By Brad Pixley, Adjunct Bible Professor
When asked where we would be if the Reformation had never happened, I immediately thought of an experience I had when I was a preteen. Roughly 40 years ago, I made my one and only visit to a Roman Catholic church. My family and I were gathered at my grandmother’s house for Christmas Eve dinner when one of my cousins announced she was leaving to attend Mass. Though no one else in the family was Catholic, she had converted to Catholicism some years before. I asked if I could accompany her, mainly because I thought it was cool she was going to “church” when the rest of the family had no plans to do so. With my parent’s permission, my cousin and I departed.
The building itself looked surprisingly like most other churches I had been in. The furnishings on the “stage” were a bit different, but that seemed inconsequential to me. We took our seats in one of the pews, and shortly thereafter the service began. Now the differences were obvious. Instead of a warm, holiday message from a pastor, a finely-robed priest led a series of formal incantations to which those in attendance gave carefully cadenced responses. I followed along as best I could by mimicking those around me. I tried to say what they said and I knelt and stood at the same times they did. I had been raised to be a respectful young man, so I thought that I was doing the right thing. My cousin didn’t bother to stop me until everyone lined up to receive communion. At that point, she made sure I waited for her in the pew.
Her protestation confused me because I had grown-up in a Protestant tradition that practiced open communion. My church allowed anyone who professed to be a believer to participate in the communion service. So, being denied the same was troublesome to me. It was clear that the people with which I was worshipping didn’t see me as one of them. In hindsight, I’m thankful that my cousin stopped me from taking communion. I only wish she had stopped me from going with her to Mass in the first place, because I now understand that the Roman Catholic Mass is a corruption of the biblical gospel. Unwittingly, I was participating in a blasphemous act.
I know the charge of blasphemy is a heavy one. So, I’ll explain the charge by letting the Catholic doctrine speak for itself. Listing four ‘purposes’ of the Mass, ordained Roman Catholic priest Cormac Burke states that the “third purpose” is “to make up for our sins.” That statement alone is a plain denial of the sufficiency of the atonement made by Jesus Christ at Calvary. My charge of blasphemy is confirmed, though, by Burke’s own explanation. He states,
The penitential act, the “I confess” that we all say together at the start of the Mass does not pardon mortal sins. Forgiveness of mortal sins has to be obtained in the sacrament of penance. It is also important to remember that a person who has committed a mortal sin cannot go to communion unless he goes to confession beforehand. But the penitential act, if it is said well, certainly helps to obtain pardon for present venial sins as well as to stir up new sorrow for past sins that have already been forgiven. In this way it helps us to purify ourselves and so to take better part in the Holy Mass.
So, according to Cormac Burke, Roman Catholic doctrine asserts that forgiveness of both mortal and venial sins is procured by the “penitential act” of confessing said sins to a priest. This act “helps” an individual “to purify [himself].” Thus, by requiring its adherents to participate in a ritualistic, repetitious works-based atoning “act” performed in the Mass, Roman Catholic doctrine blasphemes the monergistic atonement wrought by Christ at Calvary.
The Reformation doctrine of Solus Christus (Christ Alone) is a clear protest of Roman Catholic doctrinal degeneracy. John Calvin gives a profound, biblical defense of Solus Christus in his Institutes of the Christian Religion,
…how can it be said that God, who prevents us with his mercy, was our enemy until he was reconciled to us by Christ. For how could he have given us in his only-begotten Son a singular pledge of his love, if he had not previously embraced us with free favour? …The mode in which the Spirit usually speaks in Scripture is, that God was the enemy of men until they were restored to favour by the death of Christ, (Rom. 5:10); that they were cursed until their iniquity was expiated by the sacrifice of Christ, (Gal. 3:10, 13); that they were separated from God, until by means of Christ’s body they were received into union, (Col. 1:21, 22)… Scripture teaches, that [man] was estranged from God by sin, an heir of wrath, exposed to the curse of eternal death, excluded from all hope of salvation, a complete alien from the blessing of God, the slave of Satan, captive under the yoke of sin; in fine, doomed to horrible destruction, and already involved in it; that then Christ interposed, took the punishment upon himself, and bore what by the just judgment of God was impending over sinners; with his own blood expiated the sins which rendered them hateful to God, by this expiation satisfied and duly propitiated God the Father, by this intercession appeased his anger, on this basis founded peace between God and men, and by this tie secured the Divine benevolence toward them… In short, we are so instructed by divine truth, as to perceive that without Christ God is in a manner hostile to us, and has his arm raised for our destruction. Thus taught, we look to Christ alone for divine favour and paternal love.
The reformers parted ways with the Roman Catholic Church because of its blasphemous view of salvation. The Heidelberg Catechism captures the gravity of seeking salvation in anyone or anything other than Christ. Question 30 asks,
“Do such then believe in Jesus the only Saviour who seek their salvation and happiness in saints, in themselves, or anywhere else?
Answer – They do not; for though they boast of him in words yet in deeds they deny Jesus the only deliverer and Saviour: for one of these two things must be true that either Jesus is not a complete Saviour or that they who by a true faith receive this Saviour must find all things in him necessary to their salvation.”
Where would we be today if the Reformation had never happened? One need look no further than the Roman Catholic Church in his or her neighborhood to find the answer to that question. Like those who are prey to the condemnatory, works-oriented salvation still pandered by the Roman Catholic Church, we would be attending Mass with them every week trying to work our way to heaven, but getting nowhere.