The Principles of Protestantism, Part 2 – Introduction

Introduction: Christianity in America today is in rapid decline

It should be clear to anyone who pays attention to various polls and statistics that are conducted concerning the present health of the Christian church in America that it is in decline. In spite of a number of high profile mega churches in various parts of the country, the overall numbers of people committing themselves to the Christian church is decreasing. Polls should never be a determining factor for analyzing what the church is doing by way of service to the Lord. But there is one thing that is rather interesting about them. They seem to suggest that Americans are fundamentally a spiritually minded people, way more so than their European counterparts. But when it comes to defining what they believe in terms of historic orthodox definitions of the Christian faith that is entirely a different story. The point is that most Americans find little reason to identify, or even associate with any sort of historic expression of the Christian faith.

This raises another important question, does anybody even know today what Christianity is supposed to look like? The departure seems to be not from religion per se, as far as personal belief or spirituality is concerned, but rather a departure from the traditional forms of expression of it. To be sure, even the Catholics are suffering in the same way too, concerning their numbers. But Roman Catholics count their strength to be in the number of children born into their communion, whether these are practicing, devout members or not. The kingdom of God isn’t about numbers, and it certainly isn’t about the number of baptized children. It is about salvation through Jesus Christ; it is about the glory of God in the church; it is also about the integrity of the truth in relation to both.

We who are Protestant Bible believing Christians who reject Roman Catholicism should not, and cannot look to numbers or institutions as a measure of our health or soundness as they do. The Christian church is defined by its principles. These are what give the Christian church their expression. The only religious organizations that seem to be prospering today by way of serious commitment by its members are the cults and other false religions such as those that come from the east. The way they do this is by presenting religious principles that appear plausible to their adherents.

There was once an obscure itinerant Baptist preacher from Birmingham England by the name of Gordon Bayliss who went to be with the Lord a number of years ago. He served as a missionary in Europe after the second world war, being sent there by an Evangelical organization to spread the gospel in the various countries devastated by it. He observed and often recounted there were committed communists everywhere throughout Europe preaching their political ideology on the street corners.[1] We know from history how this story went. True Christianity is now almost completely extinct in Europe, even in countries that still have state run Protestant churches. And socialism in one form or another has replaced it in virtually every country. How could anyone be so loyal and given over to such a bankrupt atheistic system as communism? The answer lies in its principles, what it is founded on and what it holds out to the prospective converts. If atheists are looking for utopia on earth then communism has something to say to them.

Along with a departure from traditional expressions of Christianity in America there has come a departure from historic definitions of faith and values. Principles are what give substance to world views. We should wonder what it is that has been preached for generations in this country that has led people to believe they can be Christians without a commitment to any form of orthodoxy in their faith. It is amazing to see a country that boasts such large numbers of born again Christians who also at the same time accept abortion, homosexuality, divorce, euthanasia, and many other atrocious forms of behavior as consistent with a free and prosperous people. Licentiousness is not liberty and freedom is defined by its boundaries. These evils are not just present, but widely tolerated in America because of a complete absence of Christian principles in the culture. Since Scripture asserts that the church is the salt and light of the world (Matt. 5:13,14), we can infer from this then that as the church goes, so does the nation.

But Christianity is not a political movement or an ideology. Nor is Christianity even a matter of public morality per se. Therefore, it is not to be enforced on anybody by the state. Christianity is a set of propositions that define who and what God is, and how He has ordained salvation in the gospel of His Son Jesus Christ. Politics do not even enter into the picture in this. All we need to observe is the failure of politically motivated morality movements in this country such as prohibition and the Moral Majority movement[2] to understand this principle. As already stated an absence of Christian principles in the church means an absence of them in society. So what we see today is merely a symptom of something else, there is an absence of Christian principles in the Protestant church.

Before embarking on an examination of the principles of the Protestant Reformation, let us consider first the conditions that existed in Europe at the time. In doing this, perhaps we will begin to see the parallels that exist between those then and our own circumstances now, and the need for reformation in our day. These conditions were three in number.

