Young Hudson Taylor

Young Hudson Taylor

Hudson Taylor was twenty-one years old when he first sailed as a missionary to China. His mother Amelia came to see him off at the dock at Liverpool, England, on Monday, September 19, 1853. Neither mother nor son were at all sure they would see each other again in this life.

When the time came for the small ship Dumfries to edge away from the dock, the grieving mother sat down on the wharf and started to shake all over. Hudson put his arm around her and sought to console her: “Dear Mother, do not weep. It is but for a little while, and we shall meet again. Think of the glorious object I have in leaving you. It is not for wealth or fame, but to bring the Chinese to the knowledge of Jesus.”

Hudson boarded the ship. Amelia walked along beside the vessel until it passed through the gate at the end of the dock. Suddenly a piercing cry of anguish escaped from her aching heart. Of that cry Hudson later said: “It went through me like a knife. I never knew so fully, until then, what ‘God so loved the world’ meant. And I am quite sure my precious mother learned more of the love of God for the perishing in that one hour than in all her life before.”

Mother and sonAs the ship started out to sea, his mother stood on the dock waving her handkerchief. Climbing into the rigging, Hudson doffed his hat and energetically returned the farewell signal until her figure disappeared from sight.

When the Dumfries headed into the Irish Sea it encountered a westerly gale and made little progress for several days. By Sunday the gale had gained near-hurricane force. Struggling up to the deck from his cabin in the middle of the afternoon, Taylor was greeted by a scene he would never forget. The sea was white with foam and waves towered above the ship on either side, seeming about to swamp it. Despite the crew’s best efforts, the wind was rapidly carrying the vessel toward the rocky coast. “I’ve never seen a wilder sea,” Captain Morris shouted. “Unless God helps us, there’s no hope.”

Back in his cabin Taylor prayed: “God my Father, I commend my soul to You and my friends to Your care. If it be possible, may this cup pass from us. Lord, have mercy on us and spare us, for the sake of the unconverted crew members as well as Your own glory as the God who hears and answers prayer.”

Suddenly the words of Psalm 50:15 came to his mind: “And call upon me in the day of trouble. I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.”

“God, I plead with you to fulfill this promise in our behalf,” Taylor fervently prayed. “Nevertheless, Father, I submit myself to Your perfect will, whatever that may be.”

As night came on, a bright moon appeared but the gale-force wind continued. They could see the land toward which they were being relentlessly pushed. “Could the lifeboats survive a sea like this?” Taylor asked the captain. When Morris responded they could not, the missionary queried further: “Could we lash the loose masts and booms together to make some sort of raft?”

“We probably shouldn’t have time,” replied the captain. “We can’t live half an hour.” Then he asked the young missionary, “What of your call to work for God in China now?”

Ship on stormy sea“I wouldn’t wish to be in any other position,” Taylor responded truthfully. “I still expect to reach China. But if not, my Master will say it was well that I was found seeking to obey His command.”

With the treacherous shoreline looming before them, Captain Morris, at the risk of having the sea sweep the deck and wash everything overboard, gave the order to try to turn the ship back out to sea. When the first attempt failed, they tried in the opposite direction. Just then the wind shifted slightly in their favor, and they were able to head back out to sea. The ship cleared the threatening rocks by no more than twice her length.

Five months later, after further perils at sea, Hudson Taylor arrived safely in China and began his fifty year missionary career.

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You can learn much more about Hudson’s life of exceptional Christian faith and service in my book Hudson Taylor, Gospel Pioneer to China. I think you’ll find (as I certainly have) his outstanding example both instructive and encouraging in your own relationship with and service for the Lord.

Copyright 2018 by Vance E. Christie

Young Hudson Taylor

Young Hudson Taylor

Hudson Taylor’s entire career of five decades of missionary service in China was characterized by remarkable faith. In order to prepare Hudson for such faith-stretching service, God allowed him to face a number of faith-growing experiences during his years of preparation before going to the foreign mission field. To follow is one of those incidents.

As part of his training for serving as a medical missionary in China, Hudson lived for a time in Hull, England, where he attended lectures at the medical school and assisted one of the leading surgeons in the city, Dr. Robert Hardey. Once when the doctor was several days late in giving his assistant his quarterly paycheck, Hudson found himself in possession of only a single coin, a half-crown piece.

That Sunday he attended church in the morning and, as had become his custom, spent the afternoon and evening holding evangelistic services in the poorer sections of Hull. Just after he concluded the final service about ten o’clock that night, a man who was obviously very poor approached him and asked if he would come and pray for his dying wife. Taylor readily agreed, and the two set out for the man’s home.

Along the way, noting the man spoke with an Irish accent and supposing him to be a Roman Catholic, Taylor asked, “Why did you not send for the priest?”

“I did, but he refused to come without a payment. My family has no money even for food, so I couldn’t pay him.”

Taylor immediately thought of the single silver coin in his pocket. He also contemplated the fact that he had almost no food of his own back at his lodging. He had enough porridge left for supper that night and breakfast in the morning but nothing for dinner later on Monday.

Suddenly he started feeling anxious, then irritated with the man who had come to him for help. He actually started reproving the poor man: “It is very wrong for you to have allowed matters to get to this state. You should have sought assistance from the appropriate public official.”

“I did,” the man related meekly. “But I was told to come back at eleven tomorrow morning, and I fear my wife might not live through the night.”

They entered a particularly rough section of Hull where saloons and cheap lodging houses abounded. At one tenement they ascended a dilapidated flight of stairs and entered a wretched dwelling. There a scene of abject poverty and woeful misery confronted Taylor. Four or five children stood around the room, their cheeks and temples sunken from malnutrition. On a pallet in one corner lay the exhausted mother. Her tiny baby, only thirty-six hours old, moaned rather than cried at her side.

Taylor’s heart went out to the desperate family. He felt an inner impulse to help relieve their distress by giving them his lone coin but he resisted the prompting. Instead he tried to share words of comfort: “You must not be cast down because, though your circumstances are very distressing, there is a kind and loving Father in heaven who cares about your needs.”

“You hypocrite!” his conscience smote him, “telling these unconverted people about a kind and loving heavenly Father, and not prepared yourself to trust Him without half a crown.”

“If only I had two shillings and a sixpence instead of half a crown,” Taylor thought to himself, “how gladly would I give them the two shillings and keep the sixpence for myself.”

