The Great Evangelical Recovery

John H. Armstrong


The sixteenth-century Reformation was much more than a movement for the purification of practices. It precipitated changes that forever altered the church. To think of the Protestant Reformation as anything other than a revival of historic Christianity is to miss a vital truth. Modern evangelicals are the heirs of this Reformation

Roman Catholics are inclined to think of the Reformation as a great disruption. They believe that, at best, the Reformers rejected the church Christ established, if not Christ Himself. And over what? Practices that were later corrected by the Catholic Counter-Reformation itself.

This perception of the events of the sixteenth century is shallow and inadequate, both historically and theologically. Though the Reformation may have been initially ignited by Luther’s challenges regarding indulgences, it very quickly became a sweeping challenge to the entire religious synthesis of the Middle Ages.


The Reformers broke with Rome because they rejected the Christianity of the Middle Ages, a synthetic faith that failed to bring peace to their souls and the assurance of God’s grace as the sole ground of their salvation. As they studied the text of the Greek New Testament, thanks to the scholarly work of Desiderius Erasmus, a Renaissance Humanist, they found Rome’s message of salvation unsatisfactory. In light of the clear message of Scripture, they came to peace with God. Modern readers must not fail to appreciate how profound this challenge really was.

Throughout the Middle Ages many reformations had occurred within the life of the church. But none drove such a deep chasm as this. These earlier movements were primarily interested in moral reform. Abuses of institutional and personal life were addressed. The Protestant Reformation began as another reforming movement for the moral life of the church. But the essence of its thrust became, within two to three years, radically doctrinal. Even by 1520, less than three years after Luther had challenged the abusive sale of indulgences, he focused his concerns on important doctrinal issues in two of his most important tracts: The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Appeal to the German Nobility.

Philip Melanchthon, a friend of Luther’s, summarized the Protestant concerns in the Augsburg Confession (1530), stating very positively the Protestant position regarding the important theological issues at stake. John Calvin, a second-generation Protestant Reformer, argued most clearly for a complete reformation of the church in his classic work The Institutes of the Christian Religion. This became the most significant systematic theology of the entire evangelical cause.

Why did the evangelicals of the sixteenth century feel compelled to move outside the Roman Church? It was not a rash decision on their part. According to the accepted theology of their time, they were cutting themselves off from the grace of God, an act that could potentially destroy them spiritually. This was their birth church. It was the church that had nursed their immortal souls. It was the visible communion of faith. What would make them leave — and at such great sacrifice? Historian Robert Godfrey answers this question:

Historians. . . have given attention to the political, social, and economic circumstances of the sixteenth century to understand the setting of the Reformation. They have studied the cultural and intellectual developments of the late medieval and Renaissance periods as crucial backdrop for the Reformation. But ultimately it was not these factors that divided the church. These factors may have contributed in a variety of ways to the success of the Reformation, but they were not the heart of the Reformation. The heart of the Reformation was a distinct spiritual and theological vision — quite different from the one that had dominated the medieval church. (italics added)


The defining issues of the evangelical movement are not that difficult to determine. Nor are they so numerous to be simply observed. As theologians both wrote and preached, important issues surfaced. It was not long before the genuinely significant matters were plainly stated and the lines drawn that determined the direction of both parties.

Today many respond, “Of course Luther was right. The church had made some big mistakes, and it still does. But that doesn’t make the whole Roman Catholic system wrong, does it?” In a system as all-encompassing as that of the Roman Church, an attack upon any of its well-entrenched practices involved an attack upon the whole. This was the medieval way of thinking. Only in a postmodern pluralistic age like our own, where hardly any single truth is consistently confessed nor carefully connected to other truths, would we think otherwise.

When Luther asked “What is an indulgence and of what value is it?” this led logically to a full discussion of the sacrament of Penance. This challenge, as we saw in the last chapter, called into question the Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation. His question “Can the pope grant an indulgence and what kind of indulgence can he grant?” led immediately to the more profound question “What is the nature of papal authority?” And these questions led back to the ultimate challenge: “What is the church?”

The course the Reformation took in its early days followed this line of reasoning consistently. Luther was urged to silence while the church prepared a reply to his challenges. In 1518 he met at Augsburg with a papal delegation, and here Cardinal Cajetan demanded that he recant. Luther said that he could not do that unless his writings were shown to be false by the plain teaching of Scripture. A short truce followed, but in 1519 Luther was publicly attacked by Eck, a papal theologian. Luther was asked to support Eck’s traditional view that divine power was inherit in the papacy. Luther refused, saying that the pope’s power was of human right, not divine. To support this he developed an important thesis that he drew from earlier theologians such as Augustine: The Church is in reality a spiritual fellowship of all those who truly believe in Christ. It was here that Luther demonstrated that popes and councils had erred. It struck a blow that rocked the medieval system at its foundation.

