Category Archives: Church History

The Men Who Make Tetzel Look Tame

Code: B171106

Have you ever been conned? Most of us have, to varying degrees, experienced the sense of violation at being ripped off or extorted. Even more egregious are the actions of those who swindle people in God’s name—breaking the fourth commandment—blasphemy—in their efforts to break the eighth—theft.

As we saw last time, religious extortion was rampant in the sixteenth century. The Roman Catholic Church pressured the poorest of their parishioners into purchasing bogus promises of God’s favor in the afterlife, called indulgences. In fact, it was so crass and widespread that it provoked Martin Luther to write his Ninety-Five Theses.

While Luther’s protest stymied that particular form of religious racketeering, God’s grace and blessings are still for sale today in the religious marketplace. And modern indulgences are no longer the exclusive domain of Roman Catholicism. Protestantism has now been infiltrated by a modern breed of indulgence salesmen—charlatans every bit as skilled as Tetzel when it comes to swindling contemporary churchgoers.

Without a doubt, the most blatant form of modern indulgences are peddled by charismatic faith healers. They hawk all sorts of ridiculous trinkets, promising to impart God’s grace and favor. With an uncanny resemblance to the massive Catholic relic industry, modern faith healers sell bottles of miraculous spring water, vials of holy land anointing oil, and scraps of ancient prayer cloths. Anything that even remotely resembles a point of contact with the biblical world can be sold as a portal between man and God.

However, for most of the prosperity preachers who dominate Christian television, the trinkets aren’t even necessary. Instead their indulgences are sold through a verbal promise of healing, favor, or financial breakthrough, if viewers will first sow a financial seed—of course payable to the preacher. Here’s how John MacArthur describes the ruse:

On program after program, people are urged to “plant a seed” with the promise God will miraculously make them rich in return. It’s known as the seed-faith plan, so named by Oral Roberts, the key pioneer in using television to spread charismatic doctrine. Most charismatic televangelists and faith healers use Roberts’s seed-faith plan or something similar to manipulate viewers to donate more than they can really afford. [1]

John sees an unmistakable parallel between Johann Tetzel and the television charlatans of today as seen on TBN. In fact, he argues that their modern version of indulgence racketeering far exceeds the tactics of Tetzel in both scale and sin.

If the scheme seems reminiscent of Tetzel, that’s because it is precisely the same doctrine. . . . Like Tetzel, TBN preys on the poor and plies them with false promises. Yet what is happening daily on TBN is many times worse than the abuses that Luther decried because it is more widespread and more flagrant. The medium is more high-tech and the amounts bilked out of viewers’ pockets are astronomically higher. (By most estimates, TBN is worth more than a billion dollars and rakes in $200 million annually. Those are direct contributions to the network, not counting millions more in donations sent directly to TBN broadcasters.) Like Tetzel on steroids, the Crouches and virtually all the key broadcasters on TBN live in garish opulence, while constantly begging their needy viewers for more money. Elderly, poor, and working-class viewers constitute TBN’s primary demographic. And TBN’s fundraisers all know that. The most desperate people—“unemployed,” “even though I’m in between jobs,” “trying to make it; trying to survive,” “broke”—are baited with false promises to give what they do not even have.

Clearly the Tetzel blueprint has been replicated and exponentially abused through modern media platforms: target the poor and most vulnerable; make grandiose promises that aren’t yours to make; squeeze every last drop of revenue out of the victims; use the proceeds for your own extravagance. It’s like Robin Hood in reverse! But it doesn’t end there. Giving money in response to a television sales pitch is invariably the gateway to further extortion.

In his support letters, Benny Hinn—perhaps the foremost faith healer and prosperity preacher of our day—has shamelessly pushed such modern indulgences on his constituents. On one occasion, he asked for donations in excess of one thousand dollars. In return he promised to put each donor’s name on a plaque that would adorn the interior of his private jet, so he could remember to pray for them by name while he traveled. Another letter promised that for a gift of any size, Hinn would supernaturally protect the donor’s relatives against dying from cancer.

But Hinn’s outrageous and narcissistic claims are nothing new or out of the ordinary. They are the stock-in-trade of charismatic fundraising going back at least three decades. The practices pioneered by Tetzel have been revised and upgraded.

Whereas Johann Tetzel held dead relatives ransom in purgatory, Oral Roberts essentially held himself ransom in one of the most obscene and bizarre indulgence sales of all time. In January 1987, Roberts told his television audience that they needed to donate eight million dollars before March 1, or God was going to take him away from them. [2] Roberts’s ploy succeeded, and he was able to pay off some impatient debt collectors.

