Reformation Subjects (27)

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.

Heinrich Bullinger: Covenant Theologian

This article first appeared in the August 1993 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.69, #19) and was written by Prof. Herman Hanko, professor of church history and NT studies in the PRC Seminary.


Heinrich Bullinger: Covenant Theologian


The truth of God's covenant is part of our precious Reformed heritage as Protestant Reformed Churches. We are not always aware of the fact that this truth goes back to the time of the Reformation. Prior to the Reformation this truth was unknown; it has its roots and origin in the Reformation in Switzerland, particularly in the work of Zwingli and Bullinger. It is to the latter that we call attention in this article.

Early Life

Heinrich Bullinger was born on July 18, 1504, the youngest of five sons, to a parish priest in Bremgarten, Switzerland near Zurich. Bullinger's father, though a priest, was married - in keeping with the loose enforcement of vows of celibacy which Rome required of all its clerics. Although not much is known of Bullinger's parents, Bullinger's father, when a very old man, came to believe and confess the doctrines of the Reformation, probably under the influence of his gifted son. 

Bullinger began his formal education in the school of The Brethren of the Common Life in Cleves. His father gave him no money, believing that poverty was necessary for his son to develop good habits in life. Bullinger, like Luther, was required to sing to earn money to support himself.

During these studies Bullinger wanted to enter a Carthusian monastery; but was dissuaded by his brother. Instead, in 1519 he went to Cologne, Germany where he earned a BA in 1520. At Cologne Bullinger studied the scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages, but soon became so disgusted with them that he turned to the church fathers, particularly Chrysostom and Augustine. The one point which impressed him in the writings of these church fathers was their copious use of Scripture. Spurred on by their apparent determination to ground all their doctrine in God's Word, Bullinger turned to a study of the Scriptures. It was this study of Scripture which enabled Bullinger to read the writings of Martin Luther with pleasure, as they were then being circulated throughout Germany. 

After earning his master's degree in 1522, Bullinger returned to his beloved Switzerland. Although already influenced by Reformation thought, he accepted a call by Wolfgung Riipli, abbot of a monastery in Cappel, to teach in the cloister school. He taught the monks from the New Testament and from Philip Melanchthon's Loci Communes.1 

Sent to Zurich, where Zwingli preached, Bullinger spent five months listening to Zwingli, perfecting his Greek and beginning his studies in Hebrew. It was here that he became more thoroughly acquainted with Reformation distinctives. The result was that, when he returned to the cloister school in Cappel, he persuaded the abbot and all the monks to accept the teachings of the Reformation. 

In 1529 Bullinger was called to be minister in the church at Bremgarten, where he succeeded his father as pastor. Here he preached until the battle of Cappel, when Zwingli was killed and the Reformation in Switzerland was brought to a temporary standstill. In these years at Bremgarten he developed his skills as a preacher and pastor, and served the congregation well. But when Zwingli was killed in 1531, Bullinger was forced to leave his congregation. His absence from the pulpit, however, was brief, for he was soon called to be Zwingli's successor in the prestigious congregation of Zurich. Here he remained till the end of his life. Here, in the early years of his ministry, he preached six or seven times a week; later, only on Friday and on the Lord's day.

His Work

The death of Zwingli seemed to be a deathblow to the Reformation in Switzerland, but God provided for the churches there a man who could keep a steady hand on the tiller.

Bullinger was a devoted pastor, not only as a powerful preacher, but also as a faithful shepherd who visited his sheep day and night, opened his house to all who needed help, exposed himself to dangers when he visited those who were struck down by the plague that several times visited Zurich, and brought comfort and strength to the dying.

Although he lived on a very meager salary, his charity was known throughout the country. He freely distributed money, food, clothing. He refused any gifts, but gave anything beyond his salary to hospitals and institutions of mercy. He nearly always had in his home strangers and exiles for whom he provided shelter and food.' He secured a pension for Zwingli's widow, took her under his roof, and assumed responsibility for the education of Zwingli's two children. His Christian love and charity brought him the respect and devotion of all his parishioners. 

Bullinger was deeply committed to Christian education. He served as superintendent of the schools in Zurich. He was instrumental in the staffing of the Seminary with able theologians. He actively participated in the regulation of the schools according to the Word of God. 

Bullinger was a devoted family man. In 1529 he married Ann Adlischweiter, a former nun from Zurich, and with her had several children. His biographers speak of the fact that his home was a happy place, in spite of the fact that almost always strangers were lodging with them. He romped with his children and grandchildren and was deeply conscious of his covenant calling to teach them the ways of the Lord. When his parents could no longer care for themselves, Bullinger and his wife cared for them in their own home.


After Zwingli's death, Bullinger became the theologian of the Swiss churches.2 

The Swiss Reformation, outside Geneva, produced two remarkable and beautiful confessions: The First and the Second Helvetic Confessions. The First Helvetic Confession was the work of Bullinger, along with several other theologians: Megander, Grynaeus, Myconius, and Leo Judd. The Second Helvetic Confession was Bullinger's personal work, written as a personal confession of faith, and adopted by the Swiss Churches in 1566.3 

When controversy rose in Switzerland over the doctrine of the Lord's Supper, Bullinger not only defended the Reformed view against Lutheranism, but also worked with John Calvin to bring uniformity among the Swiss. The result of their cooperative effort was the Consensus Trigurinus, an important Reformation document on the doctrine of the Lord's Supper. 

Bullinger's influence extended throughout Europe, even though he never traveled beyond Switzerland. When exiles from England sought refuge in Zurich during the reign of Bloody Mary, Bullinger took them into his home and taught them more carefully the truths of Scripture. Through an astonishing correspondence Bullinger exerted influence on theologians everywhere. He corresponded with Swiss, German, and English theologians; he wrote to kings, princes, and queens. When he died, the English mourned his passing as a calamity, and repeatedly expressed their great debt to this preacher of Zurich. 

In one controversy, however, he showed a weakness. When Calvin in Geneva was struggling with the heresies of Bolsec, the Consistory of Geneva sought the advice of the other Swiss theologians. Although in general these theologians agreed with Calvin in his doctrine of predestination (Bolsec denied sovereign predestination), with the exception of Farel, they cautioned Geneva to proceed with care and questioned Calvin's strong statements on God's predestination of sin and sovereign, unconditional reprobation. Bullinger was among them.4 When Calvin drew up his Consensus Genevensis5, Bullinger refused to sign it. 

Of great value to us is a controversy which Bullinger carried on in his debates with the Anabaptists. Against them he wrote no fewer than six books. In his defense of the biblical position on the doctrine of infant baptism, Bullinger developed his ideas of God's covenant of grace. It is in these writings that we have the first development of this doctrine which has meant so much to the cause of the truth. All subsequent covenant theologians, in both Reformed and Presbyterian circles, owe a great debt to Heinrich Bullinger.

Bullinger's Death

Bullinger's last days were filled with suffering. The great burden of the work undermined his health. In 1562 he wrote to a friend: "I almost sink under the load of business and care, and feel so tired that I would ask the Lord to give me rest if it were not against his will." In 1564 and 1565 he nearly died from the plague, which took from him his wife, three daughters, and a brother-in-law. In all his sufferings he bore his burdens with great patience and submission to the will of God. Though often lonely and heartsick, he continued his labors until death overtook him. 

Bullinger died on September 17, 1575 after suffering intensely from calculus, a disease which was probably what we would now call kidney and bladder stones, for which there was no cure in the 16th century. His youngest daughter, Dorthea, cared for him in his last years. When near death, he assembled the pastors of Zurich about him and exhorted them to purity of life, unity among the brethren, and faithfulness in doctrine. He warned them against temptation, assured them of his love, thanked them for their kindness towards him, and closed with a prayer of thanksgiving. 

After shaking hands with all of them, with tears (as Paul did with the elders at Ephesus), he died reciting Psalms 51, 16, and 42, the Apostles' Creed, and the Lord's Prayer. His son-in-law preached the funeral sermon. 

Bullinger was the man chosen by God to maintain the Swiss Reformation after the death of Zwingli. He was equipped by God with extraordinary spiritual gifts for this task. He was a man of patience, firm faith, courage, moderation, and endurance who "proved that the Reformation was a work of God" when, through Bullinger's work, it survived the catastrophe at Cappel. 

To him we, who love the truth of God's covenant, owe a great debt under God.

1. Philip Melanchthon was Luther's co-reformer, and the book referred to was the first systematic theology of the Reformation.

2. This is, of course, other than Calvin, who labored in Geneva.

3. Our readers can profit from reading these confessions. They are not very easy to obtain. Schaff has them in his "Creeds of Christendom," but they are in Latin and German, The First Helvetic Confession can be found in "Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century," edited by Arthur C. Cochrane. The Second can be found in "Creeds of the Churches," edited by John H. Leith.

4. The interesting correspondence can be read in "The Register of the Company of Pastors in Geneva in the Time of Calvin," edited by Philip Hughes.

5. Later published under the title, "A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God." This is included in "Calvin's Calvinism," published by the RFPA.


John Knox: The Reformer of Scotland

This article first appeared in the November 1, 1992 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.69, #3) and was penned by Prof. Herman Hanko, professor of church history and New Testament studies in the PRC Seminary.

John Knox: The Reformer of Scotland

God not only calls men to particular tasks in His kingdom; He also suits the man He calls with the personality, gifts, and strength to do the work. 

So it was with John Knox, the Reformer of Scotland. 

Born and raised in a harsh land, he emerged from his years of preparation a harsh and unbending defender of the faith. With roots deeply sunk into the soil of his motherland, he was fed with the sturdiness of Scotland's gloomy heaths. Heir of the dour, unbending individualism which so characterized Scotland's populace, he was tempered to stand alone against queens and princes, unmoved by their threats or tears. He was, in God's wisdom, the only one who could bring the Reformation to Scotland.

Youth and Education

It is quite amazing, and a perpetual testimony of the power of grace, that the Reformation came at all to Scotland. Scotland was known throughout Europe as the most backward, the most superstitious, the most Roman Catholic of any country. And the church which had held sway here for centuries, unchallenged and unmolested, was a church in which corruption had reached depths found in the few other places. One would think that reformation here would be impossible.

John Knox was born sometime during the year 1505 in the small village of Gifford in East Lotham. His parents were sufficiently wealthy, apparently, to provide him with a good education. He received his early training in Haddington and was then sent to the University of Glasgow. In the university he earned his M.A. degree and was sufficiently proficient in his studies to gain an assistant professorship. 

