Interaction – The Reformation and Rome

Pastor Rick Phillips recounts his recent interaction about the Protestant Reformation with local Roman Catholic scholars in Greenville, SC (original source here):

Probably the most interesting Reformation celebration that I had the privilege of participating in last month took place in a Roman Catholic Church. The Center for Evangelical Catholicism here in Greenville, SC graciously invited me to join with two other Protestants and three Roman Catholic scholars to discuss the Reformation. I was grateful for the warmth of my reception and for the valuable interaction.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this event was the panel discussion, in which the host priest asked a number of insightful questions. For instance, he asked us to consider how things might have been different if the Roman Catholic establishment had been more patient and accommodating with Martin Luther. The idea was that Leo X (nobody’s favorite pope) handled Luther with such clumsy arrogance that he provoked the great schism that resulted. Might there have been a Lutheran order within the Roman church, he wondered, if the pope was more sophisticated and skillful?

My answer–which provoked a fair amount of unhappiness–was that it was inconceivable that the movement of the Protestant Reformation should have accommodated Rome simply because of the irreconcilable stances towards the Bible. Christians who adhered to sola scriptura – the authority of Scripture alone – could never endure a papacy that demanded that its tradition stood beside (and in practice above) the plain meaning of Scripture. Moreover, by study of the Bible, the Protestants came to the conclusion that the papacy was an utterly illegitimate and usurping office. In fact, wherever the Bible was embraced as supreme, the denunciation of the pope soon followed, a situation quite unlikely to permit a Lutheran movement inside the Roman tent. Furthermore, Roman Catholicism was just as opposed to the authority of Scripture as the Reformers were opposed to the papacy. It was for this reason that Rome so vigorously suppressed the spread of the Bible, going so far as to burn at the stake those who made it available to the common people.

As you can imagine, the warmth of my reception began to chill during this discourse. Especially my claim that Rome had suppressed the spread of Scripture was denounced as a false and tired canard! The host priest protested: “Why, Rome has done more for Bible translation than any other Christian body! Only in England was Bible translation suppressed, and that was done by the secular authority and not the church!”

This claim incited me to go back and study the evidence for Rome’s suppression of Scripture. To say the least, it is extensive! Consider the following:

Pope Gregory VII: forbade access of common people to the Bible in 1079, since it would “be so misunderstood by people of limited intelligence as to lead them into error.”

Pope Innocent III: compared Bible teaching in church to casting “pearls before swine” (1199).

The Council of Toulouse (France, 1229): suppressed the Albigensians and forbade the laity to read vernacular translations of the Bible.

The Second Council of Tarragon (Spain, 1234) declared, “No one may possess the books of the Old and New Testaments, and if anyone possesses them he must turn them over. . . that they may be burned.”

In response to the labors of John Wyclif, the English Parliament (under Roman Catholic influence) banned the translation of Scripture into English, unless approved by the church (1408).

The Council of Constance (Germany/ Bohemia, 1415) condemned John Hus and the writings of Wyclif because of their doctrine of Scripture and subsequent teachings. Hus answerd: “If anyone can instruct me by the sacred Scriptures. . . , I am willing to follow him.” He was burned at the stake.

Archbishop Berthold of Mainz threatened to excommunicate anyone who translated the Bible (1486).

Pope Pius IV expressed the conviction that Bible reading did the common people more harm than good (1564).

It is true that in many cases, the papacy suppressed Scripture because it was being used to teach against the church. But this is exactly the point the Reformers argued: Rome would not allow the Scripture to speak with authority and for that reason suppressed it.

Wyclif wrote: “where the Bible and the Church do not agree, we must obey the Bible, and, where conscience and human authority are in conflict, we must follow conscience.”

For this doctrine and its further implications, his body was exhumed and burned, his ashes scattered in a nearby river, and his Bible translation banned.

So much for the Protestant “canard” regarding the Roman Catholic attitude to Bible translation, teaching, and distribution!

