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The Reformers & The Church

In the previous episode, we saw the terms and images that the bible uses in relation to the Church. We saw that the key point about the term ekklesia is that it is neutral in its meaning and we should not make a lot out of the fact it literally means the “called out” ones.

Most importantly, we saw that the normal usage of the term involves you actually being present and a physical part of a local church. The idea of being spiritually present when you actually do not assemble with others in Christ is never to be normative.

The idea of what the church actually is has changed over the centuries and this creates quite a bit of a challenge. Understand that the bible did not change, and so the data related to the church is still present.

It changed much through the corruption of the church, especially in the Middle Ages and the RCC. In the time of the Reformation it was like an earthquake that shuddered through the church, and so much was reconsidered and retaught that it has a significant impact on us today.

So we want to give a rather broad outline of how the Reformation affects us, and how we view what the Church is.

Remember that if the RCC is the true church, then to leave it or to be excommunicated from it was to be outside of salvation itself.  For Christ was saving His Church, not just individuals.

We really can’t even begin to understand the incredible power and pressure this exerted on the people in that day.  Imagine being an untaught, simple peasant, who from birth knew only your little church where these mystical activities took place. No other options, no other realities.  This was the way of salvation. Few would question or challenge it, for it meant for most, death.

But with the Reformation, everything was up in the air to be examined and questioned with regard to the Christian faith. 

If the Reformers were correct, then the RCC was a false church, an “anti-church,” and if they were wrong, then they were false.  

So as people would come to hear these men preach and expound scripture the question was natural, what is the church?

Today we will focus on Martin Luther and Zwingli, and then in the next episode it will be on Calvin and briefly on the Anabaptists.

The Reformers and The Church

Martin Luther:

- Nature of the Church

The gospel was the true treasure of the Church and was to be at the center of it.

The presence of the gospel is the mark of the true Church.

“The sure mark by which the Christian congregation can be recognized is that the pure gospel is preached there.  For just as the banner of an army is the sure sign by which one can know what kind of lord and army have taken to the field, so too the gospel is the sure sign by which one knows where Christ and his army are encamped . . . Likewise, where the gospel is absent and human teachings rule, there no Christians live but only pagans, no matter how numerous they are and how holy and upright their life may be.” (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, p. 305)

This means that an episcopally ordained ministry is not necessary for the presence of the Church, nor to safeguard it. To be episcopally ordained means that you must be an officially recognized priest from the church, and in this context, the RCC. If there is no priest then there is no church.

Luther argued that if there is a genuine preaching of the gospel, then the Church is present. Therefore, no human assembly can rightly call itself the Church if the gospel is not present.  You can imagine the impact this had on those who heard it.

The church was made up of all who believed in Christ.  As George notes, “Luther once responded to a question as to what the church was by replying, ‘why, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd’” (George, Theology, p. 87).

Timothy George expands on this and gives three key characteristics of what made up the church in Luther’s world (cf. Ibid, p. 87ff).

- The priority of the Gospel

The Church had become an end unto itself.  The papal view of the church was that it was made up of the Pope and cardinals.  God’s grace was parceled out to the highest bidder.

Against this corruption Luther pressed that the gospel is what made up the church.  “The church does not constitute the Word of God, but is constituted by the Word” (Luther’s Works, 36, p. 145) Therefore, the continuity of the church was not through a succession of bishops/popes, but through a succession of believers.

- The Word and Sacrament

The gospel was the keystone of the church and defined a genuine church.  But what did it look like?

Luther saw that it was exhibited by the Word rightly preached and the sacrament rightly administered. If these are present, then the Church is present.  These are the indispensable means of grace given to the Church.

This involves the actual preaching of the Word, not merely the presence of the Word or the writing of the Word.  Preaching was seen by Luther as key and central, therefore it was through Luther that the pulpit, not the altar, became the focus of the Church.

This led to the office of preacher, and with it came much advice from Luther about avoiding the temptations of that office.

They must always be aware of those who will tickle their pride.

They are to only preach the Word of God and seek only the praise of God, not man.

His advice to aspiring preachers is summed up by him saying, “He stands up, speaks up, and knows when to shut up.”

Sacraments were not simply effective in themselves.  Luther rejected the ex opere operato concept. These must be personally received by faith. The sacraments were a word from the Lord and were to be received as such.

