Results tagged “Protestantism” from Reformation21 Blog

Christian Assurance: Rome and Thomas Goodwin

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In its theological response to the teachings of the Reformation, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) maintained that a "believer's assurance of the pardon of his sins is a vain and ungodly confidence". More pointedly the Council declared in Canon 16 on Justification, 'If any one saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end,-unless he have learned this by special revelation; let him be anathema' (The Council of Trent, The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Oecumenical Council of Trent, Ed. and trans. J. Waterworth, London: Dolman, 1848). Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, perhaps the greatest of the Roman post-Tridentine theologians, called assurance of salvation "a prime error of heretics."1

According to the Church of Rome, a few especially holy men and women, through special revelation, may attain to assurance of salvation, but they are the exception and certainly not the rule. It is not hard to understand why Rome is so opposed to the doctrine of Christian assurance: If 'ordinary' Christians can, and should, be assured of their salvation, what need do they have of the church's priestly, sacramental mediation?

For Protestants, the controversy with the Church of Rome over assurance was at heart a controversy over its failure to understand the nature of the holy Trinity, especially the grace of the Father's love, the perfection of the Son's atonement, and the sealing of the Holy Spirit's indwelling presence. Rather than leave his believing children uncertain of his love and uncertain of the perfect efficacy of the Saviour's atonement, the Bible assures us that God, being the good God he is, wants his children to live in the joy and assurance of his love and his Son's 'It is finished' (Jn.19:30).

Christian assurance was a major theme in the writings of Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680), along with John Owen perhaps the greatest of the Puritan pastoral theologians. In his Christ Set Forth, Goodwin seeks to persuade us that we especially find assurance first, and supremely by looking to Christ and trusting in him and his finished work on the cross. He is not saying that we should not be encouraged by the gospel transforming presence of God's grace in our lives. He is saying, however, that too many Christians 'in the ordinary course and way of their spirits have been too much carried away with the rudiments of Christ in their own hearts, and not after Christ himself.'3

Later in life, Goodwin reflected on his own early struggle to find assurance of salvation: 'I was diverted from Christ for several years, to search only into the signs of grace in me. It was almost seven years ere I was taken off to live by faith on Christ, and God's free love, which are alike the object of faith."4

Goodwin`s experience of God`s grace has much to teach us. Above all, that the believer's primary focus is Christ, not himself. "I am come to this pass now," wrote Goodwin to a Mr Price, "that signs will do me no good alone; I have trusted too much to habitual grace for assurance of salvation; I tell you Christ is worth all'. He writes, let us 'see what matter of support and encouragement faith may fetch from Christ's death for justification. And surely that which hath long ago satisfied God himself for the sins of many thousand souls now in heaven, may very well serve to satisfy the heart and conscience of any sinner now upon earth, in any doubts in respect of the guilt of any sins that can arise'.5

Do you grasp what Goodwin is saying? Our sins rise to condemn us. Our sins are many and not few. Our sins are wicked and deserving of God's just condemnation. What good can be gained by looking in to ourselves? What do you see when you look into yourself? Paul told us what he saw, 'O wretched man that I am' (Rom.7:24). There is no comfort to be found looking in; we must learn to look out to Christ. The sin-bearing, sin-atoning death of Christ satisfied God. He accepted the Saviour's sacrifice in our place, as our covenant Head. He was satisfied with his sacrifice. Now, Goodwin is saying to us, if God is satisfied, should we not also be satisfied? If all our sins were laid on God's own Son and were forever put behind God's back, buried in the deepest sea and remembered no more (Mic.7:19; Isa.43:25), should that not be our assurance?

The Christian's God-planted graces may, through the lens of Christ (never apart from him), bring him a measure of comfort. But our graces ebb and flow, they rise and fall, they are here today and all but gone tomorrow. But Jesus Christ is 'the same yesterday and today and forever'. He is at God's right hand. He is our justification and our eternal acceptance with God (Rom.8:34).

