Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.A. Theology
religious dissension : discord, strife, conflict, contention, variance; a state or condition marked by a lack of agreement or harmony; implies essential lack of harmony producing quarreling and antagonism.
THE CHURCH NEEDED DRASTIC reformation even before Martin Luther came on the scene. However, before Luther could hope to affect reformation in the church, he had to resolve his personal struggle with an overpowering sense of sinfulness. Although he lived a holy life of obedience, he feared being perpetually tainted by unconfessed sin. As Gonzalez wrote, “The very sacrament of penance, which was supposed to bring relief to his sense of sinfulness, actually exacerbated it, leaving him in a state of despair” (1). I believe Luther had to resolve his consternation over Romans 1:17 and come to understand the righteousness of God before he could be properly oriented toward reformation of the church. Following the example of great monastic leaders, Luther frequently punished his body and denied himself even the simplest of comforts in hopes of earning his salvation. Having an a-ha moment, he came to understand it is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, that we become clothed in righteousness (Gen. 15:6; John 3:18; Rom. 3:22). I can understand Luther’s fearful notion that his confession was somehow incomplete or inadequate.
Luther wrote in the preface to his Commentary on Romans, “God judges according to what is at the bottom of the heart, and for this reason, His law makes its demand on the inmost heart and cannot be satisfied with works” (2). He added, “Grace means properly God’s favor, or the good-will God bears us, by which He is disposed to give us Christ” (3). Luther once wrote that many have taken the Christian faith to be a simple and easy matter and have even numbered it among the virtues. This is because they have not really experienced it, nor have they tested the great strength of faith. We see faint rumblings of Luther’s objection to papal indulgences and penance in the following sentence: “If [the servant of Christ] fails in faith, he will prove himself a tyrant who terrifies the people by his authority and takes delight in being a bully” (4). Regarding Romans 1:17, Luther wrote, “God’s righteousness is that by which we become worthy of His great salvation, or through which we are (accounted) righteous before Him… the righteousness of God is the cause of our salvation” (5).
Luther initially studied law but decided to pursue a theology degree at the University of Erfurt in 1505. He becoming a monk after the Order of Saint Augustine and was ordained in 1507. Luther began a teaching career at the University of Wittenberg. His professors at the University emphasized free will over reason in arriving at theological truth, placing greater emphasis on free will in initiating salvation. We can see how this school of thought contributed to Luther’s struggle with how to best obtain salvation and righteousness. He began his first series of lectures as a young professor in 1513. He understood how a sinner could be received by a holy God when he grasped the implication of Romans 1:17.
The Reformation dramatically began on October 31, 1517 when Luther published his 95 Theses. When Luther burst on the scene, he was a rather obscure professor at the University of Wittenberg of mixed reputation. Some described him as “the ogre who destroyed the unity of the church, the wild boar that trampled the Lord’s vineyard, a renegade monk” (6). Others considered him a great hero who, through his protestations, took on a corrupt and apostate church and restored preaching of the pure gospel. Much is owed to Luther, who challenged the practice of selling papal indulgences to church members for absolution of their sins and entry into heaven. Although this was the impetus for Luther’s protest, he ultimately questioned the overall authority of the Catholic Church.
The following is Luther’s opening statement to the 95 Theses:
“Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place…[H]e asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter. In the in name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen” (7).
Luther’s The Bondage of the Will provides information concerning the age-old debate over free will. Luther believed original sin precludes a true sense of free will, but this writer believes Luther’s argument is a theological one as opposed to a question of yes or no, left or right, up or down, given the circumstance. He said, “Paul, writing to the Romans, enters upon his argument for the grace of God against ‘free-will’ as follows: ‘The wrath of God’ (he says) ‘is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold down the truth in unrighteousness'” (Rom. 1:18) (8). Specific to Luther’s struggle with understanding the righteousness of God, it would appear he applied a degree of German mysticism, which is rooted in Dionysian spirituality. Although Luther was at times pessimistic of humanity and had a sense of “…an infinite abyss between God and man,” he understood the remedy to be acceptance of God’s imputed righteousness which comes from an inward discovery (9). Heinze indicates Luther’s cohorts likely progressed from an Augustinian view of justification as a process that requires the sinner’s cooperation, to the belief that it was “…a forensic act in which Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the sinner” (10).
Gonzalez notes a mounting storm against Luther. John Eck and Luther met in a debate. It was during this event that Luther dared to declare “…a Christian with the support of Scripture has more authority than all popes and councils against that support” (11). The church responded to Luther’s attacks in January 1521 with the papal bull Exsurge Domine, calling for his excommunication. The church demanded that all books and papers written by Luther be burned. Luther was given sixty days to submit to Roman authority. Some of Luther’s supporters chose to burn the books of Luther’s critics. Luther set fire to the bull. He refused to recant at the Diet of Worms in 1521, stating much of what he had written was basic Christian doctrine. Despite his fervent opposition to Catholic doctrine, Luther never intended to establish a new church. He merely wanted to reform the existing church, bringing it into conformity with Pauline doctrine (12). In 1522, Luther released the following statement: “Let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians, after him whose teaching we hold… together with the universal church, the one universal teaching of Christ, who is our only master” (13). Luther died at Eisleben (Saxsony), Germany, on February 18, 1546.
The year 2017 marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Many believers, and even some notable scholars and church leaders, question whether the Reformation is still relevant. Moreover, the Reformation still matters today because the gospel alone is still the only hope for sinners. Justification is not an “ongoing process” tied to faithful participation in sacraments or any other “work” undertaken by believers. Justification is by grace alone (Sola gratia) through faith alone (Sola fide) in Christ alone (Sola Christus). Any teaching to the contrary is anathema to the biblical gospel itself. Lastly, the reformation is still vital today because the church is still in need of reformation.
