Today I’m beginning a short series that will be posted each Thursday titled, Do Not Worship the Reformers. The aim of the series is to point out why we love and respect these men, but at the same time, we should not hold them up to an unhealthy level of adoration and appreciation. The Reformers accomplished many things for the glory of God, but like you and I, they all had feet of clay.
We Should Applaud Luther’s Doctrine of Justification
Martin Luther was born November 10th, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. He would be baptized the following day. His family connections provided opportunity for education and to excel in life, but Luther’s life would take a different turn. One that he didn’t expect and one that his family opposed. He would enter the monastery in keeping with a promise he made out of fear to God in a violent thunderstorm. Little did he know that providence was guiding his footsteps. Those footsteps would eventually be led to the castle church in Wittenberg on October 31st, 1517 in protest that would eventually be heard around the world.
Martin Luther has been hailed by some as a hero of church history. When we examine the history of the church, we see the enormous contribution of Luther as a man who brought the church back to the Bible and upheld justification by faith alone.
The material principle of the historic Protestant Reformation was justification by faith alone. Is the forgiveness of sins obtained by the work of Jesus alone, or is it obtained by the work of Jesus and the cooperation of sinners through external works, as the Roman Catholic Church teaches? That issue stood at the center of the debate in Luther’s day, and it remains central in our present day as well.
In thesis 52, Luther writes:
It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters, even though the indulgence commissary, or even the pope, were to offer his soul as security.
Luther was outraged by the offer of salvation by the purchase of indulgences. Eventually Luther’s protest would grow in intensity after his conversion. True biblical salvation had been lost in the day of the sixteenth century like a precious diamond in the muck of a pig’s pen. God chose to raise up men who would recover the biblical teaching of salvation and bring God’s people back to the Bible. One such man was an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther. Commenting on the importance of justification by faith alone, Luther wrote:
The article of justification and of grace is the most delightful, and it alone makes a person a theologian and makes of a theologian a judge of the earth and of all affairs. Few there are, however, who have thought it through well and who teach it aright. 
We Should Question Luther’s Doctrine of Baptism
While Luther was a faithful opponent of the false doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church on matters of salvation, he seems to contradict himself at times on the subject of sola fide (faith alone). In discussing religious works in relation to the sacraments, Luther writes:
Therefore it cannot be true that there resides in the sacraments a power capable of giving justification, or that they are the “signs” of efficacious grace. All such things are said to the detriment of faith, and in ignorance of the divine promises. . . . In this way, the Romanists have put precepts in place of the sacraments, and works in place of faith. Now, if a sacrament were to give me grace just because I receive that sacrament, then surely I should obtain the grace, not by faith, but by my works. I should not gain the promise in the sacrament, but only the sign instituted and commanded by God. 
On a similar note, Luther writes the following about baptism:
A man can be saved without the sacrament, but not without the word; this is true of those who desire baptism but die before they can receive it. 
However, as we continue to read the works of Luther, we find statements that not only seem self-contradictory, but also seem to fall into tension with the faith alone formula of biblical salvation. The German Catechism was published in 1529. Concerning the effects of baptism, Luther appeals to Mark 16:16 and says:
This is the simplest way to put it: the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of baptism is that it saves. For no one is baptized in order to become a prince, but as the words say, ‘to be saved.’ To be saved, as everyone knows, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death and the devil, to enter into Christ’s kingdom, and to live with him forever. 
When Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the castle church door in 1517, he wasn’t yet a true Christian. It would be over the next few years that he would come to embrace Christ by faith alone.
Moving beyond Wittenberg in 1517 and Worms in 1521, Luther wrote, preached, and taught much about the doctrine of salvation. In many points, we applaud his preaching and writing, but in some areas, we find ourselves confused about Luther’s beliefs.
The tension we find in Luther’s theology reminds us that he had feet of clay. Luther was an imperfect man with imperfect theology who lived in the looming shadows of the Roman Catholic Church in the days of the sixteenth century. In short, Luther should be appreciated and applauded, but not worshipped.
What exactly did Luther mean when he said that baptism saves? Did he have in mind something different than the Roman Catholics? I believe he did have something else in mind. However, he seems to move beyond the idea of baptism being a “means of grace” whereby God bestows blessings on His people. He seems to press toward something different. While Luther was not a heretic who nullified sola fide by baptismal regeneration, it seems that he did walk too close to the line on the subject of baptism.