Feeling nearly choked and finding further attempts at verbal consolation impossible, he decided to pray instead. “You asked me to come and pray with your wife,” he said to the husband. “Let us pray.” Kneeling down, he began to recite the Lord’s prayer: “Our Father who art in heaven …” Such an inner conflict raged in Hudson’s heart he could barely get through the prayer. After he finished it he arose from his knees in great distress of mind.

As Hudson stood back up the poor husband and father implored him, “You see what a terrible state we are in, sir. If you can help us, for God’s sake, do!”

Christ’s instruction flashed into Hudson’s mind, “Give to him that asketh thee” (Matthew 5:42). Surrendering to the prompting of God’s Spirit, he put his hand into his pocket and slowly withdrew the single silver coin. Handing it to the poor man, he stated: “It might seem a small matter for me to relieve you, seeing that I am comparatively well off. But in parting with this coin I am giving you my all. Yet what I have been trying to tell you is indeed true—God really is a Father who can be trusted.”

Instantly joy flooded his heart. He could again freely express himself, and inwardly he felt the wonderful truths that he was verbalizing outwardly. Late that night, as he made his way through the deserted streets back to his lodging, his heart was so full that he spontaneously burst out in a hymn of praise to God.

After eating his next-to-last bowl of porridge as a late-night supper, Hudson knelt at his bedside and reminded God of the teaching of Proverbs 19:17: “Dear Father, Your Word promises that he who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord. Would you not allow my loan to be a long one? Otherwise I will have no dinner tomorrow.” Then, being completely at peace, he had a restful night of sleep.

The next morning, while eating his final bowl of porridge, he heard the postman’s knock at the door. A moment later his landlady came in with a small packet for him. Examining the little parcel as he took it, he did not recognize the handwriting. The postmark was blurred so he could not determine where the package had come from.

When he opened the envelope he found a pair of kid gloves folded inside a sheet of blank paper. As he removed these, a gold coin—half a sovereign, worth four times the amount he had given to the poor family the previous evening—fell to the floor.

“Praise the Lord!” he exclaimed as he picked it up. “Four hundred percent for twelve hours’ investment; that is good interest. How glad the merchants of Hull would be if they could lend their money at such a rate!”

God still grows the faith of Christians today by leading us through faith-stretching experiences. If you’ve had such an experience, Hudson Taylor by Vance ChristieI’d enjoy hearing about it if you’d care to share it.

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You can learn much more about Hudson’s life of exceptional Christian faith and service in my book Hudson Taylor, Gospel Pioneer to China. I think you’ll find (as I certainly have) his outstanding example both instructive and encouraging in your own relationship with and service for the Lord.

Copyright 2018 by Vance E. Christie

 

Young Hudson Taylor

Young Hudson Taylor

Hudson Taylor was the eminent nineteenth century pioneer missionary to inland China. The story of Hudson’s Christian conversion through the prayerful influence of his mother is somewhat well known and quite extraordinary. But that is only part of the story in a broader series of events that comprised God’s gracious and remarkable workings to draw Hudson Taylor to Jesus Christ as his Savior. Here’s the rest of the true story:

Hudson’s parents, James and Amelia Taylor, were devout Methodists in Barnsley, Yorkshire, England. James was an apothecary and an evangelistic preacher. James and Amelia provided their children with a sound homeschool education (which included the study of Latin and French) and were also diligent in teaching them about spiritual matters.

When Hudson was fifteen years old he started working as a junior clerk at one of Barnsley’s banks. The people he worked with were worldly in their outlook and skeptical toward spiritual things. They ridiculed his old-fashioned notions about God, which led him to question his conservative Christian upbringing. Adopting their perspective, he concluded he could live any way he chose, because there was no God to whom he must answer.

Young man readingAt that point, however, the Lord providentially allowed Hudson to develop an infection in his eyes which forced him to resign his position at the bank. He went to work for his father but now was unsettled and unhappy. James Taylor, not knowing about the spiritual struggle raging within Hudson, became irritated at his moodiness. Hudson’s mother, however, was more sensitive to her son’s struggles and began to pray more earnestly for his spiritual welfare.

Several months later, about a month after Hudson’s seventeenth birthday, he had an afternoon free from responsibility and found himself looking for something to read to pass the time. He spotted a small basket of pamphlets in the parlor and searched through them until he found a Gospel tract that looked interesting. Picking it up, he thought, “There will be a story at the beginning, and a sermon or moral at the close. I will take the former and leave the latter for those who like it.” He started reading with “an utterly unconcerned state of mind” about his spiritual condition or his relationship with the Lord.

A praying motherUnbeknown to him, at that very moment his mother was kneeling in prayer, pleading with God for his salvation. She had gone to visit her sister in Barton-upon-Humber, some fifty miles away, and that afternoon had found herself with little to do. After noon dinner she went to her room where she was determined to remain in prayer for Hudson’s conversion until she felt certain her request had been granted.

As she fervently prayed, Hudson read about a coal miner in Somerset who was dying of tuberculosis. Some Christians visited him and shared the Gospel through a series of Scripture verses. The miner was struck by the Bible’s teaching that Jesus bore our sins in His own body on the cross. When the dying man was told about Christ’s cry of “It is finished!” from the cross, he comprehended its significance with regard to the complete provision that had been made for his own salvation and that day prayed to become a Christian.

As Hudson further pondered that declaration of Jesus from the cross, he asked himself, “What was finished?” Immediately the answer to his own question leaped to mind: “A full and perfect atonement and satisfaction for sin. The debt was paid by the substitute. Christ died for my sins.” Then came the further thought, “If the whole work was finished and the whole debt paid, what is there left for me to do?”

Hudson later wrote of that moment: “And with this dawned the joyful conviction, as light was flashed into my soul by the Holy Spirit, that there was nothing in the world to be done but to fall down on my knees, and accepting this Savior and His salvation, to praise Him evermore.” He immediately knelt down and asked Jesus to become his Savior.

Meanwhile an assurance came to the heart of Hudson’s mother that she no longer needed to continue praying. She began to praise God for the firm conviction, which she was sure was from the Holy Spirit, that her son had been converted. Two weeks later she returned home, and Hudson greeted her at the door, exclaiming, “Mother, I’ve such good news for you!”

