There used to be a time when your loyalty to the Protestant cause was judged by how much you hated Catholics. But today, with all the ecumenical dialogue, the Manhattan Declaration, the ECT council, and the postmodern virtue of tolerance, people are much more willing to ignore the water under the bridge. “Maybe we overreacted” is the thought of many.

To Catholics, since Vatican II, Protestants are no longer anathema (which is a pretty bad thing to be), but are “separated brethren” (which is not so bad).

Attitudes are changing. One could could argue that attitudes are changing for the better. But have the issues changed? As we are on the eve of Reformation Day, let us remind ourselves what was at stake nearly 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, when a young Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed a bold list of ninety-five complaints against the institutionalized church of the day that started what we know as the Great Reformation.

Here is the scoop: Five hundred years ago we had a “situation” in the church. We now call it the “Great Reformation,” but who knew at the time it would be a reformation of any kind, much less a “great” one? Catholics see it as yet another rebellious schism. The first major division in the Christian church happened in 1054, when the Eastern church got fed up with the Pope and thumbed its nose at him (or something like that). The Great Reformation was the second. For Protestants, this was not only a reforming of the church, but a reclaiming of the Gospel which had been obscured and overshadowed by the institutionalized church of the day.

While there were and are a lot of issues that divide Roman Catholics and Protestants, there are two which overshadow the rest and define the essence of the Great Refomation: authority and justification. The issue of authority has been called the “formal” cause of the Reformation while the issue of justification was the “material” cause. In this brief post I would like to focus on these two issues.

1. Authority: Where do we go for truth?

To the institutionalized church of the day (now known as the Roman Catholic Church), both Scripture and Tradition (notice the capital “T”) represented the one “deposit of faith” that was handed down from the Apostles (i.e. written and unwritten tradition). The church, as represented by the Pope and the congregation of bishops, could interpret both infallibly, being protected by the Holy Spirit. Think of a three-legged stool. All three (Scripture, Tradition, and the Church) serve as “legs” supporting the “stool” – the church’s ultimate authority.

To Protestants, this represented an abuse of authority. While the institutionalized church had authority, it did not have ultimate authority. While tradition (notice the lower case “t”) was very important and to be respected, it did not share equal authority with Scripture, but served Scripture. Everything, including unwritten tradition, the councils, and the Pope, had to be tested by and submit to Scripture. Protestants repositioned both the church and tradition underneath the Scripture.

The battle cry of the Reformers here was sola Scriptura: the Scriptures alone were our final and only infallible source from God.

2. Justification: How is a person made right with God?

Here the issue was not necessarily the nature of justification, but the instrumental cause (from a human standpoint) of justification. The institutionalized church believed that justification was a process brought about in the individual’s cooperation with God through their faith and works. People were not justified, but were being justified, and they could never really know of their own eternal security. For most, the best that they could hope for was that they died and spent a certain amount of time (usually very extended) in a place called “Purgatory” having their venial (not so bad) sins purged through a painful cleansing process. Then, once released from Purgatory, they would move on to heaven. As modern Roman Catholics would put it, “Purgatory is the time to wash before dinner.”

The Protestants believed this was a serious distortion of the Gospel message, likened to the Galatian error. This distortion, argued the Protestants, arose in the late middle ages with the growth of the Sacramental system (you know, the necessity of Mass, confession, baptism, etc.). Protestants believed that justification was through the faith of the individual alone and that works did not contribute in any way. Otherwise, grace is not really grace. Justification, to the Reformers, was an event, not a process. It was a “forensic” or a legal act in which the believing sinner was declared righteous, having Christ’s righteousness imputed to their account. There was nothing that man could do to add to or take away from their justification. Any attempts to work for one’s justification (including time spent in Purgatory) was a diminishing of the value of the cross – in essence, saying Christ’s  work was not enough. As well, Protestants, unlike Catholics, believed that we could have assurance of our ultimate salvation.

The battle cry of the Reformation was sola fide: justification is by faith alone, not by any works man can do.

There were other issues that caused great strife during the Reformation, but they all paled in comparison to these two. While the tension and the heat that immediately accompany a fight have cooled, recent events have not changed these two issues. Most Protestants and Catholics still believe that these are hills upon which we should die, even if neither side conclusively believes the other is going to hell.

We must keep in mind, however, how much the two sides do agree. When it comes to the person and work of Christ, conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics (along with Eastern Orthodox) all believe that Jesus Christ is the God-man (fully God and fully man) who died on the cross and rose bodily from the grave as an atonement for sin. All believe that salvation is purely by the grace of God and that the faith of the individual is necessary. And, significantly, all believe that Christ is the only way to God.