The record shows that if there was a single conviction that motivated and guided the Protestant Reformation, it was the authority of Scripture alone to speak for God in matters of faith and life. On this vital matter, the great John Wyclif and his martyr-disciple John Hus spoke with all the clarity that would burst forth through Martin Luther and others in the 16th century.

Wyclif did not live to see a widespread Reformation, but died under harassment and scorn. Yet by wonderful providences, his writings spread far away to Bohemia where John Hus advocated them with zeal and power. Hus, too, did not live to see a Reformation, but died in solitary disgrace amidst the flames of a scornful church. Yet his influence endured, through the spread of Scripture, so that Martin Luther exclaimed, “We are all Hussites!”

The Protestant Reformation, which we have been celebrating these past weeks, was above all a Reformation of and by the Word of God. What compelling evidence Wyclif, Hus, and Luther gave to Isaiah’s claim that God’s Word will not go forth in vain but shall succeed by God’s power (Isa. 55:11)! It is for this reason that accommodation with Rome would have been unthinkable to Luther and his followers, since sola scriptura compelled them to stand against false teaching with the Word of truth. Their courageous stance, blessed by God’s mighty aid, reminds us that we also will never send forth God’s Word in vain. If we will stand within the secular church of America, and yes, of evangelicalism, and hold forth the Word of God, he will not fail to bless it with the saving and reforming power our generation so greatly needs.

Why the Reformation Still Matters

Dr. Michael Reeves is president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology. He is author of many books, including Delighting in the Trinity. In an article in Tabletalk magazine (available here) he writes:

Last year, on October 31, Pope Francis announced that after five hundred years, Protestants and Catholics now “have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another.” From that, it sounds as if the Reformation was an unfortunate and unnecessary squabble over trifles, a childish outburst that we can all put behind us now that we have grown up.

But tell that to Martin Luther, who felt such liberation and joy at his rediscovery of justification by faith alone that he wrote, “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” Tell that to William Tyndale, who found it such “merry, glad and joyful tidings” that it made him “sing, dance, and leap for joy.” Tell it to Thomas Bilney, who found it gave him “a marvellous comfort and quietness, insomuch that my bruised bones leaped for joy.” Clearly, those first Reformers didn’t think they were picking a juvenile fight; as they saw it, they had discovered glad tidings of great joy.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Europe had been without a Bible the people could read for something like a thousand years. Thomas Bilney had thus never encountered the words “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Instead of the Word of God, they were left to the understanding that God is a God who enables people to earn their own salvation. As one of the teachers of the day liked to put it, “God will not deny grace to those who do their best.” Yet what were meant as cheering words left a very sour taste for everyone who took them seriously. How could you be sure you really had done your best? How could you tell if you had become the sort of just person who merited salvation?

Martin Luther certainly tried. “I was a good monk,” he wrote, “and kept my order so strictly that I could say that if ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I should have entered in.” And yet, he found:

My conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, “You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.” The more I tried to remedy an uncertain, weak and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more daily I found it more uncertain, weaker and more troubled.

According to Roman Catholicism, Luther was quite right to be unsure of heaven. Confidence of a place in heaven was considered errant presumption and was one of the charges made against Joan of Arc at her trial in 1431. There, the judges proclaimed, Continue reading

Ten Lasting Fruits of the Reformation

Article by Dr. Joel Beeke (original source here)

God sent forth the power of his Word in the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Reformation served as a dynamic motivation and catalyst for change and progress wherever its influence reached. Many would credit Martin Luther as the driving engine that propelled the Reformation, but Luther said, “I did nothing; the Word did everything.” John Knox said, “God did so multiply our number that it appeared as if men had rained from the clouds.” How did the Reformation change the church and the world? Here are ten lasting fruits in which the Reformation made a significant difference.

