“The Necessity of Reform: The Church’s Crisis of Holiness”
13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
As we have considered some of the historical background of the Reformation we have noted that the church was facing a crisis of authority because it had progressively abandoned Scripture as the rule of faith for the believer. A significant result of this was that certain doctrines were developed as a part of canon law which had no basis in the teachings of the Bible (transubstantiation, papal primacy). Inevitably, as the Scriptures lost their authority and the Gospel itself came to be obscured, the end result was that the conduct of the church became more and more worldly. This crisis of holiness within the church was another significant factor in the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
In Part 1 of this series we traced the rise of the church as an institution and noted that it adopted the formal structure of the Roman government in terms of its organization. This allowed the church to take the place of Rome as the unifying force within Europe as the government began to collapse in the 5th century. Of necessity, this meant that the church became intimately involved in politics, economics, and government. The increased wealth and power that the institutional church acquired led eventually to corruption and immorality among many in the leadership. It was therefore not uncommon for those in the leadership to have purchased their positions within the church, a practice known as simony, or to have received their positions as a result of nepotism.
As these leadership positions came to be filled by people who had primarily worldly rather than spiritual interests in mind, it was no surprise that immorality became rampant. The middle ages are filled with satirical writings which mock the supposed holiness of church leaders who engage in revelry and sexual sin. Numerous popes and bishops during this time and in the lead up to the Reformation were known to have fathered children, some with numerous women. Many in the leadership were also mocked for their lavish lifestyles which were funded by the tithes and offerings of the poor. Given the immorality of the leadership, it is no surprise that the people themselves struggled with living godly lives in Christ Jesus. The threat of purgatory compelled many to avoid open sin, but the possibility of purchasing indulgences or venerating relics (most if not all of which were forgeries) provided opportunities for them to engage in sinful behavior, knowing that punishment would be remitted. The corruption within the leadership of the church and the willingness to take advantage of the poor were key issues for the Reformers, and it was the sale of indulgences in Germany which was the impetus for Luther to pen his 95 Theses.
Having himself visited Rome during his days as an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther had seen first hand the contrast between the lavish lifestyles of the church leadership in Rome and the relative poverty of the average German believers among whom he ministered. When Pope Leo X issued an indulgence to raise money for the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, an infuriated Luther penned his words of protest and nailed them to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral. As time passed, Luther came to realize that the rituals and ceremonies of the church had actually contributed to the unholiness of God’s people throughout the wider church. He therefore began to advocate for a return to Scripture as the rule of faith so that God’s people might know the Gospel and live their lives in light of it.
To belong to the true church is to have responded to the Gospel in simple faith. When we are redeemed by Christ we become part of a new family and have a new Father. Our Father in heaven is holy, and therefore we as His children are to be holy as He is holy. This comes not through our efforts, but through the work of Christ in our justification, by which we are declared holy, and then in our sanctification, as we come to see Christ as our very life.
The Reformers called the church to return to the Scriptures so that they might truly know Christ by faith. Having come to Him by faith, we are now to walk with Him by faith. As we worship Him we are shown to be His people in our conduct within the surrounding culture, proclaiming Him as Lord and growing in grace.
Join us this Sunday as we gather to worship Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith!
Soli Deo Gloria.