Luther's Legacy

by Rev. Peter McIntyre - Clogher Valley Free Presbyterian Church
Perspectives in Rome, London and Belfast
Luther's Legacy

It is impossible for Christians in Europe to avoid the subject of the Reformation and the personality of Martin Luther in this year which marks half a millennium, since the German Monk first made his mark on world history. Indeed, it would be to hide under the proverbial rock if we were to ignore Martin Luther as if he never existed, or pretended that his influence has little relevance. Such is the importance of the individual and the work he accomplished that it has been observed by some that only one other person in Christian history has been written about more, and that of course is Jesus Christ. Whether that observation is true or not is of little relevance; it simply illustrates the considerable interest that there has been in Martin Luther, highlighting that he is not of inconsiderable importance.

Having then made the case that Martin Luther's contribution to history should be remembered, the next question is 'How ought we to remember the ministry of this famous and great individual?'

One of the first voices raised in honour of Luther's 500th Anniversary was, surprisingly, Pope Francis. Acting in true Jesuitical style, with all of the historic cunning of his order, he chose an ecumenical event with the Lutheran Church to make his statement in Lund, Sweden. Some of his words had an evangelical flair which seemed to endorse the witness of Luther:

"The spiritual experience of Martin Luther challenges us to remember that apart from God we can do nothing. "How can I get a propitious God?" This is the question that haunted Luther. In effect, the question of a just relationship with God is the decisive question for our lives. As we know, Luther encountered that propitious God in the Good News of Jesus, incarnate, dead and risen. With the concept "by grace alone", he reminds us that God always takes the initiative, prior to any human response, even as he seeks to awaken that response. The doctrine of justification thus expresses the essence of human existence before God."

As with the words of any Pope, especially one who is a Jesuit, these comments must be weighed in connection with the rest of his homily on that occasion and his other utterances. The aim of Pope Francis was clear - to promote unity between the Lutheran and Roman Churches. In his opening paragraph, he cuts to the chase:

"We can feel his (Christ's) heart beating with love for us and his desire for the unity of all who believe in him. He tells us that he is the true vine and that we are the branches, that just as he is one with the Father, so we must be one with him if we wish to bear fruit."

Quite logically, therefore, he mourns over the schism that erupted in the Church as a consequence of the Reformation and calls for reversal of that break:

"We too must look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness, for God alone is our judge."

He even calls for a reconsideration of the historical narrative of the Reformation:

"God is the vinedresser, who with immense love tends and protects the vine; let us be moved by his watchful gaze. The one thing he desires is for us to abide like living branches in his Son Jesus. With this new look at the past, we do not claim to realize an impracticable correction of what took place, but 'to tell that history differently'."

Therefore, while Pope Francis speaks of Justification being the "essence of human existence before God" we must appreciate the meaning that lies behind his words. According to his concept of the Church, it is a sin for followers of Christ not to be united, therefore the drive for ecumenical dialogue leading to unity. What kind of a unity does he envisage? Does he aspire to the original Lutheran model, which was a church without a priesthood and without a Pope? Absolutely not! When taking an interview after his return from Lund, Francis had this to say about the Church:

"In Catholic ecclesiology, there are two dimensions to think about. The first is the Petrine dimension, which is from the Apostle Peter, and the Apostolic College, which is the pastoral activity of the bishops. The second is the Marian dimension, which represents the feminine dimension of the Church."

Therefore, Francis cannot conceive of the Church without Peter (the Papacy) and Mary (as the Mediator between God and man). Therefore, Justification must flow through the Church. When the Pope speaks of "grace alone" he is referring to the Church as the conduit which channels the favour of God. This is the antithesis of what Luther represented - Faith Alone in Christ Alone. Italian Protestant Theologian and Pastor Leonardo De Chirico wrote in response to Pope Francis, emphasising the Petrine and Marian dimensions of the Church:

"The Reformation, on the other hand, would recommend the Biblical dimension, and that dimension alone as sufficient. In a nutshell, this is why the Reformation is not yet over."

We are therefore to be forewarned that as Luther cannot be ignored, the ploy of the enemy will be to create a smokescreen of misinformation where he will be acknowledged on the one hand, while the core of his teachings will be misinterpreted.