1) The medieval church was spiritually dead and no one was interested in it

The Roman Catholic church was then as now, given over to a mere outward form of religion lacking any spiritual substance to it. When Martin Luther went on a pilgrimage to Rome in 1510 for the first time as a monk, he found it to be much like Paul found Athens. “Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols.” (Acts 17:16). Rome was covered with statues and relics; it is said that at the time there were enough supposed pieces of the cross at Rome to build many crosses. But what Martin Luther found at Rome about their religiosity was unlike that which Paul found in Athens. “For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.” (Acts 17:21). The people of Athens were enthusiastic about their pagan religious philosophy. Martin Luther went to Rome expecting to find the center of Christendom a place of intense religious devotion, but instead he found it to be a place of nothing but utter indifference to religious devotion. Intense moral wickedness abounded everywhere, and the clergy were worse than all the rest, being filled with many outward vices and personal corruptions! A priest was considered virtuous if he confined his sexual proclivities to female mistresses. This, Luther found very disconcerting for it was his opinion that his own German countrymen were relatively irreligious people. Instead of finding Rome to be a place of intense religious fervor, Luther found it to be a place of profound religious indifference.

But of course, it was like that, for whenever religion is looked at as nothing but an earthly institution, filled with nothing but dead ritual, it will always breed indifference toward God among its adherents. There was no preaching of the word of God to be found anywhere in the Roman Catholic church, only babbling by the priests in Latin, which was a long forgotten language in Europe. People then as now in the Catholic church, went through the motion of the dead rituals they were instructed to perform, at the same time being dead in sin themselves. This produced a self-satisfied interest in the performance of these rites that left the people unscathed as to their sinful condition. Worse than that, they were nothing more than idolatry. As such, dead ritual performed by dead men, in a dead religious organization, is utterly inadequate to save anyone.

It is the devil’s tool to blind people to their true condition. At least profligate sinners when caught in the traps they set for themselves, cannot deny their sin. When people break the law, they are punished by society. When people live immorally, they suffer the consequences of their lifestyles by poverty, disease and death so that everyone can see the naked reality of their sin. But religious people, especially those calling themselves Christians, who practice nothing but dead rituals are the least able to admit anything true about themselves. Once the stated ritual is performed, they go on their way to live a worldly existence based on self fulfillment, at the same time thinking themselves to be different from the profligate sinner outside of their communion.

Medieval religion was very much like this. There was a sort of ethical morality about it. Aside from the empty, meaningless rituals to perform such as confessions, penances, Masses, indulgences and so on, there were other works of a more humanitarian nature done as well. A person might have given of their substance to the poor or to the church, in order to earn God’s favor. A person might have sacrificed their life for some good cause such as caring for children in orphanages, or as it is today, actively opposing the hideous crime of abortion. A person in the middle ages might have devoted their life to the monastery, or the nunnery, or the priesthood, rather than toward other more prosperous pursuits. The monastical life was viewed as a pious way of life undertaken as meritorious service to God and man. All of these things put together however, added up to one thing, and one thing only, that of natural religion. They did nothing to address the issue of the presence and power of sin.

In fact, sin was often in those days viewed as virtue when practiced as religious duty. We all know of the crusades and how they had as their object the control of the holy land for Christendom. So thousands of Christian knights journeyed to the middle east to fight Islam, which incidentally, they did also by invading Europe for the same reason at various times in history too. European Christians were no doubt, inspired by the notion of God’s blessing in it, but it amounted to nothing more than the increase of an earthly kingdom. Wickedness was wrapped in virtue when it came to keeping the church pure in those days. So the Pope and his Bishops burned heretics at the stake for the glory of God and the church. This served a convenient purpose in terrifying the people into submission. The average person would think twice before doing anything to challenge the authority of the church.

The Roman Catholic church created a false unbiblical piety for its priest class consistent with its concept of an earthly natural kingdom. So the priests took a vow of celibacy thinking it elevated them to the status of a higher moral plane than the average person. And the fraud associated with priestly celibacy then, as now, led to all manners of sexual misconduct between them and the nuns. Even worse yet, homosexuality was practiced among them, along with the molestation of children. These things were always present in the medieval Roman church. This is due to the fact that Catholicism has no truth by which it is able to deal with sin apart from human means. Since it teaches an infused righteousness through its sacraments, human works become the chief concern of those who aspire to life after death. Catholicism is a form of pelagianism,[3] in that it does not view the sacrifice of Christ as sufficient to save one from eternal death. Since that is the case, it holds out no power other than human effort to deal with the depravity of the flesh here. And since that is so, sin is considered in either a completely fraudulent manner by people subscribing to pelagianism, or it is denied altogether as something committed by them.

Rome teaches that confessing sin to a priest, who is nothing but a sinner too, and performing penances for it absolves them of their guilt. This is a fraudulent view of not only the heinousness of sin, but of its power over a sinner. Nothing short of the death of Jesus Christ can remove the guilt of sin, and the much deserved punishment that awaits the sinner if not saved by it. So the Roman church teaches there are greater and lesser degrees of sin to be concerned with. Never mind that Scripture teaches that violating a single commandment is guilt for all of them (James 2:10). As long as the devout keep their peccadilloes to a minimum, and confess them to their priest, they stand a better chance some day of avoiding the fires of hell. With such a shallow assessment of sin as this, it only serves to encourage them to adjust their consciences accordingly.