Somewhere near 1530 Knox went to St. Andrews, on the East Coast by the sea, just a bit north of the Firth of Forth, to teach. It may have been here that his studies included some of the old church fathers, particularly Jerome and Augustine, and that the first doubts concerning Roman Catholicism rose in his soul. At any rate, he remained a firm Roman Catholic for the present and was ordained into clerical orders.1

Early Reformation and Exile

It was not, however, until 1542 that Knox became a Protestant, under what influences or by what means is, not known. So clearly did he begin to proclaim Protestant views that he was degraded from orders as a heretic, and he was compelled to go to the south part of Scotland to find hiding from those who hated him. 

While in the southern part of his country, Knox tutored the sons of two nobles and occasionally preached. It was during this period that he met and became a close friend of George Wishart, a bold minister and teacher of Reformation doctrine. Wishart was soon apprehended by the Roman authorities and was taken away to be tried and condemned to burning at the stake. Here really began Knox's commitment to the Reformation. Clinging to Wishart as he was led away, and hoping to die with him, Knox was told by his friend: "Nay, return to your bairns, and God bless you; one is sufficient for a sacrifice." 

Wishart was burned to death by Cardinal Beaton of St. Andrews in March of 1546. Nobles, sympathetic to Protestantism, stormed the castle, killed Beaton, and invited other Protestants, including Knox to take up residence in the castle. 

Knox lived in the castle for awhile, preaching and teaching, but in July of 1547 the castle was captured by a part of the French navy, Knox and others were made prisoners of the French, and, after being sentenced in France, Knox was condemned to the galleys as a slave chained to an oar. 

Who knows what agony he endured during the nineteen months of his slavery? Who knows how often he questioned the ways of God when, e.g., he could glimpse through the small oar opening the spires of St. Andrews cathedral as his galley rode the waves off the coast of Scotland? He emerged from this ordeal with infirmities which were to remain with him all his life (his own "thorn in the flesh"), but with a faith tempered in the fire of suffering and a stronger then ever determination to engage in the Lord's work. 

Knox was released only because Edward VI, Protestant king of England, directly intervened on his behalf with the king of France.2 It was probably for this reason that Knox did not return to Scotland, but took up residence in England. Here he spent about five years, married Marjory Bowes, often preached every day of the week, worked with the reformers in England, and was offered a bishopric. This offer he declined, partly, it seems, because he already had some misgivings about the hierarchical form of church government practiced in the Church of England, but also partly because he foresaw "evil days to come." 

These days came soon enough with the untimely death of Edward and the accession of Mary Tudor, "Bloody Mary," as she was called, a loyal daughter of Rome and one determined to restore Roman Catholicism to England-even at the price of the blood of the Protestants. 

Knox fled to Europe. The year was 1554. He had wanted to stay in England because, as he said with some understatement, "Never could I die in a more honest quarrel." But, prevailed upon by friends to flee, he began a new work on the continent, in Frankfurt-on-the-Main, in a church of English exiles. Things did not work out well here, for a dispute rose over liturgy, particularly responsive readings, and Knox, with some disgust, resigned his work and took up residence in Geneva. 

Calvin was at the height of his powers and influence, and the two spent much time together discussing theology and, more particularly, church polity. Knox pastored an English congregation and spent the happiest time of his life on the shores of Lake Leman, beneath the shadow of the Alps, and, to use Knox's own words: "in the most perfect school of Christ that ever was since the days of the apostles."

His stay in Geneva was interrupted by a rather hasty trip back to Scotland. It is not entirely clear why Knox went; nor is it clear why he returned to Geneva. During his stay, however, he preached, taught, and visited day and night. His influence was great, especially on some of the nobles. The result was that events began to favor the Reformation, and the first National League & Covenant was sworn to in 1556. 

Some have charged him with cowardice for not staying in his native land; it is most likely true that if he had stayed he would have been killed. Immediately after his flight he was condemned in absentia and burned in effigy. 

Two things resulted from his stay in Geneva: he was thoroughly equipped to establish a complete reformation in Scotland, not only in doctrine, but also in church polity and liturgy. He also authored a pamphlet entitled (in characteristic language): "First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regime of Women." The pamphlet was written primarily against Bloody Mary (although no names were mentioned), but it got him into endless trouble with Elizabeth, queen of England, and with Mary, queen of Scotland. 

In 1559 Knox returned to Scotland for good, and with his return the work of reformation advanced rapidly. It was evident that the common people hungered for the pure preaching of the gospel, a hunger created by a mighty work of the Spirit of Christ. Romanism was abandoned, superstition was condemned, the chains of Rome were broken, and the nation moved steadily in the direction of becoming a Protestant country. 

A few of the outstanding events and characteristics of the progressing reformation are the following: 

The Protestants began to be called "The Congregation" and the leaders, "The lords of the Congregation." A presbyterian system of church government, which Knox had learned in Geneva and which was markedly different from that in England, was instituted.3 

As Protestantism advanced, especially in some areas in south and east Scotland, particularly in Perth, riots broke out during which images, Romish liturgical trappings, monasteries, and altars were smashed and burned by runaway multitudes of those who had come to see Rome's idolatry. 

When war was threatened by a possible invasion from France, and by the decision of England to send troops, a compromise was reached which avoided war and called for the meeting of a free Parliament to settle religious questions. This Parliament, which met in August, 1960, established the Reformed religion, and adopted a confession,4 a Book of Discipline,5 and a Book of Common Order.6 

In that same year, in December, the first General Assembly of the Scottish Church met in Edinburgh in St. Magdalene's chapel. 

In all of these activities, Knox assumed a leading role. Perhaps no more interesting part in all his reformatory work can be found than in his interviews with Queen Mary.7 Mary wanted nothing so much as to return Scotland to the papal fold. Knox stood in her way. In at least two interviews with him she tried by every means to dissuade him from his course. She argued, pleaded, cajoled, threatened, attempted to move him with her feminine wiles (of which she had plenty, for she was a beautiful woman); and even was reduced to tears. Through it all Knox stood firm and unmovable, to the point where some of his contemporaries and subsequent historians have sometimes criticized him for failure to show proper respect to his queen and for a hardheartedness which bordered on cruelty. 

But this was Knox, a man of iron will and implacable purpose; a man who did not know that the word "tact" existed in the English language, or, if he did know, did not know what it meant. He spoke forthrightly and clearly, and worried not an iota whom he offended if it was for the cause of the truth of God. 

He triumphed over incredible odds. He was shot at, ambushed, and verbally abused beyond what many others had to endure. Of an archbishop's greed, he wryly said, "As he sought the world, it fled him not." His purpose he himself defined: "To me it is enough to say that black is not white, and man's tyranny and foolishness is not God's perfect ordinance." 

As was true of the reformers throughout Europe, Knox was first of all a preacher. Every Lord's day he preached two times, and during the week three times in St. Giles Cathedral. 

In 1563 he retired to relative privacy because his forcefulness and uncompromising attitude offended many. But his influence continued to be felt. When Mary was forced to abdicate the throne in 1567, reforms continued. It was decided, for example, that the ruler of Scotland must henceforth be protestant, and many provisions were made for the support of the clergy. Also under Knox's influence, schools were established. He wanted schools in every parish, a college in every important town, and three universities to serve the nation! 

In 1570 Knox was felled by a stroke, from which he partially recovered. He retired to St. Andrews, where his reformatory work had begun, and there preached even though he had to be carried to the pulpit. But he himself spoke of the fact that he was "weary of the world" and "thirsting to depart." On November 24, 1570, at the age of 65, the Lord took him home. 

Though he was small and weak, beset since his days in the galleys with many infirmities, he was of a vigorous mind and implacable will. His piety and zeal knew no bounds. He stamped his character on the church which he was instrumental in establishing. In Geneva, Switzerland stands a Reformation Monument on which appear figures of the great reformers. By Knox's figure are written the words: Un hommeavec Dieu est toujours dans la majorite ("One man with God is always a majority"). Such men the church needs today.

1. Knox holds a certain distinction in this respect: he was a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, a prelate in the Church of England, and a minister in the Church of Scotland. 

2. The date was February, 1549, and Knox was 44 years old.

3. This difference was to lead to great trouble later during the time of the Covenanters and the persecution under Charles I and Charles II, times called "The Killing Times."

4. The Scottish Confession of Faith, which was the confessional basis of the Scottish Presbyterian Church until it was superseded by the Westminster Confessions.

5. It functioned as a Church Order.

6. A guide for ministers in their work and calling.

7. Not Mary Tudor, called "Bloody Mary," who ruled in England, but Mary Guise, sometimes called "Mary, Queen of the Scots."

8. How striking it is that all the reformers were profoundly concerned with Christian education and did much to advance it.


John Knox, Reformer and Preacher

This article first appeared in the October 15, 2000 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.77, #2) and was penned by Rev. Dale H. Kuiper, minister of SE PRC in Grand Rapids, MI at the time.

John Knox, Reformer and Preacher

The man who in the estimation of friend and foe alike was the greatest man that Scotland ever produced was born in 1505 near the village of Haddington (some of his biographers place his birth as late as 1512). John Knox's education was at the Burgh School of Haddington, where the instructors were Roman Catholic and the instruction prepared young men for the clergy or holy orders. Latin was stressed at this school, so much so that the students were required to speak Latin at all times. Knox himself was an outstanding Latin scholar. He did not study Hebrew and Greek until after his fortieth year. He remained in the Haddington school until he was seventeen, at which time he faced the question of where to attend university. By choosing to remain in Scotland, Knox avoided the humanism that was rampant in the schools on the continent. He finally decided to attend the University of Glasgow, mainly because the most famous teacher in Scotland at that time, John Major, was on the faculty there. This university was a stronghold of Roman Catholic teaching. It sought to defend and advance Medieval theology and philosophy as well as the authority of the pope.

Knox was ordained into the priesthood shortly before 1540. He employed himself in giving private instruction to the sons of prominent Scottish families, rather than engaging in parochial duties. It is generally thought that Knox never renounced his priestly vows but considered his original ordination to suffice even as he took up the cause of the Reformation in Scotland.

Knox first professed the Protestant faith toward the end of 1545. Several influences were used by God to convert this peasant's son from the bondage of Rome into the freedom of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In his early manhood he read both Augustine and Jerome. Secondly, he attended the preaching of George Wishart for some time, became his personal friend, and even served as his bodyguard when Wishart's life was threatened. Knox embraced Wishart's Reformed preaching with enthusiasm. For this preaching, George Wishart was burned at the stake by Cardinal Beaton. Thirdly, a powerful influence in Knox's conversion was his correspondence with Calvin and Beza, and his residence in Geneva on several occasions. At first Knox was nearer to Luther than to Calvin in his views, but later he considered Lutheran a term of reproach, agreeing with Latimer that the German Reformation was only a partial receiving of the truth.1 Knox's views regarding the papacy, the mass, purgatory, and other outrages show clearly that he embraced the teachings of the Genevan reformers.