Like the Pharisees who “devour[ed] widow’s houses,” (Luke 20:47), these modern peddlers of indulgences prey on the vulnerable and naïve. It’s often the people who can least afford it who buy into their scams, blindly hoping that God will unleash financial blessing on them in return for their seed gift. But the only ones who ever get rich are the faith healers and prosperity preachers themselves.

Most of us can see through that spiritual shell game. But there are plenty of softer and more civilized versions of indulgences that still plague the church today.

Joel Osteen is a prime example. While he holds to all the central tenets of prosperity theology, he shies away from the outlandish behavior and obscene promises of other health and wealth preachers. Like Roberts, Osteen is essentially selling himself and his lifestyle—the opulent wealth and worldwide fame he enjoys is supposedly evidence of God’s favor. And for the price of a book or a ticket to one of his rallies, you can learn how to unlock the same kind of blessing in your life.

And who wouldn’t want to be like him? Osteen embodies the American dream in human form. He looks good, is always happy, and marches through life in an endless procession of victories. If you buy a Joel Osteen book or attend one of his motivational rallies, you are promised Joel’s secret formula to “Become a Better You,” live “Your Best Life Now,” make “Every Day a Friday,” and discover “The Power of I Am” declarations so you can positively confess your desires into reality. Just as Tetzel preyed upon a populace who feared death, Osteen fills his coffers with the money of people who fear failure.

In his New York Times best-selling book, “Your Best Life Now,” Osteen promises its readers that:

We can live at our full potential right now! In this book, you will discover just how to do that! Within these pages, you will find seven simple, yet profound, steps to improve your life, regardless of your current level of success or lack of it. I know these steps work, because they have worked . . . in my own life. [3]

Osteen is confident his indulgences work because they work “in [his] own life.” And he’s right! Indulgences do work—at least for the people who sell them. Especially when he has a vast customer base of people who lap up every idea he puts on the market.

Hillsong’s global ministry blazes a trail that is eerily similar to Osteen’s. Their central message is more concerned with your present satisfaction and fulfillment than your eternal well-being. It is a gospel of success, self-esteem, and sensuality—what they summarize as a blessed life—all available through their media outlets and concert events.

All those examples fall—to one degree or another—into the charismatic corners of the Protestant church. But there is another strain of indulgence sales that has managed to escape those confines and run rampant in modern evangelical churches. And we’ll examine that next time.


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What Caused the Reformation?

In answer to the question, “What caused the Reformation?” many people might point to Martin Luther and his 95 Theses. But if you were to ask Luther himself, he would refuse to take any credit. Instead, he would put the focus entirely on God and His Word.

Near the end of his life, Luther declared, “All I have done is put forth, preach, and write the Word of God, and apart from this I have done nothing.…It is the Word that has done great things.…I have done nothing; the Word has done and achieved everything.”

Elsewhere, he proclaimed, “By the Word the earth has been subdued; by the Word the Church has been saved; and by the Word also it shall be reestablished.”

Noting Scripture’s foundational place in his own heart, Luther wrote, “No matter what happens, you should say: There is God’s Word. This is my rock and anchor. On it I rely, and it remains. Where it remains, I, too, remain; where it goes, I, too, go.”

Luther rightly understood what caused the Reformation. He recognized that it was the Word of God empowered by the Spirit of God preached by men of God in a language that the common people of Europe could understand. When the people’s ears were exposed to the truth of God’s Word it pierced their hearts and they were radically changed, by God’s grace and for His glory. It was ignorance of Scripture that made the Reformation necessary. It was the recovery of Scripture that made the Reformation possible.

It was that very power that transformed Luther’s own heart, a power summarized in the familiar words of Hebrews 4:12, “The Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.” The rhetorical question of Jeremiah 23:29 makes this same point—“‘Is not My word like fire?’ declares the Lord, ‘and like a hammer which shatters a rock?’”

During the late middle ages, the medieval Catholic Church had imprisoned God’s Word in the Latin language, a language the common people of Europe did not speak. The Reformers unlocked the Scriptures by translating them and boldly proclaiming their truth. Once people had access to the Word of God, the Reformation became inevitable.

The common thread, from Reformer to Reformer, was an undying commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, such that they were willing to sacrifice everything, including their own lives, to get the Word of God into the hands of the people.

