Martin Luther initially hoped that the Roman Catholic Church would reform from within, but when it would not, he concluded that it was a false church. In this brief clip, W. Robert Godfrey examines some of Luther’s harsh words for Rome.
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One of the harder things for moderns to understand is that in the sixteenth century there was absolutely no notion of denominationalism. For centuries, almost from its beginning, the church had thought about the church as either the true church or false churches. You know, today—I’m a Presbyterian, you’re a Baptist, somebody else is Lutheran—we have differences, and we may even see some of our differences as important, but we regard one another as Christians. That was not the case through most of the history of the church. You were in either in the one true church or you were part of a false church.
[Martin] Luther initially hoped very much to be a positive reforming influence in what he saw as the one true church, but when it became more and more obvious that the Roman Catholic Church would not listen to him, would not reform itself, Luther’s conclusion was that Rome is establishing itself as a false church. That’s why fairly early on in the 1520s Luther begins to talk about the pope as the antichrist. Again, maybe when people in the twenty-first century read that, they think he’s being sort of rhetorical. He was not being rhetorical. He believed that the pope was the eschatological revelation of the antichrist at the end of the age. So Luther is very earnest in everything that he says both about the pope and about the Church of Rome. What’s interesting is that when you read most Protestant writers in the sixteenth century, they never refer to the “Catholic church.” They refer to the Roman church, and their argument is that we are the catholic church. We are the universal church. We stand in unity with the church of all ages.
Now Luther and all the Reformers believed there were true Christians in the Roman church that still held to the gospel, but they believed they could say that the Roman church was a false church because it’s official teachers had rejected the gospel.