Recovering the Heart of the Gospel
As Protestants, we are grateful to the men who rallied to unearth the heart of the gospel message 500 years ago. We look to those men as our spiritual fathers and gladly stand upon the convictions of Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Chritus, Sola Scriptura, and Soli Deo Gloria. But it can become tempting to think of these convictions as being 500 years old, birthed in a little German town by a guilt-ridden monk. This would be a false understanding. These convictions run directly through the reformers all the way back to Christ. And it is because these convictions are held by Christ that we can look with grateful hearts to the reformers and boldly say with them, Here we stand.
The Fire that Fueled the Reformation
What caused the Reformation?
Many people might answer that question by pointing to Martin Luther and his 95 Theses.
But if you were to ask Luther himself, he would not point to himself or his own writings. Instead, he would give all the credit to God and His Word.
Near the end of his life, Luther declared: “All I have done is put forth, preach and write the Word of God, and apart from this I have done nothing. . . . It is the Word that has done great things. . . . I have done nothing; the Word has done and achieved everything.”
Elsewhere, he exclaimed: “By the Word the earth has been subdued; by the Word the Church has been saved; and by the Word also it shall be reestablished.”
Noting Scripture’s foundational place in his own heart, Luther wrote: “No matter what happens, you should say: There is God’s Word. This is my rock and anchor. On it I rely, and it remains. Where it remains, I, too, remain; where it goes, I, too, go.”
Luther understood what caused the Reformation. He recognized that it was the Word of God empowered by the Spirit of God preached by men of God in a language that the common people of Europe could understand and when their ears were exposed to the truth of God’s Word it pierced their hearts and they were radically changed.
It was ignorance of Scripture that made the Reformation necessary. It was the recovery of the Scripture that made the Reformation possible. It was that very power that had transformed Luther’s own heart, a power that is summarized in the familiar words of Hebrews 4:12: “The Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.”
During the late middle ages, the Roman Catholic Church had imprisoned God’s Word in the Latin language, a language the common people of Europe did not speak. The Reformers unlocked the Scriptures by translating them. And once the people had the Word of God, the Reformation became inevitable.
The Personal Reformation of Martin Luther
In the fall of 1510, a desperate Roman Catholic monk made what he thought would be the spiritual pilgrimage of a lifetime.
He had become a monk five years earlier, much to the surprise and dismay of his father, who wanted to see him become a lawyer. In fact, it was on his way home from law school, that this young man—then only 21 years old—found himself in the midst of a severe thunderstorm. The lightning was so intense he thought for sure he would die. Fearing for his life, and relying on his Roman Catholic upbringing, he called out for help. “Saint Anne,” he cried, “Spare me and I will become a monk!” Fifteen days later, he left law school behind and entered an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, Germany.
The fear of death prompted him to become a monk. And it was the fear of the wrath of God that consumed him for the next five years—so much so, in fact, that he did everything within his power to placate his guilty conscience and earn the favor of God.
Of all of the monks in the monastery, he became the most fastidious. He dedicated himself to the sacraments, fasting, and penance. He even performed acts of self-punishment like surpassing sleep, enduring cold winter nights without a blanket, and, in an attempt to atone for his sins, even whipping himself. Reflecting on this time of his life, he would later say, "If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I."
Even his supervisor, the head of the monastery, became concerned that this young man was too introspective and too consumed with questions about his own salvation.
But the haunting questions would not subside.
This young monk became particularly fixated on the apostle Paul’s teaching about the “righteousness of God” in the book of Romans, especially Romans 1:17. In that verse, Paul says of the gospel, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’”
But this young man’s understanding of that verse was clouded. Reading it through the lens of the Roman Catholic tradition, he twisted its meaning, thinking that he had to somehow become righteous through his own efforts in order to live a life of faith. But therein was the problem. He knew he was not righteous. Despite everything he did to earn the favor of God, he knew he fell short of His perfect standard.
And so, as he would later recount, he came to hate the phrase “the righteousness of God” because he saw in it his own condemnation. He realized that if the perfect righteousness of God is the standard (which of course it is), and if he as a sinful man could not meet that standard (which of course he couldn’t), then he stood utterly condemned. So, out of frustration and despair, he plunged himself all the more fervently into the strict practices of monastic life, trying his hardest to work his way to salvation. And he grew more and more discouraged and desperate.