Was the Reformation necessary? I believe so. The communication and purity of the Gospel was at stake. Amidst all the conciliations going on today, we need to keep this in mind: things have not changed that much. We can love each other and appreciate the common heritage we share. We can even learn much from one another. But there is still a serious divide and Protestants should dare not compromise the Gospel by sweeping the Reformation under the rug. The Gospel is too important.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    16 replies to "Reformation in a Nutshell"

    • […] of the Reformation, by drawing some comparisons between Protestant and Catholic theology.  Click HERE to read about the Reformation in a Nutshell. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); […]

    • Shawn

      I’m beginning to wonder, as I talk to my Luthern friends, whether we are lumping too many reformation folks together. For example, the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist are NOT symbolic, they are very effectual. They are required for salvation, and / or spiritual growth. Does anyone here know differently? The mantra “Baptism saves” , and they mean water baptism, as it cannot be separated from H.S. Baptism, should say enough to make us look at this closer. You can throw off this regeneration (that comes at Baptism) but only through Baptism is regeneration effected… At least that’s what I’ve been told by a friend, who is very, very knowledgeable about his MissouriSsynod beliefs.

    • Leslie Jebaraj

      Michael: Since Reformation was a reclaiming of Justification by Faith Alone, is it correct to make statements like, if you abandon the Reformation, you abandon the Gospel. Obviously, the Gospel is much more than being justified. So, is it correct to equate the Reformation theology with the Gospel itself? Could I please have your thoughts on this? Thanks.

    • Nick

      I realize this is the “Reformation in a Nutshell,” but it could run the danger of oversimplifying what is in reality a multi-faceted disagreement. For example, it is critical to point out that Lutherans, Calvinists, and other groups are not united among themselves, both as invidual groups and as one ‘big tent’. The Catholic side would point out that if “Reform(ation)” is the goal, there first needs to be an official Protestant position on various topics, including disagreements on how to view Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide.

      Consider two (of many) examples that broadly divide Protestantism: (a) there is widespread disagreement on how to view Infant Baptism in relation to Sola Scriptura, and (b) there is widespread disagreement on whether salvation can be lost or not, directly impacting Sola Fide.

      Without a sharp and clear manner of representing the “official” Protestant position on such subjects, the Catholic Church can hardly be in a position to “reform” – indeed, one should have their own house in order first before pointing to the alleged clutter in another’s home. If there is no “official” Protestant position, then which of the competing views is the Church to take? If the Catholic Church subscribes to the Book of Concord, they’d undoubtedly be condemned and mocked by Protestants who disagree with Concord.

      If there is a nutshell problem, I think it’s that both sides need to look in the mirror. A recent article came out by a preacher who said something to the effect:
      “Are we still out to Reform the Catholic Church, or did we go off and do our own thing? The Reformation only makes sense in light of an END in reforming Catholicism, not making an END in settling down in our own denominations.”

    • Saskia

      I am doing my teaching prac at a Catholic school at the moment, and I must say that most of the time I do not feel significantly different in my faith than what is represented at school.

      Having said that, there are one or two things that do make me uneasy, and the emphasis on works is definitely one of them. The Papal authority is less mentioned. The other one I don’t like is praying to Mary (as distinct from asking Mary to pray *for* you which, though I am ambivalent about it, certainly doesn’t have the same theological repercussions as praying to her).

      Also, this is not a theological difference, but an emphasis difference – I find that the emphasis is too slanted toward the death of Christ. Obviously this is an important emphasis, but today, the kids were writing names of dead friends and relatives to be prayed for on all souls day, and a few of them wrote Jesus. This shocked me – how could an understanding like that possibly fall through the cracks? I think (not sure) it may be this emphasis.


    • Constantine

      Nick is of course, errantly casting his RC presuppositions onto the Christian church and raising secondary issues in an effort to confuse Dr. Patton’s point.

      The fact is that all Protestant denominations affirm the solas of the Reformation: sola fide, sola gratia, sola Scriptura, solo Christus and sola Dei Gloria. Therefore, Protestants are united on the issues of authority (the formal cause of the Reformation) and justification (the material cause). So the raising of infant baptism and eternal security is only an attempt to confuse the real issue with straw men.

      Ironically, if one were to look at how the Roman Catholic church has so completely thrown Augustine under the bus, one would easily see how Rome has deviated over the years on these same two issues. Augustine was baptized by immersion and he taught a doctrine of predestination very close to Calvin’s! Today, of course, Catholics are “sprinkled” and predestination is a sin. How can a church whose past is so contradictory even be considered as a standard?

      Lastly, Nick’s search for certainty on matters of faith in the agreement of men strikes me as non-apostolic. It was St. Paul, after all, who taught that universal human consensus – even if it were to exist – is not the norm for judging the truth. “Let God be true, and every man a liar.” (Romans 3:4). The epistemic truth of God, as Paul goes on to demonstrate, resides only in the Scripture: “As it is written…” Sola Scriptura.

      Dr. Patton is to be commended for his effort here. The work of the Reformation is needed as much today as it was 500 years ago. As long as men bow the knee to man and not God, the gospel must be spread.


