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The True Church


Anyone who has debated much with Catholics has heard this question: “If the Catholic Church is not the true church, then where was the church for all the centuries between the alleged apostasy of Rome and the Reformation?” It’s a valid question, to which Dr. Luther provides a valid answer:

The Bondage of the Will

In passing, I will here reply to the passage where you [Erasmus] describe it as unbelievable that God should overlook an error in His church for so many ages, and not reveal to any of His saints a point which we maintain to be fundamental in Christian doctrine. In the first place, we do not say that God tolerated this error in His church, or in any of His saints. For the church is ruled by the Spirit of God, and Rom. 8 tells us that the saints are led by the Spirit of God (v. 14). And Christ abides with His church till the end of the world (Matt. 28.20). And the church is the pillar and ground of the truth (i Tim. 3.15). This we know; for the Creed which we all hold runs thus, ‘I believe in the holy catholic church.’ So it is impossible that she should err in even the least article. Even should we grant that some of the elect are held in error throughout their whole life, yet they must of necessity return into the way before they die; for Christ says in John 8: ‘None shall pluck them out of my hand’ (John 10.28). But what is hard and problematical is just this: ascertaining whether those whom you call the church were the church’or, rather, whether after their lifetime of error they were at last brought back to the truth before they died. It does not at once follow that, if God suffered all those consummate scholars whom you quote to err throughout so many ages, therefore He suffered His church to err! Look at Israel, the people of God. There, out of a great number of kings over a long period of time, not one king is mentioned who did not err. Under Elijah the prophet, all the people and every public institution among them had gone astray into idolatry, so that he thought he was the only one left; yet, while the kings and princes, priests and prophets, and all that could be called the people and church of God, were going to ruin, God had reserved seven thousand to Himself (cf. i Kings 19.18). But who saw them, or knew them to be the people of God ? And who will dare to deny that in our day, under these principal men of yours (for you only mention persons of public office and of great name), God has kept to Himself a church among the common people, while allowing all whom you mention to perish like the kingdom of Israel? For it is God’s prerogative to bring down the chosen ones of Israel, and, as Ps. 77 says, to slay their fat ones (Ps. 78.31); but to preserve the dregs and remnant of Israel, according to Isaiah’s words (cf. Isa. 10.22).

What happened under Christ Himself, when all the apostles were offended at Him, when He was denied and condemned by all the people, and only Joseph, Nicodemus and the thief on the cross were preserved? Was it not the former group who were then called the people of God? Indeed, there was a people of God remaining, but it was not so called; and that which was so called was not it. Who knows whether, throughout the whole course of world history from its beginning, the state of the church has not always been such that some were called the people and saints of God who were not so, while others, who were among them as a remnant, were the people and saints of God, but were not so called?—as appears from the histories of Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob. Look at the time of the Arians, when scarcely five catholic bishops were preserved in the whole world, and they were driven from their sees, while the Arians reigned everywhere, taking to themselves the public name and office of the church. Yet under these heretics Christ preserved His church; though in such a way that it was not for a moment thought or held to be the church.

Or show me a single bishop discharging his office under the kingdom of the Pope. Show me a single council at which they dealt with matter of religion, and not with gowns, rank, revenues and other profane trifles instead, which only a lunatic could consider the province of the Holy Ghost! Yet they are called the church, despite the fact that all who live as they do are lost, and are anything but the church. Even under them, however, Christ has preserved His church, though not so as to be called the church. How many saints do you think the Inquisitors alone have in time past burned and killed for heretical perversions, such as John Hus and those like him? And many holy men of the same spirit doubtless lived in their day.

Why do you not rather marvel at this, Erasmus: Since the world began, there have always been superior talents, greater learning, and a more intense earnestness among pagans than among Christians and the people of God. It is as Christ Himself acknowledges: ‘the sons of this world are wiser than the sons of light’ (Luke 16.8). What Christian can be compared with Cicero alone (to say nothing of the Greeks) for ability, learning and hard work? What then shall we say hindered them from finding grace? For they certainly exerted ‘free-will’ to the utmost of their power! Who dare say that not one among them pursued truth with all his heart? Yet we are bound to maintain that not one of them reached it. Will you say in this case too that it is unbelievable that God abandoned so many great men throughout the whole course of history and let them strive in vain? Certainly, if ‘free-will’ has any being and power at all, its being and power must have been present with such men as these, in some one case at least! But it availed nothing; indeed, it always wrought in the wrong direction; so that by this argument alone it can be proved clearly enough that ‘free-will’ is nothing at all, inasmuch as one can show no trace of it from beginning to end of the world!

But I return to the matter in hand. What wonder, if God should leave all the great men of the church to go their own ways, when He thus allowed all the nations to go their own ways, as Paul says in Acts (cf. Acts 14.16) ? My good Erasmus, God’s church is not so common a thing as the term ‘God’s church’; nor are God’s saints so promiscuously found as the phrase ‘God’s saints.’ The saints are pearls and precious jewels, which the Spirit does not cast before swine; but (as Scripture puts it) He keeps them hid, that the wicked may not see the glory of God! Else, if they were open to the recognition of all, how could they be so vexed and afflicted in the world as they are? So Paul says: ‘Had they known him, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory’ (i Cor. 2.8).

—Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Revell, 1957), 119–123.



Posted 2006·11·21 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Church History · Erasmus · Martin Luther · Papism · The Bondage of the Will
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3 Comments:


#1 || 06·11·21··08:22 || Nathan

I would also add, that God indeed did reveal several points "which we maintain to be fundamental in Christian doctrine," but which most ignored for a long time. We call it Scripture. Whether it remained unrecognized or unheeded for years, or centuries, or millenia, doesn't lay culpability to God's account. That's our problem.


#2 || 06·11·26··16:50 || Johnny T. Helms

One of my favorite subjects in college was history, in particular, world history. The reason I loved world history so much was that I had a teacher who was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about his subject; he was also a Christian who had come out of the Roman church. Although this was a secular college, that fact did not stop him from alluding to his faith, especially when it came to the role of the church in history. One of the points he emphasized very strongly in one of his lectures was the truth that the true church was always around even when all the attention was directed at the Roman church. And in reading world history stuff one could get the idea that this was not true. As the professor spoke on this particular day the words of the Lord came to mind that He is building His church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. The gates of hell must include the Roman cult. The gates of hell must include the word-faith movement and the growing Emergent/emerging movement. The gates of hell must include the apostasy of the mainline denominations and the homosexual movement and Islam and the liberal-leftist political movement. The gates of hell must also include Satan himself and all his little minions who are so actively opposed to the work of God. The gates of hell are no doubt what Paul was writing of when he wrote to the Ephesians about spiritual warfare. The gates of hell are powerful and subtle and very convincing to the people of this age, and they are very successful. Where was the true church when the apostate church of Rome was born and when it ruled its own with such great deception? The church of Jesus Christ was prevailing. His church is still prevailing today in spite of the multitude of apostates. His church will always prevail; He said it would. And He is still raising up men and women to defend His truth and to declare the gospel of grace that the elect might hear and be saved. Apostates like Rick Warren and Brian McLaren may and probably will lead vast multitudes to follow them, as has that moron Benny Hinn. The Southern Baptist leadership may crumble and give in to the comtemplative/New Age heresies and continue to promote Pelagian theology to their congregations through their sermons and bookstores. But the church of Jesus Christ will prevail; it is prevailing now and it has always prevailed.


#3 || 06·11·26··16:55 || David

Luther and I say "Amen!"


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