So it was, five years after he became a monk, in the year 1510, that this desperate man made what he thought would be the spiritual pilgrimage of a lifetime. He and a fellow monk travelled to the center of Catholic thought and power—Rome. If anyone could help him calm the storm that waged in his soul, surely it would be the pope, the cardinals, and the priests of Rome.
Moreover, he thought that if he paid homage to the shrines of the apostles and made confession there, in that holy city, he would secure the greatest absolution possible. Surely this would be a way to earn the favor of God. The young man was so excited that when he came within sight of the city, he fell down, raised up his hands and exclaimed “Hail to thee, holy, Rome! Thrice holy for the blood of martyrs shed here.”
But he would soon be severely disappointed.
He tried to immerse himself in the religious fervor of Rome (visiting the graves of the saints, performing ritualistic acts of penance, and so on), but he soon noticed a glaring inconsistency. As he looked around at the pope, the cardinals, and the priests, he did not at all see righteousness. Instead, he was startled by the corruption, greed, and immorality.
As the famous church historian Philip Schaff explained, the young man was
shocked by the unbelief, levity and immorality of the clergy. Money and luxurious living seemed to have replaced apostolic poverty and self-denial. He saw nothing but worldly splendor at the court of [the] Pope . . . , [and] he heard of the fearful crimes of [previous popes], which were hardly known and believed in Germany, but freely spoken of as undoubted facts in the fresh remembrance of all Romans. . . . He was told that "if there was a hell, Rome was built on it," and that this state of things must soon end in a collapse. (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, VI:129)
A desperate man on a desperate journey, having devoted his life to the pursuit of self-righteous legalism and finding it wanting, went to Rome looking for answers. But all he found was spiritual bankruptcy.
Martin Luther, needless to say, left Rome disillusioned and disappointed. He reported that, in his opinion, “Rome, once the holiest city was now the worst.” Not long afterward, he would openly defy the pope, calling him the antichrist; he would condemn the cardinals as charlatans; and he would expose the apostate tradition of Roman Catholicism for what it had become—a destructive system of works righteousness.
Luther’s journey to Rome was a disaster. Yet, it played a critical part in his journey to true, saving faith. A short time later, the fastidious monk discovered the answer to his spiritual dilemma: If he was unrighteous, in spite of his best efforts, how could he be made right before a holy and just God?
In 1513 and 1514, while lecturing through the Psalms and studying the book of Romans, Luther came to realize the glorious truth that had escaped him all those years prior: The righteousness of God revealed in the gospel is not merely the righteous requirement of God—of which all men fall short (Rom. 3:23)—but also the righteous provision of God whereby, in Christ, God imputes the righteousness of Christ to those who believe (Rom. 5:1-2, 18).
Luther’s own remarks sum up the glorious transformation that discovery had on his heart:
At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I gave heed to the context of the words, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” Then I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. . . . Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open. An entirely new side of the Scriptures opened itself to me . . . and I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the loathing with which before I had hated the term “the righteousness of God.”
After a lifetime of guilt, after years of struggling to make himself righteous, after working to please God on his own, and after a disheartening trip to Rome, Martin Luther finally came to understand the heart of the gospel message. He discovered justification by grace through faith in Christ; and in that moment, he was transformed.
Upon This Rock
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said to Simon, “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
Roman Catholics interpret Matt. 16:18 to mean that Peter is the rock upon which the church is built. That interpretation then becomes the basis for the doctrine of papal succession. If Peter is the rock on which the church is built, and if the bishops of Rome are Peter’s successors, then it follows, they say, that the papacy remains the foundation of the church.
But that is not at all what Matthew 16:18 teaches.
The name “Peter” was a nickname given to Simon by Jesus, all the way back in John 1:42 when Peter first met Jesus. Coming from the Greek word petros (or the Aramaic word “Cephas”), the name Peter means “Rock” or “Stone.”
But when Jesus said, “I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church,” He differentiated between Peter and the “rock” by using two different Greek words. The name Peter is petros, but the word for “rock” is petra.
