Pastor Scott Andrews | October 31, 2021
He was born around 1330 in Ipreswell – modern-day Hipswell, England. He entered the University of Oxford to be trained as a priest. Interestingly, it was during what is known as The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, when the Roman Catholic Papacy had been moved – some say held captive – in Avignon, France for 72 years. That debacle ended in troubling schism. You see, to recapture the Papacy, Rome named their own pope, but the only problem was, the one in France refused to step down – so now there were two popes. So, the cardinals named a third pope as a replacement for both of these renegade popes, but the other two refused to step down – so now there were three popes sitting in Peter’s chair. It wasn’t fixed till the Council of Constance (remember the Council of Constance – we’ll come back to that) in 1414 when they named yet another pope to replace the three – fortunately, this time, two of the three popes stepped down, the third was arrested and deposed. It was all a bit of an embarrassment.
Well, back to Ipreswell, England. After school, this young man became one of Oxford’s leading theologians. But, he began teaching some things that irritated the church. First, he decried the abuses of a corrupt church – the immorality was rampant in England and France and Rome. The practice of simony was widespread – that is, the practice of selling church offices – bishops – to the highest bidder. Biblical and spiritual readiness no longer mattered. He decried the sale of indulgences and praying to saints, among many other unbiblical practices. He also attacked transubstantiation – the teaching that when blessed by the priest, the elements of the Lord’s Supper – bread and wine – literally turned into the body and blood of Christ.
But, by far his major contribution to the Christian faith, which further infuriated the church, was his commitment to get the Bible into the hands of the people in a language they could understand. It’s incredible to think, but at that time, Bibles were only available to the priests. And, since it was written in Latin, no one could read it anyway. So, this priest, this brilliant theologian John Wycliffe by name, translated the Bible into English – completed in 1382. It wasn’t the best translation since it was translated from the Latin – but at least it gave the people a Bible they could read. Further, having access to the Word of God, they could judge the clergy, the church and even the pope by what the Bible said. Wycliffe wrote, “The Gospel alone is sufficient to rule the lives of Christians everywhere. Any additional rules made to govern men’s conduct added nothing to the perfection already found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
You can imagine the challenge that presented. So when Pope Gregory XI condemned Wycliffe with 18 papal bulls, Wycliffe simply disregarded the charges and countercharged that the pope was the antichrist. He trained his followers called Lollards to live a faithful life of poverty to avoid the excesses of wealth in the church, to refute the arguments of the priests, and to prepare them to die for their faith. Who would kill them? Well, the church. Wycliffe himself died of natural causes, a stroke in December 1384. So angry was the church at Wycliffe that years later, the newly named Pope Martin V declared him a heretic at the Council of Constance in 1414, and they later dug up his bones in England, burned them, and spread the ashes in the Swift River. They superstitiously thought that would prevent his resurrection.
But the die was cast – there were people who could actually read the Bible. Now, keep in mind – this was before the printing press, so it would take one scribe 10 months to make a single copy of the Bible – such was their commitment to the Word of God. And by the way, we still have 170 copies of those Wycliffe Bibles today. That’s about 142 years worth of copying.
Wycliffe wanted the Bible – further, the gospel available to the people. And so, John Wycliffe is today known as the Morning Star of the Reformation. You may know the morning star is actually the planet Venus, the brightest star rising in the east, signaling the coming of dawn. The morning star, the first bright light of the Reformation. I’m reminded the motto of the Protestant Reformation was Post Tenebras Lux – After Darkness, Light. The light had begun to shine – English Bibles – outlawed, few in number – were nevertheless available to be read.
All this makes me wonder – how many copies of the Bible do we have? How many translations/ versions in English do we have? Paper copies, leather bound copies, electronic copies…study Bibles, Application Bibles, Children’s Bibles, Men’s Bibles, Women’s Bibles, Student Bibles. Do we realize the treasure we have at our fingertips?
Today is October 31 – some call it Halloween – I prefer Reformation Day. You see, on this day, October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenburg, Germany. It, too, was written in Latin, the academic language of the day. He wasn’t trying to incite a rebellion – it was a call to his theological colleagues to a debate – to discuss, among other things, the abuses of the church – particularly in the sale of indulgences. What is an indulgence? Well, it’s an official piece of paper you buy to reduce yours or a loved one’s stay in purgatory – another invention of the church.
Luther’s Theses was after the invention of the printing press – someone got a copy of the 95 Theses, translated it into German – and Luther was an overnight sensation. More, the Reformation was officially underway. How important was it, anyway?
It’s one of my favorite days of the year. Christmas Day, when we celebrate the birth of Christ – as we saw last week, the appearance of grace in the person of Jesus. Resurrection Day or Easter, when we celebrate the coming of the gospel in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And Reformation Day, when we celebrate the recovery of the gospel – the gospel that had largely been lost to the church – replaced with church superstitions and traditions that contradicted, obscured or eliminated the gospel. Today is a very important day – and if you’ve been around – you know it’s a day of which I like to remind us how thankful we should be to live on this side of the manger in Bethlehem, this side of the cross in Jerusalem, and this side of the Reformation in Wittenburg. You could have been part of a church in 1414, or 1516, and never heard the gospel.
