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Reformation Subjects (39)

The articles in this section cover various subjects relating to the great Reformation of the church in the 16th century, including the major Reformers, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox.

The Reformation and the Bible

This Reformation Day lecture was published in the May 1, 1941 issue of the Standard Bearer and was delivered and penned by Herman Hoeksema, pastor of First PRC, Grand Rapids, MI and professor in the PRC Seminary.

* Lecture delivered on Reformation Day, 1940.

Tonight we celebrate the beginning of the Reformation of the church. We may, indeed, and often do speak simply of the Reformation, and every Christian that has any knowledge of the history of the Church knows that the Reformation of the sixteenth century is meant. Not, indeed, as if it were the only reformation of the Church in history. There have been others. In a sense we may even say that the Church is always, is continually reforming. But the Reformation of the sixteenth century concerns the entire Church in every land and of all the succeeding centuries. And, therefore, when one speaks of the Reformation without further qualification, it is understood that the movement is meant that was begun on the thirty-first of October four hundred and twenty three years ago.

It was on that night, the eve of All Saints Day, that Dr. Martin Luther nailed his famous ninety five theses to the door of the castle-church in Wittenberg, an act that was destined to have far greater consequences than its author even remotely surmised. These theses purposed to be nothing more than a protest against the sale of indulgences as it was conducted in those days. An indulgence, as you know, was a certificate of the forgiveness of sins signed by the pope. The pope, being in need of special funds for the building of the St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, had conceived of the idea of issuing a large number of these indulgences and offering them for sale to the people. It so happened that a particularly shameless monk, Tetzel by name, conducted this sale in a manner that was especially offensive, in the neighborhood of Wittenberg, where Dr. Martin Luther taught and preached. And learning of the methods of this monk, and hearing of his approach to Wittenberg, Luther’s fiery indignation was aroused, and he expressed this indignation in his ninety five theses, which on that night of the 31st of October, 1517, he nailed to the church-door, that on the (following day all might read and catch the fire of Luther’s indignation. Little did Luther himself realize the full implication of this act. Certain it is that he did not intend a break with the church. Yet such it was. The ninety five theses, which meant to be merely a protest against some of the corrupt practices of the church, was the beginning of the liberation of the church from the bondage of Roman Catholicism. It was in the truest sense of the word a declaration of freedom.

However, one who says this must needs say more. He must define this freedom of the sixteenth century. There are those in our day, who have long departed from the faith of the Reformers, who, nevertheless, claim them as their spiritual ancestors. They deny the Christ the Reformers confessed, they spurn the righteousness in the blood of the cross Luther so earnestly sought and so strongly emphasized ever since he found it; they must have nothing of the authority of the Scriptures which the Reformers held high; yet they also speak of the Reformation as the liberation of the church. They present the matter as if what Luther did on October 31st, 1717, was but the beginning of the movement that found its climax in the declaration of the autonomy of man, of reason. Luther, they say, liberated us from the tyranny and domination of the hierarchical church; modern thought only continued the same movement and also freed us from the tyranny of the book, meaning the Bible. To examine this claim and to expose its falsity we can do no better than to speak to you on: The Reformation and the Bible.

I will try to show you that the Reformation was:

A liberation of the Bible;
A liberation toward the Bible;
A liberation according to the Bible.

I. Not infrequently the Reformation is confused with and placed on a par with what is known as the Renaissance, or the revival of learning and art. And it is a result of this confusion when the Reformation of the sixteenth century is described as the liberation of the human reason from the shackles of all authority. Arthur Kenyon Rogers makes this error in the following paragraph from his “A Student’s History of Philosophy”: “Beyond Italy the Renaissance took on a somewhat different form. In Germany, where it was grafted on a type of mind naturally profounder and more religious, and where the religious life had already been deepened by the mysticism of Eckhart and Tauler and the Brethren of the Common Life, its most characteristic product was the Reformation of Luther; even Humanism in its German form, as typified in Erasmus and Melanchthon, shows strong religious sympathies. But the Reformation is an expression of the same revolt against authority. By its doctrine of justification by faith apart from any external mediation, and by its appeal to immediate Christian experience, it stood for individual freedom as against the pretensions of the Church,” p. 209-10.

It would be difficult to find a paragraph more crowded with errors than the one I just read. It presents the Reformation as a form of the Renaissance, which it certainly was not. It even declares that in Germany the Reformation was a product of the Renaissance, which it could not possibly be, even as light cannot be the product of darkness, grace of nature, faith of reason. Without further limitation it declares that the Reformation was an expression of the same revolt against authority as the Renaissance, which it certainly was not; in fact, with far more justice it may be said that the Reformation was a return to true obedience and subjection to authority. Nor is it true, that the Reformation made an appeal to Christian experience, least of all the experience of the individual freedom as against the pretensions of the Church, even this individual freedom may not be interpreted as the autonomy of the human mind and reason. The writer of that paragraph may, from his own viewpoint, have understood the Renaissance, he utterly failed to see the significance of the Reformation.

What, then, was the nature of the liberating movement of the Reformation? My first answer to this question is, that it liberated the Bible itself. You may, perhaps, remark that this is a somewhat strange expression. You object, perhaps, that the Word of God it always free and that it is quite impossible to put it in bondage. And this is true, of course, if you mean by the Word of God, the almighty and efficacious Word God Himself speaks. That Word is irresistible and certainly is never bound. And it did its work all through the ages, even in the darkest of periods. It was the cause of those separate movements that prepared the Reformation, connected with the names of John Huss, John Knox, the Waldenses and Albigenses, and to an extent Savonarola in Italy, and the Brethren of the Common Life in the Netherlands. It also prepared the Reformation in the soul of Luther, before it finally broke forth into a blazing fire on that memorable eve of All Saints Day in 1517. But what cannot be done to the Word of God as God Himself speaks it, certainly may be and often is done to the Word of God as we possess it in written form, in the Bible. It can be put into bondage. And this was actually done as it still is done by the Roman Catholic Church. It was from this bondage that the Reformation liberated the Bible.

In two respects the Bible was put into bondage by the Romish Church before the Reformation. First of all, it was buried under a pile of tradition, by which the Holy Scriptures were gradually being replaced. Doctrines and institutions of men were placed on a par with the Word of God. By this accumulation of tradition we are referring to the teachings of the fathers, the decrees of the ecclesiastical councils, and the official declarations of the Pope in matters concerning faith and walk. These were considered to be of equal authority with the Scriptures themselves. They were appealed to as the end of all argument. And it can readily be surmised that gradually they occupied a place of more importance and greater authority than that of the Bible. It must ever be so. Even with us, who theoretically hold that the Bible is the last and only court of appeal, and that all human doctrines and institutions and declarations, even the confessions themselves must be judged by it, it proves to be extremely difficult to revise or recant a declaration by the Church, once the Church has spoken. Witness the three errors of 1924. But how easy, then, it must be for tradition to gain the first place and the greater authority, when once it is admitted that it stands on a par with the Scriptures! Doctrines and practices of men took the place of the Bible; the latter was relegated to oblivion; its direct testimony was withheld and suppressed; and the Church, i.e. the Church Institute, i.e. the clergy culminating in the infallible Pope, became the final court of appeal! The authority of the Word of God had been subjected to the authority of the Word of Man!

As a necessary corollary to this first instance of putting the Bible into bondage, the Church also declared that she only, the Holy Mother Church, had the authority and the power to interpret the Holy Scriptures, and that all the individual members of the Church on earth were obligated to abide by that interpretation, to receive it as infallible, and never to believe or to teach anything repugnant to that interpretation by the Church. Free exegesis of Holy Writ was thereby strictly forbidden. Always one who would interpret the Bible, were he ever so able and learned, was bound to inquire, first of all, what was the explanation of a certain passage offered by the Church, and by it his own was bound beforehand. The result was, too, that the Bible was withheld from the laity. The Church, and by the Church Roman Catholicism ever means the clergy, the priest, the Pope, alone has the promise of being guided by the Spirit into all the truth. It is, therefore, dangerous for the common member of the Church as an organism to have the Bible in his possession, to read it and to study it for himself. Many passages are hard for him to understand, and without the guidance and authority of the holy Mother Church, he will readily distort them to his own destruction. Hence, it is better for him to come into contact with the Bible, not directly, but indirectly, that is, only through the interpretation of the Church, in whose infallible guidance he must have implicit faith.

Such were the views and practices of the Romish Church with respect to the Bible. That this is no mere Protestant opinion, but the actual stand of the Roman Catholic Church even today, may be gathered from the declarations of its councils and Popes. Shortly after the Reformation has become an accomplished fact the famous Council of Trent began its sessions, which were continued over a number of years. In its session of April 8, 1546 that body of Roman Catholic divines declared that: “seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions, which, received from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand: the Synod following the example of the orthodox fathers, receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament—seeing that one God is the author of both—as also the said traditions, as well those pertaining to faith as to morals, as having been dictated, either by Christ’s own word of mouth, or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession.” It goes on to enumerate the books that are considered canonical, including in them also the apocryphal books, and it declares at the same time, that only the Latin translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate shall be held as authentic; and it threatens with the curse all that refuse to receive as sacred and canonical this Vulgate edition of the Bible, together with all the traditions of the Church. Schaff: Creeds of Christendom, II, 81, 82. And it continues: “Furthermore, in order to restrain petulant spirits, it decrees, that no one relying on his own skill, shall,—in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine,—wresting the sacred Scripture by his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which Holy mother Church,—whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scripture,—hath held and doth hold; or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though such interpretations were never intended to be at any time published. Contraveners shall be made known by their Ordinaries, and be punished with the penalties by law established”, ibidem, 83. We could quote more, but this is sufficient to establish the truth of our contention, that the Bible was subjected to and held in bondage by human presumption of authority.

From this human bondage of the Bible the Reformation liberated the Word of God by declaring and insisting upon two truths. In the first place it announced the sufficiency of Holy Scripture. By this doctrine the Reformers did not intend to despise tradition. They well understood that also the Church of the past was led by the Holy Spirit, and they were far from that undenominationalism and “open Bible Churchism” of today, that would pretend to act as if our generation were the first that approached Holy Scripture and interpreted it. But they certainly did emphasize that no other word than the pure Word of the Gospel was necessary unto salvation for any man. They rejected tradition as being of the same value and authority as the Bible. Clearly this is already annunciated in the Formula Concordiae, which declared in Art. I: “We believe, confess, and teach that the only rule and norm, according to which all dogmas and all doctrines ought to be esteemed and judged, is no other whatever than the prophetic and apostolic writings both of the Old and of the New Testament, as it is written (Ps. 119:105): ‘Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.’ And St. Paul saith (Gal. 1:18): ‘Though an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you, let him be accursed.’”

“But other writings, whether of the fathers or of the moderns, with whatever name they come, are in no wise to be equaled to the Holy Scriptures, but are all to be esteemed inferior to them, so that they be not otherwise received than in the rank of witnesses, to show what doctrine was taught after the Apostles’ times also, and in what parts of the world that more sound doctrine of the Prophets and the Apostles has been [preserved,” Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, III, 93, 94.

Clearly this is also expressed in the “Ten Conclusions of Berne,” which in its second article declares: (translated from the German) “The Church of Christ makes no laws and precepts outside of the Word of God; whence it follows that all institutions of men, called Church-ordinances, cannot bind us except in so far as they are founded in and commanded by the Word of God,” Schaff, III, 209. And in the First Helvetic Confession we read (Art. I): “The Holy, divine, biblical Scripture, which is the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and proclaimed to the world by the Prophets and Apostles, is the very oldest, most perfect and most exalted doctrine, and it alone comprehends all that is conducive to the true knowledge, love and glory of God, to real and true piety, and to a pious, honorable and godly walk of life”. And in the second article it declares that the Holy Scriptures shall not be interpreted in any other way than in its own light. It further declares in Art. Ill that we will esteem those holy fathers, that did not deviate from this sound rule of interpreting Scripture, not only as true interpreters, but also as chosen instruments of God through whom God spoke and worked. And in the fourth article of this confession all other teachings and institutions of men, leading us away from the living God, are declared to be vain and powerless, be they ever so beautiful and attractive, respected and venerable with age. And this is emphasized also in our own Netherland or Belgic Confession of Faith, which devotes an entire article to the sufficiency of Holy Scripture, as follows (Art. VII): “We believe that these Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation, is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for anyone, though an Apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures; nay though it were an angel from heaven, as the Apostle Paul saith. For since it is forbidden to add unto or to take away any thing from the Word of God, it doth thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects. Neither may we compare any writings of men, though ever so holy, with those divine Scriptures; nor ought we to compare custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times or persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, with the truth of God, for the truth is above all; for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule, which the Apostles have taught us, saying, Try the spirits whether they are of God; likewise, If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house”.

And over against the Roman Catholic view that the Scriptures can only be interpreted by the Holy Mother Church, the Reformation proclaimed the principle of the perspicuity of Scripture. The Word of God is clear to all. It must be interpreted, not in the light of an officially established interpretation, but in its own light. Exegesis must be free. Not even dogmatics, not even the confessions of the Church may dominate exegesis. And the Bible is sufficiently clear to be given to and interpreted by all believers. No, indeed, the Reformers did not favor the view that every individual Christian must interpret the Bible apart from the Church of the present and of the past. They had a clear conception of the Church and of the calling of the Church to preach and preserve the Word of God. The individual believer cannot with impunity disregard his organic relationship to the Church. But the fact remains, that the interpretation of the Bible cannot be the privilege of a distinct class, even though they be the officebearers of the Church, but must be granted to every believer. The Church must not speak instead of the Bible, but must merely be instrumental in letting the Bible speak for itself. Hence, the Bible was translated into the language of the people, so that all might have access to its treasures. The Reformation conceived as a liberating movement, first of all liberated the Bible from Roman Catholic shackles!

