By Ron Kempen, Gospel Light Ministries
There are several reasons to write about the Reformation, one of which is to answer the question of whether we need another Reformation today. To that I say, “Absolutely!” But let’s look back at the original Reformation to see why it even occurred.
We must realize that, even in the first century A.D., false teachers were battling to be heard. Jesus Himself warned that these false teachers would be like “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15), and that there would be both “tares and wheat” that would exist together until the Day of Judgment when God will separate the saved from the lost, i.e., the sheep from the wolves, the wheat from the tares. This is important in understanding church history, because from almost the very beginning false teachers with false teachings have been invading the church and leading people astray. In the first couple of centuries A.D., the word “catholic” meant “universal.” Some early churches evolved into what we know as the Roman Catholic Church, which claimed to be the “one true church” and that there was no salvation outside of this church. Prior to Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 315 A.D., Christians were persecuted, but after his conversion, Christianity became the official religion in Rome. But the Christian religion of Constantine became compromised as it melded with pagan beliefs to make it more acceptable to people while it became the most visible religion of the land as well. But if you opposed Rome’s government, that meant you also ended up opposing Rome’s religious branch because Rome’s government and Rome’s religion were intertwined. Through this church-and-state combination, the Roman Catholic Church effectively silenced those who opposed any of its doctrines or practices, and it truly became almost a universal church throughout the Roman Empire. However, God was at work raising up small numbers of “born-again” believers throughout the following years to stand against the compromised “catholic” church, culminating in Martin Luther’s nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. This marked the beginning of the Reformation.
The Reformation addressed four basic questions: (1) How is a person saved? (2) Where does religious authority lie? (3) What is the church? and (4) What is the essence of Christian living? Out of these questions came the five “solas,” or fundamental beliefs, of the Protestant Reformation: (1) “Sola Scriptura” (“by Scripture alone”); (2) “Sola gratia” (“by grace alone”); (3) “Sola fide” (“by faith alone”); (4) “Solus Christus” (“Christ alone”); and (5) “Soli Deo gloria” (“glory to God alone”). These fundamental doctrines are at the heart of where the Roman Catholic Church went wrong in its doctrine, and why the Protestant Reformation was necessary to return churches throughout the world to correct doctrine and true biblical teaching. Reformation is still needed as much today as it was then, if you understand that nothing has really changed in the Roman Catholic Church’s adherence to doctrines that are still unbiblical. In fact, the need for reformation has grown enormously in today’s “apologetics” or defense of the faith. You only have to watch a recent “Catholics Come Home” advertisement to realize this. Having been a Roman Catholic for most of my life has been very helpful for me in attempting to explain the differences between what Catholics say and what the truth is. Those who proclaim that they love and fear God should know the difference between false teaching and biblical truth.
Catholics have changed, for example, the “Sola Scriptura” belief into a “Scripture plus Holy Tradition” belief, saying that Scripture and what they call Holy Tradition are equal authoritative partners under the control of the Church’s magisterium. The reasoning for this dual authority is their belief that the Word of God is what people only heard verbally. They claim that there is no mention of the written word in the Bible and nowhere does the Bible say that all we need is the Bible. They say that nowhere does Christ command the apostles to write anything down, but rather He only commanded them to teach and preach. They say that the Bible wasn’t available in the early church to everyone, as the printing press wasn’t around at that time. Furthermore, they say that it was the Bible that came out of the Church that Christ Himself founded, and that the Church did not come out of the Bible. However, the truth is that before writing down His message, God spoke through the apostles and prophets, and personally through His Son, Jesus Christ. At the same time, the Holy Spirit moved holy men chosen by God to write down His Word to be the permanent and inspired record of His message for the post-apostolic age until the end of time. Though the apostles are long gone, we are still to build our lives on the teaching of God, which God directed men to record in the infallible and inerrant Holy Scriptures. While traditions are spoken of in Scripture, they are never contrary to the very Word of God in which they are found. Some traditions were added during the growth period of the early church, but these often included pagan beliefs and traditions, thus forming the foundation of Constantine’s national form of Christianity, which was not true biblical Christianity. Scripture warns us against such traditions that contradict Scripture itself in Mark 7: 7 - 13. Martin Luther’s intent with his theses was to counter this blended type of pagan Christianity and get the church to return to biblical truth.
The Council of Trent that began around 1545 A.D. was basically a Counter-Reformation. The Council condemned what it called “Protestant heresies” that held to strictly biblical teaching and instead defined as real truth the Catholic Church teachings I described above. Many people paid with their lives in refusing to accept Catholic teachings as absolute truth. The Scriptures tell us that the five solas of the Reformation are as true today as they were back then. Let’s consider the first sola, “Sola Scriptura.” When we look at how detailed God was in the Old Testament, in that He included detailed instructions on how to build the temple, how His people should dress, what they could eat, and so on, how can anyone suggest that God had forgotten to include anything in His Word? The Bible has various verses, such as Matthew 22:29, which tell us that people can be mistaken because they do not know the Scriptures. We are to know what God has written in His Word. The Apostle John says that these things are written so we can know we have eternal life. Scripture is all-complete. Second Timothy 3:16–17 tells us that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
We can defend the other four solas of the Reformation in the same manner. Sola gratia? The whole gospel is about grace alone, without works. If we were required to do works to merit salvation, then what God said in Romans 11:6 would be meaningless: “If by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.” Ephesians 2: 8 - 9 would also be nullified: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
Sola fide? It comes down to the fact that while both Catholics and biblical Christians have faith, the issue is whether their faith is in God or in themselves.
Solus Christus and Soli Deo gloria? Scripture is clear on both of these as well (Acts 4:12; Isaiah 42:8).
In closing, I want to say that compromise and ecumenicalism are not choices for true Christians to make. Do we need a Reformation today? Definitely. True Christianity is always in line with God’s Word. We are saved by faith alone in Christ alone and in what He did alone to cleanse us under the authority of the Bible alone. Anyone that accepts His gift is part of His church. We should follow the Bible for all of life. To God alone, then, the glory goes. Let us, with gratitude, never forget the Reformation and what it stands for. I shudder to think what my beliefs would be like if the Reformation had never taken place to show me what true biblical Christianity is and what it is not. Jude 3 tells us “to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” Let us never forget this.