But along with these three influences we must add Knox's wholehearted commitment to the Bible as the inerrant Word of God and as the only, final authority in matters of faith, worship, and life. Knox agrees with a certain Balnaves, whom he quotes, "They deceive you which say, The Scriptures are difficult, no man can understand them but great clerics. Verily, whom they call their clerics, know not what the Scriptures mean. Fear nor dread not to read the Scriptures as ye are taught here before; and seek nothing in them but your own salvation, and that which is necessary for you to know. And so the Holy Spirit, your teacher, shall not suffer you to err, nor go beside the right way, but lead you in all verity."2 Knox expounded the Word of God, Old Testament and New, with insight and power. He applied the Scriptures to the situation in Scotland, England, and Europe. He loved the Psalms and explained them at length to those in spiritual distress with great understanding of them and with compassion for the weak. One of his favorite passages wasDeuteronomy 4:2, "Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought form it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you." This passage was a faithful guide to him in all his difficult labors, as it was to Luther and Calvin. He embraced the great Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura!

The bold reformer's first charge was at St. Andrews. The first sermon he ever preached had for its text Daniel 7:24, 25. He called the Church of Rome the man of Sin, the Antichrist, the whore of Babylon. He laid down the marks by which the true church may be discerned from the false. Some said, "Others hewed the branches of the papistry, but he strikes at the root to destroy the whole." Others said, "Master George Wishart spake never so plainly, and yet he was burnt; even so will he be."3 

A short time later the castle of St. Andrews became a refuge for those of Reformed persuasion because politically and religiously Scotland sided with England against Roman Catholic France. In 1547 a French army invaded Scotland and took Knox and other refugees captive, forcing them to row in the galleys for seventeen months. As a galley slave Knox suffered many torments, and his health was permanently damaged. After his release in 1549 Knox served several churches in England: Berwick, Newcastle, and London. While in London he joined with other pastors in approving "The Articles Concerning an Uniformity of Religion," a document which became the basis of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England.

The years 1554-59 found Knox in Europe. He served a congregation of English-speaking refugees in Dieppe, France, and a similar type of congregation in Hamburg, Germany, at Calvin's urging. This pastorate he resigned due to controversies over vestments, ceremonies, and the use of the English prayer book. He next became the pastor of an English refugee congregation in Geneva. During these years Knox did much writing, for this time in Europe was the most peaceful of his life. Although urged by Bullinger and Calvin to use caution regarding female magistrates, Knox published his First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Because Anabaptism was growing in England and in Scotland, a request came from England to the exiles inGeneva that someone write against the attack being made by the Anabaptists against predestination. Knox was chosen to make this response. Understanding the importance of this issue for true religion he wrote, "But yet I say, that the doctrine of God's eternal predestination is so necessary to the Church of God, that, without the same, can Faith neither be truly taught, neither surely established: man can never be brought to true humility and knowledge of himself: neither yet can he be ravished in admiration of God's goodness, and so moved to praise him as appertaineth. And therefore we fear not to affirm, that so necessary as it is that true faith be established in our hearts, that we be brought to unfeigned humility, and that we be moved to praise him for his free grace received; so necessary also is the doctrine of God's eternal predestination .... Then only is our salvation in assurance, when we find the cause of the same in the bosom and counsel of God."4 

Knox's views in the area of ecclesiology are remarkably similar to our own in the Protestant Reformed Churches. He thundered against the claims of the papacy. He called the mass an abomination and an idolatry. He considered the preaching of the gospel to be the chief means of grace, and the sacraments as secondary to preaching as a sign and seal. Baptism was the sign of entrance into union with Christ, and thus was to be administered to a person but once. The Lord's Supper was continuous nourishment for believers who were in Christ. He stood for infant baptism and was dead set against any re-baptism; the Anabaptists were his foe not only in the matter of baptism but also because they tried to upset the entire social order. We find it interesting also that Knox considered Roman Catholic baptism valid, and no reason for re-baptism. While insisting that baptism used in the papistry is an adulteration and profanation of the baptism which Christ instituted, insisting that Romish baptism leads people to put their confidence in the bare ceremony, and insisting that God's children ought never to offer their children to papistical baptism for this is to offer them to Satan, Knox nevertheless answers the question, "Shall we be baptized again that in our infancy were polluted with that adulterated sign?" with an unqualified "No." His grounds for this position were: (1) "The fire of the Holy Ghost has burnt away whatsoever we received at their hands besides Christ Jesus' simple institution." (2) "And in very deed, the malice of the devil could never altogether abolish Christ's institution, for it was ministered to us in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." (3) "I confess, for the time it did not profit us; but now, as it is said, the Spirit of Christ Jesus, illuminating our hearts, has purged the same by faith, and makes the effects of that sacrament to work in us without iteration of the external sign."5 

Knox held strenuously to the regulative principle of worship as we also know it and maintain it. Condemning the mass, he said, "And now, in a few words, to make plain that wherein you may seem to doubt: to wit, that God's word damns your ceremonies, it is evident; for the plain and strait commandment of God is, 'Not that thing which appears good in thy eyes shalt thou do to the Lord thy God, but what the Lord thy God has commanded thee; that do thou; add nothing to it; diminish nothing from it.' Now unless you are able to prove that God has commanded your ceremonies this his former commandment will damn both you and them."6 All religious ceremonies and institutions must have clear biblical warrant if they are to be considered valid expressions of worship. Always Knox's argument against false worship turns upon his defense of the regulative principle of worship.

Only in one respect did Knox differ from the Genevan theologians and us. He never really condemned the episcopacy. He was a man of his time and shared the views of his contemporaries in the matter of church government. His refusal of an English bishopric was for practical rather than principle reasons. He preferred pastoral work in a humble sphere, preaching the blessed evangel, rather than the arduous duties of a superintendent. He never held the opinion that bishops were an unscriptural institution; they could be tolerated. Beza, hearing of the discussions going on in Scotland on church government, wrote to Knox in April of 1572, "But of this, also, my Knox, which is now almost patent to our very eyes, I would remind yourself and the other brethren, that as Bishops brought forth the Papacy, so will false bishops (the relics of Popery) bring in Epicurism into the world. Let those who devise the safety of the church avoid this pestilence, and when in process of time you shall have subdued that plague in Scotland, do not, I pray you, ever admit it again, however it may flatter the pretense of preserving unity."7 It is thought that had he lived longer his attitude would have changed and come more in line with the Presbyterian form of church government.

As a theologian Knox was not equal to Calvin, or even Melanchthon; he lacked the constructive powers needed to build up a theological system that united all doctrines into a unified whole. Nevertheless, he was a formidable, skillful disputant. His preaching style was unyielding and at times harsh. His language could be rather violent. His five conferences with Queen Mary were characterized by language that was exceedingly blunt and was not designedto win her over but to show her how wrong she was. On the other hand, he was the gentle father of five children born to him to two wives, the second of which was much younger than he and served as his nurse in his declining years. He was loved by his students and parishioners, and was a good example to them in all godliness. Near the end of his life he was so weak that he had to be helped into the pulpit; once there he became so vigorous that he began to strike the pulpit as to destroy it. His appearance was grave and severe, although he possessed a natural graciousness and dignity. His love for the truth and boldness in declaring it drew believers to his preaching services. He spent much time and meditation on his sermons, either writing them out in full or using copious notes. His harshness in debate and in preaching was defended by his followers for the importance of the issues at stake; they required a plain-spoken prophet rather than a smooth-tongued orator.

The esteem in which Knox was held by the faithful in Scotland was expressed by his servant Richard Ballantyne thus: "Of this manner departeth this man of God, the light of Scotland, the comfort of the Kirke within the same, the mirror of Godliness, and patron and example to all true ministers, in purity of life, soundness in doctrine, and in boldness in reproving of wickedness, and one that careth not the favor of men (how great soever they were) to reprove their abuses and sins .... What dexterity in teaching, boldness in reproving, and hatred of wickedness was in him, my ignorant dullness is not able to declare."8 He died in October of 1572, full of faith and still ready for the conflict. He died with friends reading to him Isaiah 53 and John 17. He died quietly and in peace. He was buried in the graveyard near the church of St. Giles, where a flat stone still marks his grave.

Knox's importance for the cause of the church and gospel of Christ in Scotland, England, and Europe can hardly be over emphasized. He gave his entire life to the reformation of the church. His religion took full possession of him, as true religion ought. Just before he died he said of himself, "None have I corrupted; none have I defrauded; merchandise have I not made." Just after he died the Earl of Mortoun eulogized him thus: "Here lieth a man who in his life never feared the face of man: who hath been often threatened with dag and dagger, but yet hath ended his days in peace and honor. For he had God's providence watching over him in a special manner, when his very life was sought."9 

All Presbyterian and Reformed churches owe a great debt to John Knox, and thankfulness to God for what He wrought through this brave man of the hour. Where can men of his stature be found today in Scotland, England, Europe, and the United States? Where can there be found such holy hatred for Romish superstitions, false doctrine, and wickedness today, as could be found in Knox from the time of his conversion to the last day of his life? May God raise up such men in those places that require them, for the preservation and defense of the truths of the Reformation today!

1.F. Hume Brown, John Knox, A Biography, Adams and Charles Black, London, 1895, vol. I, p. 71.

2.Brown, vol. I, p. 97.

3.Kevin Reed, editor, Selected Writings of John Knox, Heritage Publications, Dallas, 1995, p. 7, and Brown, vol. I, p. 76.

4.Brown, vol. I, pp. 250, 251.

5.Reed, p. 317.

6.Reed, p. 16.

7.Brown, vol. II, pp. 278, 279.

8.Samuel Jackson et. al., The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, vol. VI, Funk and Wagnalls Company, New York and London, 1920, p. 265.

9.Brown, vol. II, p. 288.

Other Sources:

The Reformation in Scotland, John Knox, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1898.

The Scottish Reformation, Gordon Donaldson, Cambridge University Press, London, 1960.


The Protestant Reformation (3)

This article first appeared in the January 1, 1962 issue of the Standard Bearer (Vol.38, #7) and was written by the editor, Rev. Herman Hoeksema.

We must still prove and that, too, from the decrees of the Roman Church themselves as contained especially in the Decrees and Canons of the Council of Trent, that what the Heidelberg Catechism states about the Mass is true, namely? that it is a denial of the one sacrifice of Christ and an accursed idolatry. 

