Years ago I heard a minister cite William Cunningham as saying that the Roman Catholic Church was “Satan’s masterpiece.” What he meant was that Roman Catholicism masquerades in the name of Christianity, it claims to be the only true church, and it has subtly and effectively transformed every major doctrine of the Christian faith.
However, I discovered recently that this statement did not originate in the 19th century with Cunningham, but that it had its roots much earlier. In 1646, a Westminster divine named Stephen Marshall wrote, “In a word, preaching is that whereby Christ destroys the very Kingdom of Antichrist [i.e., the Roman Catholic Church], though it is the Devil’s master-piece laid in the deepest policy, and founded not only in States, but in men’s consciences, yet Christ destroys it by the Word of his mouth, that is the preaching of the gospel in the mouths of his ministers” (cited in McCullough et al, The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon, Oxford, 2011, pg. 406). Marshall likely obtained this phrase from others as well.
While I do not intend to treat here the changes that have occurred in modern Roman Catholicism, I believe that Marshall’s statement about Rome is just as true today as it was when Marshall wrote it in the 17th century and when Cunningham reiterated the idea in the 19th century. Rome is not Satan’s masterpiece simply because it is in error. It is the Devil’s masterpiece because of the subtlety of its error and how attractive it can be to those who call themselves Christians. Like Marshall, we must rest upon the clear preaching of the gospel if we would know the difference between truth and falsehood. We are often taken in by lies when we have such imprecise knowledge of the truth.