The Gospel has fallen on hard times of late, causing as it does division, revulsion, violence, even in the church finding no safe harbor. The doctrines of grace cause churches to split, every man defining himself for or against the grace of God; denominations to rise and fall by her measure.
Sola Fide is the line of demarcation defining true church from false, Luther calling “Justification” the doctrine by which the church “stands or falls”. We live in an age of a falling church, first drifting but now intent upon finding a goodness in man requiring divine reciprocation.
In once sense, everything is changing while in another nothing has changed. The Gospel is still the winnowing fork of history separating the faithful from the faithless and religious man from divine religion.
Make no mistake: When Martin Luther stood before the Diet or Worms and made that famous speech he was being judged by “the christian church” but not by christian men. The church is an institution of this world toward a spiritual end that can easily become the reverse.
There is a relation between the visible and the invisible church but that relation does not imply identity. One is not reducible to the other, and church membership will neither save the infidel not sanctify the reprobate. Moreover, there is salvation outside of the visible church but none outside the invisible church, which includes the definite number of God’s elect.
The visible church on earth had been overtaken by the vain philosophies and pagan religions of this world, by lust for worldly power and temporal wealth, by human merit and the genius of man. Worse, the merits of Christ had become negotiable instruments of human dispensation; the grace of God a commodity capable of distribution by popes, priests and princes.
When Luther stood saying plainly that the visible church is no proxy for the divine favor and that the the church holds no graces for redistribution according to worldly status, and that faith was believing God and not the cowering wickedness of cultural abnegation nor the enrichment of the clergy, they had him indicted and he stood trial.
He responded as a sheep being led to the slaughter:
“Since your majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns or teeth. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and by plain reason (I do not believe in the authority of either popes or councils by themselves, for it is plain that they have often erred and contradicted each other) in those Scriptures that I have presented, for my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”