Before the advent of Protestantism (a word referring to all who defected from the Roman Catholic denomination), the Roman Catholic church was the face of Christianity. However, the Roman Catholic church was marred by many evil acts. For example, they believed that by buying forgiveness tokens, also known as “indulgences”, one could have their sins forgiven (Tobit 12:9). To this effect, they went further to hire a German Monk called Johanna Tetzel. The monk would go to the marketplaces and openly call people to buy indulgences for the sake of their loved ones in purgatory so that instead of going to hell, they would go to heaven. In other words, indulgences were a way of buying God’s forgiveness. Unfortunately, Johanna Tetzel became so skilled at selling indulgences that many of his contemporaries thought of him as an insult to the sacrament of penance (repentance).
In 1517 October, Martin Luther became the key figure to what would be called today the reformation. He began conversations about the five most fundamental truths concerning the Christian faith, also known in this blog as the ‘Alones of Christianity’. The five ‘Alones of Christianity/ are the Bible alone, Christ alone, faith alone, grace alone, and God’s glory alone. We will only cover the first three of them in this blog and continue with the other two in a later post.
Martin Luther focused on the five Alones of Christianity because he was disturbed by the state of the church. He had become aware of how the church had departed from the way of scripture. He figured that, among other things, the sacrament of penance was foreign to what the Bible taught about forgiveness of sin. Furthermore, the clergy had introduced things that the Bible outrightly prohibited mainly because of greed and selfishness on the part of clergymen. The worst part was that these abominable practices became incorporated as traditions of the Catholic church at that time.
1. The Bible Alone vs Bible plus Traditions
The Roman Catholic church then believed that God had spoken authoritatively through the written word of God. However, they believed God charged the Pope with the church traditions (practices) to speak for him with the Bible’s same authority. The Bible warns that no one—the Pope, the pastor, the bishop or prophet—is authorised to add to what is in the Bible (Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32, Proverbs 30:6). If one does so, God will add to them the plagues written in the Bible (Revelation 22:18-19). Earlier, Paul had urged the Corinth church not to go beyond the scriptures (1 Corinthians 4:6) because the Bible is God’s word and has all we need for life and godliness (2 Timothy 3:16).
Adding to the scriptures is not just unique to the Roman Catholics. Today, we have sects like Repentance and Holiness Ministries where the words of prophet Ouwor (the sect leader) are elevated beyond what the Bible says. According to their doctrine, the Seventh-day Adventists (SDA) highly regard Helen G. White’s (founder of SDA) writings as equal to the scriptures. Mormons have also added the Book of the Mormon to the scriptures and hold it as equivalent to Scripture.
When the Roman Catholic church discovered that Martin Luther had started teaching the first alone (Bible Alone), they demanded of him to recant what he believed and ordered him to accept that the Pope words were of the same authority as the Bible. He asked for a day to consider his response. Martin Luther’s reply was, “Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning. Unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other; may God help me! Amen!”
Take a minute, examine your church, and ask yourself whether the scripture can question your pastor’s word. Is it the pastor or bishop who is the final authority or the Word of God? Are you having some practices or people who have a say in your life more than God? As we answer these questions, we must never forget that ours is to be like the Bereans who, after hearing the teachings of apostle Paul, were noble enough to search the scriptures to see if what they were taught aligned with what was in the Bible (Acts 17:11). Be careful to test every preacher you listen to by the Bible. If what he says is not in the scriptures, you must not take it (1 John 4:1-6)
2. Christ Alone vs Christ plus Saints
Roman Catholic doctrine also teaches that they have a bank of merits. They believe that saints of old like Mary, Apostle Peter, and others lived such excellent lives that their many good deeds were stored in a bank that other believers could access by buying indulgences to have their sins and the sins of others forgiven. This bank was called the “Treasury of Merit.” From this treasury, one obtains good deeds so that God pardons them from temporal punishment for sin by buying an indulgence. Can this practice be traced anywhere in scripture?
No human being has ever lived a life that is enough to obtain God’s favour by merit (Ephesians 2:1-3, Romans 3:9-12, 3:23). Scripture tells us that Christ is the only one who ever lived a perfect, sinless life (1 Peter 2:22). When crucified, he offered himself to be a perfect sacrifice for our sins once for all (Hebrews 10:12-14). For one to connect with God, they must be found entirely Holy (Hebrews 12:14). For sinful human beings, this standard can only be obtained through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:24-25). According to the justice of God, all sin must be punished (Leviticus 5:17). The punishment inflicted on Christ was enough, and because of it, God’s righteous wrath was satisfied (1 John 2:1-2). Therefore, Jesus Christ is the only way to God (John 14:6), not saints. Charles Hodge sums it this way, “Christ’s righteousness is so imputed to believers that their justification is not merely the act of a sovereign dispensing with the law but the act of a judge declaring the law to be satisfied”. Does your church teach that it is Christ alone who can forgive sins?
3. Faith Alone vs Faith plus Works
The Roman Catholic church teaches that man has to have faith in Jesus, and to the faith, he needs to add the duties of the church for that man to be saved. These duties are the works done as required by the church traditions, including buying of indulgences, penance and sometimes pilgrimage to the Vatican, and other ‘good deeds’ like prayer, fasting, giving to the poor and many more. Unfortunately, they misinterpreted what the Bible teaches in James 2:24 “you see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Reading James 2:17-18 clearly shows that a person’s good works must be a by-product of their faith in Christ which helps put James 2:24 in its proper interpretation.
The conclusion is that faith without works is dead. James does not contradict what Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9; he only expounds on it. Still on this subject, Paul adds that we are created in Christ as God’s workmanship for good works that God prepared for us beforehand (Ephesians 2:10). Christ taught this as much, and he said that the world would know that we belong to God by evidence of our deeds (Matthew 7:15-20). Good works can also be referred to as fruits. You cannot see good fruit if no good seed is planted and the tree has not grown. Faith is the seed that God plants and waters in us so that we are willing and able to do his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13). Elisha Cole rightly puts it: “Faith justifies the person, and works justify his faith.” Does your church teach that it is by faith alone that one is saved, or do they say it is faith plus something else that makes a person saved or forgiven?
The three arguments brought forward in the paragraphs above are part of the five fundamental truths, the five Alones, of the Christian faith. These are all verified by Scripture and are, as such, essential to all Christians. We will discuss the last two of the five Alones in the next article.