Reformation Subjects (44)

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

The Swan’s Triumphant Song: From Worms to the Wartburg

This Reformation article on Martin Luther's stand at the Diet of Worms (1521) first appeared in the November 1, 2021 issue of the Standard Bearer (Vol.98, No.3) and was written by Karl Dykstra, a teacher at Covenant Christian High in Grand Rapids, MI.

The Swan’s Triumphant Song: From Worms to the Wartburg

Martin Luther was not the first ‘heretic’ to stand before the collective might of church and state. He was just one of the few who lived to tell the tale.

Already some one hundred years earlier, the Bohemian pre-reformer Jan Hus, who endearingly referred to himself as “the goose” (the meaning of “Hus” in Czech), was similarly summoned to the Council of Constance in Germany and condemned. Just before his burning on July 6, 1415, Hus made a stirring declaration: “Today you cook a goose, but in one hundred years you will hear a swan sing—and him you will have to hear!” 1

Though he could not have known it, Hus was nearly a prophet. A century after the goose was cooked, a swan began to sing in the German town of Wittenberg.  That swan’s name was Martin Luther.

In Luther’s day, the cooking of “the goose” Hus was well remembered. By it, the Holy Roman Church had set the precedent for what she did with heretics. In early 1521, and in Hus-like fashion, the excommunicated heretic Luther had been summoned to the imperial Diet of Worms.

Now it was the swan’s turn to sing.

Already at the Leipzig Disputation in 1519, Luther had publicly identified himself with the Bohemian hero, Jan Hus. There at Leipzig the God of the Reformation used the skilled Catholic orator, John Eck, to back Luther into the corner of sola Scriptura. “A simple laymen armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it,” argued Luther. “For the sake of Scripture we should reject pope and councils!” 2

But exactly that was the “Bohemian virus,” maintained Eck, and he charged Luther with “espousing the pestilent errors” of Hus.3 Initially, Luther vehemently denied the charge. But having studied the works of Hus during a break in the afternoon session of the eighteen-day long debate, he came back and shocked all in attendance by boldly proclaiming: Ich bin ein Hussite! 4

With that proclamation in 1519, Luther stood exactly where God wanted him to stand: on the firm foundation of Scripture alone.

Next would come his stand at Worms.

The swan is summoned to Worms 

Pope Leo X had officially excommunicated the swan of Wittenberg on January 3, 1521, declaring him to be a heretic outside of the “one holy, catholic and apostolic church.” With that the “German problem” became the prerogative of the young, new emperor Charles V, who was under oath to remove all heresy from his vast realm.

The grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain was all too eager to deal with the heretic in Wittenberg.  On March 26, 1521, a letter from Charles V arrived in Wittenberg announcing the imperial diet, including an invitation to Luther that was all too similar to what Hus had received. “Come to Worms under safe conduct to answer with regard to your books and teaching,” the summoning read. And should Luther try to turn down the imperial invitation, Charles added the thinly veiled threat, “You have twenty-one days in which to arrive.”5

The situation for Luther was heating up, condemnation and death the inevitable outcome. Yet none of these things moved Luther. He had set his face toward Worms, willing to offer himself in defense of the gospel before some of the most powerful men on earth.

On April 3, 1521, Luther, accompanied by several friends and imperial dignitaries, began the three-hundred- mile journey to the Diet of Worms confessing that “He who saved the three men in the furnace of the Babylonian king still lives and rules.”6 Luther knew his outcome might mirror the fate of his fiery forerunner Hus.

Perhaps then Luther was spurred on by the confession  of Hus: “It is better to die well than live badly.”7

The swan’s triumphant entry

Luther’s travel to Worms was not without high drama.  Everywhere Luther stopped on his way to the diet  he was greeted by throngs of people who wanted to  see the monk who defied the pope and would stand  before the emperor. Luther had become the German  hero. Not only had his writings “spread as on angel’s  wings” throughout Europe, but his portrait did too,  thanks to illustrations created by Lucas Cranach, the  artist of Wittenberg. Luther’s face was as recognizable  as his writings. The nation wanted to see their  hero in the flesh. As Luther entered German towns  and villages, he found the streets packed with admirers,  many even scampering up on rooftops to get a  look at their hero.

But Luther became convinced that his ancient foe  was attempting to hinder him from reaching Worms.  When Luther preached in Erfurt—the place where he  had studied to become a monk—the church was so  packed with throngs of people that the balcony creaked,  threatening to collapse. Farther along, when Luther  preached again, massive stones crumbled off the church  tower crashing to the ground. Luther chalked these up  as the devil’s attempt to hinder the gospel.

In Eisenach, Luther became so ill that his travel companions  were concerned for his life. This too Luther credited  to Satan: “I know your tricks, you bitter enemy!”  Then adding, “But Christ lives and we shall enter Worms  in spite of all the gates of hell and the powers of the air!”8

Luther was a man on a mission. And he was going  to Worms, even if he were threatened by as many devils  as shingles on a roof.9

Luther rode into Worms on the morning of April  16, 1521. If Luther received a hero’s welcome in the  various German cities along the way, his entrance into  Worms became a spectacle for the ages. Trumpets  blared from the cathedral top as two thousand people  thronged to greet Luther with praise and singing.  Their hero had arrived. Luther, descending from his  carriage, triumphantly assured the throng, “God will  be with me!”

The reception Worms gave Luther dwarfed what she  had given the emperor. The Roman curia were more  than a little annoyed; it seemed the whole world had gone after Luther. “I suspect he will soon be said to  work miracles,” crankily commented one cardinal.10

The swan goes missing 

By the time Luther stood before the Diet of Worms, the  hype surrounding his triumphant entry had quieted. Just  as the Council of Constance had ordered Hus to recant,  the dignitaries of both church and state assembled at  the Diet now demanded that Luther retract his writings.  But with God’s help the swan of whom Hus prophesied  boldly took his stand and could do no other.

Charles V was not impressed with Luther’s stand. As  Luther was escorted out of the chamber, the emperor’s  Spanish guards audibly chanted what everyone, including  Luther, expected to be his imminent fate: “To the  flames, to the flames.”11 Later, one cardinal spitefully  sneered, “When [Luther] left, he no longer seemed so  cheerful.”12 It seemed the swan would soon be cooked.

With Luther out of the diet’s chamber, Charles V declared  Luther a heretic and outlaw in every corner of  his empire. Luther was granted 21 days of safe passage  back to Wittenberg before the sentence fell. “When the  time is up,” Charles declared, “no one is to harbor him.  His followers also are to be condemned. His books are  to be eradicated from the memory of man.”13 The hope  was that Luther would soon be eradicated as well.