That Christ is really and daily offered by the priest in the Eucharist and in the Mass is inseparably connected with the doctrine of Transubstantiation, as I have already said before. And by this doctrine of Transubstantiation the Roman Church teaches that, after the formula of consecration is expressed by the priest upon the signs of the Lord's Supper, the signs are no more mere bread and wine but are changed into the very body and blood of the Lord. This is clearly expressed in the "Decree Concerning the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist." In chapter I of this decree we read: 

"In the first place, the holy Synod teaches, and openly and simply professes. that, in the august sacrament of the holy Eucharist, after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is truly really and substantially contained under the species of those sensible things. For neither are these things mutually repugnant, that our Savior himself always sitteth at the right hand of the Father in heaven, according to the natural mode of existing, which, though we can scarcely express it in words, yet can we, by the understanding illuminated by faith, and that, nevertheless, he be in many other places, conceive, and we ought most firmly to believe, to be possible unto God: for thus all our forefathers, as many as were in the true Church of Christ, who have treated of this most sacramentally present to us in his own substance, by a most holy Sacrament, have most openly professed, that our Redeemer instituted this sacrament at the last supper, when, after the blessing of the bread and wine, he testified, in express and clear words, that he gave them his own very body, and his own blood, which, recorded by the holy Evangelists, and afterwards repeated by Saint Paul, whereas they carry with them that proper and most manifest meaning in which they were understood by the Fathers, it is indeed a crime the most unworthy that they should be wrested, by certain, contentious and wicked men, to fictitious and imaginary tropes, whereby the verity of the flesh and blood of Christ is denied, contrary to the universal sense of the Church, which, as the pillar and ground of truth, has detested as satanical these inventions devised by impious men; she recognizing, with a mind ever grateful and unforgetting, the most excellent benefit of Christ."

I may note here that it is true, of course, that our Lord Jesus Christ can, after his exaltation, be present in many places at the same time. But when, at the last supper, He said "this is my body" and "this is my blood" He was still in the flesh. His body had not yet been broken and His blood had not yet been shed. Besides, the theory of transubstantiation teaches that the substance of the bread and wine is changed into the substance of the body and blood of the Lord. And this is not true, not only because Jesus was still present when He said "this is my body" and "this is my blood" but also because even after His exaltation, thesubstance of His glorified body is not changed into any other substance. When, therefore, the Roman Church worships the signs of the Lord's Supper on the supposition that these signs are the very Christ Himself, the Heidelberg Catechism is quite correct when it characterizes this as "an accursed idolatry." 

There is, in this chapter of "The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent" a separate article on "Transubstantiation" which reads as follows: 

"And because that Christ, our Redeemer, declared that which he offered under the species of bread to, be truly his own body, therefore has it ever been a firm belief in the Church of God, and this holy Synod doth now declare it anew, that, by the consecration of the bread and of the wine, a conversion is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood; which conversion is, by the Holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called Transubstantiation." 

The priest, therefore, has, by pronouncing the formula of consecration, the power to convert the signs into the substance of the body and blood of the Lord. Moreover, the Romish Church also teaches that the signs in the Lord's Supper must be worshiped. We read: 

"Wherefore, there is no room left for doubt, that all the faithful of Christ may, according to the custom ever received in the Catholic Church, render in veneration the worship of latria, which is due to the true God, to this most holy sacrament. For not therefore is it the less to be adored on this account, that it was instituted by Christ, the Lord, in order to be received; for we believe that same God to be present therein, of whom the eternal Father, when introducing him into the world, says: And let all the angels of God adore him; whom the magi, falling down, adored; who, in fine, as the Scripture testifies, was adored by the apostles in Galilee." 

Moreover, in the Canons that follow this Decree, the Romish Church curses or calls accursed anyone: 

1. That denies that in the Eucharist the signs are not really changed into the body and blood of Christ. 

2. That teaches that in the Lord's Supper "the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Lutheranism), and denies that the substance of the signs is changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. 

3. That in the Lord's Supper Christ is not to be worshiped. 

4. That teaches that in the Lord's Supper Christ is eaten spiritually only and not really. 

Finally, we must still call attention to the mass as a daily sacrifice offered by the priests. For the Heidelberg Catechism teaches us in Lord's Day XXX that the mass is not only an accursed idolatry, but also in the mass Christ is daily offered and must be so offered for the remission of sins in the following words: "but the mass teaches, that the living and dead have not the pardon of sins through the sufferings of Christ, unless Christ is also daily offered for them by the priests." 

That this is, indeed, the doctrine of the Roman Church is clearly evident from the "Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent" in the chapters on the "Doctrine on the Sacrifice of the Mass." From this we quote the following: ". . . nevertheless, because that his priesthood was not to be extinguished by, his death, in the Last Supper, on the night in which he was betrayed, that he might leave, to his own beloved Spouse the Church, a visible sacrifice, such as the nature of man requires, whereby that bloody sacrifice, once to be accomplished on the cross, might be represented, and the memory thereof remain even unto the end of the world, and its salutary virtue be applied to the remission of those sins which we daily commit . . . he offered up to God the Father his own body and blood under the species of bread and wine ; and, under the symbols of those same things, he delivered his own body and blood to be received by his apostles, whom he then constituted priests of the New Testament: and by those words, 'Do this in commemoration of me' he commanded them and their successors in the priesthood to offer them . . . ." 

And in chapter II under the same heading: 

"And forasmuch as, in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, the same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner who once offered himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross; the holy synod teaches, that this sacrifice is truly propitiatory, and that by means thereof this is effected, that we obtain mercy . . . For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different . . . Wherefore, not only for the sins, punishments and satisfactions, and other necessities of the faithful who are living, but also for those who are departed in Christ, and who are not yet fully purified, is it rightly offered, agreeably to the tradition of the apostles." 

And in the Canons under this same chapter we read: 

"I. If any one saith, that in the mass a true and proper sacrifices is not offered to God; or, that to be offered is nothing else but that Christ is given us to eat: let him be anathema." And again: 

"II. If any one saith, that by these words, Do this for the commemoration of me (Luke XXII, 19) Christ did not institute the apostles priests; or, did not ordain that they and other priests should offer his own body and blood: let him be anathema." And once more: 

"III. If any one saith, that the sacrifice of the mass is only a sacrifice of praise and of thanksgiving; or, that it is a bare commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross, but not a propitiatory sacrifice; or that it profits him only who received; and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for sins, pains, satisfactions, and other necessities: let him be anathema." 

This is sufficient to prove that the Heidelberg Catechism is correct when it states that the mass is nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice of Christ offered on the cross and an accursed idolatry. 

It is also sufficient to show that the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century is not a relative matter but a radical return to the truth of Holy Scripture; and we should regard it as such, not only on Reformation Day, but always.



The Protestant Reformation (2)

This article first appeared in the December 1, 1961 issue of the Standard Bearer (Vol.38, #5) and was written by the editor, Rev. Herman Hoeksema.

The Protestant Reformation (2)

At the close of my former article under the above heading, I asked the question whether the Heidelberg Catechism did not use too strong language when it called the popish mass an accursed idolatry. And my answer was that it did not. 

This I now wish to prove with a few quotations from the Confession which the Romish church formulated at the Council of Trent. 

But before I refer to the mass proper, I must call attention to the Romish doctrine that, at the Lord's Supper, it is not necessary that the partakers receive both bread and wine, but that it is quite sufficient to take and eat the bread alone. This in spite of the fact that the Lord, in the night when He was betrayed, instituted the Lord's Supper under both species. How, then, does the Romish Church argue to prove that the celebration of the Lord's Supper under one species, that of the bread alone, is quite proper and sufficient? Let us quote from the above mentioned Confession: 

"Wherefore, this holy Synod, instructed by the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of godliness, and following the judgment and usage of the Church itself, declares and teaches, that laymen and clerics when not consecrating, are not obliged, by any divine precept, to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist under both species; and that neither can it by any means be doubted, without injury to faith, that communion under either species is sufficient for them unto salvation. For, although Christ, the Lord, in the Last Supper, instituted and delivered to the apostles, this venerable sacrament under the species of bread and wine; not therefore do that institution and delivery tend thereunto, that all the faithful of the Church be bound, by the institution of the Lord, to receive both species. But neither is it rightly gathered, from that discourse which is in the sixth of John however according to the various interpretations of holy Fathers and Doctors it be understood, that the communion of both species was enjoined by the Lord: for he who said, Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you (vs. 54), also said, He that eateth this bread shall live forever (vs. 59); and he who said, He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath everlasting life (vs. 55), also said, The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world (vs. 52); and, in fine, he who said, He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, abideth in me and I in him (vs. 57), said, nevertheless, He that eateth this bread shall live forever." 

Although, therefore, the "holy Fathers and Doctors" taught that the Lord's Supper must be celebrated under both the species of bread and wine, the "holy Fathers and Doctors" of the Council of Trent declared that this was not necessary. 

But the "holy Fathers and Doctors" of the past, nevertheless, were correct, and the "holy Fathers and Doctors" of the Council of Trent were mistaken. 


In the first place, even if the Lord's Supper were indirectly referred to in John 6, the Lord, nevertheless, emphatically spoke of eating His flesh and of drinking His blood. That the Lord spoke of His flesh and His being the Bread of Life was because of the feeding of the five thousand on the preceding day. And, indeed, this miracle revealed that He is the bread of life. But He could never become the bread of life except by first shedding His lifeblood on the accursed tree. This is the reason why the Lord emphasizes in the same chapter that men, in order to have eternal life, must not only eat His flesh, but also must drink His blood. That is the reason why, when the Jews strove among themselves and asked the unbelieving question: "How can this man give us his flesh to eat," the Lord answers by pointing to the cross. "You ask the question," the Lord says as it were, "how, in what way, I can give you my flesh to eat? I will tell you how this is possible. Verily, verily, I say unto you. Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. This, is my answer to your question how it is possible that I can give you my flesh to eat. Surely, you cannot eat my flesh unless you also drink my blood." And, therefore, if this may be applied to the Lord's Supper, it means that the Lord says to the Romish church: "If you give to your members only the bread, and not the wine, you deprive them of the blood of the cross; and I say unto you anathema, you are accursed." 

Secondly, as the "holy Fathers and Doctors" rightly emphasized, the very institution of the Lord's Supper teaches all that will understand (which the Romish church will not) that it must be celebrated under both species. For thus we read in Matt. 26:26-29: "And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins." Notice that the Lord not only gave the bread to His disciples, but He first broke it as a sign of His broken body. And His body could not be broken except through the shedding of His blood. Again I say that the Romish church deprives its members of the blood of the cross by giving them only the bread and not the wine. Notice, secondly, that the Lord emphatically says to His disciples and, therefore, to the whole Church and all its members: "Drink ye all of it." But, according to the Romish church, its members do not have to drink. It is sufficient that the priest drinks it and says "haec est pro omnibus," this is for you all! 

