Societal change and upheaval was the result of the Protestant Reformation; but was it for the good of society, religion, and personal faith?
Not long ago, an American presidential candidate proclaimed that he was going to bring about "fundamental change" to America -- that was his project.
But 500 years before him, a Roman Catholic seminary professor named Martin Luther came to worldwide prominence. Luther was a bright intellect who became a sincere believer in the words of Scripture. Luther did not have "fundamental change" in mind when he posted his 95 Theses on October 31, 1517; he merely wanted to challenge teachings that had been adopted by the church of Rome which he could not substantiate with a Biblical text. Luther's aim was reformation, return, and consistency with what the Bible and the early church taught.
But this Reformation became volatile. Those whom Luther challenged for academic engagement immediately sought to remove his voice; that of a simple monk from an unproven seminary from the backwaters of Germany. The Roman Catholic hierarchy did not take the challenge to their authority lightly. And in Luther, they met their match!
The changes to the Christian Church that tumbled out of the Reformation debate actually brought about a "conversion" to many aspects of church life. Let's look at a few…
At this time the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) depended upon the general culture of society and the authority of the state working together to maintain conformity and submission to princes and popes. The Reformation, however, established that Scripture alone, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit would be the rule for an individual's faith and conscience. Would this mean that the church or society no longer had a role for the individual? No. But Reformers tended to see corruption springing from all earthly agencies not fully committed to ordering personal faith and practice upon the Scriptures alone. Therefore, "Sola Scriptura!"
Creeds, councils, and captains cannot rule our life; God does as He speaks through His Scripture.
The RCC also invested all of it's training and power in their priests. The only way for a meager Christian to benefit from any of the merits of Jesus Christ was to access the mediating works of a RCC priest: they alone had "apostolic authority," they alone could forgive sins, they alone dispensed the "grace" of God in the sacraments, they alone had access and insight of the Scriptures (Bibles were in Latin and the property of church or seminary only… the layman did not have a copy at home!)
The Reformation changed this! Luther translated the Bible into German. Luther advocated that priests now marry and reject the "priest-craft" of the RCC. The whole idea of a "mediating priest" was more a reflection of an Old Testament covenant with the Sons of Aaron, who would all be superseded and replaced by a New Covenant, "priesthood of all believers." On this matter another conversion took place in the scriptural affirmation, "...there is one mediator between God and man, the man, Christ Jesus." (1 Tim. 2:5)
Therefore, "Christ Alone!"
Would this mean that there would no longer be order and officers for the church? No. The ordination of pastors and officers insures that the congregation can place their confidence in the vocation of a well-trained minister and shepherd. In a Protestant church, the pastor has gifts, but not any different from anyone in the congregation who follows the True Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
The RCC recognized that sin was a problem in the life of the Christian. Sin would lead to God's judgments of temporal and eternal torments. Jesus' own words referenced the destinies of the unrepentant, the vile, the hypocritical, and the enemies of God. But what was the RCC's remedy for this terrifying situation? Here it is: The RCC has a vast storehouse of "grace" to dispense to those who access the treasury of the church. How does one access this "grace?" One could do penance, participate in several sacramental practices, or one could pay for it!
If a work of penitential indulgence could not be personally performed, one could purchase a document releasing them from temporal torments… this is the kind of "grace" that the RCC dispensed: it was a substance to add to your personal judgment scales that could tip things in the sinner's favor -- if one accessed enough of it, of course.
Luther and the Reformation fathers decried this scheme. They saw the cynical nature of "buying GRACE!"
Grace is not a substance that is dispensed by pope or priest; but a disposition of a righteous God who is satisfied with the righteousness which is only found in Jesus Christ. Therefore, "Grace Alone!"
Not as a "grift," but as a gift of God; not based on works but upon faith in the God who decrees from all eternity a people whom He would declare righteous - justified! This is wed nicely with another change brought about by the Reformation…
The RCC, for all its "access" to the meritorious works of the saints, could NEVER assure a believer of a complete and glorious salvation. Sins being what they are, so replete and condemning, sends everyone in the RCC to purgatory to "burn off sin." This misdirected obsession with a doctrine not even found in Scripture promoted a dependence on the "merits" that only the RCC possessed. Furthermore, the RCC requirement for 'good works' could only shorten one's stay in purgatory -- sinners only became saints after the torture of their souls.
The Reformation thundered back, "Faith Alone!"
Not a faith in what we, as sinners, have accomplished to earn salvation; but faith alone in the only One who merited salvation on our behalf -- Jesus Christ!
Why is the RCC managing the merits of their constellation of "saints" when the only true, faithful, and righteous savior, Jesus Christ, "has paid it all!" Christians rest upon nothing less, than Jesus' blood and righteousness! And in this faith, in Christ alone, we have confidence to stand "faultless before the throne!"
Lastly (for this short posting), the worship practices of the RCC needed Reformation. In Protestant churches we do not find: altars, statues, incense, tabernacles, beads, holy water, etc.
Have Protestants jettisoned everything connected with ancient worship practices? The debate rolls on. Yet, in Protestant churches, The proclamation of the Bible has supremacy, the gospel of grace is expounded, the sacraments administered in simplicity, and a focus on the discipleship of all of life is marked out. The aim is expressed in the phrase, "Glory to God, Alone!"
The correct God is to be worshiped, correctly; and our focus is upon His saving and redeeming work, and not our performance! We worship with humility and reverence to honor the God Who directs us how to worship Him.
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