Ask Pastor Alex, Ep. 42
This is the Ask Pastor Alex podcast with your host, Pastor Alex. All right, welcome back everyone. We are here with another episode and another question, and we have an incredibly timely and relevant question to address in this episode. The question for this episode is, does the Reformation still matter? And that’s a really good question. The answer, of course, is yes, the Reformation does still matter. And it matters quite a lot, actually. The reason I say that this is a relevant and timely question is because Reformation Day was last week. Reformation Day occurs on Halloween. And Reformation Day is the annual celebration and remembrance of the Protestant Reformation, which is celebrated on October 31st, since that’s the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg. And since we still celebrate that day as Protestants, many people have asked and wondered, why do we do that? Why do we still celebrate Reformation Day? Why does the Reformation still matter? It happened over 500 years ago. What is its lasting relevance for today? And there are a number of reasons that I want to address in this episode about why the Reformation does still matter today.
One of the most important phrases that came out of the Reformation was, ecclesia reformata semper reformanda, which means the church reformed, always reforming. In other words, the church is always in need of reformation. The church in Luther’s day was heretical and far from perfect, and it was in need of reformation. And the same thing is true for us today. In the church today, the church is far from perfect. New heresies and new movements are always constantly invading the church and seeking to corrupt the church. And so, Christians must always be reforming and seeking to purify the church and prevent its corruption. We are to oppose heresies. We are to oppose these things that find their way into the church and into the Christian life that seek to lead us astray and away from the truth of God’s Word. And so, the church must always be reforming in order to pursue the holiness that God calls us to.
One reason why the Reformation still matters is because it establishes the principle of
the church’s need to always be reforming. However, the big reason that the Reformation still matters and is still needed is doctrine. When Luther nailed his 95 theses to that castle church door in Wittenberg, it was an invitation for debate. Many people get this wrong. Many people think that Luther was just doing that so he could try to start a movement or anything like that, but that’s far from the case. When he did that, he was not seeking to start a movement. It was an invitation for debate. He was hoping that Catholic scholars would engage him in this meaningful discussion on all these issues that he was bringing to their attention. Throughout his theses, he challenged more than anything else, the Pope, papal authority, purgatory, and the selling of indulgences. Now you are probably familiar with most of those, maybe not as familiar with indulgences. Indulgences were the formal remission of sins that people could purchase in order to shorten a person’s time in purgatory or even free another person from purgatory. For instance, a person might purchase an indulgence for themselves to make sure that they would have a shorter time in purgatory. You could also purchase indulgences for people in your family or your friends who had already died in order to shorten their time in purgatory. And the Catholic Church was selling indulgences at the time of Luther and they were doing so in a very corrupt way. I mean the whole thing itself is corrupt. But it was very common for people to be on the street corners shouting, “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Basically, if you give us money, we will release your loved ones from purgatory. It was corrupt. It was heretical. Because you know this as well as I do. You cannot buy the remission of your sins. You cannot buy your way into heaven. You cannot buy your way out of hell. There is a price to be paid, but praise the Lord, that price was paid by Christ.
You see, when we’re having this discussion, it all comes down to this very important question. How can one be right with God? We know that the Bible says that mankind is not right with God. We are not in the right in His eyes. And so, the big question for humanity is, how can we be in the right with God? How can we become right with God? And the Catholic Church taught then, as it does now, that in order to be right with God, a person had to be baptized. A person had to practice the sacraments and the ordinances. A person had to contribute works. And if he wanted extra security for his salvation, he would purchase indulgences. However, what the Bible teaches and what the Reformation brought back to light is that a person is right with God only through faith in Christ. This is what is known and called the doctrine of justification. In other words, a person is justified or declared right in the eyes of God by faith in Christ, apart from works of the law. Now that is something that the Reformation brought back to light. It did not create that doctrine. That was a doctrine that was held by all Christians in the early church and by the apostles themselves. But it was lost over time and hidden away, and it was disputed by the Catholic Church. And so the Reformation brought that doctrine back to life, and it’s established very well by Scripture itself. The Bible says in Romans 4 verses 4 through 5, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a gift, but what is due to him. But to the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.” In other words, the only people who are truly righteous in the eyes of God are not those who work or achieve or earn righteousness on their own, but rather it is the ungodly who receive a perfect righteousness through faith in Jesus. It is not something that is due to them because they’ve worked and earned it and achieved it. It is given to them as a free gift because they have turned from themselves and placed all of their hope for salvation, all of their trust and their faith in Christ alone.
