Podcast: What Do Protestant Evangelicals and Roman Catholics Disagree About? (Michael Reeves)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

The Ripple Effects of the Reformation

In this episode, Michael Reeves discusses what the Protestant Reformation was really all about, and whether or not it's still relevant today. He reflects on the relationship between Protestants and Roman Catholics, explains what Martin Luther was trying to accomplish when he posted his 95 theses, and responds to the idea that the Reformation is responsible for widespread disunity among Christians today.

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Why the Reformation Still Matters

Why the Reformation Still Matters

Michael Reeves, Tim Chester

This accessible introduction to the Protestant Reformation answers eleven key questions raised by the Reformers, arguing that the Reformation remains vitally important for the church and is still relevant to our lives today.

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Full Transcript

01:25 - Welcome

Matt Tully
Michael Reeves, thank you so much for joining us on The Crossway Podcast today.

Michael Reeves
Great to be with you, Matt.

01:30 - Reformation and More Recent Events

Matt Tully
I want to get your input on something that happened a couple of years ago—I think it will help to illustrate questions that a lot of modern Christians have.

Back on October 26, 2017, just four days before the five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, Pope Francis held what could be described as an ecumenical meeting with leaders from the Church of Scotland—which is a Protestant denomination, as I’m sure you’re aware—and they met at the Vatican. And at the meeting he said something that I think was pretty interesting. He said, “Let us thank the Lord for the great gift of being able to live this year in true fraternity, no longer as adversaries after long centuries of estrangement and conflict.” He’s made a number of other statements in the months since that time that are to a similar end, so I think that leads many to wonder if the Protestant Reformation still matters when we have things like that coming from the mouth of the Pope.

Michael Reeves

Yes. Behind the assumption that the Reformation might be an event of the past is usually one of two assumptions. The first is that the Reformation—five hundred years ago—was really a moral cleanup act where the church had got a bit grubby, was doing things inappropriately, and there was a chance for people to behave better. And that happened. People did behave better, so job done. The Reformation’s over.

The second assumption is that there isn’t really any disagreement between evangelicals and Catholics today, at least not any of substance that would keep us apart. After all, it could be argued, both evangelicals and Catholics believe in salvation, a justification that is by faith through grace. And so it’s quite easy to talk about the similarities we have and think, Surely if we’ve got that level of agreement, what’s separating us?

So the idea that it was just a moral cleanup, and the desire for everyone who calls themselves Christian to find a real unity together are powerful impulses to say, The Reformation is over.

04:06 - Doctrinal Distinctions

Matt Tully
And to think of those impulses reaching all the way to the top of the Roman Catholic church and manifesting themselves in the Pope. It does seem like it could be indicative of something greater. A prominent American theologian and scholar, Stanley Hauerwas, who has taught for many years at Duke Divinity School said a couple of years ago, “I, like many Protestants, don’t see the gulf between us and our Catholic brothers and sisters as particularly pronounced. The separation I once saw as default now makes less sense to me.” So it seems like he’s speaking more to some of the doctrinal distinctions that we would come to mind when we think about the Reformation. How would you respond to that kind of sentiment?

Michael Reeves
Well, for example, evangelicals have rejoiced at the Vatican, where a Roman Catholic spokesman was talking about how there is actually agreement between Evangelicals and Catholics because we believe in a justification that is by faith, and we all agree on that. But there was never any disagreement at that point. The difference at the Reformation between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic church was what justification means exactly.

For the Roman Catholic church five hundred years ago and still today, justification includes a process of internal renewal. And this really started with the idea that justification can be best defined by Romans 5:5: that God has poured his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, which he’s given us. The idea is that God pours his love into our hearts, transforming us internally, making us more righteous, more just, more justified. By this internal change we become more inherently, in ourselves, righteous.

What the Reformers meant was that justification is not a process of internal renewal. In Romans 4, we see that the blessed man is not the one who has no sin, but whose sin is covered. And God is a God who, Romans 4:5, justifies the wicked or the ungodly. So there are forms of stressing that no, justification is not a process of internal transformation. It’s a divine declaration. God speaking his promise, declaring that a believer—only because of God’s kindness, because of his word—is clothed with the righteousness of Christ. And so the righteousness isn’t an internal thing that they’ve worked at or improved. It’s the clothing. It’s an external thing. It’s found in Christ, not in themselves. So the very understanding of justification is entirely different between Roman Catholicism and the Reformation.

07:23 - Importance of Defining Terms

Matt Tully
Is that a common issue that we have when thinking about the similarities and differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants, namely the definition of terms? We use some of the same language but maybe the understanding behind those words is very different. Do you think that’s a relevant way of understanding a number of doctrinal areas?

