“The Necessity of Reform: The Church’s Crisis of Authority”
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” – Romans 1:16-17
We began our series last week by considering the significance of the “rule of faith” for believers. As we saw, the final guide for the beliefs and practices of Christians are the Scriptures. As we turn this week to consider the Church’s crisis of salvation at the time of the Reformation, we must understand that the basis for this crisis was a veering away from the teachings of the Bible.
Because of the Church believed itself to be the guardian of the Gospel message through the apostolic tradition and the Scriptures, she came to consider salvation to be her own possession. It was impossible, therefore, for anyone to come to faith in Christ apart from the Church who had been entrusted with the Gospel. On top of this, the Church was the means by which God’s grace was imparted to mankind through the sacraments. It was of course necessary for people to place their faith and trust in the work of Christ, but the person must continue to walk in faith and partake of the sacraments. These sacraments were especially important in light of doctrinal developments that occurred during the middle ages.
There had long been theological discussion as to the meaning of the Eucharist and Christ’s presence within the meal. Some argued that Christ was spiritually present while others argued that the elements themselves were the very body and blood of Christ. Eventually the doctrine of transubstantiation was developed which described how the priest, by means of the words of consecration, would facilitate the transforming of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. This was of vital importance because it was the channel of God’s grace to the believer so that they might be cleansed from sin. Unfortunately, this led to the Eucharist becoming the focal point of gathered worship. It was believed that people received the benefit of this grace irrespective of whether or not they understood what was going on or even whether or not they ate or drank of the elements.
The middle ages were also the time period where the doctrine of purgatory became formalized. Taking Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 3:15, the church determined that although sin could be forgiven in terms of one’s eternal destiny, the sin that was committed in life and was not absolved through the church must be dealt with before one could enter heaven. The result was that believers were encouraged to pray for one another as well as for those who were dead in order to minimize time in purgatory. This led eventually to the church offering of indulgences which could be earned or purchased from the church in order to secure the remittance of sins.
The move away from Scripture created a religious system that offered the believer no assurance of their salvation. No one knew this better than a German monk named Martin Luther. Upon performing his first mass, he was overwhelmed by the holiness of God and his own sinfulness. After years of abusing his body because of his sin he was sent away to become a professor in the city of Wittenberg. It was there while studying the book of Romans that he came to understand that God declared believers to be just or righteous not based on their own works, but on the basis of the work of Christ. This freedom led Luther to speak out against the sale of indulgences as well as other works which the Roman Church assured believers would being about the forgiveness of sins.
While Luther was not the first person to question these practices or to exhort the church to return to the Scriptures as their primary authority, his boldness became the catalyst for the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. As faithful believers began to once again read the Scriptures they came to understand the vital distinction between justification and sanctification.
Join us this Sunday as we gather to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to celebrate the forgiveness that we have in Him. We will also have the joy of remembering His person and work as well as His presence with us by the power of His Spirit as we commune together around His table.
Soli Deo Gloria.