Part 5: Catholic Europe. Lesson 8 of 8.
Lesson 33. The Need for Reform

 Through today’s lesson, we hope you will see why a reform of the church was desired.  You will see how necessary it is that the Protestant church continues to offer freedom from the misunderstandings that had arisen in the church before the reformation.

1.Money. Some of the problems had to do with misuse of money.  Already in 780, King Charlemagne had to warn church leaders not to offer church jobs and districts for money. This practice however continued, and was especially severe just before the reformation.  The reason Martin Luther spoke out was because he saw someone who was taking advantage of people’s spiritual needs by selling forgiveness for money.  This man had been hired to raise funds in this way by a bishop who needed to give money to the pope in exchange for being made a bishop.  Besides this, the people of Germany were more and more disturbed by the fact that the popes of that time were taking money out of the country in order to beautify the city of Rome, and so they were willing to support the reformation.

2.Buildings and Art. Those with access to money hired the great renaissance artists, whose paintings emphasized the individual, but also popularized the stories of Greek and Roman mythology alongside the Bible themes. Some of the greatest sponsors of artists were the popes, who used the money they collected from throughout Europe to build new buildings and fill them with expensive paintings.  The beauty of these paintings is undeniable, but the riches and splendor of these popes during the renaissance, as well as their constant requests for money and their disregard for morals led many people to look down on the church as it then existed and to welcome those who tried to purify and improve the church.

3.Local church problems. As time went on, there were more and more cases where a bishop received the financial support of his district, but he did not live there and serve the people.  Often it was because he was serving in Rome as one of the pope’s officials, and used the money for the extravagant living that was expected at the time.  But the result was that many districts were not being cared for.  There were more and more churches without priests.  The priests that did serve generally had a low level of education.  The Reformation stressed education.  After the reformation began, the Roman Catholic Church also responded to these problems by establishing seminaries to train priests in every district, and by forbidding bishops to receive a district’s income without serving there.

4.Moral standards. In 1075, the pope promoted the idea that priests should not marry.  This idea became accepted, but there were always individuals who did not obey the rule, and met with women secretly.  Near the time of the reformation, the common people felt that there was an unacceptable level of immorality among their priests.  One Roman Catholic priest attempted to bring moral reform to both priests and people: In Italy starting in 1482, a Roman Catholic monk named Savanarola preached repentance and told the people to turn away from materialism.  As time went by, many opposed him, and he was burned to death in 1497.  His reforms did not last, but when the Roman Catholic Church responded to the reformation, the church did emphasize the need for morality.   The paragraphs below show some of the additional reforms that were needed, and some of the theological points that led to the Protestant Reformation.

5.Sacraments. Baptism and Holy Communion are called “sacraments” (literally, holy actions) The name sacrament was gradually given to other actions.  In 882 marriage was called a sacrament, and only priests were allowed to perform marriage ceremonies.  In 1150 the ceremony called “confirmation,” was called a sacrament.  In the Roman Catholic Church, at confirmation a bishop lays on hands to give the Holy Spirit.  This ceremony is typically given to young teen-agers who had been baptized as infants.1) In 1438 the 17th  council declared that there were seven sacraments:  baptism, holy communion, confirmation, penance and reconciliation, marriage, ordination (being made into a priest), and the anointing of the sick (also used for those who may die soon).   At every stage of life, people were dependent on priests. In 1281 the church said that people could not have the wine of Holy Communion, only the bread, though in 1965 Roman Catholics were allowed to have the wine again. Some Protestant churches define sacrament as “an action commanded by Christ that gives grace,” and so give the name “sacrament” only to baptism and communion. Some protestant churches use the word “ordinances” instead of “sacrament.”

6.Penance. In the Catholic Church, people’s access to God for forgiveness was gradually taken over by priests: yy 250 forgiveness of sins was seen as something that could only be done by priests and bishops. . (Protestants though stress the words in 1 Peter 2:9 that all believers are a chosen people and royal priests. And Hebrews 10:19, that all can go directly to God because the way has been opened by the blood of Jesus.) By 300, one had to tell your sins to the priest in private.  In 1139 a council actually condemned confessing sins to those who were not priests.  The priest would forgive the eternal punishment of the sin that you repented of, based on Jesus’ death for you on the cross.  However, there is still an earthly punishment, so the priest would assign an earthly task for you to do, to show your sincerity and sometimes to help repay the damage you had caused. ² This earthly penalty was called “penance.”  Penance might be saying a certain number of prayers, or going to visit a special church In 1215 the system of personal penance was established, which includes confessing to a priest, receiving forgiveness, and receiving the penance you must do.