Our only authority is the Scripture (Sola scriptura), not an earthly church, office, or papacy. Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, with evangelism and Christian charity losing their dominant influence. To lose sight of the primacy of core Christian fundamentals is tantamount to foregoing the Great Commission and Peter’s apologetics mandate (see 1 Pet. 3:15). Science, scientism, secularism, and moral relativism have collectively conspired to quash any public expression of religious faith. This is a private matter, they say. Roman Catholicism remains the most visible Christian church worldwide. The papacy has drifted far from core Christian doctrine regarding grace, salvation, forgiveness, and other critical matters. Additionally, many who object to “organized religion” cite the Roman Catholic Church (Vatican) for its unprecedented accumulation of wealth and power. According to Zadock Thomas, the Vatican Bank has assets worth approximately $33 billion (14).
Eberhardt (1933-2019) was a former Roman Catholic seminarian who came to know Christ as his Savior and founded Gospel Outreach International to Roman Catholics. Eberhardt’s statement regarding how Catholics perceive salvation in the Protestant Church speaks volumes: “I used to think because the Protestants have no ordained priesthood, the Protestants have no means of distributing the grace of the Sacraments, which are necessary for salvation” (15). Les Lofquist asks us to consider whether the Reformation is all but over (16). He noted similarities between his Protestant beliefs and those of his Catholic friends, such as both faiths promoting the need for grace. However, he believes we must be clear that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. His Catholic friends insist salvation must involve the Church in some way.
The current Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “It is in the Church that ‘the fullness of the means of salvation’ has been deposited” (17). Sacraments implicated in Catholic salvation are Baptism, Penance and Reconciliation, Eucharist, and Confirmation. The Sacraments (seven in total) “contain” God’s grace only when administered by a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. Catechism teaches that these Sacraments are not merely symbolic, but they are the actual channels of grace—the “instrumental cause of God’s grace” (18). Any systematic teaching of the above doctrine falls outside the scope of biblical principles and puts the salvation of countless people at risk.
Scripture teaches a different doctrine regarding salvation. Faith equals justification plus works (the believer must exercise faith, which results in justification, leading to good works), not justification through works. The believer is saved by grace alone in Christ alone received by faith alone (John 3:16,36; John 5:24; Acts 16:31; Rom. 10:9-10); the believer must not trust his or her own good works for salvation (Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:3-4; Rom. 3:20-22,28; Rom. 4:5); genuine salvation leads to good works (Rom. 6:1-2; James 2:24); the believer can be assured of salvation (John 10:27-29; 1 John 5:13). Despite having occurred over five hundred years ago, elements of the Reformation continue to impact Christianity in the twenty-first century. Ideally, Martin Luther’s reforms should have eliminated precepts that were contrary to doctrine established and promulgated by the Apostolic Fathers of Christianity. Unfortunately, many of these troublesome practices continue today, most importantly the erroneous teaching by the Roman Catholic Church regarding the nature and mechanism of salvation.
Christian apologist Thaddeus Williams, PhD (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam; Theology Professor, Biola University; Philosophy Professor, Trinity Law School) believes the Reformation reminds us, “We have a big God and salvation is found in Him alone. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone” (19). Williams suggests a “Re-Reformation,” indicating the church in the twenty-first century needs to recapture a sense of the grandeur and the greatness of God. The world needs to learn of the biblical view of His glory; of His desire that people come to believe on His Son, Jesus Christ, for salvation.
It is difficult enough for many new believers to grasp the tenet of salvation through unmerited grace. Luther struggled for some time with Romans 1:17. It is unlikely Luther would have been capable of taking on the whole of Roman Catholicism had he not first come to understand the doctrine of justification through faith in the gift of grace and redemption. If the church were to drop this issue now, it would drastically increase the likelihood that many in these latter days will fall to false teachings or, worse, turn from God completely and forego establishing a “vertical” (heavenward) view between man and heaven.
(1) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 3.
(2) Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954), xiii.
(3) Ibid., xvi.
(4) Ibid., 30.
(5) Ibid., 40-41.
(6) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 19.
(7) Luther, The 95 Theses. URL: https://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html
(8) Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revelle Co., 1957), 273.
(9) Urban T. Holmes, A History of Christian Spirituality (New York, NY: Seabury Press, 1981), 125.
(10) R.W. Heinze, “Martin Luther,” in the Dictionary of Evangelical Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 510.
(11) Gonzalez, Ibid., 32.
(12) Heinze, Ibid., 510.
(13) Ibid., 510-11.
(14) Zadock Thomas, “Ten Richest Churches in the World and Their Net Worth 2021,” Eafeed. URL: https://eafeed.com/richest-churches-in-the-world-net-worth-2020-2021/
(15) Frank Eberhardt, “We Believe the Same Way, Right?” Voice, Vol. 96, No. 5, Sept./Oct. 2017, 11.
(16) Les Lofquist, “Why the Reformation?” Voice, Vol. 96, No. 5, Sept./Oct. 2017, 7.
(17) Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City, Rome: Urbi et Orbi Communications, 1994), Paragraph 824.
(18) Ibid., paragraph 1084.
(19) Thaddeus Williams, “Is the Reformation Still Relevant Today?” The BLB Blog (Oct. 28, 2014). URL: https://blogs.blueletterbible.org/blb/2014/10/28/is-the-reformation-still-relevant-today/