On October 31, 1517, a young Catholic monk named Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. This single bold act set off a religious reformation that shook Europe and the world. Luther was later excommunicated by the papacy; a price set on his head.
On October 31, 2016, leading up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, signed a joint declaration with Pope Francis with the expressed hope for the “wound in the body of Christ to be healed.”
Beyond burying religious division, the declaration states that “what unites the two traditions is greater than that which divides them” (The Guardian, October 31, 2016).
Let’s rewind six thousand years to two of the earliest believers: Cain and Abel. These brothers had much more to unite them than to divide them. Both worshiped the true God. Both built altars according to God’s direction. Both brought sacrifices to worship.
But Cain’s sacrifice was very different than Abel’s. Abel brought a lamb while Cain brought the fruit of his hands. Abel’s lamb represented his entire dependence on Jesus, the Lamb of God that would take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Cain’s offering of fruit represented a mixture of God’s blessings and his own labor, the works of his hands (Genesis 4:3-5).
The similarities between the two worshipers were so close it was nearly impossible to tell the difference. That is, until Cain slew his brother (Genesis 4:8). This story illustrates that the nature of our religion is revealed by the spirit we possess toward those who disagree with us.
But let’s go back to the present development between Lutherans and the papacy.
According to Pope Francis, the last 500 years of “controversies and disagreements” have brought “an immense source of suffering and misunderstanding” (The Guardian, October 31, 2016).
What was Martin Luther thinking when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door? Perhaps it was simply a rash act on the part of a young monk trying to make a name for himself? Just like Cain was older than Abel, the church was older than this young monk. Doesn’t age and tradition indicate superior wisdom?
Rewind a few months earlier in Wittenberg. Tetzel had just come to town. Who was Tetzel? The pope’s right-hand man. He journeyed through the German countryside, showering the people with promises of absolute forgiveness for the most heinous sins. This forgiveness could even be purchased as credit for future offenses. It was available for a price.
This was the issue that got young Luther all fired up. The controversy, the misunderstanding, the disagreements, and the 500 years of division all began with “Luther’s protest of the sale of indulgences” (New York Times, October 31, 2016).
So what exactly is an indulgence? Rather than tinkering with opinions, let’s go right to the source. The Catholic Catechism of church doctrine states that:
“Through indulgences the faithful can obtain the remission of temporal punishment resulting from sin for themselves and also for the souls in purgatory” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 374, 1995 edition).
The ideology of indulgences is complicated, but to Luther, “indulgences” was a four-letter word. This practice completely undermined the gospel of Jesus Christ. To think that anyone, anywhere, in any way, could earn, buy, or merit pardon for sin and release from punishment, was contrary to the doctrine of grace. In Luther’s understanding, the Bible taught that salvation was all of grace. Here he stood, he could do no other:
“And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.” (Romans 11:6, NKJV).
Yet the issue of indulgences was not just about theology or church dogma. For Luther, it was intensely personal and deeply troubling.
If ever monk could obtain heaven by his monkish works, I should certainly have been entitled to it.…
As a Catholic, Luther had experienced the mental, physical, and spiritual consequences of merit-based religion. “He led a most rigorous life, endeavoring by fasting, vigils and scourging to subdue the evils of his nature, from which the monastic life had brought no release. He shrank from no sacrifice by which he might attain that purity of heart which would enable him to stand approved before God. ‘I was indeed a pious monk,’ he afterward said, ‘and followed the rules of my order more strictly than I can express. If ever monk could obtain heaven by his monkish works, I should certainly have been entitled to it.… If it had continued much longer, I should have carried my mortifications even to death’. As the result of this painful discipline he lost strength and suffered from fainting spasms, from the effects of which he never fully recovered. But with all his efforts his burdened soul found no relief. He was at last driven to the verge of despair” (Ellen White, The Great Controversy, p. 123).
