The forces of counter-reformation
Martin Luther concluded his famous book On the bondage of the will with these words, addressed to his antagonist, Erasmus: ‘I give you great praise, and proclaim it – you alone in pre-eminent distinction from all others, have entered upon the thing itself; that is, the grand turning point of the cause; and, have not wearied me with those irrelevant points about popery, purgatory, indulgences, and other like baubles, rather than causes, with which all have hitherto tried to hunt me down – though in vain! You, and you alone saw, what was the grand hinge upon which the whole turned, and therefore you attacked the vital part at once; for which, from my heart, I thank you’.
Obviously, all counter-reformation movements are directed to reduce the achievements of the Reformation. And we know that Satan himself stands behind these movements. However, it is seldom obvious how Satan operates.
If he takes the field openly we see it. For example, Loyola did not hide his hate towards the ‘Lutheran heresy’ and we know him as a great counter-reformer. But sometimes Satan ‘himself is transformed into an angel of light’ and ‘therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works’ (2 Corinthians 11:14-15).
And if Satan’s ministers are transformed, they will transform the truth into a lie which closely resembles the truth – a distortion of gospel truth so great that you lose the truth itself. Many Protestant churches have succumbed.
What was the Luther’s ‘grand hinge upon which the whole turned’ if not the question of free will?
Many think wrongly that Martin Luther’s famous ’95 theses’, nailed to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, constituted Luther’s main protest against Rome and the pope. But why, then, did Pope Leo X, who read them, dismiss them as a quarrel between two monks, Tetzel and Luther?
The theses did not question the doctrine of Catholic church, nor were they written against indulgences as such – nor do they contain any criticism of the pope. Luther was attacking abuses of the Catholic system, not the system itself.
For example, he said: ‘Christians are to be taught that the pope’s pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if through them they lose their fear of God’ (thesis 49).
Luther’s theses were an appeal to reform the public face of the Roman Church, that’s all. But many others, including Erasmus of Rotterdam, also criticised abuses of power, and nobody persecuted them.
By contrast, John Hus, who attacked the teaching of Rome on the subject of free will, was burnt at the stake. Again, a church council called by Pope John XXII and held in southern Germany (1414-18), rejected the so-called errors of John Wycliffe – including his claim that ‘All things happen from absolute necessity’.
Wycliffe insisted that only ‘absolute necessity’ has free will. Since ‘absolute necessity’ is the sovereign will of God, it leaves fallen man with no hope of free will.
Erasmus and Luther
Luther’s problems with Roman Catholic doctrine began not in 1517 (when his intention was only to criticise worldliness and corruption in the church) but later when he had thought about the teaching of Hus and Wycliffe on the bondage of man’s will. Evidence for this is the papal bull Exurge Domine issued on 15 June 1520 by Leo X. This condemned forty-one statements by Luther among which was, ‘Free will after sin is a matter of title only; and as long as one does what is in him, one sins mortally’.
Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote a book Freedom of the will in 1524, but it was too late. Duke George of Saxony wrote to him: ‘If you had carried out your noble plan three years ago, the bonfire [of the Reformation] flaring today would have brought much less affliction, and we would not have been in such a position at present’.
Can we imagine that? If Erasmus’ book had been written in 1521 the Reformation might never have happened!
Luther responded to the book as only he could. He wrote to George Spalatin: ‘It is impossible to imagine how odious is a book about freedom of the will… It is hard to reply to such an unscholarly book by such a highly scholarly man’.
Luther and his followers wished to return the church to apostolic ideals according to which God was the sovereign head of all. But the humanists wanted to ‘enrich’ the church with pagan philosophy.
The reformers exalted God’s grace, the humanists exalted Christian ethics – not understanding that you can teach a man good manners but good manners cannot save him. Luther set God on the throne, but the humanists enthroned man.
Humanism is a satanic doctrine, seeking to dispossess God of his sovereignty. Erasmus had grasped that the main point of the Reformation lay in whether or not man has free will in obeying the gospel. Hence Luther commends Erasmus – ‘You, and you alone, saw what was the grand hinge upon which the whole turned’.
Beyond man’s power
Luther insists that ‘a man cannot be thoroughly humbled, until he comes to know that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, counsel, endeavours, will, and works, and absolutely depending on the will, counsel, pleasure, and work of another, that is, of God only.
‘For if, as long as he has any persuasion that he can do even the least thing himself towards his own salvation, he retains a confidence in himself and does not utterly despair in himself, so long as he is not humbled before God. But he proposes to himself some place, some time, or some work, whereby he may at length attain unto salvation’.
And sums up: ‘It now then follows, that free-will is plainly a divine term, and can be applicable to none but the divine Majesty only: for he alone “doth what he will in heaven and earth” (Psalm 135:6). Whereas, if it be ascribed unto men, it is not more properly ascribed, than the divinity of God himself would be ascribed unto them: which would be the greatest of all sacrilege’.
Because of this, ‘it is not irreligious, curious or superfluous, but essentially wholesome and necessary, for a Christian to know whether or not the will does any thing in those things which pertain unto Salvation’.
The essence of the Reformation lay in understanding man’s role in salvation. Man is as clay in God’s hands. ‘O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, “Why hast thou made me thus?” Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?’ (Romans 9:20-21).
Let us be clear that the forces of counter-reformation are alive and strong today. We must not allow them to steal the sovereignty in salvation that belongs to God alone.