Today’s blog is the second part in a series on the history of Christianity: “From Pentecost to Pentecostals”. Last time, we looked at where the term Pentecostal comes from and how the beliefs and practices that made that movement unique in the 20th century were grounded in the testimony of the early church. 


Pentecostals look back to the experiences described in the book of Acts and say many of those experiences are also for us today. If you look at early church history for the first 300 to 500 years, you see the gifts did not cease with the apostles being martyred, or with the Bible being completed. The centuries after the apostles died still included many testimonies of miracles, signs and wonders, people being filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, prophesying, and all the other spiritual gifts. 


However, a slow but steady decline set in over the centuries, turning the early church into more of an organized religious experience where the laity were controlled by an elite group of clergy. And what we would recognize now as the Roman Catholic hierarchy developed over the next 600 years. In actuality, the pope didn’t come into his current prominence until the seventh century, when he demanded recognition as not just the Bishop of Rome, but the leader over the entire church. He attempted to turn Christianity into a kingdom, which we would refer to as “Christendom”. This earthly kingdom of God was set up in juxtaposition to other kingdoms of this world.  


Of course, none of this was Jesus’s intention. He had said, “My kingdom is not of this world, otherwise, my servants would fight”. But the Roman Catholic Church ran with the concept of “Christendom”, and then began to militaristically conquer lands that didn’t submit to the pope. The Crusades became the fruit of that and the dark ages were the greater fruit. It was tragic. The Bible was pulled away from the people, and eventually the lay people couldn’t understand it when it was read in church, because it was left in Latin (a dying language). 


For many centuries after people were no longer commonly speaking it, the priests had to learn Latin to say the Mass and read the scriptures. And the ignorant laity were encouraged to do the rituals. Just get baptized as a baby, partake in all the sacraments of the church till death, and the priesthood would take care of the rest. The church even began to promise to pray the departed into heaven after they had died.  


This religious system grew increasingly corrupt so that, at least by the time of Martin Luther in the 1500s, it was largely based on paying indulgences. You could literally buy forgiveness of sins and a place in heaven if you had the resources to do so. And of course, the Catholic church was taking that money and building a great palace in Rome for the pope. You know, the Vatican was built on the desperate prayers and donations of many people who were trying to pay off their own sin debt – or pay their loved ones out of purgatory. This very cruel system had developed where people were being told, “Your loved ones are not in heaven yet, but we think they’re in Purgatory.” But, how could anyone know if they were in Purgatory? How could they know when they got out? 


If you look at that system, and then you go back to the book of Acts, it’s no wonder the religious authorities wanted to hide the Bible from the people.  They didn’t want it to be challenged by those saying, “I don’t see that going on in the book of Acts… I don’t see that being taught in the book of Hebrews.” So the people didn’t have access to the Bible in their language.  


Ultimately, it was a Catholic monk named Martin Luther whose conscience was convicted while studying the Latin scriptures that he had no peace with God – even though he had obtained a very high position in the church. Like all of us, Luther had a sinful nature that he was trying to beat into submission, albeit unsuccessfully. And it was while reading Galatians that he came across the phrase “the just shall live by faith”. It struck him that He was not doing that. Nor was the church teaching it. 


So, Luther grabbed ahold of that message and began to see it was the common theme throughout not only the New Testament, but even the Old Testament.  Faith was God’s way of dealing with his people.  And anyone could believe. You didn’t have to possess riches, you didn’t have to have a position or education. You didn’t have to have a lot of years on you. You could simply trust God at his Word and receive his blessings by faith. 


God’s Word says that Jesus was the propitiation (or complete payment) for our sins. He was the full and final sacrifice required by the justice of God – and if we look unto him, we can be saved. So on October 31st, 1517, a changed Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, and the rest is history. Initially, Luther only intended to reform some of the most egregious sins and abuses that were going on in the 16th century churches. But the Catholic Church was rather tyrannical, and they didn’t want to reform – and especially not through a monk like Luther. So they began to persecute and threaten the lives of him and his followers. 


But the cat was already out of the bag. People were now openly speaking of the problems with the church in Germany, which was a safe enough distance from the Pope that he couldn’t just come over and crush the whole thing. So in the 16th century, there was suddenly a revolution on the hands of the Catholic Church, ultimately resulting in Lutheran and other churches that protested the abuses of popery. 


The Protestant Reformation is the organized movement that responded to the Roman Catholic Church, and has continued to this day as the root of many denominations. Many people will tell you there are two basic places people belong to in Christendom – either with the Catholics or with the Protestants. And some people might assume that we as Pentecostals also identify as Protestants. 


But, should we claim that movement as our heritage?  


As I looked into it, in spite of its affinity for God’s Word, I had to conclude that the Protestant Reformation was not our heritage as Pentecostals. Next time, we will present the reasons why I believe our roots are outside of both the Protestant and Catholic traditions.  If you would like to listen to this teaching, please click here: Church History From Pentecost to “Pentecostals” (PART 1) 


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