The term “dark ages” used to describe the cultural condition that preceded the Reformation for more than a thousand years earned the Roman church that title for this and many other reasons. Most people of Martin Luther’s day did just enough by way of religious duty to be considered devout in the Catholic church. But then as now, the fruits of the Holy Spirit were absent from them. Where the word of God is absent, so won’t true faith and devotion to Him be also (Rom. 10:17).

2) The beliefs of the medieval church were vague, there were different schools of opinion

The Roman Catholic church today claims to be built upon a continuous succession of dogmas and tradition that originated with the apostles. In reality, this is far from the truth. The Catholic church has actually been developed over the course of many hundreds of years. It is hard to pinpoint the exact date of many of its important phases of development for this very reason. Some would say it came into full expression in the sixth century, and others in the fourth. The fact of the matter is that many of its ideas began their formation as early as the second century.

One major contributing factor to this is the canon of inspired letters that comprise the New Testament was not even decided until the fourth century. And though the advent of the Roman state church with its Christian Emperor contributed heavily to the rise of the Papacy, it also aided the church tremendously in calling the first two Ecumenical councils that took place during this time. The reason being that heresies galore wracked the church while it was in this period of canonical development.

It is widely reported that Constantine the Great (272-337 AD) ordered the compilation and distribution of the first official Greek Bible, fifty copies to be exact. In 385 AD Jerome was commissioned to compile a new official Latin version of the Bible. Within a hundred years of this however, it fell into disuse due to two reasons. First, the church restricted access to it, and second, people were becoming less and less capable of reading it in either Greek or Latin. The church feared that private use of the Bible would lead to private interpretation of it, and hence, heretical ideas would arise. This was the very problem that plagued the church previously, and what the councils worked at to resolve.

It is easy to see from this how the Catholic church developed its dogma’s and tradition. It is also easy to see how the church would want to claim authority based on an unbroken succession of tradition, handed down from the apostles. The eastern and western churches began to divide as far back as the second century over doctrine and authority. The way in which the eastern church maintained a semblance of Scriptural authority was by placing the New Testament letters in their worship liturgy. The western church, and the Popes who increasingly claimed authority over the entire church, made Latin the official language for use in all religious expression. Both Greek and Latin fell out of use among the masses of people over time, widening the already vast gulf that existed between them and God’s revelation.

With no other source of authority than themselves to consider, the Popes made dogmatic pronouncements on every aspect of the church’s faith and practice. Of course, the Popes placed a heavy reliance on the scholarship of certain approved church doctors for their development of dogma. Augustine and Aquinas are the two major figures in Catholic doctrine in this respect.

The Protestant Reformation was indeed a protest against the Pope, but he was primarily a figurehead to the entire corrupt organization. The people at that time were only taught those things the church required of them in order to be a good Catholic. Most people had very little understanding of why they were to do what was required of them, or, what they were based on. The Bible had been effectively removed from the people for centuries, leaving them to the church doctors for direction. This was so because it was taken as the authority of the church, which as was said, the Pope was head of.

Faith to a Catholic was faith in the church, not in God, or Christ, or the gospel per se, but in the church’s rites. If there was no teaching of Scripture, then it hardly mattered that the Masses were uttered in Latin. The average person of the time would not be able to really say exactly what it was the church itself believed, only what it said they were to believe and do. The primary claim to legitimacy was based on the claim of apostolic succession and tradition. To the average person in the medieval church, it represented an ancient system of steadfast truth that was maintained by the Popes throughout the centuries.

3) The organization of the medieval church was political, only concerned with money and power

Papal authority through the institution of the Roman Catholic church also translated into political authority throughout the Middle Ages. It was natural that it became so. The Roman Catholic church came to official prominence in the early part of the fourth century when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Whether this was, a true conversion is not really known. What is known is he made Christianity the official state religion. This gave immense importance and prestige to the organized church at the time, and especially to its Bishops. But even before Constantine legitimized Christianity politically, the Roman church had already become a center for power and influence within the empire.[4]

As the Roman empire dissolved over several centuries, its power over people was diffused between the various kingdoms that emerged in Europe in its place. There were many Kings and kingdoms, but there was but one church and one claim to headship over it, the Roman Catholic Pope. As already mentioned, there was division between the eastern and western churches that began as far back as the second century, this only increased over time. In the ninth century there was an official separation between them over matters of authority involving the Pope and his relationship to the political sphere of influence in society, as well as other serious doctrinal matters. Eastern Orthodoxy however, is still a Catholic church state ruled by Bishops, although it is a slightly different brand. It recognizes Rome as the church, although it denies Papal authority. So the Episcopal hierarchy of the eastern church shared political control with the kings of various nations throughout the middle ages too, but in a different way.