The breakthrough for Luther came with a combination of two things: first, he found a Bible, and began to read it. Next, he made a visit to Rome, where the Holy Spirit brought home the biblical truth of “sola fide”—faith alone—at the very moment that he was earning a papal indulgence:
“By a recent decretal an indulgence had been promised by the pope to all who should ascend upon their knees ‘Pilate’s staircase,’ said to have been descended by our Saviour on leaving the Roman judgment hall and to have been miraculously conveyed from Jerusalem to Rome. Luther was one day devoutly climbing these steps, when suddenly a voice like thunder seemed to say to him: ‘The just shall live by faith’ (Romans 1:17). He sprang to his feet and hastened from the place in shame and horror. That text never lost its power upon his soul. From that time, he saw more clearly than ever before the fallacy of trusting to human works for salvation, and the necessity of constant faith in the merits of Christ. His eyes had been opened, and were never again to be closed, to the delusions of the papacy. When he turned his face from Rome he had turned away also in heart, and from that time the separation grew wider, until he severed all connection with the papal church” (Ellen White, The Great Controversy, p. 125).
To Luther, righteousness by faith was more than a new theological idea. His heart had been set free by the gospel of God’s free grace. He had personally been lifted from the dark despair of trusting even one iota to himself for salvation. He could never return.
Righteousness by faith is all about a heart experience. It’s about a relationship with God. Every time a person makes a decision to trust in Christ alone for salvation, Luther’s Reformation continues. Every time a heart says, “yes” to grace alone, the principles of Protestantism are rekindled.
Fast-forward 500 years.
In order for the “wound” between Catholicism and Protestantism to heal, someone had to change their position. So which group changed? The Lutherans. The two groups are now signing off on what once separated them, but it’s certainly not because papal theology has changed. Just look at recent history.
The process for unity moved forward in earnest in 1998 as noted by the following statement from TIME Magazine:
“Lutherans and Catholics reach agreement on the issue that once split Western Christianity in two… Cardinal Cassidy expressed Vatican approval, with a few caveats, of a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” (TIME, July 6, 1998).
Yet in that same year, the papacy reiterated its firm belief in the very thing that moved Luther to oppose its teachings: indulgences.
“Pope John Paul II announced yesterday that throughout the millennium celebration, penitents who do a charitable deed or give up cigarettes or alcohol for a day may earn an ‘indulgence’ that will eliminate time in purgatory. Some liberal Catholics are embarrassed by a practice that seems to offer such a simplistic shortcut to salvation.… Conservative Catholics would find it intolerable that for ecumenical considerations, the church put into the closet a practice affirmed by the Council of Trent” (National Post, November 28, 1998).
Did you know that Martin Luther himself, the Reformer in whose name the Lutheran Church was founded, actually predicted the concessions now being made by Lutherans and other “Protestant” denominations?
“If the article of justification be once lost, then is all true Christian doctrine lost.… He then that strayeth from this ‘Christian righteousness,’ must needs fall into the ‘righteousness of the law;’ that is to say, when he hath lost Christ, he must fall into the confidence of his own works.”
“For if we neglect the article of justification, we lose it altogether. Therefore most necessary it is, chiefly, and above all things, that we teach and repeat this article continually.”
“Yea, though we learn it and understand it well, yet there are none that taketh hold of it perfectly, or believeth it with his heart.”
“Therefore I fear lest this doctrine will be defaced and darkened again, when we are dead. For the world must be replenished with horrible darkness and errors, before the latter day come” (Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, pp. 136, 148-149, 402).
Has the Reformation suddenly ground to a halt? Is there no longer a need for Luther’s theses or for the 1529 Protests of the German Princes who risked their lives along with Luther, adding to the Reformation the name Protestant? Is there nothing left to protest?
The answer to that question depends very much on our understanding of the gospel as taught in Bible, and, more specifically, the “everlasting gospel” of the three angels’ messages. Let’s take a closer look.
“Then I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth—to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people—saying with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water’” (Revelation 14:6-7).
