Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Why the Reformation was Necessary – II
As we saw in our last blog post the better Roman Catholic theologians have always recognized that it is the death of Christ on the cross that saves us from sin. Unfortunately over the centuries there was much that crept into Roman Catholic theology that obscured this central truth of the gospel. Chief among these unbiblical notions was the Sacrament of Penance. Here it was held that a Christian has to make satisfaction for sins committed after baptism. By the late Middle Ages we have a theologian like Gabriel Biel distinguishing between different kinds of merit that pertain to good works.
There were other factors that crept in as well. There was the intercession of Mary and the saints, which implied that God Himself was unwilling to forgive sins. And then the mass itself was transformed from its original significance (a "Eucharist," or thanksgiving) into an "oblation," a sacrifice offered by a priest on an altar. Instead of thanking God for what He has done for us in Christ, we are earnestly begging Him to accept from our hands what we are offering to Him. Thus God was transformed, as it were, into an implacable Deity, and nothing the penitent could do would bring lasting peace or assurance of acceptance with God.
The profound hopelessness and despair of medieval Catholicism was brought out in the hymn "Dies Irae" (Day of Wrath), which once formed part of the Latin requiem mass. After giving a vivid description of the Last Judgment, the author (thought to be Thomas of Alano, a Thirteenth Century Franciscan) goes on to plead for mercy: "I groan like one condemned and am red with shame for my sins; spare Your suppliant servant. You forgave Mary and granted the robber's prayer, and thus gave me hope as well. Though my prayers do not deserve to be heard, yet in Your goodness graciously bring it about that I do not burn in the unquenchable fire." Thus the central truth of the gospel, that God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son for our salvation, and that we receive this salvation through faith in Christ, was effectively lost. How did it happen? Several factors contributed. One was an undue emphasis on tradition, which resulted in errors being perpetuated and multiplied. "Another was confusion over the meaning of the word "justification," which most Catholic theologians took to mean, based on the word's Latin etymology, the impartation of an infused righteousness. But whatever the cause, the end result was that many Catholics came to believe that their salvation ultimately depended on merits which they themselves possessed.