On June 3rd, 1981 William Thomas pitched a ramshackle tent outside the gates of the White House with a large sign that read, "Live by the bomb, die by the bomb." He was so gripped by the threat posed by nuclear weapons he held a vigil protesting the atomic arms race at the heart of the Cold War. Days became weeks, then months, then years. Rain or shine, Thomas manned his post until his death in 2009. Since then, the vigil has been maintained by a chain of activists. After 40 years, it is widely believed to be history's longest-running protest.
But it's not.
Last month, Christians commemorated the 504th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31st, 1517. This document was a formal protest against the doctrinal abuses of the Catholic Church and the grave threat they posed to humanity. Luther's protest movement quickly spread throughout Germany and the rest of Europe. Now, five centuries later, people on every continent still call themselves Protestants. But why? Here are three reasons we're still protesting:
How can we know the mind and heart of God? Where can we find eternal truth for faith and life? What rule ought to bind the conscience? Rome maintains that "Scripture and Tradition" are the twin peaks of divine revelation. Paragraph 82 of the Catholic Catechism states, "the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, 'does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.'" This doctrine denies individual Christians their right to read and analyze the Bible for themselves and demands implicit faith in the church's interpretation, even when it contradicts the plain meaning of Scripture.
But as we scan the Bible itself, we find the saints savoring the sufficiency and supremacy of Scripture. Far from establishing the authority of tradition, Jesus railed against the seditious vanity of the Pharisees for "[leaving] the commandment of God and [holding] to the tradition of men..." (Mark 7:8). Likewise, Paul warned the Corinthians against going "beyond what is written" (1 Corinthians 4:6), and he commended the Bereans for their analytical, not implicit, faith as they examined his teaching in the light of Scripture, the supreme arbiter of truth. We protest the hubris of Rome in elevating their tradition to the throne occupied by God's word alone. We protest the bondage of traditionalism in which our Catholic friends are locked.
Luther hailed justification as "the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls." John Calvin called it "the hinge on which all true religion turns." If the issue of authority was the "formal principle" of the Reformation, the doctrine of justification was the "material principle;" the very marrow of the movement. How can sinners stand before God and be forgiven and accepted as righteous in his sight? The wedding bells of Scripture toll the glorious truth: "by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). Through his sinless life of perfect obedience, Jesus fulfilled all righteousness in our place. He lived for us! And through his atoning death on the cross, he shed his blood to wash our sins away and satisfy the justice of God as our substitute. He died for us! This cleansing of sin and clothing in righteousness is imputed to us by grace alone and received through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. The good news of the gospel is that God has done it all. "Salvation belongs to the Lord" (Psalm 3:8).
But Rome rejects this gospel. The Council of Trent, convened in the 16th century to respond to the Reformation, declared during its sixth session, "If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins… or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favor of God; let him be anathema." Contrary to the testimony of Scripture, the Catholic Church teaches that man merits his own salvation in cooperation with God's grace. Paragraph 2010 of the Catholic Catechism states, "Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life" [italics mine]. We protest the soul-killing works righteousness of Rome, and glory in the perfection of Christ's work in life and death to save us from our sins.
Nearly half of Luther's 95 Theses take aim at the same target: the selling of indulgences. At the time, the Grand Commissioner in Germany, Johan Tetzel was going from town to town selling indulgences to fund the construction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Tetzel's sales pitch included the jingle, "When the coin in coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." An indulgence was a remission of the temporal consequences of sin in purgatory. When the Pope granted an indulgence to one living or dead, he claimed to apply righteousness from the treasury of merit to their account. In Catholic theology, the treasury of merit is a spiritual repository of the good works of Jesus, Mary, and the saints who exceeded, or supererogated, the demands of God's law. The blasphemies baked into these doctrines cannot be overstated.
To this day, the Pope offers indulgences in exchange for "works of devotion, penance, and charity" (Catholic Catechism 1478). So, to this day we protest the selling of salvation which God purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28). We protest the Pope's peddling of pardon which is "the free gift of God" (Romans 6:23). We protest the monetizing of mercy which is promised in endless supply to any and all who "draw near to the throne of grace" (Hebrews 4:16). We protest, not because we hate Catholics, but because we love them and yearn for their salvation. We protest with hearts full of love, joy, and gratitude to the Lord who redeemed us when we were his enemies and taught us to sing,
"Nothing can for sin atone:
nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Naught of good that I have done:
nothing but the blood of Jesus.
O precious is the flow
that makes me white as snow;
no other fount I know;
nothing but the blood of Jesus."
Jim McCarthy is the Senior Pastor of the First Presbtyerian Church in Hattiesburg, MS
"The Joy of Justification" by Nick Batzig
"Always Reforming?" by A. Craig Troxel
"Lessons From a Controversial Colloquy" by James Rich
From PCRT: Reformation: Recovering the Essence of the Gospel, with Richard Phillips, Carl Trueman, Daniel Doriani, and Kent Hughes
Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Carl Trueman