7.Purification after death.  People wondered what would happen if they died before they had time to do all of their earthly punishments.  The idea arose that there was a special place where you would have to go after you died and finish paying these penalties before you would be allowed into heaven.  This place was called purgatory.   Already in 593, pope Gregory I affirmed that people would have to pay their unfinished obligations in purgatory after death.   Thomas Aquinas agreed and said they could be helped by the prayers of the living.3  Purgatory was made official at a Church Council in 1274.4 The people of Europe would pray for those who were dead, in the hopes that they would have to spend less time in purgatory.5  The Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches do not believe there is a purgatory.

8.Indulgences. Church scholars promoted the idea that your obligation of penance could be reduced thorough the supply of good works that had been done by Christ, Mary and the saints. The grant of these merits to take away your earthly punishment was called an “indulgence.”  Already in 1095 the pope who called for the first crusade announced that the soldiers could receive an indulgence. The idea continued to develop, and in 1245 the pope approved the idea that one’s earthly penalty could be cancelled through “indulgences”.  There were many ways to get an indulgence, such as through prayer, works of mercy, or a declaration by a pope. One could get an indulgence to shorten the earthly punishment during this life, or in purgatory for any unfinished obligations.

9.Jubilee Year. The pope in 1300 declared that year to be a holy year (later called a Jubilee year, using a term from the Old Testament).5  From 1300 to 2016 there have been 30 “jubilee years.” The pope says he can give an indulgence (freeing people from the need to suffer their earthly punishments due to sin) if they meet certain requirements. (often, the requirement was to visit Rome.) 6 Protestants, on the other hand, teach that forgiveness does not require a person to do an earthly task, that we do not need to wait for a certain year to receive God’s power in fighting our sinful nature, and that we get this help directly from God, not through a pope or priest.

10.Money for Indulgences. Already in 1393 indulgences were bring used to raise money.  In 1517 a man selling indulgences in Germany misled people by saying that not only their earthly penalty, but even their spiritual penalty, would be covered if they bought an indulgence from him. This is not the Catholic teaching.  In 1517 Luther wrote a document telling 95 reasons why indulgences are incorrect. This event led to the Protestant Reformation.  Luther emphasized the Bible teaching that that God gives forgiveness freely because of the sacrificial death of Jesus.  1 John 2:1-2 tells us that Jesus death is enough not only to cover our sins, but the sins of the whole world.  In 1567 the Catholic Church reaffirmed that one should not take money for indulgences.

11.Returning to Bible. The common people could not check the truth of these ideas by reading the Bible, because the Catholic church allowed only one Bible, the Bible that in 405 had been translated into Latin. The common people could no longer understand that language, but anyone who tried to translate it into a local language was punished.  One result of the reformation was putting the bible into the hands of the common people in their own language, and through this the system that depends on priests  came to an end , since 1 Peter 2:9 says that all can go directly to God.  Even before the reformation, some individuals were aware that the teachings of the Catholic Church included more and more ideas that were not found in the Bible³, and wanted to restore the church to biblical teachings.  These courageous people tried to improve this situation, but they did not succeed.  Below are two of these people:

12.Wycliffe. In England, John Wycliffe was a philosopher and a professor at Oxford University. In 1380 He helped organize the first translation of the Bible into English.   In 1378 Wycliffe said that the bible was a higher authority than the pope, and also that there was no basis for monks in the Bible.  A year earlier he had been condemned for teaching that the government could remove priests who were immoral.  He also was against the idea that priests should be required as mediators between God and people.  In 1215 the Catholic church had officially stated that, at holy communion, the bread and wine are “changed” into Christ’s body and blood, but Wycliffe rejected this teaching, calling it a  superstitious explanation.  Wycliffe instead emphasized the spiritual effects of communion.  Wycliffe was rejected both by Oxford university and by the Catholic church.  He died a natural death, but a few years later his bones were dug up and burned as a demonstration of that rejection.

