A Fallen Church

John H. Armstrong


If the Reformers were correct, Rome was a falling church in the era prior to the Protestant Reformation. She had departed from the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Centuries of extra-biblical tradition, as well as practices that were non-apostolic, had led her progressively away from the simplicity of New Testament Christianity She had also departed from the gospel of grace, though her theologians tried to demonstrate otherwise. How did the church officially reply to these charges that she had departed from both Scripture and the gospel?

These were extremely serious charges. We are not considering minor issues that churches sometimes dispute. The apostle Paul wrote to the Galatian church that “even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (Galatians 1:8). The same apostle said that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14), thus warning believers to be careful that the gospel they embrace is consistent with the content of the gospel as preached by the apostles themselves. Innovations may be useful, but there is no room for innovation in the message of the evangel.


By 1520, three short years after Luther had nailed his famous Ninety-five Theses to the university church door in Wittenberg, he had become the best-known man in all of Germany. His following came from several circles within the society of the time.

All who opposed the church for any reason applauded him because of his boldness in attacking the Catholic Church. Scholars saw in him a man who could help break the chains of intellectual oppression in the universities. German nationalists saw in him a leader pointing the way to political liberty The peasants rallied to him as a deliverer who would help them find economic freedom. Sadly, only a few saw his real concern — the theology of the church at that time. Some who did understand were Nicholas Amsdorf, John Brenz, and Philip Melanchthon. These, with various non-scholars here and there, were drawn to his writings and preaching precisely because of his insight into the gospel.

As we saw in chapter 3, Luther’s primary concern was centered in the gospel message of justification by faith alone. This was not a novel idea — it was the teaching of Romans 4:5 and Galatians 3:22. It had never entirely disappeared from the historic church, but Luther was to give it new meaning by making it the primary article of the church, the defining principle of the Christian life. Here faith would grow, assurance would be solidified, and saints would flourish in faith and hope.

In Luther’s theology justification is seen as a definitive act of God. It is a grace given to sinners for the sake of Christ, whereby He forgives people all their sin and counts them entirely righteous. He grants this pardon on the basis of their receiving the free gift of eternal life in Christ alone. Justification must not be confused with sanctification, an act wherein a process begins and continues. In sanctification, which is always present when a person is justified, God makes people progressively more holy. Thus, a person might be partially sanctified. This, indeed, is always the case, because even the most godly are, as Luther put it, simultaneously sinful yet justified and thus in need of continual sanctifying grace.

But here is the critical point — in justification there can be no room for growth. There is no partial, progressive, or continuing justification going on inside the life of a believer in Christ. A person is either entirely justified or he is not. And justification comes to sinful people on the basis of God’s kindness and goodness alone. It is a gift God bestows, not a status a person achieves.

The word merit can, therefore, have absolutely no place in this matter. And this struck at the very heart of what had developed in the Middle Ages (see chapter 2).

God is holy. He cannot allow sinful creatures into fellowship with Himself. All the confession in the world will not ultimately make a sinner anything other than a sinner. Luther understood this. His deep preoccupation with his own sin almost drove him insane. Because of this, countless psychotherapeutic writers have attacked him as a neurotic and semi-deranged person. What he was, in the best medieval sense, was a man who believed explicitly the teaching of his church regarding the fear of God, His awesome power, and His determination to judge sin.

What Luther came to understand in 1517 and beyond was that God was also gracious. He had provided satisfaction for mankind’s offense against Himself in the death of Christ. Here salvation is freely provided. In the gospel an announcement is given and an offer is made. This is grace — not some magical power that pours grace into hearts through sacraments. God grants grace to sinners, but they must accept it. This is faith — trusting in God for Christ’s sake, or, simply put, entrusting all that I am as a sinner to all that Christ is as a Savior.

It is not bare acknowledgment or creedal affirmation. It is leaning oneself entirely upon the person and work of Jesus as offered in the gospel. Faith is relationship — trust by me, a person, in Christ, a person who redeems me. It is all based solely on the grace of God. When I believe the gospel, I am counted (credited, reckoned) as righteous immediately. God gives me His Spirit, by which I am empowered to begin, for the first time ever, to do works that God will find acceptable because of Christ.


For this faith to be born in people, the promises of God are needed. These promises are the gospel of grace. They come through the Scriptures, especially as they are properly preached. For Luther all of Scripture consists of law and gospel. Both are the Word of God. Through the law people come to know the will of God and His stern, righteous, holy demands. From the same Scriptures people learn of the gospel, the free grace of a benevolent God who will forgive.

The Scriptures are God’s Word because here He speaks. They are given by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (literally, “breathed out by the Spirit”). This means that the resulting text of the written word is exactly and infallibly what God intended. The personalities of human authors can be seen in the written Scriptures, but the result of their writing is God’s Word!