Those terms may sound similar to us, but ancient Greek literature shows that they actually refer to two different things. Petros was used to signify a small stone; petra, by contrast, referred to bedrock or a large foundation boulder (cf. Matt. 7:24-25).
So, to paraphrase Jesus’ words, the Lord told Peter, “I say to you that you are a small stone, and upon this bedrock I will build My church.” It was a play on words that made a significant spiritual point.
What then was the bedrock to which Jesus was referring? The answer to that question comes a couple verses earlier in Matthew 16.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:13-17).
Peter was just a small stone built atop the bedrock of something much bigger than himself: namely, the truth that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the living God. Put simply, Peter was not the rock; Christ is the Rock. And as Peter and the other apostles testified to the truth about Christ (which Peter did in verse 16), the church was built upon its only sure foundation.
Sola Scriptura and the Church Fathers
Did the principle of Sola Scriptura exist before the Reformation? The accounts of the church fathers are filled with a deep conviction of the authority of the Scriptures.
Though many others could be cited, here is a small sampling from eight church fathers who shared a perspective on the authority of Scripture.
1. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202)
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. (Against Heresies, 3.1.1)
2. Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160–235) [in defending the truth of the Trinity against the heretic Praxeas:]
It will be your duty, however, to adduce your proofs out of the Scriptures as plainly as we do, when we prove that He made His Word a Son to Himself. . . . All the Scriptures attest the clear existence of, and distinction in (the Persons of) the Trinity, and indeed furnish us with our Rule of faith. (Against Praxeas, 11)
3. Hippolytus (d. 235)
There is, brethren, one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures, and from no other source. For just as a man if he wishes to be skilled in the wisdom of this world will find himself unable to get at it in any other way than by mastering the dogmas of philosophers, so all of us who wish to practice piety will be unable to learn its practice from any quarter than the oracles of God. Whatever things then the Holy Scriptures declare, at these let us look; and whatsoever things they teach these let us learn. (Against Heresies, 9)
4. Dionysius of Alexandria (ca. 265):
We did not evade objections, but we endeavored as far as possible to hold to and confirm the things which lay before us, and if the reason given satisfied us, we were not ashamed to change our opinions and agree with others; but on the contrary, conscientiously and sincerely, and with hearts laid open before God, we accepted whatever was established by the proofs and teachings of the Holy Scriptures. (Cited from Eusebius, Church History, 7.24.7–9)
5. Athanasius of Alexandria (296–373) [After outlining the books of the Bible, Athanasius wrote:]
These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, ‘Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.’ And He reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me.’ (Festal Letter 39, 6–7)
6. Cyril of Jerusalem (315–386) [After defending the doctrine of the Holy Spirit]:
We ought not to deliver even the most casual remark without the Holy Scriptures: nor be drawn aside by mere probabilities and the artifices of argument. Do not then believe me because I tell thee these things, unless thou receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of what is set forth: for this salvation, which is of our faith, is not by ingenious reasonings, but by proof from the Holy Scriptures...Let us then speak nothing concerning the Holy Ghost but what is written; and if anything be not written, let us not busy ourselves about it. The Holy Ghost Himself spoke the Scriptures; He has also spoken concerning Himself as much as He pleased, or as much as we could receive. Be those things therefore spoken, which He has said; for whatsoever He has not said, we dare not say. (Catechetical Lectures, 4.17ff)
7. John Chrysostom (344–407)
Let us not therefore carry about the notions of the many, but examine into the facts. For how is it not absurd that in respect to money, indeed, we do not trust to others, but refer this to figures and calculation; but in calculating upon facts we are lightly drawn aside by the notions of others; and that too, though we possess an exact balance, and square and rule for all things, the declaration of the divine laws? Wherefore I exhort and entreat you all, disregard what this man and that man thinks about these things, and inquire from the Scriptures all these things; and having learnt what are the true riches, let us pursue after them that we may obtain also the eternal good things; which may we all obtain, through the grace and love towards men of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom, to the Father and the Holy Spirit, be glory, might, and honor, now and ever, and world without end. Amen.” (Homily on 2 Corinthians, 13.4)
8. Augustine of Hippo (354–430)
Whereas, therefore, in every question, which relates to life and conduct, not only teaching, but exhortation also is necessary; in order that by teaching we may know what is to be done, and by exhortation may be incited not to think it irksome to do what we already know is to be done; what more can I teach you, than what we read in the Apostle? For holy Scripture establishes a rule to our teaching, that we dare not “be wiser than we ought;” but be wise, as he himself says, “unto soberness, according as unto each God hath allotted the measure of faith.” Be it not therefore for me to teach you any other thing, save to expound to you the words of the Teacher, and to treat of them as the Lord shall have given to me. (The Good of Widowhood, 2)
For the reasonings of any men whatsoever, even though they be [true Christians], and of high reputation, are not to be treated by us in the same way as the canonical Scriptures are treated. We are at liberty, without doing any violence to the respect which these men deserve, to condemn and reject anything in their writings, if perchance we shall find that they have entertained opinions differing from that which others or we ourselves have, by the divine help, discovered to be the truth. I deal thus with the writings of others, and I wish my intelligent readers to deal thus with mine. (Augustine, Letters, 148.15)
Clearly, the doctrine of sola Scriptura was championed by Christian leaders long before the Reformation.