Luther left Worms as a man with a price on his head.  As an enemy of the empire, many suspected he would  never make it back to Wittenberg. The route was long  and winding, and it would not take much for an assassin  lying in wait to put an end to Luther. Several  days into his journey, as Luther’s party passed through  a ravine, an eerily stillness settled over the dark forest.  Without warning, horsemen armed with fearsome  crossbows surrounded Luther’s wagon. The horsemen  dragged Luther to the ground, tied a sack over his head,  and then hoisted him on to a horse. While Luther’s  companions ran for their lives, Luther’s captors whisked  him away—but not before he had grabbed his New Testament  and Hebrew Bible.

News of Luther’s disappearance made waves  throughout Europe. The anguished artist Albrecht Durer  lamented, “I know not whether Luther lives or is  murdered…. If Luther is dead, who will henceforth explain  to us the gospel? What might have he written for us in the next ten or twenty  years?”14

Luther, renegade monk,  the “wild boar” of Wittenberg,  the hero of the gospel,  the so-called swan, was  missing. And as much as  anyone knew, the swan was  dead.

The swan sings from the  mountaintop 

But Luther was not dead.  Perched high above a sea  of sprawling German forest  rests a mighty fortress  known as the Wartburg Castle.  This would be the hiding  place of Luther, after the  “kidnapping” orchestrated  by Frederick the Wise and  friends who feared for Luther’s  life. In the Wartburg, Luther  took on a new look and new  identity, “Knight George.” No one must know he was  the Reformer of Wittenberg. His very life depended on it.

In the “realm of the birds,” however, the swan was  restless. Luther was a man of action, and being holed  up in the Wartburg was maddening. Longing to be  down in the heat of battle, he regarded the island in the  sky as his “Patmos.” And had he even done the right  thing, he wondered? “I have withdrawn from the public  and thus obeyed the advice of friends,” he lamented.  “I am uncertain whether with this action I have done  something which is pleasing to God.”15

Though above the fray, Luther was not necessarily  out of the thick of it. Writing to a friend, Luther admitted,  “I am both very idle and very busy here; I am  studying Hebrew and Greek and writing without interruption.”  16 For the first seven months, Luther busied  his quill hurling ink at the attacks of the devil on the  Reformation. Assaults against the Reformation came  from both without and within, and Luther determined  to save the church from Catholicism on the one hand,  and radicalism on the other.

But in December of 1521, the swan’s song rose to a  crescendo as Luther took up a mighty work that symbolizes  his work and stay at the Wartburg refuge. Luther released the New Testament from its Latin prison.  Though Luther himself was locked up behind a fortress,  it did not mean the Word of God had to be. Opening  his Greek New Testament that he had snatched from the  wagon before being “kidnapped,” Luther translated all  twenty-seven books of the New Testament into German  in a shockingly short eleven weeks.17 Luther’s superb  translation, simple and powerful in its literary style, still  today is regarded as the principal German translation. 768w,

Taken from Martin Luther by Simonetta Carr (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016), 4. Used by permission

From the mountaintop, the swan trumpeted God’s  Word to the hearts of God’s people, arming simple laymen  with the triumphant song of the Reformation, sola  Scriptura. 

Ten years after he descended from his mountaintop  fortress, Luther reflected on the work of the Reformation.  He saw himself as fulfillment of his fiery forerunner’s  prophecy. “Jan Hus prophesied of me when  he wrote from his prison in Bohemia: They will now  roast a goose…but after a hundred years they will hear  a swan sing; him they will have to tolerate.

And so it  shall continue, if it please God.”18  And so the swan’s triumphant song does continue  500 years after Worms and the Wartburg. For it pleases  God that His Word stands forever.


1 Stephen Nichols, “The Goose and the Swan” in 5 Minutes in Church History (October 4, 2017). Ligonier Ministries: https://
2 Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009), 103.
3 Bainton, 102. 4 Herman Hanko, Portraits of Faithful Saints (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing, 1999), 112.
5 Bainton, Here I Stand, 201. Emphasis added.
6 Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), 201. 
7 Steven Lawson, Pillars of Grace (Orlando: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2011), 380.
8 Metaxas, Martin Luther, 206.
9 Metaxas, 206. 
10 Metaxas, 207.
11 W. Robert Godfrey, A Survey of Church History, DVD, episode 3, "Martin Luther and the German Reformation" (Ligonier
Ministries, 2012).
12 Metaxas, 212.
13 Metaxas, 230. 
14 Bainton, Here I Stand, 188.
15 Metaxas, Martin Luther, 251.
16 Metaxas, 247 
17 Upon his return to Wittenberg, Luther took up the sizable task of translating the Old Testament, completing the work in 1534.
18 Quoted in John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy (Wheaton,
IL: Crossway Books, 2000), 11.

Here I Stand

This Reformation article on Martin Luther's stand at the Diet of Worms (1521) first appeared in the November 1, 2021 issue of the Standard Bearer (Vol.98, No.3) and was written by Rev. Jacob Maatman, pastor of Southeast PRC in Grand Raids, MI.

Here I Stand [Luther at the Diet of Worms]

What happened at Worms in April of 1521 was decisive in the history of the Reformation, yea, in the history of  God’s church, the fruit of which reaches to the present  and, by God’s grace, will reach to the end of the world.  Martin Luther risked his life and dared an appearance before the emperor that we might have the gospel that  sets us free, the heavenly word that God kindled to light  afresh through the labors of a monk who said, “Here  I stand.” This sacred, precious, life-giving deposit  has been passed down to us, and we revisit Worms,  not as disinterested historians, but as children of the  Reformation.

This article intends to relate briefly the history of Luther’s  stand,1 but with particular focus on aspects that,  although perhaps lesser known, are no less significant  in discovering to us not only the heart of the man, but  deeper, the power of God who had this man in His grip.  As the psalmist says, “Come, ye children, hearken unto  me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Ps. 34:11).

Emperor Charles V cited Martin Luther to appear at  the Diet of Worms within twenty-one days, promising  safe conduct. But another emperor, about a hundred  years before, had promised the same to Jan Hus, man  of God, whose teachings Luther espoused. Hus was arrested  and burned alive at the stake. This history Luther  well knew. Nevertheless, the doctor headed to the  old city many miles away. After an eventful journey, he  entered Worms April 16, a hero in the eyes of many, a  heretic in the eyes of others. His presence electrified the  city to the chagrin of the papists. He was conducted to  his lodging.

