In his book titled, Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism, R.C. Sproul writes, “I have found that the vast majority of people who call themselves Protestants have no idea what they are protesting.  In the year 1517, the movement known as the Protestant Reformation exploded. Led by Martin Luther, the Reformers opposed the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church – especially on the subject of justification by faith alone, the need for the Bible in the common man’s language, and the elements of the Lord’s Supper. For years, the Reformers stood with passion and bold conviction to oppose such teaching. As we near the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, we must answer this very important question: Is the Reformation over? The Pope says the Reformation is over, should we believe him?
Recently, in an interview, Pope Francis made some very confusing statements. While this might not be a surprise, when he speaks about the Reformation and the precious doctrine of justification, it’s worthy of our attention. During an in-flight press conference interview while traveling, Pope Francis was asked the following question:
Seeing that you will go in I believe four months to Lund for the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the reformation, I think perhaps this is also the right moment for us not only to remember the wounds on both sides but also to recognize the gifts of the reformation. Perhaps also – this is a heretical question – perhaps to annul or withdraw the excommunication of Martin Luther or of some sort of rehabilitation. Thank you.
Pope Francis’ full answer to this question can be read in accessed (see full interview here), but in his response he made some important statements that must be addressed.
Are We United or Divided on Justification?
Pope Francis, when answering the question about the Reformation, said, “And today Lutherans and Catholics, Protestants, all of us agree on the doctrine of justification.” Is that true? Do we all believe the same thing regarding the doctrine of justification? In that same answer, Pope Francis pointed back to the eccumenical document signed in 1999 by the Roman Catholic Church and a group of liberal Lutherans on justification titled, “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.”
According to the official doctrinal statementCatechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the Roman Catholic Church states the following:
1987 The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” and through Baptism.
In a later paragraph, the same document says:
1993 Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent.
In both places, the Roman Catholic Church adds to justification by faith alone the work of baptism and the gift of faith suggesting that sinful rebels cooperate with God in this work of justification. This is one of the central dividing lines between the doctrines of Rome and Christians. According to Martin Luther, “The doctrine of justification is the article by which the church stands or falls.” It’s essential to note that there is no hint of eccuminism in Luther’s tone.
According to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, in chapter 11 and paragraph 1, the statement on justification reads:
GOD freely justifies the persons whom He effectually calls. He does this, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins and by accounting them, and accepting them, as righteous. This He does for Christ’s sake alone, and not for anything wrought in them or done by them. The righteousness which is imputed to them, that is, reckoned to their account, is neither their faith nor the act of believing nor any other obedience to the gospel which they have rendered, but Christ’s obedience alone. Christ’s one obedience is twofold-His active obedience rendered to the entire divine law, and His passive obedience rendered in His death.Those thus justified receive and rest by faith upon Christ’s righteousness; and this faith they have, not of themselves, but as the gift of God.
According to Romans 3:21-24, Paul makes the clear point that justification is by God’s grace alone:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
It doesn’t matter if the Pope believes we’re united on justification, the fact remains, we’re Protestant and we continue to protest the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of justification. Until the Roman Catholic Church repents of this perversion, we will not be united on this doctrine. Perhaps it’s the office of Pope that prevents true unity on justification. Jesus sits in the seat of supremacy – not the Pope. In a sermon at the 2016 Together for the Gospel conference, Ligon Duncan made this statement:
The greatest barrier to real biblical institutional unity in the world is the claim of the Roman pontiff to ecclesiastical supremacy. The claim to papal supremacy by the bishop of Rome is the single most schismatic act in the history of Christianity. It has provided more schism by far than that of the wildest heretical sects imaginable.
Is the Reformation Over?
How can Pope Francis claim that we all agree on justification? It’s plainly obvious that we are not all Roman Catholic in doctrine. The historic Reformation was not merely a political protest. At the heart of the protest was the issue of justification by faith alone. What many people fail to realize is that doctrine matters. Out of the Reformation came five doctrinal statements known today as the five solas of the Reformation.
- Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
- Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
- Sola Fide (Faith Alone)
- Solus Christus (Christ Alone)
- Soli Deo Gloria (To God Alone Be Glory)
We must not forget that the Roman Catholic Church rejects the sufficiency of Scripture, adds works to God’s grace, perverts faith, and blasphemes the Son of God. These grievous errors must be rejected, and that’s why the Reformers were willing to give their lives throughout church history. It wasn’t merely the bad behavior of a misguided Catholic priest that led to this juncture. It was the conversion of a Roman Catholic priest to Christianity and a bold stand against the perversion of the gospel.
With great certainty we must protest the idea that the Reformation is over. Until Rome repents, the same protests of church history continue today. We don’t claim perfection in our attempts to protest, but we do claim a trustworthy doctrine of justification by faith alone as revealed to us in God’s sufficient Word. If we shift on this foundational doctrine, we must call ourselves something other than Christian.
Just as the hymn writer Augustus Toplady penned years ago, we must embrace as truth today:
Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
- R.C. Sproul, Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, ), 71.
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