By Mark W. Swarbrick
I was chatting online with a follower of Jimmy Swaggart the other day. He was telling me that Jimmy Swaggart is like the new Martin Luther. He is leading a reformation of Christianity; that the church has gone astray, but that Jimmy Swaggart is “The One” with the real Gospel who will bring the church back to the truth. I thought I would do a comparison between the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century and Jimmy Swaggart Ministries. We shall see how they compare.
Education – Luther
Luther was a very highly educated Catholic Priest. He attended the University of Erfurt for four years and received his master’s degree in 1505. He then spent the next three years training for the priesthood. As an Augustinian monk he dedicated himself to fasting, long hours in prayer, pilgrimage and frequent profession to priests, but he found the mechanical religious ceremony left him empty. He said, “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter…” His superior, Johann von Staupitz taught him that true repentance does not involve self-inflicted penances and punishments but rather a change of heart.
Luther was ordained a priest in 1508 and began to teach theology at the University of Wittenberg. He continued his education and received another Bachelor’s degree in theology. Continuing his education, he received his Doctor of Theology degree in 1512. After eleven years of higher education he was received into the senate of the theological faculty of the University of Wittenberg, having been called to the position of Doctor in Bible.
Education – Swaggart
Jimmy Swaggart dropped out of high school.
Ministry – Luther
As Luther continued to teach at the university, he was increasingly struck by the incongruence between what the Bible said and what the Catholic Church was teaching. He eventually took a stand, nailing his famous “95 Theses” to the wall of the All Saints Church in Wittenburg. These 95 Theses outlined his objection to the Church’s unscriptural teachings, particularly that the Bible states that salvation is a free gift through faith in Christ, whereas the Catholic Church was teaching that freedom from God’s punishment for sin could be purchased with money.
All Bibles then were in Latin, which the people did not speak or read. Luther, fluent in both Latin and German, translated the Bible into German so that the people could see for themselves what the Word of God said. Thus was born the Protestant Reformation. Purgatory, Indulgences, Worship of Dead People, Idolization of Mary, were some of the other false doctrines that were corrected during the Reformation.
Luther’s life was in danger many times as the Roman Church tried to kill him. When called to account before the Church he was expected to buckle in fear and recant. Instead he declared, “Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – 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 cannot do otherwise. God help me, Amen!”
Luther spent his entire life faithful to his wife, to his Lord, and to the Church. Many other great men of God joined in leading the reformation and many were tortured and gave their lives rather than deny scriptural truth.
Ministry – Swaggart
Swaggart was ordained an evangelist in the Assemblies of God. Due to his dramatic oratory skills he became a famous televangelist and also a multi-millionaire due to donations for his television ministry. He rose to his height of fame in the 1980’s, which allowed him to purchase his own jet and to build a multi-million dollar large real-estate empire.
His empire came crashing down when it came to light that he had been addicted to pornography and had been visiting prostitutes for the past twenty years of ministry. His televised repentance scene in 1988 caused many to assume that he had repented and stopped seeing prostitutes.
However, he rejected his church’s discipline (Assemblies of God) and refused to step down from ministry for two years to receive special counseling from A/G ministers. In a meeting with the General Council of the Assemblies of God Swaggart told them they were “too dumb and too stupid” and that he heard from God himself and that he speaks for God and that the Assemblies of God does not. Swaggart stated that the Assemblies of God is a cult and that some of its officials were “in league with pornographers.”
After Swaggart’s tearful apology on television in 1988, he was again caught with a prostitute in 1991. He was pulled over by police with a prostitute in his front seat and pornography was found under the seat. He told his congregation, “God told me it is flat none of your business.” Then he was caught again in 1995.
Swaggart’s current claim to fame is his “Message of the Cross,” which he says is the true Gospel. He claims that he received this as a direct revelation from God. He further states that the Church today is in error, the Apostle Paul lived a defeated life of sin, that the Holy Spirit has as body, that God the Father has a non-omnipresent body, that you are of little worth if you don’t speak in tongues, and that the apostles did not understand the Gospel and that he has received more light of the Gospel than anyone else in all of Church history. (See article, The Swaggart Bible on this site for images of where he has written this.)