When Did Praying to Saints Start?
When did the Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) emphasis on praying to saints and venerating relics and icons begin?
In his work, A Treatise on Relics, Calvin utilizes his extensive knowledge of church history to demonstrate that prayers to the saints, prayers for the dead, the veneration of relics, the lighting of candles (in homage to the saints), and the veneration of icons are all rooted in Roman paganism. Such practices infiltrated the Christian church after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.
Here is an excerpt from Calvin’s work that summarizes his thesis:
Hero-worship is innate to human nature, and it is founded on some of our noblest feelings, — gratitude, love, and admiration, — but which, like all other feelings, when uncontrolled by principle and reason, may easily degenerate into the wildest exaggerations, and lead to most dangerous consequences. It was by such an exaggeration of these noble feelings that [Roman] Paganism filled the Olympus with gods and demigods, — elevating to this rank men who have often deserved the gratitude of their fellow-creatures, by some signal services rendered to the community, or their admiration, by having performed some deeds which required a more than usual degree of mental and physical powers.
The same cause obtained for the Christian martyrs the gratitude and admiration of their fellow-Christians, and finally converted them into a kind of demigods. This was more particularly the case when the church began to be corrupted by her compromise with Paganism [during the fourth and fifth-centuries], which having been baptized without being converted, rapidly introduced into the Christian church, not only many of its rites and ceremonies, but even its polytheism, with this difference, that the divinities of Greece and Rome were replaced by Christian saints, many of whom received the offices of their Pagan predecessors.
The church in the beginning tolerated these abuses, as a temporary evil, but was afterwards unable to remove them; and they became so strong, particularly during the prevailing ignorance of the middle ages, that the church ended up legalizing, through her decrees, that at which she did nothing but wink at first.
In a footnote, Calvin gives specific examples of how Christians saints simply became substitutes for pagan deities.
Thus St. Anthony of Padua restores, like Mercury, stolen property; St. Hubert, like Diana, is the patron of sportsmen; St. Cosmas, like Esculapius, that of physicians, etc. In fact, almost every profession and trade, as well as every place, have their especial patron saint, who, like the tutelary divinity of the Pagans, receives particular hours from his or her protégés.
Calvin’s conclusion is that these practices are nothing more than idolatrous superstitions, rooted in ancient Roman paganism. Even today, five centuries later, his work still serves as a necessary warning to those who persist in such idolatry. Hence his concluding sentence: “Now, those who fall into this error must do so willingly, as no one can from henceforth plead ignorance on the subject as their excuse.”
Did the Early Church Teach Transubstantiation?
The word “eucharist” means “thanksgiving” and was an early Christian way of referring to the celebration of the Lord’s Table. Believers in the early centuries of church history regularly celebrated the Lord’s Table as a way to commemorate the death of Christ. The Lord Himself commanded this observance on the night before His death. As the apostle Paul recorded in 1 Corinthians 11:23–26:
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.