What Luther claimed for the Scriptures is still important today. He believed that God continued to speak to men and women, but only through the Scriptures. Indeed, only through the Scriptures does God come to people with His truth and clearly reveal Himself. He does not reveal Himself through church organizations, special mystical revelations, ecstatic visions, or apparitions. The only authority the visible church has is that of the Scriptures. If it departs from the Word of God, it is a blind guide and will fall into the ditch, taking many others with it. Further, the Scriptures will not yield correct interpretation except to a person of faith. Rationalistic, humanistic wisdom will serve no salvific purpose when it comes to handling the Scriptures.

When the Scriptures come to a person as a sinner, they rouse his sleeping conscience via the law and its demands. He is convicted of sin, righteousness, and judgment to come, as Jesus taught. He then must flee to the promises of the gospel. The law cannot help him one iota. When the sinner has believed the gospel, he then sees the law in a new way, as a guide for his conduct because of the gospel. The law will never conquer sin within the believer, but it will repeatedly inform him regarding proper thought and conduct, and it drives him back to the gospel day after day. Here he finds safety.


From this it stands to reason that the church cannot be the institution that mediates salvation to the souls of people. The church is to be understood, primarily, as a “communion of saints,” or a spiritual fellowship of all who believe the gospel and are justified. What the visible church can, and must, do is to bring men and women to the Word of God. It does this in two ways — through preaching and through the sacraments.

In its preaching it declares both law and gospel. In the sacraments (literally, “sacred signs”) it declares God’s promises with the signs given by Christ. Protestant Reformers disagreed regarding the nature of these signs, but all agreed that there were only two clearly delineated in the Scriptures. Rome believed then, and still does, that there are seven.

The Reformers believed that the Word was effective. Wherever it was preached in faith it would have a powerful effect in bringing God’s elect to eternal life. And where this Word gathers a people who believe the gospel, you have a visible church after the pattern of the New Testament. This meant that the church did not need a continuation of bishops or a constant form of ecclesiastical government to form an organized body truly faithful to the New Testament. Indeed, the church is free under the Word of God to organize itself as an assembly of believers with gospel ministers. Those believers who form such a church are free to set up or depose teachers as they see fit when guided by the Word of God.

These are essentially the great truths recovered and plainly taught by the Protestants of the sixteenth century. Their consistent application breaks down the Roman synthesis of the Middle Ages. These principles attack the very foundation of the papacy, the magisterium (the official teaching authority of the church), and the sacramental system of Rome. But why?

The grace of God cannot be mediated by the church through her rule over the souls of people and, at the same time, by the Word of God alone. If the disputants of the sixteenth century were anything, and this was true on both sides, they were logically consistent. They both believed in the law of non-contradiction. Two mutually exclusive claims cannot both be true at the same time. Both might be wrong, but if one is correct the other must be wrong.

Luther’s approach attacked the apparatus of ritualism. It set up the preaching of the Word of God and the proper administration of the two warranted sacraments as the sole function of the church. (Calvin later added, properly upon careful biblical reflection, the so-called “third mark” of the visible church — discipline.)

Luther and the Reformers were not radicals in terms of how they viewed history. They believed that however corrupt the church had become it had done so under God’s sovereign purpose. God had permitted this course for a purpose, even if it was to punish sin in its leaders. What history has revealed should not be discarded lightly and flippantly. If what we see around us is contrary to the revealed will of God, then it must be abolished, but to totally tear down the church was never their desire. They worked to retain all that they could and to conserve the heritage of the past. They frequently appealed to the writings of the church Fathers. They read and understood the theologians of the Middle Ages. This was especially true for Luther. But what kept the Catholic Church from embracing these theological distinctives of the Reformation?


Rome sought to correct its acknowledged abuses in the whole matter of indulgences and immoral practice by launching a reformation movement of its own in 1523. Pope Hadrian VI acknowledged that the church needed a thorough reformation, which would begin at Rome itself. Unfortunately he died before he could begin this effort, and his successor, Clement VII (1523-1534), was chosen partly on his expressed opposition to this reforming effort.

During the next ten years efforts to reform the church continued from within. New societies of priests were formed, as had been previously the case over the centuries. Charles V pressed the church for a general council to discuss theological matters. In 1536 these two lines of thought formed a consensus that resulted in changes both at Rome itself and later in the church at large. Pope Pius Ill appointed to the college of cardinals “reform-minded” men, and from their number eventually came three reforming popes in the decades that followed.

During this time the call for a general papal council grew stronger and stronger. This council was finally convened in 1545, just months before Luther’s death in February of 1546. This council met at the city of Trent on three occasions, finally finishing its work in 1563. It had three purposes in its meetings, all stated in a papal bull (document). First, it sought to define Catholic doctrine more clearly, especially as over against the doctrine of the Protestants. Second, it worked toward the reformation of church life. Third, it purposed to clarify present heresies and drive them out of the church of Rome completely.

