This is being written in Slovakia where we have just come by all-day train from the Czech Republic. Ruth and I are in Europe on a speaking tour that first took us through Germany, Austria and Switzerland by car. We began in Augsburg, Germany, at a fellowship of dear believers founded by a U.S. military chaplain and American military personnel stationed nearby during the Cold War. Our hearts were greatly moved to visit once again parts of Europe where the Reformation began and where so many were martyred for "the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3).
For 1,000 years before Luther, Europe saw persecutions, burnings and drownings of evangelical Christians who had never been Catholics and were not called Protestants. That term would only later be attached to those excommunicated from the Church for protesting its evils. A movement among priests and monks calling for a return to the Bible began many centuries before Luther. Priscillian, Bishop of Avila, could be called the first Reformer. Falsely accused of heresy, witchcraft, and immorality by a Synod in Bordeaux, France in A.D. 384 (seven of his writings which refute these charges have recently been discovered in the University of Wurzburg library in Germany), Priscillian and six others were beheaded at Trier in 385 and many martyrdoms followed. Jumping ahead to the late 1300s, John Wycliff, "morning star of the Reformation," championed the authority of the Scriptures, translated and published them in English and preached and wrote against the evils of the popes and transubstantiation. Jan Hus, a fervent Catholic priest and rector of Prague University, was influenced by Wycliff. Excommunicated in 1410, Hus was burned at the stake as a "heretic" in 1415 for calling a corrupt church to holiness and the authority of God's Word.
Such early reformers set the stage for Martin Luther's Reformation. Luther himself said, "We are not the first to declare the papacy to be the kingdom of Antichrist, since for many years before us so many and so great men...have undertaken to express the same thing so clearly...." For example, in a full council at Rheims in the tenth century the Bishop of Orleans called the Pope the Antichrist. In the eleventh century Rome was denounced as "the See of Satan" by Berenger of Tours. The Waldensians identified the Pope as Antichrist in an 1100 treatise titled "The Noble Lesson." In 1206 an Albigensian conference indicted the Vatican as the woman "drunk with the blood of the martyrs," which she continued to prove.
Provoked by the licentiousness he had seen in the Pope and clergy in Rome, and by the sale of indulgences as tickets to heaven (financing construction of St. Peter's Basilica), on October 31, 1517, Luther nailed his Disputation on the power and efficacy of Indulgences (known as The Ninety-five Theses) to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Copies translated from the original Latin were widely distributed, inciting debate all over Europe about the sale of forgiveness of sins.
Augsburg was especially significant for us because of its unique history. On October 12, 1518, arrested and summoned to Rome by order of Pope Leo X, Luther was held at Augsburg for trial before Cardinal Cajetan. Refused an impartial tribunal, Luther fled for his life by night. On January 3, 1521, a formal Bull was issued by the Pope, consigning Luther to hell if he did not recant. Summoned by the Emperor, who pledged his safety, Luther appeared before the Imperial Diet in Worms on April 17, 1521. Asked to retract his writings, Luther replied,
I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything....I cannot do otherwise; here I stand; may God help me,
Now an outlaw by papal edict, Luther fled again and was "kidnaped" on his way back to Wittenberg by friends who took him for safekeeping to Wartburg Castle. From there he disseminated more "heresy" in writings that further shook all Europe. Luther insisted upon the Bible's sole authority. He rejected justification before God through rosaries, pilgrimages, prayers to saints, scapulars, medals, crucifixes, or one's merits or works of any kind. He rejected the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice, insisting instead that it was a remembrance of the sacrifice completed at Calvary. Inconsistently, however, while proclaiming faith apart from works, he retained a belief in baptism as essential for salvation and efficacious for infants who obviously are incapable of faith.
Rome's determination to eliminate Lutheran heresy, as expressed in the second Diet of Speyer in March 1529, provoked a number of independent princes to assert the right to live according to the Bible. They expressed this firm resolve in the famous "Protest" of April 19, 1529, from which the word "Protestant" was coined.
The Imperial Diet was convened in Augsburg for a thorough examination of Protestant heresies. The Augsburg Confession (composed by Melanchthon in consultation with Luther) was read June 25, 1530, before 200 dignitaries of Church and state. Luther dared not appear. The Confession, condemned by Rome, has been foundational to Lutheranism ever since. Incredibly, leading Lutherans have now joined with Rome, thus betraying the very truths for which Luther suffered so greatly.
In Augsburg on October 31, 1999 ("coincidentally," the very day in 1517 that Martin Luther publicly nailed his theses to the door), representatives of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) signed a Joint Declaration on Justification (JD), disclaiming previous differences. Headlines such as "Joint Declaration Virtually Ends Reformation Argument" appeared around the world. Luther was wrong after all. The date (Oct. 31) and place (Augsburg) of signing JD seemed deliberately chosen to emphasize the LWF's surrender of Luther's convictions. Rome was vindicated at last.
Upon the 49-member LWF Council's earlier unanimous vote to accept JD, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson (an LWF vice president) led the Council in singing "Now Thank We All Our God." Swedish Archbishop K. G. Hammar called it a "big day for the Lutheran world." Indeed, what could be bigger than renouncing the Reformation and discrediting Luther?
The JD was the fruit of 30 years of dialogue between Lutheran and Catholic theologians. If justification by faith in Christ is that complicated, who can be saved? When the Philippian jailor cried, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" Paul did not reply, "Do you have about 30 years for me to explain it? " He said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved" (Acts:16:31). The biblical gospel allows no theological "dialogue."
In signing JD, Lutherans surrendered; Catholics changed nothing. The Vatican has refused to rescind any of the more than 100 anathemas still in effect against those who proclaim justification by faith in Christ alone, without RCC sacraments. Yet JD deceives both Protestants and Catholics into believing that the Reformation arose out of a misunderstanding of true Catholicism.
Undeniably, the belief and practice of one billion Roman Catholics around the world (ignored by JD) remain precisely what they always were. That fact renders JD's careful and complex theological language meaningless. Catholics still pray to Mary for salvation, and they still believe that the "merits and graces Christ won on the cross" can only be received in small installments which never fully save and which come only through the sacraments of the Church. They still flagellate themselves and offer good works and suffering to earn their salvation.
Here in Presov, Slovakia, where we had our last meetings, we visited the hill "Calvary" overlooking the city. Similar "Calvaries" are found throughout the country. On top is an ancient Orthodox church and leading to it is a steep and tortuous path passing a number of shrines to various "saints." On special holidays thousands of Catholic and Orthodox faithful make their way up that hill, many on their knees. This is not the smooth stone or cement—hard enough on knees—traversed continually at Fatima, Portugal and at other shrines. Presov's way of suffering is made of jagged stones, and I winced at the thought of the bleeding and bruised knees painfully endured to earn heaven, a delusion promoted and blessed by the Church. Nor is this the Middle Ages, but present-day Catholic "salvation" as practiced worldwide.
Catholics still wear scapulars and medals to open heaven's door and look to Mother Church to offer Masses after their death to release them from "purgatory." They still pray to "saints" such as Padre Pio, whom they believe suffered to pay for others' sins and thereby redeemed multitudes through the stigmata he bore for 40 years. Indeed, several hundred thousand of the faithful filled St. Peter's Square May 2, 1999, when John Paul II beatified Pio. This is Catholicism as it has been practiced for 1,500 years, unchanged by JD or ECT. Wittingly or not, evangelicals who sign such documents are endorsing these pagan practices and encouraging a billion Roman Catholics in a false hope.
The very practice of offering indulgences (which opened Luther's eyes to the evil of Rome's gospel, which he denounced, and against which he labored so diligently) is still a vital and official part of Catholicism—a fact strangely ignored in JD and ECT. Even while Lutheran/Catholic negotiations were being finalized, the Pope was promising more indulgences for the year 2000. The major purpose of indulgences is to shorten time and reduce suffering in purgatory, a false doctrine which Pope John Paul II has frequently upheld. For example,at the Vatican on August 4, 1999, the Pope explained again that "we cannot approach God [i.e., enter heaven] without undergoing some kind of purification [through one's personal suffering in addition to what Christ suffered on the cross]. Every trace of attachment to evil must be eliminated, every imperfection of the soul corrected...and indeed this is precisely what is meant by the Church's teaching on purgatory." Those signing JD and ECT (proclaiming Catholics as "fellow Christians") are thus mocked.
On Christmas Eve 1999, John Paul II opened a "holy door" at St. Peter's (and subsequently three others at basilicas in Rome) through which pilgrims journeying from around the world have been walking in order to gain forgiveness of sins. The Church boasts that this practice was begun in 1300 by Pope Boniface VIII. In Unam Sanctam, in 1302, an infallible Bull still in force today, Boniface made absolute obedience to the Pope a condition of salvation. To this JD and ECT are also blind and mute.
Boniface was so evil that Dante buried him in the lowest depths of hell. A mother and her daughter were simultaneously among his mistresses. Slaying some 6,000 inhabitants, he utterly destroyed the beautiful city of Palestrina with all its art and historic structures dating back to Julius Caesar, and reduced it to a plowed field which he sowed with salt. Why? Palestrina's Colonna had become the Pope's enemies and he gave indulgences (yes, indulgences) to those who helped destroy them. John Paul II must know all this, yet he and his Church trace his alleged "apostolic succession" back through such monster popes, of whom Boniface was by no means the worst.
The Reformation has left a structure of state churches (Catholic and Lutheran) across Europe, whose pastors and priests receive their salaries from the state paid through taxing all citizens, a fact which only increases resentment against "Christianity." Slovakia will soon sign a Concordat with the Vatican giving the Roman Catholic Church special status, privileges and influence. Recently a pilgrimage of state and religious leaders, headed by Slovakia's President Rudolf Schuster, went to Rome for an audience with the Pope. Delegates bowed before him and some kissed his ring. Included among the delegates were the heads of the Baptist Union and of other supposedly evangelical churches. My first meeting in Presov was to have been held at the local Apostolic church. Upon arriving I was told that the meeting had been moved to Calvary Chapel because the Apostolic pastor who had invited me had been thrown out for exposing Rome's false gospel.
The Reformers and their creeds and more recent stalwarts of the faith such as Spurgeon and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones have consistently called the popes antichrists. Not that any pope ever was or ever will be the Antichrist, Satan's political world ruler. But the popes have always been the very antithesis of Christ. The Pope is welcomed by presidents, kings, and prime ministers, and hailed by millions wherever he goes; whereas Christ was mocked by a mob crying, "Away with him, crucify him!" Christ had one robe, in which He slept on the ground the night before His crucifixion because He had no house; the Pope has hundreds of the finest silk robes embroidered with gold and lives in more than one palace, two of them with 1,100 rooms each. Christ gives salvation as a free gift which He paid for in full by His sufferings on the cross; the Pope claims partial salvation is dispensed through sacrificing Christ upon RCC altars (thousands of times each day). The contrast between Christ and His professed "Vicar" could not be greater.
There is a betrayal, not only of Luther's convictions and the Reformation by leading Lutherans, but of Christ and the gospel by leading evangelicals. It was heartbreaking for us to see the apostasy and godlessness where the martyrs died by the millions to preserve a gospel which is being denied not only by their unbelieving descendants but by church leaders who profess Christ. Time is running out, but it is not yet too late to rescue those who will hear the truth. May the Lord lead us to them everywhere. TBC