Currently Swaggart’s main income is from his vast commercial real estate holdings that he purchased with donations from television viewers. His church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana is mostly empty. He has black curtains hung to partition off the empty pews and careful camera work keeps viewers from realizing that his church is more empty than full.
The differences between Martin Luther and Jimmy Swaggart in education, moral living, and ministry are astounding. Let us now consider what is most important. Martin Luther got his teachings from the Bible. When he taught, he taught from the Bible. He never claimed any special revelation from God. As he said in his famous Here I Stand statement, “my conscience is captive to the Word of God…” It was to the Holy Scripture that he turned and upon which he took his stand, not upon any supposed revelation, for the Word of God warns of he who would be “taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind…” (Colossians 2:18). Sola Scripta, that is, The Scriptures Alone, was and has always been, the Protestant watchword.
The great difference between the Church in Luther’s day and the Church in Swaggart’s time, is that in Luther’s day the scriptures were hidden from the people. That is why there was spiritual darkness. Luther revealed the Bible and that is what brought the Reformation.
Swaggart’s peculiar doctrine did not arise out of the scriptures suddenly being revealed as was the case with the Reformation. Today the Bible is everywhere. In fact, before Swaggart, his strange cross teaching was never believed by anyone. No one in two thousand years of Church history has believed or taught it. You don’t find it taught in the Bible, not in the writings of the apostolic fathers or the anti-Nicene fathers. It is not there because it is not a teaching of the apostles. In fact Swaggart says the apostles didn’t comprehend it. By Swaggart’s own admission it is not even found in the Church today. Swaggart’s “Message of the Cross,” existed nowhere until it existed in his own mind. Look for it in the Bible and you will look in vain. Not one place does the Bible ever say to put your faith in the cross. It says to put your faith in Jesus.
Swaggart admits that he did not get his teaching from the Bible. He claims repeatedly that he got it direct from God as a revelation. His website tells the story at http://www.jsm.org/message-cross.html. Here his beginning words tell of the humiliation he experienced when his sin was found out. Swaggart’s Message of the Cross was literally born in sin, as evidenced by his own words. He claims it came from six years of dedicated prayer from 1991 to 1997. However he was also still seeing prostitutes during those years, for he was caught again in 1991 and 1995.
More likely, the message being preached by the man who admitted, “I chased prostitutes in every city I held revivals,” is something he concocted in his mind to patch his ministry together in order to maintain a following to further his real-estate empire.
Whatever his motivation, one thing is abundantly clear, Jimmy Swaggart is no Martin Luther. His fledgling frail ministry from a half empty church is not sweeping the world. It does not even come close to being a denomination or even as large as other cults such as the Jehovah Witnesses or the Mormons, who also imagine that they are the restoration of Christendom. Many cult watch groups warn against Jimmy Swaggart Ministries. The Christian Research Institute, the foremost authority on cults, does not recommend Swaggart Ministries due to their convoluted God-Body explanation of the Trinity.
The Reformation reformed the Church to what it was before the rise of Catholicism, back to the early church fathers, back to the apostles, back to the New Testament. The Reformation did sweep the globe and gave rise to a restoration of truth for the entire world. It did so because it was born of God out of the Holy Scriptures and sealed in martyr’s blood. Biblical Reformation truth was brought to light by devoted and educated men who were respected and ordained in the Church, who lived moral lives, many of whom suffered hardship, shed their blood and willingly died for the truth.
Swaggartism, on the other hand, is born from the fanciful imagination of one very rich adulterous man. It springs from an alleged extra-biblical revelation supposedly given to this high-school drop-out with no higher education, who was dispelled and defrocked from the Church for refusing to humbly accept help for his depraved sinful life. His is not a reformation back to anything, for his strange doctrine is not found anywhere in Church history, not even in the Bible. In time Jimmy Swaggart will go the way of many TV evangelists and fade into obscurity.
Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, and Jimmy Swaggart and Swaggartism. Any comparison? No. There is none.