Why the Reformation?
A Sermon Preached on September 24, 2017
By Brian Henson
Why the Reformation?
This October marks 500 years since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and having finished the letter of James last week, we are beginning a new sermon series that will last through the month of October on the 5 key theological issues behind the Reformation, and this morning’s message will serve as an introduction to where we are going over the next few weeks as we explore as a church why the Reformation is important for us today.
The culture of American Christianity is one of false unity where it is not generally accepted to point out doctrinal error as long as everyone just “loves Jesus.” I want you to know up front that this is not an attempt to be divisive over minor doctrinal issues. This is not an in-house debate on secondary and third-level points of doctrine.
One of the worst mistakes any Christian can make is to make every point of doctrine something to divide over. That is not the goal here. We are doing this series because there are significant differences between Protestant and Catholic theology that matter a great deal. The very heart of the gospel itself is at stake.
I want us to be informed about these differences and to understand that being Protestant means, fundamentally, that we accept the Bible alone as our ultimate authority, and that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone.
So, with your Bibles open to Galatians 1, follow with me as I read beginning with verse 6.
On October 31, “All Hallows Eve,” 1517, exactly 500 years ago this year, a German Catholic Monk named Martin Luther nailed a document called “The Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. This document was called the Ninety-Five Theses because it was essentially 95 complaints to the theological abuses of the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century.
Throughout the medieval period, what we also call the middle ages—the thousand years between the 5th and 15th centuries—the Catholic Church had grown increasingly institutionalized and corrupt, and at the beginning of the 16th century, the theology of the Church had degenerated to the point of essentially merchandizing salvation through the selling of indulgences—and this really was the tipping point for Martin Luther.
Let me say at this point that there were many things both in the theology and the practice of the Catholic Church that led to the Reformation, but the selling of indulgences was the decisive factor that brought Luther to his breaking point.
So what is an indulgence? An indulgence was an official church document approved and granted by the Pope that would bypass the normal rigorous process of penance and provide forgiveness from sins. You see at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, the Roman Catholic theology of salvation was a complex sacramental cycle of sin, confession, absolution from a priest, penance, and restoration to a state of grace until sin was committed, and then the process started all over. But indulgences offered a “shortcut” to forgiveness—it could be purchased with a simple payment of money.
The chief architect of how to effectively sell indulgences was a Dominican monk named John Tetzel. Tetzel used extremely manipulative techniques to pressure guilt-ridden sinners looking for forgiveness into buying an indulgence.
This man was a master salesman. A modern-day equivalent might be the faith preachers on TV who promise health and wealth if you will just give to their ministry. In Tetzel’s case, the deception was much worse because the people were held captive by the belief that salvation was impossible apart from the sacramental system of the Catholic Church, so selling indulgences as a promise of God’s forgiveness and pardon was even more insidious than what many of the faith healers today.
Indulgences could be bought for one’s own personal sins or they could be purchased for family members who had already died and were in purgatory—the place, according to Roman Catholic theology, where those whose sins were not completely atoned for in this life can undergo a final state of purification before they are allowed to enter heaven. Tetzel even had a clever catch phrase, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
Of course, the money received from the sale of indulgences went to the various building projects of the Catholic Church, including the repair and remodeling of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome which began in 1506, eleven years before the dawn of the Reformation. The work on Saint Peter’s Basilica was completed in 1626 and today it is the 5th most visited site in the city of Rome. This was an incredible display of religious corruption and greed.
And so Martin Luther protested. In one of his 95 Theses, Luther says, “Christians should be taught that if the Pope were acquainted with the exactions of the preachers of pardons, he would prefer that the Basilica of St. Peter should be burnt to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.” Luther called out the theologically corrupt enterprise that was the Roman Catholic church.
Now fast-forward 500 years to the 21st century, and while Rome may not “sell” the indulgences for money anymore, they still grant indulgences in return for some act on our part—whether that be a pilgrimage to a holy site, or a special prayer before a holy shrine, or some other act of contrition and sacramental devotion.
In 2013, Pope Francis offered a plenary, or full, indulgence to faithful Catholics who would attend World Youth Day in Brazil, and for those who couldn’t attend, they could still be granted the indulgence if they did their best to diligently follow the event on TV, radio, and social media. This was not an isolated event; the granting of indulgences is still a regular part of Roman Catholic practice.
And this why all of this still matters today—500 years after Luther hammered his 95 theses to Castle Church door in Germany.
The central issue of the Reformation, though, was not the sale of indulgences, but rather what the sale of indulgences represented: and that was the question, how can a sinner be made right with God? Are we made right with God through sacramental devotion and good deeds of merit, or are we made right with God on the sole basis of the atonement of Jesus Christ?
This was the issue in the 16th century, and it still represents the fundamental difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism today. How is a sinner made right with God?
