Protest 500 Years Ago - A Big Misunderstanding?
31, 2017 marks the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s
Ninety-five Theses, which he nailed to the door of the Castle
Church of Wittenberg in Germany. Why are some saying that Luther's
protest was just a big misunderstanding?
At that time in history, Martin Luther, a respected Catholic
priest and teacher at the University of Wittenberg, began preaching
sermons based upon encouraging themes of God's love and the
assurance of salvation by faith. His sermons contrasted sharply
with the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther taught
that the source of divine authority was the Bible alone —
not the Papal church. He also declared that salvation was attained
by faith in God through Christ alone, and not through works
— rituals, sacraments, penances or praying to dead saints.
Romans 5:1; 1:17
By contrast, Papacy in Luther’s day taught salvation could
not be attained outside its membership, and that Catholicism
is the only true “universal” religion. Virtually
every human being is to be subject to the Roman pontiff, as
stated in Unam Sanctam — the Papal edict of Pope Boniface
VIII pronounced November 18, 1302. This edict stated: "…it
is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature
to be subject to the Roman Pontiff." (Bowden Catholic Dictionary)
Based on that claim of Papal authority, the Roman church justified
the sale of indulgences which offered pardons for sins or reduced
the sinner's time in purgatory. The idea that someone could
purchase certificates of absolution for sins without sincere
repentance, prompted Luther's break with Rome in 1517. Luther
then drafted his 95 Theses against all Papal authority and church
dogma not supported by Scripture.
Luther continued his defiant stance in 1520 by publicly burning
a copy of the Pope’s edict of excommunication. Luther
attacked the whole Roman Catholic sacramental system, especially
the Mass, and asserted that there were but two valid ordinances
— Baptism and the Lord's Supper. He saw no biblical basis
for Popes or Cardinals, advocating that all members of the body
of Christ were equal before God. He symbolized this "priesthood
of believers" concept by introducing congregational hymn
singing and by conducting services in German instead of Latin.
In 1521, Luther was asked to defend his beliefs in a meeting
before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V where the council called
upon Luther to recant. Luther replied, "I cannot retract
any teaching except it be disproved by Scripture or by reason.”
He was thereby denunciated and branded a heretic.
A Big Misunderstanding?
Today, the Roman Catholic position is that Luther’s protest
was all a big misunderstanding — that the Catholic Church
has always taught that salvation comes by “grace alone
and faith in Christ’s saving work” (www.vatican.va).
And Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists are all buying into
In 2014, the Catholic Education Resource Center posted an article
on their web site which stated: “The monk, of course,
was Luther; the doctrine was justification by faith; and the
book was the Bible. One of the tragic ironies of Christian history
is that the deepest split in the history of the Church, and
the one that has occasioned the most persecution, hatred, and
bloody wars on both sides… originated in a misunderstanding.”
Are we to believe that Martin Luther was ignorant of Catholic
doctrine — that he merely misunderstood? After all, Luther
was a Catholic priest and scholar. Were tens of thousands of
Protestant believers hunted down and persecuted over a misunderstanding?
Who Really Has the Authority — Christ or
the Church of Rome?
Luther was clearly opposed to the idea that any entity on earth
had the power to grant forgiveness of sins. He abhorred any
such certificate of pardon or relief from purgatory, whether
by “sale” or other means — a practice that
has not ceased even to this day.
A return of granting indulgences was openly endorsed under Pope
John Paul II. He authorized bishops to offer indulgences as
a reward for charitable contributions, and as part of the celebration
of the church’s third millennium in the year 2000. Luther’s
protest about this claimed authority by Papacy and the Roman
Catholic Church is either forgotten or ignored by most Christians
today. Apparently, “the match” that set afire the
Protestant Reformation has burned out.
After 500 Years, Protestants & Catholics Seek Unity
Even without agreement between Catholics and Protestants on
the issue of indulgences and exclusive Papal authority, both
are now very actively seeking unity. There is a softening of
the hard-line doctrinal division that once split these two faiths
apart, thereby revoking Luther’s protest. In fact, new
surveys show that in both Western Europe and the United States,
the theological differences that split Western Christianity
in the 1500s have diminished to a degree that would have shocked
Protestants in past centuries.
Across Europe and the U.S., the current prevailing view is that
Protestants and Catholics are more similar in faith today than
they are different. “And while the Reformation led to
more than a century of devastating wars and persecution in Europe,
both Protestants and Catholics across the continent overwhelmingly
express willingness to accept each other as neighbors and even
as family members.” (Pew Research Center, August 31, 2017)
In 1999, Catholic and Lutheran churches signed a joint declaration,
diminishing the theological differences between the two faiths
on the doctrine of justification. Also within that declaration
was the unsettling statements: “…the Pope has overall
authority in the Christian world…” and that there
is a “need for a universal primacy exercised by the Bishop
of Rome [the Pope] as a sign and safeguard of unity within the
reunited Church…”(“Authority in The Church”
In January 21, 2014, at a Charismatic Evangelical Leadership
Conference hosted by Kenneth Copeland, Bishop Anthony Palmer,
from the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches stated:
“Brothers and sisters, Luther’s protest is over!
