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The Darkness before the Dawn

How many consider the Protestant Reformation to be just an unfortunate breach in Christianity brought about by arguments over minor points of doctrine! Advocates of this view have no concept of the condition of the Roman Catholic Church in the early sixteenth century. By then, it claimed to be the only true, and therefore, pure church. In reality, it had become the false and corrupt church of Antichrist. Instead of upholding New Testament Christianity, it had set up a system of doctrines that were in direct contradiction to the Gospel of Christ. Its power, built up over the centuries, relied on the ignorance and superstition of the people. Services were conducted in Latin, a language not understood by those who attended. These deluded souls were taught that they could only get to heaven through the church.

To grasp the condition of the pre-reformation church, one must have some understanding of the rise of the papacy. By 1500AD, that institution controlled church and society. Roman Catholic historian Lord Acton, commenting upon the moral corruption of the popes of that period, coined the famous saying “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Corrupt popes presided over a corrupt clergy and a corrupt church. While Lord Acton was right in his evaluation of the papacy morally, he failed to recognise that the moral corruption was the result of spiritual corruption. The period from 500AD to 1500AD is known as the ‘Dark Ages’. It was very dark spiritually because, instead of holding forth the light, the church wilfully obscured the light and replaced truth with falsehood.

The Authority of Scripture
God’s Word is to be a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. And it is the entrance of God’s Word that gives light. (Psalm 119:105, 130) But the church concealed the light of Scripture. The authority of popes and church councils in matters of doctrine replaced Scripture as the infallible rule of faith. The church actually became the greatest enemy of the Word of God. It was a crime punishable by death to translate scripture into the language of the people or to even read it. Pope Innocent III decreed, “We prohibit laymen possessing copies of the Old and New Testament.” The Roman Catholic Church in Scotland presented a list of 720 earls, gentlemen and artisans who were accused of reading the Bible in English and petitioned the King to put them to death. George Crichton, Bishop of Dunkeld, boasted, “I thank God that I never knew what the Old and New Testament was!” It was a church without a Bible and such a church is as useless as a lighthouse without a light. There was darkness spiritually because the church was ruled not by scripture but by the papacy.

The Atonement of the Saviour
Christ declared that He is the Light of the world and that those who follow Him shall not walk in darkness. (John 8:12) While claiming to be the only church of Christ, Rome was, as the heretics of Paul’s day, preaching ‘another Jesus’. The church hid Christ from the people.  Christ was pictured as stern and unapproachable.  People were taught they had to go to Christ through intermediaries such as the popes, the church, the saints and especially the Virgin Mary, who was termed ‘the ladder to heaven’.

While Scripture clearly presents Christ as the only mediator between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5), the popes set themselves up as mediators and usurped Christ’s offices of Prophet, Priest and King. Pope Pius IX said, “I alone… am the successor of the apostles, the vicar of Jesus Christ. I am the way, the truth, and the life…” (‘Vicar’ = ‘in place of’). The pope claimed to be prophet to the Church, speaking infallibly and authoritatively. Everyone was required to submit to him as King. He was declared to have universal power in the care of souls, and must therefore be obeyed. And the self-proclaimed ‘successor of Peter’ claimed to be a sacrificing priest. The central message of the Bible is that remission of sin is through Christ’s once for all sacrifice for sin. The church contradicted this by turning the Lord’s Table into the Mass, in which the pope and his priests claimed to re-sacrifice Christ for the sins of the living and the dead. Instead of preaching the work of Christ at the cross, Rome professed to repeat that work. According to that church, Christ’s work was not sufficient to atone for sins!

The Assurance of Salvation
In a denial of Scripture (1John 5:13), Rome taught that no-one could possess the assurance that his sins were forgiven or that he enjoyed eternal life. The church’s teaching provided no comforting light in the valley of death. Salvation was seen as a process that depended upon one’s obedience to the church. The pope alone had access to the treasury of grace, which could be used by the church to grant remission from sins to those who obeyed. However, even if one diligently observed church rituals and obtained the sacrament of the last rites from a priest as he came to die, he was assured of no more than purgatory. There, in the flames of suffering, he would, over time, be purged of his sins and obtain repose for his soul. Of course, a loved one could pay for the priest to say a mass, or purchase an indulgence, to speed the process. The consequence of these man-made fables was that the individual could never have assurance of salvation. The peace arising from forgiveness of sins was unknown.  In fact, the church even pronounced a curse upon any who presumed to say that he had assurance of salvation, or that the whole punishment for sin is forgiven.

Spiritual Darkness, Moral Darkness
As shocking and unbelievable as it may seem, many popes were guilty of committing every crime in the catalogue of atrocious sins. Roman Catholic writer Peter De Rosa, in his book ‘Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy’, refers to the popes of the period under consideration as the most evil monsters who walked the face of the earth.

When Martin Luther was just 9 years old, Rodrigo Borgia became pope and took the title Alexander VI. He was described as evil personified. He stole from the funds of the church to provide wealth and estates for his many children. The name Borgia has become a synonym for moral corruption. Savonarola condemned publicly the immoral vices of the pope and his fellow churchmen. He was put to death.

Popes endorsed massacres, atrocities, torture, imprisonment, and inquisitions against those whose only crime was that they would not acknowledge the pope as head of the church or that they had a Bible. Many faithful Christians who sought to raise a lamp of witness for Christ suffered horrendous deaths.  The sheer number of people imprisoned by the church, and the hideous tortures they endured, are mind boggling. It is claimed that in one day the pope of the age was responsible for the death of more people than the total number executed by pagan Rome during the early centuries after Christ.

The power of the Roman Catholic Church reached its zenith in the 12th through 15th centuries. However, its open corruption and wickedness brought it into increasing contempt among the common people.

The light of Gospel truth had almost been extinguished by persecution and false teaching. However, it is often said that it is darkest just before the dawn. The dawn was about to break over Western Europe. That dawn came on October 31st 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses against Indulgences on the church door in Wittenberg. And the rest, as they say, is history – glorious history.

A Different Church?
Ecumenists, and sadly some evangelicals, will argue the Roman Catholic Church has changed since the medieval era. All churches, therefore, should now unite. On 31st October last year, Pope Francis joined Lutheran leaders in Sweden to mark the beginning of the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation. One aim was to forge closer links between the two churches.

It is correct to state that the Roman Catholic Church has changed since medieval times, but not for the better, rather for the worse! The chilling fact is that the Roman Catholic Church still holds to the same doctrines, but popes have added even more unscriptural, anti-Christian dogmas. For example, in 1950, the papacy pronounced the ‘bodily assumption’ of Mary. This doctrine asserts that her body did not see corruption but ascended to heaven. Today, there is more Mary worship in the modern Roman Catholic Church than at any previous time. However, that church is unable to dominate society as it once did. And we still enjoy the civil and religious liberties won for us at the Reformation.

Dr Ron Johnstone.