When we look at the core issues of the Reformation, we find that there were actually 5 key truths that became the rallying cries of the Reformers in their struggle against corrupt Catholic theology and practice.
These 5 truths became known as the 5 Solas of the Protestant Reformation. Sola is a Latin word that simply means alone, and the 5 Solas were: sola scriptura (scriptura alone), sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and soli deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone).
The operative word here is alone. Protestantism affirms that sinful man is made right with God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, whereas Roman Catholic theology insists that salvation is accomplished not by faith alone, but by faith plus works that earn the sinner merit with God.
In the 500 years since the Reformation, official Roman Catholic doctrine regarding the salvation of sinners has gone virtually unchanged, and at points it has even been re-affirmed. And so we continue the work of Luther and the other Reformers that we will meet over the next 5 weeks. We must continue the protest. The very gospel of grace itself is at stake, which brings us to our text this morning in Galatians chapter 1.
I want us to work through these verses in view of the Protestant Reformation, and you will find the three points that we will use as our outline in your bulletin. The first thing I want us to observe from this passage is . . .
I. The Drift from the Gospel (v.6-7a)
Look at verse 6 with me – Paul says, I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one. . .
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is unique among his other New Testament letters in that it does not contain his typical greeting and thanksgiving for the church and believers he is writing to. In Galatians, Paul immediately asserts his apostolic authority in verse 1, identifies the churches he is writing to, and then in verse 6, he directly confronts the error that is spreading throughout the churches in Galatia.
We immediately get the sense that something is very wrong with these churches, and it is serious. It’s like when you go home from work and as soon as you walk in the door, you know something is wrong. The atmosphere is heavy and you know there is some bad news waiting on you. This is the sense we get in these first few verses of Galatians.
And so the Apostle Paul, with the tone of a pastor protecting his flock from wolves, rebukes the Galatian Christians for abandoning the gospel of grace for an imitation gospel, that really is no gospel at all.
And brothers and sisters that is exactly what we see in the history of the Church for a thousand years leading up to the Reformation—a sure drift away from the gospel of grace. And it shouldn’t surprise us because Paul is writing these verses to Christians in the late 40s of the first century, no more than two years after these churches were planted in Galatia (what is modern-day Turkey). So from the very beginning, the very infancy of the church, Christians have faced the temptation to drift from the one true gospel of grace.
And it is the job of the pastors and leaders who have a voice in the church to call us back to the gospel, and that’s precisely what Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox, and all of the 16th century Reformers did—and we need faithful and bold pastors and men of God who will take a stand today and say the Reformation is not over. As long as there is an imitation gospel that says that we contribute anything to our salvation, the Reformation is not over.
So, what then, is the gospel? If there is an imitation, a false gospel, then there must be a singular true gospel, so what is it? I want to point us to two verses in Galatians that essentially define the gospel for us. The first is chapter 1, verses 3 and 4; and the second is chapter two verse 16.
Galatians 1:3-4 says Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Paul begins his defense of the one true gospel in Galatians with the doctrine of the atonement –that Jesus gave himself, the just for the unjust, the sinless one for the sinful, for our sins—that’s penal substitution—he took the punishment that rightly belonged to us so that we could be made right with God.
Christ’s death in our place and atoning work on our behalf is an immeasurable grace. To suggest that there is something we can add to his perfect work in our salvation is a blasphemous outrage.
Galatians 2:16 says We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
This is a decisive declaration by the Apostle Paul – by the works of the law no one will be justified. We are justified by faith. Justification is a judicial act whereby God declares the guilty sinner righteous through the imputation of the perfect righteousness of Christ to his account. We are not made righteous in justification, we are declared righteous—that’s an important distinction. This is not accomplished by sacramental rites and devotion—even in part, but solely by the merit of the blood of Jesus Christ.
This is the one true gospel of grace. Anything that deviates from this even in the slightest is an imitation—it’s a false gospel, and that’s why Paul is so agitated with the Galatians here. He says in verse 6 that he is “astonished” at their defection from the gospel. This word “astonished” means to be either extraordinarily impressed or disturbed by something. It’s a word meaning amazement, and Paul says he absolutely cannot believe that the Galatians have abandoned the gospel so quickly.
But it’s not just the gospel they were deserting—they were deserting God himself. Look at verse 6 again, he says, I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ.
Brothers and sisters to abandon the gospel is to abandon God. A defection from the gospel of grace is nothing less than a departure from Christianity itself. That’s why this is so serious. That’s why we can’t say, “Well, Catholics and Protestants have more in common than not, so what’s the big deal?” The big deal is the gospel. The big deal is God. The big deal is him who called us in the grace of Christ.
We cannot afford to drift from the singular gospel of grace and we cannot pretend that we don’t have major major differences with the Roman Catholic Church, or any church that promotes a gospel that is not the gospel. We must resist the temptation to drift from the gospel.