Whatever he truly believed about baptism, we may never fully understand. However, we do know that Luther did champion the idea of infant baptism. Once again, he was saying something different than what the Roman Catholic Church said infant baptism accomplished, but he was still not clear enough. Although Luther should be respected on many levels theologically, the mode and efficacy of baptism in Luther’s system must be called into question.
Luther proved his humanity through his doctrine of baptism. It’s here that we see strange tensions in Luther’s beliefs rising to the surface. Martin Luther came out of Rome, but at times, it seems that not all of Rome came out of Luther.
While we should applaud Luther’s position on Scripture and his willingness to protest the false doctrine of salvation taught by the Roman Catholic Church—he should not be worshipped. He should be appreciated. He should be recognized and respected, but he should not be adored and worshipped. Martin Luther, like us all, had feet of clay. Martin Luther was a sinner who God saved and used for His glory—not a superhero Christian who lived above sin. We should be grateful for the man, but he must not be worshiped.
- WA, 25:375, quoted in What Luther Says, 704.
- Luther, “The Pagan Servitude of the Church,” 300–301.
- Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (trans. Robert C. Schultz; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 349.
- The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 459.
The sixteenth century Reformation was caused by a variety of factors, but none was greater than the perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ by the Roman Catholic Church. The Bible clearly teaches justification by faith alone in Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins. The Roman Catholic Church labored to silence the Scriptures in order to peddle their cheap gospel. God awakened men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin and many others who would give their lives for the sake of the gospel.
Out of the Reformation came five doctrinal statements known today as the five solas of the Reformation.
- Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
- Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
- Sola Fide (Faith Alone)
- Solus Christus (Christ Alone)
- Soli Deo Gloria (To God Alone Be Glory)
Yesterday marked the 499th anniversary of the day when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the Castle door in Wittenberg in order to protest the perversion of the true gospel of Christ. As we look back at the 499 years of church history and explore the present state of the evangelical church, an honest evaluation would reveal that the Reformation is not over. Below are ten reasons why the Reformation is not over 499 years after it began.
- The Roman Catholic Church has not repented of their perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
- Preaching is not, in many evangelical circles, the central mark of the local church.
- The present state of the evangelical church is filled with a love for pragmatism and a distaste for robust theology.
- The holiness of God is barely referenced much less understood among many evangelical churches.
- Worship has become man-centered as opposed to God-centered.
- Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are often trivialized and minimized.
- Church discipline is a missing mark in most evangelical churches in our present day.
- Evangelism has been replaced by gimmickry and superficial methods that seek immediate results as opposed to genuine conversion.
- Holy living has been replaced by a loose antinomian approach to redeeming the culture.
- Church membership has become a shadow of indulgences — one’s ticket to heaven in many evangelical churches.
Until Christ returns, the spirit of the Reformation will not be complete. The purity of the church and the exaltation of an unadulterated gospel will be the desire of those who continue to stand upon the shoulders of the Reformers of church history. May we labor with love and take the torch light of the gospel and continue the work of the Reformation.
As we reflect upon the Reformation of church history, we must consider the present Reformation and what’s needed to make the church treasure Christ more than anything else this world has to offer. We must refuse to recant and stand boldly upon the true gospel of Jesus Christ for the glory of God.
In his book titled, Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism, R.C. Sproul writes, “I have found that the vast majority of people who call themselves Protestants have no idea what they are protesting.  In the year 1517, the movement known as the Protestant Reformation exploded. Led by Martin Luther, the Reformers opposed the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church – especially on the subject of justification by faith alone, the need for the Bible in the common man’s language, and the elements of the Lord’s Supper. For years, the Reformers stood with passion and bold conviction to oppose such teaching. As we near the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, we must answer this very important question: Is the Reformation over? The Pope says the Reformation is over, should we believe him?
