This article is part of the Questions and Answers series.
Q: Why did the Reformation happen?
A: The Reformation happened for two main reasons. The first was that the church in Western Europe, which was theoretically united under the authority of the pope in Rome, was in crisis. Many of the popes were corrupt and abusing their power. Discipline in the church was also very lax. Priests were supposed to be celibate, but many kept concubines and had illegitimate children who then had to be supported out of church funds that were intended for other purposes. Worship services were conducted in Latin, which ordinary people did not understand, and much popular devotion was just superstition. But education was improving and more people were questioning the legitimacy of the pope’s claim to be Christ’s representative (or “vicar”) on earth and the successor of the apostle Peter. It was discovered that the documents used to justify these claims had been forged and that the Bible gave no support to them.
The second main reason why there was a Reformation was that many ordinary people wanted to get closer to God. They were particularly worried about what would happen to them when they died. The church was teaching that most of them were not good enough to go straight to heaven, so they would be sent instead to a place called “purgatory”. This was invented in the twelfth century as a way of comforting people who knew that heaven was beyond their reach. In purgatory, they would be given a second chance to work off their sins and would eventually become good enough to go to heaven. The church offered to speed up the process by selling what they called “indulgences”. An indulgence was a kind of voucher that gave them time off from purgatory. You could get one by doing something to demonstrate your devotion to God, like going on a pilgrimage for example or taking part in a crusade against Muslims or pagans, but as time went on, you could also buy them. This option became a popular form of fundraising for the church, but it meant that people could purchase the grace of God without showing any sign of personal devotion or repentance for sin. It was the scandal caused by the sale of indulgences that moved Martin Luther to protest, and that lit the fuse which led to the Reformation in 1517.
Q: What did the Reformers believe?
A: The Reformation was not just a protest against the abuses of the church. Luther and others soon realized that their objections were rooted in theological convictions that were plainly taught in the Bible but that the church had been ignoring. The most important of these was the message that people were saved not by what they did, but by what they believed. It was by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and not by any action on our part, that our sins were paid for. Those who trusted in Christ had their sins covered by his atoning sacrifice and they were admitted to heaven because of their faith in him. What we cannot do for ourselves, he has done for us. This made any idea of purgatory redundant. Human beings do not have to become perfect in order to inherit eternal life as long as they trust in Christ. This is what theologians call “justification by faith alone”.
Closely tied to this is what flows from justification. Those who trust in Christ are given his Holy Spirit, who comes to dwell in their hearts by faith, giving them a new and personal relationship with God which the Bible calls a new birth or a new creation. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians are able to live the kind of life that God expects of us, though we continue to struggle against our old nature and against hostile forces in this world that keep trying to take us away from God. A saint is not a perfect person who has earned his or her way into heaven, but a sinner who has been justified by faith.
Most importantly, the Bible tells us (Romans 8:38–39) that nothing can separate us from the love of God. The church claimed the power, not only to help people to get to heaven, but also to keep them out of it. This exclusion was done by a process called “excommunication”, by which an offender would be expelled from the church, cut off from the grace of God, and denied any hope of ever going to heaven. People were excommunicated for disobeying priests, for failing to contribute financially to the church, and even for ignoring things like fasting, but these were man-made rules that had no basis in the Bible. A person who is born again in Christ, by the power of his Holy Spirit, can rest assured of going to be with him in eternity. Our sins are real and they are serious, but they have been forgiven by the blood of Christ shed for us on the cross. What we have to do is repent of those sins, claim Christ’s forgiveness by faith and ask for the power of the Holy Spirit to strengthen us as we try to live a Christian life. The church cannot control this any more that anyone else can, because we are answerable not to human authorities but to God.
Q: Why are there so many Protestant churches?
A: Martin Luther had no intention of dividing the church. He believed that what he was teaching was obvious from the Bible and he expected everyone, including the pope, to accept it. Unfortunately, his hopes were to be disappointed. Some people thought that Luther did not go far enough in his criticisms and wanted a more radical break with the past than he thought was necessary. Others had different priorities. In Switzerland, for example, the Reformers of Zurich and Geneva went further than Luther in their objections to the traditional understanding of the sacraments as means by which God gave grace to human beings. In particular, they did not believe that baptism made a person Christian, nor did they accept that the body and blood of Christ were present in the bread and wine that were consecrated and shared in holy communion. There were attempts made to overcome these differences, but they failed, and so different churches emerged. In England, the state tried to impose a compromise form of worship, but many people objected to that, and created independent congregations that we now call “denominations”.