“I know, my boy,” his smiling mother responded, throwing her arms around his neck. “I’ve been rejoicing in your news for a fortnight!” Seeing her son’s surprise and perplexity, she added: “It was not from any human source that I learned this. I know when you were converted, and it was in answer to my prayers.”

Hudson Taylor by Vance ChristieSome time later Hudson picked up and opened a notebook which he thought was his own but which actually belonged to his younger sister Amelia. His eye landed on a single sentence: “I will pray every day for Hudson’s conversion.” From the date that accompanied the journal entry, he realized his sister had been praying daily for his salvation for a month at the time he was converted.

God is still very much in the business of working – sometimes in quite unusual ways – to draw people to saving faith in Jesus. He even does so with some who are drifting from Him and seemingly little concerned about spiritual matters. May we be encouraged by this to redouble our efforts to pray for and witness to those who still need to come to know Christ as their Savior.

If you happen to be one of those individuals who need the Savior, may God graciously lead you to realize that Jesus accomplished everything on the cross to bring about our salvation. And may you trust wholly in Christ as your Savior.

 

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You can learn much more about Hudson’s life of exceptional Christian faith and service in my book Hudson Taylor, Gospel Pioneer to China. I think you’ll find (as I certainly have) his outstanding example both instructive and encouraging in your own relationship with and service for the Lord.

Copyright 2018 by Vance E. Christie


The biblical Christmas narratives in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 show that the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ was revealed to various types of people – a young carpenter and his fiancé, an aging priest and his wife, common shepherds, wealthy and learned foreign magi, as well as two faithful senior saints eagerly awaiting the coming of Messiah.

The Angel and the ShepherdsWhen an angel of the Lord announced the birth of the Savior to the shepherds he proclaimed: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord.” This is good news of great joy for all the people because Jesus came to be the Savior of all types and classes of people. All who believe and receive Him as their Savior and Lord, regardless of their age or social status, are rescued from the penalty and power of sin and receive God’s gifts of forgiveness and eternal life.

A Ragpicker

A Ragpicker

This truth is beautifully illustrated through a remarkable event in the ministry of G. Campbell Morgan (1863-1945). Morgan, who has been called “the prince of Bible expositors,” twice pastored the prestigious Westminster Chapel in London. He once was conducting a series of evangelistic meetings in one of the Midlands towns of England when a poor ragpicker came into the inquiry room after the preaching service. According to Morgan the man had “grown hoary in the service of sin and Satan.” Morgan knelt by the ragpicker and used the Word of God to lead him to the Savior.

Presently someone touched Morgan’s shoulder and asked him to speak with another man who had come into the place of prayer seeking spiritual guidance. This second individual turned out to be the mayor of the town, and Morgan similarly pointed him to Jesus as his Savior.

G. Campbell Morgan as an older man

G. Campbell Morgan as an older man

After the mayor finished praying, he stood and went over to the ragpicker. Just a few weeks before the mayor had sentenced the ragpicker to a month of hard labor for one of his repeated infractions of the law. Now the mayor stated, “Well, the last time we met, it was not here.”

“No,” the ragpicker responded, “and we never shall meet where we met last time, thank God!”

Morgan’s comment on this unusual circumstance was that the same Gospel message was sufficient for both men.

This Christmas season may those of us who know Jesus as our Savior overflow with fresh praise and thanksgiving to Him for having come to earth to provide our salvation. If you have not yet done so, may God graciously draw you to place your faith in His Son as your Savior. If I may be of any assistance to you in that matter, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

A blessed and Christ-honoring Christmas to all!

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

Artist's depiction of John Calvin in his study

Artist’s depiction of John Calvin in his study

John Calvin (1509-1564) came to saving faith in Jesus Christ in his early twenties, not many years after the Protestant Reformation spread to his homeland of France. When persecution broke out against French Protestants early in 1535, Calvin sought refuge in the Protestant city of Basel, Switzerland. He desired to pursue the quiet career of a contemplative scholar. To that end, during the summer of 1536 he sought to travel to Strasbourgh to continue his studies there.

But God providentially led Calvin instead to Geneva where he was recruited by a zealous Reformer named William Farel to stay and help advance the Protestant Reformation then taking place in that city. Calvin threw himself into that endeavor and some good initial progress was made. But opposition arose to those Reformation efforts, and in 1538 Calvin was ordered to leave Geneva by the city government.

After spending three happy, peaceful years in Strasbourgh, however, Calvin’s supportive acquaintances back in Geneva gained greater influence in their city and urged him to return to resume his reforming ministry there. Upon doing so in 1541, Calvin prepared a series of Ecclesiastical Ordinances that were approved by the city government with some modifications. Those ordinances placed the governance of the church in Geneva mostly in the hands of the Consistory, which was made up of the church’s five pastors and twelve lay elders. The Consistory, led by Calvin, sought to maintain high moral standards for the citizens of the city, who were also the members of the church. Punishable offenses included such transgressions as absences from public worship, blasphemy, adultery, drunkenness and gambling.

Artist's depiction of John Calvin refusing the Libertines communion

Artist’s depiction of John Calvin refusing the Libertines communion

Not surprisingly, not a few in Geneva resented and opposed Calvin and the Consistory’s strict standards. This was true of some of the influential families in Geneva’s high society who called themselves Libertines. For the better part of fifteen years after Calvin returned to Geneva, the church Consistory and the city government repeatedly clashed. On a number of occasions Calvin’s position of leadership became quite precarious. But he continued to hold his ground against the Libertines by refusing them the right to participate in the church’s communion services.

In the meanwhile, throughout Calvin’s second residence in Geneva, some 6,000 Protestant refugees, most of them from his native France, settled in the city, thus strengthening his base of support. Finally in 1555 the Libertines had to flee the city after overplaying their hand by fomenting an armed riot against French immigrants. After that, for the final nine years of his life, Calvin’s leadership and the church regulations he and the Consistory had established were no longer challenged.

John Calvin

John Calvin

In 1559 one of Calvin’s longtime desires was realized in the opening of the Genevan Academy. The school was under the direction of Theodore Beza, Calvin’s eventual successor as Geneva’s theological leader. Students at the academy included not only youth from Geneva but also students from various parts of Europe who later returned to their native lands, taking Calvinistic principles with them. Among those who spent some time training in Geneva was John Knox, the fiery Scottish Reformer. Knox called Geneva “the most perfect school of Christ since the apostles.”