II. The foregoing already suggests that the Reformation at the same time was a liberation toward the Bible. By this I mean to express the idea, that the Reformation meant to be a movement to subject all men and the whole man to the authority of the Scriptures. The very fact that they liberated the Scriptures from the shackles of human oppression, clearly shows this. Why did the Reformers consider it so important so paramount that the Bible should be permitted to speak for itself to the hearts and consciences of men? Only because they regarded the Scriptures as being the Word of God, and, therefore, as being the final court of appeal, as having absolute authority, to which man must subject himself.

It is here that the Reformation principally differs from modernism, and stands diametrically opposed to it. I have already mentioned that even the moderns of today claim to be sons of the Reformation. They see in Martin Luther the herald of liberty, in whose steps they follow; they evaluate the Reformation as a great liberating movement, the work of which they, the moderns have carried on and still do carry forward. They look upon the Reformation as but another phase of the Renaissance. Both aimed at liberty. Both freed man from bondage, the latter in the sphere of science and art, the former in the sphere of religion. But they are mistaken, and the error they make is a very fundamental one. It is this: while the modernist declares the autonomy of Man, the Reformation insisted on the authority of Holy Scripture. The modern philosopher, scientist, preacher, will have nothing of authority. Man is the measure of all things. Freedom of thought means to him absolute independence of the human mind. But the Reformation insisted: “Das Wort sollen sie stehen lassen!” The Holy Scriptures were the sole criterion and source of our knowledge of God and salvation. It bound man’s mind and conscience to the Book!

This (philosophy of the autonomy of man, which makes man the measure of all things, which makes him the creator of his own world, the creator ultimately of his own God, received its most modern form in the preceding century, but is, nevertheless, very old. Always it found its adherents and prophets, that proclaimed it in some form or other. Principally it really dates back to the time when the devil subverted the Word of God into the lie: “Ye shall be like God.” It reveals itself in three different, more or less clearly distinct forms, according as it declares the autonomy of the human mind, the reason of man; the autonomy of the human feeling, experience; or the autonomy of the human will or conscience. In the first form it is known as Rationalism; in its second appearance it is Mysticism; in its third manifestation it is Moralism.

Rationalism is the philosophy that seeks the source and principle, the norm and criterion of all knowledge and truth in the human mind. Reason is supreme. And it is independent. It may not be bound by any objective authority. It is its own authority. It will know only that which can and does arise in the mind of man. Whatever is contrary to reason, and whatever is beyond or above its scope of comprehension, it denies. It will have nothing to do with revelation. Its attitude to the Holy Scriptures is that of a superior. It does not submit but rule. It does not listen but judge. And whatever cannot stand before the bar of Reason in the Bible must needs be rejected. And as human reason is needs limited to the things that are seen and heard, and the Word of God deals with things which eye hath not seen and ear hath not heard, neither have arisen in the heart of man, it stands to reason that Rationalism is essentially and ends up in Agnosticism, which is Atheism. It is the philosophy of the fool, that saith in his heart: “there is no God.” Needless to say that the liberation of the Reformation has nothing in common with this licentiousness of Rationalism.

Mysticism also declares the autonomy of Man and finds the source of all knowledge and truth in the subject, but in distinction from Rationalism it makes feeling or experience the court of final appeal, whether it be the experience of the individual or of the Church. It declares that the letter, meaning the Bible, is dead, it is the Spirit that quickeneth. It has a wrong conception of the relation between the Word and the Spirit. It denies that God has once spoken His Word, that His Word of revelation is perfect and complete, and that now the Spirit does, indeed, speak and can only make that Word quick and powerful like a two-edged sword, but that He never speaks another Word than that which is revealed in the Bible. It also elevates the authority of Man above that of Scripture, denies, in fact, the authority of Holy Writ. And since also the feeling or experience of Man is limited to the things that can and do arise in the heart of Man, and the Word of God deals with those things that can never have their origin there, Mysticism like Rationalism terminates in the morass of Skepticism and Agnosticism. And again we say, that the Reformation of the sixteenth century stands diametrically opposed to modern Mysticism.

The last form this philosophy of the autonomy of Man assumes, we said, is Moralism. It also denies the authority of the Bible, and makes the sense of moral obligation, the conscience, the moral judgment the source of all knowledge and truth, the measure of all true religion. All men have an eradicable sense of obligation, the consciousness of a must. From this sense Moralism attempts to conclude that there must be a God who causes this sense of obligation, who says to all men: “Thou shalt.” But from this consciousness they also derive the contents of their religion and worship of God. Man’s morality is the source and criterion of all truth and goodness. The objective criterion of the Scriptures is denied. Only as a moral code or textbook can certain parts of Holy Writ, especially the Sermon on the Mount, be useful. Like Rationalism and Mysticism also Moralism declares the absolute autonomy of Man. And again, it is easy to see that modern Moralism (falsely claims any affinity with the Reformation of the sixteenth century.

For, over against all these philosophies the Reformation loudly and clearly and very insistently proclaims the absolute authority of the Holy Scriptures. That the Bible is the Word of God, and that, therefore, the whole Church and every individual believer must unconditionally submit to the authority of Scripture, of the written Word, is the formal principle of the Reformation. It did not proclaim the freedom of Man from the Bible, but his liberty to subject himself to the authority of the Bible only. That was the clear-cut truth the Reformers preached and which they never tired of reiterating. That was the strength of the Reformation. That was the ground of its unshakable conviction, even as it is the cause of the lack of conviction in our miserable age and of the modern church that they refuse to acknowledge the authority of Holy Writ! Many a passage from the official creeds of the churches of the Reformation I might quote in support of this statement, but I will limit myself to the following from the French Confession of Faith, Art. V: “We believe that the Word contained in these books has proceeded from God, and receives its authority from Him alone, and not from men. And inasmuch as it is the rule of all truth, containing all the rule of truth, containing all that is necessary for the service of God and for our salvation, it is not lawful for men, nor even for angels, to add to it, to take away from it or to change it. Whence it follows that no authority, whether of antiquity, or custom, or numbers, or human wisdom, or judgments, or proclamations, or edicts, or decrees, or councils, or visions, or miracles, should be opposed to these Holy Scriptures, but, on the contrary, all things should be examined, regulated, and reformed according to them.” This was the formal principle of the reformation, and this principle we must maintain if we would be sons of that Reformation and perpetuate the liberty it inaugurated!

III. And thus I naturally approach my last point. For, the liberation of the Bible was accomplished, in order to restore the liberty toward the Bible, the liberty that consists in submitting to the sole authority of Holy Scripture; and this last liberation is necessary in order to make us truly free. There is no other liberty than that which is through the Word of God, and we have no other Word of God than that which we now possess in the Bible.

For what is true freedom? It cannot possibly be the same as human autonomy and absolute independence. It cannot be the state in which man is his own law, creates his own world, makes his own God, is the criterion of all things. It is not the condition in which man thinks as he wills, wills as he desires, acts as he pleases, without being limited and determined by any objective norm or standard. For man is not his own maker, but he is and remains a creature. He is not above, but under the law in the good sense of that word. And true liberty for him consists in this that with all his inner being and outward action, with mind and will and all his desires and powers he is in harmony with God. To please to do the will of God and to be able to do it,—that is liberty in the highest sense, nay, in the only true sense of the word.

But man has not this freedom. He is, on the contrary, in bondage. For he sinned and he is a sinner. He is in the bondage of condemnation, for he is guilty and is held under the sentence of death, and he knows it. He has no peace, because he is not a free man. And he is in bondage under the dominion of sin, a slave of the devil. He will not, and he cannot, and he cannot will to will and to do the will of God. Nor can he ever liberate himself from the shackles of his bondage. For he can neither atone for his sin, nor deliver himself from corruption. All his life he is in the fear of death; and there is no way out!

Martin Luther was conscious, painfully conscious of this bondage of condemnation and sin. And he understood that only in righteousness could there be liberty, the liberty for which his soul yearned. Hence, it became the supreme question of his life: how can a man be righteous with God? And as he sought an answer to that urgent question, the Church confronted him. And as a faithful son of the holy mother Church he recognized her, and anxiously turned to her for an answer to his question: how can a man be justified before God? And the church answered: you can obtain forgiveness and righteousness by way of confession to a priest; and Luther did so, but found no peace. The church answered: you can obtain righteousness by doing the good works prescribed by the church; Luther did so, but his question still remained. The church said: seek righteousness in the way of self-denial and self-chastisement; and Luther tells us that he tormented himself to death to make peace with God, but in vain. The church advised that he should make pilgrimages to Rome, and Luther went to the Papal city, only to find bitter disappointment. The church offered indulgences to bring peace to his troubled soul, but it was of no avail. And he tells us that although in those days he tormented himself, he found nothing but unrest and darkness.

The evangelical preaching of the town preacher at Erfurt had first brought him to a consciousness of sin and sent him in quest of righteousness and peace. That same preacher had boldly exhorted his readers to read the Bible. And Luther had gone in search of a Bible, but found none. For the Bible was an unknown quantity in those days, not only with the laity but with the clergy as well. And those that should have been preachers of the Word of God were deceivers, mockers, extortioners, lazily drifting along on the current of ecclesiastical tradition. The Bible was not to be found, and the question in Luther’s soul became more urgent all the time, especially when a dangerous illness attacked him, and when a friend of his was struck by lightning at his side. It was the desire to find an answer to his question that induced him to abandon the study of law and to seek peace within the walls of the convent in Erfurt. There he found his answer, though he did not at once recognize it. And the answer came to him from an old Bible, which he found in the convent, locked to a chain and buried under the dust of years. From that volume of Scripture the wonderful words came to him and remained lodged in his soul: “The just shall live by faith!”

It was, however, not until later that the full significance of these words dawned upon him. In fact, only on his return from his visit to the seat of Roman hierarchy did the words strike him in their full force, and were they applied to his heart as an answer to his anxious question. In Rome he had been amazed and shocked by the corruption of the church as it was represented by the higher clergy. Thoroughly dissatisfied, and pondering all the time upon his spiritual problem, the old words rushed back into his consciousness, now, however, with all their peace affording power: “The just shall live by faith.” Luther had found peace through the Bible as the Word of God, applied by the Spirit unto his heart; and, though at the moment he knew it not, God had prepared him at the same time for the work He had to do for him: to liberate the Bible from the bondage of the Church, in order that the Church might be called to return to the Bible, and through the Bible find liberty!

Another way to liberty there is not. For only if the Son shall make us free, we shall be free indeed. His cross and resurrection are the power to cut the shackles of our condemnation; by His Spirit He makes us free from the dominion of sin. And this liberty is not only proclaimed to us in the Gospel, but given unto us through that Gospel. The assurance that our sins are forgiven, and that we are righteous before God, set at liberty, cannot rest on anything less than the Word of God Himself. And that Word God by the Spirit of Christ speaks to us through the Word. To sweep away the hierarchical powers that would deprive the Church and the individual believer of that liberty which we have in Christ through the Word,—this is the great significance of the Reformation!

Let us learn the lesson. Let us be Reformed, indeed, but Protestant Reformed always, always zealously defending and jealously watching over the formal principle of the Reformation. Always the danger is lurking that the word of man, be it in the form of ecclesiastical declarations, creeds and confessions, private opinions and false doctrines, interposes itself between the Word of God and our faith. This may never be! Confessions are good and they are necessary. But never may they be more than means to bring to us and to (preserve for us the Word of God. And always must they be tested by and judged in the light of the Word of God as we possess it in the Holy Scriptures. Then, and only then, shall we preserve the precious heritage God again bestowed upon His Church in the world through the Reformation of the sixteenth century: the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free!


Preaching and Disputations: How Zurich Became Reformed

This article first appeared in the November 1, 2019 issue of the Standard Bearer, a special issue on the Reformation in Zurich, Switzerland.

Preaching and Disputations: How Zurich Became Reformed

The settlement known today as Zurich, Switzerland, has a long history. Decades before Christ’s birth, the Romans conquered the area of Germany and Switzerland. On the northwest shore of Lake Zurich, by the Limmat River, they found a settlement of barbarians, uncultured people. These were pagans, of course; Christ had not yet been born, so Christianity had not yet come to that region.

Within three centuries of Christ’s resurrection, mis­sionaries brought Christianity to the area. One of Zu­rich’s claims to fame is that it is the site of the martyr­dom of missionaries Felix and Regula, about the year 286. The city grew and developed, becoming a citadel of Roman Catholicism. A monastery and nunnery were located nearby, and the construction of the Grossmunster (Great Church—see the photo on the cover) began about 1100. In 1218 Zurich became a free city, and a century later became part of the Swiss alliance.

The year 1519 marks another significant milestone in Zurich’s history: the beginning of the process of the city becoming Reformed. The teachings of the Reformation came to many cities, with the result that Re­formed churches were formed in those cities. But in the case of Zurich, the city as a political unit committed itself to Protestantism and supported the teaching and promotion of Reformed doctrine and worship. How did this happen?

Zwingli’s preaching

The preaching of Ulrich Zwingli was one factor in the city becoming Reformed. Several characteristics of his preaching are worthy of note.

First, Zwingli’s preaching was expository and sys­tematic. When he came to Zurich in December 1518, he began preaching through the gospel according to Matthew, verse by verse. Between 1518 and 1525, he preached systematically through Acts, 1 Timothy, Ga­latians, 1 and 2 Peter, Hebrews, Luke, John, and other Pauline epistles. For the next several years he turned his attention to the Old Testament.

Second, Zwingli’s preaching was Christ-centered, setting forth the fundamentals of the gospel of grace. Zwingli preached that Christ’s sacrifice fully atoned for our sin and made the Romish mass both irrelevant and wrong. He also preached that Christ was an example to us of holy living.

Third, his preaching was polemical. He opposed Rome’s abuses of doctrine and practice and showed that they were contrary to Scripture.

