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Is The Reformation Over?

Posted by Job on September 7, 2009

Right Now Counts Forever

Is the Reformation Over?

by R.C. Sproul Is the Reformation over? There have been several observations rendered on this subject by those I would call “erstwhile evangelicals.” One of them wrote, “Luther was right in the sixteenth century, but the question of justification is not an issue now.” A second self-confessed evangelical made a comment in a press conference I attended that “the sixteenth-century Reformation debate over justification by faith alone was a tempest in a teapot.” Still another noted European theologian has argued in print that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is no longer a significant issue in the church. We are faced with a host of people who are defined as Protestants but who have evidently forgotten altogether what it is they are protesting.

Contrary to some of these contemporary assessments of the importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, we recall a different perspective by the sixteenth-century magisterial Reformers. Luther made his famous comment that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the article upon which the church stands or falls. John Calvin added a different metaphor, saying that justification is the hinge upon which everything turns. In the twentieth century, J.I. Packer used a metaphor indicating that justification by faith alone is the “Atlas upon whose shoulder every other doctrine stands.” Later Packer moved away from that strong metaphor and retreated to a much weaker one, saying that justification by faith alone is “the fine print of the gospel.”

The question we have to face in light of these discussions is, what has changed since the sixteenth century? Well, there is good news and there is bad news. The good news is that people have become much more civil and tolerant in theological disputes. We don’t see people being burned at the stake or tortured on the rack over doctrinal differences. We’ve also seen in the past years that the Roman communion has remained solidly steadfast on other key issues of Christian orthodoxy, such as the deity of Christ, His substitutionary atonement, and the inspiration of the Bible, while many Protestant liberals have abandoned these particular doctrines wholesale. We also see that Rome has remained steadfast on critical moral issues such as abortion and ethical relativism. In the nineteenth century at Vatican Council I, Rome referred to Protestants as “heretics and schismatics.” In the twentieth century at Vatican II, Protestants were referred to as “separated brethren.” We see a marked contrast in the tone of the different councils. The bad news, however, is that many doctrines that divided orthodox Protestants from Roman Catholics centuries ago have been declared dogma since the sixteenth century. Virtually all of the significant Mariology decrees have been declared in the last 150 years. The doctrine of papal infallibility, though it de facto functioned long before its formal definition, was nevertheless formally defined and declared de fide (necessary to believe for salvation) in 1870 at Vatican Council I. We also see that in recent years the Roman communion has published a new Catholic catechism, which unequivocally reaffirms the doctrines of the Council of Trent, including Trent’s definition of the doctrine of justification (and thus affirms that council’s anathemas against the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone). Along with the reaffirmations of Trent have come a clear reaffirmation of the Roman doctrine of purgatory, indulgences, and the treasury of merits.

At a discussion among leading theologians over the issue of the continued relevance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, Michael Horton asked the question: “What is it in the last decades that has made the first-century gospel unimportant?” The dispute over justification was not over a technical point of theology that could be consigned to the fringes of the depository of biblical truth. Nor could it be seen simply as a tempest in a teapot. This tempest extended far beyond the tiny volume of a single teacup. The question, “what must I do to be saved?” is still a critical question for any person who is exposed to the wrath of God.

Even more critical than the question is the answer, because the answer touches the very heart of gospel truth. In the final analysis, the Roman Catholic Church affirmed at Trent and continues to affirm now that the basis by which God will declare a person just or unjust is found in one’s “inherent righteousness.” If righteousness does not inhere in the person, that person at worst goes to hell and at best (if any impurities remain in his life) goes to purgatory for a time that may extend to millions of years. In bold contrast to that, the biblical and Protestant view of justification is that the sole grounds of our justification is the righteousness of Christ, which righteousness is imputed to the believer, so that the moment a person has authentic faith in Christ, all that is necessary for salvation becomes theirs by virtue of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The fundamental issue is this: is the basis by which I am justified a righteousness that is my own? Or is it a righteousness that is, as Luther said, “an alien righteousness,” a righteousness that is extra nos, apart from us — the righteousness of another, namely, the righteousness of Christ? From the sixteenth century to the present, Rome has always taught that justification is based upon faith, on Christ, and on grace. The difference, however, is that Rome continues to deny that justification is based on Christ alone, received by faith alone, and given by grace alone. The difference between these two positions is the difference between salvation and its opposite. There is no greater issue facing a person who is alienated from a righteous God.

At the moment the Roman Catholic Church condemned the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone, she denied the gospel and ceased to be a legitimate church, regardless of all the rest of her affirmations of Christian orthodoxy. To embrace her as an authentic church while she continues to repudiate the biblical doctrine of salvation is a fatal attribution. We’re living in a time where theological conflict is considered politically incorrect, but to declare peace when there is no peace is to betray the heart and soul of the gospel.

Dr. R.C. Sproul is founder and president of Ligonier Ministries and senior minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew’s in Sanford, Florida, and he is author of the book Faith Alone.

For more than thirty years, Dr. R.C. Sproul has thoroughly and concisely analyzed weighty theological, philosophical, and biblical topics in Right Now Counts Forever, drawing out practical applications for the Christian in his own engaging style.

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7 Responses to “Is The Reformation Over?”

  1. theoldadam said

    Many would argue that the Reformation never really made it (to the States) in the first place.