The first announcement of the everlasting gospel is, “fear God.” To “fear God” is to be in awe of Him, to “hope in His mercy” because He has not counted our sins against us (Psalm 130:4-5, 147:11). Jesus paid the price for our sins and we have complete forgiveness in Him (Isaiah 53:6). God longs for us to personally accept this forgiveness by confessing our sins and giving them directly to Jesus (1 John 1:9). No purgatory, no earning indulgences, just confession and forgiveness plain and simple.
The doctrine of purgatory and indulgences distorts the atonement of Jesus Christ.
In sharp contrast to this gospel truth, millions of Christians today are taught that they can earn forgiveness by works. The idea is that indulgences, deeds of charity and self-denial, can buy us grace. Purgatory is another option for some of the less faithful. This doctrine of salvation by works is the unchanged position of the largest church in the world.
The doctrine of purgatory and indulgences distorts the atonement of Jesus Christ. If Christ died for all, taking the sins and guilt of everyone to Calvary, then why would anyone who accepts Him as Savior have to spend time in a place called “purgatory” to suffer for any sin? And if those who do not fully trust Him can pay for some part of their own sins by suffering in such a place, don’t they become their own saviors, at least partially? Are some people to be saved by total belief in the doing and dying of Christ, others saved partially by Christ and partially by their own works, and still others by the deeds or money of family and friends? Do works, money, and penance earn some part of our salvation? The gospel says, “Absolutely not!” Salvation is a gift—it cannot be bought or earned, but can only be accepted freely. This leaves no room for creature merit.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23, BSB).
Let’s reflect on Luther’s statement so we don’t miss the significance of his prophetic prediction. The “horrible darkness and errors” he foretold are directly linked to the “article of justification by faith.” Luther was not the only one to understand the end- time importance of justification. Our own church history is riddled with conflict over this very truth.
In 1888, two young men presented the idea that “justification by faith” was in fact the very heart of the three angels’ messages. This quickly stirred up the saints who turned to Ellen White for clarification. This led her to pen the following statement on the three angels’ messages and their relation to justification by faith:
“Some of our brethren have expressed fears that we shall dwell too much upon the subject of justification by faith, but I hope and pray that none will be needlessly alarmed; for there is no danger in presenting this doctrine as it is set forth in the Scriptures. If there had not been a remissness in the past to properly instruct the people of God, there would not now be a necessity of calling a special attention to it. . . The exceeding great and precious promises given us in the Holy Scriptures have been lost sight of to a great extent, just as the enemy of all righteousness designed that they should be. He has cast his own dark shadow between us and our God, that we may not see the true character of God. The Lord has proclaimed Himself to be ‘merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.’ Several have written to me, inquiring if the message of justification by faith is the third angel’s message, and I have answered, ‘It is the third angel’s message, in verity’” (Ellen White, Review and Herald, April 1, 1890).
Some years ago, I had a phone conversation with someone who would describe himself as a theologically conservative Seventh-day Adventist. This brother called me on a regular basis to discuss the latest theological debates in the church. At the time, the hot debate was over the gospel and righteousness by faith, specifically as related to creature merit. This is the belief that the deeds of created beings help to earn salvation.
This brother had asked me to review a manuscript he was writing. In it, he claimed that the grace of Christ, being the source of our works, makes those works meritorious before God. I disagreed, but after a lengthy discussion, realized the conversation was going nowhere. Finally, in hopes of startling his spiritual discernment, I shared with him the following quotation without giving a reference:
“No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the grace needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods.”
After I read the quotation, he belted out a hearty “Amen!”
I was shocked, but assumed he would realize his folly when I shared the source. I then told him I was quoting from the Catholic Catechism on Doctrine (p. 490, 1995 edition).
He retorted quickly, “The Catholics aren’t wrong on everything.”
My response was just as quick. “True, but they are wrong on this—this is what caused the Reformation. This is what makes us Protestants.”
He doesn’t call me anymore.
This conversation was a game changer for me. I was raised Catholic, but it wasn’t until this experience that I realized how insidious the principle of creature merit is. Our doctrines may be right. We may be completely sold out for the truth. But is it the truth “as it is in Jesus?” It became glaringly apparent that some of the most die-hard Seventh-day Adventists are Catholic at heart.