Finally, his preaching was applicatory. He spoke to the people, comforted the people, and exhorted the peo­ple, all on the basis of Scripture.

Such preaching was not entirely novel: Zwingli reminded others that the early church fathers had preached this way. Yet this kind of preaching was not common in Romish churches in the Medieval period. The practice in Rome had been that the priests read a selected portion from the Gospels or some oth­er Scripture passage, and then read a homily for the day. In every church building, on the same day, the same Scripture passage and the same homily would be read. The homily was not written by the priest; it was either borrowed from a church father, or made by a higher-ranking official in the Romish church. And the homily was barely an exposition of that passage; its aim was to try to convince the people that the teach­ings and practices of Rome were, in some general way, based on Scripture.

Not always was this homily actually read. Many of the priests were illiterate, making it impossible to read a homily. Besides, the Romish view of the sacraments taught that regular penance and the regular partaking of the Eucharist took away one’s sins. This took away the incentive to read the homilies. For these reasons, Zwingli’s preaching was revolutionary.

In His providence and grace, God used such preach­ing to cause the city fathers of Zurich, as well as the cit­izens generally, to choose in favor of the Reformation. He did so in at least two ways.

First, this kind of preaching gained Zwingli the attention of the people of Zurich. Zwingli had been preaching like this before he came to Zurich. Not so much during his priesthood in Glarus (1506–1516) did he begin preaching this way, but more especially during his time in Einsiedeln (1516–1518). Such preaching brought him to the attention of people in other cities. In the Fall of 1517, he declined an appointment to the city of Winterthur. A year later he accepted the appoint­ment to Zurich. God used Zwingli’s preaching to bring him to the attention of many people, and the call from Zurich reflected the desire of many to have expository preaching in Zurich.

Second, this kind of preaching was the means by which many people came to understand the Scriptures clearly, and by which they saw the errors of Rome. The reception of Zwingli’s preaching by the people of Zu­rich demonstrated that the preaching of the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). As the apos­tle Paul went from city to city preaching the gospel, by which the Spirit brought many to conversion and con­scious faith, so the preaching of Zwingli in Zurich was one means by which God caused the Reformed faith to take root and to spread throughout the surrounding area.

Zwingli’s preaching was the means by which many people became convinced of the Reformed faith. How­ever, it did not yet commit the city officially to the Reformation.


The city’s allegiance to the cause of the Reformation was the outcome of three disputations (debates) called by the Zurich city council. This city council included two branches: the Great Council, which had 162 members, and the Small Council, which had 50 members. Together these had authority, among other things, to appoint ministers. The progress of the Lutheran reformation required Luther to get the support of the local nobles, if not the princes or emperor. Zwingli, by contrast, needed the support of the city council.

Support him the council did. It officially approved his method of preaching, a method that the local Romish bishop and others challenged. The difference between Zwingli and the bishop hinged on the question whether the pope’s authority trumped that of Scripture (that is, whether Rome had official authority to determine what Scripture meant), or whether Scripture’s authority was supreme. Disagreement on this question led to disagree­ment in other areas: May ministers marry? May bap­tism be administered in the language of the people, or must it be in Latin? Do images and crucifixes in the churches have any positive purpose, and if not, should they be removed from the churches? If the church ad­ministrators would not willingly remove them, should they be forcibly removed and destroyed? Should not Re­formed worship practices be implemented immediately? Should those who were baptized by Rome but who now opposed Rome be re-baptized?

By supporting Zwingli, the city government had tak­en a stand for the Reformation. For this, Rome viewed the city council as unfaithful. The city council needed to convince the people that it was on the right side of the issue. So it called for three disputations. Here, too, the council showed its support of Zwingli: it insisted that the matters at the disputations be judged on the basis of Scripture, and it would determine which side won the debate.

The first disputation was held on January 29, 1523. To prepare for it, Zwingli drew up his Sixty-Seven Ar­ticles. Zwingli presented his case convincingly against his opponent, John Faber. Two other disputations were held in October 1523 and January 1524.

The outcome was that the council declared that Zu­rich cast its lot with the Reformation. The council also ordered all clergy in the city to recognize the authority of Scripture in their preaching and to follow Zwingli’s method. It chose in favor of the Reformation’s funda­mental teaching (the final authority of Scripture) and its basic method (preaching the gospel as set forth in the Scriptures). But it made this choice knowing that it had the backing of the people. They had attended these dis­putations with interest; they loved their pastor, Zwingli; and they were willing to make the decisive break with Rome.


The hand of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ was directing all these affairs for the good of His church, and particularly for the spread of the Reformation.

Christ placed Zwingli in Zurich because Christ had ordained to use him there for the spread of the Reforma­tion. The city’s population in Zwingli’s day was about 7,000. The canton (state) of Zurich, of which the city was the center, numbered about 50,000. The city was not only a population center, but also an economic and political center. It is not surprising, then, that after the city became Reformed, it spread its influence through­out the surrounding region.

From Zurich, this influence spread first to Basel and Berne. From there it spread to other parts of Switzer­land. Historically, this explains why the Swiss cantons developed as Reformed cantons in distinction from Lu­theran cantons: the influence of Zwingli in these regions overshadowed that of Luther.

That the Reformation might spread, Christ kept the Romish church from opposing Zwingli. Rome persecut­ed Luther and tried to kill him, but it left Zwingli alone. Perhaps, had Zwingli lived longer (he died in 1531), he would have endured more opposition. Another possible explanation is that the pope and Romish church were at war with France and Italy, and needed the help that the hired armies from Switzerland could give. Better to let Zwingli alone than to upset the armies that could help Rome politically. Either way, Christ was directing history so that His cause would spread.

Even by using the city councils as He did, Christ’s hand was at work. Reformed churches today emphasize that Christ rules the church through officebearers, and that the civil government is to rule civil society. The rule of civil government affects the church to a degree, because the church lives in the world and in civil society; but the civil government does not rule the church in ecclesiastical matters.

This point the Reformers did not see—in part be­cause church and state had always been so intertwined during the Middle Ages, and in part because the Reformers were addressing the foundational doctrines of the Reformation, such as the authority of Scripture and justification by faith alone without works. Yet Christ used the civil government of Zurich to guide the course of the Reformation. Still today, whether civil govern­ments actively support Christianity or oppose it, Christ directs their affairs with the good of His church in mind.

Finally, the spiritual rule of Christ by His Spirit and Word was evident even then: the Zurich reformation was effected by the preaching of the gospel. Such preaching is always the power and wisdom of God unto salvation for all whom He has chosen in Christ and for whom He died.


Heinrich Bullinger: "Common Shepherd of All Christian Churches"

This article first appeared in the November 1, 2019 issue of the Standard Bearer, a special issue on the Reformation in Zurich, Switzerland.

Heinrich Bullinger: "Common Shepherd of All Christian Churches" 

Dazed and vulnerable after the disaster at Kappel, the fledgling Protestant church in Zurich turned to a young refugee pastor for leadership. King Jesus’ rebuke of His servants had been severe. Twenty-five pastors were dead. Among them, Zwingli, whose body was drawn, quartered, and burnt; a grim warning to any who dared replace him. Associates were in hiding. And nearby Bremgarten had just surrendered to advancing Catholic forces. Terms: Expel their pastor. The pastor, Heinrich Bullinger, flees to Zurich. His wife Anna, forbidden to leave, arrives days later. With love stronger than death, she overpowers the guard, lets herself out the city gate, and trudges the twenty miles to Zurich in the dark carrying their two young children. The King, who had taken so much away, had also graciously well provided for His church.

Heinrich Bullinger was born in Bremgarten on July 18, 1504. He was youngest of seven children born to Anna Wiederkehr, daughter of the town miller, and Heinrich Bullinger senior, an organist and deacon who was chosen parish pastor in 1495, shortly before marriage. Since papal law forbad clerical marriage, Anna’s father took him to court; but the tribunal allowed him to retain his office and the marital union. Still, Anna’s two brothers threatened to kill Heinrich senior, and the threat remained until 1506 when the brothers became casualties of war.

Heinrich junior’s education began early. At four, well before the normal age of seven, he entered the town’s Latin school where he learned to use the language as if it were his native tongue. At eleven, he left for the School of the Brethren of the Common Life in faraway Emmerich along the German-Dutch border. In his diary he records the rigorous discipline, the renaissance humanism he learned, and the house-to-house singing for his supper, not from parental neglect, but because his father wanted to teach him pity and generosity for the poor. In February 1519, only sixteen months after Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, fourteen-year- old Bullinger returned home to find his father under the ban, fined, and sued in Zurich by an indulgence peddler named Samson, whom he had barred from Bremgarten. At his trial, Zwingli, who began preaching that Janu­ary, came to his defense. The court lifted the ban, can­celled the fine, and sent Samson packing over the Alps with word that he should be glad to keep his horses and wagon laden with coin. In September, Bullinger entered the university whose faculty Luther dubbed “the ass­es of Cologne” for officially condemning his writings. They burnt Luther’s books November 15, 1520, three days before Bullinger received his Bachelor of Arts. He was sixteen.

Bullinger claims that at the time he was still ignorant of Lutheran and papal doctrine. This changed quickly. While still in Cologne studying for his Master of Arts in order to become a Carthusian monk, Bullinger also began studying the Bible, church fathers, Luther, and with special delight, Melanchthon’s Loci Communes. Sometime late 1521 to early 1522, still only seventeen, he renounced monkery and the mass. In April 1522, after receiving his degree, he returned home. He then became director of the Cistercian monastery in Kappel on condition he be excused from taking vows and at­tending mass. Immediately, he began lecturing on the New Testament for the twelve resident monks and any­one else interested. Within a month, the images were removed, murals whitewashed, and the mass abolished. In his six years there, Bullinger lectured through twen­ty-one New Testament books, published lectures on six of them, and wrote essays on marriage and the virtuous woman. In time, most of the monks learned trades, left the monastery and married, including Abbot Joner who had hired Bullinger.

October 17, 1527, twenty-three-year-old Bullinger proposed to Anna Adlischwyler, a former nun still liv­ing at a defunct convent in Zurich. In his proposal he wrote: “The greatest, surest treasure that you will find in me is fear of God, piety, fidelity and love, which with joy I will show you.” Anna, whose father was dead, accepted; her mother objected and tried to annul the en­gagement. She failed, but the court ordered the couple to remain apart until the mother consented. She never did, but died in July 1529. A month later, Heinrich and Anna married.

Anna was a remarkable woman. She mothered thir­teen children, eleven her own, two adopted. On her hus­band’s meager salary, she provided for her large family, cared for the sick and poor in Zurich, and gave hospital­ity to a constant stream of guests from all over Europe. Her care for English refugees received the thanks of Queen Elizabeth. In Zurich, she was known by every­one simply as “mother.” The Black Death would take Anna, two daughters, and the family maid Britta. Anna died on September 4, 1564, nine days after contract­ing the plague while caring for Heinrich, who also had gotten it. Heinrich was so sick, he could not attend her funeral. He would survive and live eleven more years, but with acute kidney trouble.

Ironically, Heinrich junior replaced his father as pas­tor when his father converted. In February 1529, ten years after turning away Samson, sixty-year-old Heinrich senior told his congregation that for the past twen­ty-three years he had not taught the truth of Scripture. The town council promptly deposed him. The citizens concurred, but also voted to abolish the mass and re­quest Zurich for a new pastor. In the meantime, they invited junior to preach. The day following his sermon they burned the church’s images. On June 1, they or­dained him pastor. He served Bremgarten until Novem­ber 20, 1531, when he was expelled in the aftermath of Kappel.

Within two days of arriving in Zurich with his fa­ther and brother John, Bullinger was asked to preach. Catholics, emboldened by Kappel, sharpened their daggers; the council, scarred by Kappel, was leery. And with good reason: Bullinger and Zwingli were closer than brothers; and even when Bullinger first preached, he thundered such a sermon that some thought Zwingli had risen from the dead. But Bullinger was not Zwingli, and had broken with him on the matter of taking up the physical sword. So when Zwingli visited shortly be­fore Kappel, Bullinger walked with him to the next city, said a tearful farewell, and they never met again. On December 31, 1531, Bullinger was appointed Zwingli’s replacement in the Great Minster of Zurich, where he served honorably and faithfully until his death at age 71 on September 17, 1575.

Like Calvin, the primary concern of Bullinger was to feed his own flock. To that end he reformed the schools; authored curricula, catechisms, and standards; supervised the formation of new schools, a college and seminary; and oversaw the training of hundreds of new teachers and pastors. His first six years he preached six to seven times per week. In his lifetime, he preached through every book of the Bible once; all the prophets, gospels, and Pauline epistles two to three times; and He­brews four times. He excelled at making the complex plain. Pellikan, professor of languages in Zurich, said he had one of the greatest minds of his age, yet was the simplest of preachers. Calvin wrote that he right­ly received much praise because he combined simplicity with learning. And when a visiting high-born man once complained of his common speech, Bullinger responded that he preached to the pews full of shabby caps and shawls.

Bullinger had an ecumenical spirit that showed early and often. In 1528, he attended the Bern Disputation against Catholicism. In 1531, he was to attend the Marburg Colloquy with Luther, until his council said no. In 1536, he co-authored the First Helvetic Confession in an attempt to unify with Lutherans. After Calvin’s re­turn to Geneva (1541) and Luther’s invective against the “false and seductive preachers” of Zurich that “take the poor people to hell with them,” Bullinger focused his attention on unifying the Swiss. In 1549, he wrote with Calvin the Consensus Tigurinus—a unifying agreement that affirmed the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Supper and restricted its grace to the elect.

