Did the Reformation Destroy the ‘Church?’

Catholics, academics, and some protestants view the Reformation launched by Martin Luther on October 31, 1517 as being a less than helpful historical development. Prior to the posting of the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Chapel, seemingly one unified Christian church existed. Our Christian friends in the East who assemble under the banner of the Greek Orthodox Church take issue with this Western view of church history. Almost five hundred years before the Reformation, they broke with the Bishop of Rome on July 16, 1054. But the great schism did not destroy the unity of the Western Churches. Luther and the second generation of Reformers deserve the credit or the blame for that development. Baptists have a president, Methodists have bishops, and Presbyterians have presbyters in part because Luther walked off the field and refused to play with the historic and unifying expression of Christendom, the Roman Catholic Church.


Did Luther and Sola Scriptures Destroy the Church?


But is this truly what happened? Did Luther’s quest for a purer church destroy “The Church,” dividing that which God has always intended to be unified?


Those who view the Reformation to be primarily schismatic in nature, point to the most famous line of the Reformation. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, the representative of Pope Leo X demanded that Luther recant of his errors and his teaching. His errors included such things as Thesis 36 which stated, “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.” Luther asked for an adjournment of the meeting to form his response. When he returned to the hall the following day, he replied:


I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

Here I Stand

Protestants champion Luther’s statement because it encapsulates the idea of Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. Instead of looking to Rome for truth, protestants can scan the Bible and discern God’s truth through plain reason. Luther had shifted the authority of the church from the Pope’s throne to the pew. Protestants rejoiced.

Christendom quaked. The democratization of the church’s authority threatened to destroy all authoritative claims. Any man or woman with access to the Bible could reason himself or herself to a variety of doctrines that may have no relation to the doctrines proposed by other Christians. Essentially Luther and the Reformers who followed the pugnacious monk had turned theology into a subjective experience that seemingly undermined the idea of truth, leaving no place for cultural much less spiritual unity. Interpretive anarchy reigned.


What Did Luther Really Do?

Though Luther and those in the Reformed camp turned the world upside down, they were not seeking to create a new church, modeling a theological paradigm of unending evolution and progress. The Reformers were inherently theological conservationists who wished to lead the Church back to the historic, apostolic faith. Luther had said his 95 Theses aligned, “with what is in the Holy Scriptures…and then what is in…the writings of the church fathers.”

Luther had not advocated for theological anarchy. He and those who followed him believed that the Holy Spirit that had inspired the New Testament text, converted the lost and sustained the church as the caretaker and protector of the evangelical witness. Christians were free to interpret the text according to their own conscience as long as that conscience aligned with the Scriptures and the testimony of the historic church that affirmed the apostolic witness. Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer correctly noted that for the Reformers, “Tradition was not the Word of God; it is the testimony to that Word.” Luther took issue with the Pope not because the Vatican championed tradition. He took issue with Rome because it advocated for theological positions that ran counter to the Scriptures and the testimony of the historic apostolic faith. Vanhoozer helpfully describes what Luther did, writing,

Protestantism is not the virus that divides and attacks the body; it is the antibodies that set to work attacking the body’s infection (e.g. late medieval Roman Catholicism).

Luther had not protested the authoritative nature of apostolic tradition as taught in the Scriptures. He protested against the commands of the Pope because the Pontiff, “distorts the Holy Scriptures.” He was not an theological anarchist. He was theological purest, Sola Scriptura.

Why Is the Church Fractured?

The church lacks unity not because the reformers protested the authority of Rome but because men and women of every age refuse to acknowledge the Scriptures and the apostolic tradition of the Church as Rome has done. The ancient church father Irenaeus whom Luther knew well described schismatics as follows:

When we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they [the schismatics] object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth.

The unity of the church fractures when men and women walk away from the apostolic witness of the Scriptures preferring new sources of authority ranging from prophetic dreams, to religious traditions, to personal feelings. Regardless of their claims, the new traditions always produce schism.

Luther did not infect the church with schism. He reintroduced the church to the cure for division, the gospel once delivered for all and attested to be all true believers. May we be wise stewards of the cure.

