The formal beginning of the Protestant Reformation, as generally fixed by historians, was October 31, 1517. On that day, Martin Luther went to the Cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany and nailed a parchment to the door containing ninety-five “theses” (actually, indictments), objecting to various elements of Roman Catholic doctrine. Most of these were directed against the Roman dogma relating to the sale of indulgences, but, by implication, they struck also at the authority of the pope and the priesthood of the church.
Luther was a Catholic monk and a professor at the University of Wittenberg. He was sickened by the numerous corruptions within the popular church of his day. For example, the pope at that time, Leo X, had inaugurated an extensive program for the completion of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. In conjunction therewith, he had employed an agent by the name of John Tetzel to canvas Germany, selling “indulgences.” These were certificates, signed by the pope himself, granting pardon from all sins (without repentance, confession, etc.). One could purchase a certificate for himself, or for a loved one—living or dead—and forgiveness would be granted on behalf of that individual. Tetzel preached: “As soon as your coin clinks in the chest, the souls of your friends will rise out of purgatory to heaven.” It was a lucrative enterprise indeed.
Martin Luther opposed this corruption, and eventually (in June of 1520) he was excommunicated by Pope Leo. Luther had not intended to establish a new religious denomination; nonetheless, out of his influence the Lutheran Church ultimately was born.
Now, almost five centuries later, certain leaders within the Catholic and Lutheran disciplines are seeking a reconciliation with one another. Unfortunately, the effort is not grounded in biblical truth. The desire for religious unity is admirable. Jesus prayed for it (John 17:20-21), and the apostles urged Christians to work toward oneness (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10; Philippians 2:1-4). But when an attempt to achieve unity is based upon ambiguity and compromise, nothing valid is established.
There are numerous significant differences between Catholicism and Lutheranism. One of these has to do with how salvation is obtained. Catholic theology argues for a salvation based upon the acquisition of meritorious works, while Lutheran dogma contends for redemption on the ground of “faith alone.” These two views are vastly divergent, and, as a matter of fact, each is equally wrong. Nonetheless, on October 31, 1999 in Augsburg, Germany, representatives of these two religious groups met to sign a “peace treaty” of sorts. It affirmed:
Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works
This proposition is contradictory on the very face of it—if words have meaning. If salvation is “by grace alone,” then “faith” on man’s part is superfluous. Correspondingly, if “faith” is required, then forgiveness is not of “grace alone.” Moreover, it appears that neither Catholics nor Lutherans are surrendering any point of doctrine in this truce.
The truth of this issue is not to be found in Roman dogma or in Lutheran theology. Rather, the facts are these: God, out of his loving nature, and by means of a manifestation of his grace, provided his Son as a sacrifice for the atonement of human sin. Humanity was spiritually rebellious, hence entirely undeserving of this gracious provision from Heaven. Nonetheless, this gracious gift was offered only to all who are willing to receive it (cf. John 1:12; 2 Corinthians 6:1; Revelation 22:17). A gift may be offered, but it bestows no benefit unless it is accepted. And there is a method of acceptation required in the divine plan of things: “For by grace have you been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
This passage flies directly in the face of the Catholic doctrine of salvation by means of meritorious works. [Note: Catholicism teaches there is a “treasury of merits,” consisting of the merits of Christ which are beyond our salvation needs, along with the excess merits of Mary and the saints. From these the “Christian” may draw for pardon by means of obtaining indulgences (Attwater 1961, 499, 500).]
Luther’s reaction was extreme in opposing this heresy. His contention that one is saved by “faith alone” finds no support in Scripture. He went so far that he even altered the text of Romans 3:28 in his translation of the New Testament to read so. Luther’s inclination to add to the Scriptures (cf. Revelation 22:18) has been defended by modern Lutherans. R. C. H. Lenski wrote: “‘Alone’ is not found in the Greek text and yet is there. The vocable is not there, the sense is” (1961, 271). And so, presumably, if a particular thought about a biblical passage makes “sense” to the translator, he may simply alter the sacred text. Such arrogance!
Luther asserted that the book of James ought not to be in the canon of Scriptures because of its emphasis on obedient faith. The inspired James utterly repudiated the notion that man is justified by faith alone (see James 2:24). But Luther characterized the book of James as “a right strawy epistle,” and suggested that some ancient, anonymous author merely “threw” his thoughts on paper in a “disorderly way.” Luther’s dogma, therefore, scarcely improved the corrupt teaching of Catholicism.
In addition, both Catholics and Lutherans practice infant baptism and attempt to administer the rite by means of water-sprinkling or affusion. But infants neither need nor are they qualified to receive baptism (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38). Furthermore, sprinkling is not immersion, which is necessitated in the identification with Christ’s burial and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12).
Other erroneous and contradictory ideas, too numerous to mention here, are intrinsic to each of these sects.
And so, in the final analysis, our Roman Catholic and Lutheran friends have achieved nothing in this current “peace summit” which has received so much publicity. The effort is merely an ecumenical compromise that remains adverse to biblical teaching.
We should add that not everyone, even within these disciplines, agrees with this “unity” declaration. The 2.6 million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has characterized the proposition as “woefully inadequate and misleading” and a “betrayal of the Gospel.” Unfortunately, the LCMS is hardly in a position to be critical. As noted above, they have a box-car load of their own theological baggage—which also evinces a “betrayal of the gospel.”