Question: In one of my classes we have been studying Luther's departure from the Catholic church, literally and figuratively, and the discussion regarding works vs. faith/grace. Of course during that time period people didn't have access to Scripture and were forced to rely on the teachings of the Church for proper interpretation. If these people were only taught the doctrine of works and faith in the Roman Catholic church, was it possible for them to be saved?
Response: This is an important question, and one which (in various manifestations) troubles most believers at some time or another. I think that there are two things to remember when considering questions of this sort: 1) the power and wisdom of God; 2) the responsibility of the individual.
To put this matter into a broader perspective, we are all here, every human being who has ever lived, for the express purpose of choosing for God through Jesus Christ. God does not want anyone to be lost (1Tim.2:4), and sent Christ not to condemn, but to save all His children (Jn.12:47). For He wishes all to "come to repentance" (2Pet.3:9). But His patience, long-suffering though it is, lasts only as long as our lives. We have this time we have been given on earth to demonstrate the true intent of our hearts, ample time really. And God has not left Himself without a witness at any time in history or in any place (Acts 14:16-17). His entire construction of the world and His superintendence of human history and affairs is directed towards leading all mankind in the direction of salvation (Acts 17:26-28). Because of the way He has made the world, the reality of His existence and the essential wonder of His character are plain to see (Ps.19:1-6). Indeed, every human being (of mental and chronological maturity) comes to the knowledge of God at some point in their lives (Rom.1:18-20), though after rejecting Him they may very well deny it after the fact (Rom.1:21-32).
I believe that the only conclusion from a consideration of God's character and the Bible's testimony about His intentions and actions vis-a-vis the salvation of the human race is that He is deeply committed to that salvation, having given His only Son for it - what higher sacrifice could He make (Jn.3:16)? So we must assume, therefore, given that God is greater than the universe, greater than time, greater than the sum of all we could even conceive of as knowledge, having predestined every event of the history of the universe before its creation, we must assume, I would say, that in each and every case where a human being is not in fact saved it is only because that human being did not wish to be saved. Whether disinterested (a passive rejection of God) or uninterested (and active rejection of God), there are very many in the history of mankind (and angelic kind) who have, for their own reasons, chosen not to embrace the mercy of the Living God through Jesus Christ. I will never be able to fully explain or understand this myself, but I do know that it is true. Arrogance has a lot to do with it. When we begin making ourselves "God" in our minds, He gradually becomes less and less (in our minds) - this is the root of Satan's rebellion. God gave His only Son that we might have eternal life. He did the most for us. The one thing He will not do is force our will in a fundamental way. He will teach, and warn, and show, and encourage, and exert all manner of acceptable pressure to bring us to Him - but not to the point where our choice is no longer a true choice.
With all this in mind, I suppose I would say that in respect to the Roman Catholic church and members of that institution, things stand in much the same way. One needs to consider that in any humanly developed "Christian" organization there will be those whose actions run counter to the trend. Luther was clearly a believer in Jesus Christ while still a member of that church, and the fact that there were so many who followed him out of positive motivation indicates to me that this was certainly true of others as well. Without Luther and the particular knowledge we have of this period, we might think there were no believers in that church at that time, so far from grace had its teachings become. But historical impressions can often be deceiving, especially when it comes to the state of the hearts of unknown and unnamed people (whom only God really knows). Elijah complained that there were no believers left in Israel, and God countered that there we still "7,000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal" (i.e., were still believers in the true God of Israel, despite any human appreciation to the contrary: 1Ki.19:18; Rom.11:2-4). The reverse is, sad to say, true as well. In every truly Christian organization (even those which are unquestionably following Jesus Christ) there are those who are ostensibly Christians, but whose hearts are not really God's. And it can sometimes be difficult to sort them out.
It is true that many in the time of the Reformation didn't have access to their own Bible. But God is able to take one verse read for other purposes in a service otherwise counter to grace and through His Spirit bring salvation to the thirsty heart (Phil.1:15-18; cf. Mk.9:39-41). In other words, "nothing is impossible for our God". I have no doubt that all those willing to be saved in that time were, in one way or another were in fact given what they needed to be saved (though we will not know all the details until His Kingdom comes). God provided them the most in the gift of His Son to die in their place. How is it that He would deny them the words to make this clear so that they might partake of this so great salvation? There is much we do not know in terms of history, and especially in terms of the history of individual human beings and their particular spiritual states - but we may be sure that God knows, and that He in each and every case acted in the best interest of all, out of love and out of mercy, "not desiring for any to perish but for all to come to repentance" (2Pet.3:9).
Theology, especially as it was explained and debated in the time of the Reformation (being a very scholarly expressed reaction to a detailed and articulated false position of works - just read Calvin's Institutes), can often be difficult to "parse". God, however, through His Spirit, is more than capable of cutting through everything which is superfluous and illuminating the individual heart with the complete and simple truth, of making the true issue of faith in Christ crystal clear. This is true for all who would seek Him and at all levels. Not that perseverance isn't necessary - we have to demonstrate our true heart, after all, in salvation and in growth and ministry beyond. But He is with us "both to will and to do" (Phil.2:13), if only we are "willing to do". Regardless of the complications of false teaching which has the ring of the truth and of correct teaching which has been put in a needlessly complicated way, God is more than capable of making the real issue of the gospel clear to all and for all who really want it, for all who really want Jesus. He has brought His Word from the ends of the earth to the most remote places on earth for the sake of only a few who thirst for Him (even to only one)! How sad it is that in the midst of an ocean of truth such as we are (potentially) awash in today, so many have so little time for Him. That says nothing about His goodness or His love, but it speaks volumes about the human heart.
For more information, please see the following links:
God's Free Gift of Salvation.
Free-will faith and the Will of God
Faith: What is it?
Free-Will Faith in the Plan of God.
Choosing Hell: Questions about Salvation and the Love of God.
Peter's Epistles, Lesson #11: Natural and Special Revelation
Yours in Him through whom we have this saving grace apart from any works of our own through His work on the cross, our Lord Jesus Christ.