The next day he was summoned to appear at the diet.  So great was the press of the crowd that the escort was  compelled to take the back alleys. At last they arrived,  and Luther stood before the council. “Never had man appeared before so imposing an assembly,” says one,2  at the head of which was the young emperor himself,  whose eyes met those of the monk from Wittenberg.  The spokesman on behalf of the emperor, John von Eck,  asked him two questions: first, whether these books  stacked on a nearby table were his; second, whether  he wished to retract them. In a letter written after his  departure from Worms, Luther summarizes the matter  thus:

 I thought His Imperial Majesty would have assembled  one or fifty scholars and overcome this monk in a  straightforward manner. But nothing else was done  there than this: Are these your books? Yes. Do you  want to renounce them or not? No. Then go away!3

Well, at this first appearing, Luther answered the first  question by affirming the books were his. He asked for  time to think and prepare an answer to the second. He  had not known in advance how the proceedings were  going to go; he wanted to make sure he answered rightly.  The request was granted, and Luther was given one  day. A letter he wrote shortly after he returned to his  lodging tells us the course upon which he was already  resolved: “With Christ’s help…I shall not in all eternity  recant the least particle.”4

Between his first and final appearing, an event of  great moment occurred, overheard and scribbled down  by someone in the right place at the right time: Martin  Luther prayed to His God and Father at a time that  one author says “was to him a little garden of Gethsemane.”  5 “This prayer,” says the same, “explains Luther  and the Reformation.” And, “In our opinion, it is one  of the most precious documents in all history.” In it, we  see a Jacob wrestling with God—“I will not let thee go,  except thou bless me” (Gen. 32:26); in it, we hear the  effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man that avails  much (James 5:16)—“O almighty and everlasting God,  how terrible is this world! Behold, it openeth its mouth  to swallow me up, and I have so little trust in thee.”  Further on: “O my God, where art thou?… Come,  come; I am ready…I am ready to lay down my life for  thy truth…. For it is the cause of justice—it is thine.”  And finally: “My soul belongs to thee. It shall abide for  ever with thee…. Amen…. O God, help me!… Amen.”

And help him God did. When the time was up, Luther arrived at the appointed time for his second appearing.  It was April 18. After a long wait in the foyer, the  evening drawing on and the candles flickering, he was  admitted into the packed hall. The same spokesmen  who had addressed him the day before got right down  to business, and put the second question to him again:  “Do you wish to defend all your acknowledged books,  or to retract some?”6

In his answer, Luther distinguished his books into  three kinds. In some of them, he said, “I have discussed  religious faith and morals simply and evangelically, so  that even my enemies themselves are compelled to admit  that these are useful, harmless, and clearly worthy  to read by Christians.” How should he disavow these!  “Another group of my books attacks the papacy and the  affairs of the papists as those who both by their doctrines  and very wicked examples have laid waste the Christian  world with evil.” If he should retract these, it would add  further fuel to the evil, and he would open “not only  windows but doors to such great godlessness.” As for  the third kind, written against individuals, Luther said,  “I confess I have been more violent than my religion or  profession demands,” but again, “It is not proper for me  to retract these works, because by this retraction it would  again happen that tyranny and godlessness would, with  my patronage, rule and rage among the people of God  more violently than ever before.”

He appealed to the example of the Lord: “If I have  spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong” (John  18:23), and pleaded with the emperor or anyone to  “bear witness, expose my errors, overthrowing them by  the writings of the prophets and the evangelists. Once  I have been taught I shall be quite ready to renounce  every error, and I shall be the first to cast my books  into the fire.” As for the “dissensions aroused in the  world as a result of my teachings…this is the way, the  opportunity, and the result of the Word of God, just as  He said, ‘I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’”  (Matt. 10:34). He concluded by warning the council  against condemning God’s Word for the sake of “settling  strifes,” for “it is he who takes the wise in their  craftiness” (Job 5:13).

The spokesman was not interested in an answer like  this. All he wanted to hear was, “revoco.”7 Yes or no,  Martin Luther? Do you, or do you not, retract? And then  the monk, before emperor, electors, lords, princes, and bishops, a silence filling the hall, breathless anticipation,  the eyes of all fixed upon him—then the monk spake those  words that reverberated through that assembly, and have  reverberated through the hundreds of years since:

Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek  a simple answer, I will give it in this manner…. Unless  I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or  by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or  in councils alone, since it is well known that they have  often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound  by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is  captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not  retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go  against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand,  may God help me, Amen.8

Again an attempt was made to get him to budge, but  Luther remained firm. The diet recessed, and he returned  to his lodging.

Scripture—that was the refrain that continued to be  heard the days following, when various persons and delegations  tried to negotiate with him. “Then began the  attempt to break Luther down through a committee.”9  But he was resolute: he could only agree to submit his  case to the judgment of another, including a council’s, if  Scripture would be the standard of judgment and the final  authority. The negotiations fell flat. April 26, several  days after his second appearing, Luther departed for  home, the emperor honoring the promised safe conduct.

This history exemplifies that great Reformation principle—  and one that grated upon the ears of Rome during  Luther’s time at Worms—of sola Scriptura, of which the  Belgic Confession speaks in the seventh article:

Neither do we consider of equal value any writing of  men, however holy these men may have been, with those  divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or  the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times  and persons, or councils, decrees, or statutes, as of equal  value with the truth of God, for the truth is above all.

Which is to say, God is above all.

Martin Luther stood in the fear of the Lord. Already  at his first appearing, we see it. Why did he  ask for time to prepare an answer? In his own words:  “Because this is a question of faith and the salvation  of souls, and because it concerns the divine Word…it would be rash and at the same time dangerous for me  to put forth anything without proper consideration.”10  He went on to quote Matthew 10:33, words that stood  large before him. Here is a man neither headstrong nor  cocksure, but one who feared God. He was confident,  but not self-confident. Listen to his prayer; he felt his  own weakness, but upon the Lord he relied. At the  diet, many and great were the faces and the power they  wielded, and what was he? But there was a witness that  day (though you would not have seen him with your  eyes), someone watching and listening who had more  hold on Luther than anyone else: the living God, to  whose Word Luther’s conscience was captive. “The fear  of man bringeth a snare: but whoso putteth his trust in  the Lord shall be safe” (Prov. 29:25).

