A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center on religion and public life concluded that many people in the United States do not understand the basic teachings of the denominations they profess to be a part of. For example, 45 percent of those who claim to be Catholic did not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used for communion does not just symbolize the blood and body of Christ (as protestant churches teach), but the Catholic Church teaches that the bread and wine actually becomes the blood and body of Christ (transubstantiation).
For those who profess to be Protestant 53 percent could not identify Martin Luther as the leader of the Protestant Reformation. Another disquieting statistic is the fact that only 16 percent of those claiming to be Protestant realize that traditional Protestantism teaches that salvation is through faith alone (not the seven sacraments).
Martin Luther was a committed Catholic monk who dedicated his time to prayer, vigils, reading and other “work of God.” Says Luther, “I was a good monk and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I…” After embarking upon a trip to Rome Luther was horrified to have discovered immorality and irreverence among the priests (as alleged by Luther). Luther returned to Germany a disillusioned monk. Luther began to study the New Testament writings of the Apostle Paul, particularly the book of Romans. It was through his study of the book of Romans and in particular chapter one and verse seventeen that Luther concluded that salvation is not through the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, but faith alone in Jesus Christ. “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17)
After Luther’s salvation experience he becomes convicted of the selling of indulgences by the priests (the selling of pardon for sin) for which the proceeds were being used to build and refurbish St. Peters Cathedral. This inspired Luther to write the “95 theses” that he nailed to the Wittenberg Castle door on October 31, 1517. These 95 theses primarily addressed the issue of selling indulgences by the priests.
It was never the intention of Luther to start a revolution and separate from the Catholic Church, but rather he wanted reformation within the Catholic Church. Luther simply wanted an open debate with the priests and scholars over the issue of indulgences and salvation by faith. Twenty-one months after the posting of the 95 Theses the Pope sent a letter to Luther indicating that he would be excommunicated (banished from the Catholic Church resulting in eternal damnation) if he did not publicly recant in the city square within sixty days of receipt. Luther responded on December 10, 1520 by burning the letter in the public square. This officially began the reformation (revolution) movement and the formation of Protestant churches.
Some of Luther’s theology and reformation distinctives are as follows. 1) The Gospel of Grace, “for by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Eph. 2:8-9) 2) Inerrancy of scripture, rejecting the Popes infallibility in interpreting scripture. 3) The individual priesthood of all believers, all believers are priests having direct access to God. “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
Luther is credited for leading the German Reformation, but there were also other reformation movements that came to fruition during this time as well. The French Swiss Reformation led by John Calvin. The English Reformation under King Henry VIII. The German Swiss Reformation under the leadership of Ulrich Zwingli. The Anabaptist (Swiss Brethren Reformation). Out of the Swiss Brethren Reformation came Grace Breathern, Evangelicals, Baptists, Mennonite, Bible Church, Amish and Moravian. The term Anabaptist means they were re-baptized. If as infants they had been baptized they would be re-baptized as adults once they had made a personal profession of faith in Jesus Christ.
The point is, irrespective of denominational background many churchgoers today have very little knowledge (according to the Pew Research Center) about what their own denomination believes or why they believe what they profess to believe. As the prophet Hosea writes, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…” (Hosea 4:6)
The best resource we have at our disposal today to sort through all of the various doctrinal positions of various denominations is the Bible, Gods Word. In it we can find the answers to the questions that many of our church fathers struggled with since the end of the Apostolic period in the first century all the way up through the reformation period until today. Jesus Himself emphasized the study of scripture, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.” (John 5:39)
Pastor, Randy Mason www.libertybaptistofmarshalltown.com
Liberty Baptist Church