Thirdly, the apostle Paul received the knowledge of the institution of the Lord's Supper by a special revelation emphasizing the importance of this sacrament, and that, too, under both species. This is found in the well-known passage of I Cor. 11:23-29: "For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body." Surely, also this passage of the Word of God very clearly and emphatically teaches that the Lord's Supper must be celebrated under both species, bread and wine. 

Yet, the Romish Church claims the authority and power to change the Lord's Supper into whatsoever form they consider best and proper, For, according to chapter II under the heading "Doctrine Concerning Communion," they decided: 

"It furthermore declares, that this power has ever been in the Church, that in the dispensation of the sacraments, their substance being untouched, it may ordain or change, what things soever it may judge most expedient, for the profit of those who receive, or for the veneration of the said sacraments, according to the difference of circumstances, times, and places . . . Wherefore, holy Mother Church, knowing this her authority in the administration of the sacraments, although the use of both species has, from the beginning of the Christian religion, not been infrequent, yet, in progress of time, that custom has been already very widely changed, she, induced by weighty and just reasons, has approved of this custom of communicating under one species, and decreed that it was to be held as a law; which it is not lawful to reprobate, or to change at pleasure, without the authority of the Church itself." 

In other words, the Church is exalted above the clear testimony of Holy Writ! 

And, finally, in chapter III under the same heading, they state that, in spite of the fact that they admit that the Lord Jesus instituted this sacrament under both species, bread and wine, the Church has the authority to change this: 

"It moreover declares, that although, as has been already said, our Redeemer, in that last supper, instituted, and delivered to the apostles, this sacrament under two species, yet is to be acknowledged, that Christ whole and entire and a true sacrament are received under either species alone, and that, therefore, as regards the fruit thereof, they, who receive one species alone are not defrauded of any grace necessary unto salvation."

O, to be sure, the "Holy Mother Church" knows better than the Lord Jesus Himself! 

And the Romish Church does not hesitate to call anyone accursed that believes that the Lord's Supper must be celebrated under both species, bread and wine. For, thus the Council of Trent declared: 

"Canon I—If any one saith, that, by the precept of God, or by necessity of salvation, all and each of the faithful of Christ ought to receive both species of the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist: let him be anathema." 

And, to make one more quotation: 

"Canon III—If any one denieth, that Christ whole and entire, the fountain and author of all graces, is received under one species of bread; because that as some falsely assert, he is not received, according to the institution of Christ himself, under both species: let him be anathema." 

The question is now: what has all this to do with the mass? 

My answer is that the doctrine of the mass is inseparably connected with both the error of transubstantiation and that of celebrating the Lord's Supper under one species. If these two errors were not accepted as the truth by the Romish Church, the mass could never exist. 

We must not forget, in the first place, that, according to the Romish Church, the table of communion is the altar on which Christ sacrifices Himself daily or as often as the mass is celebrated, for the remission of our sins, and that without that daily sacrifice of Christ by the officiating priest, our sins cannot be forgiven. The signs in the Lord's Supper, therefore, are changed into the very body and blood of the Lord. Moreover, seeing that the signs of the Lord's Supper are changed into the very body and blood of the Lord, the Christ, as He lies upon the altar, i.e., the table of communion, is also worshiped by the celebrating members of the Church. This is why the Romish Church invented the error of transubstantiation. And this is also the reason why the Heidelberg Catechism characterizes the mass as an accursed idolatry. 

For proof of this I must once more turn to the Decrees and Canons of the Council of Trent.



The Protestant Reformation (1)

This article first appeared in the November 1, 1961 issue of the Standard Bearer (Vol.38, #3) and was written by the editor, Rev. Herman Hoeksema.

Was the Protestant Reformation necessary? Was there, after all, only a relative and no principal difference between the churches of the Reformation and the Roman church? Could not the doctrinal differences between the church of Rome and the Reformers have been settled amicably? This, indeed, was impossible according to the answer of the Romish church itself. This answer was very elaborately and even in minutest detail given by the Council of Trent which met in 1546 and for several years after. 

Indeed, that Council, in its third session, February 1546, first offered a Confession of Faith to which even the Reformers and the churches of the Reformation would have to agree. I quote this Confession here: 

"I believe in one God, Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, and born of the Father before all ages; God of God, light of light, true God of true God; begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father, by whom all things were made: who for us men, and for our salvation, came clown from the heavens, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, he suffered and was buried; and rose again on the third day, according to the Scriptures; and he ascended into heaven, sitteth at the right hand of the Father: and again he will come with glory to judge the living and the dead; of whose kingdom there shall be no end : and in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, and the giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified; who spoke by the prophets: and one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I confess one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen." 

We may be sure, if this had been the Confession of the Roman Church at the time of the Reformation, and if the Council of Trent had faithfully adhered to this; if they faithfully developed the doctrine on the basis of this Confession, there would never have been the Reformation of the sixteenth century. 

But this the Council of Trent did not do. Instead they developed an erroneous doctrine of justification by faith only without works; of the sacraments, including the doctrine of the mass; the doctrine of purgatory; the doctrine of the immaculate conception of the virgin Mary; the doctrine of the worship of the deceased saints and the veneration and worship of images; and the doctrine of indulgences. To all these false doctrines was added that of the infallibility of the pope in 1870. 

Moreover, they express their anathema or curse upon all that do not agree with any or all these heresies. 

That this is true I expect to demonstrate by a few quotations from "The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent." 

As to the doctrine of justification by faith without works, the Roman church takes the Semi-Pelagian position. For it teaches a certain prevenient grace by which they are disposed to convert themselves to their own justification, by which they freely assent to and cooperate with that grace and which grace they may and can also reject. For thus we read in chapter V of the above mentioned Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent: 

"The Synod furthermore declares, that, in adults, the beginning of said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God . . . that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through his quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly inactive while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch he can also reject it; yet he is not able by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in his sight" . . . 

And in Canon IV of the same chapter we read the following: 

"If any one saith, that man's free will, moved and excited by God, by assenting to God exciting and calling, nowise co-operates towards disposing and preparing itself for obtaining the grace of Justification; that it cannot refuse its consent, if it would, but that, as something inanimate, it does nothing whatever and is merely passive: let him be anathema (accursed)." 

There you have it. 

There is a grace of God that is not irresistible, to which man can assent, with which he can co-operate unto justification, but which he also can refuse and reject. And this means, of course, that, ultimately, it is up to man and not up to God's sovereign grace whether a man shall be justified before God. 

In the seventh session of the Council it speaks of "the most holy Sacraments of the Church, through which all true justice [righteousness, justification, H.H.] either begins or being begun is increased, or being lost is repaired." 

It is well-known that the Romish church attaches more importance to the administration of the sacraments than to the preaching of the Word. With the Reformers and the Protestants that followed them, this is just the reverse. According to them, there are two means of grace: the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. Moreover, the preaching of the Word is first and is the chief means of grace. In fact, the latter are dependent upon the former. One can be saved without the administration of the sacraments if need be, but not without the preaching of the Word. With the Roman church this is different as is already evident from the above mentioned quotation: by the administration of the sacraments the grace of justification is either begun, or increased, or being lost is repaired. 

Moreover, as is also well-known, the Romish church has seven sacraments while the Protestants have only two. The seven sacraments of the Romish church are the following: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Order, and Matrimony. And they, i.e., the Romans, according to the Council of Trent do not hesitate to pronounce the curse upon anyone that does not confess that all seven are truly sacraments. This is expressed in Canon I under the heading "On the Sacraments in General." And I quote: 

"If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law were not all instituted by Jesus Christ, our Lord; or that they were more, or less, than seven, to wit, Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Order and Matrimony; or even that any of these seven is not truly and properly a sacrament: let him be anathema." That is: let him be accursed. 

There is more. 

In Canon IV under the same heading, we read: 

"If any one saith that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation, but superfluous; and that, without them, or without the desire thereof, men obtain of God, through faith alone, the grace of justification; though all the sacraments are not indeed necessary for every individual: let him be anathema." 

The last part of this Canon reveals clearly that the Council itself felt that the sacraments, not all of them, at least, were not necessary unto salvation. For how could that possibly be said, for instance, of matrimony? Nevertheless, the Council of Trent, and the whole Romish church maintain that the sacraments are necessary unto salvation. Faith alone is not sufficient unto justification and without justification salvation is impossible. 

This the Reformers and all the Protestants deny. 

And if we remember that the Roman church never changes and will change, because what the church officially and, since 1570, the pope express is infallible, it is very evident that the Reformation was strictly necessary. 

I will quote one more of these Canons under the same heading: 

"If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law do not contain the grace which they signify; or that they do not confer that grace on those who do not place an obstacle thereunto; as though they were merely outward signs of grace or justice received through faith, and certain marks of the Christian profession, whereby believers are distinguished amongst men from unbelievers: let him be anathema." 

Also to this the Reformers would and could never agree, even though Luther insisted, while denying the Romish doctrine of transubstantiation, with regard to the Lord's Supper, that the body and blood of Christ was present in and under the signs of the bread and wine. For in the above quoted Canon it is literally stated the signs, particularly in baptism and the Lord's Supper, contain and confer the grace signified by the signs. To the Reformers and to the Protestant Churches the signs did not contain the grace signified, nor were they mere signs, but they were also seals whereby God confirmed to the believer the oath of the promise of the covenant. 

I will not enumerate all the heresies that are maintained by the Romish church as they are expressed in the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. This would require too much space. And this is also unnecessary for the purpose I have in mind, namely, to prove that the Reformation of the sixteenth century was strictly necessary and was not relative but concerned such fundamental errors on the part of what then called itself the church that it might well be called the false church. 

Nevertheless, I must surely call attention to the error of "Transubstantiation" and, in connection with this, to the popish mass. 

By the doctrine of transubstantiation, as we know, is meant the theory that the signs of the Lord's Supper are changed into the very body and blood and soul of Christ. 

The Heidelberg Catechism describes this error very fully and correctly in question and answer 80: 

"What difference is there between the Lord's Supper and the popish mass? 

"The Lord's Supper testifies to us, that we have a full pardon of all sin by the only sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which he himself has once accomplished on the cross; and that we by the Holy Ghost are engrafted into Christ, who according to his human nature is now not on earth, but in heaven on the right hand of God his Father, and will there be worshipped by us:—but the mass teaches, that the living and dead have not the pardon of sins through the sufferings of Christ, unless Christ is also daily offered for them by the priests; and further, that Christ is bodily under the form of bread and wine, and therefore is to be worshipped in them; so that the mass, at bottom, is nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and sufferings of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry." 