Throughout Calvin’s years in Geneva, his work output was enormous. He presented daily sermons and lectures, from which he produced a series of commentaries (the first of their kind) on most of the books of Scripture. Calvin’s Commentaries, comprising twenty-two substantial volumes, are still widely and profitably used to the present day. Calvin also generated a steady stream of theological treatises and maintained a massive correspondence. Four secretaries at a time were kept busy assisting him with his workload. In addition, he labored in Geneva’s Consistory court, counseled many individuals and entertained endless visitors.

Reformation Wall in Geneva. From left - William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza and John Knox

Reformation Wall in Geneva. From left – William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza and John Knox

Calvin accomplished all this despite being plagued by a number of health problems. In the closing years of his life he suffered from chronic indigestion, headaches, gallstones, hemorrhoids, gout, fever and asthma. Despite those ailments, he pushed himself relentlessly, sleeping only four hours a night. Likely his poor health and early death at age fifty-four were due in part to his excessive labors and insufficient rest.

John Calvin stands with Martin Luther as the two most influential leaders of the Protestant Reformation. Both the Reformed (Calvinistic) and Lutheran branches of Protestantism have spread throughout the world. The influence of Calvin and Luther continues to this day, not only in Reformed and Lutheran circles but in other denominations as well.

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Sources used: The Story of Christianity, The Early Church to the Present Day, Justo L. Gonzalez (Prince/Hendrickson, 2005), Vol. 2, pp. 61-69; Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley (Word, 1982), pp. 274-281; Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge, Ed., “John Calvin,” James I. Packer (Moody, 1988), pp. 206-215.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

John Calvin

John Calvin

John Calvin is commonly acknowledged as the Reformation’s supreme Bible teacher and the primary systematizer of Reformation theology. He also provides an outstanding example of embracing God’s call on one’s life, even when it involves personal sacrifice to do so, and as a result to be greatly used of the Lord.

Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France. By age twenty-one he had earned the B.A. and M.A. degrees at the University of Paris. At his father’s wishes, he then studied law at the universities of Orleans and Bourges, earning the B.A. and licentiate in law at the former university. Following his father’s death in 1531, Calvin returned to Paris to study the classics, desiring to pursue the quiet career of a contemplative scholar.

In his early years of study he was “stubbornly tied to the superstitions of the papacy.” But over time he was exposed to early Reformation teachings that had reached France. This led to what he called his “unexpected conversion,” when he came to personally embrace such Protestant tenets as the ultimate authority of Scripture and justification through faith in Christ alone.

Early in 1535, after Protestants in France began to face persecution, Calvin sought refuge in the Protestant city of Basel, Switzerland. There he wrote the first edition of his highly influential work Institutes of the Christian Religion. Over the next twenty-five years Calvin issued several subsequent editions of that volume, expanding it each time. The final edition consisted of eighty chapters. Church historian Bruce Shelley calls Calvin’s Institutes “the clearest, most logical, and most readable exposition of Protestant doctrine that the Reformation age produced.” The work has been translated into numerous languages and continues to be read and studied with benefit to this day.

William Farel

William Farel

During the summer of 1536, at age twenty-seven, Calvin determined to move to Strasbourgh to continue his studies there. While taking a roundabout route in order to skirt a local war, he was providentially brought to Geneva. In recent years a fiery reformer named William Farel had been leading the Protestant cause there. Hearing that the scholarly young author of the Institutes was in town for the night, Farel went to convince him to stay on in Geneva to help out with the Reformation there. When Calvin demurred, Farel pronounced a divine curse on his intended life of quiet studies if he would not stay to help them with the Lord’s work there! Stunned and convicted, Calvin agreed to remain.

The city council offered Calvin a position as “Professor of Sacred Scriptures,” and he earnestly took up his new responsibilities. He prepared a confession of faith to be accepted by anyone who wished to be a citizen, promoted daily gatherings for psalm singing and expository preaching, and called for an autonomous church court for censuring or, if necessary, excommunicating (usually by exclusion from the Lord’s Supper) delinquent members.

Not surprisingly, influential families in Geneva’s high society (who ominously called themselves Libertines) opposed Calvin’s strict standards. In 1538 the city magistrates refused to accept Calvin’s contention that church leaders should be granted the authority to excommunicate unrepentant church members. Calvin was ordered to leave Geneva, and Farel chose to go with him, thus showing his support for his highly-capable young colleague.

Idelette Calvin, John Calvin's wife

Idelette Calvin, John Calvin’s wife

Calvin was able at last to make his way to Strasbourg. There he spent what may have been the three happiest years of his life. Martin Bucer, the highly respected and influential leader of the Reformation in Strasbourg, asked Calvin to pastor the French congregation that had formed there. Calvin produced a French liturgy and translated several Psalms and hymns into French for singing by the French exiles.

In 1540 Calvin married Idelette de Bure, a widow with two children. They were happily married, though only for nine years, as Idellete died of illness in 1549. Calvin called her “the best friend of my life.”

By 1541 Calvin’s supporters had again regained power in Geneva. They urged him to return to once again lead the Reformation there. Doubtless with a significant degree of trepidation he agreed to do so. [To be continued in a future Perspective.]

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Sources used: The Story of Christianity, The Early Church to the Present Day, Justo L. Gonzalez (Prince/Hendrickson, 2005), Vol. 2, pp. 61-69; Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley (Word, 1982), pp. 274-281; Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge, Ed., “John Calvin,” James I. Packer (Moody, 1988), pp. 206-215.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

Martin Luther is most remembered for two of his emphases which played a key role in igniting the Protestant Reformation: (1) his outspoken opposition to corruption within the professing Christian Church, signified by his nailing his “95 Theses” to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany; (2) his pronounced promotion of the Bible’s teaching of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ rather than by one’s own good works. Luther’s later contributions to the Reformation in its ongoing developmental stages are less well known and will be the focus of this Perspective.

