The Christian life is one that can only be lived in dependence on Christ as He is set out in the Scripture. The word of God is the sole authority by which we test all things and to which we hold fast in all matters of faith and practice. If we give him free reign, the great pope within will pervert the clear teaching of Scripture on matters of salvation, worship, and the Christian life. We must constantly return to the Scripture to have our minds and hearts renewed in the knowledge of the God who is over all.
“I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, self.” Martin Luther almost certainly never made this statement (though many have falsely attributed it to him). It is, however, an accurate and quite helpful statement, as far as it goes. We all have a great pope within. By nature, none of us wants to submit ourselves to God and the sole authority of His word. All of us enjoy being a law unto ourselves. We’re all committed to laying out standards with which we are comfortable–standards that appear to benefit us. We go on to affirm our own standards by finding affinity with others who have similar standards. We then live in an echo chamber of a functional magisterium we have collectively formed. Of course, at the head of this functional magisterium is the pope of self. While this is certainly the mode of operation for unbelievers, it is not entirely eradicated when we are converted. In fact, aspects of this functional Roman Catholicism are ever manifested in the hearts of believers. Here are several ways in which this manifests itself in our everyday experiences.
1. Penance. In the first of his 95 theses, Martin Luther wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” Luther felt as though this was necessary on account of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church had built an elaborate system of penitential satisfaction for the forgiveness of sins on a faulty translation of the word μετανοεῖτε. Rather than give it the natural translation “repent,” Erasmus had given it the Latin translation from which we derive the English phrase, “Do penance.” Luther preached his 1518 Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, in order to show to what great lengths Rome was willing to take the penitential system. Thomas Aquinas had articulated the doctrine of penance in such a way as to include indulgences–“together with vigils, working, [sleeping on a] hard bed, [wearing rough] clothes, etc.”–for satisfaction for sin. Johanne Tetzel, the great seller of indulgences and Luther’s principle adversary, defended Rome’s penitential system in his Against’s Luther’s Sermon on Indulgences and Grace.
All who love the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement–the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ–will rightly revolt at the idea of Rome’s penitential system. However, we functionally embrace something of a penitential system when we try to quiet a guilty conscience with good works. There are a thousand ways in which we can fall into this trap. If we haven’t been fruitful in our outreach in the community in which we live, we go on a short-term mission trip to make up for it. If we haven’t been faithful in gathering with the saints for Lord’s Day worship, we give more money to the church to cover for our delinquency in worship. No matter what shape or form it takes, we can seek to make satisfaction for our sins by doing more or by doing better, rather than recognizing that God has made satisfaction for our sins by offering up His Son on the cross. This is why we believe, with Luther, that the Christian life is to be one of repentance not penitence.
2. Ritualism. Closely aligned to the idea of penitence is the idea of ritualism. Ritualism comes in many shapes and forms. The great danger of ritualism is that it perverts religious rituals that God has instituted in His word by investing in them an efficacy that they do not have in and of themselves. This is most fully exemplified by Roman Catholic sacramentalism. Geerhard Vos explained the nature of sacramentalism when he wrote:
“Roman Catholics teach concerning a sacrament that it works ex opere operato [worked by the work]. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper of themselves do what they are said to do. The cross of Christ does not justify but merely opens justification, makes it possible, and hence the mass. It makes certain merits available that then, however, require a special application to become effective.”1
It may seem quite a jump to suggest that we can fall into functional sacramentalism in Protestant churches; however, it is probably far more common than one might suppose.