Theologian for the Ages: John Calvin

John Calvin (1509–1564) is easily the most important Protestant theologian of all time and remains one of the truly great men who have lived. A world-class theologian, a renowned teacher, an ecclesiastical statesman, and a valiant Reformer, Calvin is seen by many as the greatest influence on the church since the first century. Apart from the biblical authors themselves, Calvin stands as the most influential minister of the Word the world has ever seen. Philip Melanchthon revered him as the most able interpreter of Scripture in the church, and therefore labeled him simply “the theologian.” And Charles Spurgeon said that Calvin “propounded truth more clearly than any other man that ever breathed, knew more of Scripture, and explained it more clearly.”

Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, to Gerard and Jeanne Cauvin in the French cathedral city of Noyon, some sixty miles north of Paris. Gerard was a notary, or financial administrator, for the Roman Catholic bishop of the Noyon diocese and, thus, a member of the professional class. At age fourteen, John entered the leading educational institution of Europe, the University of Paris, to study theology in preparation for the priesthood. There, he was immersed in the principles of the Renaissance, humanism, and scholarship. A serious and remarkably learned young man, he graduated with a master’s degree (1528).

Soon after Calvin’s graduation, Gerard fell into a conflict with the bishop of Noyon, and this falling-out with the church caused him to redirect his brilliant son to the study of law at the universities of Orléans (1528) and later Bourges (1529). Calvin learned Greek and sharpened his skills in analytical thinking and persuasive argument, skills he would use with great effect in the pulpit in Geneva. But when Gerard unexpectedly died (1531), Calvin, twenty-one years old, moved back to Paris to pursue his great love, the study of classical literature. He would later return to Bourges, where he completed his legal studies and received his law degree in 1532.

Suddenly Converted

While he was a student at the University of Orléans, Calvin encountered some of the early reform ideas through Martin Luther’s writings, which were widely discussed in academic circles. Subsequently, Calvin was converted to Christ. Calvin recorded a testimony of his conversion in the preface to his Commentary on the Book of Psalms (1557):

To this pursuit [of the study of law] I endeavored faithfully to apply myself, in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by the secret guidance of His providence, at length gave a different direction to my course. At first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor.

In November 1533, Nicolas Cop, rector of the University of Paris and a friend of Calvin, preached the opening address of the winter term at the university. The message was a plea for reformation on the basis of the New Testament and a bold attack on the Scholastic theologians of the day. Cop encountered strong resistance to his “Luther-like” views. Calvin is believed to have collaborated with Cop on the address, as a copy of the manuscript exists in Calvin’s handwriting. As a result, Calvin was forced to flee Paris before he could be arrested. He withdrew to the estate of Louis du Tillet, a well-to-do man who was sympathetic to the Reformation cause. There, in du Tillet’s extensive theological library, Calvin read the Bible along with the writings of the Church Fathers, most notably Augustine. By hard work, genius, and grace, Calvin was becoming a self-taught theologian of no small stature.

In 1534, Calvin moved to Basel, Switzerland, which had become a Protestant stronghold, in order to study in solitude. In Basel, he penned the first edition of what would become his theological masterpiece and the single most important book written during the Reformation, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. In it, he outlined the fundamentals of the Protestant faith and presented a compelling argument for the Reformed interpretation of Scripture. Amazingly, Calvin began this work at age twenty-five, only one year after his conversion. It was published when he was twenty-six.

In 1536, Calvin decided to move to Strasbourg, in southwest Germany, to further his studies as a quiet scholar. But a war between Francis I and Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor, prevented him from taking the most direct route. Calvin was forced to detour to Geneva, where he intended to spend only one night. But when he entered the city, he was immediately recognized as the young author of the Institutes. Those sympathetic to the Reformation took him to meet William Farel, who had led the Protestant movement in Geneva for ten years. Geneva had recently voted to leave the Roman Catholic Church and become a Reformation city, but it was in dire need of a teacher who could articulate Reformed truths. The fiery Farel challenged Calvin to take up the task; when Calvin hesitated, Farel resorted to an imprecatory threat. Calvin reports it this way:

Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me. And after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies, for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquility of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken.

