Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works. Revelation 2: 4, 5.
When Christians lost their first love for Christ due to persecution and compromise, faith died. The doctrine of salvation by grace, a free gift from God, was forgotten. In its place were put rounds of rituals and penitential works.
The hierarchy of the church stepped into the place of Christ and prescribed the works necessary for salvation. Not only that, but it realized how it might profit from its position as the administrator of salvation.
Penance Instead of Repentance
Penance took the place of repentance. To pay for one’s sins through torturing the flesh was preferred over the surrender of self to Christ and dying to sin and self. So men, women, and children fasted, deprived the body of comforts, completed arduous tasks and journeys – all in an attempt to pay a debt to a holy God, who could in no way be appeased by these things.
Pride Destroys Character
The priests, by receiving confession, prescribing penance and doling out indulgences, took on an exalted position. Since there was no need for teaching the people the Scriptures since salvation of works had taken the place of salvation by grace, the clergy saw no need of devoting their lives to studying the sacred writings. Instead, many devoted themselves indulging in sin of every kind. The sad result was disrespect for the holy office of the priest and all the hierarchy.
Martin Luther described the situation like this:
The ecclesiastical order is opposed to God and to His glory. The people know it well; and this is but too plainly shown by the many songs, proverbs, and jokes against the priests, that are current among the commonalty, and all those caricatures of monks and priests on every wall, and even on the playing-cards. Everyone feels a loathing on seeing or hearing a priest in the distance.”[i]
[i] As quoted in J. H. Merle d’Aubigne: History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.I