It’s important to clarify that there are devout believers within the Catholic church, the Lutheran church, and every other church. The Protestant Reformation is not a protest against people. It’s a protest so in favor of people that it resists the theology that causes them oppression, sin, and suffering.
But back to my unsettling awakening. The experience was scary, but I’m thankful for it. It motivated me to study the true foundation of the everlasting gospel in a way I had not done before. I took it for granted that all Seventh-day Adventists were gospel-saturated. I was wrong. Since that time, I’ve realized that the same forces behind the Catholic/Lutheran unity have battled for control in our church, dating back to at least 1888.
Like Martin Luther, Ellen White wrote powerfully about the vital importance of justification by faith:
“There is not a point that needs to be dwelt upon more earnestly, repeated more frequently, or established more firmly in the minds of all than the impossibility of fallen man meriting anything by his own best good works. Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone… Let the subject be made distinct and plain that it is not possible to effect anything in our standing before God or in the gift of God to us through creature merit. Should faith and works purchase the gift of salvation for anyone, then the Creator is under obligation to the creature. Here is an opportunity for falsehood to be accepted as truth. If any man can merit salvation by anything he may do, then he is in the same position as the Catholic to do penance for his sins. Salvation, then, is partly of debt, that may be earned as wages. If man cannot, by any of his good works, merit salvation, then it must be wholly of grace, received by man as a sinner because he receives and believes in Jesus. It is wholly a free gift. Justification by faith is placed beyond controversy. And all this controversy is ended, as soon as the matter is settled that the merits of fallen man in his good works can never procure eternal life for him” (Ellen White, Faith and Works, p. 19-20).
The divide then over creature merit is not just between Lutherans and the papacy. It has involved every follower of God throughout history—from Cain and Abel, to you and me.
Fast forward to the mark of the beast in Revelation 13. The problem is not just denominational; it’s individual and personal. We might take to heart the idea that the composite “beast” of Revelation 13 represents an earthly kingdom made up of individuals who support what it teaches (Daniel 7:17, 23).
I’ve realized that the same forces behind the Catholic/Lutheran unity have battled for control in our church, dating back to at least 1888.
Nothing has really changed since the conflict between Cain and Abel. The brothers built altars, brought sacrifices, and came to worship God. But Cain was eventually marked as an enemy of God because of his insistent reliance on creature merit.
The issue in Revelation is the same. God lays it out with crystal clarity in these two verses:
“Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water” (Revelation 14:7, NJKV).
“And another angel followed, saying, ‘Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication’” (Revelation 14:8, NKJV).
God calls us to worship Him and warns us not to worship Babylon’s religious teachings. Why? Because these teachings subtly undermine the “everlasting gospel.” They are represented by the wine that leads to spiritual fornication/unfaithfulness to God.
Will we worship God or worship an earthly kingdom or power (beast)? Will we follow the Lamb wherever He goes or follow the teachings of men (Revelation 14:4)? In the end, the call to worship the teachings of men will so closely resemble the truth that it will be impossible to tell them apart, except for that age-old evidence revealed in the actions of Cain—religious persecution. And again, those who persist in trusting to creature merit will receive a mark, “the mark of the beast” (Revelation 14: 9-10).
It’s really not that difficult to tell the difference between truth and error. Use the biblical scale, that age-old marker in the history of Cain and Abel—persecution. In the words of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, “The religion of Jesus Christ never persecuted anyone.”
Protestants are an endangered species. But for all who follow the Lamb wherever He goes, trusting completely to His saving grace for salvation, and rejecting the delusion of creature merit, Protestantism will never be extinct. In heart and life, let the Reformation continue. But let it be done in spirit and in truth. Amen.
James has spent more than 30 years preaching the gospel around the world in revival seminars and evangelistic meetings. He and his wife Risë have two adult children, Jeiel and Kierra.