The approach of Pope Francis is alarmingly similar to that adopted by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in a statement issued on The Reformation in January 2017. In a positive way, Justin Welby and John Sentamu commend the "great blessings" of the Reformation, including "the clear proclamation of the Gospel of grace" and "availability of the Bible to all in their own language". At the same time, they speak of "the lasting damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the church"; and they even go so far as to call on "all repent of be a blessing to the world in obedience to Jesus Christ."

The idea of mourning over the division between those who followed the teachings of Luther and those loyal to the Papacy is an alarming prospect. As I pointed out in the first of these blogs entitled "Was the Reformation a Schism or Revival?",

"The Roman Catholic Church, however, conceives that Christendom must have a Roman heart. The Pope, therefore, as the self-appointed Vicar of Christ, claims jurisdiction over the entire body. In the 1,000 years of history that pre-dates the Reformation, the Church had become the Papal Roman Body. The doctrines of Christ and the Apostles, as revealed in the Scriptures, were obscured and at times superseded by the teaching of men. Man, instead of Christ, became the Lord of the dominion which ought to have been Christ's. Therefore, Christendom had become Apostate. The Church had fallen away from the faith once delivered unto the saints."

As a consequence of the Apostasy of Christendom, within the Roman Communion, the division at the Reformation was a blessing. If repentance is necessary, it is only necessary on the part of the Papacy for its suppression of the truth and its persecution of those who honoured God's Word. Such repentance must necessarily involve the dismantling of the Papacy and the Priesthood, which usurps the authority of Christ. Speaking of Protestants repenting, as the two archbishops have done, is a betrayal of the Gospel and of the very principles which gave rise to the Protestant Church of England.

Into this arena of celebration and perspective a new entrant stepped, in June 2017, with words and ambitions that are, alarmingly, not dissimilar to the language of the Pope and the statements of the Archbishops. June is the traditional month when the General Assembly of the Irish Presbyterian Church convenes. It is inevitable that a denomination with as rich a history in reformed doctrine, as the Presbyterian church in Ireland has, would wish to mark half a millennium of Protestant witness.

The statement issued by Rev Trevor Gribben, Clerk of the General Assembly, was somewhat disconcerting in relation to the Church of Rome:

"While we would work closely with other churches on a range of matters throughout the year, if agreed to, I think that this would be the first time in recent memory that we have considered a formal church-to-church theological dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. All things considered it will be an interesting and, I hope, productive week."

This immediately begs the question, "What is meant by 'formal church to church dialogue'"? Is the responsibility of the true Church not to proselytise Roman Catholics who are held captive in a system of ritualism which is far removed from the Grace of the Gospel? Dialogue sounds more like a process of reconciliation than an evangelistic endeavour. Dialogue is an approach we use to win over our brethren, not to debate with our adversaries. Dialogue sounds like ecumenism in fancy dress, where the Roman Catholic Church is treated like another Christian denomination, not the apostate harlot church of Revelation 17. This kind of double-speak highlights again the marks of apostasy that are found within Irish Presbyterianism, which made the emergence of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster necessary in 1951.

One regards the Reformation from the perspective where the individual presently stands. Pope Francis clearly regards the Roman Communion as the true and sole Church, the body of Christ on earth. A failure to recognise the Church under the authority of Rome, as apostate and false, leaves one open to compromise and error. This enables Rome to reach out seeking to draw Protestants back to the "fold". It is apparent that Lutheranism, Anglicanism and Irish Presbyterianism have to varying degrees been drawn into this process.

The Reformation was not a movement of schism. It was a separation. The wheat was separated from the chaff, and truth was separated from error. It was a process of purification that brought blessings and benefits to the world. As well as rejoicing in justification by faith and the availability of the Scriptures, let us also recognise the value of true separation in this 500thAnniversary Year.

We must regard the Reformation from the perspective of truth.

"Here we still stand"


Papa Francesco Omelia Svezia Lund
After Lund what remains of the Protestant Reformation
Reformation Anniversary Statement from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York
General Assembly opens next week
Just By Faith Alone Blog: Schism or Revival
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