Listen again to Goodwin: 'Were any of your duties crucified for you?'6 Goodwin's question is plain but profound, don't look in, look out to your crucified Saviour who alone is your righteousness (1Cor.1:30). 'Therefore', says Goodwin, 'get your hearts and consciences distinctly and particularly satisfied in the all-sufficiency of worth and merit which is in the satisfaction that Christ hath made'.7 For Goodwin, the Christian's great need is to grasp what he calls 'the transcendent all-sufficiency of (Christ's) death'.8

This is no abstract doctrinal concern. Goodwin looks ahead to the day of Christ: 'Now you will all be thus called one day to dispute for your souls, sooner or later; and therefore such skill you should endeavour to get in Christ's righteousness, how in its fullness and perfection it answereth to all your sinfulness'.9

The Church of Rome wants to leave the believer tentative and uncertain. It wants to leave the child of God fearful and doubting, looking not to Christ and his finished work, but to the church and its priestly mediation. The Bible teaches us otherwise. In Christ we have a 'living hope' (1Pt.1:3), a 'sure and certain hope' (Heb.6:20). No Christian need languish in doubts and fears as to the assurance of the heavenly Father's love. Trust the good heart of your Father, a heart that desires all his children know that they are his children. Trust the finished, atoning work of your Saviour, a work that has been accepted by the Father. Trust the indwelling Holy Spirit who has come to unite you to Christ, seal to you his salvation and give you the boldness to cry, 'Abba, Father' (Rom.8:15-16).


1. Quoted in J.C.Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth Trust ed., Edinburgh, 2014), 139 

2. Thomas Goodwin, Christ Set Forth (Banner of Truth ed. Edinburgh, 2015. First published 1642) 

3. Christ Set Forth, Introduction XV. 

4. Works of Thomas Goodwin, (Edinburgh, James Nichol, 1861), Vol. 2, lxviii 

5. Christ Set Forth, p. 43. 

6. Christ Set Forth, p. 43

7. Christ Set Forth, p. 50.

8. Christ Set Forth, p. 50 

9. Christ Set Forth, p. 51

The Great Pope Within

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"I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, self." Martin Luther almost certainly never made this statement (though many have falsely attributed it to him). It is, however, an accurate and quite helpful statement, as far as it goes. We all have a great pope within. By nature, none of us wants to submit ourselves to God and the sole authority of His word. All of us enjoy being a law unto ourselves. We're all committed to laying out standards with which we are comfortable--standards that appear to benefit us. We go on to affirm our own standards by finding affinity with others who have similar standards. We then live in an echo chamber of a functional magisterium we have collectively formed. Of course, at the head of this functional magisterium is the pope of self. While this is certainly the mode of operation for unbelievers, it is not entirely eradicated when we are converted. In fact, aspects of this functional Roman Catholicism are ever manifested in the hearts of believers. Here are several ways in which this manifests itself in our everyday experiences. 

1. Penance. In the first of his 95 theses, Martin Luther wrote, "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said "Repent," he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance." Luther felt as though this was necessary on account of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church had built an elaborate system of penitential satisfaction for the forgiveness of sins on a faulty translation of the word μετανοεῖτε. Rather than give it the natural translation "repent," Erasmus had given it the Latin translation from which we derive the English phrase, "Do penance." Luther preached his 1518 Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, in order to show to what great lengths Rome was willing to take the penitential system. Thomas Aquinas had articulated the doctrine of penance in such a way as to include indulgences--"together with vigils, working, [sleeping on a] hard bed, [wearing rough] clothes, etc."--for satisfaction for sin. Johanne Tetzel, the great seller of indulgences and Luther's principle adversary, defended Rome's penitential system in his Against's Luther's Sermon on Indulgences and Grace