John Huss: A Name Martin Luther Thought All Christians Should Know

John-Huss-BlogOn Oct 31, 1517, the monk, Martin Luther turned the world upside down with a few shift taps on the door of the Wittenberg Chapel. Luther hoped his 95 Theses, 95 concerns, about the state of the Catholic Church would lead the church to reexamine her doctrine of indulgences, pieces of paper that promised forgiveness from sin in exchange for a fee. Luther wrote,

Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.

He continued noting, “Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.”

Luther hoped his document would spur the erring church to return to the teachings of the primitive, apostolic church. But instead of taking on a few misguided theologians, Luther found himself challenging the essence of Catholicism. In 1520, Pope Leo X condemned the German preacher of salvation alone through faith alone, by grace alone in accordance with the Scriptures alone as being, “the slave of a depraved mind…a stone of stumbling…a heretic.” The Reformation swung into full gear. The church would never be the same.

Martin Luther’s Connection To Huss

A year earlier in 1519, Luther still believed the Catholic Church could be rescued. He traveled to the city of Leipzig to debate the well-known and revered catholic theologian Johann Eck. As they debated the “primacy of the Pope.” Eck shifted the discussion to the Council of Constance and accused Luther of “espousing the pestilent errors of John Huss which troubled the Catholic Church during the 1400’s.”

As a young scholar, Luther had read some of Huss’s sermon. Though he knew Huss was a heretic, the young Luther confessed he, “was filled with astonishment difficult to describe, as I sought out for what reason so great a man – a doctor, so worthy of veneration, and so powerful in expounding the Scripture – had been burned to death.” But Luther refused to utter his thoughts about the Bohemian heretic for fear, “that the heavens would fall me.”

The German told Eck, “I repulse the charge of Bohemianism.” And then as all good discussions do, the debate broke for lunch.

During the lunch break, Luther went to the library at Leipzig and read the charges against Huss. When Luther returned to the debate Hall, he returned a Hussite, a friend of the heretic.  Luther would later declare,

I have hitherto taught and held all the opinions of Jan Hus unawares…In short, we are all Hussites without knowing it.

What did Luther find in the Library of Leipzig?

Let’s take a look.

Who is John Huss?

John Huss entered the world in 1373 in Bohemia, modern day Czechoslovakia. Though born to a family of modest means, Huss reached the University of Prague in 1390 and paid for his education by singing. While earning his bachelor’s and master’s degree, Huss came into contact with the writings of the Oxford Professor and heretic, John Wycliffe, who had died when Huss was twelve years old. While Huss downplayed his connection to the English reformer, who advocated for purity in the church and for salvation apart from works, Huss was undoubtedly changed by his studies of Wycliffe and most importantly his studies of the Scriptures.

Commenting on his life prior to salvation, Huss wrote, “before receiving the priesthood, I lost much time in playing at chess, and through this game often suffered myself to be provoked, as well as provoked others to anger.” He also lamented his earlier fascination with fancy clothes, stating, “Alas I, too, had gowns and robes with wings, and hood with white fur; for they had so hemmed in the master’s degree with their regulations that no one could obtain the degree unless he possessed such apparel.” By the time he became a priest in 1401 and the preacher of Bethlehem chapel in 1402, Huss has embrace Jesus as his savior. For the remainder of his life, Huss gave up chess and embraced the faithful proclamation of the gospel, seeking the salvation of his hearers.

As he preached the gospel, Huss morphed into the great heretic whose name Luther feared to verbalize.

What was his crime?

John’s Huss’s Crime: The Gospel of Purity

He taught that Christians should follow Christ. He believed only those who looked to Christ for salvation through the cross as revealed in the Scriptures and who worked out their faith with fear and trembling in accordance with the Scriptures should be considered followers of Jesus. Huss wrote, “No place, or human election, make a person a member of the holy universal church.” He denied the church’s ability to sell and grant salvation to people apart from Jesus. Moreover, he believed church attendance did not save unrepentant sinners. He wrote, ”

Similarly as it does not follow that, because of ordure or sore is in the body of a man, therefore it is part of the body, so it does not follow that because a reprobate is in Christ’s mystical body of the church, therefore he is part of it.