13.Hus. Starting in 1400 a Catholic priest named John Hus promoted the ideas of Wycliffe in the country we now call “Czech Republic.”  He allowed the people to have wine as well as bread at communion.  He favored having worship services in the local language instead of in Latin.  He preached vigorously against immorality.  He preached against the abuse of money in the church.  He rejected the idea that the pope’s authority was a continuous exercising of an authority given by Christ, stating that the Roman bishop did not really begin to claim such powers until after Christianity became legal in 313.  He rather promoted the Bible as the sole authority.  He rejected the idea of a sacramental system in which only priests could be mediators between people and God.  His opponents grew in power, and he was burned to death in 1415.  His followers were not totally destroyed, and after the Reformation they became some of the first Protestant missionaries, as we will see in lesson 37.  Wycliffe and Hus did not succeed in reforming the church, but their ideas were central to the reformation.  The Protestant church agrees with their ideas that the Bible is the only source of authority, that people should have both bread and cup at Holy Communion, and rejects the idea that bread changes into body. Finally in 1965 the Roman Catholic Church allowed the common people to receive the cup.  Below are more ideas that the reformers felt were not biblical:

14.Martyrs. People who did not understand that salvation was by faith, not by works, began to look elsewhere than Jesus to find spiritual help.  The practice arose of praying to dead Christians.  This custom began as a way to honor those who had died in persecution; such people are called “martyrs”.  Often an object belonging to one of these martyrs was found, and it was put in a grave or a church was built to put the object in.  This kind of object is called a “relic.”  People would travel long distances to come to that church and pray to the dead person.  Traveling for this purpose is called a “pilgrimage.”  As early as 335 people were going to Jerusalem on pilgrimage.  Enough people felt that their prayers were answered that the practice of praying to these martyrs became popular and widespread.7 In 787 the seventh ecumenical council even insisted that a new church couldn’t be dedicated unless it housed a relic. In John 14:13-14.  Jesus tells us to pray in his name, and promises that he will answer.

15.Saints. Soon prayers were offered to others who had not died in persecution but were seen as examples of goodness and faith.  The Catholic Church calls these noteworthy people “saints.” This is a different use of the word “saint” than the way it is used in the Bible.   Please read Ephesians 1:1.  In this verse, Paul calls all the believers who lived in Ephesus saints.   However, in the Catholic Church, the custom arose of using this word only for certain especially good Christians.  At first it was the common people who selected certain people to look up to and pray to.  Instead of discouraging the practice, Pope Gregory I advocated collecting relics of martyrs and praying to saints.

16. Praying to saints. The explanation for praying to the saints is that just as you would ask a friend to pray for you while alive, you can also continue to talk to that friend even after death. This is why the Creed says there is a “communion of saints.”  Because praying to the dead is not found in the Bible, it is not found in Protestant churches3. In 1171 the pope declared that he should now be the only one who could designate people as saints, and set up a process for doing so.   The popes have continued designating more and more people as “saints” right up to the present.  One of the requirements for being designated a “saint” is that people must have prayed to the dead person and received miracles.  The Eastern Orthodox church also has a process for designating saints, does encourage praying to saints and to Mary, and encourages selecting a patron saint to pray to regularly.

17.Mary. As time went by, the people of Europe also gave increasing devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, to find comfort.   The idea arose that the mother of Jesus was easier to approach than going directly to God in prayer, and that you could ask her to talk to Jesus for you.  In many cases the wrong ideas about Mary were first promoted by someone, then became popular with the common people, and finally were officially taught by the pope.  Here are some of the ideas about Mary that arose, and were rejected by the reformers because they are not in the Bible:

18.Ideas about Mary. In 373, someone promoted the idea that Mary remained a virgin. According to Matthew 12:46, however, Jesus’ mother did not remain a virgin, because Jesus had brothers.9  In 375 someone wrote that Mary did not die, but went directly to heaven.  In 627 the idea that Mary was born without sin was first talked about.  However, note that in Luke 1:46-47, Mary called God her Savior; so she knew she is someone who knows that she needs a savior.8  In 1030 people were using the words “Hail Mary” as a prayer.  This sentence, found in Luke 1:28, was a normal greeting; the angel said Mary was blessed because God had chosen her, not because she was better than others.  Catholics who use the “Hail Mary” as a prayer often repeat it over and over, counting the times on a set of beads called a rosary.  The rosary also includes the key events in Jesus’ life. The oldest surviving rosary dates from 1160.

