Friday, September 28, 2012
Why the Reformation Was Necessary – III
In the providence of God it fell to Martin Luther to wrestle with the central question of how a man is made righteous in the sight of God. What he came to realize as a result of his own personal struggle is that God is perfectly holy and can scrutinize the human heart, and thus it is impossible for anyone to escape judgment. No one can produce works of merit or make satisfaction for his own sins. And then when Luther turned to the Bible and began to understand the thrust of Paul's argument in Romans, he realized that a sinner is justified by the imputation of Christ's righteousness, and that this is received by faith.
Tragically, when the Catholic Church finally took up formal consideration of justification at the Council of Trent, it basically restated what had become the standard view of the late medieval church. Baptism removes the stain of original sin, but after that the Christian must cooperate with divine grace to produce actual works of righteousness. Sins committed after baptism are dealt with through the sacrament of penance, which consists of contrition, confession, and satisfaction. To those who thus succeed in achieving righteousness, "eternal life is . . . a reward promised by God Himself, to be faithfully given to their good works and merits" (Doctrine concerning Justification, Chapter XVI). Those justified "have, by those very works which have been done in god, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life and to have truly merited eternal life . . ." (Ibid.). Sadly, this remains the official position of the Roman Catholic Church to this day (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §§ 1989-1993).
By the time of the Reformation, then, the gap between the practice of the Catholic Church and the plain teaching of Scripture was obvious. The Reformers were confronted with a stark choice between loyalty to the Church and faithfulness to Christ. The crisis finally came to a head when Martin Luther made his famous declaration at the Diet of Worms on April 18, 1521: "If I have not been refuted by the evidence of Scripture or by plain rational arguments, then I remain convinced by the Scripture passages which I have cited, and my conscience remains captive to God's Word. For I have faith neither in the Pope nor in the councils by themselves, since it is manifest that they have often gone astray and contradicted themselves. I can and will retract nothing, since it is neither safe nor advisable to do something against one's conscience. So help me God, Amen." The breach was never repaired.
Tragically, for all practical purposes the Catholic Church has ceased to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and millions of its communicants languish in spiritual darkness as a result. The Reformation, on the other hand, resulted in the proclamation of the gospel with a clarity that had not been seen in centuries. Untold multitudes have found new life in Christ, and even entire nations were transformed.
It is possible, then, for a Roman Catholic to find salvation, provided that he looks to Christ as his Savior. But to do so he must overlook centuries of tradition and the official teaching of the Church. There are Catholics that we are honored to claim as brothers and sisters in Christ. But the Church itself remains badly in need of reform. Only when it returns to Scripture will it be the true Church of Christ that it claims to be.