One of the most frequent objections to the claim that salvation is by faith in Jesus apart from works is that no one believed that for most of church history. The thinking goes: if no one believed it, it must not be true because Jesus wouldn’t allow His church to abandon the gospel entirely.
My answer is that salvation is by grace, through faith, apart from works because that is what Scripture teaches (Eph 2:8-9). But more than that, we don’t know that no one believed the gospel during most of church history. That history is written by the “winners”—by those in power—who persecuted and suppressed their enemies. The Roman Catholic Church certainly did that by burning the books and bodies of “heretics” who disagreed with the party line.
I’m reading portions of the Martyrs Mirror with my kids. It’s a massive tome that records the persecution of Christians from the time of the apostles up to the Anabaptists in the 17th century. It’s sobering reading. Anyone considering converting to Catholicism should ask themselves if the “true church” would ever do such horrifically evil things.
The author, Thieleman J. van Braght, summarizes martyrs’ lives but doesn’t go into great detail about what they believed. But you catch glimpses of how not everyone believed in salvation by faith plus works.
“A.D. 1465. At this time, Laurence Valla, a man of great learning, vigorously attacked the power and supremacy of the pope, placing his salvation in the eternal merits of Christ…On account of this he was driven into banishment, and resided at Naples, where he died” (p. 349, emphasis added).
Valla believed his salvation depended on Christ’s merits. The alternative was to think it depended upon his merits or those of the saints. He apparently rejected that and believed that salvation depended on no one’s work but Christ’s.
“A.D. 1470. John de Wesalia (that is, John of Wesel) now taught at Worms, that all believers are saved by pure grace, through faith in Jesus Christ; and that the supremacy of the pope is not to be regarded…In short, he was regarded as a heretic, and, in the year 1479, condemned and burned at Menz” (p. 349, emphasis added).
The Roman Catholic church misleadingly uses the word grace to mean that salvation depends on continuing to participate in the church’s sacraments, doing good, and so on. In other words, it’s not by grace at all. By contrast, John of Wesel, wanting to distinguish his view from the Roman Catholic one, believed in “pure grace.” What did that mean? Apparently, it means that salvation was “through faith in Jesus Christ.” The description is short but suggestive. How many others believed in salvation through pure grace and faith in Jesus?
Here’s a last example:
“A.D. 1471. Stephen Brulifer, a theologian or divine, now maintained that the doctrine was false, yea, a doctrine of Satan, which ascribes justification to the works and merits of men (who observe the religion of the priests); as also, that the church has no power to institute new sacraments. On account of these and like doctrines, he had to leave Paris, and come to Mentz, where he is said to have died in the year 1490” (p. 350, emphasis added).
What did Brulifer reject? Justification based on the works and merits of men. In other words, works salvation. So, what kind of salvation did he believe in? We aren’t told, but could it have been salvation by faith apart from works?
These three men disagreed with the Roman Catholic church on salvation and taught about it openly. Who knows how many people they convinced? Who knows how many became secret believers? To repeat, church history is a guide to what the powerful allowed to be taught, but it’s not a reliable guide to what ordinary people believed, especially on the margins.
To give a New Testament example, there might have been half a million Jews living in Israel at the time of Jesus (estimates vary), and yet, forty days after the resurrection, only “about a hundred twenty” were waiting in the upper room to be baptized with power (Acts 1:15). They were the minority. They were also correct.
Going against the majority can feel intimidating, but are you following Jesus or the crowds?
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.