GODS PROTESTANT REFORMERS
What was the Reformation?
One person has defined Church History as the story of the loss and recovery of the Gospel. In one sense it is impossible for the Gospel to be lost. The Gospel is God’s good news and He has promised that none of His words will be lost. The message of redemption is His message and He has promised that He will carry it out to a successful conclusion.
However, there is a sense in which the Gospel can be lost. History does not always advance directly, it can be cyclical in nature. For example, a study of the Book of Judges reveals a cycle of sin, chastening, the raising up of a judge, deliverance from the oppressor, and then a return to sin. This could be depressing reading but we can glean important lessons for our own day.
It was apparent that the Gospel was nearly lost during the times of the Middle Ages. There are a number of reasons for this: ignorance of the clergy, papal corruption, the Church becoming the mediator between God and man, and the teaching of non-biblical doctrines.
There was a universal cry for a correction of these abuses. Several groups and individuals arose who attempted to reform the Church. Included were persons and groups such as John Wyclif, John Hus, and the Brethren of the Common Life. Even the Humanists joined in the attempt to correct the abuses. However, they believed the key to the reformation of the Church was by education.
In discussing these things, we must never forget that God uses people to carry out His work. God often permitted the situation to come to a crisis point and then He prepared a person to combat that error. This can be illustrated from the Patristic Church when Arius attacked the deity of Christ in the fourth century. He claimed that Jesus was the first created being and not God. Athanasius was given the honor of defending the true deity and humanity of the Lord Jesus, thus preserving the Gospel itself. For if Christ were not God, then there could be no salvation.
There were a great number of doctrines that were not in dispute at the time of the Reformation. The Reformation did not debate the doctrines of the Trinity, the Person of Christ, man and his need of salvation, and the nature of the work of Christ. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds defined the nature of the Trinity and the Person of Christ. Augustine did a masterful job in showing that man was lost in sin and incapable of saving himself by his own efforts. In 1529, the Council of Orange made his teachings on man part of the orthodox belief thus preserving the great truth that salvation is of God’s grace. Even in the 12th Century, Anselm of Canterbury demonstrated that the nature of Christ’s death was a penal sacrifice offered to God. While there was an application of the atonement that cancelled the power of the devil over man, it was directed primarily to God.
The crucial question of the Middle Ages was how the benefits of Christ’s death were applied to the sinner who needed to be saved. Over the course of centuries, the Roman Church had appropriated that power to itself. This power was located in the seven sacraments that the Church administered to its adherents. Theologians taught that God had bestowed His grace to the Church. The Church, then, became the custodian of grace and had the authority to mediate it to the faithful by means of the sacraments. There could be no salvation apart from the Church. As a result, people were in bondage to the Church. The Gospel was distorted, if not actually lost, by this incorrect teaching.
Martin Luther demonstrated that the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice were applied differently than what the Church taught. Through his personal struggle with sin, Luther realized that salvation came through faith in Christ. When Luther became aware of the sale of indulgences to release souls from Purgatory, he was incensed. To Luther, this was nothing less than trafficking in the souls of men. The Pope rejected Luther's appeal and determined to continue the practice that Luther proved was in direct contradiction to the Word of God. These historical events form the context of the Reformation.
The Reformation itself was the recovery of the Gospel. The Gospel, the power of God unto salvation, was liberated from its Medieval dross, and proclaimed once again to the world. The good news, that God in Christ had accomplished salvation for man and offered it to him as a free gift received by faith alone, thundered throughout Europe. This was the same Gospel that the Apostle Paul had proclaimed hundreds of years previously.
In this sense, the Reformation was an advance. It was not an advance in the Gospel itself because the Gospel is complete and perfect. The advance was in man's understanding of the Gospel. The Reformation was primarily the recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith. But the doctrine of justification by faith led to further teaching on the nature of the Christian life and how to live one's life coram deo, or in the presence of God Himself.
While the Reformation was a recovery of the Gospel, it was also the clarification of the components of the Gospel. These clarifications are phrases that emphasize certain aspects of the Gospel. They are Latin phrases commonly used to describe the Reformation emphases. These five phrases are: by faith alone (sola fide); by grace alone (sola gratia); by Christ alone (solus christus); to God alone the glory (soli deo gloria); and by Scripture alone (sola scriptura).
These are not five individual phrases that can be held in isolation from one another. One is not more important than any other. To speak of one is to speak of the other four.
We will look at each of the five phrases in turn. There may be some overlap because it is not possible to speak of one apart from the others. Together they give us insight into the nature of the Gospel and the importance of the Reformation.