Artist's depiction of Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms

Artist’s depiction of Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms

Due to Luther’s rejection of a number of Catholic Church doctrines and practices, Pope Leo X excommunicated him in January, 1521. Three months later, in response to an official summons, Luther appeared before Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, at the imperial diet (assembly) in Worms, Germany. There Luther was denied the opportunity to defend his teachings and was ordered to recant of his errors. His reported response to the assembly was, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither honest nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”

He was allowed to leave Worms, and on the way back to Wittenberg was intercepted by a group of men who had been sent by Prince Frederick, the Elector of Saxony and a supporter as well as protector of Luther. Luther was secretly taken to the castle of Wartburg so he would be safe from his enemies. While there he was declared an outlaw. Luther spent eleven months at Wartburg, in which time he worked on translating the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into German. That translation, which he completed in 1534, was one of Luther’s grand contributions to the Reformation in Germany. The translation would have a marked and abiding influence on the German church similar to that which the King James Version of the Bible had in English.

Wartburg Castle

Wartburg Castle

While Luther was away from Wittenberg, one of his fellow reformers, Andreas von Karlstadt, took the lead in introducing the first changes into worship services by simplifying the service, translating it into German and removing images from the churches. The changes had much popular support but also started producing some social unrest. Upon returning to Wittenberg in 1522, Luther actually slowed the pace of those reforms, fearing they placed too much emphasis on secondary external matters while diverting attention from the primary spiritual focus of the Gospel. Luther, however, did abolish the office of bishop since he found no warrant for it in Scripture.

Artist's depiction of a peasants revolt

Artist’s depiction of a peasants revolt

Three years later the demands of peasants for more rights led them into armed conflict with the nobles. The Peasants’ Revolt spread to about one-third of Germany. While Luther initially thought the peasants had some legitimate complaints, he strongly opposed their insurrection as posing an imminent danger to society. He was deeply concerned that the peasants had misconstrued the evangelical message to justify their cause and that opponents of the Reformation would blame it for the unrest. He wrote forcefully against the revolt which ended up being brutally suppressed by the nobles, with as many as 100,000 peasants being killed. As a result, many peasants turned away from Luther, returning to the Catholic Church or joining more radical forms of the Reformation.

Martin & Katherine (Katie) Luther

Martin & Katherine (Katie) Luther

An altogether happier development in Luther’s life that same year, 1525, was his marriage, at age 41, to Katherine von Bora, a former nun. Like Luther, many former priests who became reformers married and had families, promoting those as healthy and biblical practices. That was done in marked contrast to the mandatory celibacy of Catholic priests and the sexual transgressions it all too commonly produced. Martin and Katie’s marriage came to be filled with mutual love and devotion, and they had six children.

1525 was also when Luther wrote what he considered his most important theological treatise, On the Bondage of the Will. It was written in response to a work entitled On the Freedom of the Will which Desiderius Erasmus, the leading Renaissance humanist and Catholic scholar of the day, had published the previous year as an attack on one aspect of Luther’s theology. Luther’s treatise argued that man’s will is so utterly enslaved to sin that he cannot exercise his will to choose salvation. Instead, salvation is exclusively by God’s grace. Only by God’s action in predestining, calling and converting a person can he or she be saved. As a result of this exchange between Luther and Erasmus, many humanists stopped supporting Luther. But other humanists redirected their studies from literature to the Scriptures and became ministers.

Desiderius Erasmus, Catholic Scholar and Renaissance Humanist

Desiderius Erasmus, Catholic Scholar and Renaissance Humanist

From 1527 to 1529 Luther devoted much time and attention to a controversy he had over the Lord’s Supper with Ulrich Zwingli, leader of the Reformation effort in Switzerland. Luther held to what came to be known as “sacramental union” (many Lutherans prefer that term to “consubstantiation”), the belief that in communion the body and blood of Christ are actually present with the bread and cup. Zwingli, by contrast, held to a memorial view of communion, that the bread and cup merely symbolize the body and blood of Christ. Luther and Zwingli were unable to reach a consensus, with the result that the Lutheran and Reformed branches of Protestantism have remained divided on the communion issue to this day.

At the Diet of Speyer in 1526 the princes of Saxony decided that, as a temporary solution to their religious divisions, each prince would determine the religious practice of his own territory. In the subsequent 1529 Diet of Speyer the Roman Catholic majority declared there would be no further changes. Furthermore, while Protestant worship would not be tolerated in Roman Catholic territories, Roman Catholic worship had to be tolerated in Protestant territories. The evangelical princes protested those rulings, and from that protest came the designation “Protestant.”

Artist's depiction of Martin Luther with his wife and children

Artist’s depiction of Martin Luther with his wife and children

In 1530 Emperor Charles V returned to Germany for the first time since 1521. He called for the evangelical princes to present a confession justifying their faith. Luther, who was still considered an outlaw, could not attend the Diet at Augsburg. So Luther’s faithful ministry associate, Philip Melanchthon, went in his stead. After consulting with Luther, Melanchthon drew up the Augsburg Confession, an irenic but clear presentation of the basics of Luther’s theology. It has remained the basic confession of Lutheranism to the present day. Charles V rejected the confession, and the threat of war between Catholics and Protestants in Germany became real. Such war did not actually ensue, however, until a few months after Luther’s death in 1546.

Luther was far from a perfect individual. His forceful temperament sometimes led him to deal much too harshly with those who did not share his Christian convictions. He vehemently opposed not only Catholics who opposed evangelicals, but also Jews for their rejection of Christianity, and even Anabaptists whom he viewed as unhealthy extremists in the Reformation movement. Luther reportedly grew more irritable as he aged. That likely was due in part to various illnesses and bouts of depression he suffered in his later years.

Despite his ailments and personal shortcomings, Luther remained active and fruitful in ministry to the end of his life. He continued preaching regularly and teaching at the University of Wittenberg. He wrote on various theological topics and published major commentaries on Galatians and Genesis. He was an advisor to princes, pastors and students. He died peacefully of natural causes in Eisleben (the town of his birth) on February 18, 1546, at age 63. His significant influence on not only Lutheranism but also evangelical Protestantism as a whole continues to this day.

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Sources consulted: Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley (Word, 1982), pp. 255-264; Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge, Ed., “Martin Luther,” W. Robert Godfrey (Moody, 1988), pp. 187-196.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

 

 

Martin LutherOctober, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the igniting of what became known as the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther is generally considered the father of the Reformation. Luther’s nailing his “95 Theses” to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517, is commonly cited as the event that sparked reformation fires. While there had been other reformers and reformation efforts before Luther, he certainly was the leading human instrument in the much fuller reformation movement that God brought about in Luther’s era.

Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony (part of modern east Germany). He studied at the University of Erfurt, earning the Bachelor of Arts degree in 1502 and the Master of Arts degree in 1505. He then began to study law in keeping with his father’s wishes. But when caught in a severe thunderstorm on July 2, 1505, Luther feared for his life and cried out, “St. Anne, I will become a monk!”

Thus bound by an oath to his father’s patron saint, Luther joined the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt where he practiced strictest discipline in devoting himself to study, prayer and the use of the sacraments. In rigorously employing the sacrament of penance he constantly and closely scrutinized himself for transgressions, sorrowed over his sins, confessed them to a priest and fulfilled whatever recompense was imposed on him. He sought to discipline and even punish himself with prolonged periods of prayer and fasting as well as through sleepless nights and physical self-flagellations.

Luther’s wise superior, Johannes von Staupitz, recognizing the young monk’s tremendous intellectual abilities, encouraged him away from excessive introspection and into the fuller pursuit of his studies. Luther learned Greek and Hebrew and eventually committed most of the New Testament and large portions of the Old Testament to memory. He was ordained a priest in 1507, taught at the universities of Wittenberg and Erfurt 1508-1511, and received his doctoral degree in 1512. That latter year he returned to the University of Wittenberg as a professor. There he carried out his lectures on the Bible, teaching through the Psalms (1513-1515), Romans (1515-1516), Galatians (1516-1517) and Hebrews (1517-1518). Those books of Scripture were foundational in shaping his theological understanding.

Luther experienced his Christian conversion around 1515, through his contemplation of Romans 1:17, which declares of the Gospel: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Luther came to understand the Gospel (good news) is that God reckons the perfect righteousness of Christ to sinners who receive it by faith. Faith in Christ and His atoning sacrifice on the cross alone leads to being justified (declared righteous) in the sight of God. This, Luther realized, clashed sharply with the Catholic Church’s elaborate system of sacraments, rituals and other good works by which people hoped to earn their salvation.

In 1517 Luther began publicly preaching against abuses in the sale of indulgences, which had been a favored source of papal income for centuries. People were told that by purchasing indulgences they were exempted from acts of penance over their sins. Indulgences could be purchased for the forgiveness of one’s own sins or for people in purgatory. A Dominican priest named John Tetzel was then preaching throughout much of Germany, to raise funds for the Pope to complete the construction of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,” Tetzel claimed, “the soul from purgatory springs.”

Artist's depiction of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door

Artist’s depiction of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door

On October 31 of that year, Luther nailed his 95 Theses, also entitled Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, to the Wittenberg church door. That was a traditional way in those days of inviting the academic community to discuss an issue. Others realized the great importance of Luther’s 95 Theses and, without his permission, translated them from Latin (the language commonly used by scholars) into German, then published them.

Luther was soon denounced by the Dominicans and a Vatican theologian as a teacher of dangerous doctrines and guilty of heresy. In July, 1519, Luther was involved in an eighteen-day debate with prominent Catholic theologian John Eck at Leipzig. During the course of that debate Luther publicly declared that the Bible alone, not popes or councils, was invariably true and reliable. “A council may sometimes err,” he stated. “Neither the Church nor the Pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture.” Eck recommended to Rome that Luther be condemned as a heretic.

Artist's depiction of Martin Luther burning the papal bull that condemned his teachings

Artist’s depiction of Martin Luther burning the papal bull that condemned his teachings

Nearly a year later, in June, 1520, Pope Leo X issued a bull (named after the seal – bulla – on the official document) in which forty-one of Luther’s beliefs were condemned as heretical, false and repugnant to Catholic truth. Luther was called to recant of his teachings under threat of excommunication. He received his copy of the papal bull on October 10. At the end his sixty-day grace period, Luther led a throng of students and other supporters outside Wittenberg where he burned copies of the Canon Law, the works of some medieval theologians and a copy of the bull that condemned him.

During the last five months of that same year, 1520, Luther also produced three of his most influential treatises: (1) His Address to the German Nobility appealed to secular princes to call a council to implement reforms that were needed in the Church. He thought such a necessary, corrective council would otherwise never be convened and appropriately carried out due to the corrupt clergy and the vested interests of the princes of the church.

The 95 Theses Wittenberg church door today

The 95 Theses Wittenberg church door today

(2) Luther’s The Babylonian Captivity of the Church examined the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church and concluded that only baptism and the Lord’s Supper were true, biblical sacraments. Luther rejected the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation (that the bread and cup became the actual body and blood of Christ during communion) as well as the doctrine of eucharistic sacrifice (that in communion the priest offered Christ as a propitiation to the Father on the altar). That treatise also promoted the concept of the priesthood of all believers – that all true believers can approach God through Christ and present spiritual sacrifices to Him, rather than relegating such access and service only to Catholic priests.

(3) Luther’s On the Freedom of the Christian Man taught that the inner spiritual freedom that comes through faith in Christ results in outward good deeds on the part of all true believers. True Christians lovingly serve the Lord and their fellow human beings, not to try to earn anything from God, but to seek to please Him in all things. Man needs the law to learn of his moral helplessness and to be led to repentance. But the Gospel is the free promise of grace in Christ and is received through faith in Him rather than by one’s own good works.

In January of the following year, 1521, Luther was excommunicated by the Pope as a heretic. Two months later he was summoned to appear before the emperor Charles V at the imperial diet (assembly) meeting at Worms. Luther was promised a safe conduct, guaranteeing that he could travel safely to and from Worms. He well recalled the similar imperial safe conduct promised to John Hus that was not ultimately honored at Constance, resulting in Hus’s arrest, imprisonment and burning at the stake as a supposed heretic. Despite the possibility of that same fate befalling him, Luther set out for the imperial diet at Worms.

[To be continued in my next Perspective]

Martin Luther quote

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Sources consulted: Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley (Word, 1982), pp. 255-264; Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge, Ed., “Martin Luther,” W. Robert Godfrey (Moody, 1988), pp. 187-196.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

John Hus(This Perspective is the second in a short series of mini-biographies on several key leaders in what became known as the Protestant Reformation. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a tremendously significant period in history when God graciously brought about the restoration of sound biblical beliefs and practices to Christ’s universal Church.)

