In September’s ET we observed that the Vatican had recently proclaimed an ‘indulgence’ for ‘contrite’ Catholics for attending the Catholic World Youth Day, held in Rio de Janeiro; or for following the Youth Day on Twitter.
We saw that the long established Catholic practice of indulgences is a denial of the true gospel. The gospel is grounded in justification by faith alone, not in justification by good works.
The sixteenth century Reformation brought a recovery of the preaching of the pure gospel in contrast to ‘works religion’, which then also expressed itself in indulgences. This summer’s proclamation of an indulgence reminds believers that today we still face many of the same urgent issues as five centuries ago.
The Roman Catholic Church has not changed its doctrinal beliefs since Martin Luther and the Reformation. Indeed, it has only added further soul-damning errors to its list of avowed heresies.
The Reformation was about salvation by God’s grace in Jesus Christ alone, and about Scripture as the only supreme authority in the church. Rome continues to stand against those truths.
But today there is the added factor that the spiritual condition of much of professing Protestantism is also deplorable. Many ‘Protestants’ are silent concerning the truths of the Reformation because they no longer believe them.
In The bondage of the will, Luther said that the issue of the enslaved human will was the fundamental issue of the Reformation, but much of Protestantism is as ignorant of the Scriptures as the Roman Church was at the time of the Reformation.
These unfaithful churches implicitly set aside Scripture as the basis of our faith and life, by their acceptance of evolution or theistic evolution, by their adherence to secular psychology and by their approval of many suspect judgements on the ethical questions of our day.
In the matters of capital punishment, civil disobedience, abortion, sexual immorality, cloning and euthanasia, churches too easily rely on humanistically driven science, prevailing social opinions and man’s reason rather than the indestructible Word of God.
Much of today’s Protestantism is at one with Rome (and other ‘faiths’) in trying to make salvation dependent upon man. It boldly proclaims man’s free will and is not totally dependent on God for salvation. It denies total depravity, gracious election and the efficacy and sufficiency of Christ’s saving work on the cross.
On 31 October 1999, in Augsburg, Germany, the Lutheran World Federation signed the Joint declaration on the doctrine of justification with the Roman Catholic Church.
What a sad departure from the faith of Martin Luther, whose protest against the sale of indulgences found an echo in many a heart utterly weary with the corrupt system of the Roman Church, and whose protest led to the Augsburg Confession of 1530!
This Protestantism no longer bothers to teach the pure gospel and the sole authority, inerrancy, sufficiency and perspicuity of the Scriptures. Its sermons have become moralistic little stories or themes pandering to the likes and fancies of man.
Profound ignorance, superstition, idolatry (the worship of self, money, work, leisure, man-made images and icons); obsession with work, health and pleasure; or the terror of man’s terrorism rather than the fear of God are the things gripping people today.
But the heart of the Reformation and of Luther’s 95 theses was expressed in his ‘Thesis 62’— ‘The true treasure of the church is the holy gospel of the glory and grace of God’. We need once more to bring that gospel to the people.
The Reformation stood for biblical evangelism and gospel mission to a lost and fallen world. John Calvin even sent out a mission team to Brazil in the mid-sixteenth century. Although it did not bear discernible fruit, it showed the missionary zeal and heart beat of the Reformers in saving souls and zeal for gospel missions.
It is amazing that the Roman Church is still offering indulgences to its adherents in the 21st century, a practice clearly exposed and warned against by the Reformers 500 years ago!
What should be the response of those who love Christ and the truths of God’s Word? Do we need another 95 theses to wake us all up again? There certainly ought to be a personal awakening to the dangers around us.
The Reformation concerned the individual in a most direct way. It had to do with this personal question that each of us should ask ourselves: how can a guilty sinner like me be declared righteous before a holy God? Certainly not through indulgences!
Martin Luther struggled with the utmost anxiety over that question. ‘How can I, a sinner, be righteous before God?’ The Reformation points us to the only place where peace is found — in the gospel of God’s grace.
There is a grave need for a continuing reformation today. The Reformation was one of the greatest ever revivals of true religion. It was energised by a yearning to seek God, by a sorrow for sin and by a desire to obtain acceptance through God’s sovereign grace alone.
The profound spiritual lessons and legacies which the Reformers bequeathed upon their followers through the Word of God must never be forgotten or neglected.
The Reformation blossomed into fully fledged theological confessions, based on the biblical doctrines of salvation, God, man, sin and Christ. The Word of God, inspired by Holy Spirit, took centre-stage, as did the teaching of the universal priesthood of believers through Christ our Redeemer and Mediator.
We are living in the perilous and precarious last days of religious persecution, ecclesiastical deception and falling away, occultic and cultic invasion, ecumenical compromise and religious extremism.
The matter of indulgences reminds us of the prevailing spiritual error and deception in the world and the urgent call for Christians to exercise godly discernment and spiritual diligence, to be alert and defend the truth.
Satan will do all he can to distract or derail us from an evangelical focus on Christ and his Word and his work. We are to watch and work strenuously while it is still day. We are to trust our sovereign God, who will triumph in the end by Christ’s second coming for his own glory and the eternal redemption of his chosen people.
The Reformation was manifestly a mighty work of God. Although the Roman Church later tried to reform itself from within, its efforts were futile. The Council of Trent (from 1545) failed to address the fundamental doctrinal issues of the gospel.
But gospel truths are precious truths that must not be compromised. They must be defended with missionary zeal. Truth cannot be bartered for peace or unity. On it, all true believers and sons of the Reformation must continue to stand and not waver.