In October 2015, Elizabeth A. Eaton, the presiding Bishop of
the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America stated: “Five
hundred years ago, wars were fought over the very issues about
which Lutherans and Roman Catholics have now achieved consensus.”
On July 5, 2017, in Wittenberg, Germany — ironically where,
500 years earlier, Martin Luther openly attacked church practice
and teaching — the World Communion of Reformed Churches
agreed to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.
The WCRC represents 80 million believers! Among the speeches
given, Pope Francis exclaimed: “Together with great joy,
today’s formal act brings new challenges and responsibilities
in our pursuit of fidelity to the Gospel and unity in truth,
may it mark a new stage of fellowship and cooperation in the
service of justice and peace in our human family.” (“Pope
Francis Hails Declaration Signed at Reformed Churches Gathering
in Germany,” Ecumenical News, July 5, 2017)
Cardinal Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council
for Promoting Christian Unity, told the assembled delegates
that the agreement has opened “a new era of trust between
the churches—a time for healing and reconciliation and
rediscovering how much we share.”
Bishop Munib Yunan, president of the Lutheran World Federation,
signed a joint declaration for the 500th anniversary of the
Reformation that said in part: “With this Joint Statement,
we express joyful gratitude to God for this moment of common
prayer in the Cathedral of Lund, as we begin the year commemorating
the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. Fifty years
of sustained and fruitful ecumenical dialogue between Catholics
and Lutherans have helped us to overcome many differences, and
have deepened our mutual understanding and trust … We
commit ourselves to further growth in communion rooted in Baptism,
as we seek to remove the remaining obstacles that hinder us
from attaining full unity… We long for this wound in the
Body of Christ to be healed."
Amazingly, based on what we are hearing, Luther’s protest
about this claimed authority of the Roman Catholic Church seems
forgotten by the original protesting denominations. But, no!
Luther’s protest is not over. The same issues which sparked
the Protestant Movement still exist.
Isn't Unity a Good Thing?
Unity of the spirit is always a good thing, but the spirit of
unity with compromise of Bible principles is not. While unity
and ecumenism look good on the surface, this could actually
result in unforeseen consequences. Is it possible that at some
point in the future, only one official religion will be allowed
and others banned? Historically, this is the method by which
one segment of Christian religion has imposed their dogma on
the others. In the prophecy Jesus gave on the Mount of Olives,
he warned about a counterfeit Christianity that would precede
his return. Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21
From the start, deceivers began to influence and infiltrate
the early Church. Within a few decades of Jesus’ death,
the trends of which he had warned began to come to pass. As
early as A.D. 50, the apostle Paul saw that false teachers were
already proclaiming “another Jesus” and “a
different gospel.” (2 Corinthians 11:4; Galatians 1:6)
By the end of the first century, some had gone so far as to
reject the apostle John and were putting true Christians out
of their congregations. 3 John 9
Forced Unity — A New Church Arose and Gained Power
Thus, within a century, the early Church soon became quite different
from what was originally established by Jesus and his apostles.
As historian Jesse Hurlbut describes it, “…in about
120 A.D., with the writings of the earliest church fathers,
we find a church in many aspects very different from that in
the days of St. Peter and St. Paul.” (The Story of the
Christian Church, 1970, p. 33) The simplicity of the little
congregations, where decisions were made by every member, was
taken over by a clergy. The voice of the congregation was effectively
silenced, and individual groups, once autonomous, began to be
controlled by councils with a hierarchy of powerful leaders.
By the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine, in an
attempt to unify and strengthen his empire, declared Christianity
as the official state religion. To do this, he compromised many
Christian doctrines with pagan ideas and practices, thereby
bringing the two factions together. Constantine effectively
made it appealing for many to convert to Christianity by merging
Christian and popular pagan celebrations.
Constantine’s state-sponsored church gradually evolved,
growing in power and prestige. In a relatively short time, it
became known as the Roman Catholic Church — “catholic”
from the Latin word “catholicus,” meaning universal
or general. Constantine’s intention was to create a universal
religion of the Roman Empire.
Soon the bishop of Rome, sitting upon a Papal Throne, had such
great political and religious authority that he could enthrone
and depose emperors. The church controlled the state, and because
of this intimate relationship between church and state, for
several centuries the empire was called the Holy Roman Empire.
Luther and every other Protestant reformer identified this beastly
system as a counterfeit Christian arrangement that had placed
itself as the supreme authority over kings and nations. It persecuted
any who defied its supremacy. In the book of Revelation, the
apostle John relates his vision: “And I saw a beast rising
up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and on
his horns ten crowns, and on his heads a blasphemous name….
The dragon gave him his power, his throne, and great authority…
It was granted to him [the Beast] to make war with the saints
and to overcome them. And authority was given him over every
tribe, tongue, and nation.” Revelation 13:1, 2, 7
Protestants should remember that this statement in Revelation
is not just a description of history from Luther’s day,
but is a prophecy as to what will transpire again in the “time
of the end.” Bible prophecy indicates that we will yet
see another attempt at a great church and state solution to
mankind’s problems — but one which will be relatively
short-lived. This cooperation between church and state —
unauthorized by Scripture — will be vanquished by Christ,
the one true head with his one true Church who will replace
all oppressive systems with his righteous, peaceable kingdom.
by permission of Associated Bible Students of Central Ohio