1. The Word of God
The Reformers recognized the Bible as God’s written Word, and the supreme rule of faith and life for both the individual believer and for the life of the church. Here is the great starting point for understanding the aims, dynamism, and achievements of the Reformation. As part of the revival of learning connected with the Renaissance, the Western church recovered the knowledge of the original languages of the Bible. For the first time in many centuries, her scholars and teachers were able to read the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, and examine the extant Latin translations of the Bible in the light of the original. If you want to call yourself an heir of the Reformation, then you must be a student of the Bible. Read the Word of God and meditate on it daily. Cultivate a systematic understanding of the Bible’s teachings. Compare Scripture with Scripture. Never walk away from private devotions, family worship, or a sermon without taking hold of some particular truth and applying it to your soul.

2. The Gospel of Grace
The Reformers recovered the authentic gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, and proclaiming it to the ends of the earth through zealous evangelism. They taught that sinners are saved as Christ graciously works in them by His Word and Holy Spirit, convincing them of their sin and misery, and leading them to faith in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, offered once for all, as the only ground of their salvation. Justification from the guilt of sin is not the distant goal, but the beginning of life in Christ. Good works are fruits that accompany justification, and only serve to confirm it. Justification is by faith alone, through Christ alone. Salvation is the gracious, free gift of God, “not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:9). What Luther and the other Reformers discovered was that Rome had exchanged the true gospel for a false one. According to Rome, salvation was achieved by slow degrees and hard work, by receiving the sacraments and by doing such good works as the church required or directed. Sinners must atone for their sins by doing penance in this life and suffering the fires of purgatory in the next, calling on saints and angels for help, and cherishing the hope of full salvation only in the far distant future. Some degree of comfort was afforded to the faithful by the sale of “indulgences,” promissory notes issued by the church forgiving or “indulging” some part of the debt of sin owed to God. This “gospel according to Rome” was a message to inspire fear of wrath, not faith in Christ.

3. Experiential Piety
The Reformers enlivened the church worldwide with a deep conviction of the fatherly sovereignty of God through Christ, which results in a deep, warm, sanctifying, experiential piety or godliness that moves believers to commit their entire lives to His praise. One of the most compelling proofs of this assertion is the Heidelberg Catechism. Nothing is stated in an abstract or purely theoretical way. The very first question is intensely personal and experiential: “What is thy only comfort in live and in death?” Time and again the practical use or personal benefit is pressed: “What doth it profit thee now that thou believest all this?” (Q. 59).

This pressure persists to the last sentence of the Catechism: “Amen”––that is, the “Amen” of the Lord’s Prayer—“signifies that it shall truly and certainly be, for my prayer is more assuredly heard of God than I feel in my heart that I desire these things of Him” (Q. 129).

Subsequent generations of Reformed pastors and teachers took up this concern and developed it, as Christian experience and the strengths and weaknesses connected with it, received close scrutiny, careful analysis, and thorough exposition.

4. Old Paths
The Reformers preserved, exposited, and defended the ancient Christian faith through preaching and sound literature as the system of doctrine taught in God’s Word. The Reformers found support for their formulations of the Christian faith in the writings of the ancient church fathers. They saw themselves as the true heirs of historic Christianity. The Roman church had added to the biblical faith and obscured the gospel of justification, but there remained many essential truths of true Christianity as summarized in the Ecumenical Creeds. Though mired in layers of corruption, the gold of apostolic Christianity had not been utterly lost.

The Reformed faith was given to the world not as something new, but only a return of the faith, worship, and order of the apostolic church. It is popular today to cast off all tradition in order to cultivate a religion based on “me and my Bible.” Much contemporary Christianity is superficial and without deep foundations, and so very unstable. However, this is not the Reformation principle of Scripture alone, but a corruption of it. We do not reject tradition in itself, but tradition that is not subordinate to the Bible.

5. The Head of the Church
The Reformers reasserted the crown rights of Christ as King over the nations and the only Head of the church. This resulted in a church where all is done in subjection to God’s Word and in relation to the triune God rather than in subjection to man’s desires. The Reformers soon found themselves at odds with the hierarchy of the church, and in particular with the Pope. Over the centuries, the Papacy had advanced its claim to dominion over the worldwide church and over the kings and princes of Christian Europe. In a similar way, these kings and princes often claimed dominion over the church within their realms. Not infrequently, these divergent views led to fierce and bloody conflicts.