God was at work that day. His power brought  forth Luther’s “I cannot.” Not, “I will not,” though  true enough, but even more significantly, “I cannot,”  because God would not let him do otherwise. In the  words of Merle d’Aubigne:

Luther, constrained to obey his faith, led by his  conscience to death, impelled by noblest necessity, the  slave of his belief, and under this slavery still supremely  free, like the ship tossed by a violent tempest, and which,  to save that which is more precious than itself, runs and  is dashed upon the rocks, thus uttered these sublime  words, which still thrill our hearts at an interval of  three [now five] centuries: thus spoke a monk before  the emperor and the mighty ones of the nation; and this  feeble and despised man, alone, but relying on the grace  of the Most High, appeared greater and mightier than  them all. His words contain a power against which  all these mighty rulers can do nothing. This is the  weakness of God, which is stronger than man. The  empire and the church on the one hand, this obscure  man on the other, had met. God had brought together  these kings and these prelates publicly to confound their  wisdom. The battle is lost, and the consequence of this  defeat of the great ones of the earth will be felt among  every nation and in every age to the end of time.11

What was loss and defeat for “the great ones of the  earth” was for the church of God, the cause of truth,  the gospel of Christ, victory, the blessed consequence of which has since been so greatly felt, and continues to be  felt, even by us.

Soli Deo gloria, “for of him, and through him, and  to him, are all things” (Rom. 11:36).


1 For a fuller treatment of this history, see Merle d’Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, vol. 2. Grand
Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1926. (Also available online at And, Roland Bainton, Here I Stand. New
York and Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950. And, Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther. New York: Viking, 2017.
2 D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, 253.
3 Martin Luther, “Letter 73 to Lucas Cranach,” Luther’s Works, vol. 48 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 201-202.
4 Martin Luther, “Letter 72 to John Cuspinian,” Luther’s Works, vol. 48, p. 200.
5 D’Aubigne, 258. The quotations of the author’s words, and the portions from the prayer are taken from pages 258-260.
6 “Luther at the Diet of Worms,” Luther’s Works, vol. 32, pp.
101ff. The document contains two accounts, one “prepared by the friends of the Reformation,” the other “the report of the papal
nuncio Aleander” (103). The quotations that follow are taken from the former.
7 Latin for “I recall” or “I recant.”
8 Regarding the last line there has been debate about both the order of words and whether or not Luther said more than “God help
me.” For an analysis, see Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980), 309-10.
9 Bainton, Here I Stand, 188.
10 Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 32, 107.
11 D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, 265-266.

John Huss and the Reformation

This article first appeared in the November 1, 1941 issue of the Standard Bearer and was written by Rev. George M. Ophoff, who also professor in the PRC Seminary.

John Huss and the Reformation

John Huss was one of God’s faithful witnesses—a man who, on account of his protest against the wickedness in the church and his exaltation of the Bible as the one infallible authority and the sole criterion of life and doctrine, died a martyr’s death.

It is said that the Reformation had two forerunners and that one of these was John Huss. The statement is true in the sense that through his witnessing he contributed to the sum and total of those agitation that resulted in the Reformation. If the truth of this contention is to appear, regard must be had first to the state of the church at the time in which Huss lived, second to his career as priest, and thirdly to the abuses in the church which he denounced.

The state of the church.

It had ceased to be true that the free gift of grace is obtainable only through Christ Jesus, the sole mediator of God and man. Superstition, fear, and alarmed imagination had devised numerous other means,—saints and mediators who had gone to their reward and whose duty it was said to be to make intercession in heaven for men on earth. And the earth was filled with pious works—such as sacrifices, observances, and ceremonies of divers kinds—on the grounds of which salvation had to be obtained. Such was the religion of this period.

“The sufferings and merits of Christ were looked upon as an idle tale, or as the fictions of Homer. There was no thought of faith by which we become partakers of the Savior’s righteousness and of the heritage of eternal life. Christ was looked upon as a severe judge, prepared to condemn all who should not have resource to the intercession of the saints, or to the papal indulgences. Other intercessors appeared in his place: first the virgin Mary, like the Diana of paganism, and then the saints, whose numbers were continually augmented by the popes. These mediators granted their intercession only to such applicants as had deserved well of the orders founded by them. For this it was necessary to do, not what God had commanded m His Word, but a number of works invented by monks and priests, and which brought money to the treasury.” These works were the chanting of prayers and the making of pilgrimages (for which there were as many resorts as there were mountains, forests, and valleys) and giving money to the convents and priests.

Such were the penitential works that had to be done in order to obtain salvation. This penance—the doing of these works—was regarded as punishment to which one had to submit in order to be forgiven. It was thought by this worship, man rendered himself deserving of grace and life. These penitential works continued to be multiplied in the church down to the thirteenth century. “Men were required to fast, to go barefoot, to wear no linen, etc.; to quit their homes and their native land for distant countries, or to renounce the world and to embrace a monastic life.” In the eleventh century there were added to these practices voluntary whippings. Nobles and peasants, old and young, even children of five years of age, went in pairs, by hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands, through towns and villages, visiting churches even in the depth of winter. Armed with whips, they flogged each other mercilessly.

Such was the burden that men had to bear in order to be saved, and for the deliverance of which they were sighing. It was therefore to ease this burden yet without losing their usurped power over the people, that the priests invented that system of barter that was given the name of Indulgences. An Indulgence was (and still is) a written remission of the temporal (usually purgatorial) punishment due to God for sins whose eternal punishment had been remitted on the ground of the sacrifice of Christ; it was a remission granted to the penitents from the treasury of the superabundant merits of our Lord Jesus Christ, of Mary most holy, and of the saints. As this temporal punishment consisted especially in penance, that is, in the doing of the works specified above, the Indulgence freed the recipient from the obligation of performing these works. It soon became customary to grant an indulgence—a written remission of sins—could thus such as the giving of lands or of a sum of money. An Indulgence—a written remission of sins—could thus be bought. As the Indulgence also freed from the fire of purgatory, the priests, to encourage the sale of the written remissions, would depict in horrible colors the torments inflicted by this fire on all who became its prey.

Somewhat later there was invented the renowned and scandalous traffic of Indulgences. It remitted from the punishment of the sin of incest for five groats. There was a stated price for murder, infanticide, adultery, perjury, burglary, etc. In 1300 Pope Boniface VIII promised to all who made a pilgrimage to Rome a plenary Indulgence. From all parts of Europe people flocked in crowds. In one month two hundred thousand pilgrims visited Rome, bringing rich offerings. The coffers of the pope were replenished.