After Luther was denounced by Eck, he was threatened with excommunication by the church. His writings were condemned as “heretical, erroneous, or offensive to pious ears.” His writings were to be found, wherever possible, and publicly burned. In response, on December 10, 1520, Luther publicly burned in a bonfire a copy of the document of excommunication (called a “bull”) in front of the entire student body of the University of Wittenberg. His actual excommunication followed on January 2, 1521. Even before this, Luther had already voluntarily left the church, declaring that the pope was “antichrist” and that Rome had become a “nest of the devil.”


Luther had reached the place where there was no turning back. The line had been drawn. But why? What was the turning point for this previously devout and loyal monk?

The Leipzig debate with Eck in the summer of 1519 had emboldened Luther considerably. He had come to see that his growing disagreement with the papal church was not simply a matter of indulgences and moral abuses. In tract after tract, written in Latin for scholars and in German for the people, he attacked the teachings of the medieval church that he believed undermined the two principle concerns that drove him on — the authority of the believer and the church, and the nature of grace and faith as it relates to salvation.

Luther’s understanding of certain doctrines was developing as he studied the Bible more carefully. Some of his views probably never matured as they might have if he had listened to other Reformers more carefully. He was a singularly courageous and bold man, often given to strong statements and radical actions. His language is notoriously rough and coarse at times, but this belonged to the spirit of his age. He was just the man needed at this time. His style, wrote one historian, was “bold, rugged, picturesque and wonderfully clear.” His words were those spoken by the average German. His writings, therefore, were in eager demand. Even in France and England, where his works were published in Latin, people read Luther.

But what teachings brought about the irreconcilable division that remains with us nearly five hundred years later? Perhaps, after all this time, we have changed sufficiently in our understanding of these vital doctrines that we can now openly heal the breach brought about by this so-called “wild boar” of the German vineyard. Perhaps we can forge a “common mission” in this age of secular humanism if our differences are no longer as large as in Luther’s time. This seems to be the view of many in our day.


As previously noted, Luther and the Protestant evangelicals believed that two important truths stood at the heart of their reforming effort. Modern readers need to understand why these two truths are vital to the life of the church itself.

These two issues are still central to the theological differences between evangelicals and Roman Catholics. They are what we call the formal and material principles of the Reformation. It is imperative that we understand these two vital truths, for, if Rome is correct on these points, then the Protestant Reformers were wrong. But if the Protestant Reformers got it right, then the Reformation is certainly not over, and talk of formal agreement at the core of our beliefs cannot proceed.

The Formal Principle of the Reformation

We call it the formal principle because it is the thing that forms and shapes. It determines what Christians believe and why. The popular catch phrase for this principle is “Scripture alone.” What that means is that the church cannot preach, teach, command, or practice anything contrary to Scripture, even for very good and necessary reasons. The church’s authority is not inherently in itself but is rather derived from the written Scriptures alone. The church’s task is simple — pass along to the faithful what the Scriptures teach and nothing else!

It is necessary that we understand what the evangelicals did not mean by this principle. First, individuals are not free to decide for themselves what to believe. They are obligated to the Scriptures. They cannot, willy-nilly, pick and choose their authority. Further, this principle did not mean that each individual Christian could interpret the Bible as he or she pleased, in opposition to the consensus of the church and its concerns over the centuries. Luther, in typically blunt fashion, wrote, “Each man could go to hell in his own way.” By this he meant, go ahead and fashion your own private doctrines from the text. Realize, however, that such may well damn you if you conclude falsely regarding the doctrines of Christ and salvation, the central and clear concern of all holy Scripture.

The Reformers were quite concerned to demonstrate that what they taught was not something they just discovered in the sixteenth century. They sought to show how their teachings were in harmony with the Fathers of the early church, especially the great theologian Augustine. They believed that they were rediscovering something old — lost by a corrupt Rome. Though complete agreement with the church’s consensus was not required for every doctrine, all teaching must be submitted in humility to the communion of saints with a clear demonstration that this was in fact the teaching of the Bible.