Bullinger was a prolific and widely read author. He wrote over 12,000 letters (more than Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin combined) to people from students to kings throughout Europe. He wrote major theological trea­tises: On the Lord’s Supper (1528); On Images (1529); Warning to the Faithful of the Shameless Disturbance, Offensive Confusion, and False Teachings of the Ana­baptists (1531); The One, Eternal Testament or Cove­nant of God (1534); The Authority of the Holy Scrip­tures (1538); On Christian Marriage (1540); The True Perfection of Christians (1551); The End of the World’s Present Epoch and Future Judgment of Our Lord Je­sus Christ (1557); and A Manual on How the Perse­cuted Should Respond (1559). Bullinger wrote history books on the monastery at Kappel (1526), the city of Zurich (1531), the origin of error (1539), the Anabap­tists (1560), and a massive history of the Swiss Feder­ation and Reformed churches from 1306-1533 (1567). Bullinger wrote commentaries on every book of the New Testament. He published 618 sermons, including 170 on Jeremiah (1561); 66 on Daniel (1565); 190 on Isaiah (1567), and 100 on Revelation (1557)—which went through 20 editions and was translated into Ger­man, English, and Dutch.

But none of his published sermons were as popular as The Decades (1551)—50 sermons that systematically treated all of Reformed theology. Written in Latin for scholars, it was quickly translated and became an inter­national best-seller among the laity. The Latin edition was reprinted 77 times. In Germany and Holland, the vernacular version was simply known as “The House-book,” and went through 137 editions. In England it became a standard textbook. a’Lasco said The Decades pleased him much. Peter Martyr said preachers who read it could instruct people abundantly and profitably. Calvin called it a gift of the Spirit.

Nothing Bullinger wrote unified the Reformed churches more than his Second Helvetic Confession. Written as a last testament of faith when he contracted the plague, it would become, according to Schaff, the most authoritative of all the continental Reformed sym­bols, with the exception of the Heidelberg Catechism. It would be translated into every major European lan­guage and Arabic. Friedrich III, who commissioned the Heidelberg Catechism, had it translated into German. Beza translated it into French. Besides wide distribu­tion in the Palatinate, Holland, and England, the Sec­ond Helvetic Confession was also officially adopted by the Reformed churches of Neufchatel (1568), Scotland (1566), Hungary (1567), France (1571), and Poland (1578).

Bullinger made two notable and related contributions to Reformed theology. The first is his doctrine of the covenant, which he developed while writing against the dispensationalism of the Anabaptists. The second were several keys developments on marriage: there is one in­stitution of marriage even as there is one covenant of grace; marriage is analogous to or a picture of the one eternal covenant of grace; since marriage was instituted before the Fall, marital life itself is good and honorable (against the notion that marriage is mainly to avoid for­nication and to procreate, which mitigates an inherent sinfulness of intercourse); lastly, although Adam was created first as head, God instituted marriage for the mutual blessedness of both married persons equally.

Bullinger is relatively obscure today, in part because only six of his major writings are translated into English. But one measure of his significance is the high regard he had among peers. When Ursinus was driven from Bre­slau in 1560, he went to study in Zurich, not Geneva. Olevianus wrote this to Bullinger: “Any sound wisdom in reformed thought, we owe it in large part to you.”1 And none other than Beza called Bullinger “the com­mon shepherd of all Christian churches.” High praise, considering that Beza knew Calvin’s influence had al­ready eclipsed that of Bullinger. And neither should any obscurity of Bullinger today change that assessment.

1  Charles S. McCoy and J. Wayne Baker, Fountainhead of Feder­alism (John Knox Press; Louisville, KY), 37.


Ulrich Zwingli: His Life and Work

This article first appeared in the November 1, 2019 issue of the Standard Bearer, a special issue on the Reformation in Zurich, Switzerland.

Ulrich Zwingli: His Life and Work

We know Ulrich Zwingli as one of the great leaders of the Protestant Reformation. When speaking of the men God raised up to reform His church, we mention the names of such men as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli all in the same breath. Yet, of these three servants of God, Zwingli is perhaps the least known to us. Zwingli was powerfully used by God to inaugurate the reformation of the church in Switzerland. Zwingli’s ministry laid foundations upon which the next generation of Reformers built. It is worth our while to become more familiar with this servant of God, who is also one of our spiritual fathers in the faith. That is the purpose of this article: to a give a short historical overview of the life and ministry of Ulrich Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich, and the father of the Swiss Reformation.

Zwingli’s early life and education (1484–1506)

Ulrich Zwingli was born on January 1, 1484, in the small shepherd village of Wildhaus, situated in a pristine valley among the snowcapped Alps. Zwingli’s father was the village magistrate and had the moderate means to send his gifted son to school. Young Ulrich, born in a humble shepherd village, was destined by God to be a shepherd of a very different sort. The sovereign hand of God was preparing Zwingli to be His undershepherd, whose life’s work would be leading God’s people out of spiritual darkness into the light of Christ and the green pastures of gospel grace.

At the young age of five Zwingli was sent to live with his uncle Bartholomew in Wesen. There he began his formal education. Over the next nine years Zwingli went to schools in Basel and in Berne, two large Swiss cantons that later became strongholds of the Reforma­tion. At the age of fourteen Zwingli entered the University of Vienna and then later the University of Basel.1 In Basel he sat under the instruction of Thomas Wittenbach, a reform-minded scholar who taught theology at the university. Some of the first seeds of Zwingli’s Reformed convictions were planted by Wittenbach’s teaching.2 In 1516, the budding young scholar graduat­ed with a Master of Arts from the University of Basel. Zwingli showed zeal for studying the classical literature of Greece and Rome. His whole life he cherished a love of learning. However, God’s chosen place for Zwingli—as with Calvin—was not the private study of the scholar, but the public pulpit of the preacher and pastor. God used Zwingli’s classical education to prepare him to be a preacher of the Word. Shortly after leaving the university, Zwingli received a call from the vacant par­ish in the city of Glarus. By God’s leading, the young scholar accepted and entered the sacred ministry.

Ministry in Glarus and Einsiedeln (1506–1518)

Zwingli was ordained into the priesthood by the bishop of Constance in September of 1506. For ten years he labored at his first charge in Glarus, the capital of the rural canton of the same name. Zwingli’s large congregation was made up mostly of common people who knew little about God’s Word. Zwingli busied himself preaching and teaching his flock. At this time Zwingli was still more of a humanist scholar than biblical theologian. But even then, God used his preaching to bless the congregation in Glarus.

Being a scholar at heart, Zwingli continued to pursue his classical and biblical studies on his own. He taught himself Greek in order to study the New Testament in the original tongue.3 In good humanist fashion, he was a prolific writer of letters. He travelled to Basel to visit the renowned scholar Erasmus, whom he admired. As Zwingli developed as a Reformer, his relationship with Erasmus cooled considerably. Yet Zwingli never lost his admiration for Erasmus.

Zwingli’s career as Reformer had its small beginning in Glarus. His earliest writings strongly criticized the common practice of Swiss men enlisting as mercenaries in the service of foreign powers. Zwingli himself served as a military chaplain during his ministry in Glarus. He went to battle with a company of soldiers from his par­ish. He saw firsthand the deplorable effects of merce­nary service on the lives and morals of his countrymen. Zwingli also began to advocate for limited reforms of the church. He started questioning the unbiblical tra­ditions of the Roman Catholic Church: papal author­ity, intercession of saints, and indulgences. The seeds of reformation were growing in his heart, watered and nurtured by his reading and preaching of the Scriptures.

After ten years in Glarus, Zwingli moved to another charge in the city of Einsiedeln. There he labored for only two years. In October of 1518 the most prominent church in the city of Zurich, the Great Minster, became vacant. Oswald Miconius, Zwingli’s friend, who taught at the Great Minster’s school, recommended Zwingli for the position.4 In God’s providence Zwingli received the call. He accepted and became the next pastor at Great Minster.

Early ministry in Zurich (1519–1520)

Zwingli began his ministry in Zurich on January 1, 1519, on his 35th birthday.5 Zurich was one of the most prominent cities in the Swiss confederation. Zurich was populous and politically powerful, but also reputed for ungodliness. Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor, called Zurich “the Corinth of Switzerland.”6 Through the preaching and ministry of Zwingli, the city of Zurich became the cradle of the Swiss Reformation.

Upon arriving in Zurich, Zwingli tirelessly devoted himself to the chief labor of his office: preaching the Word. Zwingli began preaching systematically through whole books of the Bible. He abandoned the church’s lectionary that assigned certain readings for each day. Zwingli began by preaching through the entire gospel of Matthew. He then proceeded to Acts, followed by several of the epistles of Paul. The people of Zurich embraced this new gospel preaching with enthusi­asm. They heard the Word of God as never before! In Zwingli’s preaching they heard about Christ and His atonement on the cross. They heard about God’s free grace in Christ. What joy the hearing of the pure gospel brought to the people of Zurich! Zwingli’s expository preaching was the root from which grew the Reforma­tion in Zurich.

Zwingli was also a compassionate pastor who cared for his flock even at great personal risk. In August of 1519, a terrible plague swept through Zurich, killing nearly one fourth of the city’s population. Rather than fleeing the plague, Zwingli remained in the city minis­tering to his flock. He brought the Word of the gospel at the bedside of countless sick and dying parishioners. Zwingli himself fell sick and came close to death. But the Lord preserved His servant.7

God used Zwingli’s preaching of the Word not only to bring light to His people in Zurich, but also to cause Zwingli to mature as a Reformer. Zwingli’s Reformed convictions did not come suddenly, but gradually. Al­though Zwingli lived at the same time as Luther, both men came to their Protestant convictions independent of each other. As Zwingli studied, preached, and pastored with the Scriptures, the Word of God mastered him. The gospel of Jesus Christ captivated him. The Reformation was born out of the Word of God.

The years of reformation (1520–1525)

The years of 1520–1525 were some of the most intense yet fruitful years of Zwingli’s ministry. During these six, busy years the Reformation took root and blossomed in Zurich. In 1522 Zwingli preached a sermon on Christian liberty defending certain citizens who had disobeyed Rome’s mandatory fast during Lent. That same year Zwingli and other clergymen petitioned the bishop of Constance to allow priests to marry. At this time Zwingli had already married a widow from his congregation named Anna Reinhart. Ulrich and Anna kept their marriage secret until 1524, when the Reformation in Zurich had progressed farther.8

Over the course of the next couple years, three import­ant public disputations were held in Zurich. Along with these disputations, the government of Zurich made deci­sions that advanced the cause of the Reformation. The first took place in Zurich’s town hall. Over six hundred people gathered to hear the debate between Zwingli and Dr. Faber, the Roman Catholic delegate. Zwingli pre­sented sixty-seven articles that summarized his views on Scripture, Christ, and the authority of the church. The city council judged Zwingli the victor and ordered the preaching of the Scriptures throughout the canton.9 The second disputation was held later that same year, with nine hundred in attendance. In this debate Zwingli re­futed the Roman Catholic use of images and condemned the mass on the basis of Scripture. The Zurich council again judged in his favor.10 The third disputation was smaller and centered on the mass. In 1524 the city mag­istrates took action and began removing images from the churches. The year 1525 was the watershed year for the Reformation in Zurich. On Easter Sunday the mass was finally abolished and replaced with the Lord’s Supper. For the first time in centuries, Zwingli administered the Lord’s Supper in the Great Minster of Zurich along with the preaching of the gospel. The sacrament was celebrat­ed at a table, not the altar. The elements were served using simple wooden utensils. With the abolishing of the mass, the separation from Rome was complete. Zurich was a Reformed canton.

Later ministry in Zurich and death (1526–1531)

The later years of Zwingli’s life were marked by increasing involvement in the politics and government of Zurich, as well as efforts to form alliances with other Protestants. In 1529 Zwingli and Luther met at the Marburg colloquy in an attempt to unify the Swiss and German branches of the Reformation. The disagreement that kept them apart was over the bodily presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Luther refused to join hands with Zwingli.

During these years, strife flared up between the Swiss cantons that embraced the Reformation and those can­tons that remained entrenched in the old Catholicism. Zwingli, out of zeal to protect the gospel, argued in fa­vor of war. By the year 1531 war was on the horizon. The uneasy peace between the parties broke down. In October 1531 five Catholic cantons invaded Zurich. Poorly prepared to repel the invasion, Zurich was badly defeated at the battle of Kappel. Zwingli himself was killed in the battle. The defeat at Kappel and the loss of Zwingli was a heavy blow to the Reformed cause in Switzerland. But the Reformation was not defeated.

From a human perspective Zwingli’s death was un­timely. But this too was under the sovereign control of God. God raised up Zwingli at His appointed time and God took His servant home when his work was finished. Zwingli’s life and ministry were short. His ministry in Zurich lasted only twelve years. God ac­complished everything that He purposed to accomplish through Zwingli in those twelve short years. The foun­dations were laid. God would raise up other men to build upon them.

1  W. P. Stephens, Zwingli: An Introduction to His Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 12.

2  William Boekestein, Ulrich Zwingli (Durham: Evangelical Press, 2015), 23.

3  Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 8 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2011), 24.

4  Schaff, History, 37–38.

5  Stephens, Zwingli, 16.

6  Boekestein, Zwingli, 43.

7  Stephens, Zwingli, 17.

8  Boekestein, Zwingli, 62.

9  Stephens, 19.

10  Boekestein, 74–75.


Luther's Struggle for Assurance

This article was first published in the October 15, 2017 issue of the Standard Bearer, a special Reformation issue commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Great Reformation and Luther's 95 Theses.

Luther's Struggle for Assurance

God in His wise and wonderful providence raises up special men and women for His church in special times. One such man was Martin Luther, as we well know.

What was special about Luther was not just his intellectual gifts and abilities, though they were outstanding, but also his acute spiritual sensitivities. Luther was a man through whom emotions rolled like great tsunamis at times, but emotions that were tied to an overwhelming God-consciousness, an awareness that afflicted his conscience in his early life to the point of despair again and again. Was there no way out for a damn-worthy sinner?

