A Laymen’s Commentary on the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope: The Marks of the Antichrist

39] Now, it is manifest that the Roman pontiffs, with their adherents, defend [and practice] godless doctrines and godless services. And the marks [all the vices] of Antichrist plainly agree with the kingdom of the Pope and his adherents. For Paul, in describing Antichrist to the Thessalonians, calls him 2 Thess. 2:3-4: an adversary of Christ, who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God. He speaks therefore of one ruling in the Church, not of heathen kings, and he calls this one the adversary of Christ, because he will devise doctrine conflicting with the Gospel, and will assume to himself divine authority.

40] Moreover, it is manifest, in the first place, that the Pope rules in the Church, and by the pretext of ecclesiastical authority and of the ministry has established for himself this kingdom. For he assigns as a pretext these words: I will give to thee the keys. Secondly, the doctrine of the Pope conflicts in many ways with the Gospel, and [thirdly] the Pope assumes to himself divine authority in a threefold manner. First, because he takes to himself the right to change the doctrine of Christ and services instituted by God, and wants his own doctrine and his own services to be observed as divine; secondly, because he takes to himself the power not only of binding and loosing in this life, but also the jurisdiction over souls after this life; thirdly, because the Pope does not want to be judged by the Church or by any one, and puts his own authority ahead of the decision of Councils and the entire Church. But to be unwilling to be judged by the Church or by any one is to make oneself God. Lastly, these errors so horrible, and this impiety, he defends with the greatest cruelty, and puts to death those dissenting.

In addition to all the other proofs offered in the previous sections, the actions of the pope make it clear that he is the Antichrist (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12). We talked about the Scriptural basis for this claim in more detail in Smalcald Articles Part II Article IV on the Papacy. From that discussion it is evident from Scripture that the Antichrist is someone who is within the church who exalts himself and points to things other than Christ. This is exactly what the pope does, both at the time of the Reformation and now.

The pope claims all power for himself. The power of the keys he claims for himself and makes the church his kingdom. He takes the power of binding and loosing souls even when they are dead. He also claims to be above any judgement, and puts to death those who disagree (thankfully the pope lacks this power now).

41] This being the case, all Christians ought to beware of becoming partakers of the godless doctrine, blasphemies, and unjust cruelty of the Pope. On this account they ought to desert and execrate the Pope with his adherents as the kingdom of Antichrist; just as Christ has commanded, Matt. 7:15: Beware of false prophets. And Paul commands that godless teachers should be avoided and execrated as cursed, Gal. 1:8; Titus 3:10. And he says, 2 Cor. 6:14: Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers; for what communion hath light with darkness?

As Christians we are obligated to flee and call out false doctrine and false teachers when we see it (Matthew 7:15-27, 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, Titus 3:1-11). Thus it is right that we flee to pope and call out his abuses. This is to guard ourselves against his blasphemy and warn others.

42] To dissent from the agreement of so many nations and to be called schismatics is a grave matter. But divine authority commands all not to be allies and defenders of impiety and unjust cruelty.

On this account our consciences are sufficiently excused; for the errors of the kingdom of the Pope are manifest. And Scripture with its entire voice exclaims that these errors are a teaching of demons and of Antichrist. 43] The idolatry in the profanation of the masses is manifest, which, besides other faults [besides being altogether useless] are shamelessly applied to most shameful gain [and trafficking]. 44] The doctrine of repentance has been utterly corrupted by the Pope and his adherents. For they teach that sins are remitted because of the worth of our works. Then they bid us doubt whether the remission takes place. They nowhere teach that sins are remitted freely for Christ’s sake, and that by this faith we obtain remission of sins.

Thus they obscure the glory of Christ, and deprive consciences of firm consolation, and abolish true divine services, namely, the exercises of faith struggling with [unbelief and] despair [concerning the promise of the Gospel].

45] They have obscured the doctrine concerning sin, and have invented a tradition concerning the enumeration of offenses, producing many errors and despair.

They have devised, in addition, satisfactions, whereby they have also obscured the benefit [and merit] of Christ.

46] From these, indulgences have been born, which are pure lies, fabricated for the sake of gain.

47] Then, how many abuses and what horrible idolatry the invocation of saints has produced!