It can be expected that such corruption of the doctrine of the church should result in the decline of morality. The doctrine and sale of indulgences were powerful stimulants to sin among an ignorant people. Though the indulgence, according to the church, could benefit only those who truly repented, all that was seen in them is that they licensed men to sin with impunity. The priests were the first to show the ill effect of this corrupting influence. In many places the people were at ease because the priest kept a mattress, that the married woman might be safe from his seductions. The houses of the clergy were often dens of corruption. Priests, in company with disreputable characters, frequented taverns, played at dice and climaxed their drunken revelries with quarrels and blasphemy. Both the lower and the higher clergy was sunk in ignorance. They had no need of studying the sacred scriptures. It was not a question of explaining the scriptures but of granting indulgences. The foundation truths of the Bible were entirely disappearing and with them the life that forms the essence of true religion. In the defense of the tenets of Rome, the appeal was made not to the scriptures but to the pronouncements of the councils and of the Pope and to the teachings of the doctors.

Yet there was the true church. And this church was not the Pope and the corrupt clergy, but the faithful servants of Jesus Christ, the true protestants of the truth. Their joint witness was the light shining in the darkness. They were found everywhere, in the humblest convent, and in the remotest parish.

Such a witness was John Huss. Huss was born on the sixth of July, 1369. He thus appeared upon the stage of history one hundred and fourteen years before Martin Luther. His birthplace was Hussinet, a Bohemian village, lying toward the border of Bavaria. Descended from a poor family, he was early acquainted with labor and privation. He studied philosophy and theology at the university of Prague. He received his master’s degree in the year 1386, and began himself to lecture at the university. In 1401 he was ordained to the priesthood, still maintaining a teaching connection with the university. The following year he was appointed preacher at the Bethlehem chapel, to hold forth the Word of God on every Sunday and festival day in the Bohemian tongue. As his sermons were aglow with the fervor of love from which they sprang and were backed by an exemplary life, they made a powerful impression. People gladly heard him, and soon he was surrounded by a community of warm and devoted friends. A new Christian life started forth among the people. In his sermons he dwelt with growing earnestness upon the subject of holy living and with unfailing severity attacked the prevailing vices of his time. So long as he rebuked corruption among the laity, he had the support of the archbishop, Zbynek; but on account of his criticism of the clergy, this favor gradually turned into opposition.

In the meantime Huss had read many of Wycliffe’s writings. What attracted him to these writings was the “realism” that they set forth, the spirit of reform that animated from them, and the inclination to adhere to the Scriptures as the only source of doctrine, and the striving after a renewal of the Christian life in the sense of apostolic Christianity that they revealed. Let us hear the words of Huss himself on this matter: “I am drawn to him (Wycliffe)—he says—by the reputation he enjoys with the good, not the bad priests of the university of Oxford, and generally with the people, though not with the bad, covetous, pomp-loving, dissipated prelates and priests. I am attracted by his writings, in which he expends every effort to conduct all men back to the law of Christ, and especially the clergy, inviting them to let go the pomp and dominion of the world and live with the apostles according to the life of Christ. I am attracted by the love which he had for the law of Christ, maintaining its truth and holding that not one jot or title of it could fail.” Theologically Huss is held to be a disciple of Wycliffe. True it is, that in common with Wycliffe, he taught, and correctly so, that the true church consists of the elect only, of whom the true head is not the pope but Christ, and of which the sole law is the will of Christ as revealed in the New Testament Scriptures. He divides the entire body of the clergy into two classes: the clerus Christi and the clerus antichristi. “We must regard—says he—the clerical body as made up of two sects: the clergy of Christ and those of antichrist.

The Christian clergy lean on Christ as their leader, and on his laws. The clergy of antichrist lean for the most part or wholly so on human laws and the laws of antichrist; and yet pretend to be the clergy of Christ and of the church, so as to seduce the people by a mere cunning hypocrisy. And two sects which are so directly opposed, must necessarily be governed by two opposite heads with their corresponding laws. The priests of Christ preach against the vices of a corrupt clergy. How can there be anything more senseless than a clergy giving themselves up to the dross of the world, and making mockery of the life and the teaching of Christ? For so exceedingly corrupt are the clergy already, that they hate those who frequently preach, and frequently mention the Lord Jesus Christ; and, if a man ventures to quote Christ for himself, they say with scorn and bitterness, Art thou Christ? And, after the manner of the Pharisees, they trouble and excommunicate those who acknowledge Christ.”

It can be expected that these sentiments, set forth in his De Ecclesia (on the church) and freely aired in his sermons, aroused against him the bitter hatred of the worldly clergy. He was accused of being in essential agreement with Wycliffe, which, of course, was true. This was a serious indictment, as the writings of Wycliffe were held in disrepute by the secular clergy in Germany and Bohemia. Already in 1402, thus the year following Huss’s ordination to the priesthood, the Wycliffite views were condemned by the majority of the university of Prague. And in 1409 Pope Alexander V issued a bull against what he held to be the Wycliffe heresies and preaching in private chapels. Huss now openly defended several doctrines of Wycliffe and on this account was excommunicated by his archbishop Zbynek. But even already now he was resolved to defend the truth to the death. Says he, “In order that I may not make myself guilty, then, by my silence, forsaking the truth for a piece of bread, or through fear of man, I avow it to be my purpose to defend the truth which God has enabled me to know, and especially the truth of the Holy Scriptures, even to death; since I know that the truth stands and is forever mighty, and abides eternally; and with her there is no respect of persons. And, if the fear of death should terrify me, still I hope in my God and in the assistance of the Holy Spirit, that the Lord Himself will give me firmness. And if I have found favor in His sight, He will crown me with martyrdom. But what more glorious triumph is there than this? Inciting his faithful to this victory our Lord says, Fear not them that kill the body.”

New causes of dissent arose. In 1412 Pope John XXIII issued a bull of crusade and indulgence against King Ladislaus of Naples. The bull proclaimed a crusade of destruction against this king and his party and a full forgiveness of sins to all who took part in the crusade. The bull offered a like indulgence to those also who would give as much money as they would have expended by actually engaging in the crusade for the space of one month.

Huss opposed. He contended that the secular sword belongs not to the priests, but to the worldly profession of arms. The pope must contend spiritually, not with the secular sword, but with prayer to almighty God. He insists that it is not permitted to the pope and the clergy to contend for secular things. The laity therefore must not comply with the requisitions of the bull. As to the indulgence, he argues that everyone who receives it will actually enjoy it just as far as he is fitted to do so by his relation to God.

