Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Church in the Reformation

The Reformation brought about the division of the church into various groups and brought up the question, “How may I find a true church?” The quest for the marks of the true church, therefore, was the driving desire of believers in the years leading up to the Reformation.  If there was no salvation outside the church as believers had been taught for centuries, then how was one to find the true church? (Pictured: Luther nails the 95 Theses to the Wittenburg Church door.)

The Reformers generally agreed that the true church was wherever there was right preaching of the Word and right administration of the sacraments. Some added a third mark: wherever true discipline of the members existed. The identifying slogans for the Reformation became sola Scriptura, sola gratia, and sola fide, (Scripture alone, grace alone, by faith alone).

"Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ's institution, there it is no to be doubted, a church of God exists."    ---- John Calvin

Right preaching of the Word for the Reformers meant the preaching of the gospel. Martin Luther often quoted Romans 10:17, believing that when people heard the preaching of the Word, that faith would be birthed in its hearers. Even if they did not understand it all, a true church could exist, said Calvin, as long as they preserved and preached a true gospel message. Without the gospel, a group would be merely a religious club or moral society, not a Christian church. The gospel was the center of the church for the Reformers, and without it, they would not be Christian.

Right administration of the sacraments was important because Catholic practice of them had obscured the gospel. The Reformers viewed the Mass, with the claims of Christ recrucified, that eucharist was necessary for salvation, that it conferred grace apart from faith, as a repudiation of the gospel.

While there was agreement generally over the two marks, there was great disagreement among the Reformers on how to apply the marks. Luther and Zwingli could not agree on how the Lord’s Supper should be understood. Was it really Christ’s body (Luther) or was it a memorial meal (Zwingli)?

And then there was baptism. Anabaptists, and later Baptists, held to believers baptism only. Was the baptism of infants, which Baptists say is not according to the institution of Christ, enough to make a church no longer a true church? The Landmark Baptists of the 19th century used these marks to say that Methodists and Presbyterians were not true churches because they did not practice right administration of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as Jesus had prescribed. There were no pulpit exchanges with religious societies, they said, nor anything that could be an endorsement of them as true churches. Therefore, unless you were a Baptist the way they were Baptist, then you were not a true Christian and would not be going to heaven. 

Actually, under that definition, any Baptist church which mistakenly baptized someone who was not genuinely saved would give up their status as a true church, too. What the Old Landmarkers missed was the difference between being and well-being. Other churches practiced baptism and the Lord’s Supper, just not in line with the same convictions as they did. What would have been important for them to ask was if the administration of the sacraments obscured or threatened the gospel. Then they could have at least called them imperfect or irregular churches, but a still a true church.

Later on there were disagreements over how the church should be governed and what officers the church should have. This led to the development of Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, Mennonite, and Baptist churches. Why do we have various denominations today? Differences of opinion about baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church government.

"A Road diverged in a wood . . . " 

The Reformers could not agree on how to reform. The Magisterial Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli) broke with the Radical Reformers (Anabaptists) over issues of zeal and the relationship of church and state. The Magisterial Reformers wanted to move slowly for the benefit of others, with a magistrate (the government providing a stable environment). The Radical Reformers did not believe the state should be involved with the church. They had great zeal and did not want to stop reforming until they got it all right, a ‘take no prisoners’ approach to reformation. These two groups hated each other. Baptists would later emerge from Puritan-Separatist roots in England, and they would be deeply influenced by Anabaptist leaders in England during the 17th century Puritan revivals.

Lessons from the Church in the Reformation:
1. A true church exalts Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone through the Scripture alone. This is a primary issue in determining a true church.

2. The manner of administering the sacraments, or ordinances, is an important conviction for individuals and churches, but it is a secondary doctrine. We can fall into error and foolishness by giving too much importance to them in regard to others, but in regard to our own convictions, we must not compromise within our ourselves and churches of a similar order and like-mindedness.

3. Denominations are not bad things. They are the simply the flocking of birds of a feather in regard to baptism, the Lord's Supper, and church government.

  • Luther never referred to a Reformation.  
  • Terms like Lutheran, Calvinist, Baptist, Methodist were pejorative terms. The Reformers used “evangelical Christian." 
  • The term Protestant was first used in 1529 in the Diet of Speyer, an attempt to bring Catholics and evangelicals together. The evangelicals wanted a recess to consider the discussion. The Catholics said No. The evangelicals protested, and were thus labeled Protestants.