HEAVEN IN THE HANDS OF MORTALS
We, the distant grandchildren of Protestantism, bear unknowingly the
brunt of a great divorce, the divorce between Roman Catholics and
Protestants. Like many divorces, what began as a polite disengagement
quickly became a bitter and destructive battle. While human divorces
most often devolve into a fight about money, Rome and her Protesters
fought over power and authority including (tragically) the ultimate
power: the power of heaven in the hands of mortals.
The Protesters faced a powerful religious system which did many great deeds throughout the known world, but incorrectly claimed to hold the power of determining who could enter heaven. The religious system of Rome taught that baptism "justified" Christians for heaven or to put it another way, baptism made Christians "righteous." To oversimplify in my own words, Rome taught justification leaked from Christians every time they sinned. Believers could restore their leaky justification through three rituals: #1 confessing sin to an ordained priest, #2 performing whatever penance the priest proscribed, and #3 taking part in the communion (a.k.a. Eucharist) ritual of eating of bread as the body of Jesus. Only priests ordained by Rome were said to have authority for those rituals. So when the Rome excommunicated a Christian, that believer was thought to be doomed to damnation since he or she could no longer partake of communion, confession, and penance. For the Protesters to gain followers then, they would have to wrestle that power of heaven out of Rome's hands because few believers would join a protest if they believed it would cost them their eternal souls.
THE FIGHT BEGINS
Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 theses on the door of a Roman Catholic church, arguing not about Catholicism nor salvation nor faith, but simply about the Roman practice of selling "indulgences" which (to oversimplify) meant exchanging forgiveness for money. Like Desiderius Erasmus, Huldrich Zwingli, and Andreas Karlstadt (all of whom protested Rome before Luther), Martin Luther began his protest not to establish a better theology of eternal life, but in response to corruption he saw in the religious authorities.
Erasmus remained determined to protest without leaving the Roman organization. Karlstadt, Zwingli, and Luther were willing to be excommunicated in protest. Karlstadt and Zwingli however get very little attention in history because they did not wrestle heaven from the hands of their opponents. Luther did.
SEIZING THE POWER OF HEAVEN
Luther's discovery of justification-by-faith-alone was a discovery of truth, but also a very convenient discovery for a man who needed to wrestle the power of justification out of the Roman sacraments. When Luther began preaching justification by faith alone, his message empowered believers to join the protest against Roman Catholicism without believing they would losing their souls in the process.
The new message of justification was good news for those who wanted to protest. From Luther's pen however, that new message came to be called "gospel", a title which has incorrectly stuck ever since.
TWISTING THE POWER OF HEAVEN
If Luther and company had only preached against Rome's claim to excusively enable justification, the Reformers would only be guilty of misapplying the name "gospel" to justification-by-faith. Instead, the Reformers went so far as to use Rome's supposed power of heaven against her. That is to say they not only claimed Rome could not enable justification-by-sacraments, but that anyone who believed justification came through Roman sacraments could not be justified at all. Luther not only taught we were justified by faith, he also taught that no one could be justified who failed to believe in his doctrine of justification-by-faith-alone.
Since the doctrine of justification-by-faith divided Protestants from Rome, Luther not only protested, but he also sentenced to eternal damnation all who failed to join his protest. He did not simply teach justification-by-faith. He taught justification-by-faith-in-justification-by-faith. As an example, Luther's ally Philipp Melanchthon wrote the Augsburg Confession of 1530 and after receiving Luther's approval of the confession, presented it to Emperor Charles the Fifth. Article Five of their confession of faith defined the gospel as follows: "God, not for our own merits, but for Christ's sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ's sake." Article Twenty clarified the alternative as believing one can be received into grace for the sake of their "works" (or as Article Twelve described one of the Roman sacraments, "satisfactions of our own").
Scripture states we are justified by faith, but it does not require faith in faith, only faith that Jesus is "Lord" or "Christ" or "Anointed" which Psalm Two set forth as the King of Kings and Son of God. (See John 20:31, Romans 10:9, 1John 4:15, and 1John 5:1.) A Roman Catholic who believed Jesus was Lord and King did not have to believe in Protestant doctrines to be justified because God gives life (Jn20:31), saves (Rm10:9), accepts (1Jn4:15), and gives Holy Spirit life (1Jn5:1) to those who believe Jesus is Lord and Anointed King. Luther and Melanchthon incorrectly claimed God only justified those who had faith in justification-by-faith.
Article Seven then of the Augsburg Confession specifically defined the church as including only "the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered." In other words, Rome not only had problems, Roman Catholicism was not even a church, so her followers were doomed.
When parents separate, they cause their children even more harm if they attempt to divide their children from one of their parents by speaking ill of him or her. The Protestant Reformation gave us the good gifts of common language Bible translations, correction of religious corruptions, and the teaching that Jesus is our only needed mediator. Those same Reformers created an ugly tradition though of defining Roman Catholics as unbelievers and outsiders to the true church. Everyone who believes Jesus is the Psalm Two King of all Kings and unique Son of God is born into God's family according to scripture.
We must not believe those who try to divide brothers and sisters by requiring a faith-alone answer to this question: "If God asked you why He should let you into heaven, what would you say?" Rome may have incorrectly claimed the power of heaven through sacraments, but we must not follow the Reformers' tradition of misusing that same power to divide the family of God.
"Heaven in the Hands of Mortals" by Matthew Bryan was first published at www.matthewbryan.net on July 24th, 2013. All rights are reserved.