The State Church through the Middle Ages had become corrupt and legalistic. In it’s effort to build a huge cathedral in its capital, it began different processes to discover new ways to raise money. This cathedral, which was huge by the standards of the day, would cost the equivalent of billions of dollars in a modern economy. Rather than sacrificing their lavish lifestyle, the leaders of the church devised a plan to raise this money—indulgences. This was a method where the nobility and even common man could come to a church leader and get forgiveness of sin by paying a certain fee. Eventually, the practice grew to the point where one could even get permission to sin by paying the sin tax ahead of time. This along with other doctrines created a church that was cold in love but diligent in rule making. Their religion became a simple checklist of rules that had to be followed. Many members of this church did not attend church services or actively show their faith. Yet since they were baptized as children, paid their fees regularly, were married by a priest, and had last rites by a church official, they were considered to be faithful.
In the midst of this cold period, a young clergyman named Martin Luther prepared himself to teach a class in the local college. As he studied the text for the class (the book of Romans) his studies focused on the passage found in Romans 1:17. This passage says, “The just man shall live by his faith.” From that passage, the Protestant Reformation was launched proclaiming the necessity and vitality of faith. In combating the legalistic State Church, Luther and others emphasized the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus in which the cross was emphasized rather than empty works. This movement shook the religious world as people began to closely examine the Scriptures to see the importance of grace and faith. Some of this group have proceeded to the point to say God saves us and that a man’s works does not contribute one whit to his own salvation. The outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation today is the many denominations that proclaim “we are saved by faith alone.”
Today as we strive to follow Christ and his teachings found in Scripture, we see that both the ancient State Church and the Reformation went beyond God’s Word. The Bible teaches us that Christ saves us by his blood and there are no works we can do that earn our salvation. But the Bible also teaches us in order to be pleasing to God that we must be obedient to the Scriptures. When the people in Jerusalem asked what they needed to do in Acts 2, Peter certainly responded with a command for obedience in Acts 2:38. These actions did not save in and of themselves, but in following these commands the people showed their faith in God. As the writer of James reminds us, faith without works is dead. But our obedient faith is evidence of spiritual life.