The teaching of faith alone (sola fide) demonstrated that the Church could not function as the mediator between God and man. Although Medieval theologians gave credence to the biblical statement that salvation was by faith, they spoke of a faith that was directed toward the Church and what the Church provided. They also assigned to faith a value that God would reward. They spoke of unformed and formed faith. They believed that faith could advance from one degree to another of higher value. However, the Reformers showed decisively that the nature of faith, while it included both knowledge and conviction, was primarily trust or commitment. That trust or commitment was directed toward the person of Christ Himself. He was the one Mediator between God and man.
Faith was not a work, but an emptying of the person's confidence in his ability to save himself. The Reformers proved that faith was the instrumental means by which a person laid hold of Christ. What was important about saving faith was the object of faith, the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. They were intent in showing that genuine faith was shown in its fruits and resulted in a holy life.
By grace alone (sola gratia) spoke of the basis of salvation. Medieval theology spoke of merit or a right that a person had to approach God because of something in themselves or what they had done. The Reformers taught that the sole basis of salvation was God's free grace. The Church taught that if a person did certain things; this would obligate God to reward them. Through use of the Scriptures, the Reformers removed this false prop. They taught if one were to be saved, it would be by God's grace alone. There was no room for human merit in one's salvation. Did this mean that one should not strive for the salvation of his soul? If one waited until God extended His grace, would this not leave man in a dangerous position? He could be indifferent and give the excuse that, because he could not save himself, there was no reason to do anything. He could wait until God had mercy on him.
However, indifference is a distortion of grace. While Medieval theology emphasized that a person should seek salvation, the means were not in agreement with God's Word. He should go on a pilgrimage, pay money, or seek to do special works of merit. As a result, man became dependent on the Church and could never come to a place of settled assurance. On the other hand, the Reformers emphasized that God did extend His grace. Where was that grace offered? It was offered in the Gospel of His Son. God had demonstrated His grace and love to man in history by sending His Son. God now extended the Gospel invitation to all men to come to Him. When they came in response to the call of the Gospel, they would find that He was indeed a gracious God, willing to blot out their trespasses and sins. Should they remain obstinate and refuse to come, they would find to their sorrow they had refused the only offer of salvation.
Christ alone (solus christus) was the third element of the Gospel. Men were encouraged to look to Christ alone for salvation. The Scriptures declared that He was the only Mediator between God and man. The additions that the Church had placed on the Gospel distorted the part that Christ had in purchasing it on behalf of men. While the Church spoke of Christ and His work, the Mass emphasized the continual sacrifice of the Lord. However, the Scriptures emphasized its once for all nature and its efficacy to save men from the guilt and power of their sins. Reformation preaching sounded the note of Christ crucified as the answer to men's needs. They not only proclaimed His death, they spoke of His glorious resurrection and His ascension into heaven. Christ was now at the right hand of the Father, interceding for His people. The Gospel of the Reformation portrayed a living Christ Who ministered to His people, rather than an unfortunate victim of the cross.
To God alone the glory (soli deo gloria) emphasized the purpose of man's salvation. In reality, assurance of one's salvation was nearly impossible within the teaching of the Church. Rather than teaching justification as a legal change from condemnation to righteousness, Rome defined it as a moral change continually in process As a result, one could never come to the place where they could be certain they had done enough to please God. Rome combined sanctification, the progressive growth in holiness, with justification to the complete confusion of salvation itself.
The Reformers were explicit in their teaching on the Christian life. They avoided the extremes of no assurance of salvation and antinomianism or lawlessness that comes from the presumption of salvation. They taught a realistic view of man; that because he still lives in the world, he must battle against indwelling sin, he must oppose the world system, and he has a real spiritual enemy in the devil.
The Reformers also taught that it was possible to live victoriously and serve God in the world. This is the meaning of soli deo gloria. God receives all the praise for one's salvation and, out of thankfulness, one dedicates their entire life to the service of God. That service of God might consist in different types of work but was united in the Person Who was served. In contrast, the Roman Church taught that the clerical life was the only life that truly could please God. Thus one had to withdraw from the world in order to live for God. The Reformers, while stressing that salvation was entirely of God, were equally determined to show that one honored God by living for Him.
What was the key to these doctrines being proclaimed? How was the Gospel liberated from its chains? It was the recovery of the Scriptures themselves. For that reason one of the key statements of the Reformation was sola scriptura, the Scriptures alone. The Scriptures were the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. The Reformers did not cast off what the church had taught previously. They taught that the clear teaching of the Scriptures had been obscured by the additions of the Church.
