Is the Reformation Over?–R.C. Sproul

Posted: September 2, 2009 in Church History, doctrine, General Discussion, Mentors, Scripture, Theology
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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.

Read the rest of the story here.

  1. Samuel Houston says:

    Thanks for this provocative article.

    However, much of it is regrettably out of date and unintentionally misleading.

    Perhaps you might append an addendum to addressing the extraordinarily detailed 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church (subsequently adopted, as well, in 2006 by the World Methodist Organization by unanimous vote) that states that

    (i) “We confess together that persons are justified by faith in the gospel ‘apart from works prescribed by the law'”,

    (ii) “We encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations”, and
    (iii) “the doctrinal condemnations of the 16th century, in so far as they relate to the doctrine of justification, appear in a new light: The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this Declaration.”

    After you have had the opportunity to read this highly relevant document (relevant at least to Lutherans, Methodists and Catholics), I think we could all benefit from your commentary on it.

    I’ll be looking forward to it !

  2. Phil says:

    Yes, the Reformation is over – that was easy 😉

  3. Bill says:

    “We ought to be reformed and always reforming.” I trust that those of us who desire reformation will not become arrogant thinking we have arrived. Instead, I pray that we will understand that by God’s grace we have been reformed and we are dependent upon His grace as we are constantly reforming. May God keep us ever mindful that we are utterly dependent upon Him.”– J.D. Meredith

  4. Randy says:

    Justification “by grace alone” “Through faith alone” “on account of Christ alone” this is the the heart if the gospel according to Michael Horton, and I agree with him. Luther said the church stands or falls on this issue. Calvin said it is the hinge upon which everthing turns.
    Who Needs Justification?
    “God justifies the wicked. That’s pretty radical. It is more radical than the claim that God heals the morally sick or gives grace to those who are willing to cooperate with it or that he rewards those who try to do their best. We don’t even have to deny justification outright. It’s just irrelevant when we stop asking the most important question. Having trouble with the marriage or kids? Sure. Not living up to our expectations? Doesn’t everybody? Not really getting the most out of life and need some fresh advice? I’m all ears. But we don’t care about being “sinners in the hands of an angry God” if we have never encountered a holy God. And if we do not sense a great need, we do not cry out for a great Savior.”
    Here is a great article on this subject
    No Phil the reformation is not over, at least not in me. I’m begining to see how the “solas” of the reformation caused tension in the early days of the reformation. I stand to lose some friends because of this issue. If not their friendship at least their respect. But I can’t turn from “grace alone through faith alone, on account of Christ alone.” For it is the heart of the gospel and the cause of the reformation. God bless you Phil and Bill.

  5. Semper Reformanda! Sola Deo Gloria!

  6. Phil says:

    I was speaking of “THE” Reformation. I can not walk in Luther or Calvin’s shoes, not to mention the many others who were persecuted and executed for standing against the doctrines of the Catholic Church .

    As far as following the Reformation’s creedo of “Sola fide” – I echo that creedo along with all of you, becuase it is Biblical. I would rather exalt the Bible and Christ as the foundation of my faith and not any movement or persons. I read the following on a web site the other day and I agree with the writer…

    “We should never go back to the Reformation, but always back to the Bible. It is always best to go back to the pure spring rather than to go back to the stream further down from the spring because the stream further down can become polluted along the way. God’s Word is a pure, unpolluted spring of truth, and those who drink from it will never be disappointed. We can learn from the Reformers and from all great men of church history, but we must constantly test all things by the Word of God, and follow these men only insomuch as they followed Christ.”

    • Randy says:

      It seems to me that the reformation did go back to the bible. And i’m sure if more churches went back to the five solas of the reformation we would hear more biblical preaching than is out there now. If we stick to these solas we will encounter opposition, because not all people believe them as much as they think they do before they study them closely. In my opinion the five solas are the freshest drink of cool water to come from the head of the spring in quite some time. However you are correct Phil, about not following a movement or person other than what the bible says. A couple of good examples were the followers of the way mentioned in the book of acts and several scriptures where Paul says to follow him as he follows Christ. Ha Ha just kidding Phil I kmow what you meant. God bless! enjoyed your reply.

      • Phil says:

        Hey Randy, What are the five solas? I know the rally cry of the Reformation was “Sola Fide”, at least at the outset w/ Luther…

  7. Randy says:

    For some reason my last reply did not work so i’ll try again. Phil I posted the 5 solas on my blog a couple of days ago. You can see them there if you like.

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