48] What shameful acts have arisen from the tradition concerning celibacy!

What darkness the doctrine concerning vows has spread over the Gospel! There they feigned that vows are righteousness before God and merit the remission of sins. Thus they have transferred the benefit of Christ to human traditions, and have altogether extinguished the doctrine concerning faith. They have feigned that the most trifling traditions are services of God and perfection and have preferred these to the works of callings which God requires and has ordained. Neither are these errors to be regarded as light; for they detract from the glory of Christ and bring destruction to souls, neither can they be passed by unnoticed.

49] Then to these errors two great sins are added: The first, that he defends these errors by unjust cruelty and death-penalties. The second, that he wrests the decision from the Church, and does not permit ecclesiastical controversies [such matters of religion] to be judged according to the prescribed mode; yea he contends that he is above the Council, and can rescind the decrees of Councils, as the canons sometimes impudently speak. But that this was much more impudently done by the pontiffs, examples testify.

50] Quest. 9, canon 3, says: No one shall judge the first seat; for the judge is judged neither by the emperor, nor by all the clergy, nor by the kings, nor by the people.

51] The Pope exercises a twofold tyranny: he defends his errors by force and by murders, and forbids judicial examination. The latter does even more injury than any executions, because, when the true judgment of the Church is removed, godless dogmas and godless services cannot be removed, and for many ages they destroy innumerable souls.

52] Therefore let the godly consider the great errors of the kingdom of the Pope and his tyranny, and let them ponder, first, that the errors must be rejected and the true doctrine embraced, for the glory of God and to the salvation of souls. 53] Then let them ponder also how great a crime it is to aid unjust cruelty in killing saints, whose blood God will undoubtedly avenge.

This is a very serious claim that Melancthon is making and he realizes it, but he is compelled by Scripture to state the truth.  After all schism is never to be desired, but the truth of God’s Word must be maintained even at the cost of the external unity of the Church. The errors of the pope are the teachings of demons, so schism is needed to flee from him (1 Timothy 4).

We talked about many of these abuses in Smalcald so we won’t rehash them. I will draw out this little comment on that Melancthon brings up in paragraph 44.  Namely that the divine service (worship ) is “the exercise of faith struggling with unbelief and despair concerning the promise of the Gospel”. This is a beautiful definition of the Divine Service.  When we worship we are fighting against despair and doubt.  The Divine Service is to remove all doubt of our salvation and restore to us the joy of grace and life.

However, the pope clouds and destroys that beautiful picture with his numerous abuses and robs Christians of any consolation. All of these errors the pope defends with the death penalty and excommunication.  He does not permit anyone in the church to debate or question them either. All of these errors must be resisted even to death.  For God will avenge His saints.

54] But especially the chief members of the Church, kings and princes, ought to guard the interests of the Church, and to see to it that errors be removed and consciences be healed [rightly instructed], as God expressly exhorts kings, Ps. 2:10: Be wise, now, therefore, O ye kings; be instructed, ye judges of the earth. For it should be the first care of kings [and great lords] to advance the glory of God. Therefore it would be very shameful for them to lend their influence and power to confirm idolatry and infinite other crimes, and to slaughter saints.

55] And even though the Pope should hold Synods [a Council], how can the Church be healed if the Pope suffers nothing to be decreed contrary to his will, if he allows no one to express his opinion except his adherents whom he has bound by dreadful oaths and curses to the defense of his tyranny and wickedness without any exception concerning God’s Word [not even the Word of God being excepted]?

56] But since the decisions of Synods are the decisions of the Church, and not of the Popes, it is especially incumbent on kings to check the license of the Popes [not allow such wantonness], and to act so that the power of judging and decreeing from the Word of God is not wrested from the Church. And as the rest of the Christians must censure all other errors of the Pope, so they must also rebuke the Pope when he evades and impedes the true investigation and true decision of the Church.

Melancthon calls for the aid of the princes and kings, who are Christian and from whom the pope has stolen authority.  The princes and kings should not be complicit with the pope, but rather fight against him. The kings must act so that the Church is not destroyed by the work of the Antichrist.  As Christians they must reject the pope (1 Kings 14:1-18, Psalm 2).

