With Reformation Day coming up, this is a good time to recall why the Reformers departed from Roman Catholicism. In our day especially, it seems that many Christians have history-amnesia when it comes to the importance of what God did through the Reformers. During the Reformation, great confusion existed regarding what was, and was not, the true church of Christ. Rome had asserted itself as the true church for centuries, and continues to do so today. However, as the Reformers recognized then, Christians must follow in step today by recalling that joining hands with Rome is a departure from Christ.
To be clear, this is not to say that everyone who sits in a Roman Catholic church is not a Christian. What it is saying is that several changes must occur before Roman Catholicism, by the book, can be considered biblical Christianity. And the men and women of the Reformation understood this, hence their necessary break with Rome. In their case, and ours, joining Christ necessitates breaking with Rome and coming under Christ means coming out from under Rome.
Christians will know that it is time to join hands with Rome when it does the following:
1. Renounce the Papacy.
While there were many other issues, the papacy was the foremost which sparked the Reformation. The Reformers rightfully contested Rome’s erroneous claim that the pope is the head of the church. So, as the Reformers maintained, Christians joining hands with Rome starts here.
The pope is considered the holy father (the word “pope” meaning “father”) and Vicar of Christ. As such, he is seen as the highest ranking individual in the church (and world).
“We teach, moreover, and declare that, by the disposition of God, the Roman Church possesses supreme ordinary authority over all Churches, and that the jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, which is true episcopal jurisdiction is immediate in its character” (Enchir., n. 1827).
“We declare, we say, we define, we promise that every being should be subject to the Roman Pontiff” (Catholic Encyclopedia).
When John Paul II died in April 2005, one Catholic bishop said, “We prayed for him and now we’re going to pray to him.”
“Rule independently on any matter without the consent of anyone else, he himself is judged by nobody because there is no higher judge on earth than he” (Ludwig Ott).
Rome claims that the papacy is an unbroken chain of succession going back to the Apostle Peter. And if you disagree then you are anathema’d:
“If…… anyone says that he, the blessed Apostle Peter, was not constituted by Christ our Lord, prince of all the Apostles and visible head of the Church, or that he directly, Peter, and immediately received from our Lord Jesus Christ a primacy of honor only and not one of true and proper jurisdiction, let him be anathema” (First Vatican Council, Session 4, Chpt 2).
And so based on this view of the papacy, it makes sense that there is the Roman Catholic doctrine called papal infallibility: “God in heaven will confirm the Pope’s judgment. In his capacity of supreme doctor of the faith, he is preserved from error,” when he speaks ex cathedra.
Again, from the Vatican 1 Council:
“Therefore, such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the church, irreformable. So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema” (First Vatican Council, Session 4, Chpt 4)
As Vicar of Christ, it follows that Rome views recognition of the papacy as necessary to salvation:
“The Catholic Church alone is keeping the true worship. This is the font of truth, this is the house of faith, this is the temple of God; if any man enter not here, or if any man go forth from it, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation…Furthermore, in this one Church of Christ, no man can be or remain who does not accept, recognize and obey the authority and supremacy of Peter and his legitimate successors” (Pope Pius XI).
In putting himself in the place of head of the church, the pope has set himself in the place of Christ. But Jesus Christ alone is the head of the true church (Eph 1:22-23, 5:23).
In putting himself in the place of holy father and highest authority, the pope has set himself in the place of God the Father. But Scripture teaches that no individual should assume the ecclesiastical title “father” because we have God as our Father (Matt 23:9)
In putting himself in the place of necessity for salvation, the pope has put himself in the place of the Holy Spirit. But, by faith in Christ, not submission to the pope, sinners experience the miracle of the new birth and regeneration through the power of the Holy Spirit (John 3:8, Eph 1:13-14).
Furthermore, Scripture affirms that Peter was not a pope, nor was any such office instituted. It’s doubtful he ever went to Rome to lead any church. The Roman church was a Gentile church and Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles, not Peter. According to Galatians 2 and Acts 15, the head of the Jerusalem church was James. If Peter went to Rome, it was only to get martyred, not to rule as pope. Peter asserted himself as a fellow elder and apostle, nothing more (1 Pet 5:1). Thus, he would be appalled if he knew he had been given the title, “father,” or, “Vicar off Christ.” And contrary to Rome’s papacy, legitimate church leadership is limited to elders and deacons (1 Tim 3:1, 8).
It would also be appropriate for Rome to renounce many of its popes based on moral violations alone (cf. 1 Tim 3:1-8). For the most part, Rome’s popes should have been the object of the church’s evangelism, not submission.
Finally, the church has recognized Rome’s need to renounce the papacy:
“There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ, nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof, but is that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition that exalted himself in the church against Christ and all that is called God” (Westminster Confession).
“Christ did not redeem His church with His blood so the Pope could come in and steal away the glory. He never came from heaven to earth. He never poured out his very heart that he might purchase his people. That a poor sinner, a mere man should be set upon high to be admired by all the nations and to call himself God’s representative on earth, Christ has always been the head of His church” (Charles Spurgeon).
2. Renounce the Current Teaching on Salvation.
The biblical message of salvation is the most exhilarating news in the universe. It is the message of divine accomplishment come down from heaven to save man because man’s achievement to rise up to heaven to save himself is impossible.
God is unspeakably holy and separate from sinful humanity. His standard for man’ s acceptance is utter perfection in nature and deed (Matt 5:48). But we are born dead in sin. We are unwilling and unable to please God. Therefore we are natural and willful enemies of God, being offensive and unacceptable to him, and thus, guilty and deserving of eternal punishment.
Our condition is not one that can be rendered acceptable before God through progressive purging, meritorious works, or a treasury of merit stored by Mary or other saints, as Rome teaches. There is only one way in which depraved humanity can stand acceptable to God: justification by faith alone in the Person and finished work of Christ alone.