As to the theory of transubstantiation, of this the Catechism also speaks in Lord's Day XXIX, which the reader may look up in his own Psalter. 

But is not the language of the Catechism too strong? 

Can it really be said that the mass is nothing else, at bottom, than an accursed idolatry? Do the Romish people really worship the signs of bread and wine in the Lord's Supper? 

The answer is: they do, according to their own Confession. 

But about this we will, the Lord willing, write in our next issue. 


The Return to Scripture - The Waldenses

This article first appeared in the October 1, 1984 issue of the Standard Bearer and was written by Rev. Thomas Miersma for the rubric "Guided Into All truth."

The Return to Scripture— The Waldenses

Throughout the Middle Ages God always preserved in the church a remnant who kept the light of the gospel burning in the midst of the prevailing darkness. The Waldenses were such a group. They were not, for the most part, learned men or theologians. Originally they formed a group within the existing church, nor did they have any real desire to leave the church or to reform it. While their contribution to the history of doctrine is small, they did serve to a certain extent in preparing the way for a return to Scripture in the days of the Reformation and are therefore worthy of our attention.

The Waldenses derive their name from Peter Waldo, a prosperous merchant of Lyons, France who lived in the latter part of the 1100s and probably died around 1218. While little of his life is known for certain, there are several things which can be said of him. He was evidently a faithful son of the Roman church. In his day, spiritual piety and devotion were measured in terms of voluntary acts of humiliation, pilgrimages, monastic seclusion, and other outward acts of devotion. He therefore who desired to live a more spiritual, religious, and holy life would separate himself as much as possible from the material things of the world in order to devote himself to spiritual contemplation and good works. This idea of a physical separation from the world was partially rooted in the Roman Catholic idea that evil was found in material things, as well as in a lack of a clear understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith without works. Monasticism and celibacy were viewed as the highest form of the religious life.

In this environment there were various avenues or ways of life open to laymen who were seeking a more meaningful spiritual life and a sanctified walk. It was such a desire which moved Peter Waldo, under the instruction and counsel of a priest, to take literally the command to the rich young ruler to sell all that he had, to give to the poor, and to follow Christ. Around the year 1170 he made provision for his wife and daughters, the latter of whom entered a convent, and distributed his remaining possessions among the poor. His desire was to live simply according to the literal commands of the gospel.

This desire led him to seek a translation of the gospels and other parts of the Scriptures from the Latin into the common language of the people. Then he, and those who found themselves in agreement with him went about from village to village, preaching. In this he and his followers sought to follow directly the command of Christ to the apostles to go forth two by two, taking nothing with them but the bare necessities of life. The name they took for themselves was "the poor of Christ." They sought, by their preaching, to spread the simple precepts of the gospel among the people. As this movement spread it was resisted by the church which forbade them to preach. When the Waldenses sought approval from the church authorities for their way of life and for their translation of the gospels, the church refused its consent.

This rejection by the church authorities is understandable. In the first place, the Waldenses were not ordained and sent to preach; they were laymen, not officebearers. Although the church was technically correct, she passed over the real issue: that the clergy themselves had neglected to preach faithfully the Word, and that those who were God's people hungered for His Word. In the second place, this preaching of the gospel, however simple in form, stood as a threat to the whole structure the Roman church had built, as it was founded upon human traditions and the commandments of men. A return to the Word of God as the authority for faith and life must necessarily undermine the whole Roman Catholic system of doctrine, of the sacraments, of hierarchy, of popes, and with them the temporal power of the church. And so they were forbidden to preach, and when they refused to stop, saying that they must obey God rather than men, they were excommunicated, which at that time also exposed them to punishment by the civil authorities. The movement, however, continued to spread, from France into Italy, Austria, Germany, and even into Poland.

In addition to their preaching the Waldenses also distributed and sold copies of the gospels and other portions of Scripture, and that in the common language of the people. This led to a greater knowledge of the Word of God among the common people and would also serve to prepare the way for reformation.

Despite being driven from the church, the Waldenses continued their labors. Their zealous teaching and preaching of the Scriptures in the common language could not be without effect. The group more and more began to question certain doctrines of the church. In the first place, they emphasized the importance of preaching. This was at odds with the Roman church's emphasis on the sacraments, particularly the mass, and the priority of these over the preaching. They also began to challenge such doctrines as purgatory and prayers for the dead. Positively, they began to assert, in an early form, the doctrine of the priesthood of believers. The right of unfaithful clergy to function in their office was also challenged by them. This in itself was indeed a serious threat to Rome, as many of her priests lived in open fornication and concubinage.

While all this does not mean that the Waldenses were true Protestants, yet, in their development they were heading in the direction of the Reformation. Their movement was rooted chiefly in the desire for personal piety and spirituality, while its doctrinal development stood in the background. Their simple approach to Scripture often led to a definite lack of clarity in their views as well as to several serious errors. Some of their groups for example, taught that women also could preach. This was a confusion of the office of believer with the official work of the ministry, a confusion which arose out of the Waldenses' rejection of the authority of the offices in the church. They also showed a tendency to drift into anabaptist and baptistic ideas and to reject infant baptism and the lawful oath.

But it was their emphasis on preaching and on the power and authority of the Word of God, and their dissemination of the Scriptures to the people which reserves for them a special place in the history of the church. These things the hierarchy of Rome could not tolerate. In attempting to deal with the Waldenses the church created an ecclesiastically approved counterpart to them from disaffected members of their group. This group of "Catholic poor" emphasized the same ideas of poverty and personal piety, but under the strict control of the church. This idea later found a home in the religious order of the Franciscans within the Roman church.

A second response of the church to this growing movement was to forbid laymen to possess copies of the Scriptures. Heretofore the church had taken no official stand on the matter, but at the Synod of Toulouse in 1229, the Bible was officially removed from the hands of the laity. All translations were also denounced. The laity might only possess the portions of the Scriptures which were in use in the church's liturgy such as the psalter. The decree of this Synod was not a universal one, but it did set the pattern for the later Middle Ages, and it reflects the church's hardening in her position of removing the Scriptures from the people.

The church's primary response however was one of suppression and persecution. This persecution at first varied in degree and from place to place, but it increased in severity as the influence of the Waldenses spread. As early as 1212 some of their number may have suffered martyrdom in Strassbourg. In some areas of Europe they were able to gain a considerable following, especially in Bohemia where the pre-reformer John Huss was to arise. To counteract these developments the church established the Inquisition. The Inquisition was organized by the popes and its purpose was the rooting out and destruction of heresy by means of interrogation and threats under torture. While the Inquisition was directed at groups other than the Waldenses as well, they too fell victim to its methods of torture, imprisonment, and execution by burning at the stake. In the 1300s the Inquisition was sent to Bohemia, Poland, and Austria to root out the Waldenses. In 1487, Pope Innocent VIII called upon the king of France to set out on a crusade against the Waldenses in order to root them out of the alpine valleys to which many of them had retreated for safety.

In spite of these things the Waldenses survived, and when the Reformation took place in the 1500s they appropriated it and its doctrine. It was then that they endured some of the fiercest persecution yet to come upon them.

In the Waldenses therefore also is revealed the fact that the way of the church's return to Scripture would not be a way of peaceful Reformation, but a way of suffering and death for the Word of God. For the church of Rome was more and more manifesting herself as the false church. Only in the way of suffering would the yoke of tradition and false doctrine be broken and the church reformed upon the foundation of the pure Word of God.


Our Reformation Heritage

 This article first appeared in the October 1, 1984 issue of the Standard Bearer and was written by Rev. Ronald Cammenga for the rubric "Strength of Youth" (especially for young people).

Our Reformation Heritage

The last day of this month will mark the 467th anniversary of the Reformation. The Reformation, dated from Luther's nailing of the 95 Theses on the chapel door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, was a great work of God for the renewal of His church. Prior to the Reformation, the church had departed from the truth of God. There were departures in doctrine. Many serious errors were held and taught by the church. There were also departures in the Christian life. Ungodly and carnal living characterized both the clergy and the laity at the time of the Reformation. The Reformation was the means of God to purify and reform His church. It was such a reformation as called the faithful people of God out of an apostate church in order to institute the church anew.

We today are heirs of the Reformation and of the work of the Reformers. We are children of the Reformation; the Reformers are our spiritual fathers. The Reformation is our heritage. This applies to you young people. You young people are children of the Reformation. The heritage of the Reformation is YOUR heritage. It's a blessed heritage, a glorious heritage, a priceless heritage. For this heritage you ought to be eternally thankful to God.

What is the Reformation heritage that is yours and for which you ought to be thankful?

That heritage is, first of all, the Bible. The Reformation was the great means of God for the recovery of the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church had buried the Bible. The people were forbidden to have and to read the Bible. Besides, Rome had obscured the Bible with all her traditions and papal decrees that were exalted above the authority of the Bible. Instead of faith in the Word of God, the people were exhorted to put their faith in the church. The Reformers reacted sharply to Rome's denial of the central and exclusive place of the Word of God in the faith and life of the people. Through their efforts the Bible was restored to the church.

Secondly, belonging to our Reformation heritage is the truth of justification by faith alone. The Reformation not only recovered the Bible, but it also recovered the central message of the Bible: justification by faith alone. Rome had denied this truth. Rome had taught salvation by works, that men must earn their salvation. Through his own experience and from the study of the Scriptures, Luther came to see the error of this teaching. In its place he preached the truth that salvation is of grace. Salvation is not the work of man, but the work of God in Christ received by men through faith alone. God, not man, must receive the glory for salvation.

Thirdly, it was the work of the Reformation to restore preaching to its rightful place. The great truth of justification by faith alone was a truth that had to be preached. By the time of the Reformation, preaching had all but disappeared in the church. Instead of preaching, the priests administered the sacraments. Not the preaching, but the sacraments, and especially the Mass, was viewed as the chief means of grace and salvation. So little preaching was done that even the sacraments were administered in a language that the people could not understand. The Reformation restored preaching to its rightful place in the church. The Reformers themselves were mighty preachers. In harmony with the centrality of the preaching, the worship services of the Reformed churches emphasized the preaching, expository, doctrinal preaching.

In the fourth place, the Reformation restructured the church itself. The offices and discipline of the church had been thoroughly corrupted in the Roman Catholic Church. An unbiblical form of hierarchy had been introduced, with an infallible pope at the head. The office of all believers had been completely lost sight of. There existed almost no conception of the proper work and calling of the officebearers. A cleavage was made between the clergy and the laity. The Reformation did away with this hierarchical form of church government. Especially through the labors of Calvin, the Re formed churches were restored to a presbyterian form of church government.