  2. Job said


    Huh? How so?

  3. theoldadam said

    The Protestantism that made it over here and took root was more along the Baptist lineage which the Reformers did not cotton to.

    Luther called the Papists and the Anabaptists “two wolves tied at the tail” because they may have looked different and sounded different, but when you boiled it down you were left with the same ‘a little bit of me and a lot of God’. Only it usually turns out to be ‘a lot of me and a little bit of God’.

    Lutheranism, the most radical of the Reformed faiths, was never really all that popular here and still isn’t.

    Now, the ELCA are doing all they can to completely destroy that part of the Reformation that Luther spawned and drag his name down with it.

    I think this is why Luther never wanted his name associated with the denomination to begin with.

    • Job said


      Similar to his referring to the epistle of James as “pure straw” and also disliking the book of Esther (though it is worth nothing that Luther did not claim that either should be rejected from the canon) and his declaration that Jewish synagogues should be burned, Luther was wrong on certain things.

      Luther, Calvin, Beza, Zwingli etc. did not reject the Anabaptists because of theology. They rejected the Anabaptists entirely for political reasons. Read “The Reformers and Their Stepchildren” by Verduin. The magisterial reformers like Calvin followed after the same longtime era of Constantine in seeing religion as a method of political and social control. They believed that in order for a society to survive, there must be A) an official public faith and B) all citizens must by law practice that faith. They totally rejected everything the New Testament said about separation between the church and the world, and that Jesus Christ’s kingdom was a spiritual kingdom, one not of this world. In order to accomplish political and social cohesion, they rejected the New Testament and went back to the Old Testament. They basically believed that Jesus Christ came in order to allow Gentiles to become Jews.

      Because they could not read the Bible apart from their narrow cultural backgrounds and ideological rigidity, they allowed themselves to be blinded to the Bible’s true message. This is evident in such nonsense as “covenantal infant baptism” when knowing full well that there isn’t a single New Testament scripture that supports the practice and that there are plenty that oppose it.

      Jesus Christ did not come to establish church-states. Instead, He was killed by church states (pagan Rome and Jewish theocrats).

  4. theoldadam said


    You are dead wrong about many things that you have stated. It’s late and I’m tired, but I’ll be more specific in the morning.


    • Job said


      Everything that I have stated is a confirmed fact of history and can easily be verified by the writings of Calvin, Luther, Zwingli and similar, which I myself have personally read. This includes Luther’s “transubstantiation lite” doctrine on the communion that prevented him from merging his movement with that of Zwingli’s and Calvin’s (in the case of the warmonger and murderer Zwingli it was a good thing, but in Calvin’s case it was somewhat regrettable) and also his failure to move beyond justification by faith into other areas like sanctification. Incidentally, while he didn’t fully recant his earlier statements, Luther did back off from his criticism of the Anabaptists. Now I am aware that there were some Anabaptists who were violent political subversives who preached heretical doctrines that are very similar to the third wave pentecostals that you see on TBN and on God TV. But the original Anabaptists were simply people who believed in A) believer’s baptism and B) separation between church and state and wanted to be left alone to practice their faith in peace. But Protestants AND Catholics who believed in “kingdom of heaven on earth” church-states refused to allow them and began slaughtering them wholesale, especially Zwingli. Again, recorded facts of history.

      Further, with regards to American history, the earliest Christians in this country were Puritans, Presbyterians and Congregationalists, not Baptists. The Baptist growth did not start until later, and what is more a majority of the Baptists were originally Reformed Baptists. The growth of free will Baptism came as a consequence of Wesleyanesque second great awakening.

      • theoldadam said


        Of course not all Anabaptists were rapists and murderers (many were). The political and the religious were a highly volatile mix.

        But Luuther disagreed vehemently with the Anabaptists or Enthusiaists as he would often refer to them, on theological grounds. This is quite evident with even a casual glance at Luther’s writing.

        I do simlify things (maybe too much) when I refer to many Protestant traditions as ‘baptist’ because of similar beliefs in free will, decision theology. I stand corrected.

        I also failed to make a distinction between Reformed and Lutheran theology. True Lutheran theology is what never really landed over here. There were pietistic versions, of course.

        That you state that infant baptism is non-biblical, however, is just pure nonsense. That would be like saying that adult baptism is pure non-sense because the Bible never gives us an age requirement. Jesus said “Go baptize and teach (notice the order there)all nations…”
        Ponta ethnae is the Greek, and it means all peoples (no age requirement).

        Whole households were baptized. This is evident in scripture. This would include all ages.

        Jesus told the disciples to “let the little ones come to him.” He also told us that we should “become as children…” It would seem if children can’t have faith than he painted us a poor picture of the Kingdom.

        Can God save apart from baptism? Sure! Can He save through baptism? Sure He can!

        We embrace infant baptism because it puts God’s grace ahead of our faith. That is the proper order. We love because He first loved us.

        When John the Baptist was doing cartwheels in Elizabeth’s womb at the near presence of Jesus (also in the womb), it was a clear picture that God can create faith in infants, when and where He wills.

        We also believe God is the One who does the actual baptizing, not the pastor or priest or whomever recites God’s Word accompanying the water.

        This is a brief devotion my pastor gave on ‘faith’. He does speak to infant baptism and explains why we believe it to be biblical.

        Let me know where you think he misses the mark, Job.


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