All who love the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement--the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ--will rightly revolt at the idea of Rome's penitential system. However, we functionally embrace something of a penitential system when we try to quiet a guilty conscience with good works. There are a thousand ways in which we can fall into this trap. If we haven't been fruitful in our outreach in the community in which we live, we go on a short term mission trip to make up for it. If we haven't been faithful in gathering with the saints for Lord's Day worship, we give more money to the church to cover for our delinquency in worship. No matter what shape or form it takes, we can seek to make satisfaction for our sins by doing more or by doing better, rather than recognizing that God has made satisfaction for our sins by offering up His Son on the cross. This is why we believe, with Luther, that the Christian life is to be one of repentance not penitence

2. Ritualism. Closely aligned to the idea of penitence is the idea of ritualism. Ritualism comes in many shapes and forms. The great danger of ritualism is that it perverts religious rituals that God has instituted in His word by investing in them an efficacy that they do not have in and of themselves. This is most fully exemplified by Roman Catholic sacramentalism. Geerhard Vos explained the nature of sacramentalism when he wrote: 

"Roman Catholics teach concerning a sacrament that it works ex opere operato [worked by the work]. Baptism and the Lord's Supper of themselves do what they are said to do. The cross of Christ does not justify but merely opens justification, makes it possible, and hence the mass. It makes certain merits available that then, however, require a special application to become effective."1

It may seem quite a jump to suggest that we can fall into functional sacramentalism in Protestant churches; however, it is probably far more common than one might suppose. Many years ago, I was a member of a large Presbyterian church that celebrated the Lord's Supper on a monthly basis. After a few months there, I began to realize that attendance was up approximately one-third whenever the Supper was being celebrated. I asked one of my friends why that was the case. He explained that some functionally treat the Lord's Supper exactly the way Rome views the mass. Instead of seeing the word as the central means of grace--and as that which defines the sacrament--they convinced themselves that the Supper was something far more special. In doing so, they functionally embrace a form of sacramentalism. This is just one example of how we too can fall into ritualism. 

3. The Confessional. The Scriptures plainly teach us that we should confess our sins to one another (Matt. 5:24; 18:15; James 5:16) and that we should confess our sins to God (Ps. 51; 1 John 1:8-2:2). The Roman Catholic Church, of course, perverted the intention of this teaching by making the priest the agent of absolution and the confessional an element of penance. Once you go to the priest and confess what you have done, he gives you a series of penitential deeds unto absolution. Protestants have long seen the absurdity of such a perversion of the biblical teaching on confession of sin; however, we are ever in danger of turning our friends into personal priests--and, without going to the Lord in contrition and confession--functionally creating our own confessional. I can easily seek to unburden my guilty conscience by telling a friend what I have done sinfully without going to the Lord for pardon and cleansing (1 John 1:8-2:2). Instead, we ought to confess our sin to those against whom we have sinned, confide in a close friend or pastor with whom we can pray together, and--most importantly--go to God in brokenness knowing that we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One--the propitiation for our sin. 

4. Conscience Binding. Little needs to be said about how prevalent this is in the lives of those of us who attend Protestant churches in our day. How many of us haven't made up our own rules about schooling, food and drink, television and movies, dress, etc. Whenever we subject ourselves to man-made rules and regulations, we are functionally doing the exact same thing that the Roman Catholic Church has been doing as an insitution for well over a thousand years. The doctrine of the liberty of conscience was one of the most precious doctrines to the Reformers for this very reason. It was on account of Rome's perversion of it that the Westminster Divines dedicated an entire chapter to it in the Confession of Faith. There we read those great words: "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship" (WCF 20.2). It was this doctrine that led Luther to make his great "Here I Stand" speach.  

The Christian life is one that can only be lived in dependance on Christ as He is set out in the Scripture. The word of God is the sole authority by which we test all things and to which we hold fast in all matters of faith and practice. If we give him free reign, the great pope within will pervert the clear teaching of Scripture on matters of salvation, worship and the Christian life. We must constantly return to the Scripture to have our minds and hearts renewed in the knowledge of the God who is over all. We must be able to say with Luther, with great conviction and sincerity, "My conscience is captive to the Word of God...to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me." 

1. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics. (R. B. Gaffin, Ed., A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, A. Janssen, ... K. Batteau, Trans.) (Vol. 5, p. 247). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

On May 6th, 1527 -- 488 years ago today -- military troops of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, sacked the ecclesiastical capital of Western Christendom, la città eterna, Rome. Sacking Rome was the "thing to do" (as they say) for much of Western history. Everybody who was anybody did it at some point: the Visigoths in 410, the Vandals in 455, the Ostrogoths in 546, the Normans in 1084. By the time that Charles's imperial forces got around to it, sacking the eternal city had almost become passé.

Though religious tensions ran high in 1527 -- Reformation being in the air, and all that -- this particular sacking of Rome had more to do with politics and family ambitions than faith. The Emperor Charles and the French King Francis I had been at war for several years when Clement VII (from the family Medici) assumed the papacy in 1523. After donning the triple tiara, Clement made a habit of regularly repositioning his loyalties in that conflict, always with an eye towards maximizing his own political influence (and control of the papal states of Central Italy) and curbing the excessive influence of others. In 1527 Clement had recently realigned himself with Francis, worried about the ever-increasing clout which Charles, a Habsburg, could claim in Western Europe.

Even so, the notion to sack the pope's city of residence was by all accounts conceived not by Charles V, but by Charles III, the Duke of Bourbon who commanded the Emperor's forces in Northern Italy. In April of 1527 the imperial forces had succeeded in overthrowing Medici rule in Florence. Travelling south to try their luck against the Medici pope in Rome seemed reasonable enough to Duke Charles. While the troops he commanded made short work of the Swiss Guard defending Rome's city walls on the morning of May 6th, the Duke himself died on the battlefield. In his last living moments he realized (maybe) that wearing a distinct white coat so his own troops could identify him and heed his commands on the battlefield did little to camouflage him from the enemy.

Thus the imperial forces found themselves within the city walls, lacking a leader, and -- by all accounts -- full of resentment for long stretches of hard labor and little pay. And so they did what armies do in such circumstances: they ran amok. Considerable harm was inflicted on the Roman people. Roman architecture suffered some serious setbacks as well, though both St. Peter's and the Sistine Chapel ultimately survived the shame of having horses stabled in them.

Roman Catholic clergy underwent particular persecution. Cardinal Giovanni del Monte -- later Pope Julius III -- was apparently suspended for some period of time by his hair. As he hung there, he (presumably) had few kind thoughts for Pope Clement VII, who had traded him to the imperial forces in order to save his own skin. Clement had himself taken refuge in the Castel Sant'Angelo, where apparently a group of soldiers gathered at one point with the pronounced intention of eating him alive. (Clement, incidentally, ultimately survived the sack of Rome, and remained pope -- and duly submissive to Emperor Charles -- until his death in 1534). When they weren't inflicting torture on cardinals or threatening to cook the pope, the imperial soldiers played dress-up with the (spare) robes of the high pontiff and his senior clergy. Once (im)properly adorned they played the part, blessing and excommunicating each other, processing through town in all their clerical splendor, and so on.

Some historians have sought to attribute such "sport" on the part of the imperial forces to Protestant convictions. It's doubtful, however, that any such convictions lay at the root of the havoc wreaked upon Rome in May of 1527. For one thing, the majority of the soldiers came from Spain, Italy, and regions of Germany which remained Roman Catholic. For another, Protestants hardly held a monopoly on resentment towards Rome and her religious authority. After all, ridicule (if not something worse) of the institutional church and her clergy was standard fare even in the most devoutly Roman Catholic regions of Europe in the early sixteenth century. It's hardly the case, in other words, that even devout papists would have necessarily balked at the opportunity to tell the pope they intended to eat him for their supper. Beyond this, it's highly questionable that the activities which took place in Rome in May of 1527 need to be attributed to religious sentiments of any sort. It's entirely possible -- even, I would suggest, likely -- that the imperial soldiers got up to what they got up to in the eternal city that month because, at least to their way of thinking, it was fun. Persecution of Roman Catholic clergy no more necessarily points to Protestant sentiments than do acts of iconoclasm throughout Europe during this period. Sometimes people just like to break things.