They did this because they understood that the power for spiritual reformation and revival was not in them, but in the gospel (cf. Romans 1:16–17). And they used the Latin phrase sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) to emphasize the truth that God’s Word was the true power and ultimate authority behind all they said and did.

It was ignorance of Scripture that made the Reformation necessary. It was the recovery of Scripture that made the Reformation possible. And it was the power of the Scripture that gave the Reformation its enduring impact, as the Holy Spirit brought the truth of His Word to bear on the hearts and minds of individual sinners, transforming them, regenerating them, and giving them eternal life.

As we look back on the Reformation today, we do well to remember that the catalyst behind any lasting revival is not human ingenuity or cleverness. Rather, it is the faithful preaching and teaching of the Spirit-empowered Word of God.

More resources from Dr. Nathan Busenitz:

Celebrating the 500 Years of the Reformation
Luther’s Personal Reformation




The post What Caused the Reformation? appeared first on The Master’s Seminary.

The Flashpoint of the Reformation

Code: B171101

The world changed on October 31, 1517 (five hundred years ago yesterday). That was the day Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. It was an act of defiance that ignited a theological war with the Roman Catholic Church—one that persists five hundred years later.

But those of us familiar with the historic hallmarks of the Protestant-Catholic divide won’t find them in Luther’s initial protest. His theses didn’t offer a treatise on the doctrine of justification, advocate for the authority of Scripture, or repudiate the false gospel of Rome. While those issues would later epitomize the heart of Reformation theology, Luther’s first salvo was provoked by the perverse Roman Catholic indulgence industry.

As we saw last time, Pope Leo X’s grandiose construction projects in Rome required an enormous amount of revenue. To that end, he authorized indulgences—the sale of God’s favor and forgiveness—to fill his coffers.

The Medieval World

By the sixteenth century, Roman Catholicism had created—and inherited—the perfect climate for its lies to thrive. Church members were predominantly illiterate. The Bible and church services remained cloistered in ancient Latin. Furthermore, only the highest ranks within the church hierarchy had access to Holy Scripture. The wall that existed between the common man and God’s Word was virtually impenetrable.

The religious powerbrokers in Rome reserved exclusive rights for interpreting Scripture as they saw fit and filtering that information down to regular congregants. Medieval churchgoers had little choice but to blindly follow Roman Catholic dogma—no matter how ridiculous the rules became.

Instead of a torrent of biblical truth, the peasants of Europe were selectively drip-fed Rome’s religious propaganda. Steeped in superstition, the people sought right standing with God through baptism, venerating saints, viewing relics, praying rosaries, and consuming the Eucharist. If the mother church claimed it could sell reduced sentences in the dreaded purgatory, there wasn’t really any other alternative than to believe such outlandish claims.

Death was a constant threat during the Middle Ages. Lifespans were drastically shorter than they are today. Severe poverty, contaminated water, and filthy living conditions were all conducive to an early grave. Medicine was primitive and shrouded in mysticism. It was common for parents to bury their children, husbands to lose their wives through childbirth, and plagues to decimate entire regions. The ever-present reality of death produced a culture that was fixated on eternal matters—specifically, absolution for their sins and escaping purgatory. That concern extended to their deceased loved ones, who they believed were languishing there.

In spite of their extreme poverty, the peasants were highly motivated to dig deep when indulgences were offered. They willingly parted with what little they had to gain early release from their looming future in purgatory. Pope Leo’s afterlife extortioners had a ready-made customer base.

Medieval Indulgences

Johann Tetzel fronted Leo’s indulgence operation in Germany. His sales pitch played on the fears and superstitions of the many who would gather to listen. Without a doubt, Tetzel’s biggest business came from his emotional pleas for the souls of deceased loved ones in purgatory.

Do you not hear the voices of your dead relatives and others, crying out to you and saying, “Pity us, pity us, for we are in dire punishment and torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance”? And you will not? . . . Will you not then for a quarter of a florin receive these letters of indulgence through which you are able to lead a divine and immortal soul safely and securely into the homeland of paradise? [1]

In pure monetary terms, Tetzel’s extortion of Germany’s poor was a resounding success. But as his entourage rolled on towards Wittenberg, an eruption was brewing.

Martin Luther was indignant when he found out that parishioners from Wittenberg were being conned by Tetzel. As a matter of urgency he wrote his Ninety-Five Theses in response to the rampant extortion. He decried the “lust and license of indulgence preachers” (Thesis 72), describing them as “hawkers of indulgences [who] cajole money” (Thesis 51). Thesis 86 boldly pointed out the cruelty of it all: “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”

Luther’s repudiation of indulgences circulated widely and rapidly provoked a huge backlash against Tetzel. While the money he raised was gladly received in Rome, Tetzel was no longer welcome. Facing hostility and hatred from every direction, he was forced to retreat to the confines of a monastery, and eventually died in seclusion.

