October 31, 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, still looms six months ahead of us. Because most 21st Century evangelicals have little interest in church history, however, the anniversary will go largely unnoticed, except by those who seek some sort of reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, Pope Francis has declared that the Reformation is over, emphasizing “common ground” between Catholics and evangelicals.
Many evangelicals have little problem accepting Roman Catholicism as a branch of Christianity. Rick Warren has famously referred to Pope Francis as “our” pope, and Beth Moore celebrates the notion that Catholic women are our sisters in Christ.
It all seems so Christian, doesn’t it? And, frankly, I’d love to pretend that the doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants didn’t matter. Why not concentrate on our shared beliefs in the Trinity and Christ’s Incarnation? Why not rejoice together in His death, burial and resurrection?
In fact, until recent years, I didn’t think the differences between Catholics and Protestants really did matter (although I couldn’t agree with their beliefs on things like Purgatory or the veneration of Mary). But then, doctrine didn’t seem very important to me until about 16 or 17 years ago.
I was pretty typical of most present-day evangelicals, especially in my voluntary ignorance of both doctrine and church history. God has graciously changed all that, even in my twilight years, convincing me that the Reformation has profound meaning that 21st Century evangelicals dare not ignore.
The Reformation happened, not because a constipated German monk decided to cause trouble (as my Catholic Political Science professor taught me), but because God sovereignly opened up His Word to men who then embraced the doctrines of grace. These men saw that, even though the Roman Catholic Church grew out of genuine Christianity, it perverted Biblical doctrine in favor of tradition and political power. In His mercy and faithfulness, the Lord brought about the Reformation in order to restore Scripture to His Church.
Next Tuesday, we’ll examine the doctrine of justification, which divides the Protestant from the Catholic church. As serious as the other doctrinal differences are (and many are extremely serious), the matter of justification makes it impossible for Bible-believing Christians to reconcile with Catholicism.
The Reformation continues, and the Reformation matters, as long as Rome insists that human effort plays a part in justification. Pope Francis can make all the declarations he wants, but his pontifications (pun fully intended) can’t change the fact that Rome fails to teach basic Gospel truth.
Evangelicals need to understand the Reformation in order to stand firmly in Biblical doctrine. Sure, it would be lovely to throw our arms around Rome’s children and let them claim us as their own. But fidelity to the Gospel forbids it. No matter what Rick Warren, Beth Moore and Pope Francis say, the Reformation isn’t over. And it mustn’t be forgotten.