- The priesthood of all believers

This is a very misunderstood part of his theology. Many see it as referring to the idea that there are no clergy.  Others, very common today, see it as the fact that every believer is his or her own priest and therefore has the right to a private judgment on issues of faith and practice.

The essence of his teaching was that every person was another person’s priest and we are all priests to one another.

“Not only are we the freest of kings, we are also priests forever, which is far more excellent than being kings, for as priests we are worthy to appear before God to pray for others and to teach one another divine things. . . . Christ has made it possible for us, provided we believe in him, to be not only his brethren, co-heirs, and fellow-kings, but also his fellow-priests.  Therefore we may boldly come into the presence of God in the spirit of faith . . . and cry 'ABBA, Father!' pray for one another, and do all things which we see done and foreshadowed in the outer and visible works of priests” (Luther, “Freedom of the Christian Man”).

This eliminated the strong distinction between the clergy and laity of the Roman Catholic Church.  The whole church possessed the right to baptize, preach the Word of God, celebrate communion, and pray for others.

This meant also that no one could be a Christian all by himself.  Just as we cannot baptize ourselves, neither can we serve God alone.

“The fact that we are all priests and kings means that each of us Christians may go before God and intercede for the other, asking God to give him his own faith.  Thus if I notice that you have no faith or a weak faith, I can ask God to give you a strong faith.  I do not ask that God would give you my faith or my works but that he would give you your own faith and your own works so that Christ may be able to give you all of his works and salvation through your faith just as he has given them to us through our faith” (from Althaus, Theology, pp. 300-301, fn 24)

- There is a need for the institutional church

This is how Luther kept himself distinct from the more radical reformers who rejected the external nature of the visible Church.  There was no sense of the individualism that characterized much of the Radical Reformation, much less the thoughts of those in the American church today.

The visible church is divinely ordained to be the vehicle, or means, of grace.

“We on our part confess that there is much that is Christian and good under the papacy; indeed, everything that is Christian and is good is to be found there and has come to us from this source.  For instance, we confess that in the papal church there are the true Holy Scriptures, true baptism, the true sacrament of the altar, the true keys to the forgiveness of sin, the true office of the ministry, the true catechism in the form of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the articles of the Creed” (Luther quoted in McGrath, Theology, p. 411).

This came to create difficulties for many as the Reformation progressed as the differences between the Roman Catholic Church and the reformers became more and more pronounced.

Ulrich Zwingli:

Not recognized as he ought to be by believers today. He was doing in Switzerland what Luther was doing in Germany.

An interesting guy that I came to both appreciate and dislike as I prepared a seminary course on the theology of the Reformers. He was a man who started well, but also let politics move him and his positions more than they should have.

For Zwingli, the Church is defined in relation to Christ.  He argues for a communion of the saints rather than an external organization.

Two basic meanings to the term “Church.”

- First, it refers to the whole communion of saints who truly believe in Christ, this would include specific parishes and congregations.

- Second, it refers to congregations of professing believers in a particular place.

In  A Reply to Emser he acknowledges that churches are a mix of true and false believers, but he makes it clear that they are not truly in the Church.

As Zwingli began to battle the Anabaptists he began to emphasize aspects of the Church that he normally would not have had to do.

For the Anabaptists, the Church is made up of only believers and therefore only those who can show this faith should belong.  Accordingly, only believers can participate in baptism and communion.

Zwingli used both New Testament and Old Testament passages to argue that it was made up of both believer and unbeliever.

Out of this debate the idea of the covenant began to develop in Zwingli’s writings.

There was a connection in his mind between baptism and circumcision that had to do with being part of the covenant people.

Now Dr. Stephens clarifies this by pointing out, “Controversy with Anabaptists led Zwingli to stress the confession of Christ as a feature of the visible church.  We cannot tell whether those who confess Christ are in fact believers, any more than the apostles could of Judas, though Christ knows.  Those who confess Christ are, however, baptized and become members of the church on the other side where there is no confession of Christ, there is no church.  To that extent confession of Christ is a mark of the church” (Stephens, Theology, p. 269).


These are two key Reformers, and two major influences upon how the Western Church understands itself in the world of Protestantism.Sadly, we are usually unaware of these influences today with the dumbing down of the pulpit, but they exist nonetheless.

Next episode we will learn how Calvin understood the church.


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