Hus, JohannesMen and women could only secure the blessing of salvation when they “adhere firmly and without wavering to the truth spoken of by God.” Huss would write, “Again the minister of the church, the vicar of Christ is not able to absolve or to bind, to forgive sins or to retain them, unless God has done this previously.” Those who professed Christ would of necessity live holy lives as their savior was holy. Huss wrote, “If anyone is predestinated to eternal life, it necessarily follows that he is predestinated unto righteousness, and if he follows life eternal, he has also followed righteousness.” Huss’s common understanding of salvation, sanctification, and personal holiness appeared to be uncontentious.

After his famous lunch, Luther told Eck, “Among the articles of John Hus, I find many which are plainly Christian and evangelical, which the universal church cannot condemn.” Given the biblical and sensible nature of Huss’s teachings, Luther asked Eck if the court records had been corrupted because Luther could not imagine the church fathers would condemn such gospel truth. Eck affirmed the truthfulness of the condemnation. So why did the preaching of Huss strike such a nerve?

Why Was Huss Killed?

Huss incurred the hatred of the Catholic Church because the Catholic Church of the 1400’s was filled with corruption. In his sermon on John 15:27, Huss noted that,

As layman walk with their canes to the churches, so these clerics go to the beer-hall with canes, and when they return they can hardly walk, much less talk, and least of all, do they know what is demanded of the priestly office…When the blood becomes heated, they talk of women and acts of lust in most wanton language…They ought to be like dogs to be turned out of the house of God, where they give such reproach and scandal to the hearts of simple layman.

During Huss’s trial at Constance, 1072 church officials showed up surround by troops and musicians and, women. Seven hundred women officially registered as prostitutes for the event. Huss condemned the decadence he observe and wrote,

He is Peter who is not known to go about in processions, ornaments with gems or silks, not clad in gold or carried about with soldiers surrounded by bustling servant. Without such things, Peter believed he was able to fulfill sufficiently the salutary commandment: If thou lovest me , feed my sheep.

In March of 1414, the council that condemned Huss condemned Pope John XXIII who had called the council. The church prelates removed the errant Pope from office because he sold church offices, slept with his brother’s wife, issued spurious and false commands, committed adultery with nuns, and engaged in sodomy. Huss rightfully noted that the “official church does not make the priest…the place does not sanctify the man, but the man the place. Not every priest is holy; but every holy person is a priest.”

To keep the lay people from complaining about their sinful lifestyles, the priests and church officials seldom preached the gospel. On his sermon on Matthew 21:43, Huss declared,

They shut up the kingdom of heaven to men. This they do by keeping back the Scriptures from the people so that they may not read or understand them, and know how men ought to live; that they may not know how to punish the priests for their sins, or through knowledge of the Scriptures may not insist that the priests become instructed in them. And again the priests keep the knowledge of the Scriptures from the people because the priests fear they will not receive the same amount of honor if the people are taught to read the Bible.

Because Huss opened up the Scriptures and exposed the warts of the Catholic Church, the leaders of the Bohemian church despised Huss. They regularly complained to the Popes and Cardinals about Huss’s preaching. As Luther, Huss never intended to defame the church and had no plans to split the church. Huss told his opponents that “The purpose of our side is that the clergy live honestly according to the doctrine of Jesus Christ, laying aside pomp, avarice and luxury.” Sadly, Huss pleas for reform, holiness, and biblical preaching fell on deaf ears.

In 1410, the Archbishop Zbyneck convinced the newly elected Pope Alexander V, one of three popes at the time,  to order the church and universities of Prague to burn John Wycliffe’s books, believing the British heretic to be the source of Huss’s faith. Huss refused to obey the papal bull and was promptly excommunicated. Huss appealed to the church court in Rome, hoping to convince the greater church community his gospel reform. The church officials imprisoned Huss’s messenger and excommunicated Huss for the second time in 1411.

Despite being commanded to repent, Huss kept preaching. He said “if a pope’s command is at variance with Christ’s commands or counsel or tends to any hurt of the church, then he ought boldly to resist it lest he become a partaker in crime by consent.”  Huss appealed the church’s decisions to God and kept ministering in good conscience, telling all that he had “committed [himself] to Christ alone (250).”  In 1412, Huss opposed Pope John XXIII’s sale of indulgences and was excommunicated for a third time.