Recently, in an interview, Pope Francis made some very confusing statements. While this might not be a surprise, when he speaks about the Reformation and the precious doctrine of justification, it’s worthy of our attention. During an in-flight press conference interview while traveling, Pope Francis was asked the following question:
Seeing that you will go in I believe four months to Lund for the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the reformation, I think perhaps this is also the right moment for us not only to remember the wounds on both sides but also to recognize the gifts of the reformation. Perhaps also – this is a heretical question – perhaps to annul or withdraw the excommunication of Martin Luther or of some sort of rehabilitation. Thank you.
Pope Francis’ full answer to this question can be read in accessed (see full interview here), but in his response he made some important statements that must be addressed.
Are We United or Divided on Justification?
Pope Francis, when answering the question about the Reformation, said, “And today Lutherans and Catholics, Protestants, all of us agree on the doctrine of justification.” Is that true? Do we all believe the same thing regarding the doctrine of justification? In that same answer, Pope Francis pointed back to the eccumenical document signed in 1999 by the Roman Catholic Church and a group of liberal Lutherans on justification titled, “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.”
According to the official doctrinal statementCatechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the Roman Catholic Church states the following:
1987 The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” and through Baptism.
In a later paragraph, the same document says:
1993 Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent.
In both places, the Roman Catholic Church adds to justification by faith alone the work of baptism and the gift of faith suggesting that sinful rebels cooperate with God in this work of justification. This is one of the central dividing lines between the doctrines of Rome and Christians. According to Martin Luther, “The doctrine of justification is the article by which the church stands or falls.” It’s essential to note that there is no hint of eccuminism in Luther’s tone.
According to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, in chapter 11 and paragraph 1, the statement on justification reads:
GOD freely justifies the persons whom He effectually calls. He does this, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins and by accounting them, and accepting them, as righteous. This He does for Christ’s sake alone, and not for anything wrought in them or done by them. The righteousness which is imputed to them, that is, reckoned to their account, is neither their faith nor the act of believing nor any other obedience to the gospel which they have rendered, but Christ’s obedience alone. Christ’s one obedience is twofold-His active obedience rendered to the entire divine law, and His passive obedience rendered in His death.Those thus justified receive and rest by faith upon Christ’s righteousness; and this faith they have, not of themselves, but as the gift of God.
According to Romans 3:21-24, Paul makes the clear point that justification is by God’s grace alone:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
It doesn’t matter if the Pope believes we’re united on justification, the fact remains, we’re Protestant and we continue to protest the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of justification. Until the Roman Catholic Church repents of this perversion, we will not be united on this doctrine. Perhaps it’s the office of Pope that prevents true unity on justification. Jesus sits in the seat of supremacy – not the Pope. In a sermon at the 2016 Together for the Gospel conference, Ligon Duncan made this statement:
The greatest barrier to real biblical institutional unity in the world is the claim of the Roman pontiff to ecclesiastical supremacy. The claim to papal supremacy by the bishop of Rome is the single most schismatic act in the history of Christianity. It has provided more schism by far than that of the wildest heretical sects imaginable.
Is the Reformation Over?
How can Pope Francis claim that we all agree on justification? It’s plainly obvious that we are not all Roman Catholic in doctrine. The historic Reformation was not merely a political protest. At the heart of the protest was the issue of justification by faith alone. What many people fail to realize is that doctrine matters. Out of the Reformation came five doctrinal statements known today as the five solas of the Reformation.
- Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
- Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
- Sola Fide (Faith Alone)
- Solus Christus (Christ Alone)
- Soli Deo Gloria (To God Alone Be Glory)
We must not forget that the Roman Catholic Church rejects the sufficiency of Scripture, adds works to God’s grace, perverts faith, and blasphemes the Son of God. These grievous errors must be rejected, and that’s why the Reformers were willing to give their lives throughout church history. It wasn’t merely the bad behavior of a misguided Catholic priest that led to this juncture. It was the conversion of a Roman Catholic priest to Christianity and a bold stand against the perversion of the gospel.
With great certainty we must protest the idea that the Reformation is over. Until Rome repents, the same protests of church history continue today. We don’t claim perfection in our attempts to protest, but we do claim a trustworthy doctrine of justification by faith alone as revealed to us in God’s sufficient Word. If we shift on this foundational doctrine, we must call ourselves something other than Christian.
Just as the hymn writer Augustus Toplady penned years ago, we must embrace as truth today:
Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
- R.C. Sproul, Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, ), 71.