The Catholic church exercised not only spiritual tyranny over people in Europe, but political tyranny as well. For someone to cross one, was for them to cross the other. To cross either one was to risk potential death at the hands of the state authority. This kind of system insured both compliance and perpetuity, for few people dared to step out of line and challenge anything to do with it. And this is exactly what happened when the Reformation came. Martin Luther became a born-again Christian when he read these words from the book of Romans:

“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets” (Rom. 3:21).

The law of God is good, but to a sinner, it is all about the morality of politics and power. This is why natural religion is all about politics, money and power. This is why the Roman church became what it was, in the Middle Ages and still is now. Its view of God’s kingdom is earthly. Its salvation is all about external rites and asceticism. It rules by force and fear over the sin laden souls of men and women, who think they have deliverance through the organization. Luther read those words in Romans and the fear of condemnation for his guilt was lifted. Luther, and others who found the truth of the gospel contained in these words were made spiritually free, justified before God according to His imputed (legally declared) righteousness.

The tyranny of the Pope and the organization which he headed was so great that even the kings and the nobility feared the Pope and the church. But once the gospel was given a free reign through preaching, the house of cards began to fall. Hordes of men and women in Europe began to see the error of Romanism, and turn to God believing in Jesus Christ as the one true Savior and the Head of the Christian church. This is proof that spiritual authority based on God’s word is far greater than mere political rule.

When Martin Luther crossed the Catholic church by publishing books and tracts concerning God’s righteousness in the gospel apart from the law, he found himself threatened with death as a result of it. And it wasn’t before the Pope that Luther was called to appear and make an account of himself, it was before the political authority of the Holy Roman Empire[5] at the Diet of Worms.[6] In France, where John Calvin was from the King ordered huge numbers of Protestants put to death for adopting gospel views contrary to the state church. War, persecution and political upheaval followed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation for a hundred years after it had begun in Europe.

Why was the Pope so reluctant to consider the teaching of Calvin, Luther and others from Scripture, in their attempt to reform the church? The answer is simple. It was money and power. The Roman Catholic church had amassed a great fortune stored in the Vatican city over many centuries. Every Roman Catholic country found itself plundered by the church and its Bishops. People then as today would give their property willingly to the church in the misguided belief that it would buy them salvation. The idea that the Pope and his minions had literal control in heaven over the departed was behind this blasphemous fraud. The Roman church saw the Reformation as a huge threat to this power and the prosperity it enjoyed.

Roman Catholicism is a natural religion based on a man centered philosophy, with a little bit of Bible thrown into it. And much of that is taken out of context too, like the need for priesthood as though the New Testament were a continuation of the Old Testament sacrificial system. The teachings of the Roman Catholic church are unbiblical, and God does not honor them in any way. Perhaps at one time something of the Christian faith could be found somewhere in the Roman Catholic church. This was in spite of it however, rather than because of it. But its total apostasy from the Christian faith came when at the council of Trent, Rome defined for the first time in its history, what it truly believes about salvation.[7] This settled the matter once and forever that it is a corrupt, false religion. It also vindicated the Reformers in that they presented a clear definition of the Christian faith from the Bible.

God brought reformation to His church in the sixteenth century to separate the true from the false, to show who were truly Christians and what is the Christian faith. After Trent, those who stayed with the Roman Catholic organization could no longer rightly claim citizenship in heaven. The Protestant church over time hammered out numerous confessional standards that defined every aspect of the Christian faith and practice from the Bible. These creeds differed in some respects on such issues as Baptism and church government. But the substance of the theology which emerged from the Reformation was uniformly agreed on and accepted by those who called themselves Protestants. Sadly, today many Protestants have no clue, either what it means to be a Protestant Christian, or they simply don’t care. This is why the church is in such terrible decline.

One thing that came out of the Reformation early on was a short, simple creed that outlined the basic essential elements of the Christian faith, in protest against the errors of Rome. These were called the five solas (Latin), or the sole principles of the Protestant church. These principles taken from the Scripture provide the foundation upon which Protestantism is constructed. These five principles countered the explicit and implicit teachings of the Roman Catholic church, which had in the mind of the Reformers usurped the Divine attributes of God, and ascribed them to the Church and its hierarchy, especially its head, the Pope. We present them here, along with Scripture proofs and the rationale behind them as they pertained to the situation that existed then, so that the one that exists now can be properly analyzed.