In discussing the Lord’s Table from the perspective of church history, did the early church believe that the elements (the bread and the cup) were actually and literally transformed into the physical body and blood of Christ? In other words, did they articulate the doctrine of transubstantiation as modern Roman Catholics do?
At times, they echoed the language of Christ (e.g. "This is My body" and "This is My blood") when describing the Lord's Table. Yet, in other places, it becomes clear that they intended this language to be ultimately understood in spiritual and symbolic terms. Here are a number of examples that demonstrate this point:
The Didache, written in the late-first or early-second century, referred to the elements of the Lord’s table as “spiritual food and drink” (The Didache, 9). The long passage detailing the Lord's Table in this early Christian document gives no hint of transubstantiation whatsoever.
Justin Martyr (110–165) spoke of “the bread which our Christ gave us to offer in remembrance of the Body which He assumed for the sake of those who believe in Him, for whom He also suffered, and also to the cup which He taught us to offer in the Eucharist, in commemoration of His blood"(Dialogue with Trypho, 70).
Clement of Alexandria explained that, “The Scripture, accordingly, has named wine the symbol of the sacred blood” (The Instructor, 2.2).
Origen similarly noted, “We have a symbol of gratitude to God in the bread which we call the Eucharist” (Against Celsus, 8.57).
Cyprian (200–258), who sometimes described the eucharist using very literal language, spoke against any who might use mere water for their celebration of the Lord’s Table. In condemning such practices, he explained that the cup of the Lord is a representation of the blood of Christ: “I marvel much whence this practice has arisen, that in some places, contrary to Evangelical and Apostolic discipline, water is offered in the Cup of the Lord, which alone cannot represent the Blood of Christ” (Epistle 63.7).
Eusebius of Caesarea (263–340) espoused a symbolic view in his Proof of the Gospel:
For with the wine which was indeed the symbol of His blood, He cleanses them that are baptized into His death, and believe on His blood, of their old sins, washing them away and purifying their old garments and vesture, so that they, ransomed by the precious blood of the divine spiritual grapes, and with the wine from this vine, "put off the old man with his deeds, and put on the new man which is renewed into knowledge in the image of Him that created him." . . . He gave to His disciples, when He said, "Take, drink; this is my blood that is shed for you for the remission of sins: this do in remembrance of me." And, "His teeth are white as milk," show the brightness and purity of the sacramental food. For again, He gave Himself the symbols of His divine dispensation to His disciples, when He bade them make the likeness of His own Body. For since He no more was to take pleasure in bloody sacrifices, or those ordained by Moses in the slaughter of animals of various kinds, and was to give them bread to use as the symbol of His Body, He taught the purity and brightness of such food by saying, “And his teeth are white as milk” (Demonstratia Evangelica, 8.1.76–80).
Athanasius (296–373) similarly contended that the elements of the Eucharist are to be understood spiritually, not physically: “[W]hat He says is not fleshly but spiritual. For how many would the body suffice for eating, that it should become the food for the whole world? But for this reason He made mention of the ascension of the Son of Man into heaven, in order that He might draw them away from the bodily notion, and that from henceforth they might learn that the aforesaid flesh was heavenly eating from above and spiritual food given by Him.” (Festal Letter, 4.19)
Augustine (354–430), also, clarified that the Lord’s Table was to be understood in spiritual terms: “Understand spiritually what I said; you are not to eat this body which you see; nor to drink that blood which they who will crucify me shall pour forth. . . . Although it is needful that this be visibly celebrated, yet it must be spiritually understood” (Exposition of the Psalms, 99.8).
He also explained the eucharistic elements as symbols. Speaking of Christ, Augustine noted: “He committed and delivered to His disciples the figure [or symbol] of His Body and Blood.” (Exposition of the Psalms, 3.1).
And in another place, quoting the Lord Jesus, Augustine further explained: “‘Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man,’ says Christ, ‘and drink His blood, ye have no life in you.’ This seems to enjoin a crime or a vice; it is therefore a figure [or symbol], enjoining that we should have a share in the sufferings of our Lord, and that we should retain a sweet and profitable memory of the fact that His flesh was wounded and crucified for us (On Christian Doctrine, 3.16.24).