Leo seethed with rage over the giant wrench Luther had thrown in his works. And the animosity escalated into full-blown anathema as the Reformation continued to gain steam.

The sale of indulgences was no longer viable, at least in the overt form Tetzel deployed. Nonetheless they have remained an integral Roman Catholic doctrine into the present day—albeit more discretely.

Modern Indulgences

To this day, the Church of Rome still traffics in indulgences. They made a significant resurgence in 1967 when Pope Paul VI promulgated his Indulgentiarum Doctrina(Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences). While the Indulgentiarum Doctrina stated that indulgences were no longer for sale—“illicit profits”—it also affirmed Rome’s ongoing commitment to the doctrine. Paul VI went so far as to pronounce damnation on anyone who rejects belief in indulgences.

But the Church, in deploring and correcting these improper uses “teaches and establishes that the use of indulgences must be preserved because it is supremely salutary for the Christian people and authoritatively approved by the sacred councils; and it condemns with anathema those who maintain the uselessness of indulgences or deny the power of the Church to grant them.” (Chapter IV, Paragraph 8)

The document leaves no doubt that the Church of Rome still believes it has exclusive power to dish out God’s grace however and whenever it sees fit. Indulgentiarum Doctrina spells out precise formulas comprised of prayers for the Pope, hail Marys, confessions, contrition, and charitable works. And in a curious closing statement, the document reminds us just how much authority Rome believes it wields over God and His power, telling us that the new range of indulgences would take effect “three months from the date of publication.”

In 2009, the New York Times published an article announcing that indulgences are increasingly back in vogue among Catholics. It points out that while you can’t buy an indulgence anymore, “charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one.” Today the Pope even offers special indulgences for people who sign up as Twitter followers. Around the world, Catholics still hunt for ways to sidestep penance and purgatory. But for the most part, these modern indulgences are not the cash cow they once were for the church.

The sad truth is that if you’re looking for a modern equivalent to Tetzel’s indulgences, you’re far more likely to find it in Protestant circles today. As we’ll see next time, God’s grace and blessings are still for sale in a new and expanding religious marketplace.


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The Obscenity of Indulgences

Code: B171030

Have you ever seen St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome? Whether you see it in person, or in pictures, it’s spectacular. From the vast piazza surrounded by tall columns to the gigantic dome that dominates Rome’s skyline, it is unforgettable. Those who step inside witness vast marble hallways lined with priceless works of art, including Michelangelo’s Pietà.

Even the casual observer can tell that no expense was spared when Pope Leo X set out to rebuild the cathedral in the sixteenth century. Five hundred years later it is still a monument of architectural grandeur and lavish beauty.

But beneath the outward appeal of its construction lies the ugly truth about its funding. The elegance of St. Peter’s quickly becomes an eyesore when you realize its extreme opulence was financed primarily through the extortion of Europe’s longsuffering peasants.

Pope Leo X used the sale of indulgences as the primary means of funding his massive building projects in Rome. Leo sent representatives throughout his dominion to extort the masses through the sale of indulgences.

To understand indulgences, we need to go outside the teachings of Scripture and acquaint ourselves with the codified Catholic dogmas of purgatory, penance, and the treasury of merit.


Catholics believe in a place between heaven and hell called purgatory. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation, but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. [1]

Roman Catholicism denies the clear biblical teaching that final judgment follows death (Hebrews 9:27), when the redeemed inherit eternal life (Revelation 21:27) and the unredeemed inherit eternal damnation (Revelation 20:15). The belief in purgatory implicitly denies Paul’s teaching that there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). In fact, Catholicism goes so far as to pronounce damnation on anyone who denies their doctrine of purgatory:

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. [2]

Even for the serious Catholic, who has already worked hard to achieve salvation, purgatory remains an inevitable dread. The only mystery on this side of the deathly veil is how much punishment awaits and how long it will take before one reaches “the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

In the medieval church, purgatory sentences were widely thought to be much longer than our earthly life spans. Understandably, that caused a great deal of anxiety among church members. The offer of a reduced sentence, or escape altogether, had even the poorest parishioners eager to empty their pockets—especially if it allowed them to sidestep the grueling acts of penance.