    • Nick


      “Secondary issues” in this case are important because simply affirming a slogan is insufficient to signify unity. If one group believes salvation can be lost by their sins, then certainly this means their view of Justification and Christ’s Finished Work are not understood the same as those who teach Eternal Security. Read the Synod of Dort and other standards to see that it’s unacceptable to deviate on certain matters without undermining the Reformed concept of Sola Fide, which the Arminians ended up doing. To say Arminians and Calvinists are united on essentials is to mock the stand each side took in defending what they saw as the purity of the Gospel, even accusing their opponents of being Papist for the ramifications of deviating from a proper understanding of Sola Fide.

    • LUKE1732


      What is “the work of the Reformation”? Does it intend to restore a unified visible church or is there some other ideal organizational arrangement we should hope for?

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      “Most Protestants and Catholics still believe that these are hills upon which we should die, even if neither side conclusively believes the other is going to hell.”

      I don’t know if this statement was meant to be funny, but I chuckled anyways.

    • bruce

      Nick, if all Protestants must have the same united position then we they must equate the chuch and bible, what MCP stated was a central division (authority).

    • Robert Eaglestone


      It seems likely that the goal of *any* reform of the Christian church should be to move her closer to the level of unity and maturity that Paul speaks of in his letter to the Ephesians.


      Granted, sola scriptura and sola fide.

      I am trying to figure out what I can do, now. I have Roman Catholic friends of all types, and evangelical friends of all types. “The issue” seems to hinge on authority, i.e. sola scriptura, with my Roman friends, in that their faith in the church is *solely* grounded on its claims to authority. If they didn’t think the Pope was *the Pope*, then it seems to me that most of what I consider to be non-binding would wash away, as would most of the reasons for us to feel like we’re out of fellowship.

      Finally, I’m trying to figure out what a unified, reformed Church might look like. I have to assume there will always be breakaways, just as there will always be tares among the wheat. But to be part of a uniting Church which doesn’t compromise on doctrine yet allows diversity under one accountable network or structure is difficult to imagine.

      My wife and I are members of Stonebriar in Frisco, and our outlook is essentially Baptist, but I would be fine with a Liturgy (or Book of Common Prayer), genuflection, a Calendar with Saints in it, and (especially) accountability to other churches. I would be fine with a “lite” episcopate or presbytery — where (1) accountability is contained entirely separately from that organization, and *therefore* (2) churches are free to run in an “accountable-congregational” mode as often as they prefer without penalty.

      There’s still lots to think about, and of course there are issues I hold to which some may consider sectarian (e.g. believer’s baptism by immersion), but I have to start somewhere.

    • Val

      Hi, just wanted to clear a few things up. First, since the coucil of Trent, Catholics do declare justification by FAITH alone. This has changes since Luther’s Day.

      Secondly, the Eastern Orthodox Church never actually split from the Catholic Church, the Roman and Eastern Churches were created separately by Constantine (one of his 5 cures for a failing Roman Empire) with two heads of the Church (one in Rome – the west -and one in Constantinople (later Byzantine, then Istanbul) – the east). The two churches were said to be equally representative of Christiandom, just having separate jurisdictions and Popes. The east and west got into a spate over the over use of icons in the western (Roman) church, yes, you read that correctly, the eastern church of icons, ditched unity/brotherhood with the west over their use of iconography – before overusing it themselves in the middle ages. But, there we no wars or church splits, as the two groups ran churches in separate areas.

      Anyways – Catholicism has now changed and accepts justification by faith alone (they don’t call it change of course, but clarification), so really our main difference is sola scriptura in your estimation.

    • LUKE1732

      So is the unity visible or invisible? I’m not sure what “invisible unity” would even mean. Does Christ have one bride or many? If hundreds of denominations with differing beliefs and practices is a valid concept, then “reformation” doesn’t seem like the right word to describe what happened.

    • Robert Eaglestone


      With any church, no matter the denomination, it comes down to what they preach. Do they declare the Gospel? Is the Bible their authority?

      They may have different emphases, they may have weaknesses and strengths, but God honors churches where His Gospel is preached to sinners and His Word is taught. Scripture has lots to say about the church, but it also leaves more wiggle room than is comfortable for us.

    • Nicholas


      What are your thoughts on the Catholic appeal to the Greek text of Scripture in regards to the Reformers claiming the Greek vindicated the Reformation?

      For example, it seems the word “impute” is being given a second look, in Posts like This One.

      It seems a lot can be determined by the Greek text.

    • Steve Meikle

      I abandon the Reformation as a hate fest. Oh, I come to believe increasingly in the doctrines the Reformers alleged they stood for.

      But the foul fruit of the whole thing, leading to the inferno of the 30 years war, shows it was flesh, not Spirit.

      The reformation, among other things was the rage of a monk who discovered, correctly of course, that he had been deceived by his church.

      It was also the resentment of people who were tired of paying taxes to a foreign church far away.

      But the love of Christ? Come now, I know too much history to hold such were ever held then..

      Put it this way. Rome denies certain core doctrines. We protestants show by our lives that we do not believe them. So what is the difference but a hypocrisy on our part?

      We are ALL known by our fruit. Our foul fruit

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