The Reformers found themselves fighting a two-front war, as the Pope used all his power to suppress the Reformation, and hostile kings and princes resisted and punished attempts to reform the church in their territories. Against both, the Reformers exalted Christ as the only Head of the church in heaven and on earth. Where they prevailed, the church was delivered from the twofold tyranny of the Papacy and the state.

6. Christian Freedom
The Reformers established the freedom of the Christian from tyranny in the church, the rights of citizens under the rule of law, curbing the powers of kings and nobles, and enabling the rise of representative democracy in the form of constitutional monarchies and republics. Upholding the supreme authority of Scripture, they dealt a deathblow to the medieval theory of the divine right of kings. All estates of the nation, including the king, are subject to the law of God and the laws of the state. Each citizen lives under the law’s protection, enjoying the liberty secured by subjection to God and to Christ. None but God has power over the conscience, and the calling of magistrates is to “do justice for the helpless, the orphan’s cause maintain; defend the poor and needy, oppressed and wronged for gain.”

This idea of kingship broke upon sixteenth century Europe as a revolutionary thunderbolt. A long struggle ensued to curb the excesses and abuses of kings, free the church from interference by the state, and establish the rule of law in Protestant Europe. It is no coincidence that representative democracy flourished best in lands and nations where the Reformed faith was most deeply rooted. The habits of democratic self-government were acquired by many citizens in meetings of congregations, consistories, classes, sessions, presbyteries, and synods.

The modern deliberative assembly is the brainchild of Presbyterianism. We should cherish our political freedoms and use all lawful means to preserve them. The rule of law, rights of all human beings, and covenantal accountability of leaders to God and the people are precious biblical principles. However, we should also remember that no political freedom has a stable foundation unless the church remains grounded in its freedom in Christ. Unless Christians walk in our blood-bought freedom from the dominion of sin, we cannot expect society around us to preserve civil liberty. Moral degeneration corrupts political freedom into a mask for any tyranny that promises to gratify a people’s passions.

7. Vocations for the Common Good
The Reformers recast the state as a commonwealth, promoting the dignity of labor, encouraging commerce, and increasing wealth among all classes, while curbing the excesses of unregulated capitalism and providing for the care of the sick and the poor. In the view of the Reformers, a well-regulated state ought to provide for the common good. All should thrive together, walking agreeably in decency and good order. Everyone has a stake in the life and well-being of the nation. No man is granted freedom to do as he pleases, without regard to the laws of God and the state. Such is the idea of the state as a commonwealth.

Reformed Christianity played a major role in the eradication of serfdom and the abolition of slavery, though, sadly, for some Reformed Christians these measures seemed too radical to be endorsed. According to the Reformed idea of vocation or calling, the common laborer came into his own as an image-bearing servant of God. Reformed doctrine sanctifies all of life, and resists attempts both ancient and modern to draw a line between the sacred and the secular. Men of wealth are called to use their wealth for the good of others and for the cause of Christ.

The restoration of the office of deacon meant that measures were taken in hand to care for the sick and lighten the burden of poverty on the poor. The communion of saints, each one employing his gifts for the advantage and salvation of the others, welded Reformed communities together as forces for benevolence, civic improvement and social progress.

8. Marriage and Child-rearing
The Reformers established the Christian home on the principles of Scripture, in which marriage is understood as a reflection of the Christ/church relationship; where husband and wife covenant with each other to walk in God’s ways; and parents, to rear their children, who are loaned to them by God. Casting out the medieval cult of celibacy, the Reformers embraced and exalted marriage in the Lord as the norm for the Christian life.

The Christian family is counted as the basic unit of the church and the foundation of society. In no better way can the mystery of Christ and His church be honored and enacted before the world. The children of believers once more became the heritage of the Lord, loved and nurtured, called to faith and repentance, confronted with Christ’s claims upon their faith and obedience, and schooled in the “true and perfect doctrine of salvation” taught in the Reformed churches.

