“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.
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 call into functional sacramentalism in Protestant churches; however, it is probably far more common than one might suppose. Many years ago, I was a member of a large Presbyterian church that celebrated the Lord’s Supper on a monthly basis. After a few months there, I began to realize that attendance was up approximately one-third whenever the Supper was being celebrated. I asked one of my friends why that was the case. He explained that some functionally treat the Lord’s Supper exactly the way Rome views the mass. Instead of seeing the word as the central means of grace–and as that which defines the sacrament–they convinced themselves that the Supper was something far more special. In doing so, they functionally embrace a form of sacramentalism. This is just one example of how we too can fall into ritualism.
3. The Confessional. The Scriptures plainly teach us that we should confess our sins to one another (Matt. 5:24; 18:15; James 5:16) and that we should confess our sins to God (Ps. 51; 1 John 1:8-2:2). The Roman Catholic Church, of course, perverted the intention of this teaching by making the priest the agent of absolution and the confessional an element of penance. Once you go to the priest and confess what you have done, he gives you a series of penitential deeds unto absolution. Protestants have long seen the absurdity of such a perversion of the biblical teaching on confession of sin; however, we are ever in danger of turning our friends into personal priests–and, without going to the Lord in contrition and confession–functionally creating our own confessional. I can easily seek to unburden my guilty conscience by telling a friend what I have done sinfully without going to the Lord for pardon and cleansing (1 John 1:8-2:2). Instead, we ought to confess our sin to those against whom we have sinned, confide in a close friend or pastor with whom we can pray together, and–most importantly–go to God in brokenness knowing that we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One–the propitiation for our sin.
4. Conscience Binding. Little needs to be said about how prevalent this is in the lives of those of us who attend Protestant churches in our day. How many of us haven’t made up our own rules about schooling, food and drink, television and movies, dress, etc. Whenever we subject ourselves to man-made rules and regulations, we are functionally doing the exact same thing that the Roman Catholic Church has been doing as an insitution for well over a thousand years. The doctrine of the liberty of conscience was one of the most precious doctrines to the Reformers for this very reason. It was on account of Rome’s perversion of it that the Westminster Divines dedicated an entire chapter to it in the Confession of Faith. There we read those great words: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship” (WCF 20.2). It was this doctrine that lead Luther to make his great “Here I Stand” speach.
The Christian life is one that can only be lived in dependance 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. We must be able to say with Luther, with great conviction and sincerity, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God…to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me.”