The pope’s bull was burned by the people. Huss was once more excommunicated and Prague was placed under the papal interdict. Time drew near for holding the council of Constance. It could be expected that the disturbance in Bohemia was certain to demand its consideration. Huss was asked to attend with the assurance of a safe conduct from the emperor, Sigismund. Huss needed no such invitation. An opportunity to defend himself from the charge of heresy, to give account of his faith in the presence of the representatives of all western Christendom and to testify against the corruption of the church, was what he desired. The emperor did not keep his promise of a safe conduct. Shortly after his arrival in Constance Huss was imprisoned. Many were now the bitter charges brought against him by his enemies in Bohemia, formerly his friends. He was accused of denying the doctrine of transubstantiation, of holding Wycliffe’s doctrine, of promoting insurrection among the people, of creating a schism between the spiritual and the secular power. Huss was given three hearings before the council. The propositions, taken from his De Ecclesia, and which his opponents found especially heretical are the following:

“Dignity, choice of man, visible signs, make no one a member of the church but predestination alone. Thus a reprobate is no member of the church.

“If he who is called the vicar of Christ copies after his life, he is his vicar; but if he takes the opposite course, he is a messenger of Antichrist, stands in contradiction with Peter and Christ, and is a vicar of Judas Iscariot.

“The ground tone of life is either love or selfishness. If the former, a man does everything to God’s glory; if the latter, he does everything in alienation of God.

“The church needs no visible head (meaning the pope). Christ guides His church better without such monsters of supreme heads, by means of His true disciples scattered through all the world. “The hierarchy rules not by immutable and divine right. The true church is the community of the elect only.”

Especially the proposition that no reprobate was a true pope, bishop, king, was an error, the maintenance of which was considered madness. It was regarded insurrectionary, leading to the overthrow of every civil constitution; because no one knows whether he belongs to the number of elect or reprobate, and because we all offend in many parts of our duty. Several other charges connected with the Hussite movement in Bohemia—charges, many of which were false—were laid before Huss. No means was left untried to procure his condemnation. When all the charges had been brought forward, he was addressed by the council as follows, “Thou hast heard that two ways are proposed to thee,—first that thou shouldest publicly renounce those doctrines which have now been publicly condemned, and submit thyself to the judgment of the council; which, if thou doest, thou wilt experience the mercy of the council. But if thou dost persist in defending thy opinions, the council will no doubt understand how to deal with thee according to law.” To this Huss replied, “Reverend fathers! I have already often said that I came here voluntarily, not for the purpose of defending anything obstinately, but of cheerfully submitting to be taught better if in anything I have erred. I beg therefore that opportunity may be allowed me to explain my opinions further. And if I do not adduce good and true reasons for them, then I will gladly, as you require, submit to be instructed by you”. Several attempts were now made to induce Huss to recant, but to no avail. He was resolved not to recant till convinced of his errors from the Scriptures. After what he had heard expressed at the council, he had nothing else in prospect but the stake, and nothing to wait for but the decision of his lot. He wrote to his people in Prague to whom he had preached the Word of God, “I write this letter in prison and in chains, expecting on the morrow to receive my sentence of death, full of hope in God, that I shall not swerve from the truth, nor abjure errors imputed to me by false witnesses. What a gracious God has wrought in me, and how he stands by me in wonderful trials, all this you will first understand when we shall again meet together, with our Lord God, through his grace in eternal joy.”

On the 6th of July, Huss again appeared before the assembled council. He was officially charged with being a follower of Wycliffe and of having disseminated Wycliffite doctrines. Various errors were ascribed to him, and he was pronounced an obstinate, incorrigible heretic. Hearing, he said, “I never was obstinate; but as I have always demanded, up to this hour, so now I ask only to be informed of what is better from holy scriptures; and I confess that so earnestly do I strive after truth, that if with a word I could destroy the errors of all heretics, there is no peril I would not willingly incur for that end.” Now followed his degradation from the priestly order. The cup of the eucharist was taken from his hands with these words: “We take from thee, condemned Judas, the cup of salvation.” Huss said, “I trust in God, my Father, the almighty, and my Lord Jesus Christ, for whose name I bear this, that he will not take from me the cup of salvation; and I have a firm hope that I shall yet drink of it today in his kingdom.” He thereupon was turned over to the executioners of justice to be burned. The ashes of his burned body were cast into the Rhine, in order that nothing of them might remain to pollute the earth.

From the above materials, it is plain that Huss and Luther were kindred spirits. As translated into action, the doctrine of both would spell the overthrow of the Roman hierarchy. Both insisted that the sole source of doctrine is the scriptures, that in any and all disputes about truth and. morals the question is not what sayeth the pontiff of Rome or the councils or the doctors in the church, but what sayeth the Scriptures. The striving of both was to lead God’s people back to the Scriptures and to give the Scriptures back to God’s people. Both said that the pope cannot forgive sin but can only preach forgiveness to the penitent. Both opposed and attacked what every regenerated and spirit filled man opposed and attacked. The movement of Huss in Bohemia and that of Luther in Germany was, as to kind one and the same. This being true, Huss, in what measure it is impossible to say, prepared the way for Luther.


Pierre Viret: The Angel of the Reformation

This article first appeared in the November 1, 2020 special Reformation issue of the Standard Bearer (Vol.97, #3) and was written by Rev. Jacob Maatman. This issue was devoted to the subject of the French Reformation.

Pierre Viret (1511-1571), known as “the Angel of the Reformation,” a worthy epithet for a man about whom his friend Farel wrote, “I can say that never have I found in him anything but a sincere affection for Christ and His Gospel, a character devoid of all harshness, a truly Christian soul, walking in love and seeking peace.”1 He has also been called the “forgotten Reformer,” and inasmuch as we have, it is to our loss.

Viret was born in Orbe, Switzerland, a city of Vaud, the region in which he principally worked. When a young man, he was delivered from the darkness of the papacy and given the light of the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Then he met the indomitable Farel. It comes as no surprise to the reader acquainted with Farel that he succeeded in convincing Viret, at age twenty, to take up the ministry. God would use Viret mightily for the cause of the gospel not only in his native country and France, but, through his writings, the world over.

In 1534, Viret went to Geneva, where he and Farel sowed the seeds of the Reformation, but not without risk. His back had already been scarred by a priest’s sword; in Geneva he was poisoned, almost fatally. But he survived, and the city was won to the Reformation. For a long time he labored in Lausanne, not only attending to the duties of the ministry, but seeing to the establishment of the Lausanne Academy, where Beza taught for a time and such conspicuous names as Ursinus, Olevianus, and deBrès studied.

