The Appeal Of History

We’ve covered a lot of ground this past week or so as we’ve discussed the Reformation, and yet so much more needs to be explored. I’d like, for instance, to probe deeper into the  development of Catholic doctrine to understand how they arrived at their ideas of meritorious justification, the veneration of Mary, Purgatory and the Apocrypha. I also want to profile Zwingli, Calvin and Knox, all of whom made significant  contributions to the Reformation.

Just a few days ago, in my post, Restoring Through Reformation, I wrote:

Studying the Reformation, with its call back to the doctrines of the Bible, can help us better evaluate current trends and teachings within the visible church. No, I don’t mean to suggest that the Reformation is a measuring rod. Rather, the Reformation points us back to Scripture–the same Scripture that Luther and Calvin used as their measuring rod. As we examine the writings of these men (and others), we’ll witness their reliance on the Bible and on Christ’s atoning work on the cross in ways that should inspire our devotion to Him.

As I watch many 21st Century evangelicals turn to various corruptions of the Gospel, including efforts at unity with the Roman Catholic Church, I have to wonder if they have the slightest clue what the Reformation was. When I’ve mentioned Reformation Day to some of my evangelical friends, they’ve either given me blank stares or mumbled that they don’t really care much about history. I shake my head sadly, knowing that indifference to history has devastating consequences.

Permit me to offer an illustration of why history matters. Almost ten years ago, John and I started making our infamous day trips into Boston. We visited King’s Chapel Burying Ground, where we saw the tomb of  Massachusetts first English governor, John Winthrop. Next to the tomb, we saw this plaque:

Burying Place PlaqueThe plaque quoted  a fragment of Winthrop’s famous City on a Hill sermon:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

Just over two years later, we visited Winthrop’s tomb again. The plaque had been removed, leaving only signage that he’d been Massachusetts’ first governor. It seemed to us that the plaque had been removed  because someone found its Christian message offensive. Consequently, this city of Boston has conveniently erased evidence that it was founded on Christian principles and for the glory of God.

If evangelicals continue to ignore the Reformation, I fear that its memory will be  erased just as as surely as Winthrop’s Christian convictions have been erased from his grave site. I already see this forgetfulness of Luther’s protest against Rome as Christian leaders like Rick Warren and Beth Moore minimize the differences between Protestants and Catholics. They forget, and would have us forget, the sacrifices of the great Reformers! They would put us right back into the deceptions that withheld the Gospel from so many men and women in the Middle Ages.

So I will continue to write about the Reformation, and the history that led up to it, with the prayer that some of my readers will understand why we must cling to the truths that the Reformers worked so hard to recover. These brave men, as well as women, risked their lives because they refused to compromise Biblical doctrine. I desire that Christians in our time would have that same unwillingness to adjust our doctrine to popular ideas and beliefs. History may bore some people, but it is our only hope for keeping away from the false doctrines that could mean the difference between heaven and hell.

The Love That Minimized Truth

Catholic Mass2I graduated from Dominican University of California in 1977. As you can probably deduce from its name, the  school has Roman Catholic origins. During my time there, nuns comprised roughly half of the administrative and teaching faculty, as well as a cigar-smoking priest who brought me much amusement.

But if I enjoyed Father Conrad, I absolutely loved Sister Nicholas,  my academic adviser and the professor who taught several of my English Literature classes (I majored in English Lit with an emphasis on writing). Looking back, it seems as if the medieval literature this lady loved to teach permeated her whole being. While the other nuns dressed in more updated habits,  for example, she retained the ankle-length tunic and scapular (both white in accordance with the Dominican order), a stiff white wimple and a black veil that taped well below her knees. I still think of her as a highly romanticized emblem of medieval culture.

I say all this to point out that my current stance against the teachings of Roman Catholicism in no way demonstrates hostility to people in that religion. Both Father Conrad and Sister Nicholas hold special places in my heart, and I admit to having greatly enjoyed my four years at Dominican. I appreciate having experienced those years in a predominately Catholic environment, and I regret only my doctrinal weakness as I went through my education.

During my college years, I did have a saving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, but I fellowshipped in evangelical groups that minimized the differences between Catholics and Protestants. This theological blurring became obvious in a Religious Studies class one afternoon when Father Conrad saw my Protestant affiliation as an opportunity to demonstrate the fundamental difference between Catholic and Protestant theology to the class on Thomas Aquinas.