Calvin began his ministry in Geneva as a lecturer, then as a pastor. Along with Farel, he began the task of bringing the life and practice of the church into accord with the teaching of Scripture. Among the reforms he implemented was the exercise of church discipline at the Communion table. This did not sit well with prominent Geneva citizens, many of whom were living sinful lives. This crisis reached the boiling point on Easter Sunday, April 23, 1538, when Calvin refused to administer Communion to certain leading people who were living in open sin. The tensions grew so great that Calvin and Farel were forced to leave Geneva.

Exile and Return

Calvin withdrew to Strasbourg, where he had intended to go two years earlier. His purpose was to escape from the public eye. But Strasbourg’s chief Reformer, Martin Bucer, insisted that Calvin must continue in public pulpit ministry and threatened him much as Farel had earlier. Yielding to Bucer, Calvin became the pastor of nearly five hundred Protestant refugees from France.

However, this theologian-in-exile was also given time and freedom to write in Strasbourg. Calvin wrote his Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and enlarged his Institutes, translating it into French. At this same time, he wrote what has been hailed as the greatest apologetic for the Reformation, A Reply to Sadoleto. After Calvin’s departure from Geneva, Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto had written an open letter to the people of the city, inviting them to return to the Roman Catholic Church. The city fathers appealed to Calvin to respond, which he did with his Reply, a compelling defense of the glory of God in the gospel of grace. Also during his time in Strasbourg, he married Idelette de Bure, a widow with two children, who brought him much happiness.

After Calvin had spent three happy years in Strasbourg, the city fathers of Geneva wrote to ask him to return as their pastor. In his absence, the religious and political situation had deteriorated. Initially, Calvin had no intention of returning. In a letter to Farel on March 29, 1540, he said, “Rather would I submit to death a hundred times than to that cross, on which one had to perish daily a thousand times over.” But Calvin eventually changed his mind, despite the many dangers he knew awaited him in Geneva. Calvin saw his life in Christ entirely and willingly given to God, an attitude depicted in his personal seal—a hand holding a heart, with the motto beneath: “My heart I give Thee, Lord, eagerly and earnestly.” He bowed to what he believed to be God’s will and returned to his pastorate in Switzerland.

Calvin arrived in Geneva on September 13, 1541, after an absence of three and a half years. In his first sermon, he resumed his exposition of Scripture at the next verse after the last one he had covered before being exiled. This continuation was intended as a bold statement that verse-by-verse preaching of the Word would hold the primary place in his ministry.

Calvin’s second Genevan pastorate had two periods. The first was the years of opposition (1541–1555), when he endured much resistance and difficulty. The opposition began to manifest itself in the form of the Patriots, the oldest, most influential families of Geneva. They disliked Calvin in large measure because he was a foreigner. He also faced the resistance of the Libertines, people within Geneva who were antinomians, living in open sin and immorality. But most demanding by far was the ordeal caused by Michael Servetus in 1553. This known heretic was burned at the stake by the city fathers after Calvin had been called as an expert witness. In other trials during this time, Calvin’s son, Jacques, died only two weeks after his birth in 1542, and Calvin’s wife, Idelette, died in 1549 after only nine years of marriage.

This draining opposition finally subsided, and the last nine years of Calvin’s life (1555–1564) could be described as the years of support. At long last, Calvin gained the support of the city fathers. With this backing, he established the Geneva Academy in 1559, based on the example he had seen in Strasbourg. The academy had a private school for elementary instruction and a public school offering more advanced studies in biblical languages and theology to train ministers, lawyers, and doctors. Also in 1559, the fifth and final edition of the Institutes was released. In 1560, the Geneva Bible was released, an English translation that was the first Bible with theological notes in the margins. This monumental work, produced by men under Calvin’s teaching, presented a worldview of the sovereignty of God over all creation.

Calvin dispatched French-speaking pastors, whom he had trained for the gospel ministry, from Geneva to other French-speaking provinces in Europe. Most went to France, where the Reformed movement grew to encompass about one-tenth of the population. Eventually, thirteen hundred Geneva-trained missionaries went to France. By 1560, more than a hundred underground churches had been planted in France by men sent out from Geneva. By 1562, the number of churches had multiplied to as many as 2,150, with more than 3 million members. The membership of some of the churches numbered in the thousands. This growth produced a Huguenot church that almost overcame the Catholic Counter-Reformation in France. Further, Geneva-trained missionaries planted churches in Italy, Hungary, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, England, Scotland, and the Rhineland—even Brazil.