The Scriptures were made available again in their original languages and the Reformers returned to a close study of them. In the view of the Reformers, all teachings were to be brought to the bar of the Scriptures to determine if they were correct. The final authority was not to be what the Church taught but what the Word of God said. The Church had replaced the Scriptures as the final authority in matters of faith and practice. The Reformers stressed clearly that ultimate authority was found in the Word of God alone and not in the Church.
What was the Reformation? It was the recovery of the Gospel. What is the Gospel? It is the good news of what God has done in Christ to save man from his sin. It is a Gospel that has its origin in the grace (sola gratia) of God through the work of Christ (solus christus) and received by faith (sola fide). Where is the Gospel to be found? It is found on the pages of the Scriptures (sola scriptura) so that not only may I come to a personal salvation in Christ, I will also be instructed in how to live a life that is to the glory and praise of God (soli deo gloria).
But there is the need to add a word of caution. The story of the Reformation teaches us that the Gospel was recovered in its glory. But subsequent events in history also teach us that this Gospel can also be lost again. We learn from the Reformation the need for constant reformation of the Church. How grateful we should be that the Gospel was recovered at that time. But how foolish to be deceived into thinking that it could not be lost again. How important it is that we make a personal appropriation of the Gospel and live for the Lord today. Today is the only opportunity we will have to serve the Lord. Let us live out the reality of the Gospel through our lives today.
John Hus: Bohemian Reformer
While we usually consider Luther's act of nailing his 95 theses on the chapel door of the church of Wittenburg to be the beginning of the Reformation, the fact remains that God began the work of reformation long before the days of Martin Luther.
Two men are called "Pre-reformers" by historians: John Wycliffe of England and John Hus of Bohemia. Perhaps to call them pre-reformers really does them no injustice; but they were more than pre-reformers; they were reformers in the truest sense of the word -- and perhaps Hus even more than Wycliffe. The reformation of the church in the 16th century would have been impossible without them.
The two men were different. Wycliffe was first of all a scholar for whom preaching was secondary. Hus was above all a preacher, and scholarly studies were subordinate to preaching. The dusty library was Wycliffe's home; the pulpit was Hus'. Wycliffe labored all his life for reform and left no movement that continued to the Reformation. Hus started a movement of reform that not only lasted to the Reformation, but has come down to the present in almost pure form, primarily in the Moravians. Wycliffe's teachings were almost identical to those of Luther and Calvin; Hus, apparently, was never able to condemn the Roman Catholic corruption of the Lord's Supper. Wycliffe reflected all his life the middle class gentility of his upbringing; Hus, after the pattern of Luther, was of rough peasant stock. Wycliffe, it seems, did not know what it meant to laugh; Hus could banter and joke with his students even while lecturing. Wycliffe went to the grave in peace; Hus was burned to death on a martyr's pyre. But God used them both.
In Luther's famous debate with John Eck at Leipzig, Eck charged Martin Luther with being a Hussite because Luther appealed to the supreme authority of Scripture. Luther was not sure about this, but spent the noon break reading what Hus had written. At the beginning of the afternoon session he surprised everyone by loudly proclaiming: "Ich ben ein Hussite!" (I am a Hussite.)
John Hus was born in 1373 in the southern part of Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia) in the village of Husinec -- hence his surname, Hus. The name Hus means "goose," a word which Hus often used in referring to himself. While he was imprisoned in Constance, he wrote his friends in Bohemia that he hoped the goose might be released from prison and that "if you love the goose," try to secure the king's aid in delivering him from prison.
He was born of poor peasant parents, all of which meant that his early life was one of hardship and cruel poverty under the crushing heel of lords and princes. The difficulties of such a life were, amongst a peasant population, broken only by wild and riotous orgies of drinking and fornication. While it is clear from Hus' later letters that he was as riotous as his fellows, nevertheless, he earnestly insisted that he was never guilty of the immorality of his peers. From this the Lord saved him in preparation for greater work.
While his parents were not noted in any way for their piety, and apparently gave little thought to John's spiritual instruction, they did want him to go to school because they saw education as the only way for John and for them to escape their grinding poverty. In fact, they apparently considered an education for the priesthood to be the surest way to wealth, an irony that spoke volumes concerning the sad state of affairs in the Romish Church.
Although John became a highly educated man, his peasant upbringing remained with him all his life, and his enemies repeatedly taunted him for his crude and rough origins.