These were unfortunate developments in many ways, but Protestants believe that the true church is an invisible, spiritual community of true believers who are united in the Holy Spirit, even if they disagree in many outward details. This makes it possible for Lutherans, Presbyterians (Reformed), Anglicans (Episcopalians), Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals to have fellowship with each other in spite of their differences. In recent years many causes of division have faded into the background and common points of unity have come to the fore instead. This has not produced one big institutional church, but it has allowed for practical co-operation and a degree of flexibility so that people can usually move from one Protestant denomination or congregation to another without difficulty.
Q: What are the big differences between Protestants and Catholics?
A: The biggest differences between Protestants and Catholics lie in the ways in which they understand how the Holy Spirit works in the life of the Christian community. To put it simply, Catholics tend to emphasize the external work of the Spirit, whereas Protestants emphasize his internal work instead. The effect of this can be seen at many levels. First of all, there is the question of how we become Christians. For Catholics, anyone who is baptized in the name of the Trinity is a Christian. They recognize that there are many people who ignore their baptism and even deny it, but they are “lapsed Catholics”, that is to say, Christians who do not practice their faith. Protestants generally disagree with this. They accept the necessity for baptism but do not believe that pouring water over someone makes that person a Christian. That can only happen when the Holy Spirit works in his or her heart. Baptism is a promise of what can and will happen to a believer, but it does not (and cannot) create the faith that is needed. There are no “lapsed Protestants”—either you are a Christian or you are not!
Catholics also believe that it is necessary for Christians to belong to the Catholic Church and participate in its worship (including the reception of the sacraments) if they hope to go to heaven when they die. But no Catholic can be sure of that outcome. Apart from a very few who manage to achieve spiritual perfection in this life, and who are therefore canonized as “saints”, almost everyone will have to spend time in purgatory. They will get to heaven eventually, but they do not know when or how. Protestants reject that way of thinking. They agree that Christians must join a church, participate in its worship, receive the sacraments, and so on, but they do not think of these activities as counting in their favor with God. Instead they insist that because they have been adopted as God’s children by the Holy Spirit, they will go to heaven when they die even though they are not perfect. This is a major difference of outlook and one that frequently pits Protestants and Catholics against each other. Catholics tend to think that Protestants are presumptuous when they say that they are going to heaven when they die, whereas Protestants think that Catholics have failed to understand what salvation in Christ really means.
Another area of fundamental disagreement concerns the way the Holy Spirit builds up the church. For Catholics this happens through external rites, and in particular, through the ordination of priests who have the authority to dispense God’s grace through the sacraments. A priest has the power to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ by changing their underlying “substance”. This belief is not based on the Bible but on a theory that can be traced ack to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who believed that all reality consists of substances that appear in different forms, which he called “accidents”. In the priestly act of consecration, the substance of bread and wine changes but the accidents (color, taste, etc.) remain the same. This is called transubstantiation, and all Protestants reject it. Protestants believe that it is impossible to change material substances into something they are not. Bread and wine remain what they are and communion with Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart and mind of the believer. Protestant clergy are therefore not “priests” in the Catholic sense, nor do they believe that they can be. God works in his people by convicting them of sin, of righteousness and of judgment, and this conviction comes by the preaching of his Word, revealed in the Bible and applied by the Holy Spirit to those who accept its message in faith.
What counts is our faithfulness and obedience to the Word that we have received.
Q: Do we need another Reformation today?
A: This is a hard question to answer in a simple way. We cannot go back and re-create the circumstances of the sixteenth century, so even if we think it would be nice to have another Luther, that is not going to happen. On the other hand, the modern church is far from perfect and there are many things that could be improved. Too many Christians fail to understand the implications of their faith for everyday life and need the Holy Spirit to work a change in their hearts and minds – a personal reformation, if you like, that in its own way is just as important as the Reformation was 500 years ago. Many churches have grown into business enterprises, more interested in increasing numbers and budgets than in extending the kingdom of God. That too, needs to be changed. Some people have become very involved in dubious forms of political engagement that end up compromising the witness of the gospel, and there again, reform and renewal are to be desired. Whether these things require a mass movement of the Spirit or not is impossible to say.
God may choose to work in that way, and if he does, then we must be grateful to him for his mercy towards us. But whatever he decides to do, each of us has a duty to hear his voice and obey it in the place and in the circumstances where he has called us. Our witness may not be glamorous or famous, but that does not matter. What counts is our faithfulness and obedience to the Word that we have received. If we think like that, then we shall see the Holy Spirit at work in our lives and in the lives of those around us, and who knows? One day we may look back and be able to say: “That was a new Reformation after all”. It was only with hindsight that Luther and his colleagues realized what had happened, and most probably, the same will be true for us.
Gerald Bray is a contributor to Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary edited by Matthew Barrett.
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