“The bottom line for that we must place our complete and total trust in what Jesus Christ has done on our behalf, and not on our own merits.”

In 2017, Protestants around the world celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, traditionally viewed as having begun with the nailing of Martin Luther’s 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany on October 31st, 1517. The Protestant Reformation is universally acknowledged to have been one of the most significant developments that occurred in European history. It is also likely the most far-reaching movement in the history of the Christian church. Today, Protestantism claims over 900 million adherents in numerous denominations, and the split from the Roman Catholic Church, with its billion members, has never been healed.

On the other hand, some details about recent celebrations indicated to some that, perhaps, this half-millennium long divide could be bridged in the not-too-distant future. One headline surprisingly stated: “Catholics and Protestants Mark 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation.” In Lund, Sweden, an ecumenical service was held between Catholics and Lutherans which featured a homily by none other than Pope Francis. The Roman Catholic leader said the following: “We 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.” In addition to the comments by the current pope, there are also significant numbers of Protestant churches and leaders who claim that the issues of the Reformation are no longer an obstacle to church unity with Rome. More broadly, many Protestants and Catholics have supported common causes, such as the fight against abortion, or other social issues.

In light of the above, it would seem critical for Christians who identify as Protestants to re-examine their beliefs and evaluate whether or not Reformation issues are still relevant. Today we can look back at innumerable benefits that arose partly as a consequence of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation undoubtedly sparked literacy, promoted greater opportunity for the common man, led to the development of modern nation states, and was even a significant factor in the birth of America as a nation, etc. But at the end of the day, what relevance does a 500 year old protest still have today for American Christians? Are we still protesting something? And if so, do we even know what the whole fuss is about? 

Perhaps the best place to begin is by considering one of the primary rallying cries of the Protestant Reformation, the so-called “five solas.” These five Latin phrases traditionally form the basis of the core ideas behind the Reformation. If we had to pick the most important of the five, it would undoubtedly be sola fide (“By faith alone”). Martin Luther famously said that “the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the article on which the church stands or falls.” Since other Reformers in the sixteenth century said similar things, it would be a safe bet that sola fide is the first subject we should turn to.

Frequently, when people hear the term sola fide, they suppose that the two positions in this debate between Protestants and Catholics were faith vs. works. In other words, it is thought that Protestants held to the notion that our salvation is tied to faith, while Catholics believed the people are saved by doing good works. The problem, of course, is that is not what the Catholic church has ever affirmed, either during the Reformation, or presently. The official Catholic catechism, for example, plainly states the following: “Faith is necessary for salvation. The Lord himself affirms: ‘He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.’ ”

The real “protest” on this issue concerns the qualification placed before fide (“faith”), namely sola (“alone”). The Protestant Reformers asserted that our basis for a right standing before God––our entire salvation––rests solely upon the faith that we exercise in Jesus Christ and his perfect work on the cross. Among other things, they considered some of the very strong language Paul uses in his epistle to the Galatians, and deemed this to be a matter of life and death itself. 

Paul wrote his first letter to the Galatians in Asia Minor. These were new believers who had been led astray by some other teachers who strongly asserted that unless these Christians first adopted Jewish customs––in particular, circumcision––they couldn’t be saved. It was in light of this that Paul wrote to them forcefully:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
-Galatians 1:6–9

Notice the language Paul uses here. The gospel is at stake here. If only one change is introduced into the gospel, it ceases to be the gospel at all. Paul elsewhere explains what he implies by this gospel: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28, emphasis added). As Protestants, we can stand firm on Scripture and declare that our standing before God is determined solely on the basis of faith, and not any inherent merit or work that we could offer our Creator.

In contrast to this, the Council of Trent––a series of meetings convened by the Catholic church in order to respond to the Protestant Reformation––stated in almost equally forceful terms: “If any one says, that by faith alone the ungodly are justified; so as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema” (emphasis added). Notice that the Catholic church in its official teachings explicitly condemns in the strongest terms anyone who teaches that one may obtain a right standing with God by faith alone. It is important to note that this council has never been rejected by subsequent popes or ecclesiastical bodies. The Catholic church thus stands opposed to what the Word of God states, at least in its official teachings. 

Although many other issues can and should be discussed regarding Catholic-Protestant differences, the bottom line for us as followers of Christ and believers in the Word of God is that we must place our complete and total trust in what Jesus Christ has done on our behalf, and not on our own merits. The only good news is the good news of a perfect Savior, who condescended to us and bore our sins completely on that cross, in order that we might grasp His righteousness by faith alone, to the glory of God alone.

For more on this topic, we encourage you to listen to the audio from our seminar on What the Reformation Means for Today.

Kaspars Ozolins

Kaspars is a member of Cornerstone and serves through teaching.

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