I grew up in a tradition in which I was largely unaware of the Protestant Reformation. I knew I wasn’t a Roman Catholic and I really was unsure why. But I knew to be “Catholic” was bad, and to be “Baptist” was good. Much to my shock one day as I read the Apostle’s Creed (which was presented as the doctrinal statement of a youth ministry organization with which I was becoming newly acquainted) I saw the words “I believe in…the holy catholic Church.” I paused, stunned, and asked my friend who had presented it to me why this organization would be on board with the “Catholic” church. He explained that this word simply meant “universal church,” and we moved on. Later, I was attending a church that was a rather high liturgical gathering where they recited the Apostle’s Creed every week, and again, I was struck by the word, and once again was reminded of its meaning.
I can’t recall when in my growth as a believer I began to study the Protestant Reformation. I suppose it came somewhere between my undergrad studies, through my years of ministry into my grad studies, and onward. Somewhere along that path I remember being hit with the reality that Martin Luther was not seeking to start a new church but preserve the church which is Christ’s church and one which was and has always been universal.
To put it simply (and begging forgiveness of my Historical Theology colleagues) it was the Roman church which had gone awry. Luther was seeking to bring change to the Roman church, hoping to bring it back to where it had been before the onset of such travesties as indulgences, the popularity of which had been uplifted by such charlatans as Tetzel in his day. Luther’s pen hammered out such words as this, “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.” Luther had had a crisis of faith if you will, which led him to such conclusions. These conclusions were not without the help of pre-reformers, especially the work of Jan Hus, who had died a martyr’s death for daring to teach against Roman heresy. But the work of the Spirit is wrought through the truth of the Scriptures, and Luther’s reading of Romans 1:17 was what God ordained to open the monk’s eyes to God’s perfect work of grace in the finished work of Christ as the means by which man is justified. Luther in his own words states, “When I discovered that, I was born again of the Holy Ghost. And the doors of paradise swung open, and I walked through.”
Still yet, Luther’s hope was that in the challenge he presented in the 95 theses, the church would bow to the authority of Scripture rather than the Pope. As time would prove, Luther would eventually be brought up on charges and from this former monk’s protest an outgrowth of gospel recovery occurred. I use the word recovery purposefully to highlight the fact that though we are not Roman Catholic (nor if we are to remain faithful to the Scriptural understanding of the Gospel can we be), we are still part of the Apostolic and therefore catholic (universal) faith. We still hold to the truths which are found in the Apostle’s Creed, along with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. It is true that the Roman Catholic church can also agree with these creeds, but what is “lost” somewhere between A.D. 381 and A.D. 1517 concerning the purity of the gospel, is regained in what Luther and the other reformers bring to bear upon the consciences of the world in their day. Indeed, the Council of Trent (A.D. 1545–63) formally canonized the errant ways of the Roman church in response to what Luther (and by that time Calvin as well as others) had brought in their protestation. Until that time, one could possibly say that, though in turmoil, the church was still existent in a universal form, but it needed major reform to exist in unity. Again, Rome’s “fate” was sealed when Trent became the official canon of its church.
Standing on this side of the Protestant Reformation much has developed over the last 500 years. Here I write as a Particular Baptist, not a Lutheran or a Presbyterian, and some of these brethren would be reluctant to call me “Truly Reformed.” But I stand as an heir of the Reformation nonetheless and I am happy to celebrate today what God in His providence did to preserve the true catholic church. I believe we stand in the tradition of Scripture and the early church when we submit to what God has revealed through the Apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 12:12-13, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” Though Paul is writing this to a local assembly, and he intends to emphasize unity to this raucous bunch, the universal intention to the global church is clearly evident as well. Therefore, let us celebrate together, even with our secondary and tertiary differences, what God has done to preserve His bride until He returns for her!