Huss’s Trial and Death

In 1414, Huss secured the trial he had longed for since 1410. He hoped the gospel would win the day. But he was also prepared to suffer for the gospel and understood he could be rejected by the Council of Constance. As the Bohemian priest traveled to his end, he wrote, “it would be a strange thing at present to remain unpunished when attacking the perversity of the priests, who will not endure any blame.”

CouncilofConstanceDebatesthePope-5b44edb6c9e77c0037e7ed04And suffer, Huss did. Instead of receiving a hearing for his beliefs, Huss was imprisoned a few days after he arrived in Constance. When Huss was brought before the Council, the Council shouted down Huss’s voice down with a veracity that reminded Huss of how the Pharisees treated Christ as his trial. The leaders of the church allowed Huss to answer one question, will “you throw yourself entirely and totally on the grace and into the hands of the Council, that whatever the Council shall dictate to you.” Huss refused to recant the gospel to please the corrupt leaders of the Catholic Church. he told his friends,

I cannot do it without denying in many things the truth…I should afford a great scandal to the people of God who have listened to my sermons; and it would be better that a millstone were tied round my neck, and that I was plunged to the bottom of the sea…Our Savoir Jesus Christ will reward me fully, and bestow on me in my trials the assistance of patience.

On July 1414, Huss would lean brilliantly upon the Lord. The day opened with a reading of the chargers against Huss. Once again, the court prevented Huss from being able to answer the charges against him. Huss refused again refused to recant and prayed for Jesus to give him mercy. The Archbishop of Milan and the Bishop Constance then defrocked Huss removing his priestly clothes. The two church officials demanded that Huss repent. The Bohemian refused saying, “I do not fear this thing least I be found a liar in the eyes of the Lord and also lest I sin against my conscience and God’s truth.” After Huss’ hair was cut and a dunce cap was placed over his head, Huss walked to the stake. As the executioners pilled wood around, Huss sang the psalms. When the flames reached Huss’s body, he said, “Christ the Son of the living God have mercy upon me. As the flames reached his head Huss and claimed his life, Huss declared, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

Though long dead, Huss continues to live on. Luther discovered him in 1519 and found great encouragement. We would all do well to discover Huss afresh in the modern era. The faith Huss preached, defended and died for is the apostolic faith delivered once for all. Because men and women like him and Luther risked their lives for the gospel, we continue to have access to the faith. We are some of the “many children of the Lord” whom Huss hoped to reach through his death. Indeed, we are all Hussites.

To God be The Glory!

What is the Mission of the Local Church?

What should our local church be doing? Is it missions? How about kids’ ministry, choir, youth programs? What do the people of God do when they come together? What is the mission of the Church?

With a nail, a hammer, and a document of 95 thesis, Martin Luther turned the world upside down in 1517 seeking in part to answer the question: “What does a local church do?”. He knew that the local churches of his day exported religious vice and wickedness to the medieval world. The gospel seldom appeared in church, the clergy at all levels lacked biblical knowledge, and the sacraments were twisted into graceless works the little resembled the teachings of Scripture. Luther started out to reform the church seeking to answer the question what does the local church do.

The History

Since 325 A.D, the church has defined itself as the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church. The local church was defined as being a church that submitted to the Bishop Rome, which was made holy by Christ through salvation, that was universally recognizable, and that was founded on the teaching of the apostles which was often interpreted and expanded upon by church officials.

jj-jordan-140710-unsplash.jpgLuther and Reformers redefined these historical terms to better reflect the gospel. The Reformers claimed that the church was one under Christ. All who were saved were saved by Christ to be part of the church. They believed that church should be holy; it should be composed of those who had been redeemed by Christ and who were being sanctified. They agreed to the catholic nature of the church. But they did not believe all churches had to look the same and practice the same liturgy. Rather, they claimed the church was catholic in its timelessness. All true churches in all ages were viewed as being part of the universal church. And they believed the church was apostolic. But the Reformers believed that the apostolic nature of the church should be limited to the teaching of the apostles. Solo Scriptura, Scripture Alone.

The Reformers sought to clearly divide themselves from the Catholic Church by adding two more marks to the definition of the local church. The Reformers said the local church should rightly administer the sacraments and preach the Word.

The Answer

Now back to our question. What does the local church do?

The local church comprised of holy believers who have been united to the universal church by salvation in Christ Jesus preach the Word and administer the sacraments correctly. For a group of believers to be a church, they must preach the Word and practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

John Calvin plainly said,

Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.