A Farewell Address

In early 1564, Calvin became seriously ill. He preached for the last time from the pulpit of Saint Peter’s Cathedral on Sunday, February 6. By April, it was obvious that he did not have long to live. Calvin, age fifty-four, faced death as he had faced the pulpit—with great resolution. The strength of his faith, built on the sovereignty of God, appears in his last will and testament. On April 25, 1564, Calvin dictated the following words:

I render thanks to God, not only because he has had compassion on me, His poor creature, to draw me out of the abyss of idolatry in which I was plunged, in order to bring me to the light of His gospel and make me a partaker of the doctrine of salvation, of which I was altogether unworthy, and continuing His mercy He has supported me amid so many sins and short-comings, which were such that I well deserved to be rejected by Him a hundred thousand times—but what is more, He has so far extended His mercy towards me as to make use of me and of my labour, to convey and announce the truth of His gospel.

Three days later, on April 28, 1654, Calvin called his fellow ministers to his bedchamber and issued his farewell address to them. He cautioned them that the battles of the Reformation were not over, but only beginning: “You will have troubles when God shall have called me away. . . . But take courage and fortify yourselves, for God will make use of this church and will maintain it, and assures you that He will protect it.” With that, he passed the torch from his feeble hands to theirs.

Calvin died on May 27, 1564, in the arms of Theodore Beza, his successor. Calvin’s last words—”How long, O Lord?”—were the very words of Scripture (Pss. 79:5; 89:46). He died quoting the Bible he had so long preached. Appropriately, this humble servant was buried in a common cemetery in an unmarked grave—at his own request.

See also:

This excerpt is taken from Pillars of Grace by Steven Lawson.

Covenant Theologian: Heinrich Bullinger

Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575) is regarded as the most influential second-generation Reformer. As the heir to Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, Switzerland, he consolidated and continued the Swiss Reformation that his predecessor had started. Philip Schaff writes that Bullinger was “a man of firm faith, courage, moderation, patience, and endurance . . . [who was] providentially equipped” to preserve and advance the truth in a difficult time in history. During his forty-four years as the chief minister in Zurich, Bullinger’s literary output exceeded that of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Zwingli combined. He was of monumental importance in the spread of Reformed teaching throughout the Reformation. So far-reaching was Bullinger’s influence throughout continental Europe and England that Theodore Beza called him “the common shepherd of all Christian churches.”

Bullinger was born on July 18, 1504, in the tiny Swiss town of Bremgarten, ten miles west of Zurich. His father, also named Heinrich, was the local parish priest, who lived in a common law marriage with Anna Wiederkehr. This practice was officially forbidden by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but Bullinger’s father had received permission to enter into such a relationship by agreeing to pay his bishop a yearly tribute. The younger Heinrich was the fifth child born of this illegitimate wedlock. The marriage between Bullinger’s parents was eventually formalized in 1529, when the elder Bullinger joined the Reformed movement.

Young Heinrich’s father groomed him for the priesthood from a very early age. At age twelve, he was sent to the monastic school at Emmerich, known as the School of the Brethren of the Common Life. This school was a citadel of the via antique, the “old way” of learning that was stressed by the theologians of the High Middle Ages, such as Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and John Duns Scotus (ca. 1265–1308). There, Bullinger received an advanced education in humanistic principles, especially Latin. At the same time, he came under the influence of the devotio moderna, the “modern devotion,” a medieval emphasis on the Eucharist and the deep spiritual life. Augustine and Bernard were among the earlier leaders of this pietistic movement, and it had been revived by Thomas á Kempis in his book The Imitation of Christ. Bullinger was attracted to this movement’s stress on meditation and the search for a personal spiritual experience with God. Also at this time, Bullinger began displaying a remarkable aptitude for scholarship.

The University of Cologne

Three years later, in 1519, Bullinger proceeded to the University of Cologne, where he began studying traditional Scholastic theology. Cologne was the largest city in Germany, and Roman Catholicism was deeply entrenched there—papal superstitions ran high in the city and German mystics gathered there in large numbers. Aquinas and Scotus had taught there earlier, and their Scholastic influence remained firmly embedded in Cologne. But Bullinger was convinced of the humanist approach. In his studies, he pursued the writings of the Church Fathers, especially Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Augustine. Their insistence on the priority of Scripture moved him to study the Bible for himself. Such a pursuit, he later admitted, was unknown to most of his fellow students.