The Catholic belief in penance is a distortion of the biblical doctrine of repentance. Whereas repentance refers to a newfound hatred for sin and the profound desire to turn away from it, penance is a process by which the sinner makes satisfactory payment for his own sins. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins. This satisfaction is also called “penance.” [3]

Making satisfaction for sins often involved the recitation of certain prayers, gifts to the church, and other good works. More extreme acts of penance required periods of self-denial and even self-harm. Brutal flagellation and starvation were not uncommon, especially for people guilty of egregious sins, or those tortured by a tender conscience.

Prior to his conversion, Martin Luther suffered enormously through those acts of satisfaction. He had an acute awareness of his own depravity and thus willingly put himself through the most rigorous of penitential acts. James Kittelson describes them in vivid detail:

Long periods with neither food nor drink, nights without sleep, bone-chilling cold with neither coat nor blanket to warm him—and self-flagellation—were common and even expected in the lives of serious monks. . . . [Luther] did not simply go through the motions of prayers, fasts, deprivations, and mortifications of the flesh, but pursued them earnestly. . . . It is even possible that the illnesses which troubled him so much in his later years developed as a result of his strict denial of his own bodily needs. [4]

For many, the more extreme forms of penance were even more unappealing than time spent in purgatory. Both false doctrines put an incredible burden on the members of the Catholic Church. There was no hope of reprieve, in this life or the next.

The Treasury of Merit

That absence of hope created a market that the Roman Catholic Church could exploit. To that end, they instituted the treasury of merit, a heavenly slush fund for Catholics to draw on to reduce their future suffering, or perhaps escape purgatory altogether. Composed of the excess righteousness achieved by Christ, His mother Mary, and all the saints, Catholics could draw on the treasury of merit—for the right price.

According to Catholic dogma,

The “treasury of the Church” is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. . . . This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. . . . [and] the prayers and good works of all the saints. [5]

Indulgences were sold as a way to tap into the treasury of merit. The bottomless nature of that reservoir amounted to a conveniently limitless income stream for the coffers of Rome.

The Sale of Indulgences

Pope Leo X called on a monk by the name of Johann Tetzel to lead the sale of indulgences in Germany. Tetzel was a master salesman—the spiritual forerunner of the charlatans we see dominating Christian television today. He may have also been the pioneer of seductive advertising jingles. His sales pitch was certainly effective: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” And while that’s an English translation, it rhymed just as well in the original German—the money klingt and the soul springt.

The scene was imposing. Tetzel preached under the pope’s banner and the sanctimonious aura of the church. It was extortion and emotional manipulation of the highest order. It was quick and dirty business. The money flowed freely and the transactions were finalized swiftly. Tetzel’s entourage rapidly moved from town to town, amassing a vast amount of wealth along the way.

Behind Tetzel lay a long trail of German peasants with empty pockets. But in front of him stood one very angry monk who was about to put an end to Tetzel’s obscene racketeering.


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Albert Mohler Blog: “Here We Stand”

In this essay, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. celebrates the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and discusses the continued significance for the Reformation today. Mohler writes:

“Christ’s church will remain in need of a continuing reformation until He comes. But here we must be very careful. More liberal churches claim to embrace the Reformation call of Semper Reformanda – as the church always being reformed. This can open the door to doctrinal revisionism and liberalism in the name of reformation. The true churches of the Reformation, however, understood that the right call was for a church always reformed by the Word of God.”

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We Are All Beggars

By Charles Fry /


Shortly before Martin Luther died, a piece of paper containing his handwriting was found in his pocket. Among other words on the paper were these: “This is true. We are all beggars.”[i]

During his lifetime, Luther had come to see the holiness and justice of God. He realized he had no righteousness whatsoever to declare him acceptable to God. Luther only had Christ. Yet, in having Christ, he had everything: assurance of heaven, peace with God, and a calm heart before the Law of God. Simply clinging to Christ alone, Martin Luther inadvertently turned 1500s Europe upside down.

In the fall of 1984, I came to see in a deeper way the truth of Luther’s words, “We are all beggars.” My pastor preached one day on Matthew 5:3 (NASB), “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Through this sermon, I was brought face to face with the holiness of God. I was subsequently led to see that I had no righteousness or godliness to give to God in light of his majesty. Yet, in the same sermon, I heard the gospel, the announcement of good news that comes from God himself.

Christ the Lord was freely and sweetly offered as a perfect Savior. His once-and-for-all death on the cross was shown to be truly sufficient to pay the penalty for all my sin—past, present, and future. I was reminded that I had been justified by faith alone, resting from my own works. As the leaves fell that day in my hometown in Appalachia, heaven once again seemed to come to earth, as the old saying goes. I knew without a doubt that God was my Father in heaven and that I was surrounded by his lovingkindness. I experienced genuine joy.

Read all the posts published to date in this extended series on the life and theology of Martin Luther, as we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the birth of the Reformation.

Almost thirty years later, I taught a class on Martin Luther in the same church where I had heard this sermon. In preparing each lecture, I realized how much I personally needed to regularly hear the Law and the gospel clearly proclaimed, as well as the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It is easy to forget, doubt, or trivialize the majesty of God’s Law, the grace of God, and the freeness of the gospel announcement. I was struck by the centrality, simplicity, and sufficiency of the gospel for the Church. I also noticed that the gospel is the only message in the world that gives all glory to God and humbles the pride of man. This fact was not missed by Luther. In reading his works, I was struck by his zeal for the glory of God and its connection to the gospel.

In keeping with these observations, I have two goals for this series of blog posts.

Reformation Roots

First, I hope to share concisely with the reader our Reformation roots that have largely been lost. The greatest need of our time is to return to the “first principles” of the Reformation and once again draw straight and simple lines of theology. Studying Martin Luther is a wonderful way to understand what the Bible teaches concerning God himself, the nature of man, and the gospel. Simply put, I want to share with the reader the wonderful news of the gospel that we may be filled with true joy and peace in believing (Romans 15:13 NASB).

Martin Luther’s need is our need—whether our background is Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Anglican, Jewish, atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or anything else. God has clearly spoken in the Bible, telling us that every person in the world is accountable to him and that we are all bankrupt sinners in light of his majesty, holiness, and righteousness (Romans 3:9 – 20 NASB). All of us need the cross of Christ. All of us need a righteousness outside of ourselves that only Jesus can provide. This is our only hope.

Simply by clinging to Christ alone, Martin Luther inadvertently turned 1500’s Europe upside down.
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Luther’s Gospel Focus

The second goal in this project is to show from Luther’s work that while the gospel is the only true source of peace and joy, it is also the only message that gives complete glory to God. Certainly, Luther desired for man to receive comfort and hope from the good news of Christ. Yet he was concerned that the Church be faithful to the gospel message so that God would receive all honor. He despised the ways in which man robbed God of his glory; he longed for the medieval church to be humbled before God and to exalt Christ alone.

Next week, we will present an overview of the posts to follow, introducing the topic areas and setting the stage for an exciting, illuminating ride through the early years of one of the most pivotal eras in church history: the Protestant Reformation. 

Part 1 of a 22-part series drawn from A World Upside Down: The Life and Theology of Martin Luther, by Charles E. Fry.

Chuck Fry holds degrees from Marshall University, Moody Bible Institute, and Christ College. He has been in discipleship ministry since 1989 and is on staff with The Navigators in Huntington, West Virginia. He and his wife, Lisa, organize and host the annual Majesty of God conference, held each April.

[i] James M. Kittelson, Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986, 2003), 297.

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John MacArthur on The Reformation: A Lesson About Heresy & The Power of Truth

This is THE year.   2017.  So many have been awaiting its arrival with anticipation, with hope, with a desire to see history repeat itself.  And NO. It isn’t about some eternally unimportant temporal American election.

It’s about the explosion of truth … God’s Truth … across the planet. It’s about when Truth was unshackled from a millennium of virtual bondage in a blasphemous prison built by the apostate hands of man.   It’s about not a mere celebration of a historical event – the Reformation – it’s about praising God for giving bold, historic evidence of his claim in Psalm 138:2:

You have exalted above all things
your name and your word. Psalm 138:2

The Reformation serves as providential, temporal, historic evidence that His Name and His Word will always remain unfettered by the prideful whims of man and unshadowed by the efforts of a God-hating enemy. Utterances from the truthful lips of God (Proverbs 12:19) remain forever.

The Reformation was a providential movement of God, protecting His Truth and thereby extending grace to the undeserving world. Its’ fruit has, as of this year, continued to bless the world for five hundred years.

But, though we know the many warnings of end-time diversions off the narrow path and how the church will increasingly be plagued with false teachers and false gospels, the true church – not the superficial one – prays for another reformation.

