Why Did the Reformation Succeed?
What was it that made the retrieval of gospel truth by Martin Luther and others so appealing to the people living in the early years of the 16th century? To answer this question is to account for why the Protestant Reformation took hold in the hearts of so many people. I believe the answer to this question is found in an understanding of the Roman Catholic sacrament of penance, and in particular the ways in which it undermined the centrality of grace and the finality and sufficiency of the work of Christ for sinners. Continue reading . . .
What was it that made the retrieval of gospel truth by Martin Luther and others so appealing to the people living in the early years of the 16th century? To answer this question is to account for why the Protestant Reformation took hold in the hearts of so many people. I believe the answer to this question is found in an understanding of the Roman Catholic sacrament of penance, and in particular the ways in which it undermined the centrality of grace and the finality and sufficiency of the work of Christ for sinners.
If you are interested in pursuing this theme in greater detail, you can do no better than to read Thomas Tentler's Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977). According to Roman Catholic theology, penance is the means appointed by God to deal with sins that Christians commit after baptism. It consists of four parts: a person who has sinned and is contrite (contrition) goes to the priest and confesses (confession) his sin; the priest absolves (absolution) him and then lays upon him a temporal punishment for which he must make satisfaction.
Steven Ozment (in his book, The Age of Reform [Yale University Press]) provides this description:
"When religiously earnest people sought forgiveness for immoral behavior, they encountered a very demanding penitential system, one that provided only temporary relief, and even that with conditions attached and the threat of purgatorial suffering for unrepented sins. Full, unconditional forgiveness of sin and assurance of salvation were utterly foreign concepts to medieval theology and religious practice. Effective removal of religious guilt and anxiety this side of eternity would have meant the end of medieval religious institutions, and advocates of this-worldly perfection were roundly condemned during the Middle Ages" (216).
As Tentler explains, "one knows he is forgiven because he is willing to perform the overwhelming penitential exercises demanded by the church. The consolation of this system lies in its difficulty" (14). Whereas confession and absolution in medieval Catholicism secured forgiveness from the eternal guilt (culpa) of sin, there was still the temporal guilt that called for punishment (poena) and suffering in purgatory. Tentler explains:
"According to the medieval theology of penance, a sinner must not only be absolved from his guilt but must also pay for his sins in the form of some kind of punishment. Purgatory is the middle place of destination for people who die absolved of guilt but with an outstanding debt of temporal punishment. Not until the expiatory fires of purgatory have 'satisfied' this debt will they enter heaven [again, in a real sense, according to this view it is not ultimately the suffering of Christ Jesus that secures one's place in heaven, but one's own suffering].
Obviously absolution from guilt is far more important than remission of punishment. Nevertheless, indulgences, which are ways of reducing the punishment owed for sin, aroused controversy in the sixteenth century because Christians retained a lively interest in that intermediate suffering place and wanted to avoid its worst or, if possible, all of its pains. And that is one reason why penance – the work of 'satisfaction' for sin that the priest assigns the penitent in confession [notice again that it is the sinner, not the Lord Jesus, who makes 'satisfaction'] – is vital to the practice of forgiveness" (318).
Ozment agrees, explaining that
"in the final stage of the traditional sacrament, priestly absolution transformed this eternal penalty, justly imposed by God on the sinner, into a manageable temporal penalty, that is, something the penitent could do already in this life to lessen his future punishment; for example, special prayers, fasts, almsgiving, retreats, and pilgrimages. If such works of satisfaction were neglected, the penitent could expect to burn for his laxness after death in purgatory" (216-17).
Although the granting of indulgences was quite old in the RCC, it was refined by the papal bull Unigenitus of 1343 which set forth the treasury of merits. Thompson explains: "It was proposed in that bull that the Catholic Church holds as a treasure the infinitely copious merits of Christ and of all the saints – merits far in excess of any that they themselves may have needed – and that the church may dispense these merits in the inexhaustible treasury to remit poena, that is, the recompense owed by living Christians" (Humanists and Reformers: A History of the Renaissance and Reformation, 395).
What this reveals is that Luther’s proclamation of full and final forgiveness of all guilt of all sin by grace alone, through faith alone, in the finished work of Christ alone, and all for the glory of God alone, was an overwhelming liberating and irresistibly appealing message to an oppressed and spiritually enslaved populace. Ozment sums up:
"The essential condition of the Reformation's success was aggrieved hearts and minds; a perceived need for reform and determination to grasp it are the only things without which it can be said categorically said there would have been no Reformation" (204).
"The failure of the late medieval church to provide a theology and spirituality that could satisfy and discipline religious hearts and minds was the most important religious precondition of the Reformation" (208).
This, in the final analysis, was the spark that lit the forest fire that we know as the Protestant Reformation.