A God-consciousness with an acute sensitivity to sin that Luther never lost. A man raised up by God whose intense spiritual struggles with their resolution resulted in determining the very course of history and of Western civilization from the sixteenth century onward.

When it comes to the Reformation, our attention usually focuses on Luther nailing his Ninety-five Theses on the church door in Wittenberg on All Hallows’ Eve of October, 1517. The controversy that followed set in motion an avalanche that brought down not only Rome’s domination in ecclesiastical affairs, but changed the whole civil and social landscape of Europe, fragmenting Europe into Protestant versus Romish camps of loyalty. Nothing was ever the same in Europe once the fires of controversy sparked by Luther’s Ninety-five Theses began to burn across the continental landscape.

But we must understand that the controversy unleashed by the Ninety-five Theses was the result of a deep spiritual struggle, a ‘controversy’ that had taken place in Luther’s own heart and soul in the years prior to their posting.

The Ninety-five Theses drawn up to challenge Rome’s abuses and man-invented doctrines (largely meant to profit Rome’s financial interests) were preceded by another event that had taken place in Luther’s soul some four years prior, the exact date of which is not known (sometime in April or May of 1513 scholars think), known as the ‘tower experience.’

It was as he was studying Scripture, sequestered in a tower in Wittenberg, confronted again by that dread phrase “the righteousness of God,” a phrase found so often in the Psalms and Romans, that Luther, as if struck by a bolt of lightning from heaven, suddenly grasped the gospel significance of Paul’s statement in Romans 1:17 that “the just shall live by faith”, and that “therein is the righteousness of God revealed.”

Luther later described the event in these words:

Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven….”1

That Luther would describe the proper understanding of the phrase “the just shall live by faith” in terms of “rebirth” and “paradise” and a opening of the “gates to heaven” indicates just how deep his prior struggle with his own sin and guilt had gone, as well as with God’s holy, righteous character and just wrath. So deep as to despair of the possibility of his own salvation, and so overwhelming that he acknowledged later that he came not only to dread the phrase “the righteousness of God,” but that in time he came to hate it. It was a righteousness so high that it was bound to find fault with and defeat all of his attempts to please God by his most zealous, ardent labors of obedience and penance and contrition. Why even try?

A God, a so-called ‘Father,’ impossible to satisfy or please. And having required the impossible, this Al mighty God then judging one to have failed and punishing one for the failure. And then, evidently, taking pleasure in casting the guilty one into eternal torment. Who could speak of any hope for mercy to be found in such a demanding, even heartless, God?

Luther the monk, a tormented soul.

As we know, what drove Luther to seek refuge in a monastic order was a great thunderstorm that broke over his head as he traveled on an open road to Erfurt. As the lightening strokes crackled around him, he pled with St. Anne (the virgin Mary’s mother) to petition God to spare him, and if she would, he would take the vows of a monk. Luther’s dread certainty was that if he died at the age of 21, he would be consigned to eternal damnation, that was all.

Spared, Luther per his vow, entered an Augustinian order.

Whatever Rome’s theological weaknesses in Luther’s day might have been, challenging the truth of God as the almighty and righteous Judge, and calling into question the reality of everlasting punishment were not among them.

Roland Bainton has it nearly right when he states that under Rome’s influence “The entire training of home, school, and university [and monastery] was designed to instill fear of God and reverence for the Church.”2 It would be more accurate to say that Rome intended a child’s entire training “to instill a [dread] fear of God primarily in the interests of reverence for the Church and unquestioned submission to her bishops.”

Who will save a man from this dreadful, most righteous, judging God? Only mother Rome, mother Church. “You will do as we, the magisterium, say, or else we will turn you over to this God!” The whole emphasis of Rome’s theology was in the service of her own supreme authority and enrichment. Lack of assurance profited her. How much money will a man not give in exchange for his own soul when death looks him in the face? And in the late Middle Ages incurable diseases and death loomed like a specter over the whole of life, from the cradle on.

To use the wording of the Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 12), the great error of Rome was not her insistence that “…by the righteous judgment of God, we deserve temporal and eternal punishment.” Rome drove that home. The great error of Rome was her answer to the question, what is “…[the] way by which we may escape that punishment and be again received into favor?”

Rome’s prescribed ‘way’ had precious little to do with Christ and the mercy of God through His Son as the Mediator and sacrifice for sin and sinners.

To be sure, Christ by His blood and atoning suffering (as made by and taught in the mass) obtained a treasury of forgiveness and pardon. But now the great question: what had one done to deserve (merit, earn the right) to lay hold on that forgiveness and sacrifice for oneself?

For Rome, it was and is a matter of penance, and penance is a matter of doing. Have you done all that is required of you? And have you ever done enough?

This is why the conscience-stricken Luther (and many other earnest seekers of forgiveness and deliverance from hell fire) entered monasteries. There, through the discipline of their monastic order, they could devote the whole of their waking hours to prayers and devotions, to penance and afflicting oneself for one’s sins. There one could avoid the fleshly temptations that loom so large outside the cloister walls. There, free from worldly intrusions, lay the best possibility for doing what Rome required for earning forgiveness and being free of the corrupting influence of the fleshly appetites stimulated by the world. There a man’s righteousness could be obtained at last, or at least the assurance that God at last was satisfied with one’s sincere endeavors.

So Luther hoped.

It was not to be, not with Rome’s system of penance and merit, and not for a man with as acute a sensitivity to sin as Luther’s, and his knowledge of how holy and righteous God was.

Just how acute his spiritual sensitivities were is revealed in Luther’s account of his experience as he presided over his inaugural mass as a newly ordained priest in 1505 (age 23). He related:

When I read the words, “Thee, therefore, most merciful Father,” etc. and thought I had to speak to God without a Mediator, I felt like fleeing….

At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken. I thought to myself, “With what tongue shall I address such majesty, seeing that all men ought to tremble in the presence of even an earthly prince? Who am I, that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine majesty? …Shall I, a miserable little pygmy, say, ‘I want this, I ask for that?’ For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living, eternal and the true God.”3

For a man with such an acute awareness of his own deep-rooted corruption and of God’s high righteousness, Rome’s system of penance offered no solace.

Lifting his analysis from Luther’s Table Talk, Bainton makes the following commentary about Luther and the inadequacy of Rome’s sacrament of penance, a sacrament that required that the penitent

…should confess all their wrongdoing and seek absolution. Luther endeavored unremittingly to avail himself of this signal mercy…. He confessed frequently, often daily, and for as long as six hours on a single occasion. Every sin in order to be absolved was to be confessed. Therefore the soul must be searched and the memory ransacked and the motives probed…. Luther would repeat a confession, and to be sure of including everything, would review his entire life until [his] confessors grew weary [of his recitation]….

…Luther’s question was not whether his sins were big or little, but whether they had been confessed. The great difficulty which he encountered was to be sure that everything had been recalled. He learned from experience the cleverness of memory in protecting the ego, and he was frightened when after six hours of confessing he could still go out and think of something else which had eluded his most conscientious scrutiny.4

With those who would speak critically of ‘this’ Luther, asserting that such a burden of guilt and fixation on failures ‘to measure up’ were simply the psychological residue of a man having been raised by a demanding and austere father (labeled a “father-complex”), we sharply disagree.

We do not deny that God used Luther’s upbringing to mold and shape facets of his character (as God uses every man’s upbringing to this end to some degree), but to relegate Luther’s conviction of his own deep-rooted corruption and unrighteousness before a just and holy God to the category of a “father-complex” is mistaken to the extreme.

The simple fact is that Luther’s fierce struggle with his guilt and unworthiness was not an indication of some lamentable psychological disorder, but was nothing less than the workings (stabs) of the Holy Spirit on the acutely sensitive conscience with which God had formed Luther from the womb. Luther was exactly correct in his self-appraisal, where every man, left to himself and his own labors, stands before God, worthy of eternal damnation.

And it was this deep internal struggle, bordering on despair at times, that drove Luther to go back to ponder again and again Paul’s statement that “the just (the righteous) shall live by faith.” Paul, the former blasphemer, seemed to ground all of his comfort and assurance, all his hope and joy in that truth. How could that be?

And then, when the Holy Spirit determined “The time is now!”, the gospel truth suddenly dawned on him. Suddenly, the scales fell from his eyes. Paul was not talking about the righteousness of God as God judges a man, but the righteousness that God grants to one who simply believes and puts his trust—the whole of his trust—in the atoning blood and sacrifice and perfect obedience of Christ.

And what righteousness is that? Nothing less than the “righteousness of God!” God’s own righteousness is granted and imputed to one who comes in faith. And if it is God’s own righteousness that is granted to one’s account, how can God ever find fault with that righteousness?

The just (those justified by God) shall live (escape the sentence of wrath and death, and go free) by faith. No need for meritorious works or trying to do enough, which will always fail. Simply believe God’s Word and work in Christ the Righteous one, and by faith lay claim to the righteousness God worked through Christ’s suffering, death, and obedience. No wonder Paul gloried not in his own works but in the cross, Christ crucified, and in Him alone. By faith alone means trusting in Christ’s atoning work alone.

All this God accomplishing in a most righteous and unassailable way. God’s own righteousness provided by God Himself for sinners standing in the need of mercy and grace.

That God had provided for sinners a perfect righteousness to make their very own in this manner was a revelation to Luther. This God, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, was a most merciful Father after all.

Scales of blindness fell from Luther’s eyes. Peace and assurance flooded his soul. The gospel was made plain. Righteousness and mercy have kissed.

Luther had to tell others, which he did, in Wittenberg for four years as a Bible lecturer.

But it was this “tower experience” that drove him in the end to nail the Ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, not only to refute and expose the monstrous errors of Rome that obscured and mutilated that liberating gospel, but also to begin to publish what had set his own soul free from its bondage of guilt and torment, so that others might glory in the same gospel of almighty God that he now did.

Thanks be to God for a man so spiritual as Luther.

1 Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1950), 65.

2 Bainton, Here I Stand, 27.

3 A. Skevington Wood, Captive to the Word (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1969), 28.

4 Bainton, Here I Stand, 54, 55.


Luther and the Church

This article was first published in the October 15, 2016 issue of the Standard Bearer and was part of a special issue commemorating the 500th anniversary of the great Protestant Reformation.

Luther and the Church

Reformed ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) treats the following topics: the nature of the church, the gathering of the church, the attributes and marks of the church, the power and government of the church, and the means of grace of the church. In his ecclesiology, Luther disagreed with the other Reformers on some matters (especially on the sacraments), but in the main points there is considerable unity.

Luther was not a systematizer of doctrine. Unlike Calvin, he did not write an Institutes of the Christian Religion or his own dogmatics. Many of his works are polemical, written in the heat of the battle. Luther simply did not have time to engage in the quiet scholarship of a systematic theologian. This makes the task of seeking to define Luther’s doctrine of the church—or, for that matter, Luther’s doctrine of anything—a challenge. Luther’s Works are voluminous, but none of them is devoted to pure ecclesiology.

Nevertheless, we can identify some characteristics of Luther’s ecclesiology.

First, Luther was clear on the nature of the church. The medieval papacy defined the church as the pope and his clergy. The Roman church, therefore, was a hierarchical institution. Indeed, the common people as such did not constitute the church. In opposition to this, Luther viewed the church as the spiritual body of Jesus Christ made up of believers. In fact, insisted Luther, if the pope and his clergy are not believers (which is entirely possible, for Luther viewed the papacy as Antichrist), they are not the church at all. In 1537, Luther wrote in the Smalcald Articles, “For, thank God, [today] a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd” (Part III, Art. XII). Elsewhere, in his Large Catechism, he wrote, “I believe that there is upon earth a little holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one head, even Christ, called together by the Holy Ghost in one faith, one mind, and understanding, with manifold gifts, yet agreeing in love, without sects or schisms” (Art. III).

What to us is obvious was to the ecclesiastical world of Luther’s day revolutionary: the church is the company of believers (and their children), or, as the pre-Reformer Jan Hus had expressed it, “the church is the company of the predestinate.” Such a definition of the church, when believed, was a deathblow to the pretensions of the Roman See. No wonder Luther was labeled a Hussite or a Bohemian heretic (Hus was from Bohemia)!

Second, Luther was clear on the attributes of the church. What Luther could retain from the ecclesiastical tradition that preceded him, he retained, if it was in accordance with the Holy Scriptures. Luther believed what Christians in every age have confessed in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe one holy, catholic church.”

Luther did not deny, or even attack (as his opponents alleged) the unity of the church. Luther never intended to create a second church to rival the Roman church. Luther denied that the Roman church was the church. It was, and had become, a wicked, degenerate counterfeit of the true church. What Luther did (and what Calvin and the other Reformers did after him) in establishing congregations on the basis of the Word of God was to continue the one church of Jesus Christ. Luther’s close friend and ally, Philip Melanchthon, wrote in the Augsburg Confession,

It is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word. It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that ceremonies, instituted by men, should be observed uniformly in all places (Art. VII).

For Luther, the holiness of the church did not consist in the superstitious piety of monks and nuns, or in the superficial holiness of ceremonies, pilgrimages, indulgences, and relics. Rather, the holiness of the church is a spiritual holiness worked in believers by the power of the Spirit through the preaching of the Word of God and the use of the sacraments. Therefore, for Luther, not only is the church holy, but the holiness of the members necessitates their membership in the church. Outside of the church holiness is impossible.

The Holy Ghost effects our sanctification by the following parts, namely, by the communion of saints or the Christian Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting; that is, He first leads us into His holy congregation, and places us in the bosom of the Church, whereby He preaches to us and brings us to Christ…. I believe that the Holy Ghost makes me holy, as His name implies. But whereby does He accomplish this, or what are His method and means to this end? Answer: by the Christian church…. But outside of this Christian church, where the Gospel is not, there is no forgiveness, as also there can be no holiness (Large Catechism, Art. III).