But you know, before that first Reformation Day in October of 1517 – there were others who prepared the way for the rescue of the gospel. Let me tell you about some. And if you don’t like history – well, come back next week – we’ll go from history back to the future. Next week – Titus 2, and we look for, long for the return of Christ. And we can do so because we have embraced the gospel.
You see, Wycliffe’s influence soon reached the mainland of Europe – all the way to Prague in Bohemia – modern-day Czech Republic. Theology students from Prague studied in England, and brought Wycliffe’s teaching back to Prague. One of the men most influenced by Wycliffe was John Hus. Hus was born in 1369. He graduated from the University of Prague, where he read Wycliffe’s writings. He agreed – the clergy was corrupt and needed reform. He preached against relics – that is, there was spiritual benefit to paying to see the relics. He preached against the abuse of indulgences.
And like Wycliffe, Hus argued that Scripture alone was the basis of spiritual authority – not the church, not councils, not traditions, not the pope. Further, if the Bible was what was needed for spiritual truth – it should be available to the people. Are we catching a theme?
By the way, Hus also wrote a book simply called The Church. In it, he defined the church as the body of Christ, with Christ alone as its head. He taught that God could forgive sins without a priest. He said that Christians need not obey an order of the church unless it was found in Scripture. He taught that wine should not be withheld from the people – you see, at this time, only the priests got the cup at communion. On and on it went.
Well, as you would expect, John Hus was charged with heresy. He was summoned to a church council and promised safe passage – that is, he could safely travel to and from the council. By the way, the council was the Council of Constance, convened in 1414 – the same council that condemned Wycliffe. He reluctantly agreed to go. Weeks after his arrival, he was found guilty of heresy. Specifically, there were 42 articles in his book, The Church, that were in conflict with official church teaching. He was thus condemned. Despite the promise of safe passage, he was arrested and imprisoned in a castle. From there, he wrote letters to friends. In one such letter, he wrote:
“O most holy Christ, draw me, weak as I am, after Thyself, for if Thou dost not draw us we cannot follow Thee. Strengthen my spirit, that it may be willing. If the flesh is weak, let Thy grace precede us; come between and follow, for without Thee we cannot go for Thy sake to a cruel death. Give me a fearless heart, a right faith, a firm hope, a perfect love, that for Thy sake I may lay down my life with patience and joy, Amen.”
He also wrote from his cell that “they might be now roasting a goose (that’s what Hus means), but 100 years from now, they will hear a swan sing, which they will not be able to silence.” 102 years later, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenburg. And by the way, Luther’s family crest included a swan.
Hus was given the chance to recant his writings – he declined. In July, 1415, he was marched to a post with a pile of wood, where they burned him at the stake. When the fire was lit, he began to sing, “Christ, Thou Son of the living God, have mercy on us. Christ, Thou Son of the living God have mercy on me.” He began to pray, but engulfed by the flames, he was unable to finish.
That Augustinian monk did sing 100 years later, 1517. As a professor, Martin Luther gave many lectures. As a pastor he preached many sermons. As an author, he wrote many books. He led the Reformation in Germany – his influence spread throughout Europe. At one of the debates called to contest him, he was called a follower of that heretic, John Hus. He knew of Hus, but said that wasn’t true. Then, he went and read more of Hus’ writings. At the next meeting, he said, it’s true, I am a Hussite.
He was declared a heretic in 1520 by Pope Leo X in a papal bull. When he received the bull later that same year in Wittenburg, he publicly burned it. He was called, under the promise of safe passage, to the Diet of Worms in April, 1521. Knowing what had happened to Hus, Luther fully expected he was going to his death. When he walked into the crowded hall where the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, sat as well as the Pope’s emissary, Johann Eck, his writings were spread on a table in the front. He was asked two questions: first, are these your works, and second, do you recant? Given 24 hours to consider his response, he came back the next day and closed his short speech with these famous words:
“Since your most serene majesty and your lordships require of me a simple, clear and direct answer, I will give one, and it is this: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures and by clear reason (for I do not trust in the pope or councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
Again, Luther expected to be arrested and martyred that day. Instead, he was incredibly granted safe passage back to Wittenburg, although the Emperor Charles declared him a notorious heretic. Along the way, he was kidnapped by some of his supporters, and hidden in Wartburg Castle for almost a year where he went by the name, Knight George. During that time, he wrote letters, but most importantly he completed a translation of the New Testament into German in an amazing eleven weeks. Please note – one of the gifts Luther gave the people – one of the reasons for the Reformation – was the Bible in a language they understood. It took him another twelve years or so to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew into German, but that he did. Because the Scripture alone is our authority in the church.
One more quick story – another reformer – who literally gave his life for translating the Bible into English. You’ve likely heard of him – William Tyndale. Tyndale was born in 1494 in Gloucestershire, England. He, too, studied at the University of Oxford. Interestingly, he was frustrated that he had to study for 8 years before he could ever study the Scripture itself.