The second observation I want to make from this passage is . . .
II. The Distortion of the Gospel (v.7b).
Look at verse 7 with me. Paul says, not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.
I want us to notice that what was happening in the Galatian churches was not an outright denial of the gospel, but a distortion of the gospel. And this is what makes false teaching so so dangerous—it isn’t always obviously false. In fact, the most dangerous false teaching is that which sounds so much like the truth.
Satan wants to get as close to the truth as he possibly can, and then slip in just one minor deviation, one slight adjustment, and what is left is a distorted truth. One of the lessons that Jaime and I teach our children is that half a truth is just a lie, and brothers and sisters, any distortion of the one true gospel results in a false gospel.
You see we distort the gospel when it becomes Jesus plus anything. 18th century pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards says, “The only thing we contribute to our salvation is the sin that makes it necessary.” So when we suggest that any efforts of ours contribute to our justification, we just made a Jesus plus something. And Jesus plus something is hell, brothers and sisters. Works and faith do not mix.
These false teachers in the Galatian churches were teaching that faith alone was not sufficient to save. For them, it was faith plus the Old Testament practice of circumcision. And just this slight distortion of the gospel transformed it from a gospel of grace into a gospel of faith plus works, and Paul says that is not a gospel at all.
We come to holy God with sinful hearts and empty hands, and we cling to the cross of Christ, beating our chest with the Tax Collector of Luke 18, saying “God have mercy on me a sinner.” That’s the gospel.
You see the gospel is only good news to those who realize that the only hope they have is Jesus alone. They have no goodness of their own to bring. It’s not Jesus plus something they can do, because they realize that there is nothing they can do. Anything else is a distortion of the one true gospel of grace.
I want to give you 5 brief examples from Roman Catholic theology that demonstrate their distortion of the gospel:
- In 1987, Pope John Paul II wrote this: We believe that [Mary], the Most Holy Mother of God, the new Eve, the Mother of the Church, carries on in heaven her maternal role with regard to the members of Christ, cooperating in the birth and development of divine life in the souls of the redeemed. She is also the one who, precisely as the “handmaid of the Lord,” cooperates unceasingly with the work of salvation accomplished by Christ, her Son. Need I comment?
- On May 24, 2017, Pope Francis wrote: “Let us entrust ourselves to Mary, for the grace to endure patiently and overcome challenges with love.”
- In 1891, Pope Leo XII said: Nothing is bestowed on us except through Mary, as God himself wills. Therefore as no one can draw near to the supreme Father except through the Son, so also one can scarcely draw near to the Son except through his mother.
- At the Council of Trent, the official Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation, the council wrote: If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, let him be accursed.
- The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church says An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins. The treasury of merits is a storehouse of righteousness obtained by the life of Christ, and the good deeds of Mary and the saints that can be applied to less worthy Christians through indulgences.
These statements did not come from some random Catholic fanatic on twitter, ok? This is from official Roman Catholic doctrine and the mouth of her Popes, and it demonstrates how Rome has distorted the gospel of grace.
And briefly, the last observation I want to make from this passage is . . .
III. The Damnation of the False Gospel (vv.8-9)
In verse 8 Paul says, But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. (and then he repeats himself in verse 9) As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
The gospel of grace is the supreme article of the Christian faith, and Paul says that even if he himself or an angel from heaven would come and preach another gospel, let them be accursed. The Greek word here is anathema – it simply means accursed, but it is a word with explosive implications. It carries the meaning of being devoted by God to destruction. One translation reads, “let him be condemned to hell.”
Paul unleashes his full apostolic fury and pronounces a divine curse on anyone—including himself or an angel—who preaches a distorted gospel. These are harsh words and we are hesitant to use such language today when confronting false teachers, but Paul is very clear: if we distort the singular gospel of grace, then may we be damned to hell.”
As we learned earlier, this is not a minor doctrinal difference. It wasn’t a minor issue for Paul when he confronted the Galatians; it wasn’t a minor issue for Luther when he began this protest 500 years ago, and it is not a minor issue for us today.
So over the next 5 weeks, we will look at each of the solas one by one, and rediscover these key truths that defined the Protestant Reformation, and, I believe, that define the heart of biblical Christianity itself.
At the center of all of this remains the question, “how can a sinner be made right with God?” And there is only one right answer to that question, and it is through the perfect atoning blood of Jesus Christ alone, received by faith. If you have put your faith in anything other than Christ alone this morning, then my friends you have abandoned the gospel, you have abandoned God himself.
I implore you to turn from yourself and your sin and run to Christ this morning who alone can provide the righteousness necessary for us to be declared justified before a holy God who demands nothing less than absolute holy perfection. Christ is our only hope. Not the church, not the sacraments, not the prayers of saints, not the Virgin Mary, Christ alone.