In the fifth place, occupying an important place in our Reformation heritage are our creeds. Particularly two of our creeds, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession of Faith, are direct products of the Reformation. For the sake of the unity of the church, out of concern for the instruction of the youth, and to serve as a witness to the world, the Reformation wrote creeds. In these creeds we have not only the essentials of the Reformed faith, what it means to be Reformed, but we have also set forth all of the fundamental truths of the Word of God. How useful to the Reformed churches have not the creeds been!

In the sixth place, the Reformation restored godly living, and put the Christian life on its proper basis. The Reformers renounced as the basis for the Christian life the attempt to earn salvation. Instead they proclaimed as the basis for the Christian's life in the world gratitude, gratitude for gracious salvation. The Reformers' emphasis on justification by faith alone did not lead them to disparage good works. Instead it was this very doctrine which the Reformation recovered that led the Reformers to call God's people to a serious and devout Christian life.

In the seventh place, the Reformation was instrumental in promoting and establishing Christian schools. Christian education is part of our Reformation heritage. The Christian school movement that flourishes among our own people rests on principles set forth by the Reformers. Luther once said:

When schools prosper the church remains righteous and her doctrine pure . . . . Young pupils and students are the seed and source of the church . . . . For the sake of the church we must have and maintain Christian schools. They may not appear attractive, but they are useful and necessary.

Finally, it must not be overlooked that belonging to our Reformation heritage is also the example of unswerving devotion to the truth which the Reformers give us. They were men who stood for the truth, and who stood for the truth at a cost. They were willing to pay the price, to make the sacrifice, for the sake of the truth. They endured the persecution, gave up their earthly possessions, parted with those who had been their friends and companions, for the sake of the truth. Many of them laid down their own lives for the truth's sake. What an example of steadfastness and of faithful discipleship!

This is our heritage. This is YOUR heritage, young people. What a heritage it is! It is the truth, it is the gospel, it is God Himself.

For this truth you ought to be thankful. You ought to be thankful that you have this heritage. God in His grace has caused you to be born to believing parents. He has seen to it that you have been brought up in a Reformed church, in a church that stands on the Reformation. He has given you faithful instruction in the Reformed faith many years already, by your parents, in the church, at the Christian school. That the Reformation is your heritage ought to be reason for deepest gratitude on your part.

If you are grateful for this heritage, and to the degree to which you are grateful, you will use this heritage. This heritage is yours not simply to admire, but to use. Do you read and study God's Word? Do you embrace with a believing heart the truth of that Word? Do you faithfully hear and receive the preaching of this truth? Do you participate in the life of the church and, through confession of faith, in the government of the church? Do you show a concern for a godly walk and separate yourself from those who do not? Do you avail yourself of the Christian education that is yours, and already now do what you can to support the cause of Christian education? Do you live a life of devotion to the truth of God and to the church that maintains that truth? This is how we show our gratitude for our Reformation heritage and identify ourselves as children of the Reformation.

Grateful for this heritage, you will also defend and maintain it. This is not only your heritage to enjoy and from which to profit, but this is the heritage that you are called to preserve for your children after you. On every hand today the heritage of the Reformation is being corrupted and sold. Every important aspect of that heritage is under attack and is being denied today. More and more there is a movement back to the very conditions from which the Reformation delivered God's people. The Reformation heritage is despised and berated. As the children of the Reformation, you are called to preserve your heritage. Maintain and defend it against every corruption, every denial, every attempt at compromise. Be concerned to pass that heritage on intact to the coming generation.

A concern for the preservation of our Reformation heritage will also motivate you to continual reformation. We must never take the attitude that we have arrived. Nor must we suppose that the only threats to this heritage of ours are the errors of all of the other churches out there. The fact of the matter is that the greatest threats to our Reformation heritage are from our own selves, our own weaknesses, our own sins, both as individuals and as churches. Love for this great heritage which is ours must express itself in our being Reformed and always reforming.

We are grateful to God for what He has done and what He has given us in the Reformation. We are thankful for what He accomplished through men like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox. May God preserve this Reformation heritage among us. And may we be used by Him for the propagation of the Reformed faith in all the world.


Luther on Preaching

This article first appeared in the October 15, 2001 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.78, No.2) in a special Reformation issue on Martin Luther and was written by Rev. Steven Key, then pastor of Hull PRC in NW Iowa.

Luther on Preaching

The history of Dr. Martin Luther and his influence on preaching is well worth considering. The Reformation took root, after all, by the restoration of faithful preaching, with Martin Luther and the other Reformers leading the way.

Although it would be an overstatement to say that preaching had been entirely lost prior to the Reformation, it is true that there were very few faithful preachers left in the church, and preaching itself had certainly fallen on hard times. The element of proclamation, the "thus saith the Lord" which is the heart of all true preaching, was all but lost. For that reason one of the most important contributions of Dr. Martin Luther to the church was his emphasis on preaching. 

Luther himself gives us a view of what preaching commonly involved in his day, openly ridiculing and scorning that which passed for "preaching" by the unfaithful pastors in the church of his day. The sermons were superficial, often including fables or stories, and including a mixture of pagan philosophy. Moreover, these "sermons" were often told in a vulgar or comical way, in order to amuse the people. Christ was forgotten. The Scriptures were neglected. 

"Oh, we have had blind preachers for a long time; they have been totally blind themselves and leaders of the blind, as the gospel says; they have left the gospel and followed their own ideas and preferred the work of men to the work of God."¹ 

Never one to mince words, Luther spoke sharply when speaking of unfaithful preachers. "These are the lazy and worthless preachers who do not tell the princes and lords their sins. In some cases they do not notice the sins. They lie down and snore in their office and do nothing that pertains to it except that, like swine, they take up the room where good preachers should stand." 

Over against that corruption of preaching, Luther fervently called for biblical, expository preaching. "It was Luther who rediscovered both the form and the substance of this preaching.... For him preaching was the veritable Word of God Himself, and, as such, occupied the central position in the Church."² Indeed, the emphasis on preaching the gospel developed into one of the chief marks of the churches of the Reformation and, as Luther never tired of pointing out, gave purpose as well as authority to their existence.

Preaching with Substance

Martin Luther understood that faithful preaching must have substance. That substance is the truth of the gospel, the faithful exposition of Holy Scripture. 

A. Skevington Wood, in his book Captive to the Word, summarizes Luther's preaching as follows:

The salient feature of Luther's preaching was its biblical content and reference. It was subject to Scripture throughout. Luther submitted to a rigorous discipline. He was bound by the Word. His preaching was never merely topical. He could never turn a text into a pretext. "I take pains to treat a verse, to stick to it," he explained, "and so to instruct the people that they can say, 'That is what the sermon was about.'" His preaching was never a movement from men to the text: it was always a movement from the text to men. The matter never determined the text: the text always determined the matter. He was not in the habit of treating subjects or issues, but doctrines. But when he did so, he invariably followed a prescribed Scripture passage step by step. He considered one of the major qualifications of the preacher to be familiarity with the Word."³

Luther taught clearly the centrality of the Word. Faith is nothing else but adherence to the Word. It is the Word which breaks down the sinner by the law and which raises up the believer in the gospel. 

His high esteem for the Word of God explains why Luther also attempted to preach systematically through the Scriptures, preaching series of sermons from both Old and New Testaments.

Because of that biblical emphasis on the primacy of the Word and the centrality of preaching, Luther had no place for the false mysticism that sets aside the Word of God for inner feelings. "Away with our schismatics, who spurn the Word while they sit in corners waiting for the Spirit's revelation, but apart from the voice of the Word!"

It must be noted in this connection that Luther spoke of preaching in terms of "the voice." He said, "Take note: The beginning of all spiritual knowledge is this voice of one crying, as also Paul says, Romans 10:14: 'How are they to believe...without a preacher?' "

Preaching with Authority

Luther taught clearly that preaching that is faithful and true comes with the authority of "the voice." 

This thought reflected Luther's high view of the office. The minister is sent by God, and enters the office of God. "Thus St. Paul is confident (II Cor. 13:3) that he is speaking not his own word, but the Word of the Lord Christ. Thus we, too, can say that He has put it into our mouth." 

That truth was important to Luther, too, in the face of all the opposition that darkened his pathway. It was a truth he consistently proclaimed. 

In his treatment of Psalm 2, in speaking of the office of Christ as Teacher who declares God's decree, Luther explained that the Holy Spirit so teaches us "that God does everything through the Son. For when the Son preaches the Law, the Father Himself, who is in the Son or one with the Son, preaches. And when we preach about this same decree, Christ Himself preaches, as He says: 'He who hears you hears Me' (Luke 10:16)." 

Elsewhere he writes of preachers as "the mouth of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the instrument whereby He openly preacheth the Word"; and since Christ the Word is the utterance of God's own heart, "when thou hearest the Word," Luther says, "then thou hearest God." Commenting on John 10:14, Luther writes, "It is not we who are speaking; it is Christ and God Himself. Hence when you hear this sermon, you are hearing God Himself. On the other hand, if you despise this sermon, you are despising not us but God Himself."

Preaching and the Work of the Spirit

It is because Christ speaks by the preaching of the gospel that preaching is powerful and effective in accomplishing the purpose whereunto God sends it. 

So Dr. Luther calls attention in his writings to the place of the Holy Spirit in preaching. Christ works this powerful Word by His Holy Spirit. It is through the words of preachers that the Holy Spirit works, convicting the world of sin, and establishing the faith of God's elect through the effectual and irresistible call. 

It is the Holy Spirit who gives the preaching its power. Christ draws men to Himself through the Word alone, rescuing His people from the power of sin and death and giving them freedom, righteousness, and life.

This great and marvelous thing is accomplished entirely through the office of preaching the Gospel. Viewed superficially, this looks like a trifling thing, without any power, like any ordinary man's speech and word. But when such preaching is heard, His invisible, divine power is at work in the hearts of men through the Holy Spirit. Therefore St. Paul calls the Gospel "a power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith."

Rom. 1:16

Clearly, preachers are but instruments in God's hands. "What shall we do? We can deplore the blindness and obstinacy of people, but we cannot bring about a change for the better." Only when Christ Himself speaks by His Holy Spirit is the preaching powerful to change and bring salvation. 

"Neither I nor anyone else can ever preach the Word adequately; the Holy Spirit alone must utter and preach it." For it is the Spirit who works by the Word. When through the outward preaching of the Word and the inward witness of the Holy Spirit, faith is created, that which is promised in the gospel becomes effective for the believer. 

"Accordingly, it is a Word of power and grace when it infuses the Spirit at the same time that it strikes the ears. But if it does not infuse the Spirit, then he who hears does not differ at all from one who is deaf."

