(Third in a series.)
Earlier in this series, we spoke of the four devotions which formed the center of the communal life of the first church in Jerusalem. The Apostle Peter preached the Gospel on the Day of Pentecost. In response to his preaching, we read this of the first Christian Church made up of those who responded having been given the gift of faith in Jesus Christ:
So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:41-42).
From the beginning, the baptized members of the first church in Jerusalem were “continually devoting” themselves to the preaching of the apostles. That was the first of their four devotions.
Commenting on Luke’s list of the Church’s four devotions, Calvin points out the significance of the Scripture listing this devotion first:
[Luke] begins with doctrine which is, as it were, the soul of the Church… The Spirit of God pronounces that the Church is principally to be discerned by this mark, if the simplicity or purity of the doctrine delivered by the apostles does flourish in the same.1
In the Middle Ages, Rome abandoned preaching, replacing it with their indulgences, pilgrimages, ablutions, doctrinal casuistry, paintings, cathedrals, harmonic choirs, last rites, ordinations, elevations, religious works reserved to “the religious,” and their idolatrous Mass. There was nothing that could even remotely be referred to as “fellowship.” And concerning what Luke refers to as “the breaking of bread,” Rome’s liturgy of the Mass was read in Latin. It was entirely incomprehensible to the common man as well as most every uncommon elector or prince.
Preaching was exceedingly rare. Just a brief homily tacked onto the front end of the Mass. Luther wrote:
Hosea says, “Because you hast rejected knowledge, I will reject you, that you shall not do the office of priesthood to me.” (Hosea 4:6) They are …called pastors because they are to pasture, that is, to teach….
See, whither has the glory of the Church departed! The whole earth is filled with priests, bishops, cardinals and clerics, and yet not one of them preaches by virtue of his office…2
Calvin’s judgment was the same. In an exchange with Cardinal Sadoleto, he writes:
[W]hat sermons in Europe then exhibited that simplicity with which Paul wishes a Christian people to be always occupied? Nay, what one sermon was there from which old wives might not carry off more whimsies than they could devise at their own fireside in a month? …Only a few expressions were thrown in from the Word of God, that by their majesty they might procure credit for these frivolities. But as soon as our Reformers raised the standard, all these absurdities, in one moment, disappeared from amongst us.
When the Genevans, instructed by our preaching, escaped from the gulf of error in which they were immersed, and betook themselves to a purer teaching of the gospel, you call it defection from the truth of God; when they threw off the tyranny of the Roman Pontiff, in order that they might establish among themselves a better form of Church, you call it a desertion from the Church.3
The problem we face today is that we are certain we are reformed and there’s no need to restore preaching to our own Protestant worship.
We’re wrong, and we can begin to understand how and why by looking back at the Reformation.
What Christian brothers today aren’t told and thus can’t know about the Reformation is that it was motivated by love for the sheep resulting in a burning commitment to feed them. We are not honoring or following the reformers by our endless repetition of doctrinal shibboleths such as sola Scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria (Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ Alone, glory to God Alone). These phrases are merely one helpful summary of the reformers’ doctrinal commitments.
Nevertheless, what made the Reformation earthshaking was the restoration of Biblical preaching.
Rome’s scholastics, sacramentalists, and sodomites had perfected their abuse of God’s sheep to the point that the mission of preachers sent out by the Pope was to hoodwink the princes and peasants into buying their own and their loved ones’ salvation. Roman wolves-in-preacher’s-clothing such as Tetzel sold scraps of paper merchandising the Vatican’s treasury of merit to the end of promising salvation to the purchaser and bearer of that scrap of paper.
Those inclined to deny the close association of Rome’s scholasticism, sacramentalism, and sodomy when the reformers began their work should ponder these words of Luther:
[T]he chastity of popes and cardinals… is a special kind of chastity, transcending the common, spiritual type. In Italian it is termed buseron, which is the chastity of Sodom and Gomorrah. For God was constrained to blind and to plague his enemy and adversary, the pope and the cardinals, above others, so that they did not remain worthy of sinning with wenches in a natural way, but, in accord with their merited reward, they had to dishonor their own body and person through themselves and to sink into such perversion and impenitence that they no longer considered this to be sin, but jested about it as though it were a game of cards about which they might laugh and joke with impunity.
…I am not lying to you. …how openly and shamelessly the pope and the cardinals in Rome practice sodomy…. This vice is so prevalent among them…4
Five centuries ago, the Protestant reformers surveyed what we today call “Christendom,” and they mourned over the harassed and helpless sheep being milked by the Pope and his minions. Rome sold her spiritual wares so the Pope would have the money to continue paying those constructing St. Peter’s Basilica (as well as Michelangelo painting the Pope’s Sistine Chapel).
Surveying this idolatry, the Reformers loved God and grieved that the sheep their Lord had purchased with His Own precious blood were being fattened up and eaten by their shepherds. No one preached to them the good news of the love of God recorded in Scripture.
The Gospel truths weren’t believed because the Gospel truths weren’t known, and the Gospel truths weren’t known because the Gospel truths weren’t preached and the Gospel truths weren’t preached because Rome despised Gospel truths. They had devised a better religion for the masses consisting of scholasticism in doctrine, sodomy in morals, and sacramentalism in worship.
Now really, how different are we today—we who claim to be the true keepers of the Protestant Reformation?
There are many ways this point could be proven, but remember the title of this series. The center of the Reformation was the restoration of preaching of God’s Word with authority so that the teaching of the Apostles the first Church of Jerusalem had put at the front of the lives of its sheep was restored to the sheep Rome had been fattening up and eating for centuries.
The proof of this restoration was that, through Reformation preaching, God could again refer to the man “who trembles at My Word.”
Where is that man today? Maybe more to the point, where are the Christians who desire a preacher who feeds them the teaching of the Apostles so faithfully that they learn to tremble at God’s Word?
‘Do you not fear Me?’ declares the LORD.
‘Do you not tremble in My presence?’ 5
(Third in a series.)