The doctrines adopted by the council were essentially restatements of the doctrinal positions of the later Middle Ages. These were the very teachings that the Protestant Reformers had struggled against. The council clearly had the writings of Luther and Calvin in mind, if not actually in hand, and what was written repudiated the essential doctrinal tenets of the Protestant efforts.

The decrees relating to church reform dealt also with matters raised by the Protestants. They urged greater pastoral care for the laity and more effective preaching by priests. The whole oversight of the bishops over dioceses was strengthened practically. Some decrees of the council addressed the need for real reformation in papal practices, but the council was not unified on this matter. The question of the supremacy of the pope over the whole church, which was and is a stumbling block for many, was also treated, but no clear decision was reached.

Even as the council met between 1545 and 1563 there was a glimmer of hope that the Roman Church would plainly embrace the gospel of grace. Some cardinals in the church did see truth in the concern of the Reformers. The rejection of the gospel by the pope was not yet solidified in these days. Michael Horton correctly sums up the situation:

The door was open to the full reformation of Western Christendom until the Council of Trent. . . finally closed it with its devastating canons against the gospel. Things that had been left to debate in the universities were now closed to discussion as the Council issued what it considered infallible pronouncements on the doctrine of justification and related truths. Now, issues upon which men and women of goodwill could differ were given a single answer: tradition is equal to Scripture in authority; the interpretation of Scripture and the elements of Holy Communion are to be denied to the laity; the Mass is a repetition of Christ’s sacrifice and each Mass atones for the people; transubstantiation was officially affirmed, as was belief in purgatory.

All this is very sad because it left the church deeply divided. What is even sadder, however, was the longest decree of the whole Council — the one titled Concerning Justification. The early portions of this decree are agreeable to both Reformers and Catholics. They attack the major errors cited by Augustine against Pelagius in the early controversies of the church. But right within this portion comes this line: “they who by sin had been cut off from God may be disposed through his quickening and helping grace to convert themselves to their own justification by freely assenting to and cooperating with that grace.” A person cannot, said the document, “by his own free will and without the grace of God” move himself toward justice in the sight of God, yet he can and must cooperate with grace in the end.

What follows is a definition that is crucial to understanding the great divide. The Council defined justification as “not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man through the voluntary reception of grace and gifts whereby an unjust man becomes just.” This is in clear contradiction to Luther’s teaching and that of other Protestants who insisted, with the apostle Paul, that justification and sanctification are not one and the same. Sanctification should not be denied, but the renewal of the inward believer is not the same thing as justification. Justification is a once-and-for-all act.

In justification we move immediately, on the basis of faith alone, from being unjust, condemned, lost, and without hope into a position of being just, acquitted, saved, and filled with true hope! In contrast to this, the Council of Trent said that God puts His Spirit within us in order to renew us and move us progressively from being unjust to being just. This is a process, albeit one begun and ostensibly carried out by grace, but nonetheless a process. But that is not what is being taught in Romans 4:1-5, where the apostle says that justification comes to those who are wicked, who stop trying to work for it, and who therefore accept it by faith. Paul’s clear point is this: God justifies the sinner as a sinner, not on the basis of anything done in the flesh. This is good news — gospel!

If this sounds like an overstating of the differences between the Reformers’ understanding of justification and that of the Catholic Church, listen to the strong language of several of the canons of the decree on justification from the Council of Trent:

Canon 9. If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone. . . , meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema.

Canon 11. If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost (Romans 5:5), and remains in them, or also that the grace by which we are justified is only the good will of God, let him be anathema.

Canon 12. If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy. . . . which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema.

Canon 24. If anyone says that the justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works. . . . but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of the increase, let him be anathema.

Canon 30. If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema.

Canon 32. If anyone says that the good works of the one justified are in such manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified; or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and in case he dies in grace the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increase of glory, let him be anathema.


What all this plainly affirms is that, according to the Council of Trent, sinners are made right with God over the course of their entire lives (and beyond) on the basis of their cooperating with God’s grace in the inner work of the Holy Spirit rather than on the basis of the finished work of Christ on the cross. Surely there is no room for any remaining doubt when we conclude, in the spirit of gentleness, that the answer given to the vital question “What must I do to be saved?” has two radically different answers. One answer is that confessed by the Reformers (and evangelicals since), and the other is that confessed by the Council of Trent (and the Catholic Church since).

What happened at Trent may not be irreversible. God alone knows. What is obviously true is this — no Catholic council or creed since Trent has fundamentally altered either the language or the theology of this important sixteenth-century decision. A door was closed by that Council, a door that many of us pray might someday be opened.


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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