Was the Protestant Reformation Necessary?

Reformation Day, 2014 (497 years old!)

A minister intones before a congregation: Pater noster qui in caelis es sanctificetur nomen tuum veniat regnum tuum fiat voluntas tua sicut in caelo et in terra … dimisimus debitoribus nostris et ne inducas nos in temptationem sed libera nos a malo.Hey, what’s wrong with you guys? Why won’t you pray the Lord’s Prayer with me?! [Latin from Matthew 6:9-13, the vulgate]

No matter, at least I (the pastor) prayed over you and for you, so you are blessed, even if you did not understand a word of what I was saying, right?! This was the popular view of Christian prayer for one thousand years, and for most of that time, the children and the adults knew as little Latin as you do. In fact, if their worship services involved any preaching at all, it was in this foreign Latin as well. Truth be told, in ancient lands like Scotland, education for spiritual leaders was lacking, so the man saying the prayers and preaching the sermons did not know much Latin either; he was mumbling sounds foreign to him and them, while going through the motions of worship and ritualistic sacraments.

The most famous sacrament (being celebrated in many congregations daily) was the mass … something like our communion, except that the worshipers were taught that through the words and prayers of their priests, the bread and the wine were miraculously changed into the real body and blood of Christ, such that believers were really eating Jesus each day as part of a continuous, never-ending altar-sacrifice. Again, because of the intense focus on the physical, communicants believed there was an automatic benefit in the eating and drinking, no matter what was going on in the “worshiper’s” heart or head.

So much of what was going on in the worship was difficult to understand, but never fear: Ignorant congregations had the advantage of being surrounded by statues and pictures of Jesus Christ, other Bible characters, and famous Christians from the past … all to help the often illiterate worshipers remember the saintly lives of these heroes and inspire them to be better ~ less sinful ~ people. Now since it is hard to be good in a bad world, these near-perfect Christians of the past (“saints”) were available to help the living, on call, ready to pass along our weak prayers, to Jesus, and then to God.

The best saint to do this work was Mary, the mother of Jesus. Many ancient Christians prayed directly to her: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Large churches would be built, with names like the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe.”  Actually, that is the name of an actual church in Orlando, Florida, today.

It was taught that the good, meritorious deeds of these super-Christians were stored in a heavenly bank. When your own good behavior in life was not enough to please God and to give you confidence about your good relationship with Him, church leaders were eager to help you gain access to these supererogatory deeds. In times when the mother church in this world (in Rome) needed to be repaired and beautified, these extra good deeds of the exalted saints went on sale, helpful for your Christian life now, to reduce the number of years you will have to be punished in the cleansing place between earth & heaven, and to get your dead relatives out of the same troubles. That hard place was called purgatory, and these tickets to avoid the pain were called indulgences. More strange things about the ancient church, with no backing in the Bible: required pilgrimages, venerating relics and statues, and holy wars.

The church also taught Christians that they needed, not only the prayers of saints and Mary on their behalf, but living priests (much like the Old Testament Jewish priests) to represent them and to mediate for them, so that Holy God would not destroy them. But the normal priests in the simple towns and villages were not nearly important enough to hear from God for you: Above each priest was a bishop, and an archbishop, and a cardinal, and finally a pope (the only vicar or representative of Christ on earth at that time). The pope would hear from God and then tell you what to do and believe, through a chain-of-command, down to your local priest.

Say you wanted to become one of these popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, monks, or nuns (that is, a Christian involved with God’s holy work instead of the less important, secular work which fills up the lives of most of us). Well, you could not get married, as this human and physical relationship made you unacceptable for God’s sanctified labor. But although these workers had the appearance of godliness (or at least, separation), there were many abuses. Unmarried priests and nuns were having children. Many church districts did not have local leadership since priestly positions were often sold to the highest bidder in some distant land; this was popular & desirable because the winning bidder got to control the collected offerings. High church leaders threatened many kings with spiritual penalties like eternal Hell or physical punishments here if they would not cooperate. Still, it was taught that God guaranteed the present perfection of the church, so it was beyond criticism and resisted good changes.

But Christ promised to build His church, and so change and reform had to come. Today we praise God for raising up “morning-stars” like Wycliffe and Hus, reformers like Luther and Zwingli and Calvin, along with courageous Christians who were willing to follow where the inspired Bible leads in terms of our belief, behavior, and mission. These good changes are well summarized thus: We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to Scripture alone, Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone). The church includes all true Christians (a priesthood of all believers), and that true church is to be ever/always reforming.