Furthermore, Paul says in Romans 3, 28, for we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. He goes on in Galatians 2, 16 to say this, yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. So, we also have believed in Christ Jesus. Why? in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law. Why? Because by works of the law, no one will be justified. You see, I don’t know that God can make it any clearer than that. He explicitly states that no one can be justified, no one can be declared right in his eyes, no one can be right with God by works, but only through faith in Christ.
Now you too might think that sounds very obvious and very plain, very clearly told in Scripture. However, the Catholic Church denied that doctrine back in Luther’s day and continues to deny it today. I’m going to read you two statements from the Catholic Church’s official catechism. This is their official teaching from the Catholic Church’s catechism number 2068. We read, quote, “the Council of Trent teaches that the Ten Commandments are obligatory for Christians and that the justified man is still bound to keep them. The Second Vatican Council confirms the bishops, successors of the apostles, receive from the Lord the mission of teaching all peoples and of preaching the gospel to every creature so that all men may attain salvation through faith, baptism, and the observance of the commandments.” So notice there, I won’t make too many comments on that, but notice that they explicitly teach that men receive salvation not just through faith, but also through baptism and the observance of the commandments. In other words, their salvation is a conditional salvation. They will be saved as long as they work for it and continue to keep and observe the commandments. Also from the Catholic Church’s catechism number 1821, we read, quote, “we can therefore hope in the glory of heaven promised by God to those who love him and do his will. In every circumstance, each one of us should hope with the grace of God to persevere to the end and to obtain the joy of heaven as God’s eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ.” Now, they also go on in their catechisms to say that any person who holds to the doctrine of justification by faith alone, they say the person who believes that he is justified by having faith in Christ apart from works, let that person be anathema. In other words, let that person be damned. So notice that the Catholic Church explicitly teaches that works, human works, are necessary in order to be justified and in order to be saved. In other words, what they’re essentially saying is that Christ was not enough, that his perfect work of redemption, that his life of righteousness and obedience, that his substitutionary death were not enough for your salvation. Something else is needed. Something else has to be added, namely your own works. Woe to the person or people or church who belittle the Son of God and his sacrifice. When we read the Bible, we read that Jesus alone is worthy and we read that he is enough. He has satisfied all of the Father’s requirements and his righteousness and reward are offered to any person who would put his faith and trust in Jesus Christ alone. To the person who does not work but rests fully on Christ’s merits, he will be declared righteous in the eyes of God, not because he has earned it, not because he has deserved it, not because he has worked for it, but because he has trusted in Christ’s sufficiency. This is also known as the doctrine of sola fide, faith alone. We are saved, justified, declared right in the eyes of God through faith alone, not works.
Now obviously you can see how this is still important and relevant for today. For one, the Catholic Church is still teaching its heresies and convincing an innumerable number of people that faith alone isn’t sufficient for your salvation. But also think about how many people in our world today think that they need to contribute something to their salvation. Another way to say that is, think about how many people in our world today put their confidence and hope for salvation in something they do rather than trusting in Christ alone. I mean you talk to people who call themselves Christians today, they’ll say they are sure they are Christians because they were baptized. They’re sure that they’re Christians because they’re a member of a church, because they filled out a card, because they prayed a prayer, because they walked down an aisle, because they attended a Sunday morning gathering. But none of those things, listen to me, none of those things are salvific. Any non-believer could do any of those things. None of those things contribute to your salvation in any way, shape, or form. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Jesus is sufficient. His life, his death, and his resurrection are sufficient for your salvation. But listen, not only was the doctrine of justification of central importance in the Reformation, but also the doctrine of sola scriptura, or Scripture alone. I mean, Scripture is our ultimate and final authority. Theologian Matthew Barrett defines it as the belief that only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church. You see, if you’re going to ask, how can we be right with God? The way you answer that comes down to who or what your ultimate authority is. If your ultimate authority is yourself, then you can determine for yourself how one is right with God. But if your ultimate authority is Scripture, then you have to rely on Scripture to tell you how to be right with God.
