The vast majority of conservative Protestant apologists have retained the Reformers view that the historic Christian Church of the 16th was so corrupt that it could no longer be called “Christian”—in other words, the Christian Church had become apostate. The Reformers relied on this argument to justify their schism from the Catholic Church; which schism, as all know, led to the formation of numerous, competing visible sects (now in the thousands).
Though the importance of the visible Church has all but vanished from the minds of so many post-modern “evangelical” Christians, it was not so with the magisterial Reformers. One recent Protestant author remarked:
Unlike modern Evangelicalism, the classical Protestant Reformers held to a high view of the Church. When the Reformers confessed extra ecclesiam nulla salus, which means “there is no salvation outside the Church,” they were not referring to the invisible Church of all the elect. Such a statement would be tantamount to saying that outside of salvation there is no salvation. It would be a truism. The Reformers were referring to the visible Church…The Church is the pillar and ground, the interpreter, teacher, and proclaimer of God’s Word…The Church has authority because Christ gave the Church authority. The Christian who rejects the authority of the Church rejects the authority of the One who sent her (Luke 10:16). (Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, pp. 268, 269.)
Now, keep the above mind while reading the following quotes:
Since the gospel stands at the heart of Christian faith, Luther and other Reformers regarded the debate concerning justification as one involving an essential truth of Christianity, a doctrine no less essential than the Trinity or the dual natures of Christ. Without the gospel the church falls. Without the gospel the church is no longer a church.
The logic followed by the Reformers is this:
1. Justification by faith alone is essential to the gospel.
2. The gospel is essential to Christianity and to salvation.
3. The gospel is essential to a church’s being a true church.
4. To reject justification by faith alone is to reject the gospel.
The Reformers concluded that when Rome rejected and condemned sola fide, it condemned itself, in effect, and ceased to be a true church. This precipitated the creation of new communions or denominations seeking to continue biblical Christianity and to be true churches with a true gospel. (R.C. Sproul, Faith Alone, p. 19.)
Rome did not teach that justification was without Christ or apart from him (Rome affirmed the necessity of Christ’s atonement and of his infused grace for a person to be justified). Nor did Rome consider the merit of Christ to be unnecessary. The issue was how the objective, redemptive work of Christ is subjectively appropriated by the sinner. Also to the controversy was the objective grounds of justification. (Ibid. p. 36.)
Packer rightly observes that the issue of justification became an issue, not merely of error or even heresy, but of apostasy. Rome considered Luther to be apostate. The Reformers likewise considered Rome to be apostate. (Ibid. p. 69.)
The conflict over justification by faith alone boils down to this: Is the ground of our justification the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, or the righteousness of Christ working within us? For the Reformers the doctrine of justification by faith alone meant justification by Christ and his [imputed] righteousness alone. (Ibid. p. 73.)
Reformed theology insists that the biblical doctrine of justification is forensic in nature…Here the term forensic refers to the judicial system and judicial proceedings. (Ibid. p. 95)
The question of inherent versus imputed righteousness goes to the heart of the Reformation debate. (Ibid. p. 99.)
If the gospel is the announcement of sola fide, as the Reformers believed, and if sola fide with its stress on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is essential to the gospel, then any denial of it is certainly a threat to it. (Ibid. p. 113.)
Summation: the “gospel” = justification by faith alone, through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone.
Herein lies THE historic conundrum: not one extant Christian writer until Martin Luther interpreted the Biblical gospel as delineated above*. (This is confirmed by the highly respected Protestant scholar, Alister McGrath, in his definitive work, Iustitia Dei – now in its 3rd edition.) If indeed R.C. Sproul (and the Reformers) are correct concerning the content of the Biblical gospel, then one must conclude that the gospel was essentially lost to the world for nearly 1500 years until “the Reformers discovered” it.
I would like to submit to all that such a view of Church history suggests, nay, shouts to us, that a mere “reformation” in the 16th century did not occur, but rather, what we really have is a “replacement/substitution”; a “replacement/substitution” of one, historic, apostolic Church, with many competing churches.
I would further argue that the “replacements” stemming from the 16th century are totally devoid of any true authority from Jesus Christ, for their church officers were neither called directly by Jesus, nor by anyone who did in fact have real authority from Him.
Enter Joseph Smith Jr. and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Apologists for the LDS Church very early on realized that the Protestant position had serious deficiencies in their historic paradigm, one of which included the contention that it is impossible to derive true authority from an apostate church; as such, what was needed was not a mere reformation, but rather, a restoration based on a divine, authoritative, calling by Jesus Christ (or one of His authorized authorities). I cannot help but agree that such an assessment is a valid one, and submit that an objective reflection on this issue of apostasy yields but two consistent options: either the Church founded by our Lord in the first century did not apostatize (and was protected from such via divine assistance); or if it did apostatize, a divine restoration was needed.
John Henry Newman so succinctly assessed the Protestant paradigm with his now famous words:
“And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this…To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”
Grace and peace,
*Note: Recent assertions by some Protestant apologists that justification by faith alone, through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone, can be found in the writings of Clement of Rome and some other early Christian writers are seriously flawed, being based on a selective (and anachronistic) reading of their writings, as ALL patristic scholars of repute (Protestant and Catholic alike) attest to.