9. Arts and Sciences
The Reformers rekindled the spirit of inquiry, founding schools, academies, and universities; disseminating knowledge; encouraging research and exploration; enabling many discoveries and producing many valuable inventions. Exalting God as Maker of heaven and earth, believing that man was created in God’s image, and valuing the creation as God’s handiwork, Reformed Christians have been stirred to seek out the laws of the universe and to realize much of the great potential built into the world as God created it. Believing that knowledge is essential to life and happiness, Reformed Christianity fostered the development of universal education.

A large chapter in the history of Reformed Christianity in the United States is the history of the founding of schools, school systems, and institutions of higher learning wherever Presbyterian and Reformed immigrants and settlers established their new homes and churches. The need for a well-educated ministry lay at the heart of this enterprise, but side by side lay the concern for an educated laity, that all might profit from the ministry of the Word.

10. The True Worship of God
Perhaps, above all, the Reformation promoted true worship. For them to worship God, whether privately or publicly, was to bow down before His majestic glory, and in spirit and in truth to bring Him, in and through Jesus Christ and in accord with Scripture, the honor and praise that belong to Him alone. Calvin said that the Christian faith turns on two main hinges: how we are saved, and how we should worship God.

Reformation worship turns away from the saints as heavenly mediators and encourages people to draw near to God the Father through the sole mediation of God the Son by the power of God the Holy Spirit. It simplifies the sacraments (from seven to two), purges the service of unbiblical rituals and imagined sacred objects, and restores the people to their function as a holy priesthood. It makes the Holy Scriptures both the rule of worship and its content as the church reads the Word, prays the Word, sings the Word, preaches the Word, and sees the Word in baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Conclusion: Soli Deo Gloria
Here then, we have ten crucial ways that the Reformation—contra Rome—has blessed our world. What is the one great reality that all these things reflect? The diamond of the Reformation is the glory of God. The Reformation was about the centrality of God—the supremacy, sovereignty, holiness, goodness, and mercy of God in His triune being. The spirit of the Reformation, if you boil it down to its distilled essence, is to love God by faith in the grace of Christ, as He is revealed in the Scriptures.

Understanding the Reformation

Lectures by Erwin Lutzer:

(1) John Hus: The Goose Who Became a Swan

(2) Martin Luther: The Wild Boar

(3) John Calvin & Ulrich Zwingli and the Drowning of the Anabaptists

(4) Sola Fide: Justification by Faith Alone, a Gospel that Saves

(5) Questions & Answers on the Reformation

(6) Rescuing the Gospel in America: The Book of Jude

Further Material:

Rescuing the Gospel: The Story and the Relevance of the Reformation

Rescuing the Gospel in America

Is the Reformation Over?

2017 marks the 500th year anniversary of the Reformation. Many believe that the issues that began the reformation have been resolved and are declaring the reformation over. But is this true?

Gregg Allison and Michael Reeves

Ligon Duncan: Why the Reformation is Not Over: The Continuing Need for Biblical Fidelity and Reform in Worship, Salvation, Sacraments and the Church:

Albert Mohler: We Have Only One Priest: The Reformation as a Revolution in Ministry:

Calvin on the Necessity for Reforming the Church

Article by Dr. Robert Godfrey (original source here)

More than 450 years ago, a request came to John Calvin to write on the character of and need for reform in the Church. The circumstances were quite different from those that inspired other writings of Calvin, and enable us to see other dimensions of his defense of the Reformation. The Emperor Charles V was calling the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire to meet in the city of Speyer in 1544. Martin Bucer, the great reformer of Strassburg, appealed to Calvin to draft a statement of the doctrines of and necessity for the Reformation. The result was remarkable. Theodore Beza, Calvin’s friend and successor in Geneva, called “The Necessity for Reforming the Church” the most powerful work of his time.

Calvin organizes the work into three large sections. The first section is devoted to the evils in the church that required reformation. The second details the particular remedies to those evils adopted by the reformers. The third shows why reform could not be delayed, but rather how the situation demanded “instant amendment.”