In his commentary on Psalm 118, he writes:

Anyone who hesitates to boast and confess that he is holy and righteous is actually saying, “I am not baptized. I am not a Christian. I do not believe that Christ died for me. I do not believe that He took away my sins. I do not believe that His blood has cleansed me, or that it can cleanse me. In short, I do not believe a word of what God has declared of Christ and all Scriptures testified.” What kind of person thinks or says such things?1

Rome boasted in the church’s catholicity, by which she meant one hierarchical center (the Roman See) from which the “Vicar of Christ” ruled over all churches and all peoples. Luther rightly rejected this, for the Catholic Church is not where the pope rules (where Peter is, as Rome expressed it), but where Christ is, whether in Wittenberg, Germany; London, England; or Zurich, Switzerland. (Had the church spread further in Luther’s day, he would undoubtedly have included places in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, for example). “Where Christ is not preached, there is no Holy Ghost who creates, calls, and gathers the Christian Church” (Large Catechism, Art. III). To turn that around, where Christ is preached (wherever that might be), there the Holy Ghost does create, call, and gather the Christian church. It is precisely because Christ is not preached under the papacy that there is no church there, her boasts of unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity notwithstanding.

Third, Luther was clear on the marks of the true church. If the church is a holy assembly of believers, the marks of the true church must be pure preaching, because pure preaching creates believers and strengthens the faith of believers; and the faithful administration of the sacraments, because by baptism and the Lord’s Supper the faith of believers is nourished.

For Luther, the church was much more important than it seems to be for many modern evangelicals, many of whom despise the church by living in isolation from it. Carl Trueman explains: “For Luther, however, the idea that private Bible study might be a universal staple of the Christian life would have been bizarre: after all, few of his parishioners would have been able to read, even if they could afford a book.”2 “Luther’s piety was rooted in the gathering of the church, in the Word preached more than the Word read, and in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”3

The preaching of the gospel was for Luther primary in the church, for in the preaching of the gospel the believer was confronted with Christ. Indeed, such a confrontation did not take place in the private reading of the Scriptures, at least not to the same degree and with the same effect. For Luther, this had important pastoral implications. Again, Carl Trueman beautifully sets forth the views of Luther: “The person whose life is falling apart and who is tempted to despair needs to know Christ, and knowing Christ requires knowing who he is and what he has done.”4 He will hear who Christ is and what Christ has done in the preaching in the true church. He will not hear it at home, and he certainly will not hear it in the false church.

Elsewhere, Trueman describes Luther’s church-orientated approach to counseling:

One could imagine a person seeking Luther’s advice for, say, struggles with assurance. Luther’s first question of him would almost certainly be, “Are you going to church to hear the Word and receive the sacrament?” If the answer came back in the negative, it is safe to assume that Luther would send the person away to attend church for a few weeks before he would consider giving him individual counsel. If the person had excluded himself from the objective means of grace, not only would spiritual problems be expected, but also Luther could really offer nothing else to help him.5

Let that be a warning (and an encouragement) to the struggling saint who is tempted to forsake the means of grace today!

Finally, Luther loved the church. His great grief was to see what he called the “Babylonian Captivity” of the church, and his great desire was to see the church restored to her biblical foundations. Above all, Luther saw himself not as a mighty Reformer, or even as a great spiritual leader, but as a humble yet thankful member of the church:

I want to be and remain in the church and little flock of the faint-hearted, the feeble, and the ailing, who feel and recognize the wretchedness of their sins, who believe in the forgiveness of sins, and who suffer persecution for the sake of the Word which they confess and teach purely and without adulteration.”6

That, too, is our thankful confession. We love the church, for in the church we find Christ.

1 Cited by Eugene F. Klug in “Luther on the Church,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 47, no. 3 (July 1983), 197.

2 Carl R. Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 22.

3 Trueman, 23, emphasis added.

4 Trueman, 130.

5 Trueman, 120-121.

6 Klug, “Luther on the Church,” 201.


Ulrich Zwingli: Swiss Reformer (2)

This article first appeared in the September 1, 1992 issue of the Standard Bearer and was written by Prof. H. Hanko (professor of church history in the PRC Seminary) for the rubric "Cloud of Witnesses."

(Note: In the last article, we began to discuss Zwingli's work as a reformer. We continur that discussion now.)

Zwingli the Reformer

The Reformation spread through Switzerland in a way different from the spread of the Reformation in any other land. Upon a petition from a reformer or a group of reformers, the ruling Council of a Swiss city would order a disputation to which the public was invited. Reformers and Roman Catholic theologians would carry on the disputation by debating a specific matter of reform. In every instance where a disputation was held, the Council in charge made the rule that the disputation had to be conducted on the basis of the Scriptures alone. This put the Roman Catholics at a decided disadvantage, for there were very few theologians of note who knew anything about the Scriptures, while the reformers had studied them intensely. Further, it is obvious to any one that those Romish practices against which the Reformers protested simply cannot be supported by Scripture in any way. 

The first disputation in Zurich ended in a complete victory for Zwingli and his fellow reformers, and the Council instructed Zwingli "to continue to preach the holy gospel as heretofore, and to proclaim the true, divine Scriptures." 

Just prior to the disputation, Zwingli had published 67 articles of faith. This document is an important historical document because it constitutes the earliest declaration of the Reformed faith. A few articles will indicate some of the basic beliefs of Zwingli.

All who say that the gospel is nothing without the approbation of the Church, err and cast reproach upon God. 

The sum of the gospel is that our Lord Jesus Christ, the true Son of God, has made known to us the will of his heavenly Father, and redeemed us by his innocence from eternal death, and reconciled us to God.

Therefore Christ is the only way to salvation to all who were, who are, who shall be.

Christ is the head of all believers who are his body; but without him the body is dead.

All who live in this Head are his members and children of God. And this is the Church, the communion of saints, the bride of Christ, the Ecclesia catholica.

Christ is our righteousness. From this it follows that our works are good so far as they are Christ's, but not good so far as they are our own.

These truths are now very familiar to us, but if one will only think of writing them in the context of 1000 years of papal error, it will give him a sense of how great a work of God was performed in the Reformation. 

With the Reformation firmly established in Zurich, it quickly spread to other parts of Switzerland. From Zurich it spread to Glarus, Schaffhausen, Appenzell, and the city of St. Gall. The spread continued when the leading canton of Bern adopted Reformation principles and proceeded to introduce them into the cantons of Vaud, Neuchstel and Geneva - where Calvin was later to do his great work. In every case the Reformation came by way of a leading reformer working closely with Zwingli, and by a Disputation ordered by the Council. Of interest are the ten theses or Conclusions adopted as a confession of faith in Bern. They read in part:

The holy Christian Church, whose only Head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, and abides in the same . . . . 

The Church of Christ makes no laws and commandments without the Word of God....

Christ is the only wisdom, righteousness, redemption, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world....

The mass as now in use, in which Christ is offered to God the Father for the sins of the living and the dead, is contrary to the Scripture. . . .

As Christ alone died for us, so he is also to be adored as the only Mediator and Advocate between God the Father and the believers.

Scripture knows nothing of purgatory....

The worship of images is contrary to Scripture.

All to the glory of God and his holy Word.

The high water mark of the Swiss Reformation was reached in 1530 when Zurich, Bern, Base1 and most of north and east Switzerland were Re- formed and no longer Roman Catholic. 

Two important events, in addition to his reformatory work, belong to this period in Zwingli's life. 

The first was the controversy with the Anabaptists. 

Anabaptism arose in Zurich during Zwingli's work there. It was a grievous threat to the well-being of the Reformation, for it was not only a doctrinal departure from the truth of Scripture, but it was, in some branches of the movement, a radical movement opposed to the authority of the magistrate and intent on setting up a kingdom of heaven upon earth.1 Zwingli and his followers were fiercely opposed to Anabaptism, as well they might be. But the secular magistracy, in cooperation with the Reformers, persecuted the Anabaptists severely, banishing them, imprisoning them, and in some instances, drowning them. Anabaptism continued to be a threat to the Reformation throughout the rest of the 16th century. 

As always, God uses the struggles and trials of the church for good. Though Anabaptism was a serious threat to the Reformation, it was the immediate occasion for the Swiss reformers to begin the development of covenant theology. In defense of the truth of infant baptism over against Anabaptism, the great truth of the covenant was set forth by Zwingli and later by other Swiss theologians. We who so deeply cherish the truth of the covenant do not look, in the first place, to Calvin as our spiritual father in this doctrine, but to Zwingli and the Swiss who worked with him. 

The other event of note was the Marburg Colloquy, held in the city of Marburg in 1529. Because of the threat of a united Roman Catholicism and the armies of Charles V, the Elector of Saxony and the Landgrave of Hesse wanted to unite all the Protestants in a common cause. To accomplish this, the differences between Lutheranism and the Swiss theologians had to be taken away. The Marburg Colloquy was called for this purpose. 

Luther, Melanchthon, and other German theologians were there. Zwingli and his colleagues in the Swiss reformation were there. Calvin did not come. It did not take very long to discover that the reformers from Germany and Switzerland were agreed on all matters except the doctrine of the presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper - the Lutherans maintaining their view of consubstantiation, and the Swiss maintaining their position. Luther was harsh and unyielding. A story has it that he wrote in the dust on the table in front of him: "This is my body," so that he would not forget his insistence that the real body and blood of Christ were present in the sacramental elements. 

When agreement proved impossible, the Swiss delegates wanted to extend the hand of fellowship to the German theologians, but were rebuffed with the cold and cutting remark of Luther: "Your spirit is different from ours." Even Zwingli's tearful expression of respect and love for Luther could gain little more from the unbending reformer than a brief expression of regret that he had sometimes spoken overly harshly. 

Unity among Protestants was impossible.

Zwingli's Death

It is not difficult to understand that the Roman Catholics were not about to see Switzerland become entirely Protestant without some kind of opposition.

This opposition began by severe persecution of Protestants in those cantons that remained Roman Catholic. One Protestant was even burned alive. To relieve their oppressed and martyred brethren, the Protestant cantons were prepared to go to war with the Roman Catholic countrymen, forgetting the words of Jesus Himself: "They that fight with the sword, perish with the sword." 

The story is quickly told. In 1529 the Roman Catholics were in no military shape to wage war and so sued for peace. Zwingli urged strongly against peace and gloomily predicted that if the Protestants did not take the opportunity to fight the Roman Catholics when victory was almost assured, they would eventually lose. He proved to be right. 

The Roman Catholics used the peace given to strengthen themselves and prepare for war. A blockade, imposed on the Roman Catholic provinces by the Protestants, and which caused much suffering and even starvation, goaded the Roman Catholics to go to war in 1531. In this battle the Protestants were decisively defeated, and Zwingli, who had insisted on going along with his troops as their chaplain, was killed. 

Zwingli was stooping to console a dying soldier when he was struck on the head with a stone. He managed to rise once more, but repeated blows and a thrust from a lance left him dying. Seeing his wounds, he cried out: "What matters this misfortune? They may kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul." For the rest of the day he lay under a pear tree, hands folded as in prayer and eyes fixed upon heaven. Towards evening a few stragglers of the victorious army asked him to confess his sins to a priest. He shook his head to indicate his refusal. But after a bit one of the men, in the light of his torch, recognized him and killed him with the sword, shouting, "Die, obstinate heretic!"2 

The soldiers, joyful at his death, quartered his body for treason, burned the pieces for heresy, mixed the ashes with the ashes of pigs, and scattered them to the four winds. 

So died one of God's faithful witnesses. 

The spread of the Reformation in Switzerland was halted.

Zwingli's Importance

Zwingli was, in some respects, an anomaly. On the one hand, he was a reformer faithful to the Scriptures. He insisted on the sole authority of Scripture before Luther raised his voice in Scripture's defense. He taught emphatically salvation in Christ alone and in His perfect sacrifice. He emphasized strongly the truth of sovereign and eternal predestination and preached it from the pulpit. He correctly and vigorously opposed all the Romish practices contrary to Scripture. He was instrumental in laying the foundation for the beginnings of covenant theology. 

But, on the other hand, he never quite shook free from his humanism. He held to the end his notion that heathen men of renown could be saved. He taught that all children in the world who die in infancy go to heaven. And he continued to his last breath to admire Erasmus, that humanistic enemy of the Reformation. 

And, in his opposition to Romish masses, he went to the opposite extreme and taught that the Lord's Supper is nothing but a memorial feast, and that Christ's presence in the bread and wine are not different from the presence of one we love whose photograph we cherish and by which photograph we remember our loved one, but who has, nevertheless, gone on to heaven.

Ulrich Zwingli's place in the Reformation was to prepare the way for a purification of the Reformation in Switzerland where Calvinism finally developed and flourished.

1. For more information on the Anabaptists, cf. the special Reformation Day issue of the Standard Bearer of October 15, 199l. 

2. See Schaff, History of the Christian Church for details.


Ulrich Zwingli: Swiss Reformer (1)

Ulrich Zwingli

This article first appeared in the August 1, 1992 issue of the Standard Bearer and was written for the rubric "Cloud of Witnesses" by Prof. H. Hanko, professor of church history in the PRC Seminary.

Introductory note

We have come, in our discussion of important people in the history of the church, to the Reformation of the 16th century. If would be logical to begin with a couple of articles on Martin Luther and John Calvin. We have chosen not to do this, not only because both are well known to our readers, but also because many different and excellent biographies are available for reading. We intend, therefore, to write articles on lesser known men (and, perhaps, women) who were instrumental in bringing about the Reformation to which we are all the spiritual heirs.

Zwingli's Pre-conversion Life

In the midst of stunning Alpine beauty, in the Toggenburg Valley at Wildhaus, Ulrich Zwingli was born in a lowly shepherds cottage to the mayor of this small hamlet. He belonged to a large family - seven brothers (he was the third son) and two sisters. He was born seven weeks after Martin Luther, on January 1, 1484. 