Although it is true that different Protestant communions came to differing conclusions on some important matters, such as the nature of communion and baptism, it is not true that they differed in the fundamental principles of the Reformation. When they challenged the claim that tradition was a source of revelation alongside the written Scriptures, they were in unanimous agreement. When Rome claimed that teaching authority lay in the magisterium (the teaching office of the Catholic Church), with the pope as its chief shepherd under Christ, they were unanimous in their opposition. Against the Catholic claim of continued revelation through the church they pressed the truth of the sufficiency of Scripture.

But, said the Catholic apologists, even with an inerrant and suficient Bible, you still don’t have an infallible teacher. The Protestant Reformers answered this objection by using the arguments of Catholic humanists such as Erasmus to show how popes and councils in the Middle Ages had made contradictory claims. As Michael Horton has said,

The best way to guard a true interpretation of Scripture, the Reformers insisted, was neither to naively embrace the infallibility of tradition, nor the infallibility of the individual, but to recognize the communal interpretation of Scripture. The best way to ensure faithfulness to the text is to read it together, not only with the churches of our own time and place, but with the wider “communion of saints” down through the ages.

The community of a church might even err, but there will always be much wisdom in many counselors (see Proverbs 11:14). We are most likely to get the meaning of Scripture right when we come to it believing that the text is infallible and we are not!

But what is the message of the Bible? Granting its infallibility and final authority for faith and practice we must ask, What does the Bible teach? Put very plainly, How am I saved and reconciled to God? Surely this is the question that we must all have answered if we are to know and serve Christ powerfully.

The Material Principle of the Reformation

The longing of every devout person who lived before Christ came was expressed in the question “How can I know God?” Israel’s hope and consolation was in the promise of a coming deliverer, a Messiah. Her temple services, sacrificial system, and carefully developed priesthood, her unusual prophets and royal kings, all of these pointed to something, or Someone, superior to all the shadows and types of the ritualistic system. All Christians agree that this person was Jesus Christ. Here is the “desire of every nation,” as the hymn writer puts it.

But how am I made right with God in Jesus Christ? How do I know that I have come into the salvation that He brings? Very simply, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). The answer is given by the apostle Paul: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (v. 31). Paul says the same thing in unmistakably clear language in Romans: “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (4:5).

The Reformers referred to this doctrine of justification as “the article by which the church stands or falls.” By this they did not mean that a person was saved by virtue of understanding the full ramifications of this great truth. He or she was saved by faith in Christ alone, and that through grace alone. But here the visible church must stand on Christ alone as the sole basis for justification before a holy God, or it will fall. A person who truly trusts Christ alone will be saved, whether he or she understands this article fully or not. (Who can fully understand any article of truth?)

The Reformers never tired of insisting that justification was a legal (forensic) concept. The term justification was the term of a law court. It was the word that described a change in status. It was the opposite of “guilty” or “condemned.” To be justified was, very simply, to be right with God. Nothing could be added to this status and nothing subtracted.

The Reformers often spoke of justification as resting entirely upon the merits of Jesus Christ alone. We rest, they argued, upon the obedience of Christ, which is imputed to us on the basis of our faith in Him alone. We do not grow into this grace or find favor with God over time as we experience the impartation of new life to our souls. We are immediately accepted by God, fully and finally, on the basis of Christ and His work for us.

Rome’s argument was, and still is, that Christ’s righteousness is infused into the believer’s heart, wherein a process begins that leads to final justification. Jerome, the producer of the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, actually translated the Greek word that meant “to declare righteous” as “to make righteous.” When Greek scholars challenged this in the pre-Reformation era, it, in effect, pried open the door for a better understanding of Scripture itself. When Luther came to see this truth, he said, “It was as if the windows of heaven were flung open and I was born again.” So he was.


The Reformers believed that the Church of Rome had abandoned these two vital principles. The first principle they saw in Scripture and the Fathers. The second, though not as plainly developed in the early church, they saw in budlike form in Augustine’s teaching, especially with regard to the sovereignty of grace in salvation and the priority of God’s will in granting faith to those who believe. They insisted that on both counts the Scriptures agreed with them and that doctrinal reform based on the plain teaching of the Word of God was needed. This meant that the teaching and practices developed in the late Middles Ages by scholastic theologians had to go.

How did Rome respond to this serious challenge? To that we now turn.

Table of Contents

A Fallen Church (chapter 4)


John H. Armstrong (M.A., Wheaton Graduate School; D.Min., Luther Rice Seminary) was a pastor for twenty-one years. He is the director of Reformation and Revival Ministries. The author of Can Fallen Pastors Be Restored?, he was also the general editor of Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us. He and his wife live in the greater Chicagoland area.

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