 John Hus, like John Wycliffe, ministered and died more than a century before the Protestant Reformation officially got underway. Wycliffe and Hus were the two most prominent and influential individuals in paving the way for the Reformation that followed their lifetimes. Hus (also commonly spelled Huss) helped lay the foundation for the Reformation through his courageous proclamation of the truth, even when doing so cost him his life.

John Hus was born around 1372 of poor parents in Bohemia (part of modern Czech Republic). He was educated at the University of Prague, where he earned the Bachelor of Arts degree (1393), the Master of Arts (1396) and the Bachelor of Divinity (another master-level degree, 1404). He was ordained in 1400 and two years later was appointed as rector and preacher at Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. That chapel had been founded a decade earlier as a center for reform preaching. So Hus was placed in a key position within the reform movement taking place in Bohemia at that time.

John Hus monument in Old Town Square in Prague

John Hus monument in Old Town Square in Prague

Since the marriage of England’s King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia in 1382, there had been close ties between their two countries. John Wycliffe’s earlier philosophical writings and his later, more-radical theological works made their way from England to the University of Prague, where they were discussed and debated. Hus, like most Bohemian reformers, rejected Wycliffe’s attacks on transubstantiation, but he readily agreed with his strong disapproval of clerical corruption. Hus especially opposed simony – the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges, such as pardons from sin or benefices (appointments to salaried positions within the church). Hus also accepted Wycliffe’s teaching on the Church that opened the door (1) to rejecting the authority of sinful church leaders and (2) to appealing to the authority of Scripture over that of the institutional church.

In 1409 Hus was selected to be the rector of the University of Prague. But the Archbishop of Prague, who opposed some of Hus’s views and wished to silence him, obtained from the pope a ban on preaching in chapels, including the Bethlehem Chapel. Hus refused to obey, so was excommunicated by the archbishop in 1410. When the archbishop burned 200 volumes of Wycliffe’s works that same year, Hus and others defended Wycliffe’s orthodoxy.

Two years later Pope John XXII launched a crusade against the king of Naples and offered full remission of sins to all who supported him. Hus attacked the pope’s selling of indulgences. As a result, Hus was excommunicated by Rome, and the city of Prague was placed under an interdict so long as Hus remained there. No religious services, including baptisms and funerals, could take place while he was still in the city. Under those circumstances, Hus felt compelled to leave Prague. He moved to southern Bohemia, where he wrote two of his most important works on The Church and Simony.

In 1414 the Council of Constance met in Germany to seek to heal some of the long-standing divisions within the Roman Catholic Church. Emperor Sigismund of Germany invited Hus to participate and promised him safe conduct to and from the council, even if some tried to bring a case against him. With considerable hesitation Hus decided to attend, but he was arrested and imprisoned in Constance. The council put him on trial and convicted him of heresy, though many of the charges brought against him were untrue. (This was the same council that condemned Wycliffe, posthumously, of having been a heretic.)

Hus was repeatedly invited to recant of his supposed heresies and thus avoid execution by burning at the stake. He steadfastly responded that he was willing to yield himself to the teaching of the church when instructed by Scripture in what way his teaching was wrong.

During his eight-month imprisonment in Constance, Hus prayed: “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 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.”

Artist's depiction of John Hus's burning at the stake

Artist’s depiction of John Hus’s burning at the stake

On the day of his execution – July 6, 1415 – Hus was taken to the cathedral at Constance, where he was dressed in, then stripped of, his priestly garments. His head was shaved, and a paper crown decorated with images of demons was placed upon it. While being led to the stake, Hus passed through a churchyard and saw copies of his books being burned. He laughed and told the bystanders not to believe the lies being circulated about him.

At the place of execution, as they tied him to the stake, Hus prayed aloud: ‘Lord Jesus, it is for Thee that I patiently endure this cruel death. I pray Thee to have mercy on my enemies.” When given one final opportunity to recant, Hus responded: “God is my witness that the evidence against me is false. I have never thought nor preached except with the one intention of winning men, if possible, from their sins. In the truth of the Gospel I have written, taught, and preached. Today I will gladly die.” He was heard quoting from the Psalms until the flames, rising up around him, extinguished his earthly life. Afterwards his executioners gathered his ashes and threw them into the nearby lake.

Nearly all Bohemians were indignant and repudiated the Council of Constance for this travesty in condemning and executing Hus. Several different groups, including members of the nobility, bourgeoisie and lower class, came together in their continued demands for reform in the church. On several occasions during the next fifteen or so years, Bohemian forces successfully repelled a number of crusades that the pope brought against the Hussites. Many Bohemians left the Catholic Church and eventually formed the Unitas Fratrum (“Union of Brethren”). For a time their numbers grew rapidly in Bohemia and nearby Moravia. During the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, remnant groups of the Unitas Fratrum established ties with both Lutherans and Calvinists.

 

John Hus quotation (birthdate likely inaccurate)

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Sources consulted: The Story of Christianity, The Early Church to the Present Day, Justo L. Gonzalez (Prince/Hendrickson, 2005), Vol. 1, pp.348-53; Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley (Word, 1982), pp.248-51; Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge, Ed., “John Wyclif,” A. N. S. Lane (Moody, 1988), pp.183-86.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

John Wycliffe(This Perspective is a bit longer and denser than my normal postings. But I trust you’ll find it worthwhile to plow through the entire post.)

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Conferences are being held, sermon series are being preached, a number of books have been published and innumerable blogs are being written to mark this tremendously significant occasion in history—the restoration of sound biblical beliefs and practices to Christ’s universal Church.

In the coming weeks I intend, Lord willing, to share a series of mini-biographies on several of the key leaders of the Reformation. Reading these brief accounts of their lives brings the benefits of (1) gaining a basic understanding of this vital period in Church History, (2) coming to have a deepened appreciation of the priceless Christian heritage that God provided for us in sovereignly bringing about the Reformation, and (3) being encouraged and challenged to make sure that our own Christian beliefs and practices are biblically sound and spiritually vibrant.

John Wycliffe window in Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University

John Wycliffe window in Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University

This first article features John Wycliffe (also commonly spelled Wyclif), who is sometimes called the Morning Star of the Reformation. He lived and died more than a century before the Protestant Reformation took place, but his influential teachings played a significant role in laying the groundwork for some of the reformations that occurred later.