We want another reformation that brings to the modern church what the Reformation brought to the 16th-century one – the restoration of God’s Name and God’s Word to their rightful, exalted place. We want that preached in our pulpits and taught in our Sunday school rooms. We want THAT Truth to be the visible image of the church to an onlooking world. And we want that Truth to be proclaimed, defended and contended, so that the elect hearts of men may be saved by it. We want that Truth blasted across an increasingly depraved world because THAT Truth gives glory to Jesus, the Lord and the Savior.

But the modern superficial church – the one most unbelievers think of when they think about “church” – is light years away from the authentic light of God’s Word, though that Word is so often merely a fingertip away. False teaching is rampant because the Word goes unheeded. Error is hurled, tolerated, and endorsed with ever greater ferocity because sound doctrine is ignored. Deception continues WITHIN the church as “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4, 1 John 5:19) appealingly deludes with unsound doctrine (2 Timothy 4:3) imprisoning men’s minds in strongholds of darkness. (2 Corinthians 10:4)

On his daily Grace To You Radio broadcast today, John MacArthur prefaced his message with a quick look at two particular lessons from the Reformation. These studio comments come ahead of the rebroadcast of his message, Is Jesus The Only Way?

Here’s what Dr. MacArthur had to say:

“I think there are a couple of things that come out of the Reformation that are just really profound, far-reaching lessons.”

“The first one is that error, heresy, false Christianity can survive for a very long time. It can not only survive, it can actually be a dominant force in society. That is exactly what happened for a thousand years in the development of Roman Catholicism.”

“If you think that there’s not a powerful, massive, embedded force for heresy, for a corrupted Gospel and a corrupted church, alive and well in the world, you don’t know history.”

“Error is always seeking to be permanently embedded and given a kind of dignity, a kind of acceptability, a kind of prominence in the world. And that’s what happened for a thousand years in the development of the Roman Catholic Church.”

“The other thing that comes out of the Reformation is this … that as profoundly embedded as evil is for such a long time and through tens of thousands of people, God can use one person as He did Martin Luther – or two or three – to literally bring the Truth.”

“That’s something we ought to pray for even today.”

There’s really only one thing that can be said to this … AMEN.

Source: John MacArthur on The Reformation: A Lesson About Heresy & The Power of Truth

The History of Advent

Unlike modern Advent ceremonies, most celebrations of Advent in history had a twin focus. The Latin word adventus was the translation of the Greek parousia—a word used for both the coming of Christ in human flesh and his Second Coming. Advent, then, always tended to focus on both.

Many churches lit the first of their Advent candles today (hopefully without needing the fire department!). Even churches averse to liturgical practices find a way to mark the Advent season, if only by marking the days remaining until Christmas.

This is some of the story behind Advent.


The earliest dating of Advent is impossible to determine. The start of Easter in Christian history is far more obviously tied to Passover (albeit with different methods for dating), and Christmas came to be associated with the birth of Christ as a result of it falling during the December Solstice, the darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. The coming of the Light of the World made a lot of sense in so much darkness. Within a few centuries of church history, both Easter and Christmas took on special meaning due to their use in commemorating the life of Jesus.

In the early centuries of the church, Advent almost certainly arose as a result of the fixed dating of Christmas. Once December 25 became Christmas, it was the center of gravity for the later half of the year—a perfect balance to Easter in the first half. In this way, Advent took on significance the same way Lent did: both were preparation for the more significant season on the horizon.

By the fourth century, the first written evidence of Advent is found in modern Spain and Europe (Hispania and Gaul). Probably the earliest official mention of Advent practices comes as the Council of Sargossa (AD 380) met to answer a gnostic-inspired movement called Priscillianism.

The heresy essentially held to a harsh form of dualism—light vs. dark, body vs. soul—so perhaps the celebration of the incarnation made theological sense as a counterbalance to this heresy. The council was not committed to any specific dating of Advent, though, and only suggested people attend church daily between December 17 and 29.

By the fifth and sixth centuries, more firm dating of the Advent season can be found in historical records—as well as Advent sermon series.

