I’m writing this in April 2017, just a little over six months before the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses and what is generally considered to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
Normally, anniversaries of such occasions are celebrated in a positive way. Just last week marked the 234th anniversary of “The Shot Heard Round the World” and the beginning of the American Revolution. Each July, Americans commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence — the birthday, so to speak, of the United States. We look back on these anniversaries with appreciation and a sense of reverence for what they mean historically.
October 31 is celebrated as Reformation Day, although Martin Luther certainly did not post his theses on Halloween. Rather, his objections to the practice of indulgences were sent on that day to the Archbishop of Mainz in a letter. But even if the historical basis of Reformation Day is apocryphal, celebrating the anniversary of the Reformation as a sort of anti-Halloween seems, to me, like a good idea.
For any committed Christian, the Protestant Reformation is a positive event. It marks the beginning of the end of the Dark Ages, an end to the tyranny and theological monopoly of the Roman Catholic Church, and the spreading of the Bible in the vernacular languages of the people. In short, the Protestant Reformation is a historical landmark in the unstoppable propagation and success of the Gospel.
But not everyone agrees.
There is a movement afoot to repaint the Reformation as a negative historical development. Of course, such efforts have been ongoing since the start of the Counter Reformation, but starting in the last half of 2016 and continuing for the foreseeable future, the efforts have been in overdrive.
In an article published on October 30, 2016 — one year before the 500th anniversary — The Guardian asked the question: “After 500 years of schism, will the rift of the Reformation finally be healed?” The article provides summary coverage of a year in which Pope Francis plans to “herald growing cooperation between Protestants and Catholics.” It begins its story by noting “an ecumenical service led by Pope Francis at Lund cathedral in southern Sweden” that “will herald a year of events running up to the 500th anniversary of the move that resulted in the greatest schism in western Christianity.”
A month before the Guardian article, the website Ecumenical News published a story entitled German Protestants, Catholics publish ‘common word’ for Reformation anniversary. In that story, readers are told about a document jointly published by “Germany’s main Protestant and Roman Catholic churches.” In that document, “they call for a ‘healing of memories’ of past divisions” and for the Reformation’s anniversary “to be commemorated in ecumenical fellowship.”
Many readers might see that and think, “What’s so negative about that?” This question is answered a little further on in the story, when the article tells us that at a planned ecumenical service the two parties “will confess [their] guilt before God . . . asking God and each other for forgiveness.”
When was the last time you asked for forgiveness for doing something good?
To ask for forgiveness — from God or other humans — is to imply that the Protestant Reformation (and its continuation) was and is a sin.
Of course, the flip side of that is the apparent forgiveness sought by the Roman Catholic Church and its implicit admission that it, too, is culpable in the (non) sin of Reformation. But is that really how the Roman Catholic Church, i.e. the Papacy, feels?
In July 2015 (which gives an idea of how long the Roman Church has been planning this) the Catholic Herald published an article called “The Pope’s great Evangelical gamble.” It opens with this paragraph:
Somewhere in Pope Francis’s office is a document that could alter the course of Christian history. It declares an end to hostilities between Catholics and Evangelicals and says the two traditions are now “united in mission because we are declaring the same Gospel”. The Holy Father is thinking of signing the text in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, alongside Evangelical leaders representing roughly one in four Christians in the world today.
Are the “hostilities” between Catholicism and Protestantism really at an end? Are Catholics and Protestants truly “united in mission?” Do Catholics and Protestants really “declare the same Gospel?”
The next paragraph in the article gives a starting point for answering these questions:
Francis is convinced that the Reformation is already over. He believes it ended in 1999, the year the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation issued a joint declaration on justification, the doctrine at the heart of Luther’s protest.
You can read that “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” on the Vatican’s website. There is not enough space in this one post to give a full treatment of this document. That will have to be done over time. But, we can begin an analysis.
To start, it is informative to notice that Pope Francis’s belief in the Reformation’s end is based on the cooperation of just one “Protestant” group: the Lutheran World Federation. The Lutheran World Federation doesn’t even represent all Lutherans, much less all Protestants. It seems a bit hasty and disingenuous to declare an end to the Protestant Reformation based on the assent of one group who, it appears, has stopped protesting altogether.
Next, we turn to paragraph 1 of the “Joint Declaration” which says: “The doctrine of justification was of central importance for the Lutheran Reformation.” There are two problems that come immediately into view. First, to say that justification was a central issue is not to be taken to mean that it was the only issue in the Reformation. Certainly, the biblical fact of justification by grace alone through faith alone is of central importance, but it’s just one of many, many other issues.
Second, that opening line betrays the limited scope of this declaration. It says, “Lutheran Reformation.” The Reformation was not and is not limited to Lutherans. Thus, to declare — however falsely — that the disagreement between Lutherans and Catholics over justification is resolved is the same as putting an end to the Reformation is to speak against truth.
