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Luther's Protest 500 Years Ago - A Big Misunderstanding?

October 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” ( And Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists are all buying into this claim.

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” 11, 9)

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! Is yours?”
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.

Reprinted by permission of Associated Bible Students of Central Ohio