But there was trouble. The magistracy of Bern refused to give ecclesiastical discipline to the church, in spite of Viret’s earnest pleadings that the church have her due. The issue culminated in 1559, when Viret obtained permission from Lausanne to postpone the Lord’s Supper rather than celebrate it with unworthy communicants, though Bern had ordered the administration to proceed as usual. Irate, ungrateful for the Reformer’s tireless labors for the church, and with an high hand, Bern deposed Viret and the others. The exiles made an exodus to Geneva.

Viret worked together with Calvin for only a couple years. He was compelled to leave Geneva to seek a climate in southern France more conducive to his health, where he continued his labors in several cities. Although better for his health, France was worse for his safety, where the specter of persecution loomed large. A decree banning foreign ministers eventually brought him to Bearn, where he ministered under the auspices of Jeanne d’Albret, queen of Navarre. The conflict met him here as well, when Catholic forces invaded the territory and, among others, imprisoned the Reformer, sending shockwaves through the Reformed community. But he was released, and continued at Bearn until his death in 1571 when, having faithfully labored in the church of God to the advantage and salvation of many, this devoted servant of the Lord departed this world of tumult and suffering and entered into his rest, receiving a crown from the King.

What kind of a man was Pierre Viret? The words of Farel quoted above do tell. And his peace-seeking spirit was recruited more than once to mediate troubles and disputes in the church. He wanted peace in the church, but never at the expense of the truth: “But when the heritage of the truth must be defended, let us break the silence lest we appear to betray the Church by keeping quiet!”2 And remember that when the church was threatened by the lordship of Bern, Viret chose rather to be deposed than to fold. So many are the testimonies to the character of this angel, but space is wanting. The high demand for Viret by the Swiss and French churches is one—Calvin himself importuned to have him. For another, read the intimate, personal, and even frank letters exchanged between Viret and Calvin, two men knit together with cords of deepest love.

Viret belonged, with Farel and Calvin, to what Schaff calls “the triumvirate of the founders of the Reformed Church in French Switzerland.”3 Comparisons drawn between the three are illuminating. As regards their preaching, Beza says of Viret that he “possessed such winning eloquence, that his entranced audience hung upon his lips.”4 D’Aubigne, comparing them along broader lines, says, “The ardent Farel was the St. Peter of the Swiss Reform, the mighty Calvin the St. Paul, and the gentle Viret the St. John.”5 We need all three. Thank God for His gift to the church of Pierre Viret.

1 R.A. Sheats, Peter Viret: The Angel of the Reformation (Tallahassee, FL: Zurich Publishing, 2012), xvii. Principal source for this article. A must-read biography, containing a captivating exchange of letters between Viret and Calvin.

2 Sheats, Peter Viret, 149.

3 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1910), 252.

4 John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), xxix.

5 Merle d’Aubigne, History of the Reformation of Europe in the Time of Calvin, vol. 3: France, Switzerland, Geneva (London: Longmans, Green, Longman, Roberts and Green, 1864), 268.


Lessons from the Reformation in France

This article first appeared in the November 1, 2020 special Reformation issue of the Standard Bearer (Vol.97, #3) and was written by Prof. R. Dykstra. This issue was devoted to the subject of the French Reformation.

The Reformation is the work of God, not man. God reforms His church. God raises up men of understanding, courage, and strength for the purpose of using these men for church reformation, just as God raised up judges in the Old Testament. But even then, reformation begins in the heart of such men. The Spirit works a personal conviction of sin and unworthiness, a strong faith in Christ, and the assurance of salvation. The Spirit works in these men godliness and integrity. And God uses them in His time and way. No reformer sets out thinking that he is God’s instrument who will lead the reformation. When Moses thought that, God sent him to the wilderness to tend sheep for forty years. In most instances, reformers are most reluctant men whom God virtually drags into the conflict. That was the experience of Martin Luther and John Calvin. But use them God does, as He graciously reforms His church.

The great sixteenth-century Reformation in France confirms the reality that church reformation is God’s work. From a human point of view, reform was impossible. In the early 1500s, France was a staunch supporter of the church of Rome. The French nobility and many church offices—bishops and archbishops—were intertwined. It was not unusual that an archbishop, himself from an aristocratic family, passed his office on either to the highest bidder, to a relative, or to both. Historically, France had close links with the papacy. For seventy years in the fourteenth century seven popes forsook the city of Rome and sat on the papal throne in the French city of Avignon, which city was yet in the sixteenth century a center of financial power and dreadful corruption in the church. In 1516, the pope and the French king struck an agreement (Concordat of Bologna) that gave to the king the right to appoint bishops in France and granted to the crown a portion of the church’s income in France. Clearly, there was little incentive for the king of France to support the Reformation.

In addition, the leading theological university in Europe was the Sorbonne in Paris. When a significant theological conflict arose, the Sorbonne was considered the authority. The Sorbonne condemned Luther in 1521 as an enemy of the church of Christ who “vomited up a doctrine of pestilence.”

And finally, the dreaded Inquisition had been well used by church officials and kings to remove “heretics” in France and to gain the wealth of the condemned.

That the Reformation could in any way gain a foothold in France is due to the sovereign grace of God that changes hearts.

God’s providence

A second lesson from the history in France is that God’s providence serves the good of reformation. From a negative viewpoint this is seen in the kings of France. Their quarrels with other Catholic rulers (especially Charles V) prevented them, at times, from concentrating on the eradication of Protestants from France. Other times, God removed violent persecutors from the throne (such as Henry II, who died from a wound suffered in a jousting match), which left only young sons to rule—sons who clearly could not exercise full power for a time, allowing some breathing room for the Protestants in France.

On the positive side, God converted particular individuals in France who, because of their position or extraordinary abilities, served the cause of the Reformation. Once such individual was Marguerite of Angouleme. Marguerite was the sister of the king (Francis I) and queen of the region of Navarre. A convert to Protestantism, she was able to give aid and protection to many Protestants.

And then there were the notable French ministers— William Farel, John Calvin, and Theodore Beza, to name but a few. These men expended tremendous efforts for the Reformation in France. And though persecution in France drove them to Switzerland, they retained a keen interest in the churches in France and did all they could to promote the cause. Calvin wrote more letters to French Protestants than to any other group. His 1526 Institutes of the Christian Religion—and every edition thereafter—included a masterful letter addressed to Francis I, demonstrating that the Protestants were loyal subjects who maintained the doctrines of Scripture. Calvin dedicated his commentary on Daniel “To all the pious worshippers of God who desire the kingdom of Christ to be rightly constituted in France.” His concern for the Reformation there is obvious (see box). God also used Theodore Beza to strengthen the Reformation in France. Beza made numerous trips to France to help guide the churches.