In 1385, at thirteen years old, John began his formal education in elementary school at Prachatice. Finishing this part of his education in 1390, he went to the University of Prague, acquiring a B.A. degree in 1393 (at the age of 20); a M.A. in 1396; and a B.D. in 1404. Until he earned his M.A., life was financially difficult; and he earned a bit of money by singing and doing manual work. But upon gaining his M.A. degree, he was qualified to teach, which also he did in the university. He was soon the most popular teacher in the university, partly because he broke old traditions by refusing to be the stern and unbending professor, preferring to laugh, joke, and socialize with his students.
Hus, the Preacher
In 1402 John was appointed rector and preacher at the Chapel of the Holy Infants of Bethlehem in Prague. Thus John occupied two of the most strategic positions in all Bohemia -- although he was probably unaware of their importance. The city of Prague had a lengthy tradition of reform and could boast some outstanding preachers, who even preached from the Scriptures. To this tradition Hus fell heir. The University of Prague was in the very center of the reform movement and was a place of ferment as new ideas and programs for the church were constantly being discussed. The chapel to which Hus was appointed was raised in 1391 by a rich merchant as a center for reform preaching.
It was about the time that Hus began preaching that he also was converted. It seems as if his conversion was centered in his calling to preach. Prior to 1400 Hus had studied for the priesthood in the firm conviction that this was the way to escape from poverty. But when actually confronted with the task of preaching, his life underwent a fundamental change and he was overcome by the consciousness of the great task of preaching the gospel of Christ. He himself wrote of how important he considered preaching: "By the help of God I have preached, still am preaching, and if his grace will allow, shall continue to preach; if perchance I may be able to lead some poor, tired, or halting soul into the house of Christ to the King's supper."
The teachings of John Wycliffe had come to Bohemia as early as 1390. A close alliance had been established between England and Bohemia because England's king, Richard II, had married Anne of Bohemia, the sister of Bohemia's king. Scholars had traveled between the countries, and one eminent scholar, Jerome of Prague, had spent some time in Oxford, Wycliffe's school, where he had absorbed the teachings of Wycliffe. On his return, he had spread Wycliffe's writings and teachings throughout Prague and the university.
Although reform had been in the air for many years, the spread of Wycliffe's teachings gave it direction and a doctrinal foundation. John Hus had become thoroughly familiar with the teachings of Wycliffe and, convinced of their truth, he had himself begun to teach them in the university and preach them in the pulpit. it is not surprising that the full fury of the Roman Catholic Church was soon turned against him. When general reform, especially of clerical corruption, was preached, even many Roman Catholics supported the reform movement. But when Hus and others began to preach doctrinal reform as well as moral reform, Rome turned in a rage against the reformers, and especially against Hus.
It seems as if from the time Hus began preaching, Hus was under suspicion. A curious document turned up near the end of Hus' life which was a collection of quotes from Hus' preaching and teaching, taken secretly and obviously with the intent of using them to charge Hus with heresy. But the more Hus emphasized that at the root of Rome's evils lay doctrinal error, the more Hus lost the support of the church, of the politicians, and of most of those in authority. It was the students Hus taught in school and the common people who loved his preaching, who continued to support him.
As the opposition to Hus grew, pressure of many kinds was put on him. First 45 statements, purported to be Hus' teachings, were condemned. Then preaching was forbidden in all the chapels. Then, when Hus refused to stop preaching, he was excommunicated by the archbishop. Soon he was summoned to Rome for trial; but, knowing that he would never escape Rome alive, he refused to go and was excommunicated by the pope. Even this was not enough; Prague was put under the interdict so that no religious services could be performed in the entire city. Gradually the might of Rome was squeezing Hus into a corner.
In pity for the citizens of the city, and so that the interdict could be removed, Hus left and returned to the area of his hometown. But his new residence soon became a center for preaching in all the surrounding countryside and it gave him the quietness that he needed to write. Perhaps this move did not lessen his effectiveness, but was God's means of spreading Hus' teaching beyond the confines of Prague.
At any rate, Rome could tolerate Hus no longer. He was summoned to the Council of Constance in 1414, a council meeting called to settle the papal schism. Three popes were all claiming to be the legitimate pope, and the outrageous situation was making a mockery of the claims of the church.
Trial and Martyrdom
The Emperor Sigismund promised Hus a safe-conduct both to and from Constance regardless of the outcome of Hus' trial. And it was for this reason that Hus determined to go, although he was not at all certain that he would emerge from the trial alive. He told his friends, however, that a faithful testimony to his Lord and Savior required that he go.
Hus would have been safe in his hometown. He testified to this in Constance before his accusers when he told them: "I have stated that I came here of my own free will. If I had been unwilling to come, neither that king (Wenzel) nor this king (Sigismund) would have been able to force me to come, so numerous and so powerful are the Bohemian nobles who love me, and within whose castles I should have been able to lie concealed."