We had read the Question “Whether to believe is meritorious” in Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, and he naturally assumed  I would take issue with it. He had planned to engage me in a debate to highlight the issue of justification by faith in a way that would show Martin Luther’s “misunderstanding” of Catholic teaching.

In part, I wanted to have fun with Father Conrad. He and I had  a playful friendship, and I loved throwing him off his game. But Aquinas had appealed to my pride, disarming my intellect with the comforting possibility that maybe I had contributed to my salvation after all. So when Father asked for my response to the Question, I saw a perfect opportunity to both mess with his mind and answer honesty (with my priorities decidedly in that order).

“Well Father,” I began in a tone signaling my intention to draw things out, “when I started reading this question, I was prepared to disagree. But as I followed his line of reason, I realized he might be right.”

Father Conrad’s stunned expression and ensuing loss for words sent the entire class into fits of laughter. After class, several of us assembled, gleefully recounting how stymied he had been and how I’d thrown a monkey wrench into his lesson plan. Actually, I have been chuckling as I’ve typed the story today.

My chuckling, however, turns to grief over my glaring  doctrinal error in Father Conrad’s classroom that day. That priest knew, better than I did, that Martin Luther’s entire Reformation hinged on the doctrine that no human act–not even faith–can possibly merit anything from God.

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)

Luther had rightly understood that Roman Catholicism has replaced the Scriptural teaching of grace and faith with a system of works and sacraments whereby we “earn” grace. Luther, Calvin and the other Reformers took tremendous risks (some even dying as martyrs) to restore  the Biblical doctrines of grace and faith.

Sadly, I spent decades ignoring the importance of this doctrinal distinction, even long after I saw that Aquinas got it wrong. Once again, the cry for “unity” between evangelicals and Catholics demanded that I minimize the importance of doctrine. Indeed, my passionate desire to believe that Sister Nicholas went to heaven upon her death in 1986 has made me reluctant to acknowledge the crucial nature of this doctrine. At times, largely depending on the prevailing attitude among the various evangelical circles I frequented, I might  argue that faith couldn’t merit God’s favor, but I avoided a dogmatic stance. Now I regret my compromise.

Obviously, the Lord has now shown me that I must no longer equivocate on this  matter. Aquinas taught falsely. Furthermore, in this false teaching he attacked the sufficiency of Christ’s shed blood on the cross, again implying that we play a pivotal role in securing our place in heaven. And that suggestion that anything we do–including believing–could merit salvation, completely undermines the Gospel. So, even though Dominican rightly claims feelings of affection from me, I now stand firm in the conviction that compelled Martin Luther to trigger the Protestant Reformation.

No Small Doctrine

Why am I making such a big deal about the Protestant Reformation? Admittedly, I enjoy history, so blogging about this period gives me a marvelous excuse to take myself back to 16th Century Europe. But my regular readers probably already  know that my fascination with history takes a back seat to my love of the Lord and my passion for doctrinal purity.

God, in fact, brought about the Reformation because the Roman Catholic Church had obscured the Gospel with false teachings and human traditions, largely in an effort to establish and maintain its political control. In the process, the church departed from Scripture’s teaching that salvation comes only through faith in Jesus Christ and His work on the cross.

The church reverted to heresies not very much different from those of the First Century Judaizers, who taught that Gentile converts to Christianity had to observe Jewish laws (particularly circumcision) in order to be saved. The  books of Romans, Galatians and Hebrews directly address this corruption of the Gospel. Luther, in fact, found freedom from his efforts to find freedom from the weight of his sin when he read Romans 1:17.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”  ~~Romans 1:16-17 (ESV)

The doctrine of justification by faith is foundational to Biblical Christianity, and we cannot allow anyone to compromise it. This short video of R.C. Sproul helps explain why we must hold fast to it.

Restoring Through Refomation

Bible RestoredI know I promised to blog about Calvin today. Other matters ate up my research time, however, so I had no opportunity to put any historical background together.

But the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is still a full two years away, giving us more than enough time to look at the various people who played a role in its development. Nothing requires us to confine writing about it to the last week of October. I would freely write about the Incarnation in months other than December, and I definitely don’t wait until Easter to write about Christ’s death and resurrection. So why should I pressure myself to concentrate all I want to say about the Reformation into 10 short days each year?

Although the Reformation lasted (at most) from 1517 to 1648 in terms of a historical period, with most scholars arguing for its completion in 1555, its significance to Biblical Christians cannot be overstated. The Lord brought it about, I believe, to restore the access that believers have to the Bible and consequently to bring people back to the truth that salvation comes by nothing other than faith in Jesus Christ’s shed blood.