We come now to the fundamental issue at hand concerning the principles underlying the Protestant Reformation. Let us now consider this in the form of a single proposition, supported by the five main truths or principles of Protestantism.

Doctrine: The principles behind the Protestant Reformation are based on eternal and unchanging truths that are in every way relevant to the church today

The Five Principles of the Protestant Faith

The five main principles of Protestantism as they were expounded in the sixteenth century are as follows: 1) Scripture alone; 2) Grace alone; 3) Faith alone; 4) Christ alone; 5) God’s glory alone. When these five principles are put together in a single sentence or thought it states that Scripture alone reveals that salvation comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, by which God alone is glorified. These five principles were the clarion call of the Reformation in Europe. They resulted in a return to the apostolic Christianity of the Bible everywhere they were embraced. No one is quite sure who penned these principles first. But all the major Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther of Germany, John Calvin of France, John Knox of Scotland and Huldrych Zwingli of Switzerland embraced and taught them as the foundational principles upon which the Christian church stands or falls.

Notes:

[1] Gordon Bayliss would come to the states once a year and speak at various churches. He sat under the ministry of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones after world war two for a period of time and frequently spoke on the need for reformation and revival in the western church. This writer first sat under the preaching of Gordon Bayliss at a Bible conference attended in 1988 at Seaside Heights New Jersey. Bayliss’ preaching was absolutely electric as he proceeded to expound upon the authority of God’s word, explaining how it struck fear into the heart of Mary Queen of Scots when John Knox spoke to her from it.

[2] The Moral Majority movement was a political movement that arose in the 1970,s in order to elect politicians who would legislate against a number of social evils. The legalization of abortion as a result of the 1973 Roe vs.Wade ruling from the Supreme court was the impetus for the movement. A number of other evils were targeted as well. The movement launched a series of national economic boycotts against corporations thought to be in support of liberal causes. It also succeeded in getting Ronald Reagan elected as President in 1980. However, it fizzled out in the 1980’s as America continued to become more and more liberal.

[3] Pelagius was a British Monk who lived from 360-416 AD. He is known today for his belief in the absolute free will of man regarding salvation. Pelagius also didn’t believe in the doctrine of original sin. His teachings were condemned as heresy at the Council of Carthage in 418 AD. The church theologian Augustine of Hippo was largely responsible for defending the Christian faith against the Pelagian error. However, not more than a hundred years later some of his false thinking had crept back into the early Roman church. Not only is the Roman Catholic church today semi Pelagian, but a number of Protestant denominations and churches since the days of the Reformation are too.

[4] As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, several centers of power and influence arose associated with certain major cities. These centers were Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Antioch. The church and its Bishops in each district had a particular sphere of influence throughout the area surrounding them. This is where the idea of an episcopal diocese or an area of ecclesiastical jurisdiction came from. Naturally, each one of these locations and their Bishops contended for the dominant position within the Catholic (universal) church. There is little surprise that Rome as the original seat of the Roman Empire came out on top, at least as far as the western church is concerned.

[5] The Holy Roman Empire was established in 800 AD by Pope Leo III. It was an attempt at restoring the western Roman Empire which had fallen into a dissolution several centuries before by conquering Germanic tribes from the north. The first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was King Charlemagne of the western Franks. The seat of the Roman Empire had shifted to the east in Asia Minor in what became known as Byzantia or the Byzantine Empire. The reason for the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire is fairly obvious. The center of political power in the Catholic church resided in the east. The eastern church did not recognize the Pope as head of the church, so, by Pope Leo III appointing Charlemagne as the political ruler of the west, he was able to exert ecclesiastical control in that part of Europe.

[6] A Diet of the Holy Roman Empire was an imperial assembly used to deliberate matters of importance to it. There were many Diets in the middle ages held in Worms, a city in the Rhineland Palatinate of Germany. The most notable Diet of Worms was convened in 1521 in order to consider the teachings of Martin Luther. Luther was declared a heretic by the Edict of Worms.

[7] The Council of Trent was held from 1545 to 1563 in Trento, Italy. It was a council of the Roman Catholic church which was in response to the Protestant Reformation. It was an attempt at counter reformation by cleaning up the many inconsistencies and corruptions of the Catholic church which led to the Protestant uprising. The Canons of Trent were set forth as a theological answer to and creedal response to the Protestants. In it they (Rome) stated exactly what they believe are Christian faith and practice.

 

Advertisements
Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
%d bloggers like this: