October 31, 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of the night that Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Whittenburg. This act is seen as the spark that ignited the fires of the Reformation, during which many people left the Catholic church to become a part of the Lutheran, Anglican (Episcopal), Presbyterian, and Reformed churches. Most people see the Reformation as a great event wherein “the church” was turned back to the truth. But, is that really what was going on?
First, was Luther’s plan to detach himself from the Catholic church, or did he have other ideas? The official title of his 95 theses was “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” It was written in Latin, rather than German, because it was a call for debate about how the use and sale of indulgences should be carried out. It was not until these 95 theses were translated into German and dispersed across the countryside that an uproar came about among the common people. Once the uproar started, there was no turning back. Luther didn’t foresee or plan a break from the Catholic church, but once it started, he was the natural choice to head this group of disgruntled Germans who became the Lutheran church.
Did Luther have a plan to eradicate all the false teaching of the Catholic church? When writing about baptism, he said, “For to baptize in Greek is to dip, and baptizing is immersion. Being moved by this reason, I would have those who are to be baptized to be altogether dipped in water, as the word doth express, and as the mystery doth signify (The Works of Martin Luther, Wittem. Edition, vol. 2, p. 79).” So, did Luther require all his followers, who had been baptized by sprinkling as infants, to submit themselves to the obviously Scriptural pattern of immersion in water? No. In fact, Lutherans never have used immersion as a mode of baptism, and today they commonly sprinkle infants.
Luther had no plans for wholesale change; he merely wanted to tweak a few items with which he had trouble. As you consider Lutheran doctrine, you can see that Luther was really trying to stay as close to Catholicism without actually teaching Catholic doctrine. You can see this with both the doctrines of the church (invisible, universal church as opposed to a visible, universal church) and communion (consubstantiation as opposed to transubstantiation). In both of these instances, Luther tried to remain as close to what he had grown up with in the Catholic church, regardless of the teaching of Scripture.
Luther never got away from the sacraments. Lutherans today believe in the following sacraments: baptism, eucharist (communion), penance, holy orders, matrimony, and anointing of the sick. According to wikipedia.com, these sacraments are substantive in that they produce forgiveness and everlasting life: “They [Lutherans] teach that God earnestly offers to all who receive the sacrament forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation.” For all the praise that people heap upon Luther for his realization that “the just shall live by faith,” he never got to the point where that faith was in Christ alone, totally separate from the sacraments. This is not the Gospel that the Bible teaches (1 Corinthians 15:1-4), nor will anyone find eternal life by following these sacraments (John 14:6).
So, if we look history straight in the face, we must realize that the Protestant Reformation was nothing more than a reworking of the corrupt and unscriptural doctrine and practices of the Catholic church. While I do hope that there were some who came to Christ by faith during this era, it is almost in spite of the work of the reformers, as they talked of faith out of one side of their mouths, yet continued to teach sacramental practices out of the other side of their mouths.
Fast forward 500 years. What would be our expectation of the churches of the Reformation? Would they stand for truth and against error? Or would they slide back into the error they were a part of before the Reformation began?
I was interested, but not totally surprised, to read an article about the celebration of this auspicious anniversary on the Vatican’s website (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/lutheran-fed-docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_2013_dal-conflitto-alla-comunione_en.html#The_first_ecumenical_commemoration_) According to this article, the Catholic and Lutheran denominations will celebrate the commemoration of the Reformation together. This is the first time that this commemoration will be officially celebrated together since Luther nailed his 95 theses on the church door all those years ago.
Does this mean that the Catholic church has changed its doctrine and practice so much that it is now in tune with the Lutheran church? Or, could it be that the Lutheran church has been so close to Catholicism all these years, that they have decided that it doesn’t make any difference anymore? Many would praise this ecumenical spirit, and say that the “body of Christ” should rejoice that such peace and harmony could exist between these two denominations. After all, aren’t we supposed to work toward unity within the “body of Christ”?
Looking at what is going on in these days of ecumenical fervour, we have to wonder if it was worth it. If, after 500 years of “protesting” the errors of the Roman Catholic church, the Lutherans would just walk back into fellowship with the Pope, then we must ask ourselves what was the point? The only thing that was achieved was a period of disunity. Now there is nothing but a laying aside of any truth that might have been held for the purposes of peace and love.
How should we look at the Reformation? Should we praise it as a wonderful time in “church” history? Again, if we are honest with history, we will see the Reformation as a time of trying to purify something that was already rotten. Rotten milk cannot be unspoilt. In the same way, there is no way to take doctrinal error and heresy and make something sound in doctrine and practice. So, the Reformation was not a great time for true believers, but merely a confusion for the lost. It was a way to keep lost people lost, bound by tradition, either old or new. It had just enough Bible to sound good but held on to just enough heresy to be damning to a lost soul.
This is really the legacy of the Reformation: the confusion of the lost. I hear people lamenting the fact that they do not know which “church” teaches the truth, and wondering if they aren’t all the same. It is not God who has brought about this confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). It is the devil who will do his best to confuse the lost soul, so as to keep every lost soul away from faith in Christ. The devil does not care if an individual attends a “Christian” church, and talks about believing in Jesus, as long as he is confused enough to never place his full faith in the finished work of Christ. He will produce his own “preachers” to talk about Jesus and lead people, like a pied piper, straight into hell (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
Thank God that the truth was never lost to the world, as is taught by many of the reformers. There were faithful churches already in existence before the Reformation began! These churches never identified with Rome, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, or any of the other reformers. They relied totally upon the authority of Scripture, believing that salvation was through Christ alone (Romans 10:1-4), by repentance and faith alone (Acts 20:21), and that there could be assurance of that salvation (1 John 5:13). They did not hold to any sort of sacrament, for the purpose of finding forgiveness and eternal life. Instead, they clung to Jesus!
I am glad to say that these pure churches are still in existence today! We call them “Baptist” today (though, not all churches that carry the name “Baptist” are a pure church), although they have been known by many different names down through the centuries. They still teach the same truth that salvation is in Christ alone, through repentance and faith alone, and call all believers to come out of the world so that they might live a life that is separated unto God! That is much better than reformation, for that is the transformation that God brings into the heart and life of every true believer!
The Reformation isn’t anything to brag about since all the protesting churches are now gladly returning to their mother church. Instead, our eyes should be placed on our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, and His Word, neither of which will ever change (Hebrews 13:8; Matthew 24:35)!