500 YEARS ON, ALUTA CONTINUA
Today marks exactly 500 years since Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation in 1517. But much of the Christian world now believes that the Reformation has ended. Is it really true that Catholics and Protestants now have a common understand of Salvation by grace through faith? Here is something worth thinking about. In this article we explore the teething problem with this view. The protest lives on, and here is why.
Adapted from a lecture given in commemoration of 500 years of the Protestant Reformation on October 20th 2017 at West Ridge Seventh-day Adventist Church, Takoradi, Ghana
[Greetings and sundry remarks]
Speaking about the Reformation today is akin to speaking about a budding taboo… it is not yet generally frowned upon, but it gets people to look at you funny. It makes people uneasy, and others wonder whether you have not heard the new information in town.
Protestant Christianity is beginning to get uneasy about the Reformation. It would appear that an increase in scholastic knowledge in theology and the church history have led to a great deal of skepticism concerning the three – and later five – fundamental tenets of the protest that was began 500 years ago. The current wave of ecumenism is almost so universal that Adventists who insist on desisting from efforts at unifying the churches must endure the second looks of their Protestant fiends.
As I am sure you have heard during the course of this week’s lectures, the ecumenical movement seeks to unify Christians into a body of common fellowship primarily, but also beliefs. These attempts, it is often argued, completely neglect or ignore fundamental differences in the way various denominations understand the Bible. This is not entirely true, however; often ecumenism involves dialogue that reformulates understanding of doctrines in order to achieve the best reconciliation possible. Remaining differences are often dismissed as practically insignificant as far as their capacity to hinder the desired ecumenical goal.
This is exactly the case with respect to one of the fundamental creeds of the Reformation: Sola fide, or “Through faith alone.”
The Three Solas
Throughout the course of the last fifty years ecumenical councils have sought to arrive at common understandings between Roman Catholics and Protestant denominations that answer the questions raised by the early Reformers.
- Firstly, is doctrine really to be formulated by scripture alone? (Sola scriptura)
- Secondly, is salvation really granted by grace alone? (Sola gracia)
- Thirdly, s justification really received through faith alone? (Sola fide)
Probably one of the most prominent instances of such agreements is the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification reached between Roman Catholics and Lutherans in 1999. This agreement has become the basis for bold moves towards extensive consolidation of ecumenical gains over time. So much so that this year the two churches announced their joint intention to work towards a shared communion. If the significance of this move were lost to you, it would be useful to recall that rejection from the table of the Holy Communion is the effective act of excommunication, what we would call removal from fellowship. To share the communion with Lutherans once more, from the perspective of the Catholic Church, is to accept them back into the faith and family of the church.
Through Faith, Alone.
This joint declaration on the doctrine of justification, of course, focuses on the theology of justification, which Protestants have historically understood to be a legal declaration made by God to the effect that a guilty sinner is reckoned righteous on the merits or righteousness of Christ. Of course Protestants see this justification as being the beginning of a process of salvation that goes through life-long sanctification and is crowned in eventual glorification. But importantly, Protestants believe that this justification is only possible through faith. For example, Adventists believe:
In Christ’s life of perfect obedience to God’s will, His suffering, death, and resurrection, God provided the only means of atonement for human sin, so that those who by faith accept this atonement may have eternal life.
Similarly Ellen White writes:
This belief is derived from a systematic understanding of numerous biblical texts and concepts stretching form the Old Testament into the new. But as “justification” is a decidedly Pauline term, we will consider a few texts from his writing
Romans 3:28 – Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.
Galatians 2:16 – Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.
Romans 4:4-5 – Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,
So justification is clearly understood to be received through faith alone, without any works or personal merit in the sinner. But Protestants understand that this faith is not merely a mental assent alone. There are beings, after all, that mentally assent to the efficacy of Christ’s grace, but who tremble at the thought of Him. Rather, this faith includes an abiding trust that surrenders the sinner continually to the influence of that grace in their lives.
Significantly, this trust leads to sanctification, in which the fruit of faith is good works in obedience to the law of God. However these good works are not understood to confer any salvific advantage to the believer. In other words, in and of themselves they will save the believer. Rather they will be an ongoing witness to his state of renewal and intimacy with God, to whom he has been reconciled in Justification, and is being reconciled, everyday, through sanctification. As the Tyndale New Testament Commentary has put it:
[I]t is important to realize that being ‘put right’ with God [being justified] involves a subsequent total change in our moral behavior (though this of itself could never commend us to God.)