57] Therefore, even though the bishop of Rome had the primacy by divine right, yet since he defends godless services and doctrine conflicting with the Gospel, obedience is not due him; yea, it is necessary to resist him as Antichrist. The errors of the Pope are manifest and not trifling.

58] Manifest also is the cruelty [against godly Christians] which he exercises. And it is clear that it is God’s command that we flee idolatry, godless doctrine, and unjust cruelty. On this account all the godly have great, compelling, and manifest reasons for not obeying the Pope. And these compelling reasons comfort the godly against all the reproaches which are usually cast against them concerning offenses, schism, and discord [which they are said to cause].

59] But those who agree with the Pope, and defend his doctrine and [false] services, defile themselves with idolatry and blasphemous opinions, become guilty of the blood of the godly, whom the Pope [and his adherents] persecutes, detract from the glory of God, and hinder the welfare of the Church, because they strengthen errors and crimes to all posterity [in the sight of all the world and to the injury of all descendants].

Thus it is clear that even if the pope had his position by divine right, he is the antichrist and should be resisted. We are clearly commanded to flee idolatry (1 Corinthians 10, 1 Timothy 6). Those who agree with the pope become guilty of the saints that the pope has slaughtered (Acts 9:1-19). We pray for their repentance and that they would likewise join us in the true visible church.

2 thoughts on “A Laymen’s Commentary on the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope: The Marks of the Antichrist

  1. From the Treatise [39]: “And the marks [all the vices] of Antichrist plainly agree with the kingdom of the Pope and his adherents.”

    A lifelong LCMS Lutheran, I really struggle with that one. Where can I find a succinct list of all the marks and precisely how the pope compares? Some the “marks” mentioned in the Bible do not seem to characterize the papacy as I observe it. Here’s what I’ve found so far:

    The Bible says that someone who does “not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” is antichrist. (2 John 1:17 ESV) Doesn’t the pope acknowledge that Jesus came in the flesh?

    The Bible says that the antichrist denies that Jesus came as the promised Messiah. (1 John 2:22) Does the pope do that?

    The layman’s commentary above says, “the Antichrist is someone who is within the church.” Yet the Bible says, “[The antichrists] went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (1 John 2:19 ESV)

    The Bible describes the “man of lawlessness … who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship.” (2 Thess. 2:3-4 ESV) Yet I have seen videos of the pope prostrating himself in a profound act of humility and worship.

    Still trying to figure this one out. Thanks.

  2. To be sure it is a hard one. First I will refer back to the previous commentary on the Smalcald Articles as Luther actually treats this a bit more fully than Melancthon: https://steadfastlutherans.org/2019/06/a-laymens-commentary-on-the-smalcald-articles-the-papacy/

    Second, a few distinctions should be kept in mind. First, we confess that the Office of the Papacy as it exists now is the office of the antichrist. The individual man occupying that office may not be fully utilizing the power that is entailed in the office. However if you read the power of the pope according to official Roman Catholic doctrine you can see how it lines up. The current pope though may not be fully utilizing or even agree with those powers.

    Next, the Scriptures talk about antichrists. There are multiple, the denial of the humanity of Christ is just one of the types of antichrist. Antichrist is not a unique person but rather something that some one becomes due to a denial of Christ’s work. Thus any preacher can be come a little antichrist if they point their hearers to any Gospel other than Christ. It just turns out the pope is the pinnacle of this form. Even the current pope with his tacit approval of false idols both internal to Roman Catholicism and external (see the recent Amazon Synod for an example of this syncretism). This is what St. Paul warns about in Galatians.

    Now there is debate about if there will be a single man who is the pinnacle of this expression at the very end before Christ comes, I can’t comment on that. I do know that we are in the end times now, the antichrist is with us now and has been since the apostolic times. It is just another sign that Christ is nigh. The Lutheran doctrine of the papacy being the antichrist is just a recognition that the papacy has been corrupted by Satan who is constantly working to undermine Christ by setting up others.

    Like Melancthon though if the pope were to declare null and void all the powers that he has accumulated to himself along with the false doctrine then we would be content to have his as head of the church by human rite and to declare that the office as reformed is no longer the antichrist. We, after all, have no issue with the pope being the temporal head. It’s his spiritual claims that we have an issue with. Hope that helps.

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