Another glaring problem is found in paragraph 12, where it is said that those justified are required to “participate in Christ’s body and blood.” What this really means is that the Catholic church is asserting that believers must participate in the heresy of the Roman Catholic Mass. Again, space does not permit a full theological treatment of all issues here. Suffice it to say, for now, that this simply provides another example of numerous differences between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism that go above and beyond the single issue of justification.
Jumping again, we come to paragraph 29 which says: “God forgives their sins through Word and Sacrament.” This is an example of doublespeak. The Roman Catholic Church can claim all day long that justification is by grace through faith, but that assent is meaningless when it defines grace and faith through the lens of unbiblical doctrine. To say that God forgives “through Word and Sacrament” is a reassertion of the heretical teaching that forgiveness is granted by and through the Roman Church and its sacraments. In this case, the Mass, Penance, and Confession. To limit forgiveness to the ministrations of priests is to deny the plain teaching of scripture: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is a smokescreen designed to mislead and it takes advantage of the theological ignorance of the public and many confessing Christians. As can be seen in these few examples, the Roman Catholic Church, despite its ruse of asking forgiveness, still operates with the delusion that salvation is available only through its heretical distortion of Biblical truth. It admits as much in paragraph 1 where it says, in regards to the Council of Trent: “These condemnations are still valid today.”
The online Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on the Counter Reformation says this:
Another point to be noticed is that, though we assign certain dates for the beginning and end of the period under consideration, there has never been any break in the striving of the Church against the heresies which arose in the sixteenth century. In this sense the Counter-Reformation began in the time of Luther and is not even yet closed.
This admission, which is conveniently ignored by the Catholic and mainstream press that”s pushing the reconciliation lie, brings us a step closer to the truth. In this one paragraph, written by Catholics for Catholics, we are told explicitly that the Roman Catholic Church (1) considers all Protestants heretics, (2) strives against Protestantism, and (3) views the Counter Reformation as an ongoing and uncompleted effort.
If Protestants are still viewed as heretics in need of correction, then what should Protestants make of the attempts to declare “the protest is over?” There is only one reasonable conclusion substantiated by the evidence: The current ecumenical 500th anniversary efforts are themselves a Counter Reformation tactic designed to weaken Protestantism and further entrench the tentacles of Rome inside Protestant churches.
Another joint Lutheran-Catholic document, “From Conflict to Communion,” specifically uses the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation as a platform for ending theological disputes and publicly claiming that the Reformation is effectively ended. Clearly, this anniversary is being seen and manipulated as a tool.
But what should genuine, Biblically grounded Protestants do? Two obvious and important necessities come immediately to mind.
First, Protestants must continue and even increase their efforts to distinguish and differentiate Bible truth and Roman Catholicism. In other words, Protestants must make a conscious effort to put the Protest back in Protestant. And one way of doing this is to preach, write, and teach over and against efforts to minimize the significant differences between Reformation theology and Roman Catholicism. Such differences include:
- The unbiblical teachings of the Roman Catholic Mass.
- The veneration of saints and prayers to and for the dead.
- The works-based salvation doctrines taught by Rome (including the fact that the church still sells indulgences — in one form or another).
- The lack of scriptural support for the ministration of the priesthood.
- The worship of Mary.
The second necessity is to educate and inform self-identifying Protestants. In every Protestant church there is a lack of true and informed knowledge of the Bible. Every week churches are filled by people who don’t understand their faith and its foundations. Protestants cannot protest if they don’t know what it is they’re protesting. This necessity leads to two conclusions:
- Unfortunately, history and the current state of Protestantism shows that believers cannot rely on the professional clergy to do the job of education. Although it’s almost a cliche in many churches, we must as individuals and small groupings be good Bereans who search the scriptures for ourselves and educate one another.
- Flowing from the first, Protestants must relinquish hard-line denominational attachments and their reliance on organized religion. That doesn’t mean individuals cannot have denominational identifications or worship in organized corporate settings. What it does mean is that individuals cannot delude themselves into thinking that those identifications or settings are sufficient spiritual food.
Protestants must take the warning issued in Hosea 4 seriously. People are perishing for a lack of knowledge — saving knowledge.
In 2017, the saving knowledge that is delivered through Protestantism must be sustained. Protestants must protest and make it known that, should Jesus delay another 500 years, the protest will continue and the Reformation will never end. We must be clear — with the Spirit of Christ — that Protestants and Catholics are not “united in mission” because we do not “declare the same Gospel.” One of us proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it is recorded in the Bible. The other proclaims a false, Babylonian gospel that is anti-Christ, anti-Bible, and a distortion of Truth.
One of us declares a Gospel that saves. The other declares a gospel that damns.