After graduating, he became a tutor to a nobleman’s children in 1521 – hmm, the same year as the Diet of Worms, where Luther was tried. While there, the nobleman often had the local clergy for dinner – important, you see, if you want to earn your salvation. Tyndale was shocked at their biblical ignorance. Ultimately, then, he decided to translate the Bible into English, so that even a plow boy could read it and know it better than the clergy.
He traveled to the mainland of Europe to complete the task, where he finished the NT in Worms – where Luther gave his famous Here I Stand speech. Later he moved to Antwerp – he was fugitive, you see – having been condemned for translating the Bible. While there and working on the OT, a friend turned him in. In 1536, he was arrested, tried, imprisoned, strangled, and burned at the stake. By the church. You see, if you’re teaching things contrary to the Bible, you must keep the Bible from the people. Before he was executed, he cried out, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”
All for translating the Bible into English. Incidentally, something else important – Tyndale translated not from the Latin as Wycliffe had done, but from the Greek and Hebrew. You might be interested to know that 90% of Tyndale’s translation made it into the King James Bible. Lord, open the eyes of the King of England. He did – in 1611, King James I authorized an English Bible.
I want you to consider that – Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, Tyndale – I’m painting a picture this morning – and many others, recognized the unparalleled importance of the Word of God. Two of them gave their lives for their commitment to the Bible and the truths therein. Two others were at peril of martyrdom the rest of their lives – one for translating the Bible into English, the other into German.
You see, besides the motto of Post Tenebras Lux, After Darkness, Light – there were five convictions held by the Reformers during the Protestant Reformation. We call them the Five Solas, or the Five Onlys of the Reformation:
Sola Deo Gloria
God’s Glory Alone
Why were the Reformers so committed to the Word of God? For the same reason many want to attack the Bible today – it alone contains the words of truth. Among other reasons, the gospel had been lost to the church. The truth of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, as declared in Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone – had been lost. I won’t take the time this morning to explain all the ways these core, indispensable truths had been lost – but they were. And the Reformers recognized that these truths, clearly proclaimed in the Scripture, must be recovered by the people. Salvation – indeed eternity, was at stake.
One of the most significant challenges was the church had elevated tradition and its own teachings to the level of Scriptural authority. They actually said there were two sources of authoritative, inspired, inerrant teaching – the Bible, and the Church. The only problems were at least two: first, no one had a Bible to know truth themselves. And second, some of the teachings of the church contradicted the Bible. But how would you know that, without a Bible?
Consider these verses about the Bible itself:
We could read all of Psalm 119, but consider verse 11 – Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against you. How can you treasure God’s word in your heart if you don’t have it?
I Peter 1:23 – for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God. Listen, the Bible is not an end – we don’t worship the Bible. But it is the means to the end – to gospel of Jesus Christ.
You see, Romans 10:17 says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.”
Then back in I Peter, a few verses later – 2:2 – like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation. We need the Word of God to declare the gospel to us, then grow us up in our salvation.
A couple more, just for fun. II Timothy 3:16-17 – All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
Therefore, finally, II Timothy 2:15, we should “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”
The Bible is indispensable. We would not know about Jesus and His gospel without the Bible, which is why the people lost the gospel through the Middle Ages. We would not know how to live for Christ without the Bible, which is why the church and its people had fallen to such a deplorable state of immorality and wickedness. Where would we be without the Bible? We would be eternally, hopelessly lost. Which is why one of the clarion cries in the Reformation was Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone. It’s why those pre-Reformers, those Reformers, would potentially or actually sacrifice their lives to put the Bible into the language of the people. So they could read it for themselves, and know the truth of the Gospel of Jesus.
Listen, I will say this. Besides the Bible itself, one of the most significant differences between the Reformers and the Catholic church was how a person was saved. I’m not going to go all into that this morning – but the bottom line is, both believe the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ made grace available. The Reformers, though, sided with the Bible, when it says salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The Catholic church had developed an entire system of sacraments by which people could earn grace. Oh, and you could also buy grace through a ticket to view some relics, or through buying a piece of paper called an indulgence. Buy your way out of purgatory. It’s not the point of my talk today to compare and contrast Protestant and Catholic theology. But the truth is, you can read the Bible for yourself, and see that faith alone saves.
All that brings me back to my questions from the beginning. Before Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, Tyndale and others – people were literally dying in their sins without the Bible. How many copies do you have? How many versions in English do you have? Do you realize, on this Reformation Day, the treasure you have in your laps, on your devices, in your homes, in your office, in your cars? Do you realize people died so you have what you have? Because nothing is greater than salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, which we know through Scripture alone. To God be the glory alone.
Around 1528, Luther was reflective, remembering what God had done, and was doing through the Reformation – begun on this day in 1517 – some 11 years before. He sat down to write again – this time, not a 95 Theses, but a hymn, to extol the praises of God for who He is, what He had done. The result was A Mighty Fortress is our God, a bulwark, a defense, never failing. I won’t quote the whole song to you – instead, we’ll just sing it. But we’ll get to this verse:
That word above all earthly powers—
No thanks to them—abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Through him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also:
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is for ever.
You can kill me – many tried. They’ve killed others. It does not matter. His truth will remain forever. Let’s pray.