19.Visions. Since the time of the reformation, various people have said that they had seen Mary in a vision.   Churches were built in those places, and people still come to pray to Mary in those places.   Enough people feel that their prayers are being answered to keep this view of Mary going.   Here are three of those shrines to visions of Mary:

Year Place
1531 Guadeloupe (Mexico)
1858 Lourdes (France)
1917 Fatima (Portugal)

As we think about miracles, remember that Deuteronomy 13:1-4 says that even if a miracle happens, but the result is that you turn to someone else for help instead of to the Lord, you know the Lord is testing you to find out if you will follow Him alone.

20.Status of Mary.After the Reformation the popes declared that many of these customs were to be regarded as true church teachings.10 In 1555 the pope declared that Mary must be regarded as eternally virgin.   In 1854 the pope declared that Mary had been born without sin.  In 1950 the pope declared that Mary had gone directly to heaven without dying. Finally, in 1962, the pope called Mary a mediator, along with Christ.  However, Timothy 2:5 says there is one mediator, Jesus Christ.  Because of the reformation, the Protestant church has the privilege of assuring people that they can go directly to God with their prayers and concerns. The next lesson describes the beginnings of the reformation.

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1)In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the ceremony of confirmation is given to the baby at the end part of baptism, to give the Holy Spirit.

2) Catechism of the Catholic Church )1994) , item 1473: “The forgiveness of sin … entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remain…. The Christian …  should strive, by works of mercy ad charity, as well as by prayer and the various penalties of penance, to put off completely the “old man” and to put on the “new man.”

3) ( The Book of Maccabees — one of the books written in between the Old and New Testament — referred to praying for the dead). The Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox regard this book as part of the Bible.

4) The Catholic Church teaches that both the Bible and Church Traditions are true, and that these traditions are developed out of ideas that are in the Bible.

5) Background.  In Leviticus 25:4, the people of Israel were told not to plant any crops every seventh year. This called a Sabbath year (year of rest). After 7 times 7 years, the next year would be a major celebration. Leviticus 25:11 calls that year a Jubilee year.

6) The pope in 1300 was Boniface 8. In 2015 Pope Francis declared that 2016 will be a “jubilee year.” The theme will be “be merciful, like the father.” See the pope’s document at,    and see a short explanation at

To receive an indulgence, people can walk through the doors of certain churches in Rome, or through a door set aside for the purpose of any church throughout the world.  Another way is to do one of 14 works of mercy, such as helping the poor. People also have to confess their sins and take communion.  The Wikipedia article adds that another requirement is “freedom from attachment to sin.”

7) The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994( item 956: “Those who dwell in heaven … do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth…” and item 958 “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead so they may be loosed from their sins … our prayer for the is not only capable of helping them, but also of making their intercessions for us effective.”  Item 2156 says that the patron saint provides a model of charity; we are assured of his intercession.”  A friend told me that Catholic teaching is that people should always feel free to pray to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but not reject the “God-given role of the intercessory prayer of our fellow Christians in the entire communion of saints.”  He said that the saints in heaven are not dead, but alive, part of the communion of saints. God commands people to pray for each other. Augustine in his book City of God cites examples of miracles thought to have happened because people prayed to saints.

8} My Catholic friend said that she was in need of a savior, but that salvation was applied to her at conception.

9) My catholic friend told me that the word here translated “brothers” has also been translated as “cousins,” and is used in the Greek version of Genesis 13:8 about the relationship between Abraham and his nephew Lot.

10) The catholic church does not see these teachings as innovations, but rather that they were always I the church “in seed form,” and at the right time a pope declares them.