These two foundations of the Christian faith once again suffer assault from those who, although calling themselves Christians, would alter God’s Word with human strategies and philosophies. Something deep within our human nature fights proudly and viciously against both God’s authority and dependence on Him for salvation. We want to believe that we have something within ourselves that makes us worthy of God’s favor.

Studying the Reformation, with its call back to the doctrines of the Bible, can help us better evaluate current trends and teachings within the visible church. No, I don’t mean to suggest that the Reformation is a measuring rod. Rather, the Reformation points us back to Scripture–the same Scripture that Luther and Calvin used as their measuring rod. As we examine the writings of these men (and others), we’ll witness their reliance on the Bible and on Christ’s atoning work on the cross in ways that should inspire our devotion to Him.

A Conscience Captive

Cross of Faith“Faith alone” is an absolute lynch pin to Biblical Christianity, and Martin Luther’s unwillingness to compromise on that doctrine brought the Protestant Reformation to a head. As 21st Century Christians, we need to understand how passionately the reformers fought for this doctrine. Post-modern evangelical thought threatens to erode many doctrines, making it necessary to heed Jude’s example.

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. ~~Jude 3-4 (ESV)

Contending for the faith ultimately requires reliance on  God’s Word, as Luther did. And when we study the great Reformers, we learn the importance of Christian doctrine–particularly the doctrine of justification by  faith.

Luther’s 95 Theses initially grabbed Rome’s attention, but his belief that man can find justification through faith in Christ alone, and never through human effort, caused him to be excommunicated. In the summer of 1519 (almost two years after posting the 95 Theses) he found himself debating John Eck in Leipzig, Germany. Eck, a professor of theology at the University on Ingolstadt, believed Luther’s teaching on justification by faith threatened the structure of the Roman Catholic Church. According to James Reetzke in “A Brief History of the Lord’s Recovery“:

The Leipzig Disputation was crucial to Luther’s development, for it helped him to see clearly why he was so opposed to the indulgences. He discovered that his teachings involved much more than a simple protest against some abuses of the church. This revelation destroyed within Luther any basis for the worship of saints, the reverence of relics, and useless religious pilgrimages.

He saw more than ever before the sharp contrast between the free pardoning grace of God and the monastic life with all of its vigils, fasts, scourgings, and mortifications of earthly and family affections. Three important matters in particular became clear to Luther in this debate: 1) The distinction between the law and the gospel. The law can only condemn people, but through the preaching of the gospel they can be saved. 2) All men and all institutions can and do err. 3) Jesus Christ is the sole Head of the church. Men must obey Christ and His Word.

Following the Leipzig debates, Pope Leo X issued a Papal Bull in 1520 demanding Luther to recant roughly half of his 95 Theses. Of course, Luther had no intention of complying with the pope’s command, resolute in his Biblical convictions. His refusal led Leo to excommunicate him in January of 1521.

Four months later, Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms, an Imperial Council of the Holy Roman Empire which would determine his fate. When they asked him one last time to recant his teachings (planning to burn him as a heretic if he refused), his reply demonstrated a commitment to Scripture that should challenge every one of us who professes the name “Christian.”

Your Imperial Majesty and Your Lordships demand a simple answer. Here it is, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am convicted [convinced] of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted [convinced] by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us.

On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me.

There’s much more of Martin Luther’s story to tell, but right now I want to bring our conversation back to his insistence on justification by faith. Having shown  you his courage to stand on God’s Word rather than renounce this doctrine, I want to direct you to his explanation of his commitment to it.

Of this article [justification] nothing may be yielded or conceded, though heaven and earth and whatever will not abide, fall to ruin; for ‘there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved,’ says St. Peter (Acts 4:12); ‘and with His stripes we are healed’ (Is. 53:5). And on this article all that we teach and practice is based, against the pope, the devil, and the world. That is why we must be very certain of this doctrine and not doubt; otherwise all is lost, and the pope and the devil and all things gain the victory over us and are adjudged right.

Next time, I plan to examine some of Calvin’s writings about justification, as well as looking at some of his history. The Reformers, by going back to the Bible, restored the proper understanding of the Gospel message. We dare not obscure this central truth that they worked so hard to make available. If we expect to receive salvation for any reason other than Christ’s death on the cross as complete payment for our sin, we shall be damned.