Church government

The third lesson is that the French churches understood the importance of proper church government. They looked to Theodore Beza for personal help and adopted a church order modeled after the church ordinances written by John Calvin for Geneva. The churches understood the need to be unified, not independent; to be governed by elders, not bishops and popes. By the year 1559, the French Reformed churches held their first national synod.


The fourth characteristic of note is that the French Reformation was confessional. The churches adopted the French Confession of Faith written by John Calvin. Later, when the Dutch churches were torn apart by the Arminian controversy, Pierre du Moulin was a staunch defender of the Reformed doctrine of sovereign grace and of the Canons of Dordrecht. (See Rev. M. DeBoer’s article for more on this, page 63.)

Christian education

And fifth, the Reformed churches in France understood the importance of education. They maintained Christians schools for children, universities for higher education, and seminaries for training pastors. Their Romish opponents also understood their value, for one of the first restrictions placed on the French Huguenots was the outlawing of their schools.

Negative lessons

On the negative side, three warnings sound out from the Reformation in France. Exactly because God uses men and because all the members of the church are sinners, mistakes and failures happen, some of which are costly, some deadly.


First, rash activities can hurt the cause of the truth. Such was “the affair of the placards” in 1534. In Paris and other major cities, men took it upon themselves to post placards against “the horrible abuse of the papal mass.” One such placard was attached even to the door of the bed chamber of King Francis. Up to this point, the king had indicated that he was not in favor of the Reformation, but he was not actively persecuting Protestants. This rash act, however, led him to initiate violent persecution against them. Boldness for truth does not mean foolish, rash acts that simply infuriate the enemy with little profit, as did attaching the placard to the bedroom door of the king.

Wrong response to persecution

Like most other Protestants in that age, French Huguenots experienced persecution for their faith. The Lord told His church to expect this, and His Word tells His people how to respond to persecution, namely, to endure it patiently. Surely, thousands of Huguenots did endure patiently the loss of possessions, liberty, and even life. But many responded improperly. In this history are two wrong responses. The first was to hide their faith. Though they secretly confessed the Reformed truths, these believers continued to attend worship services in the Romish church. They gained the name “Nicodemites.” John Calvin wrote much in opposition to this response to persecution. (See more on this in the article on “Calvin and the Nicodemites,” page 67.)

The other wrong response was taking up arms. The French Reformation was irreparably damaged by the taking up of the sword. The opposition to the Reformation and even violent persecution of Protestants did not accomplish what the Roman Catholics hoped. For several decades, the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. The movement grew and spread throughout France until there were over 2,000 congregations. But then, in the late 1550s Huguenots opted for resistance, resulting in religious wars between Protestants and Roman Catholics. When the Huguenots took up arms, they lost the status of a persecuted church. When subsequently they turned to English Protestants for help, more Frenchmen turned against them.

But the real issue and lesson is that the cause of Christ is not advanced by force of arms. So long as the Protestants promoted the Reformation by means of preaching and teaching, the church flourished, in spite of fierce persecution. But when the church involved itself in politics and war, its growth ceased and the church declined. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit; saith the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6).

Two needed lessons for us today. The church is not called to arm herself for self-defense against persecution. The authorities who come to arrest believers must not be met with gunfire. Nor may we try to blend in with the world or the false church, so as to escape notice, and thus to avoid persecution.

False doctrine

The final lesson to be learned is how important it is that the church vigorously maintains the truth. This latter warning arises from the period when there was some relief from persecution because of the Edict of Nantes. In this period, a theologian of the Reformed churches named Moïse Amyraut began to spread his doctrine of hypothetical universalism. This is a form of Arminianism, though Amyraut insisted that he rejected Arminian theology. Perhaps one could say that it was an attempt to find a position between Arminianism and the Calvinism set forth in the Canons of Dordt, which then is a compromise of the doctrines of grace. Amyraut insisted that he was maintaining election and the efficacy of grace. But he taught a universal love of God, a general grace to all, a gracious offer of salvation in the preaching, and a death of Christ that was for all but only effective in those who believe. This teaching has much similarity to the conditional covenant idea, in which God promises salvation to every baptized child, on the condition of faith.

Many ministers issued strong protests against Amyraut’s teaching, but three different synods failed to condemn his views. One expert on the controversy maintains that by 1650 “Amyraldian theology had won the day in France” except for small pockets of resistance.1

The sad result of the wars of religion and the departure from the Reformed truth was that the Reformed faith virtually disappeared in France. Particularly, the departure from the truth brings God’s judgment on the church. The church that does not defend the truth over against the lie soon loses the right to exist.

We must learn from the Reformation in France. The church is the pillar and ground of the truth (I Tim. 3:15). The church exists to promote, defend, and proclaim the truth of the Bible. For a time, that truth shone brightly in France. The Huguenots practiced biblical church polity, had a thoroughly Reformed confession, and maintained Christian schools. The Reformation in France is a call to be diligent in maintaining these Reformed practices, but above all, to uphold the truth.

1 Brian G. Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), 7. For more on this heresy and its effect, see the article on Amyraut on page 64.


The Reformation and the Bible

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

* Lecture delivered on Reformation Day, 1940.

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

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

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

I will try to show you that the Reformation was:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Preaching and Disputations: How Zurich Became Reformed

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

Preaching and Disputations: How Zurich Became Reformed

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

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

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

Zwingli’s preaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Heinrich Bullinger: "Common Shepherd of All Christian Churches"

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

Heinrich Bullinger: "Common Shepherd of All Christian Churches" 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ulrich Zwingli: His Life and Work

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

Ulrich Zwingli: His Life and Work

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

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

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

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

Ministry in Glarus and Einsiedeln (1506–1518)

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

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

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

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

Early ministry in Zurich (1519–1520)

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

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

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

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

The years of reformation (1520–1525)

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

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

Later ministry in Zurich and death (1526–1531)

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

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

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

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

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

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

4  Schaff, History, 37–38.

5  Stephens, Zwingli, 16.

6  Boekestein, Zwingli, 43.

7  Stephens, Zwingli, 17.

8  Boekestein, Zwingli, 62.

9  Stephens, 19.

10  Boekestein, 74–75.


Luther's Struggle for Assurance

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

Luther's Struggle for Assurance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luther later described the event in these words:

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

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

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

Luther the monk, a tormented soul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Luther hoped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Bainton, Here I Stand, 27.

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

4 Bainton, Here I Stand, 54, 55.

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