Hearing the Preaching

Not overlooked by Luther was the calling of all who hear the preaching to examine that preaching, to see whether it be faithful to the Holy Scriptures. "Hence this is the touchstone by which all doctrine is to be judged. One must take care and see whether it is the same doctrine that was published in Zion through the apostles." It is such preaching that is used by God as the powerful, saving voice of Christ. "For this alone, as has been said, is the true doctrine, bestowing upon men a right and certain understanding, comfort of heart, and salvation." 

Along these lines, Luther faces squarely the question of whether or not Christ speaks through a preacher just because the man occupies the office.

To begin with, we must know that those who are sent speak the Word of God provided that they adhere to their office and administer it as they received it. In that event, they surely speak the Word of God.... A king's ambassador or emissary discharges his duty when he abides by his master's order and instruction. If he fails in this, the king has him beheaded.

When a minister, therefore, faithfully preaches the Word of God, Christ is pleased to speak through him by His Holy Spirit; if not, then the words apply to that preacher: "Beware of false prophets!" We must neither speak nor hear anything but the Word of God. 

For that reason the gospel must be heard and preached. Preaching not only has substance, but very specific content. 

Luther insisted on the following: "The preacher's first message is to teach penitence, removing offenses, proclaim the Law, humiliate and terrify the sinners." Our sin must be exposed by the preaching of the gospel. 

In preaching through Romans, he said, "The sum and substance of this letter is: to pull down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh..., no matter how heartily and sincerely they may be practiced, and to implant, establish, and make large the reality of sin.... For God does not want to save us by our own but by an extraneous righteousness which does not originate in ourselves but comes to us from heaven." 

The necessity of preaching man's depravity is found in the fact that grace is given to the humble. Christ came not to save the righteous, but to bring sinners to repentance. So Luther said, "They cannot be humble who do not recognize that they are damnable whose sin smells to high heaven.... Yearning for grace wells up when recognition of sin has arisen. A sick person seeks the physician when he recognizes the seriousness of his illness." 

And because God's people have a continual struggle with their sinful flesh, preaching must be antithetical. It must be preaching that not only sounds the silver trumpet of salvation, but that sounds the horn which exposes and reproves the old man and calls to repentance. 

As Luther recognized and experienced, it takes boldness in preaching to serve as Christ's ambassador. But the preacher cannot stop with merely preaching sin, for that would amount to wounding and not binding up, smiting and not healing. "Therefore we must also preach the word of grace and the promise of forgiveness by which faith is taught and aroused." 

The focus of all preaching must be Christ. The only content of its message is about Him. "This is the gist of your preaching: Behold your God! 'Promote God alone, His mercy and grace. Preach Me alone.' " 

Soli Deo Gloria was the motto of Luther, therefore, no less than of Calvin. The sovereignty of God occupied a prominent place in all Luther's preaching, for his was indeed gospel preaching. From him also came forth the cry of the Reformation, "Let God be God!" In his words, "the gospel proclaims nothing else but salvation by grace, given to man without any works and merits whatsoever. Natural man cannot abide, hear, or see the gospel. Nor does it enter into the hypocrites, for it casts out their works, declaring that they are nothing and not pleasing to God." 

God alone works His wonderwork of grace in saving us! For in Christ alone rests all our salvation. The gospel is preached with the purpose of consoling with grace those who are contrite of heart. 

Martin Luther also viewed the importance of preaching in the light of its positive fruits. In opposition to the errors of legalism, He recognized that the Christian life must be a life of thankfulness to God, and therefore a conscious laying hold of the gospel of a gracious salvation. Thankful lives follow from faithful preaching. 

Luther's approach to preaching, therefore, is the approach that would later be outlined in the Heidelberg Catechism. This is the way of true comfort, wrought by the Spirit through the preaching. 

"Thus it is not the stones, the construction, and the gorgeous silver and gold that make a church beautiful and holy; it is the Word of God and sound preaching." And this is preaching in which God is glorified.

Such preaching is God's greatest blessing for His church. "Therefore let those who have the pure Word learn to receive it and to give thanks to the Lord for it, and let them seek the Lord while He may be found." May we, the children of the Reformation, humble ourselves and thank God for faithful preaching! 

For God will surely require that we give an account of our preaching and hearing.

1. Except as noted, this and all other quotes come from many different volumes of Luther's Works. References can be provided upon request to this author, but are not included for lack of space.

2. T.H.L. Parker, The Oracles of God, An Introduction to the Preaching of John Calvin, p. 20.

3. A. Skevington Wood, Captive to the Word, p. 89.


The Believer and His Bible

This article first appeared in the special Reformation issue of the October 15, 1993 Standard Bearer (on the doctrine of Scripture), and was written by Prof. Robert Decker, then professor of practical theology in the PRC Seminary (now emeritus).

The Believer and His Bible

The sixteenth century Reformation proclaimed three fundamental principles: justification by faith alone, Scripture alone, and the priesthood of all believers. In opposition to Rome's hierarchy the Reformers insisted that the only authority for the faith and life of God's people is Holy Scripture. They further insisted that every believer as prophet, priest, and king in Christ could read and understand the Word of God. Rome had effectively taken the Bible out of the hands of the people. Rome's hierarchy, the clergy and especially the pope, stood between the believer and his Bible. The church (clerical hierarchy) interpreted the Bible for the people (laity). 

Today a new hierarchy has arisen in the churches, viz. that of the professional theologians, the archaeologists and geologists, the scientists, the learned scholars. These are telling us that we cannot understand the Bible anymore. They are telling us that the Bible does not say what we have always thought it says. Furthermore, because of this they are telling us we need them to tell us what the Bible really means and how it applies to our lives today. They represent a new hierarchy between the believer and his Bible. 

According to this new hierarchy the Bible contains man's witness to God or to Jesus. What we have in the Bible is the record of the various writers' religious experiences or encounters with God. The Pentateuch is the record of Moses' encounter with God. Isaiah witnesses to God as he and his contemporaries experienced God. The Evangelists wrote about Jesus as they saw and heard Him. The same is true of the apostles and other writers of the New Testament. The early church gradually adopted these writings as sacred Scripture. 

The Bible, therefore, is time bound according to these experts. It was written in its own time in history, and its writers were limited by the times in which they lived. They were influenced by the primitive vision of the ancient world of Bible times. They conceived, for example, of a three-storied universe: heaven above, the earth beneath, and hell under the earth. They thought that the sun revolved around a flat earth. The biblical writers had many other mistaken notions as well, such as, for example, the following: the world was created by God in six twenty-four hour days, there was a universal flood, an ax head floated, Jonah was in the belly of a great fish, a dry path was made through the Red Sea, water out of a rock went bouncing along after Israel in the desert. These men wrote in their times and for their times, but now in our scientific and sophisticated age we know better. Either these things just did not occur or there is a natural explanation for them. 

These men also say that the Bible is culturally conditioned. Each writer wrote in the context of his own culture, and this affected his witness to God. When, for example, Paul wrote about marriage and divorce, or about the headship of the husband, or about women keeping silence in the churches and not usurping the authority of the man in the church, Paul was under the influence of his rabbinical training and the cultural mores of his day. Likewise were the other biblical writers limited by the cultural influences of their day.

All this radically alters how we are to understand the Bible. The Bible, according to these scholars, contains myths and teaching models. Genesis 1, 2 tells us that God created the universe, but not how and when. Genesis 3 teaches that the human race fell into sin and death, but no more than that. The Bible contains misconceptions arising out of primitive conceptions of reality. And there are just plain errors in the Bible. One of these is the Bible's account of creation. Science has proved a very old universe. The earth simply cannot be about six thousand years old as Scripture teaches. Adam and Eve were not real people living in a real garden called Eden or Paradise. Further, what Paul said about women applied in his day when women ran around with veils and were living in a male dominated society. But all this does not apply in our enlightened times. 

Many factors are involved in interpreting the Bible. Two questions need to be answered in Bible interpretation: What did the writer mean by this passage relative to his own time and culture, and what does it mean for us today? The answers to those two questions often are quite different. In Paul's day women had to keep silence in the churches, while today they may occupy church office. In Paul's day homosexuality and lesbianism were considered a manifestation of the reprobate mind; while today such people may occupy not only the pew but also the pulpit. 

Thus it is, we are being told, that we need to know ancient history, culture, language, mythology, philosophy, archeology, and the sciences, if we are to be equipped to understand the Bible. Of course, we need to know these disciplines if we are to expound the Bible correctly. But the theologians mean something quite different. They mean that if there is a conflict between one's scientific discoveries and the Bible, one must reconsider the traditional interpretation of the Bible and be willing to change. Science determines the meaning of the Bible. 

The conclusion is that God's people really cannot understand the Bible. We are not equipped to read it correctly. We need the theologians, linguists, and scientists to tell us what the Bible is really saying. 

And so it is that a new hierarchy has arisen in the churches, that of the theologians and scholars. These must tell us the meaning of Scripture. Without them we cannot understand what we read in the Bible. Just as effectively as Rome, these have placed themselves between God's people and the Bible. They have effectively taken the Bible out of the hands of the people of God. 

This is very serious indeed! The church has always confessed, and the Reformation reasserted, these precious truths that the Bible is inspired and therefore infallible. The Reformation also asserted that the Bible is perspicuous, or clear. Because the Bible is inspired and infallible it is the only rule for our faith and life. And in the Bible God speaks to us in language which we can understand. The question or issue we face is not whether we can or do understand .what the Bible is saying, but whether we believe what the Bible is saying? This is, no doubt, at least one of the reasons Jesus told us we had to become as little children in order to enter the kingdom of God. This writer teaches a catechism class of six-year-old children. These little ones have no difficulty understanding that Jesus was born of the virgin, that He healed the sick and raised the dead, that He suffered and died on the cross and was raised from the dead and now sits at God's right hand in glory and is coming again at the end of the ages. The Scriptures are able to make us wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (II Timothy 3:15).

Our calling is plain! We must let no one, no synods, no theologians, no experts take our Bibles away from us. Still more, we must insist that the Word of God be faithfully preached. And faithfully means properly. The church does not need Sunday School stories from the pulpit, or dissertations on political or social issues. The believer needs to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd (John 10) by means of preaching. Without faithful preaching we cannot call upon the name of the Lord in faith and be saved (cf. Romans 10:13-15) Faithful preaching is preaching that expounds the Word of God. The sermons we hear must contain nothing more or less than what Scripture itself says. And we need to search the Scriptures daily, prayerfully to meditate on the Word of God. 

By these means we may be assured that the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ witnesses with our spirits that we are the children of God (Rom. 8:16). 

Following the example of Martin Luther let each of us, with Bible in hand, say to the new hierarchy, "Here I stand, I can do naught else, God help me."

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