During the time of the Reformation, Luther made the case, as many did before him, that Scripture alone is our ultimate authority. This came in opposition to the Catholic Church’s teaching, which it still teaches today, that the authority for Christians is threefold—Scripture, tradition, and the church, and its councils, popes, priests, things like that. Basically, the Catholic Church taught and still continues to teach that church tradition and the word of popes and councils are equally authoritative as the Word of God. In fact, the Catholic Church said, “He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and Pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures too draw their strength and authority, is a heretic.” That’s what the Catholic Church taught in Luther’s day. And I want you to notice this, pay close attention to this. They said that the Holy Scriptures draw their strength and authority from the pope and the Catholic Church, as if God’s Word is not sufficient apart from the pope and the Catholic Church. That is utter heresy. And Luther responded by saying, his holiness, i.e. the pope, abuses Scripture. He said, “I deny that he is above Scripture,” which is essentially what the Catholic Church teaches. The Catholic Church hated Luther because he refused to submit or accept the Catholic Church’s belief that the pope’s interpretation of Scripture is infallible. Understand something, please. No man has an infallible interpretation of Scripture. The Catholic Church believes that whatever the pope says about Scripture is true and infallible and must become the belief of the people. But how dare we elevate a man to the status of God? Only God is infallible. Only God speaks only truth all the time. Only His Word is infallible. The Bible says in 2 Timothy 3, verse 16, all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. Breathed out by God means that Scripture proceeds from God Himself. And since it comes from God, it is inerrant, inspired, and infallible because God cannot lie.
All of this came to a head when Luther was forced to stand trial at the Diet of Worms. The Catholic Church accused him of heresy. They put all of his works before him and told him to recant, recant of all that he had written or be condemned. And Luther took time to pray about it, but finally he responded by saying this, quote, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures, or by evident reason, for I put my faith neither in popes nor councils alone, since it is established that they have erred again and again and contradicted one another. I am bound by the scriptural evidence adduced by me, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot, I will not recant anything, for it is neither safe nor right to act against one’s conscience. God help me, Amen.” You see, Luther stood by what he wrote because he saw that popes and councils make mistakes and contradict themselves, but God’s Word never does. Luther’s goal was to challenge the corruption and heresy of the Catholic Church and do so by preaching and teaching the Word of God, and not only that folks, but making the Word of God accessible and available to all people.
The Catholic Church had locked the Bible up in Latin where no one could read it except for priests and you had to take their word for what they said, but Luther decided to put the Bible in the hands of all people. In fact, he even translated the Greek New Testament into German in 11 weeks, by the way, so that everybody, even commoners, could read the Word of God for themselves. And when he got the Word into people’s hands and they began to see for themselves how far the Catholic Church was from what is actually in Scripture, God poured gasoline on the spark of Reformation that Luther had ignited. When someone asked Luther how he was able to start and lead the Protestant Reformation and bring about such change so rapidly, this is what Luther said, quote, “I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word. Otherwise, I did nothing. And then while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip and my Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing, the Word did it all.” We need to reaffirm the doctrine of sola scriptura today just as much as Luther did in his own day.
Too often people rely on tradition today. Even more often people elevate tradition to the status of Scripture. Too often our beliefs as Christians are based not on what Scripture says, but on what we’ve always heard, what we grew up with, the traditions we’ve been exposed to. Now just as then we have to go back to the ultimate source of authority and the truth which is Scripture. We must once again affirm that our ultimate and final authority is what God says in His Word. So, there are many other reasons why the Protestant Reformation still matters, but these are the two major reasons. It reminds us that the church is at all times in need of Reformation in order to purge ourselves of sin and pursue holiness, and it reminds us of the central doctrines of the Christian faith. Namely that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from works. And that our ultimate and final authority is not the Pope, is not a priest, a pastor, it’s not what our denomination says, what our culture says, or what tradition says, but our ultimate and final authority is Scripture and Scripture alone. So, I really do appreciate the question. I hope that you have found this answer helpful, and I look forward to answering more in the future.