Why 500 Years of Catholic & Protestant Church Separation?

5 Solas of the Reformation and why they are essential.

Times of church separation can be awful, such as when the church I was raised in went through a split during my senior year of high school. It was devastating. But sometimes a separation is necessary to reform an unhealthy situation. Such was the case with the Reformation, which is often considered to have launched on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. The theses were tenants of change needed to reform the Roman Catholic Church (RCC).

This is our son Danny in front of the building in downtown Copenhagen. Can you read the inscription: “Soli Deo Gloria?”

Luther was not the only reformer, nor necessarily the best. Other reformers included John Calvin, John Hus, Huldrych Zwingli, Peter Waldo, John Knox and John Wycliffe. In fact, later in life Luther himself made mistakes and said things that Christians must repudiate. However, in general, the Reformation of the church was necessary and included reforms that we need to learn from today.

The Roman Catholic Church has accomplished remarkable good, while at the same time has needed immense reform. Here are some of the things I admire about the Roman Catholic Church:

  1. Remarkable acts of charity over the centuries and continuing until today.
  2. The sense of history and tradition.
  3. An officially consistent pro-life
  4. Missionary outreaches over the centuries.

But there were and are some issues of great concern. These issues resulted in the Reformation and church separation into many denominations such as the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed, Anglican, and so on.

I recently wrote about the importance of not majoring on minors. But the issues of the Reformation were definitely not minor and deserve a review on this 500th anniversary.

So, in this article I’d like to cover 5 of the most essential reforms, which have come to be known as the 5 solas.

Here are the five solas of the reformation and why they necessitated a church separation:

1. Sola Scriptura.

This statement simply means that “the Bible alone” is the final authority for our faith.

Why the Bible alone? Because it is our only unshifting, reliable source of God’s Truth.

The Bible repeatedly claims that it is the Word of God and reliable:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)

Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God.” (1 Peter 1:20-21 NLT)

Sola Scriptura was a response to the idea that the Catholic church, church tradition, the pope (when speaking ex cathedra) or church councils have authority higher than the Bible.

The fact is that while the Word of God is flawless, some leaders of the RCC have been extraordinarily flawed. Wikipedia reports that “The Bad Popes is a 1969 book by E. R. Chamberlin documenting the lives of eight of the most controversial popes (papal years in parentheses).” Here are two examples:

  • Pope John XII(955–964), who gave land to a mistress, murdered several people, and was killed by a man who caught him in bed with his wife.
  • Pope Urban VI(1378–1389), who complained that he did not hear enough screaming when Cardinals who had conspired against him were tortured.

To be Roman Catholic is to submit to the authority of the pope. The Reformation said “no” to authorities like the pope who are not infallible, as only the Word of God is! This was one of the reasons for this church separation between Protestants and Catholics. Luther’s and other’s intention was to stay in the Catholic church and see it reformed. But when Catholic leadership refused reform, they were forced to separate.

Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.” (Proverbs 30:5-6 NIV)

2. Sola Gratia.

This means “grace alone.” The point is that it is only by the unearned gift of God that we are saved, through the gift of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins on the cross. We cannot and do not earn our salvation.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV)

In this verse:

  • Grace = unmerited favor
  • Faith = our belief and desire to receive the unmerited gift of salvation
  • Gift = an unearned present
  • Not as a result of works = we work because we are saved, but not to earn salvation, which cannot be earned
  • So that no one may boast = the end of bragging about how we “deserve” salvation

Sola Gratia answered the issue of indulgences. An indulgence is defined by the Roman Catholic Church as “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins.” Indulgences are “earned” by good works and reciting of prayers, according to the RCC.

One of the corruptions of the Catholic church was that in order to raise funds for the cathedrals of Europe, the RCC had been selling “indulgences.” A monk named Johann Tetzel had been commissioned by the Pope to raise money to build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, and the way they were raising money was by offering people a special form of salvation called an “Indulgence.”

Tetzel is known for the couplet “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

What is purgatory? It is a place of suffering, invented by the RCC, where sinners pay for their sins, before going to heaven. Purgatory is not in the Bible.

The RCC outlawed the selling of indulgences in 1567, however charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can still help someone earn an indulgence according to the RCC.

The reformation said “no” to these abuses, and that our salvation is only by the grace or mercy of the Lord. Salvation cannot be sold! When the RCC refused to reform, a church separation became necessary.

Scripture clearly teaches:

He saved us, not by the righteous deeds we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of new birth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5 Berean Study Bible)

3. Sola Fide.

This means “by faith alone.” This is a well-defined teaching of the Bible:

  • Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Romans 5:1).
  • Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” (Romans 3:28).
  • I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” (Galatians 2:21).

Sola Fide answers the issue of receiving salvation by any other means than faith, such as baptism, taking communion (the mass), giving money, etc.