For one month, while in Constance, Hus was permitted to move about freely, even administering the Lord's Supper daily in his lodgings, the home of a widow whom he called his "widow of Zarephath." But Rome's godless and treacherous clerics could not permit Hus to remain free, and so he was imprisoned on the trumped-up charge that he had attempted to escape the city in a wagon.
Three months he was in a dungeon in a Dominican convent with a cell alongside the latrines. On March 24, 1414, he was chained and transferred to a castle dungeon at Gottelieven, where he was handcuffed and bound to a wall at night, while free to walk around in chains during the day. After 73 days, he was transferred to a Franciscan friary where he was subjected to cruel and heartless hearings in efforts to make him recant. Through all his imprisonment he was permitted no books, not even his Bible. He was nearly starved to death at times, and throughout he was so cruelly treated that he suffered from hemorrhage, headaches, vomiting, and fainting spells.
When finally he was brought before the council, he was permitted to say nothing, although repeatedly he made an effort to give the testimony to his faith he longed to give. God did not will that his testimony would be that of a confession of his mouth; his testimony was to be the far more powerful testimony of martyrdom.
The trial was a joke, a violation of every rule of justice, a farce of the worst sort. But during its proceedings, Hus was repeatedly made the object of mockery, derision, humiliating treatment of the worst sort, and a cruel deposition when he was stripped of all his clerical clothing and publicly defrocked.
Finally he was sentenced to burning at the stake, and the council, afraid of spilling the blood of a man, turned him over to the secular authorities to carry out the sentence.
One interesting sidelight gives a glimpse into the magnificent wisdom of God. When Hus was sentenced to death, he appealed to the Emperor Sigismund, who was present, to rescue him, reminding Sigismund of his promise of a safe-conduct. While Sigismund did not have the courage to keep his promise, he did have the grace to blush a fiery red at Hus' rebuke. All this would not mean so much in itself. But just over 100 years later, Luther went to Worms under the safe conduct of Charles V, emperor of Germany, and made his courageous stand for Scripture. Then too the Roman Catholic Church wanted Luther killed, but Charles insisted that the safe conduct be enforced. When Charles was later asked why he permitted the dastardly heretic, Luther, to escape, Charles replied that he remembered all too well the blush of shame on the face of Sigismund, when Sigismund treacherously went back on Hus' safe conduct. God used the blush of a shamed king to save Luther's life.
Several times on the way to the place of execution, Hus attempted to speak to the people, but was in every case silenced. Finally, when the crowd arrived at the stake, Hus, with tears in his eyes, kneeled in prayer. It was noon. Hus' hands were tied behind him and his neck bound to the stake with a sooty chain. The straw and wood were piled around him up to the chin and rosin was sprinkled on the wood. When he was asked to recant one last time, his response was: "I shall die with joy to-day in the faith of the Gospel which I have preached." As the flames arose around him, he sang twice: "Christ, thou Son of the living God, have mercy upon me." Praying and singing until the smoke began to choke him, he died a faithful martyr of Jesus Christ. To remove all possible opportunities for his relics to be preserved, his clothing were thrown into the fire and all the ashes were gathered and thrown into the Rhine River.
So died this faithful man of God sealing his testimony with his blood.
Hus was a godly man throughout his reformatory career, and he won the grudging praise of his enemies. A Jesuit testified: "John Hus was even more remarkable for his acuteness than his eloquence; but the modesty and severity of his conduct, his austere and irreproachable life, his pale and melancholy features, his gentleness and affability to all, even the most humble, persuaded more than the greatest eloquence." Another Roman Catholic, later a pope, wrote: "He was a powerful speaker, and distinguished for the reputation of a life of remarkable purity."
Hus was not the original thinker that Wycliffe was, and indeed borrowed most of this thoughts from Wycliffe -- especially Wycliffe's views of the church as the elect body of Christ and the sole authority of Scripture. But Hus became what Wycliffe never was, a powerful preacher of the gospel. By preaching he moved a nation. And by preaching he established a church in Bohemia which Rome could never destroy, but which joined the Reformation just over 100 years later.
Rome has the blood of countless people of God on her hands. She has never expressed one word of sorrow or regret for this. The blood of the martyrs still cries from under the altar against Rome: "How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?"
But to Hus, along with the other martyrs of Christ, was given a white robe and the testimony that they should rest a little while until their brethren should be killed as they were.
|Part Two: Medieval Period (750-1517)