What we could not do, God did through the perfect life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ came to divert and absorb the full wrath of God that should fall on us for our sin. Through faith in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, any sinner is instantaneously, not progressively, declared righteous before holy God.
“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1).
The Reformers recognized Rome’s colossal error when it came to salvation. And even after the Reformation, instead of repenting of its false gospel, Rome hardened its heart by re-affirming its damning system of salvation at the Council of Trent:
“If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious [sinner] is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification … let him be anathema” (Council of Trent, Chapter XVI, Canon 9)
“If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema” (Council of Trent, Chapter XVI, Canon 30)
That difference between Rome’s salvation and the Bible’s could not be greater. The denial of justification by faith alone renders Rome an entirely different religion altogether. Therefore, it ironically anathemas itself:
“As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!” (Gal 1:9)
In order for Rome to be Christian, it must tear down its system of salvation and rebuild it after that of Scripture.
3. Renounce the Veneration of Mary.
Pope John Paul II once said, “The history of Christian piety teaches that Mary is the way which leads to Christ.” And after his 1981 assassination attempt, he credited Mary with saving his life.
This doesn’t fit well with Christian mantras such as:
“…you belong to Christ…” (1 Cor 3:23).
“For to me, to live is Christ…” (Phil 1:21).
And Pope John Paul didn’t stop there. Near his death, he said, “Each of us has to keep in mind the prospect of death. I too take this into consideration constantly, entrusting that decisive moment to the mother of Christ and of the Church, to the mother of my hope.”
Rome suggests that Mary is a recipient of prayer and devotion. She is sinless, having bypassed receiving a sin nature. Therefore, she was not in need of Christ’s saving work, but assists him in saving others. She was supposedly a perpetual virgin who was received into heaven (Pope Pious XII declared that Mary did not die a physical death, but was “assumed” up to heaven).
As with Rome’s teaching about Peter, Mary would be appalled at such things. She considered Christ her Savior and herself a mere sinful individual in need of God’s justifying work by grace through faith just like everyone else.
Mariolatry furthers an unsavable gospel which needs to be renounced before Rome can be considered Christian.
4. Renounce the Roman Mass.
The Reformers rightly understood the Roman mass to be an idolatrous ceremony since, among other things, Christ is considered to be re-sacrificed for saving effect.
Consider Rome’s teaching on the mass:
“The priest brings Christ down from heaven and renders Him present on our altar as the eternal victim for the sins of man, not once but a thousand times” (John O’Brien).
“And inasmuch as in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass is contained and immolated in an un-bloody manner, the same Christ who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross, the holy Council teaches that this is truly propitiatory and has this effect, that if we contrite and penitent with sincere heart and upright faith with fear and reverence draw nigh to God, we obtain mercy and fine grace in seasonable aid” (Council of Trent, “Doctrine Concerning the Sacrifice of the Mass”).
In other words, the mass involves summoning Christ down from heaven over and over, to be offered or sacrificed. And as a result of this, propitiation is achieved, and a measure of sin’s penalty is removed.
“who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself” (Heb 7:27).
“but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb 10:12-14).
Rome will need to renounce the mass before it can be considered Christian.
5. Confess and Condemn Its History of Martyring Christians.
Rome has a lengthy history of martyring Christians. And if it could possess the authority today which it had at the time of the Reformation, it would likely continue doing so because Rome’s doctrine has not changed.
Consider a small fraction Christians martyred by Rome:
In 1527 Michael Sattler had his tongue ripped out, was forged to a wagon, had pieces of his body torn with hot tongs, then was burned for rejecting the mass, the worship of Mary, and Rome’s teaching on salvation.
In 1536 William Tyndale was burned at the stake after years of running from Rome for translating Scripture into English.
In 1555 Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were burned at the stake in Oxford for rejecting the papacy and the mass.
From 1553 to 1558 Bloody Mary, a Roman Catholic, had restored the pope’s authority in England. Immediately all Bibles were removed from the churches, all Bible printing ceased and was forbidden and became a capital crime. Eight hundred English ministers fled to Geneva. Three hundred Christians were burned at the stake. The first martyr to Mary was John Rogers, a London minister who helped translate the Bible into English.
We would be hard-pressed to convince faithful Christians from the past like Hus, Sattler, Tyndale, Ridley, Latimer, and Bloody Mary’s martyrs (not to mention others like the Waldensians, Wycliffe, Luther, John Knox, 20th century Christians in Roman Catholic Quebec, and many more) that Christians should be linking arms with Rome. In fact, doing so would be disrespectful to their faithful service to Christ and us, for we stand on their shoulders today.
Overall, it’s untenable for a system to consider itself a Christian entity while simultaneously possessing an atrocious history of martyring Christians.
6. Affirm the Necessity of the Reformation.
Rome sees the Reformation as a fracture of the true church, not a healing of it. For the aforementioned reasons, Rome would need to adjust its perspective on the Reformation towards being one of the best things to happen to Christ’s church. In doing so, it would need to renounce much of the doctrine affirmed in the Council of Trent, since it was Rome’s response to the Reformation.
In addition to these six, other issues could be added such as indulgences, relics, and purgatory.
In large part, the Reformation was that movement of God to create the greatest revival in church history. As Scripture was unleashed through the blood, sweat, and tears of faithful men and women, God lovingly brought clarification that Roman Catholicism is a false religion altogether with which Christians cannot join hands until major change occurs.
Until then, Christians must grieve and pray for Rome’s repentance. The gospel of grace through faith in Christ must be lovingly brought to Roman Catholics so that they would come out from a dark system and hear the words of the Savior: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30).