There was nothing remarkable about that day in October, 1517, when a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Martin Luther fastened his now famous ninety-five theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenburg, Germany. He certainly did not expect to ignite a religious revolution. As a loyal son of the established church, Luther merely wished to engage his university town in theological discussion about certain church doctrines that troubled him. His goal was to try to rein in some of the most grievous abuses of the Church by discussing them openly.
Little did he know that his theses would be copied, printed, and distributed across Europe within days. In the providence of God, Luther’s modest debate propositions ignited a fire that is still burning today. On this five-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it is fitting to remember how it all began, and more importantly, why.
There are some today who question the validity of this great schism with Rome. They believe that the Reformation, though probably warranted in its day, is no longer necessary. They assure us that the abuses of Luther’s day have been addressed, and it’s time to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and join hands as fellow members of Christ’s body.
But before we rush to an ecumenical love feast, we would be wise to review the reasons for the Protestant Reformation to discover if the serious problems of yesterday have indeed been resolved in our day. Concise statements, known as the five solas have become the defining principles of the Reformation. These declarations identify the issues that forced division with Rome and clarify why reunification today is not possible for those whose faith is rooted in the Bible. Sola means “alone” or “only,” and these statements establish the principle differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants then and now.
The foundation of the Reformation is Sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone.” Protestants believe the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. Rome disagrees. Rome teaches that tradition is equal to the Bible, and subjugates Scripture to the authority of the Church. In Catholic theology, the Church gave birth to the Bible, and therefore the Church has the right to interpret its meaning and determine the validity of its statements.
In addition, the Pope has the authority, when speaking ex cathedra, to propound new dogmas which are equally authoritative with the Bible. Throughout history, Rome has discouraged people from reading Scripture. Believing that common people are unable to understand it correctly and must look to the Church to interpret its meaning; the practical result has been to discourage people from studying the Bible. The Church alone knows what Scripture means so there is no need for the faithful to try to understand it for themselves. They should simply trust the Church to tell them what to believe. Good sons and daughters of the Church have little need for the Bible.
The Reformers studied the Bible and became convinced that Rome did not practice Christianity according to God’s revealed truth. They were preachers saturated in Scripture who expounded it from their pulpits. They encouraged people to study the Bible personally, and they promoted education to enable everyone to read Scripture. They believed the Bible alone is the source of divine revelation, and that infallible truth is found only in its pages. Although Rome is more tolerant of Bible reading today, their Reformation era perspective of Scripture remains unchanged. The principle of Sola Scriptura divides Christendom as much today as it did five hundred years ago.
“Faith Alone” is probably the best known doctrine of the Reformation. Rome taught that no one can be saved simply by faith. Catholics believe that justification is a process beginning at baptism that continues until death. To Rome, faith is only one part of what is required to obtain eternal life. In addition to faith, one must have a life-time of faithfulness to the Church, and the obedience of good deeds. After death, God determines if one’s deeds are sufficient to obtain justification. The doctrine of salvation through faith alone is considered blasphemous by Rome.
The Reformers, however, were convinced from Scripture that no one is able to earn salvation by good deeds. Justification before God requires a perfect righteousness, and no one has accomplished that except Jesus Christ, the only sinless person among the billions of mankind. We need what Martin Luther called “alien righteousness,” that is, a righteousness that comes from outside ourselves, for we are incapable of producing the righteousness required by the thrice holy God.
Christ alone achieved a record of perfect obedience, and this He freely gives to sinners who acknowledge their guilt, and receive His righteousness, imputed to those who receive Him by faith. Sola Fide answers the question, “What must I do to be saved?” Rome responds, “Come into the folds of the Church, receive the Sacraments, do good works, and eventually you can earn salvation.” The Bible answers differently. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30,31). The answer to this basic question divided the Church in Luther’s day, and continues to divide it today.
“Grace Alone” is the fulcrum of the Reformation. Rome taught that enabling grace, though necessary for salvation, is earned by faithfulness. Grace is dispensed by the church through the sacraments and in response to human obedience. Rome, in Luther’s day, denied that salvation is by grace alone because it viewed grace as something granted in response to merit. Although Rome agreed that people can only do the good deeds required for salvation by the enabling grace of God, and even stated that grace is a gift from God, by making the bestowment of that gift dependent upon human works, they nullified the definition of grace as unmerited favor. They called grace a gift, but they turned it into a reward. If good works are required to merit God’s grace, then salvation is not by grace alone. Ultimately, it is accomplished by human merit.
The Reformers understood that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, and that enabling grace comes from God as a free gift. Grace is unmerited favor. Sola gratia is as relevant today as ever, and continues to divide biblical Christianity from its Roman counterfeit.
“Christ Alone” is another dividing doctrine. Rome inserted human priests as mediators between God and men. No one could go directly to Christ, but must approach Christ through the mediation of the Church and her priests. Prayers were not spoken directly to the Father through His Son, Jesus Christ, but directed instead to Mary and the Saints, who were thought to have special access to God. Christ was not the head of the Church upon earth, but rather the Pope of Rome, the “vicar” of Christ must be acknowledged as head of the Church. Thus in one way and another, Christ was robbed of His unique glory. His substitutionary life of righteousness and atoning death were not considered sufficient to obtain salvation. Human works must be added to the work of Christ before salvation could be obtained.
The Reformers disagreed. They declared that there is only one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. They insisted that Mary and the Saints have absolutely no role in prayer. They recognized the priesthood of every believer, nullifying the Catholic requirement for the Church’s priests. They taught that Christ is unique as to His person, and that His accomplishments are comprehensive in Salvation. “Christ Alone” is the cornerstone of biblical Christianity and necessitates the continuation of the Protestant Reformation.
Soli Deo Gloria
“To the glory of God alone” was the supreme goal of the Reformers. Everything else was related to this over-arching principle. Rome, by adding works to faith for salvation, gave some honor for salvation to the achievements of men, rather than to God alone. By making grace depend upon merit, Rome diminished the glory of God’s grace, and turned it into human reward. Rome diverted people away from the Bible, which is God’s primary revelation of Himself, and thereby diminished the glory of God in His Word. Rome’s veneration of Mary and the Saints directed worship from God to men and robbed God of the glory which is uniquely His.
The Reformers endeavored to restore biblical worship to the Church. By exalting Scripture to its proper place, and restoring the truth of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, these brave pioneers restored God-centered worship from its man-centered perversion. The Reformers understood that grace is sovereignly bestowed or it is not truly grace. God must be acknowledged as sovereign in all things, including salvation, if He is to be given all the glory for rescuing sinful men. The Reformers knew that salvation’s primary purpose is to bring glory to God, and that the benefits it brings to men, though wonderful, are secondary.
The Protestant Reformation was necessary to restore the honor that had been stolen from God by the established church. Unless Rome reforms its doctrines to accord with Scripture, the Protestant Reformation will be necessary for a long, long time.
G. N. Barkman received his BA and MA from BJU and later founded Beacon Baptist Church in Burlington, NC where has pastored for over 40 years. In addition, Pastor Barkman broadcasts over several radio stations in NC, VA, TN, and the island of Granada and conducts annual pastors’ training seminars in Zimbabwe, Africa. He and his wife, Marti have been blessed with four daughters and six grandchildren.