Zwingli received his education in the leading universities of Switzerland and Austria, but was throughout under the influence of the humanism of the Renaissance. This is important, for Zwingli's humanism was to be an influence in his theology even after his conversion, and during the years of his reformatory work. The Renaissance was a movement which had begun in Italy a couple of centuries earlier and was characterized by a revival of learning, a return to the study of ancient Greek and Roman classics, and an exaltation of man. 

In Basel, Zwingli studied Latin grammar, music, and dialectics. In Bern he studied under Lupulus, the greatest classical scholar and poet in Switzerland and a leading humanist. In Vienna he studied scholastic philosophy, astronomy, physics, and the ancient classics. His education differed somewhat from that of Luther and was more nearly like the education which Calvin received; but all three reformers were highly educated men. One is reminded of how God often uses educated men in the church, for even Moses was "learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians." 

Returning to Basel, Zwingli studied and taught, acquiring his Master of Arts degree in 1506. Two events in Base1 helped to shape his future life: He was taught by Thomas Wyttenback, a man deeply interested in the reform of the church; and he met Leo Jud, who was to remain his friend and co-reformer for the rest of his life. Both of these men turned his thoughts to reform in the corrupt church of Rome. 

Zwingli early showed remarkable ability as a musician, and in the course of his studies he learned to play with skill the lute, harp, violin, flute, dulcimer, and hunting horn. He made good use of this ability throughout his career and wrote a number of beautiful poems and songs. 

In 1506 his work as minister began. He was ordained to the priesthood in Glaurus, but had to buy off a rival candidate for the sum of 100 guilders. 

Some interesting things happened while Zwingli was in Glaurus. For one thing, he immersed himself in the pastoral ministry, preaching, teaching, doing pastoral work and caring for the spiritual needs of his flock in so far as he was able, for he was yet an unconverted man. For another thing, he spent a great deal of time in personal study, reading avidly the old Greek and Roman authors. To read the Greek authors, he taught himself Greek and became proficient in this language. His admiration for classical writers grew with his reading, and he developed the idea that the Holy Spirit must have operated beyond the boundaries of Palestine among the heathen philosophers, for their writings could only be explained in terms of the work of the Holy Spirit. In this respect he anticipated later views of the general gracious operations of the Holy Spirit among the heathen, taught by the defenders of common grace. Because of his vast learning and ability, he supervised the education of two of his brothers and of several of the noblest young men of Glaurus, who became firm friends and remained such through his years of reformatory work. During this period he also made three trips with Swiss soldiers into Italy and came to hate the Swiss practice of mercenary soldiers.2 

In 1515 Zwingli moved to Einsiedeln, where he continued about three years. During his stay in Einsiedeln he gradually came to understand the evil of many Romish practices. Especially the corrupt practice of indulgences came to his attention when a huckster by the name of Samson tried to sell his indulgences in Switzerland. It is interesting that at least two years before Luther's attack against indulgences Zwingli was preaching against them and condemning them vehemently from the pulpit. In this respect, as well as in other matters, Zwingli anticipated Luther, taught the same things Luther taught, although he developed his ideas independently. 3 

It was also in Einsiedeln that Zwingli made the acquaintance of the famous humanist, Erasmus, who, at about this time, published his first edition of the Greek New Testament. Zwingli was deeply attracted to Erasmus, visited him, became his friend, and invited Erasmus to Zurich in 1522, which invitation Erasmus declined. It is to Zwingli's credit that, while he agreed with Erasmus in many points, he repudiated Erasmus' semi-Pelagianism. 

While Zwingli was in Glaurus and Einsiedeln, he fell into the sin of fornication. That this did not affect his standing in the church is only evidence of how common the practice was; but Zwingli later repented of it with great anguish of soul and lived with the burden of it all his life. 

Zwingli never did free himself of his humanistic views, views which continued to influence his theology even when he became the reformer of Switzerland. All his studies had been from a humanistic viewpoint; he had read widely in classical literature; and his admiration for Erasmus all but guaranteed that humanism would play an important role in his thinking.

Zwingli the Reformer

Zwingli's conversion was probably a gradual one which began while in Einsiedeln, but which came to full expression in Zurich, to which he was called in the latter part of 1518. There were several elements which played a role in his conversion. Increasingly, as he saw the need for reform in the church, he came to hate the Romish abuses which destroyed men's souls. As his studies turned more and more to Scripture, he, even before Luther, saw that Scripture alone had to be the authority for all the faith and life of the church. In fact, when he began his ministry in Zurich on January 1, 1519, on his 35th birthday, he began a systematic exposition of the Gospel according to Matthew. During the next four years of his ministry, he continued preaching systematically through the New Testament, going from Matthew to Acts, then to the Pauline and Catholic epistles, and then on to the other books, with the exception of Revelation. During the week he preached from the Psalms. 

In 1520 the plague struck Zurich, carrying off 2,500 people, about 1/3 of the populace. Zwingli was untiring in ministering to the needs of his flock, until the plague struck him down. From it he almost died, and by it God made him a new man. A poem he wrote at the beginning of his illness aptly depicts his faith.

Help me, O Lord, 

My strength and rock;

Lo, at the door

I hear death's knock.

Uplift thine arm,

Once pierced for me,

That conquered death,

And set me free.

Yet, if thy voice

In life's mid-day,

Recalls my soul,

Then I obey.

In faith and hope

Earth I resign,

Secure in heaven,

For I am Thine.

It was after his recovery that reform began in earnest. Once having become persuaded that Scripture was to be the only norm and standard of our life and faith, and of the life and faith of the church, reforms followed of themselves. But in Switzerland, reforms took place in a unique way. The pattern was: The reformers petitioned the magistracy to implement certain reforms; the magistracy called a public meeting or disputation to which were invited Roman Catholic theologians and reformers; both were required to defend their position on the matter at issue before the magistracy 4, which would then decide whether there forms were to be implemented. In these disputations it was common for the Council to rule that the debate had to be conducted on the basis of Scripture alone. 

The first disputation was held on January 29, 1523 before a public audience of over 600 people. As would almost always be the case in future disputations, it was also true in Zurich that the reformers easily won their point, partly because their position was the only one grounded on Scripture, but partly too because the Romish Church had no significant and knowledgeable theologians who could hold their own in open debate with the reformers. 

Victory followed upon victory, not only in Zurich, but also in other cantons of Switzerland where disputations were held. Lent was abandoned; clerical celibacy was declared unbiblical; the Bible was translated into the vernacular; images, pictures, and relics were removed from the churches; the churches were severed from the control of the papacy; the monasteries were dissolved; fasting was prohibited; the mass was replaced; the Lord's Supper was held at regular intervals5; discipline was established under the control of office bearers in the churches; biblical preaching was ordered in all the churches. 

Zwingli himself married. Because of the times, he married secretly. For two years only his friends knew of his marriage. In April, 1524 he married publicly. His wife was Anna Reinhart, a widow with three children. From this marriage, four more children were added to the family. It is clear from Zwingli's letters that his home life was a happy one and that his wife was a faithful help to him in his years of work in the church. 

- to be continued.

1. He later attempted to teach himself Hebrew, and, while he succeeded in a measure, he never became as skilled in Hebrew as in Greek. 

2. It was common in Switzerland for the men to hire themselves out to foreign armies. It is this practice which Zwingli came to hate, for the effects were spiritually demoralizing. The practice later became an issue in the struggles with Roman Catholicism, for the Roman Church supported the practice because of the vast revenues it brought into Switzerland, revenues some estimate as over $3,000,000.00 a year. From this practice dates the papal custom of having Swiss guards in the Vatican.

3. When Luther's writings later came to Zwingli's attention, Zwingli was impressed and encouraged because he had been teaching the same truths. A couple of examples are Luther's emphasis on the sole authority of Scripture, and the truth of sovereign predestination.

4. Which magistracy was generally a council of men. In the case of the first disputation in Zurich, the magistracy was the Little Council and the Large Council.

5. Four times a year, as we do today.


Luther's Doctrine of Justification (1)

This article first appeared in the October 15, 2001 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.78, No.2), a special Reformation issue on the great Reformer Martin Luther.

Luther's Doctrine of Justification (1)

Entering Paradise: The Origin of Luther's Doctrine

It is impossible to talk about Luther's doctrine of justification without also talking about Luther's experience of justification. It is never the doctrine which comes first but the experience and enjoyment of the blessings of God. This was especially and remarkably true in the case of Luther. His doctrine of justification was the fruit of his coming by grace and by faith to know his own justification before God.

He tells the story of his own spiritual pilgrimage:

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, "As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!" Thus I raged with fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, "In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live.'" There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, "He who through faith is righteous shall live." Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through its gates.1

This means, too, that the Reformation did not really begin with the posting of his 95 Theses, but with the reformation of Luther's own life; with a great and gracious work of God in Luther's own soul. It did not begin with a protest against abuses in the church, but with a God-given and biblical answer to Luther's own desperate question, "What must I do to be saved?" So it is always.

Not Fishing in Front of the Net: The Importance of Luther's Doctrine

As a result of his own experience Luther believed that the doctrine of justification was fundamental. It was for him "the sum of all Christian doctrine," the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. He considered the teaching of this doctrine of far greater importance than reform of practice and ritual in the church, and insisted that the reform in other areas would follow if the doctrine were brought home to the hearts of God's people:

We ... beg and exhort you most earnestly not to deal first with changes in ritual, which are dangerous, but to deal with them later. You should deal first with the center of our teaching and fix in the people's minds what they must know about our justification; that it is an extrinsic (external) righteousness—indeed it is Christ's—given to us through faith which comes by grace to those who are first terrified by the law and who, struck by the consciousness of their sins, ardently seek for redemption.... Adequate reform of ungodly rites will come of itself, however, as soon as the fundamentals of our teaching, having been successfully communicated, have taken root in devout hearts. These devout people will at once recognize what a great abomination and blasphemy that papistic idol is, namely, the mass and other abuses of the sacrament, so that it will not be necessary to fish in front of the net, that is, first to tear down the ritual before the righteousness of faith is understood.2

Reformation often fails because those who seek it do not remember that reformation of doctrine is first and fundamental, especially of such doctrines as these. They cry against abuses but show little or no interest in the doctrines of the church, and are even willing to see those doctrines compromised and cast aside, as the doctrine of justification has been by many evan-gelicals.3 Luther was right. Reformation of doctrine will bring reformation of life, but attacking various abuses will not bring reformation at all, but will be as vain as the kind of fishing Luther describes.

The Sweet Exchange: Luther's Understanding of Justification

At the heart of Luther's understanding of justification lies the "sweet exchange." He explains it thus:

Therefore ... learn Christ and Him crucified. Learn to praise him and, despairing of yourself, say, "Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, just as I am your sin. You have taken upon yourself what is mine and have given to me what is yours. You have taken upon yourself what you were not, and have given to me what I was not."4

That exchange of our sins for Christ's righteousness, Luther understood to be by imputation. Our sins are charged to Christ and His righteousness charged to our account. Thus He was made sin for us and we were made righteousness in Him (I Cor. 5:21), the blessed result being that Christ is treated as Sinner in our place, and we treated as Righteous for His sake. Luther rejected the Romish teaching that righteousness is infused or planted in us and that on account of the resultant change of life we are justified. That, of course, is just another kind of work righteousness.

According to Luther, righteousness is given as gift, then to those who are in fact still sinners, and the one who receives that gift of righteousness is not yet cured of his sin. He is, when justified, at the same time both sinner and righteous (simul iustus et peccator):

We are in truth and totally sinners, with regard to ourselves and our first birth. Contrariwise, in so far as Christ has been given for us, we are holy and just totally. Hence from different aspects we are said to be just and sinners at one and the same time.5

Luther, therefore, often referred to this righteousness by which we are justified as an "alien" righteousness, a righteousness which comes from beyond this world, and which is unattainable by any human effort or merit. It is not only the righteousness of Christ, but of God in Christ. God gives us His own righteousness and Christ is the bringer of it, exchanging it for our sins, a sweet exchange indeed.

The Wedding Ring of Faith: Passive Justification

The exchange of our sins for Christ's perfect righteousness, according to Luther, takes place through faith:

By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride's. As a matter of fact, he makes them his own and acts as if they were his own and as if he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into hell that he might overcome them all. Now since it was such a one who did all this, and death and hell could not swallow him up, these were necessarily swallowed up by him in a mighty duel; for his righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, his life stronger than the death, his salvation more invincible than hell. Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of its faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom. So he takes to himself a glorious bride, "without spot or wrinkle, cleansing her by the washing of water with the word" cf. Eph. 5:26-27

of life, that is, by faith in the Word of life, righteousness, and salvation. In this way he marries her in faith, steadfast love, and in mercies, righteousness, and justice, as Hos. 2:19-20 says.6

According to Luther, that faith by which we are justified is entirely a work of God, and in no sense a work of man. By way of emphasizing this he often described justifying faith as passive:

For between these two kinds of righteousness, the active righteousness of the law and the passive righteousness of Christ, there is no middle ground. Therefore he who has strayed away from this Christian righteousness will necessarily relapse into the active righteousness, that is, when he has lost Christ, he must fall into a trust in his own works.7

By the use of the word "passive," however, Luther did not mean that justifying faith is without any activity at all. He did not deny that faith is believing and trusting, resting and relying upon Christ. Nevertheless, he believed that faith was first and foremost union with Christ, the marriage of Christ and the believer by which they become one flesh, the union through which the sins of the believer are actually transferred to Christ and the righteousness of Christ given to the believer.8

His emphasis continues to serve as a necessary antidote to the current teaching that makes faith another work. He was much nearer the truth than those who deny gracious justification by speaking of faith as a decision of man's own will or by suggesting that faith is man's response to a well-meant "offer" of salvation in the gospel. Of this Luther would have nothing:

For faith is a divine work which God demands of us; but at the same time He Himself must implant it in us, for we cannot believe by ourselves.9

Faith is not the human notion and dream that some people call faith.... This is due to the fact that when they hear the gospel, they get busy and by their own powers create an idea in their heart which says, "I believe"; they take this then to be a true faith. But, as it is a human figment and idea that never reaches the depths of the heart, nothing comes of it either, and no improvement follows.10

Faith is grace, a gift of God, not man's work. What a lost truth today!