It’s first necessary to briefly (in just two paragraphs! Smile) describe the religious and political setting of the era in which Wycliffe lived. For centuries the Roman Catholic Church and its popes had held unrivaled religious and political power throughout central and western Europe. But in the 1300s seismic shifts took place that began to change that. In the first place, the rise of nation-states and strong monarchies weakened the Church’s and the Pope’s claim to political authority and significantly diminished material revenues given to the Church. In order to supplement flagging revenues, the Church and Pope came up with a variety of questionable and objectionable measures such as instituting new taxes, charging significant fees for church service opportunities, and selling indulgences for the supposed remission of sins.

Secondly, France and England were continually at war throughout the fourteenth century, and other developing countries ended up picking sides in the ongoing conflicts, thus creating further disunity in Europe and the Church. Thirdly, from 1305 to 1377, in what is known as the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, six successive popes, all of French origin, chose to reside in the town of Avignon, near the border of France, rather than in Rome. For both religious and political reasons, many opposed and resented that change of location. Fourthly, the Great Schism of the Papacy took place from 1377 to 1407, in which period two separate successions of Popes, each with its own College of Cardinals, existed in Rome and Avignon, further splintering the Church.

Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University

Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University

John Wycliffe was born in Yorkshire, England, around 1330. Virtually nothing is known about his childhood. He was educated at Oxford University, earning the Master of Arts degree (1361), the Bachelor of Divinity (another master-level degree, about 1369) and the Doctor of Divinity (1372). In addition to studying and teaching at the university throughout those years, he was appointed as the rector of a Lincolnshire church and funded part of his education through that income. As was often done in that era, Wycliffe was actually an absentee rector through much of his career, needing only to provide a substitute to fulfill his pastoral responsibilities. Wycliffe became Oxford’s leading philosopher and theologian.

One of the burning issues of that era was the question of lordship or dominion. All agreed that the right to rule was granted by God. But some thought that only those appointed by the Church had the divine right to exercise such authority, while others believed that secular rulers who had not committed grievous sin were also qualified to govern. Wycliffe supported the latter position and further taught that any leaders, sacred or secular, who persisted in sin should be removed from office. He even went so far as to teach that secular authorities had the responsibility to remove unrepentant churchmen from office, as well as the right to seize the property of corrupt church officials.

Wycliffe's Lutterworth Church

Wycliffe’s Lutterworth Church

These teachings, which were not motivated by political aspirations on Wycliffe’s part, brought him into favor with England’s secular rulers but into disfavor with not a few Church leaders. As a result, in 1377 the Pope condemned Wycliffe’s teachings, and the English Bishops tried to put Wycliffe on trial. But John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and one of the most powerful people in England, intervened on Wycliffe’s behalf, and he was not brought to trial.

In the years that followed, the early years of the Great Papal Schism, Wycliffe continued to develop and teach other ideas that would have spelled his doom at any earlier time in the Middle Ages. He taught not only that the Bible is free from error or contradiction, but also that it contains the whole of God’s revelation and all that is necessary for salvation. There is no need for further teaching to be supplied by church tradition, the Pope or any other source. And all other authorities (including church tradition, canon law, councils and even popes) must be attested by the Scriptures.

The Wycliffe Bible

The Wycliffe Bible

Wycliffe also taught that the Bible is to be available to all Christians – laypersons and clergy alike. The latter conviction led some of Wycliffe’s followers, likely under his supervision, to translate the Bible into the common language of the English people. That translation, commonly called the Wycliffe Bible, was made from the Latin Vulgate rather than from the original Hebrew and Greek sources.

Concerning the papacy, Wycliffe taught that it was an office instituted by man, not by God. The Pope’s authority is confined to the church rather than extending to secular government. Furthermore, the Pope’s authority depends on his having the moral character of the Apostle Peter in leading a poor and humble life spent in the service of the Church and providing a clear example of Christian goodness. Such teaching implied the rejection of nearly all the recent popes in Wycliffe’s time. At first Wycliffe taught a Pope who does not follow Jesus Christ is the Antichrist. He later declared that the institution of the papacy itself is Antichrist.

Wycliffe challenged a wide range of medieval beliefs and practices: pardons, indulgences, absolutions, pilgrimages, the worship of images, the adoration of the saints and the distinction between venial and mortal sins. He gained the greatest opposition by rejecting the doctrine of transubstantiation, the belief that in Christian Communion the bread and wine (or juice) become the actual body and blood of Christ. Wycliffe believed, rather, that the bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood, that Christ is present in the communion elements sacramentally but not materially.

John Wycliffe's remains being exhumed, burned and poured in the River Swift

John Wycliffe’s remains being exhumed, burned and poured in the River Swift

Because of such beliefs, Wycliffe was no longer allowed to teach at Oxford beginning in 1382. That same year William Courtenay, the new Archbishop of Canterbury and a longtime opponent of Wycliffe, convened a church council in which a number of Wycliffe’s teachings were condemned as heresy. Wycliffe withdrew to Lutterworth in Leicestershire, where he had been the absentee rector since 1374. There he devoted himself to writing and lived out the final years of his life in peace. After suffering a stroke in December, 1384, he died that New Year’s Eve.

John Wycliffe's preachers, the Lollards

John Wycliffe’s preachers, the Lollards

Wycliffe received a Christian funeral and was buried in consecrated ground of the Church. But in 1414 the Council of Constance condemned him as a heretic. Consequently, his remains were disinterred and burned, and his ashes were thrown into the River Swift.

During his lifetime some of Wycliffe’s disciples went out into country villages and byways to minister to neglected souls there. They carried with them portions of the Wycliffe Bible and helped spread his teachings. They were derogatorily dubbed Lollards, which means “mumblers.” After Wycliffe’s death they were persecuted and became an underground, lower-class movement. But their ongoing influence helped pave the way for and bring about the English Reformation in the 1500s.

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Sources consulted: The Story of Christianity, The Early Church to the Present Day, Justo L. Gonzalez (Prince/Hendrickson, 2005), Vol. 1, pp. 324-48; Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley (Word, 1982), pp. 233-48; Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge, Ed., “John Wyclif,” A. N. S. Lane (Moody, 1988), pp. 173-77.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie