Recently, many believers celebrated “Reformation Day” instead of Halloween—because five hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, something very significant took place. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany, exposing the corruption and false doctrine perpetrated by the church in that era. It was one of the most pivotal, seminal events launching the Protestant Reformation.
Did Luther’s admonitions significantly change the Roman Catholic Church or have many of the beliefs he criticized continued? Do we still need to focus our attention on these issues or should they be ignored to promote love and unity between Protestants and Catholics? These are questions that need to be answered.
This article is close to my heart, because I was raised Roman Catholic by parents who were very fervent in their devotion to God. The nuns who taught in the parochial schools I attended and the priests I served under as an altar boy were the some of the kindest, most humble, most self-sacrificing individuals I have ever known. They may not have understood true salvation, but they were real in their love for God.
However, during all my years as a Catholic, I was never taught about being “born again” (that spiritual rebirth that takes places when the Son of God comes to live in the heart of a person—Ephesians 3:17). Yet Jesus promoted this experience as being essential to salvation. (Read John 3:1-5.)
Once I received true salvation, I began diligently reading the Bible. I was quite surprised to discover that the Word of God did not support many of the traditional Catholic beliefs I had embraced.
As a follower of Jesus, I can no longer endorse what the Scripture does not uphold. It is not my intention to be insulting to anyone by presenting this material. Quite the contrary, my heart cries out to help my Catholic brothers and sisters who love God to find the fullness of truth.
I don’t have 95 theses like Luther; I have only listed twelve worthy of being discarded. But they could still be nailed to the doors of Catholic churches worldwide:
(1) The Exclusivity of Roman Catholicism
The concept that the Catholic Church is the only true church is not correct. There are genuinely born-again individuals in many other denominations who are truly saved. The true church cannot be identified as an organization; it is a trans-denominational organism—made up of all who have been “made alive” in Christ (see Ephesians 2:1; 3:17).
(2) The infallibility of the pope
History proves that many popes have made incorrect, and even ungodly and corrupt decisions in the execution of their office. No mere man is the sole Vicar of Christ on earth, the chief representative of the Lord Jesus Christ in this world. No body of church leaders can vote someone into such a position. There is no biblical basis for that. God has many apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers and evangelists (the 5-fold ministry) who represent Him and fill various levels of ministerial authority in the true church, but not one could boast being infallible (see Ephesians 4:10-12).
(3) Infant baptism
Though the Bible is very supportive of infant dedication, there is no Scriptural approval of infant baptism. The Scripture exhorts that the person who “believes and is baptized” will be saved (Mark 16:16). This is a clear indication that baptism should take place only after a sincere and knowledgeable conversion to Christianity takes place. Repentance is also necessary (Acts 2:38). Furthermore, the Bible never endorses the practice of sprinkling. The very word “baptism” speaks of full immersion.
(4) Confession and penance
The necessity of confession to a priest and penance is emphasized in Catholicism in dealing with the sin problem. However, the Bible teaches that we should confess our sins to God, not to a minister of the Gospel. The Scripture promises, “If we confess our sins, He [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). The Bible does encourage us to confess our faults to one another and pray for one another (see James 5:16). But this does not imply that we should appeal to fellow believers to obtain absolution or remission of those sins. It is simply a suggestion that we be accountable to one another and help one another in prayer.
It is true that Jesus told His upper room disciples (which included women), “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). But this passage cannot be used to prove that “remitting sins” is an exclusive right of Catholic priests. In fact, just prior to this ‘remitting’ promise, Jesus breathed on His disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This rather implies that all those who are filled with the Holy Spirit are subsequently empowered to impart the knowledge that brings forgiveness of sins to those seeking reconciliation with God. (See Acts 2, 10:44-48, 19:1-7.)
The idea of doing penance robs the cross of its power. What brings forgiveness to a repentant person—repeating seven “Hail Marys” and ten “Our Fathers” or being washed in the precious blood that the Savior shed? Jesus warned us not to use “vain repetitions” in prayer like the heathen (Matthew 6:7). We are saved by grace (unmerited love), and not by religious works (see Ephesians 2:8).
(5) An ecclesiastical hierarchy or priesthood
The idea of an elite priesthood, though found in the Old Testament, is no longer relevant in this era. In the New Testament, every believer is a priest (see I Peter 2:5, 9; Revelation 1: 5-6). The word “priest” means a person who has access into the presence of God, and someone who acts as God’s representative to those who are separated from Him: privileges Jesus grants to all who are saved. No one in the early church wore ecclesiastical garments to indicate their “priesthood” calling. They wore common clothes.
(6) Celibacy for priests and nuns
The demand that priests be celibate is unscriptural and has been the source of many personal failures in the lives of those who had a deep devotion toward God, but were not graced to live a single life. Peter was married, yet he is considered the first pope. How does that work? When did such a tradition creep in? According to Paul’s letters, pastors and bishops should be the husband of one wife, not celibate. Although some do have this “gift” of singleness to concentrate on ministry (like Paul—I Corinthians 7:7), it is not a requirement for all ministers.
Furthermore, even in his day, Paul warned against certain “doctrines of devils” that would be promoted by “seducing spirits” (evil spirits that seduce the mind). Two specific false beliefs that he mentioned were “forbidding to marry” and “commanding to abstain from meats” (1 Timothy 4:3 KJV).
(7) Purgatory and indulgences
This intermediate hell-like state after death is not taught in the Bible. The Scripture only speaks of heaven or hell. One passage (I Corinthians 3:11-15) may be grounds for speculation, but it does not raise clear enough arguments to validate this doctrine. Catholics donate a great deal of money for the purchasing of merits (‘indulgences’) so that loved ones can exit purgatory at an earlier date than their projected time of “incarceration.” However, we can never buy our way into a righteous state with money, even if we spent millions of dollars on candles and special masses. Such a doctrine is ultimately a failure to see the sufficiency of what Jesus did on Golgotha as our means of justification.
Authorities in the Catholic Church have, through the centuries, canonized certain followers of Christ who have exhibited deeper-than-normal devotion to the Lord. They alone are referred to as saints. However, according to the Bible, every born-again believer is a “saint,” not just those who have achieved an exceptional state of piety and moral excellence (see I Corinthians 1:2, Ephesians 1:1; 4:12, Colossians 1:2, 12). The word “saint” means a separated person who is cleansed from the defilement of sin and dedicated in holiness to God. Some may manifest “saintliness” more than others, but all true believers have inherited this status.
(9) The intercession of departed saints
Catholics believe that departed saints can be petitioned in prayer. They then intercede in the behalf of the petitioner before God. This, too, is an unbiblical practice. First, contacting the dead is forbidden (see Deuteronomy 18:11). Second, it is illogical. What if one million people around the world were simultaneously petitioning Peter to intercede in their behalf? To process all these communications and effectively respond, he (or any other saint being petitioned) would have to be omniscient and omnipresent. However, these are divine attributes that only God can claim.
(10) Devotion to Mary
The Catholic veneration of Mary is, in some extreme cases, like goddess worship found in pagan religions. Only God Himself should receive our devotion and adoration. Mary is not the perpetual virgin. She had children by Joseph after she conceived of the Holy Spirit and brought forth the Lord Jesus. She should certainly be deeply respected for the beauty of her character and faithfulness to God, but no more than that. She had to be born again and filled with the Holy Spirit in the upper room just like the other disciples to find salvation and completion in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible does not teach her “immaculate conception” or her “assumption” into heaven: two foundational Catholic ideas.
(11) Statues and Icons
God commanded from Mount Sinai that His people should never make any images of things in heaven or earth to bow down before them, yet Catholics regularly break the second commandment because of church tradition (see Exodus 20:4-5). Too much sacredness is placed on icons of various saints and even images of the Lord Himself. God has never been pleased with such practices.
This is the idea that the bread and wine in Communion literally become the body and blood of the Lord Jesus. Most Protestants believe in the beauty, power and necessity of practicing the Lord’s Supper—that it is very sacred, but only symbolic. Because Jesus was “the Word. . .made flesh,” digesting the Word into our innermost being is the ultimate act of ‘eating His flesh’ (John 1:14). Because the Scripture teaches “the life is in the blood,” partaking of the wine (usually unfermented grape juice) represents ‘drinking in’ the life-giving Spirit of God, which should be our highest goal (Leviticus 17:11).
Every time we celebrate communion (which incidentally can be done just-as-effectively in the privacy of our own homes without an officiating minister) we are openly making a statement that we are fulfilling Jesus’s command to live a Word-filled, Spirit-filled life—thus “eating His flesh and drinking His blood” (see John 6:22-59). The Bible explains that as often as we eat bread, we commemorate the Lord’s death until He comes back again (see 1 Corinthians 11:26).
As a final thought, let me once again say that I have great respect for many dedicated Christians who are also affiliated with the Catholic Church. In mass crusades I have conducted in India, some of my main supporters have been deeply sincere parish priests, many of whom have suffered severe persecution because of their public endorsement of our meetings. So many Catholics are genuine lovers of God. I readily acknowledge that.
However, Jesus explained in John 4:23 that if we are to be “true worshippers” we must worship God “in spirit and in truth.” Part of this includes embracing the right doctrine. So isn’t it time that we shine the spotlight on these issues once again?
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.