What about kids’ ministry, Super Youth Sundays, the choir, missions, singing, and prayer? All of those things begin and flow from the preaching of the Word and from the sacraments. You can have church without them. But you cannot have a church apart from the preaching of the Word and apart from the Sacraments.

Paul tells Timothy:

 “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Tm 4:13-16). 

Do we want to have a healthy God glorifying church? Do we want to reach young families, encourage the old, and bless the new converts? Then, we preach the Word. Paul tells us we keep a close watch on our doctrine on the truth of the Bible and teach it to others.

What saves people? What makes our church look attractive to lost world? What breathes new life into the exhausted and crumbling congregation? It is the Word of God. The preaching of the Word of God is central to all that we do. The Holy Spirit works through his Word to redeem the lost and to sanctify the redeemed.

Christ is the Word become flesh.

John 1:1-4 states:

 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

To know Christ, to experience him, revive our hearts through his presence, we must preach the Word. As Jesus says in John 17:17, “Sanctify them in truth; your word is truth.”  The church must be dedicated to the proclamation of the Word.

How is the done? The Word is proclaimed and taught through every element of the service. Pastor Mark Dever rightly notes,

Everything teaches, whether you intend it to or not. The songs teach people doctrine and proper affections for God. Your prayers (or lack of them) teach people how to pray themselves. The kinds of prayers you pray or don’t pray) teach people about the important difference between prayers of adoration confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. The way you administer the ordinances teaches people about their meaning and even the very meaning of the Gospel. You preaching teachers people how to study and use the Bible appropriately. Everything from the call to worship to the benediction counts as teaching. Teaching is everything.

Everything the local church does begins and ends with the Word of God. Singing, prayer, and evangelism are all driven by our understanding of the Word of God. The songs that we sing reflect what we believe about the Bible. The prayers that we pray reflect our understanding of God and ourselves. Our passion and methods for reaching the lost are driven by our understanding of what the Bible says about salvation. All the other functions of the local Church can only exist if the Word is fully, accurately, and faithfully preached.  And all the other functions of the church help with the preaching and dissemination of the Word. In short, if we get Sunday morning preaching wrong, we will work in vain to fix our church. The struggling church does not have a discipleship, outreach, or kids’ ministry problem. It has gospel proclamation problem.

Martin Luther notes,

Outwardly he deals with us through the preached Word, or the gospel, and through the visible signs of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Inwardly, he deals with us through the Holy Spirit and faith. But this is always in such a way and in this order that the outward means must precede the inward means.

If a local church hopes to be filled with the Holy Spirit and wishes the world to be changed by Christ, that assembly of believers must preach the Word.

Any local church that does not preach the Word is not a church. Religious clothing, sacraments, stain glass windows, and the sacraments alone do not make a group of people a local church. Religious minded people can have and do all these things and never preach the gospel. They cease to be a church when they preach a different gospel proclaiming salvation through other names, deeming sins to be acceptable, and demanding good works in the place of grace. Paul writes in Galatians 1:8

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”

The one true, holy, catholic, apostolic church preaches the one true gospel.

Our Motivation: The Glory of God 

Why do we do this? Why should the church be passionate about preaching the Word?

The local church should be passionate about the Word because Christ is only present where the Word is preached. And we as the people of God can only expand the kingdom of God through the power of Christ. Moses nails this truth on its head in Exodus 33 when he says,

And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”

What makes the people of God distinct? What makes our local church distinct from every other social group? It is the presence of God via the Holy Spirit who works through the words of God as revealed in the Scriptures. The local church desperately needs God.

When the church fails to value the Word’s of God, God will not be present. And when the church ceases to experience the supernatural presence of God decay sets in. When the church cares more about tradition, cultural acceptance, and political power than about glorifying God, God will leave the church. James McDonald rightfully notes,

God will quickly withdraw His favor where sin is ignored or avoided and difficult people are coddled instead of confronted in love.

The local church should be about the preaching of the Word because she desires to experience the presence and power of God. Apart from Him, the local church can do nothing. And with Him the local church can do everything.

What does the local church do?

The local church preaches the word and rightly performs the sacraments (more on that soon!)