Nevertheless, religious reform does seem to have been on the mind of at least one of Charles's soldiers in Rome. Several years before the sack of Rome, the renaissance artist Raphael had completed a fresco called La Disputa -- a piece which shows the church militant and church triumphant meeting at the celebration of the Supper -- for the pope's personal library in the Vatican. As one of the imperial soldiers wandered through the pope's vacated apartments and viewed this remarkable piece, he decided it would be improved if he scribbled the name of one of Europe's most famous and controversial personages across it. Thus he added a short and simple "M. Lutherus" ("Lutherus" being the Latinized form of "Luther") to the face of Raphael's painting. This was the early modern equivalent of writing "Luther was here."

In actual fact, Luther hadn't been in Rome since 1510, which -- coincidentally -- was just about the time that Raphael's painting was being completed. It's unclear what this particular soldier intended to accomplish or communicate by scratching Luther's name on the painting. Perhaps he wished to convey the idea that Luther's reforming spirit was in Rome and was manifested in the destruction wreaked upon the city. If so, it's doubtful that Luther would have appreciated the gesture. The Reformer explicitly denounced the sack of Rome, though he couldn't restrain himself from commenting on the remarkable providence of God which led the "Emperor who persecutes Luther for the pope... to destroy the pope for Luther."

One of the more insignificant, longer term fruits of the sack of Rome was papal beards. In protest to the indignities suffered by both pope and city, Clement, breaking tradition with earlier popes, let his facial hair grow. Or, at least, protest over said indignities was the rationale he gave for his sudden reluctance to shave. Herbert Vaughan suggests another motive in his early 20th century history of the Medici popes: "Although handsome, Clement's face was rendered unattractive by reason of its disagreeable expression and the look of suspicion which was constantly passing over it. [...] It was not until after the sack of Rome in 1527, that Clement... allowed his beard and moustache to grow naturally, a change which undoubtedly added dignity to the Pope's general appearance."

Whether the beard improved Clement's appearance or not, it was a violation of church law (which prohibited facial hair for clergy). But Clement got away with it. His papal successors took note of his flagrant disregard for the church's rules and followed his facial-hair lead. Nearly every pope for the next two centuries wore a beard (after which, hardly any did ever again).

Such blatant ignoring of canon law was not entirely inconsequential. Papal beards arguably served to reinforce the point (which popes were keen to make) that popes are above, not under, church law. Clement and his successors' beards were not, admittedly, so significant a move towards papal prestige and authority as Vatican I's claim of infallibility for Peter's supposed successors, but they were a step -- however scratchy -- towards the same.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida. May 6th, in addition to being the day that Rome was sacked in 1527, is also Aaron's birthday. Cards and gifts (preferably money) can be sent to him care of the Alliance.

Our one, our only, the incorrigible Carl Trueman will once again be on the Janet Mefferd program (http://www.janetmefferd.com/) between 4 and 5 pm. He has been asked to bring his gift of prophecy (or maybe he only needs a basic understanding of statistics to read the trends) and discuss the future of Protestantism. And afterward, join the discussion on the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals LinkedIn group (https://www.linkedin.com/groups/Alliance-Confessing-Evangelicals-2628364/about).

That bad old Reformation...

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Channel 4, one of the UK's network TV channels, has recently been running a history of Christianity, fronted by some well-known figures. I have already blogged on the first episode, which pretty much argued that Christianity is anti-Semitic at heart. You can read my piece here. The latest episode was presented by Ann Widdecombe, Conservative MP, who converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in 1994. She is presenting the episode on the Reformation, which ought to be of interest to readers of Reformation 21, and not least in this significant anniversary year. Her take is predictable, casting Protestants past and present in the worst light possible. While she argues that the need for a Reformation was pressing, its development owed more to power, greed, lust and politics than to theology, and it was a thoroughly bad thing. The episode can be seen for thirty days after transmission (which was February 8th) on the Channel 4 website, here. You have been warned!