In each of these three sections Calvin focuses on four topics, which he calls the soul and body of the church. The soul of the church is worship and salvation. The body is sacraments and church government. The great cause of reform for Calvin centers in these topics. The evils, remedies and necessity for prompt action all relate to worship, salvation, sacraments and church government.

The great cause of reform for Calvin centers in these topics. The importance of these topics for Calvin is highlighted when we remember that he was not responding to attacks in these four areas, but chose them himself as the most important aspects of the Reformation. Proper worship is Calvin’s first concern.


Calvin stresses the importance of worship because human beings so easily worship according to their own wisdom rather than God’s. He insists that worship must be regulated by the Word of God alone: “I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honour of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, ‘Obedience is better than sacrifice.’” This conviction is one of the reasons that reform was required: “. . . since . . . God in many passages forbids any new worship unsanctioned by his Word; since he declares that he is grievously offended with the presumption which invents such worship, and threatens it with severe punishment, it is clear that the reformation which we have introduced was demanded by a strong necessity.” By the standard of God’s Word Calvin concludes of the Roman Catholic Church that “the whole form of divine worship in general use in the present day is nothing but mere corruption.”

For Calvin the worship of the medieval church had become “gross idolatry.” The issue of idolatry was for him as serious as the issue of works righteousness in justification. Both represented human wisdom replacing divine revelation. Both represented a pandering to human proclivities, rather than desiring to please and obey God. Calvin insists that no unity can exist in worship with idolaters: “But it will be said, that, though the prophets and apostles dissented from wicked priests in doctrine, they still cultivated communion with them in sacrifices and prayers. I admit they did, provided they were not forced into idolatry. But which of the prophets do we read of as having ever sacrificed in Bethel?” Continue reading

The Need of the Hour

Big-Ben-3By Dr. Michael Reeves

In 1516, planting the seed of the Reformation. It was there that Martin Luther would discover the astonishing news of a gracious God and his free gift of righteousness.

The astonishing refreshment of the church in the years that followed was therefore the fruit, not of one man’s ingenuity, but the word of God. The Bible was why the church – and, indeed, all Europe – was turned upside down.

In the years that followed, Luther would become clearer and clearer on this. After getting the Reformation ball rolling in 1517 with his 95 theses, Luther found himself debating a number of Roman Catholic theologians. And more and more, the question of how the Bible relates to the church kept coming up. Luther’s first sparring partner, Sylvester Prierias, argued that the Scriptures ‘draw their strength and authority” from the Church of Rome, and in particular the Pope. Next, Cardinal Cajetan weighed in, claiming that Scripture must be interpreted for us by the Pope, who is an authority above Scripture.

As they saw it, the Bible was written by the church, and therefore the church is a higher authority that the Bible. As Luther saw it, the Bible is the word of God. The church is not its ultimate author. Quite the opposite: the church was created by the word.

As in the beginning God brought light, life and creation into being through his word, so through his word he brings his new creation into being (2 Cor. 4:6). The church has come into being because God has spoken.

The point became basic for the Reformers: the church is born of the word of God, and grows in both size and health by the word of God (Eph. 4:11-13). Indeed, wrote John Calvin, ‘wherever we see the word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.’

Five hundred years later, this is a truth that needs to be heard loud and clear: the church receives its life and health and growth from the word of God. We especially need to hear this again in post-Christian Europe, where the situation is generally so disheartening. Faced with reams of horrifying statistics about church decline, a wearing negativity or defeatism can set in. Focused on the sheer enormity of the uphill battle before us, a siege mentality can develop. Losing the confidence to step out with the old word of God, we circle the wagons and lose the confidence to step out into the world. Or we look elsewhere for the solution. But Christians can know that we are not mere teachers of an unfashionable message, nor salesmen of one religious product: we herald the very word of God. The word of God entrusted to us is the very power of God which does not return empty, and which will one day drive all darkness away for good.

This is the need of the hour. If we are to see a reformation and refreshment of the church today, we need churches filled with the glorious and surprising news of Jesus held out in his word.

Five hundred years later, we are looking forward – looking forward to seeing God’s word go out in our generation, fueling the mission of the church and enlivening it again.