace comes to us sinners solely on the basis of Christ’s redemptive work, and not by our own works, or on the basis of a combination of Christ’s work plus our works. Jesus alone paid it all; we contribute nothing to our salvation! Christ alone, by His obedience and sacrifice alone, merited salvation for His people; and in Christ alone is found the fulness of our salvation. Solus Christus!
5. Soli Deo Gloria (“To the glory of God Alone”): Because our salvation is all of God, by His grace alone, on the basis of Christ redemptive work alone, received by God-given faith alone; therefore God alone deserves the glory for our salvation! Human boasting is silenced. Fallen man is humbled in the dust before the sovereign, holy, just and gracious God, who mercifully lifts man up by an act of pure, sovereign grace, granting full and free forgiveness and standing in grace.
The Protestant Reformation was God-centered, for it brought into focus what the medieval church had blurred — namely, the glory of God in the salvation of sinners! In the face of a medieval indulgence system which pictured the church as having the power to dole out salvation and proclaimed believers as capable of meriting salvation (with the assitance of Divine grace, of course!), the Protestant Reformers thundered the message that God and God alone deserves glory when it comes to human salvation. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36, ESV) In our deeply narcissistic, self-indulgent age, and in an evangelical church culture steeped in man-centered, felt-needs preaching and commercialized hucksterism not all that different from the hucksterism of Tetzel, we as God’s people would do well to remember and to celebrate God’s blessing of the Protestant Reformation. And may our sovereign Lord grant to the church today a new Reformation, one which takes us back to the “faith of our fathers” as that faith was recovered by the Reformers.
Happy Reformation Day!
(1) B.K. Kuiper in his book The Church In History (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., copyright 1951, 1964 by The National Union of Christian Schools) explains indulgences as follows: “In process of time a certain development took place in this system of penance. The Church permitted the penitent to substitute the payment of a sum of money for other forms of penalty or satisfaction. The Church would issue to the penitent an official statement that he had received release from other penalties through payment of money. Such a document or papal ticket was called an indulgence.” (p. 159) From a biblical perspective this practice is blasphemous, because it denigrates the perfection, sufficiency and efficacy of Christ’s satisfaction for sin on the cross by teaching that indulgences can purchase remission for the temporal punishments due to sin. But Scripture teaches that the atoning sacrifice of Christ alone can purchase remission of sins (both remission from its eternal and its temporal punishments). Historically-speaking the indulgence business was a great source of revenue for the church, and it was grossly abused by indulgence hawkers like the Dominican Friar Tetzel (abuses which prompted Luther’s protests). While the post-Reformation Roman Catholic Church curbed the medieval abuses and excesses of the sale of indulgences, it has never completely ceased the practice. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church today continues to teach a doctrine of indulgences, as can be seen in sections 1471 and 1472 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, Copyright 1994; Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger Imprimi Potest; p. 370).
(2) An excellent resource which defends this and other key doctrines of the Reformation, and which soundly refutes the historic claims of the Roman Catholic Church, is The Roman Catholic Controversy: Catholics & Protestants – Do the Differences Still Matter? by Dr. James R. White (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, Copyright 1996 James R. White).
(3) Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, Copyright 2005, 2006; p. 33)