A number of similar quotations from the church fathers could be given to make the point that—at least for many of the fathers—the elements of the eucharist were ultimately understood in symbolic or spiritual terms. In other words, they did not hold to the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.
To be sure, they often reiterated the language of Christ when He said, “This is My body” and “This is My blood.” They especially used such language in defending the reality of His incarnation against Gnostic, docetic heretics who denied the reality of Christ's physical body.
At the same time, however, they clarified their understanding of the Lord’s Table by further explaining that they ultimately recognized the elements of the Lord's Table to be symbols—figures which represented and commemorated the physical reality of our Lord’s body and blood.
John Calvin: Theologian and Pastor
Depending on whom you ask about John Calvin, one would likely get any number of descriptions of the man. His opponents might call him a heretic and a tyrant. Those outside of Christianity may see him simply as a philosopher or a well-known religious leader. Christians who ascribe to reformed theology may see him as a man of conviction, an exemplary theologian, and a thoughtful, prolific author of many doctrinal works and commentaries.
However you look at him, one of the titles rarely associated with John Calvin is that of a ‘pastor,’ and this is exactly the type of misconception which stands in the way of us, almost 500 years after his death, learning just how important this title was in shaping the identity of this man of God.
John Calvin was born in the Northeastern part of France in 1509. At the age of 14 and the urging of his father, he moved to Paris to study, in preparation for entering the Roman Catholic priesthood. During the course of his studies, Calvin began to develop into a thoughtful and devoted Christian humanist. In 1527, at the demand of his father, Calvin gave up his pursuit of the Roman Catholic priesthood and instead began to study law.
However, in 1531, when his father passed away, Calvin abandoned his law studies and returned to his true love, Christian humanism. Upon becoming fully immersed in religious studies, Calvin studied Greek and Hebrew and inched his way closer to true conversion and a genuine pursuit of God. While the details of his conversion remain somewhat of a mystery, all we know is that it happened sometime between 1532 and 1534. He simply addresses this time in his life as the point during which God softened his heart, and thus, Pastor Calvin was born.
The Bold Legacy of John Calvin's Co-Pastor
Four hundred and fifty two years ago, on May 2, 1564, John Calvin, on the brink of death, wrote his last letter. It began: “Farewell, my best and most worthy brother. Since God has determined that you should survive me in this world, live mindful of our union, which has been so useful to the Church of God, and the fruits of which await us in heaven.”
Little did Calvin know but on receiving the letter, his friend, William Farel, now 75 year old, would walk 73 miles from Neuchâtel to Geneva to visit him for the last time. A few days after the visit from Farel, John Calvin left this world and entered into the presence of the Lord.
Farel and Calvin met 28 years earlier in Geneva under the providential hand of God.
In July, 1536, Calvin was forced to spend a night in Geneva while on his way to Strasbourg. Farel, knowing about Calvin through the popularity of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, heard of the Reformer's presence and promptly made his way to where Calvin was staying.
Farel arrived at the inn and found a young Calvin, at 27 years old, who did not appear to be in good health. After confirming Calvin’s desire to leave in the morning for Strasbourg, Farel begged him to stay in Geneva and help him with his work in reforming the city.
Calvin refused “I cannot stay. I need quiet. I must study where I am not disturbed.” Farel fixed his eyes on the young man, placed his hand on his head and spoke with a voice of thunder "May God curse you and your studies if you do not join me here in the work He has called you to!"
Calvin visibly shaken, sat speechless till finally answering “I will remain in Geneva, – I give myself up to the Lord’s good pleasure.” So began the lifelong friendship of William Farel and John Calvin and their reforming work in Geneva.
William Tyndale: Suffering for the Word of Christ
The climax of William Tyndale’s brief life occurred along a narrow alleyway leading to the home of Thomas Poyntz, the Englishman who had been his good patron. It was there, in Antwerp, that Tyndale’s traitor, Henry Philips, had befriended him — in a city friendly both to English merchants and Lutherans.
Now, with Tyndale’s benefactor away on business for a month, and Philips being invited for dinner, the stage was set for the treacherous young man to capture the English Lutheran so hated by Rome.
