This year, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that started in Germany in 1517.
There are a couple of things we take for granted in our church services:
- It is in an understandable language
- We have Bibles
- The Bible is read and explained
- We pray together, sing together and take part in some way
- The gospel is explained
If we were attending a church 500 years ago in Europe, none of these would have happened. Europe in Medieval times was a spiritually dark, superstitious place. The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) ruled supreme. All roads led to Rome where the Pope ruled over all things religious. The Pope was (and still is) believed to be the spiritual successor to the Apostle Peter and the Vicar of Christ i.e. Christ’s representative on earth. Without Father Pope there could be no church, without Mother Church there could be no salvation.
God’s grace circuit
The Pope was and is the channel through which God’s grace flows. God’s grace was like electricity that flowed from God through the Pope via the Cardinals, via the Bishops, via the priests, to the ordinary people via the sacraments.
At baptism, you were cleansed from original sin and had your first taste of God’s grace.
Through confession and penance you were cleansed of your actual sins.
The unbloody Mass
The Mass was (and is) considered to be the main sacrament for receiving God’s grace for living the Christian life. At the front of churches was always an altar on which the Mass was celebrated. It was called an altar because Christ would be sacrificed afresh to God.
Christ’s body was not actually there, but that was no problem, as the RCC came up with the doctrine of transubstantiation: the bread became the body of Christ and the wine the blood of Christ. It still tasted like bread and wine, but in essence it was the body and blood of Christ. Only the priest could drink the wine, as the blood of Christ was too holy for ordinary people to drink.
All services were in Latin, so churchgoers and many of the priests couldn’t understand what was happening. But then you didn’t really have to understand. As long as you ate the bread and looked at the cup, grace would flow to you.
The RCC would have said that salvation is by God’s grace, but you had to earn God’s grace. The unspoken motto was,
“God helps those who helps themselves”.
When you died, no-one was righteous enough to go straight to heaven as there was obviously remaining, unforgiven sin. That was also no problem, as the RCC invented the doctrine of purgatory.
Purgatory was a place where you, as a Christian, went, at death, where you were painfully purged of all your remaining sin, before going to heaven. One could spend 1000’s or millions of years in purgatory.
That was also no problem, as you could buy an indulgence for a loved one being tormented in purgatory
An indulgence accessed the “Treasury of Merit” and credited that merit to your loved one in purgatory, thus lessening their time there.
Johan Tetzel was a famous travelling priest who sold indulgences – he was like many tele-evangelists and prosperity pastors we see today – he, sold God’s blessing.
He and others used to have slogans (in German) like,
“As the coin in the coffer rings, so the soul from purgatory springs”
“Place your penny on the drum, the pearly gates open for mum!”
The selling of indulgences was very much like the “ministry” of our modern-day tele-evangelists and prosperity pastors: You pay money as a sign of your faith to obtain a blessing from God.
The seed-faith movement, of today, is a classic example of this. You give your money to the “anointed” ministry which is, apparently, planting your seed. God will grow your seed and give you a return on that gift. If you need a healing, plant a seed. If you need more money, plant a seed. How strangely similar to the selling of indulgences. And it’s wicked.
We never give to get, we give to give; trusting God to provide all our needs.
The spiritual world back then was a lot like today. Superstition abounded. False notions of Christianity. Weird, pagan practices marketed as Christianity.
Into this world God raised up a man by the name of Martin Luther, who protested the abuses of the RCC.
For Luther, the big question was, “How can a sinner be righteous with a holy God?”
He found the answer in Romans 1:17,
For in the gospel a righteousness of God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Luther wrote years later about his new-found faith:
“I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he makes us righteous by faith.”
The Protestant church ended up breaking away from the false doctrines of the RCC and returned to the Bible, and thus returned to the gospel.
The Protestant Reformation doctrines can be summed-up in 5 phrases:
What they meant is that the Bible alone is our ultimate authority – not the pope, not the church, not the traditions of the church or church councils.
Our final authority in life and faith is neither personal experiences, nor private reason, nor subjective feelings, but Scripture alone.
Other sources of authority (reason, experience, tradition) may have an important role to play, but Scripture alone is our highest authority and our reason, experience and traditions need to be judged by Scripture.
The RCC said that its sacred traditions and the official documents of the Church were as authoritative as the Bible. The Reformers said, “Scripture alone”.
The Reformers never tired of saying that justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. Justification means being declared righteous or right with God. And God declares us righteous by faith alone. We don’t need to do X amount good works, or go to the Mass, or be baptized. God requires faith in Jesus alone to be declared righteous.
When we put our faith in Jesus, God credits us with Christ’s righteousness and therefore, by implication, we go straight to heaven when we die.
The RCC church says, “God helps those who help themselves”. In other words, you have to start the process.
Christianity, the reformers rediscovered, says that you can’t do anything to please God because you are naturally and automatically dead in your sins. You need God to first, by his grace, make you spiritually alive. (Ephesians 2:1-10)
God takes the initiative: God calls you and God keeps you.
The medieval church had added so many human achievements to Christ’s work, that it was no longer possible to say that salvation was by Christ alone. It was the work of God in Christ plus our own righteousness. “Christ alone”, means that our eternal salvation has been accomplished once for all by the atoning work of Jesus Christ, alone. His sinless life and substitutionary death alone is sufficient for our being declared right with God.
We don’t need Christ plus good works, or baptism, or speaking in tongues, or giving your money – we need Christ alone to be right with God.
To the Glory of God Alone
Each of these phrases is summed up in the fifth Reformation motto: soli Deo Gloria
The apostle Paul expressed this in Romans 11:36,
“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
In RC theology, a sinner’s salvation could be attributed partly to Christ, partly to Mary and the saints, and partly to the sinner himself (because God helps those who help themselves).
But we say, as the Bible says, to Him be the Glory alone.
If you are a Christian, it is because of God, not because of you, but in spite of you.
To celebrate the Reformation our Presiding Bishop, Glenn Lyons, has challenged our churches to evangelism, to share this great gospel that was rediscovered. He challenged each church to have 500 gospel conversation this year under the campaign #REACH500.
What better way to celebrate the gospel of faith alone, in Christ alone, by God’s grace alone, to the glory of God alone, than to give it to someone else?
*Many of the insights in the article have been gleaned from the excellent book, “The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation” by Michael Reeves.