Cows Staring at a New Gate: Justification by Faith Alone

By way of defending gracious justification, Luther spoke of justification by faith alone. That one word "alone" ("sola" in Latin), was at the heart of his theology. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Reformation was a battle over that one word. It was that word especially that distinguished the Reformation doctrine of justification from that of Rome. It is the loss of that one word that marks the decline of the Reformation these days.

His emphasis on the word "alone" is seen in Luther's (German) translation of the New Testament. As a result of his own struggles to come to an understanding of Romans 3:28, Luther, in his translation of the book of Romans, added the word "alone" to the passage. In answer to the many criticisms he endured for this translation, he insisted that though the word was not found in the Greek or Latin it nevertheless expressed the meaning of the verse. He says:

Here in Romans 3:28, I knew very well that the word solum is not in the Greek or Latin text; the papists did not have to teach me that. It is a fact that these four letters s o l a are not there. And these blockheads stare at them like cows at a new gate. At the same time they do not see that it conveys the sense of the text; it belongs there if the translation is to be clear and vigorous.11

Though the word was indeed the gate "into paradise" for Luther, he insisted that it was really not a "new gate" but a very old one — the gate pointed out by the best of the Fathers and by Paul. He was right. The opposition between grace and works is the opposition between faith and works (Rom. 11:6 and Rom. 4:16).

By this word "alone," however, Luther not only meant to exclude all works from the justification of the sinner, but meant to emphasize that salvation, of which justification was the heart, was by grace alone, and therefore also through Christ alone:

[Christ] must be all—the beginning, the middle, and the end of our salvation. He must be the first stone, the stone on which other stones are placed and on which the entire vault or roof is constructed. He is the first, the middle, and the last rung of the ladder to heaven. Gen. 28:12

For through Him we must make the beginning, continue and conclude our journey into yonder life.12

His doctrine of justification, therefore, was not just born out of his own experience of that free and gracious gift of God's righteousness, but out of His love for Christ, the only Savior.

1. Helmut Lehmann, ed., Luther's Works (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House: 1959-1967), vol. 34, pp. 336, 337, "Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther's Latin Writings." Many of the quotations from Luther's works were gleaned from Robin A. Leaver, Luther on Justification (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House: 1975).

2. Luther's Works, vol. 49, pp. 262, 263, "To Some Pastors of the City of Lubeck, Wittenberg, January 12, 1530."

3. Witness the publication, signing, and defense in 1994 of the document "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," by a number of leading "evangelicals," which document finds no essential difference between the Romish and Protestant doctrines of justification. 

4. Luther's Works, vol. 48, p. 12, "Letter to George Spenlein, April 8, 1516."

5. Quoted from: Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: Broadman Press: 1988), p. 71.

6. Luther's Works, vol. 31, pp. 351, 352, "The Freedom of a Christian."

7. Luther's Works, vol. 26, p. 9, "The Argument of St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians."

8. By the use of the word "passive" Luther also meant that the faith which unites us to Christ unites us to His suffering (the words "passive" and "passion" are related). Thus, too, justifying faith is far from inactive in that it shares, through union with Christ, in Christ's suffering. That suffering, according to Luther, included not only sharing in Christ's reproach and persecution, but in the agony of dying to sin and being killed by the law.

9. Luther's Works, vol. 23, p. 23, "Sermon on John 6:28, 29."

10. Luther's Works, vol. 35, p. 370, "Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans."

11. Luther's Works, vol. 35, p. 188, "On Translating: An Open Letter."

12. Luther's Works, vol. 24, p. 48, "Sermon on John 14:6."


Justification by Faith Alone: The Article of the Standing or Falling Church

Justification by Faith Alone: The Article of the Standing or Falling Church

 This article first appeared in the special Reformation issue of the November 1, 2017 issue of the Standard Bearer.

Q. 70 What is justification?

A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which He pardons all their sins, accepts and accounts their persons righteous in His sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.

Q. 71 How is justification an act of His free grace?

A. Although Christ, by His obedience and death, did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in the behalf of them that are justified; yet inasmuch as God accepts the satisfaction from a surety, which He might have demanded of them, and did provide this surety, His own only Son, imputing His righteousness to them, and requiring nothing of them for their justification but faith, which also is His gift, their justification is to them of free grace.

Q. 72 What is justifying faith?

A. Justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assents to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receives and rests upon Christ and His righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.

Q. 73 How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?

A. Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receives and applies Christ and His righteousness.1

Five hundred years! On the 31st October 1517, in an attempt to have the issue of indulgences openly debated, Martin Luther nailed ninety-five theses or propositions to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, under the title “Disputation to Explain the Virtue of Indulgences.” According to the Church of Rome, the church and specifically the pope had the power to dispense forgiveness or pardon from the punishment of sin. Such forgiveness was made available to sinners by way of the sale of indulgences. The purchase of indulgences was said to enable sinners to buy their way out of purgatory into heaven. It was not so much the concept of indulgences that initially agitated Luther, but it was the abuse of indulgences that led Luther to act in October 1517. Though it was not his intention, Luther’s ninety-five theses set in motion the sixteenth-century Reformation. However, it ought to be noted that the issue of indulgences was not the central issue of the Reformation. Underlying and connected to the issue of indulgences was the more fundamental and, ultimately, more distinguishing doctrinal issue of the Reformation, namely, justification by faith alone.

Indisputably, justification by faith alone was the fundamental doctrine of the Reformation. It was this doctrine that led to the fragmentation of the Christian church as it then existed; a fragmentation that not only has continued, but which has expanded in the intervening years. Why such a serious fragmentation? Because what was and what is at stake is the gospel itself! At issue in the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the very basis of our salvation.

Justification by faith alone was a doctrine that Luther himself had already embraced prior to the events in Wittenberg in October 1517. It was a truth that Luther came to after a bitter internal struggle. Initially, Luther was of the view that he could earn his salvation through the keeping of the law of God. However, try as he might, he found no peace in his many pious exercises. In fact, the more he strove to keep the law of God, the greater he felt the weight of his sin. He could not escape altogether his anger, his envy, his hatred, and his pride. Luther identified with Paul’s words, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24). At that time, he had yet to learn to add with Paul, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:25).

In particular, Luther struggled to make sense of Paul’s words in Romans 1:17, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Here is Luther’s own description of his struggle:

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that He was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with His righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately on Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. 2

Luther had thought that “the righteousness of God” referred to the righteous demands that the law of God imposed upon sinners. By the grace of God, he came to realize that by the phrase “the righteousness of God” Paul was not referring to the righteous demands of the law, but to the righteousness that God had provided. To Luther’s relief, he discovered that “the righteousness of God” referred to the righteousness that God had freely and graciously provided in His Son! It was not a righteousness that any man could attain to by means of his own exertion and merit, but it was a righteousness that God freely granted to sinners on the basis of Christ’s merits and that sinners received by means of faith. Luther wrote,

I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, He justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love.

In grasping the truth of justification by faith alone, Luther was delivered from the bondage of self-inflicted penance and enabled to drink in the fresh air of the grace of God. The doctrine of justification by faith alone was for Luther the sum and substance of the gospel, the core of his theology, the central truth of Christianity, the article of the standing or falling church, a truth never to “be given up or compromised, even if heaven and earth and things temporal should be destroyed.”3

Luther was not alone in his unswerving advocacy of justification by faith alone. In fact, there was no significant difference among the leading sixteenth-century Reformers as to the essential understanding of this doctrine. Like Luther, John Calvin maintained the centrality and importance of justification by faith alone. Calvin described the doctrine as “the main hinge on which religion turns.”

Why was this doctrine so important to Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers? Why was it so central to the Reformation? Why ought it to be of the utmost interest to the church today? Because this doctrine deals with how the guilt of our sins can be removed and how we can receive the forgiveness of God. This doctrine reveals the only way that sinners can be reconciled to God and how we can be viewed as righteous in His sight. These issues are intensely personal and go to the heart of our salvation. It should be appreciated that the controversy of the sixteenth-century Reformation over justification by faith alone concerned such fundamental and eternally important questions as: How can I be saved? How can I, as a sinner, possibly be reconciled to a holy and righteous God? How can I be declared righteous before God? On what basis will God pardon or declare a sinner such as me to be righteous in His sight?

This doctrine was central to the Reformation not only because of the fundamental importance of the subject, but also because of the sharp difference of views between the Reformers and the Church of Rome. In many respects, the difference of views was encapsulated in two different words, infusion and imputation.4

The essence of the charge that the Reformers levelled against the Church of Rome was that while she proclaimed accurately who Jesus Christ was and what He had accomplished with respect to the salvation of sinners, nonetheless she perverted the grace of God by maintaining erroneous views of the grounds on which and the process through which the blessings that Jesus Christ procured on the cross were conveyed to sinners. At issue was whether justification was wholly attributable to the grace of God and to the work of Jesus Christ, or whether it was proper to ascribe to men and to their endeavors an active and contributory role in salvation.

For the Church of Rome, the meaning of justification was bound up in the Latin root of the word. The word “justification” comes from the Latin verb, justificare. Justificare itself is derived from two other Latin words, justus meaning “justice” or “righteousness” and ficare meaning “to make” or “to do.” So justificare means literally “to make just” or “to make righteous.”5 Influenced by the etymology of the word, the Church of Rome viewed justification as the act of making a person to be just. Hence, the justification of a sinner was declared by Council of Trent (1543-1563) to be “not only the remission of sin, but also sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace and gifts whereby an unjust man becomes just and from being an enemy becomes a friend that he may be an heir according to hope of everlasting life.”6

This view led that same Council to enact, among other things, the following canons:

If any one says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema.

If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and remains in them, or also that the grace by which we are justified is only the good will of God, let him be anathema.7

These statements and declarations remain the position of the Church of Rome today.

The Church of Rome views justification as requiring an unjust person to be changed and to be made righteous. Rome acknowledges that men are fallen, and that they do not have the power within themselves to attain unto righteousness. In order for that to happen, Rome contends that men must be the recipients of grace, grace that they receive through the sacrament of baptism.

R. C. Sproul helpfully outlines Rome’s view: In baptism, the grace of justification, sometimes called the grace of the righteousness of Christ, is poured into the soul. This is called infusion. Without the assistance of the grace of justification, a person cannot be saved. Roman Catholicism teaches that you need to have the righteousness of Christ infused into your soul in order to be saved.8

Furthermore, as Sproul goes on to note,

…[I]n order to be saved, several things have to happen. First, you must cooperate with and assent to this grace to such a degree that righteousness truly inheres within you. This grace is necessary, but its presence alone is not enough for salvation. You must cooperate with it, agree to it, and work with it to such a degree that righteousness is truly in you. When that happens, you are placed in a state of justification before God. You remain in that state as long as you do not commit mortal sin.9

Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers repudiated Rome’s view of justification, identifying it as essentially the false doctrine of justification by the works of the law that Paul anathematized in Galatians 3-5. The Reformers viewed justification as a man’s legal or forensic state before God. It was to be declared righteous in the sight of God. They rejected Rome’s teaching of an infused righteousness and of grace working in the sinner in order that the sinner may attain unto justification. For the Reformers, justification was not an act of God that made the sinner to be holy. It was not concerned with the change of the sinner’s actual spiritual condition. Rather, it involved the righteousness of Christ being imputed to the sinner, Christ’s perfect righteousness being put to the sinner’s account. The righteousness by which a man is justified, as Luther put it, was a foreign righteousness. It was not his own righteousness; rather, it was the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

This is the view that is found in all the major Protestant Creeds. One may consult the Augsburg Confession, 1530, Article IV; the French Confession, 1559, Article XVIII; the Belgic Confession, 1561, Articles XXII & XXIII; the Heidelberg Catechism, 1563, Q & A, 60, 61; the Second Helvetic Confession, 1566, chapter XV; and the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1643, chapter XI.

John Murray rightly declares,

Justification by faith alone is the jubilee trumpet of the gospel because it proclaims the gospel to the poor and destitute whose only door of hope is to roll themselves in total helplessness upon the grace and power and righteousness of the Redeemer of the lost.10

Too many churches that once stood squarely on the truth of justification by faith alone have fallen or are falling away from this fundamental doctrine of the Word of God. The front on which the warfare over this doctrine is being fought is expanding. No longer is the battle only against Rome’s false conception of justification by faith, but now the battle extends to those who propound the error of the Federal Vision.

Five hundred years on there remains a desperate need for Reformed believers to know the Scriptures and their confessional standards in order that they may defend this doctrine. The relevance and urgency of this doctrine cannot be overstated. Justification by faith alone must be confessed. Luther declared that justification by faith was, “the article by which the church stands or falls.” It is also true to say that justification by faith alone is the doctrine by which all shall personally stand or fall before the judgment seat of Christ.


1 Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/As 70-73.

2 Luther’s Works, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Muhlenburg Press, 1960), 34:336, 337.

3 Luther, Smalcald Articles (Part 2, Art. 1), in the Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. and trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 292.

4 R. C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, (P & R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 2007), 2:41.

5 Sproul, Truths We Confess, 41.

6 John H. Leith ed., Creeds of the Churches (John Knox Press, Louisville, 1982), 411.

7 Leith, Creeds, Canon 9 and 11, 421.

8 Sproul, 42.

9 Sproul, 42.

10 Collected Writings of John Murray (Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1977), 2:217.

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