Michael Reeves
Absolutely. I think that it’s the case that when Roman Catholics and evangelicals talk about grace, or sin, or faith, or union with Christ—profoundly different things are meant by those same words. And so evangelicals and Roman Catholics can say we believe in sin, faith, grace, union with Christ, but we mean radically, substantially different things by each of those things. And I think confusion on that point doesn’t just hit Roman Catholic-evangelical relations. I think it hits into the everyday life of evangelicals, whether think about relations with Roman Catholics or not. Because I think that so many Evangelicals, being confused about justification or union with Christ, for example, and not having the Reformers clarity there, don’t enjoy the robust comfort that the Reformers found through getting real gospel clarity on these doctrines.

09:06 - What It Means to Be a Protestant

Matt Tully
So it sounds like you’re saying you think there’s been a dulling of our own understanding of what it means to be Protestant that you think we need to recover? Is that correct?

Michael Reeves
I think I’d say in every generation there’s a need for teachers to ensure that our churches are filled with clear news on the truths of the Reformation—which are the heart of the gospel. How can we be saved? On what basis does God accept sinners? What does it mean that God is gracious to us? Can I be sure of my salvation? Those are the kind of questions that the Reformation dealt with and those are questions that have not gone away in their importance. And if believers are to find joy and assurance in their Christian lives, they need clarity on these truths.

10:02 - Our Commonalities

Matt Tully
So when thinking about some of those key doctrinal issues that the Reformers raised and prioritized, are there any where we are closer together with Roman Catholic than we once were maybe five hundred years ago?

Michael Reeves
Let me pick one. I think there are a few I could pick, but our understanding of sin, I think, has think shifted at a popular level for many Christians toward a more classically Roman Catholic understanding.
You see in all the self-help books that are available in our society an idea that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. That sin is not something that goes so deep in us that we can’t sort ourselves out, right? You know, we hear this all the time, don’t we? The Reformers in contrast were saying, No, the problem of sin goes so deep in us that we can’t sort ourselves out. Which sounds like incredibly gloomy news. But actually, saying sin is not a great big problem is the lighter view of sin. We can sort it out ourselves. Put all the weight of responsibility, the sorting ourselves out, getting ourselves right with God, onto ourselves. And that was exactly what Martin Luther struggled with. So many of the Reformers, before they were converted, found themselves in a similar situation where they were wracked with anxiety and guilt wondering about their standing before God because they thought, My standing before God depends on my sorting my sin out. But then they realized the problem of sin goes so deep in us, it goes down into our hearts, affecting the very things we want.

How does that look today? I think we see that sort of view of sin in teaching that tells us to simply change our behavior. In moralistic teaching and preaching. And such moralism, which simply tells us to sort ourselves out, assumes we can sort ourselves out and make ourselves better. The deep view of sin that the Reformers had makes your compassion leap forward. When you have a deep view of sin and see people are enslaved, are addicted to sin, they can’t simply pull themselves out of it, it makes your compassion leap forward and see these are people who don’t just need to be shouted at and told to try harder. They need the keys to get them out of the prison. And the one thing with the power to free them is the gospel.

So when you have that deep view of sin, you know what these people need is not being told to do better. They need to hear about a kind Savior who’s done everything for them so that their hearts change, so that they actually want him and therefore they begin to want him more than they want their sin.

13:52 - The Gospel’s Central Role

Matt Tully
The tricky thing is that few evangelical Christians would openly say, Well, you know, we just need to do better and that will save us. That will make us right with God. That will make us totally happy. It’s not quite that blunt. But I think you’re right. There can be this trend toward emphasizing what we must do, and maybe the truth of the Gospel and what God has done for us is more in the background. I wonder what you think we can learn from the Reformers in how they prioritized the gospel, even just how they talked about it, that could be an antidote to the kind of situation that we’re in today where we don’t deny the gospel’s relevance, but maybe it just doesn’t play a central role in our own feelings.

Michael Reeves
I think you see it in so many Christian lives where people say, Look, of course, I believe in justification by faith alone. I believe in salvation by grace alone. I believe these things. But even there can be that sneaking suspicion that because I’ve not behaved as well as I could do in the last few days, therefore I’m slightly out of grace and I need to get myself back into grace. So it very quickly comes around to the idea that on the basis of my performance and my feelings is my actual communion with God. And that just sneaks in ever so quickly and easily.

This was something Martin Luther struggled with himself. He said about fifteen years after the Reformation got going, he was at supper with some friends and he said, You know, my greatest temptation is this: I think I don’t have a gracious God. Isn’t that an extraordinary thing to hear from Martin Luther? But even someone who knows gospel truth can so easily, daily, forget it and think we relate to God on the basis of performance and how holy we’re feeling. And so Martin Luther loved to emphasize the externality of God’s word and his promises—the externality of our righteousness. And so he would write out Bible verses so he could see them outside himself. “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Write it out and see the truth is out there, unchanging, not dependent on how I feel about it. And so you see how Martin Luther dealt with his own doubts, I think we can learn great lessons from that for today.

16:44 - Luther and the 95 Theses

Matt Tully
Yeah, take us back to Martin Luther and that that pivotal day in October of 1517 when he posted this list of 95 Theses, or statements, on the church door. Why did he do that? And what was he hoping to accomplish?

Michael Reeves
That happened just a few weeks after a slightly lesser known event that sets it up. He published a 97 Theses before in which he was really taking on Aristotle. And Aristotle had got into the church’s teaching and Aristotle’s ethics were basically “fake it till you make it.” And Aristotle said we become righteous by doing righteous deeds (e.g., keep doing something and by the repetition of the doing, you become a righteous person). And Luther wanted to say, "No, we are made righteous by being born again and clothed with Christ’s righteousness. And therefore we behave differently. So his whole difference was that we’re not changed from the outside in, we’re changed from the inside, from our hearts, and that changes us on the outside. And so a few weeks later when it came to posting his 95 Theses, he was wanting to object against this idea that what happens on the outside could change us in our relationship with God, could change us in our standing. And particularly he was gunning for indulgences. And indulgences were basically a way of getting time off purgatory. Purgatory was a waiting place for heaven . . . since justification is a process of becoming righteous, you’re never going to be righteous enough for heaven by internal transformation by the time you die. So you need longer. So purgatory gives you longer to be purged of your sins.

18:59 - Purgatory

Matt Tully
And were people just sitting around there in the clouds then? What did they view was happening actually in purgatory?

Michael Reeves
There were a few different portrayals of it, but normally it was perceived as a hellish experience. So the man who was really in Luther’s sites, an indulgence seller called Johann Tetzel, he was really a scoundrel in how he was selling—literally selling—these indulgences. And there’s a famous sermon in which he said, Listen. Do you hear the screams of your parents and your grandparents in purgatory who are saying even now, But for a little money you could spare us all this pain? Put your money in the drum and they’ll be free! Or this famous jingle was, Place your money in the coffer and that moment the soul from purgatory will spring out. So it was a very crass selling of time off purgatory. And for Luther that entirely undid his—at the time—evolving understanding of the gospel.

20:24 - Luther’s Intentions

Matt Tully
So when he posted those theses then and objected to this man Tetzel, did he view that as an attack on the Roman Catholic church in a more broad sense or did he view that as an aberration that he wanted to see fixed? Was he trying to kind of signal a breaking away? Or what were his ultimate intentions?

Michael Reeves
No, he didn’t want a breaking away. He wanted to reform the church. And he didn’t really know what he was getting into either. And so what happened was a string of debates with Roman Catholic theologians in which they pressed him, saying that he was going against the Pope. And the more they pressed him on how he was denying the Pope’s authority, the more he was relying on Scripture’s supreme authority. And that pushed him to start seeing there was a choice: Scripture to be supreme, the trumping authority that can overturn all other authority claims. We all listen to different authorities: to the Saints of old, to reliable theologians, to church elders; but what’s going to have the final word? Will it be Scripture, or will it be the Pope? And he began to see that if you say that there is some other authority than Scripture—for example, the Pope—then the church can no longer be reformed and it’s the synagogue of Satan because God’s word is no longer ruling there. And that’s where he started using dramatic language about how the Pope was antichrist because he was saying that if the Pope is effectively replacing Scripture, we’ve got a direct fight with the gospel happening.

22:27 - The Start of Radical Individualism?

Matt Tully
That leads into maybe one of the biggest critiques of the Reformation that we often hear: that it led to this radical individualism, particularly in reading the Bible and interpreting the Bible. So people will often say Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, paired with these new translations of the Bible in the languages of the people—Luther is famous for translating the Bible into German so that his people could actually read God’s word—ultimately resulted in the situation we have today where anyone can read the Bible and anyone can decide essentially what it means on their own. And people will claim that the Reformation was a big part in leading to this. Do you think that’s a fair critique? Is there any truth in that or is that not necessarily a fair way to view things?

Michael Reeves
I think it’s wildly misleading as an idea because the Reformation conviction that Scripture is the supreme authority doesn’t mean that I as an individual read it all by myself and I can come to an opinion that is entirely novel and in contrast to or contradicting what the church has always said. Scripture is supreme, but I read it within the community of faith. The idea that the Reformation might have fostered an individualism just really forgets where people were at. Large percentages of each population in Europe at the time were illiterate, so Scripture had to be read to them as a community. What actually happened with the Reformation was not the growing individualism of that sort, which is more of post-Enlightenment thing. But people had been wrapped up in personal anxiety because of a performance-based understanding of how they stood before God, and they moved to being taught the gospel together, coming together as a community under gospel teaching. So clear gospel teaching was actually bringing people to a shared faith in a way that hadn’t quite been the case before the Reformation because in medieval Roman Catholicism, knowledge of the faith wasn’t really expected. You could have virtually no knowledge of any catechism or creed and that would be generally expected. But with Reformation teaching, people came together as communities with shared convictions. So the idea that the Reformation underpinned that sort of individualism is just reading the history all wrong.

25:45 - A Cause for Division?

Matt Tully
Another critique that’s often levied against the Reformers is that even among themselves there quickly developed many divisions and almost a schismatic spirit where every little thing would be a cause to divide and even write these angry letters and treatises against each other, and that really fractured the church in a million pieces and a fracturing that we haven’t come out of even five hundred years later. How would you respond to that kind of critique?

Michael Reeves
That critique particularly works if you think that church unity is to be found through an institution. And so Roman Catholicism will look more united because there is a single institution. But actually there is great diversity within Roman Catholicism. Protestants can look more disunited because of all the different denominations. But actually if you look at Evangelicals across the centuries, the descendants of the Reformers around the world, there is a remarkable agreement in core Christian teaching that is shared. A few years ago, Jim Parker and Thomas Odin looked at different evangelical statements of faith that have been made over the last half century or so and they examined something like seventy-six documents and showed the remarkable degree of unity that there was doctrinally. So it’s really a misunderstanding, it’s really misrepresenting things to say that there’s all this division among evangelicals that there isn’t in Roman Catholicism. It’s really that comes about through having understood unity in an institutional sense. But that’s not how the church is constituted. And this was something the Reformers were fighting for because the church is not an institution built on the supremacy of the bishop of Rome. It is founded on Scripture.

28:13 - Contributions of the Reformation

Matt Tully
If you had to boil down the Reformation’s contributions to global Christianity, to the Christian church as a whole, defined as broadly as it could be defined . . . what are the top three contributions that the Reformation has made?

Michael Reeves
I would say is that the Reformation brings believers joy. That’ll be my number one. The Reformational truths that the Reformers fought for bring a joy that no other Christian tradition can enjoy because without knowing that Christ’s sufficient sacrifice allows us to boldly approach our father in heaven and call him Abba, without knowing that he is so gracious that he would send his son as the atonement, as a once-for-all sacrifice, you can’t have that joy. Without knowing the security of acceptance and therefore how gracious of a God we have, you cannot have such joy in God.

And related to that, God is not so glorified in any other presentation of the gospel you might see in Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. God is not so glorified as he is in Reformational teaching. Because in Reformational teaching sin is not a small problem and therefore Christ is not a small Savior. We have the problem of great sin and we have a great Savior. And so the depth of our problem and the magnitude of Christ’s grace and sacrifice show to us the beauty, and the range, and the magnificence of God’s glory.

So joy and glory I think would be two key takeaways for the Reformation. Other than that, I would be split between two other doctrines, if you don’t mind. I can’t do three. I would say Scripture alone—having having Scripture as supreme authority—and justification by faith alone. But those two doctrines are really giving those key takeaways in Christian life. Joy. Joy for us and glory for God.

31:00 - United for Social Issues

Matt Tully
So many have noted that the West is becoming more and more secular, less and less Christian, at least explicitly, and I think we see increasingly that a lot of Protestants have started to link arms with Roman Catholics to join together around certain social issues that are important for both camps. Do you feel like that’s a fruitful path forward for Protestants—evangelicals more specifically—or is that ultimately going to be hurtful to our own Evangelical distinctives?

Michael Reeves
Right. I think if we’re to do that there needs to be great clarity on the difference between cobelligerence—fighting together for shared value—and cobelief. And we need to be clear that those are different things. So if we’re clear on that, I can’t see there being any problem with evangelicals and Roman Catholics campaigning together on, say, the abortion issue. We would share belief on abortion. But that mustn’t be allowed then to obscure the fact that we do have real theological differences. Real theological differences that are not persnickety. It’s not just the difference of one word—justification by faith and justification by faith alone, as the Reformers would say—that can sound like it’s a picky difference. It’s an entirely different understanding of how it is that we get right with God. And for the sake of our joy, for the sake of our assurance, we mustn’t give up that clarity on how evangelical and Catholic doctrines are different.

33:09 - Are We Brothers and Sisters?

Matt Tully
A follow-up question to that, I think it’s increasingly common to hear, as we heard in the quote from Pope Francis, both Roman Catholics and evangelicals refer to the other side as brothers and sisters in Christ, or as those who worship the same God and are in the same family, so to speak. Should we consider Roman Catholics to be our brothers and sisters in Christ?

Michael Reeves
This comes back to the issue of whether the Reformation was dividing the church. The Reformers never thought it was because they were saying, If you won’t come to God through the gospel, you’re not a Christian. And so if you won’t be part of his church where the word of God is purely taught, you’re not part of the church. So a definition of church that meant they were saying, We’re not splitting the church at all. The church is being reformed here.

What does that mean about Roman Catholic friends? Well, I think it’s quite possible to say, and I believe it’s the case, that there are true believers in Roman Catholic churches. I think that’s very hard to deny. But I think they’re confused and it’s wrong of them to remain within Roman Catholic churches. And the reason that it’s wrong of them to remain is because Rome is not teaching the gospel as Scripture teaches it. And I don’t expect you to, if you go into a Roman Catholic church, hear the gospel clearly taught. Now you may. It is possible you may and I remember reading Charles Spurgeon once describing how he went into a Roman Catholic church in Italy and heard the priest so warmly speaking of Christ and he was thrilled that Christ was warmly spoken of. But that doesn’t mean then that what Christ has done for us in the nature of the gospel was clearly articulated. So I think we need to say yes, there will be brothers and sisters who are in the Roman Catholic church; but that doesn’t mean that the Roman Catholic church teaches the gospel. They really need to come out to the church.

35:49 - In Defense of Protestant Belief

Matt Tully
If a Roman Catholic friend or family member, someone you really loved and cared about, were to sit down with you and ask you why you’re a Protestant and not a Roman Catholic, what would you say to that person?

Michael Reeves
I would say Scripture persuades me of the truth of the gospel and what I see in the writings of Paul, and the New Testament, and all of Scripture flatly goes against what Rome teaches. And so I’m left with a choice: do I believe what Rome is teaching and what you get is clearly set out in the catechism of the Catholic church, or will I believe what Scripture teaches? And I’m left with that choice. And Scripture proves itself to be the word of God. I will go with the word of God rather than the teachings of man. For example, Rome still teaches that tradition is to be respected and venerated as much as Scripture. It still teaches in the catechism of the Catholic church, that education includes the inward renewal of the believer. So it’s forgiveness and inward renewal. Whereas Scripture clearly teaches that that inward renewal is a consequence of justification, not the cause of justification. Justification is a divine, declarative act. We’ve got two completely different systems here. And if a Roman Catholic is to be honest, they need to look at these two competing messages and make their choice. Will they go with Scripture or with what Rome is teaching? And if they are willing, and it is a big cultural jump for so many Roman Catholics for whom this love for Mary and Roman Catholicism is often so bound up with close family, it can be very difficult social jump. But that jump is a jump into the gospel, which is a jump into assurance, and joy, and true fellowship of the true church. And so it’s a jump into life. Yes, it’s a hard jump; but a jump worth making.

38:26 - Where to Begin Learning

Matt Tully
Yeah, if there’s someone listening right now who hearing you say these things is interested in maybe dipping his or her toe into the waters of some of these reformers and their writings, what are one or two first steps that you would recommend in terms of things to read to really start actually hearing these reformer’s voices for themselves?

Michael Reeves
I would suggest one good place to go would be Martin Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian. Which particularly looking at justification and what it means to be a Christian. And after that I’d say recent Puritans. Now the Puritans sometimes can take just a few pages for you to get into them. They’re not always immediately easy reading; but if you read some Richard Sibbes, I’d start with A Bruised Reed. The Bruised Reed is a great place to go simply to see more clearly who Christ is. I’d read some John Owen. Read John Owen, On the Person of Christ or Communion with God. And John Owens’s Communion with God is just a beautiful work showing the specific communion that believers have with the Father, with the Son, and with the Spirit. And you see in reading these truths, this is not truths just for the head; but they are transformative for our lives. They bring delight, they bring assurance, they bring us a sweeter communion with God. If you’ll read these people, your Christian life will be greatly enriched.

40:20 - Closing

Matt Tully
Michael, thank you for spending some time today talking with us about the Reformation, about its legacy, and about what we can learn and continue to learn from these figures even today. We appreciate you taking the time.

Michael Reeves
Thanks, Matt. Been great to be with you.


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