Does the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification indicate that the Catholic Church now sees justification this way too? We must admit that if it does, then the Protest is truly over, and that would be good news, for Luther never set out to begin a revolt against his church, but a reforming of it.
The JDDJ: Grace Alone or Faith Alone?
On the face of it, this seems to be what is achieved by the agreement, which states:
Close inspection of the JDDJ, however, reveals some troubling theological maneuvers. For one thing, the document never once acknowledges that justification is through faith alone. Rather, it cleverly attests that justification is by grace alone.
This is true, for salvation is made possible only because of God’s grace; grace that led Him to offer His son as an propitiation for all who accept His sacrifice. Ephesians 2:8 says unambiguously that it is by grace we are saved, through faith. Indeed Adventist Protestants agree with this, emphasizing in our fundamental beliefs that “In infinite love and mercy God made Christ, who knew no sin, to be sin for us, so that in Him we might be made the righteousness of God.” This love and mercy is none other than the grace of God. Indeed, the Adventist statement of beliefs goes on to affirm that saving faith “is the gift of God’s grace.”
So yes, salvation comes by grace alone. That is the Protestant tenet of sola scriptura, on that it appears that Rome now agrees with Protestants. Yet any student of church history will know that Rome has never had a problem with salvation by grace alone, for she teaches that God dispenses His grace through the church, so that whatever is commanded by the church is an extension of God’s grace to humankind.
By this understanding, the indulgences which Luther so vigorously opposed in His 95 thesis, the Eucharist, papal absolutions, penance and other sacraments are all still valid means to salvation, because they are all made possible by grace. When a person pays an indulgence for the forgiveness of a loved one’s sins, that opportunity is granted by grace. On indulgences, for example, the Roman Catholic Church declares:
So Rome believes that salvation is by grace alone, through faith, but not through faith alone. Rather, justification is by grace through faith, as well as works done by a person, which are allowed or enabled by sacramental grace offered by the Church. In other words, justification is received through faith, as well as works granted by the church through sacraments and service. The hidden result is that faith is effectively transferred from Christ to the church. Clearly, this is not the gospel as understood by Protestants. The Bible teaches plainly that justification is obtained because of God’s grace (sola gracia), and received through faith alone (sola fide), and not through any sort of work whatsoever. No organization can insert itself into the value chain of God’s salvation economy.
In conclusion, I would like to urge us all to take some time this year to truly commemorate the Reformation, and I suggest two ways for doing so. Primarily the history of the Reformation is a history of the return to biblical teaching. To care about the Reformation is not merely to hold in high esteem names like Zwingli, Wycliffe and Luther, but it is to care about the Bible truths they unearthed. I invite you therefore to study the theological foundations of Protestant belief, and particularly their particular expression in the fundamental beliefs of our church. Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria.
Secondly I urge you to make the Reformation true in a personal way. The reason Luther found the truth is because through God’s grace he wrestled with his own sense of sin and guilt, and longed for personal reconciliation with God. This is true of many Reformers, and it should be true of us. These Bible truths should win souls rather than arguments, and particularly your soul.
God is working out a greater Reformation, began right after the fall, but provided for long before it; a reformation of hearts and minds of sinners, and of an entire creation bent under the oppression of sin and death. May we each and all have a part in that great change from darkness into everlasting light, for as Numbers 14:21 assures us, “ but truly, as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord.”
As we sing the faith, it is my prayer that we will sing them boldly everyday and everywhere, even as more and more of the Protestant world begins to look at us funny. Because this faith that we sing of is not outdated or obsolete; it is eternal.
May God bless us all.
 “Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists, 9. ‘The Life, Death and Resurrection of Christ,’” 2015. The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
 Ellen G. White, “Faith Does Not Make Void the Law,” Signs of the Times, March24, 1890.
 Tyndale NT Commentaries, The Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians, (Grand Rap- ids: Eerdmans, 1980), 80-81
 “Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists, 10. ‘The Experience of Salvation,’” 2015. The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1478. Retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_P4G.HTM
 Ibid., 1477