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By Chuck Collins
November 18, 2021

The biggest and most far-reaching of all the Medieval papal bulls was issued November 18, 1302. Unam Sanctam was released by Pope Boniface VIII making the claim of papal spiritual supremacy: that there is "neither salvation nor remission of sins" apart from the Roman Catholic Church and submission to the pope's headship. Martin Luther studied this document while preparing for the Leipzig Debate in 1519 leading him to conclude that the pope might be the antichrist.

Roman Catholics believe only in the visible church - every baptized person is saved. But when the church was rife with corruption, the sixteenth century Protestant reformers came forward to assert the distinction between visible and invisible church - the church militant and the church triumphant. The two overlap and coexist, of course, but in the visible church there are both believers and unbelievers (only God, who knows hearts, knows who are true believers destined for salvation).

This concept is in Scripture (e.g. Matthew 7:21-27), and Augustine of Hippo, Ignatius of Antioch, and Cyprian of Carthage each make the important distinction between the visible and invisible churches.

The 16th century Protestant reformers strongly upheld that "In this church there is a very large mixture of hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance..." (Calvin, Institutes 4.1.7). "The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments are duly ministered" and "As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith" (Thirty-nine Articles, 19).

Why is this distinction important? Because there is only one mediator between God and his people - "the man Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 2:5). In numerous ways the Medieval Catholic Church injected itself as another mediator and the gatekeeper of God's grace. The Protestant reformers acknowledged that the church is God's idea and that through the administration of word and sacraments grace is offered to God's people, but that God, not the pope, is the only gatekeeper to salvation.

Chuck is the Director for the Center for Reformation Anglicanism

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