The critical word in each of these 5 statements is the word “sola” which means “alone” or “only.” Here is a statement that is true, but still inaccurate: Salvation comes by God’s grace through faith in Christ. It is inaccurate because of what is left out and that is the word “alone.” Lots of false teachers and cults believe that statement, if the key words are left out (Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the RCC).

Here is the same sentence with the missing words inserted: Salvation comes by God’s grace ALONE through faith ALONE in Christ ALONE. Now the statement is complete and accurate.

The concept of Sola Fide is that all we have to do is believe and receive the gift.

A few years ago, my father flew to Southern California to watch his beloved Ohio State Buckeyes football team play against USC at the LA Coliseum. But we couldn’t get reasonably priced tickets.

So, we went to the game and walked around outside asking if anyone had tickets. No one had any. However, one very kind man said, “I don’t have tickets, but I’ll help you get tickets.” With that he pulled out his wallet and gave us two one hundred dollar bills! We were dumbfounded.

At that point, we only had to reach out in faith and accept his gift, which we happily did! We didn’t have to earn that money, work for it, shine his shoes, or anything. We thanked him profusely and enjoyed his gift.

That my friends, is the concept of Sola Fide. God gave the sacrifice of His Son Jesus who died for our sins and rose again. All we have to do is receive the gift of salvation!

But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Romans 4:5).

4. Sola Christus.

This means “Christ alone.” It means that only Jesus can bring us to God.

1 Timothy 2:5-6 says this quite clearly, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (ESV)

Sola Christus answers the issue of trusting in the RCC, the Virgin Mary, the treasury of merit, crawling up the scala sancta, angels, saints, relics, priests, or anything else for salvation.

All of these have been confused in the RCC. For example, some Catholics actually teach that Mary was co-mediatrix or a female mediator (intermediary) along with Christ. There is a movement inside the RCC seeking to have the church officially proclaim this of Mary. If it were to happen, the Trinity would be replaced by a quartet!

But Jesus made it clear that Mary has no place in redeeming us. In Matthew 12:47–50, Mary and her other sons were trying to see Jesus while He was teaching. “Someone told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”

Sola Christus answers the question of any other mediator beside Jesus, a fact that is clearly proclaimed in Scripture. Christ alone redeems us.

If you want to receive God’s gift of salvation through Christ, please click HERE for instructions and a suggested prayer.

And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12 ESV)

5. Sola Deo Gloria.

This means “For the glory of God alone.”

Our purpose is to please God, not people.” (1 Thessalonians 2:4b NLT)

So whether we are here in this body or away from this body, our goal is to please him.” (2 Corinthians 5:9 NLT)

Sola Deo Gloria answers the idea that our goal as believers is to please church leaders, to keep a list of rules, or to prosper personally. Instead, our purpose is simply to glorify God by pleasing Him.

When Carolyn and I recently visited our son Danny, serving as a missionary with Youth with a Mission (YWAM) in Denmark, we visited the building where he envisions a House of Prayer starting next year. I was fascinated by the inscription on the front of the building: Sola Deo Gloria!

The building was built in 1783. It is owned by a Christian ministry that is leasing it to YWAM, and thankfully is fulfilling its inscription: Soli Deo Gloria: for the glory of God alone. See the photos of the building in this blog.

That doesn’t mean that everything done there will be sinless! There will be flawed human beings there. Only Jesus was sinless.

But the goal, written right on the building, is the right one: For the glory of God alone!

That is how I try to live my life, as I explained in my article Having Just One Person to Please Brings Peace. Please check it out.

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31 ESV)

Here’s a broader shot of the “Soli Deo Gloria” building with Carolyn, Danny and a fellow YWAM staffer.

So, all this is why the great church separation called the Reformation happened 500 years ago. And as we’ve seen in this article, the issues are still valid and very important today. May we stand for these truths as Martin Luther stood. I don’t like to ever see or have a church separation, but sometimes they’re necessary.

Luther, for his beliefs, was hauled before an assembly and his teachings were condemned. He was told to recant. But, realizing it could mean his life, he refused to deny his beliefs, including the solas of this article. He was given 24 hours to reconsider, and when he was brought back in was asked if he would repudiate his teachings.

Luther answered: “Since then your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”

While Martin Luther was spared, many others were tortured and killed for their allegiance to the five solas. Their church separation from the Roman Catholic Church meant the separation of their heads from their bodies, or being burned at the stake and other forms of persecution and martyrdom. These were the results of various church trials and inquisitions.

May we, who have far less to lose, be faithful to the truths of the 5 solas, to the glory of God and the spread of the true Gospel, even if they again lead to a church separation.

What do you think? Have I truthfully covered the points? Your thoughts are welcome! Please leave your comment below. Do you think the church separation of the Reformation was justified by these solas? 

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