The alleyway that led to Poyntz’s home (and Tyndale’s lodgings) was too narrow for both men to enter at once, so Tyndale entered first, unaware of the two guards hidden on either side of the entrance to the house. The taller Philips followed behind him and, as recounted by John Foxe, ‘pointed with his finger over Master Tyndale’s head down to him, that the officers who sat at the door might see that it was he that it was he whom they should take.’
The translator had thus been betrayed in a manner uncannily similar to that of his Savior. Philips handed Tyndale over to the authorities, who seized his manuscripts and promptly imprisoned him at the well-fortified castle of Vilvoorde, just outside Brussels.
In a single moment, the decade-long flight of William Tyndale was over. Though the officers ‘pitied to see his simplicity when they took him in,’ Tyndale had foreseen his own fate earlier in life:
If they shall burn me, they shall do none other thing than I looked for. There is none other way into the kingdom of life than through persecution and suffering of pain, and of very death after the example of Christ.
Cowardice, Courage, and the Death of Cranmer
Four hundred sixty years ago, on March 21, 1556, a crowd of curious spectators packed University Church in Oxford, England. They were there to witness the public recantation of one of the most well-known English Reformers, a man named Thomas Cranmer.
Cranmer had been arrested by Roman Catholic authorities nearly three years earlier. At first, his resolve was strong. But after many months in prison, under daily pressure from his captors and the imminent threat of being burned at the stake, the Reformer’s faith faltered. His enemies eventually coerced him to sign several documents renouncing his Protestant faith.
In a moment of weakness, in order to prolong his life, Cranmer denied the truths he had defended throughout his ministry, the very principles upon which the Reformation itself was based.
Roman Catholic Queen Mary I, known to church history as “Bloody Mary,” viewed Cranmer’s retractions as a mighty trophy in her violent campaign against the Protestant cause. But Cranmer’s enemies wanted more than just a written recantation. They wanted him to declare it publicly.
And so, on March 21, 1556, Thomas Cranmer was taken from prison and brought to University Church. Dressed in tattered clothing, the weary, broken, and degraded Reformer took his place at the pulpit. A script of his public recantation had already been approved; and his enemies sat expectantly in the audience, eager to hear his clear denunciation of the evangelical faith.
But then the unexpected happened.
In the middle of his speech, Thomas Cranmer deviated from his script. To the shock and dismay of his enemies, he refused to recant the true gospel. Instead, he bravely recanted his earlier recantations.
Finding the courage he had lacked over those previous months, the emboldened Reformer announced to the crowd of shocked onlookers:
I come to the great thing that troubles my conscience more than any other thing that I ever said or did in my life: and that is, the setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth, which here now I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand [which were] contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, [being] written for fear of death, and to save my life.
Cranmer went on to say that if he should be burned at the stake, his right hand would be the first to be destroyed, since it had signed those recantations. And then, just to make sure no one misunderstood him, Cranmer added this: “And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and antichrist, with all his false doctrine.”
Moments later, Cranmer was seized, marched outside, and burned at the stake.
True to his word, he thrust his right hand into the flames so that it might be destroyed first. As the flames encircled his body, Cranmer died with the words of Stephen on his lips: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
Peace with God
John MacArthur, in the foreword to Long Before Luther, wrote on the conversion of Martin Luther:
We rejoice in the Reformation because we rejoice in the gospel of Jesus Christ. May His bride never forget the gospel.
When the gospel of grace broke on Luther's soul, the Holy Spirit gave him life, and peace and joy flooded his heart. He was forgiven, accepted, reconciled, converted, adopted, and justified, solely by grace through faith. The truth of God's Word illuminated his mind, and the chains of guilt and fear fell off of him.
Luther was saved the same way any sinner is saved. Like the tax collector in Luke 18, he recognized his utter unworthiness and cried out to God for mercy. Like the thief on the cross, his sins were forgiven apart from any works he had done. Like the former Pharisee named Paul, he abandoned his reliance on self-righteous efforts, resting instead on the perfect righteousness of Christ. Like every true believer, he embraced the person and work of the Lord Jesus in saving faith. And having been justified by faith, for the first time in his life, he enjoyed peace with God.