This year marks the 500th anniversary since that fateful day when Martin Luther nailed a document, intended to initiate a collegiate theological discussion, to the chapel door in Wittenburg, Germany. Unintentionally (it seems), Luther struck the match that ignited a powder keg.
Germany, Switzerland, England, Scottland, and several other lands experienced an upheaval of the established religious system of the day (Roman Catholicism); and there were many and various contributors. Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox, and many others played their respective and overlapping parts in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.
Today, many are asking if the Protestant Reformation is over, and others seem to think it was a vastly overblown misunderstanding to begin with. Should Protestants still protest? Are Protestants who do still protest revealing themselves as merely irreconcilable curmudgeons?
I think it is quite helpful to answer questions like these by first understanding the disagreement. One can hardly seek to reconcile two parties without knowing what has divided them thus far. So, let’s go back to the place where the disagreement was codified.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, many people believed that some reformation within Christendom was necessary. When the Reformation became undeniable, both Roman Catholics and Protestants still agreed that change was needed, but each side differed considerably on what that reform should look like. The Roman Catholic Church officially responded to their protesting brethren through the forum of a Church Council.
The Council of Trent gathered in Trento and Bologna, Italy, over 18 years (1545-1563). Sometimes infrequent and sometimes intensive, these meetings included discussion and debate on many topics of Roman Catholic theology. Bishops and theologians considered dogma, doctrine, and tradition regarding authority, sacraments, purgatory, indulgences, and much more. Finally, the Council of Trent published its decrees (statements of affirmation) and canons (statements of judgment) in 1564, and these were confirmed by Pope Pius IV.
Specifically addressing some Protestant theological assertions, the Council of Trent clearly presented an opposing position. While there are certainly still many things about which Roman Catholics and Protestants agree (God as Trinity, Jesus as Savior, and grace as necessary), there is a stark contrast on vital matters.
Few questions are as important as, “How is a sinner justified before God?” Rome answered the question by saying (among other things) that the sinner must participate in his/her justification by sacraments and other good works.
The Council of Trent states that baptism is the ‘instrumental cause,’ or the means by which justification is obtained.
“The instrumental cause [of justification] is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which justification never befell any man…”
The Council of Trent states that justification can and should be increased through the efforts of obedience on the part of the sinner.
“Having, therefore, been thus justified… they [those who are justified], through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in the justice received through the grace of Christ, and are still more justified…”
The Council of Trent states that faith alone cannot and will not justify any sinner.
“No one ought to flatter himself upon faith alone, deeming that by faith alone he is made an heir, and will obtain the inheritance [the inheritance of salvation or eternal life in Christ Jesus].”
The Council of Trent not only clarified the Roman Catholic teaching on important matters, it also unequivocally named what is at stake. The strong denials below include the phrase, “let him be anathema,” which is a superlative condemnation of anyone who disagrees with the statement. With intentional language, the Roman Catholic Church condemned all protesters.
The following are some of the Roman Catholic canons on the subject of justification.
Canon 11: If any one shall say, that men are justified by the sole imputation of the righteousness of Christ… or even that the grace, by which we are justified, is only the favor of God; let him be anathema.
Canon 12: If any one shall say, that justifying faith is naught else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or that it is this confidence alone by which we are justified; let him be anathema.
Canon 24: If any one shall say, that the justice received is not preserved, and also increased in the sight of God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of justification received, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.
The message could not be clearer: believing that justification comes by way of Christ’s righteousness and not by any work or effort on the part of the sinner is a justification condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. Anyone who believes in justification by faith alone in Christ alone is thus condemned or “anathematized.”
In two major Protestant catechisms, the question of justification is asked and answered. The Westminster Shorter catechism (following the Westminster Confession of 1647) and the Baptist catechism (following the Second London Confession of 1689) both provide an identicle answer (dependent upon translation).
“What is justification?”
“Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”
With the same precision and clarity as the Roman Catholics, Protestants articulated their own understanding of justification, and one cannot miss the antithesis. What Rome said was condemnable, Protestants wholeheartedly affirm. What Rome stated as doctrine, Protestants denied outright.
The only question we are left with now is, Should Protestants still protest?
Well, does Rome still affirm the decrees and canons published from the Council of Trent?
Yes, the current edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, affirms, and cites the Council of Trent throughout (including the section on Justification, pg. 535-537). Furthermore, reversing the official condemnation of “justification by faith alone in Christ alone” would require a new and clear council statement (Vatican I and Vatican II (subsequent councils) reaffirmed the Council of Trent).
Do Evangelical Protestants still affirm the doctrine of justification as articulated in the two catechisms cited above?
Yes, the Westminster Confession is still the authoritative doctrinal body of teaching (under the authority of Scripture) for Presbyterians. Yes, though Baptists are generally a less creedal bunch, this denomination is marked by a fierce affirmation of justification by personal faith alone – apart from any good work – in Christ alone.
So, Should Protestants still protest?
What else can any thinking person expect from a Protestant? The Roman Catholic who seeks to reconcile with Protestants either denies or betrays his/her own ignorance of Rome’s doctrine and dogma. The Protestant who seeks to reconcile with Rome is by definition no longer a Protestant – since he/she has stopped protesting.
Protestants must not only protest, but Protestants must know what and why we are protesting. The very Gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake, and this is no time to capitulate.
*If you enjoyed this article, then you will probably also like others in this category, “Reformation Heroes.”