I made a short video of this same comment on my YouTube channel for those interested

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Luther’s 95 Theses

On this day 499 years ago, a monk named Martin Luther (1483–1546) approached a church door in Wittenberg, Germany and posted a list of topics for academic debate at the local university. With this relatively innocuous act Luther started a movement that developed into the Protestant Reformation. That list of topics which Luther posted on…

Reformation Day — Luther the Movie

Reformation Day — Luther the Movie – “In this day, 499 years ago, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the castle door in Wittenberg.  It was designed to spark conversation and debate.  It would do much more than Luther ever imagined.  It was the early spark of the Protestant Reformation. The full movie about Martin Luther (2003) can be watched here…”

Luther (Full Movie)

The Big Five Doctrines of the Reformation

reformation-wall-in-genevaHave you ever wondered why people call themselves “Reformed”? The word “reformed” generally means “improved”—as in, desperate parents may send an incorrigible adolescent to a reformatory school to get them back in line; politicians promise economic reforms to undo the damage of their predecessors. In theological circles, the word is written with a capital, and acts as a self-designation for those who consider themselves to be direct doctrinal descendants of the progenitors of the Reformation, namely Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, et al.

For example, plain vanilla Baptists get upgraded to “Reformed Baptists” if they embrace not only the tenets of Baptists, but also the doctrines for which the Reformers risked life and limb.

Exactly 499 years to the day (October 31, 1517) the Catholic priest, Martin Luther, nailed, to the door of the Wittenburg Castle Church, his list of 95 things the Catholic Church needed to reform/improve in order to be faithful to what the Bible teaches.

Reformed folk today come in various subspecies: some don’t hold to all five tenets of the Calvinist TULIP* scheme, others have shed the Reformers’ eschatology and ecclesiology, such as infant baptism. But all who brandish the prefix “Reformed” will share a profound commitment to the five slogans of the Reformation that functioned as the five-fold battle cry of essentials around which all Reformers united.

Ironically, these five mottos are commonly referred to by their Latin monikers. I say it’s ironic because the Reformers were committed to translating the Scriptures and theological writings out of the elitist Latin language and into any and every vernacular tongue imaginable. But the description of this commitment has come to us in Latin: Post tenebras lux,(after darkness light).


Any visitor to South Africa’s Kruger National Park wants to see the Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and buffalo. Though there are countless species to keep career game wardens busy for a lifetime, nothing trumps the satisfaction of spotting the Big Five.

Here is a quick primer on the doctrinal biggies of the Reformation, the so-called “Five Solas.”

  1. Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura)

While the Catholic church taught that authority lies in two main sources: the Scriptures (Old & New Testaments) and the magisterium (the official dogma of the Pope and his councils), the reform Luther wanted was that the church should recognize only one source of revelation: Scripture alone.

See 2 Pet 1:21; 2 Tim 3:16; Mark 7:7; 1 Cor 4:6.

The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith articulates it this way:

Those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them.” (1689 BCOF, Ch 1, Par 7).


  1. By Grace Alone (Sola Gratia)

Where the Catholic church taught that salvation came to an individual by means of Christ’s work on the cross and man’s work in response (including necessary sacraments such as baptism into the Catholic church and communion administered by an authorized Catholic), the Reformers insisted that salvation came by one means: God’s free, unmerited favor initiated by him, or simply put, by grace alone.5solas

Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

See also, Titus 3:5; Romans 3:24


  1. Through Faith Alone (Sola Fide)

Similar to the previous one, this doctrine emphasizes that the instrument by which grace is administered is not faith in combination with the practice of certain sacraments, but faith alone. Good works follow salvation from sin, but those works are not accounted as the means of saving grace.

Faith thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.” (1689 BCOF ch 11, par 1,2)


  1. Through Christ Alone (Solus Christus)

Integral to the Catholic system of salvation is the role of priests. These are men who mediate between sinners and the Savior. The Reformers emphasized that anyone can go directly to the Savior, and that he is the only needed mediator…

1 Timothy 2:5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.

Although priests did have a mediatorial role in the Old Testament, once Christ came he fulfilled that role once for all and is the only needed mediator (Heb 7:23-25). Especially relevant today is that this doctrine is the opposite of the Catholic assertion that Mary occupies an office of “co-redemptrix” alongside Christ.


  1. To God’s Glory Alone (Soli Deo Gloria)

Johan Sebastian Bach famously signed the written score of his compositions with this Latin dedication. The Reformers were ardent about reserving all glory for God (á la Jude 25) and not sharing it with deceased saints, Mary, the Pope, or anyone who occupied an elevated position in the Catholic system. See Isaiah 46:5-11.


Please remember I called this post a primer. This is not meant to satiate your hunger for Reformation knowledge; it is meant to whet your appetite. But you do well for now if all you know about Reformed theology is that the Bible is the sole authority, grace is all that saves you, by nothing but faith, through Christ’s work alone, and exclusively for God’s glory.

Happy Reformation Day.



* Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints.

Source: The Big Five Doctrines of the Reformation