While at Cologne, Bullinger was exposed to the teaching of the leading humanist of the day, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (ca. 1466–1536). Erasmus had elevated the Scriptures over Aristotelian logic and sought to reform the church through humanistic scholarship and the moral teachings of Christ. But it was Luther’s works that most challenged Bullinger’s thinking. Luther’s books were being burned in Cologne, which only piqued Bullinger’s interest in their content. Soon his mind was captured by Luther’s ideas. He also studied Philip Melanchthon’s Loci communes (1521), the first systematic treatment of Lutheran theology. In it, Melanchthon treated the Reformed hallmark doctrines of the bondage of the will and justification by faith alone. This work further impacted Bullinger. Seeds of reform were being sown in his mind. At age seventeen, he embraced the pivotal truth that justification is by faith alone in Christ alone. Amid this personal transformation, Bullinger gained his master’s degree.

In 1522, Bullinger returned home to Bremgarten a new man. He continued his persistent study of Scripture along with his reading of the Church Fathers, Luther, and Melanchthon. The next year, he became the head teacher of the school at the Cistercian convent at Kappel. From 1523 to 1529, he instructed the monks from the New Testament and introduced Reformed teaching. Under his influence, Protestant worship replaced the Mass. Further, many monks became Reformed ministers.

Bullinger took a five-month leave of absence in 1527 and made a trip to Zurich. This journey proved to be life changing for him. He attended lectures by Zwingli and met the Swiss Reformer, starting a relationship that would have a profound effect on him and the future of the Swiss Reformation. He was appointed to accompany Zwingli to the Disputation in Berne, which opened on January 7, 1528. On this occasion, the Ten Theses of Berne was presented and subscribed. Through all this, Bullinger was given a privileged inside look at Reformation workings. Subsequently, Bullinger made an annual journey to Zurich to discuss theology with Zwingli. Through this close association, Zwingli became aware of Bullinger’s abilities in the Scriptures. Though neither knew it at the time, Bullinger was being prepared to become Zwingli’s successor.

Pastoring at Hausen and Bremgarten

Later in 1528, Bullinger became the part-time pastor of the village church at Hausen, near Kappel. He preached his first sermon on June 21, beginning an appointment that would allow him to develop his pulpit gifts. The following year, Heinrich Sr. publicly declared his commitment to Reformed teaching and started to reform his parish at Bremgarten. However, the elder Bullinger was forced to resign his position because of the resistance of his parishioners. In an unusual turn of events, the younger Bullinger succeeded his father as pastor of the church. He continued the biblical reform his father had begun and became known as the Reformer of Bremgarten.

Yearning for a wife, Bullinger traveled to the former Dominican convent at Oetenbach in 1529, having heard that the nuns had become Reformed. The nunnery had disbanded, but two women had stayed to establish a Protestant witness. One was Anna Adischwyler, a devoted believer. Bullinger asked her to become his wife and she accepted. Through the years, they had eleven children of their own and adopted others. Remarkably, all six of their sons became Protestant ministers.

For the next two years, Bullinger helped spread Reformed teaching through his pulpit and the beginning of his prolific writing ministry. At this time, he began his long series of commentaries on the books of the New Testament.

With the growing entrenchment of Protestant beliefs in Switzerland, Roman Catholic resistance soon arose. Five Catholic cantons (states), alarmed at the rise of Protestantism in Zurich, declared war on this Reformed stronghold in October 1531. No Protestant canton offered Zurich any support. On October 11, at the Battle of Kappel, the Protestants were ambushed and Zwingli, serving as a military chaplain, was killed. Zurich was forced to accept unfavorable terms of peace. Some regions of Switzerland, including Bremgarten, reverted to Catholicism.

Bullinger, a recognized Protestant leader, was threatened with the scaffold at Bremgarten. He fled to Zurich, where, three days later, he was prevailed upon to preach in Zwingli’s empty pulpit. So powerful was Bullinger’s preaching that the people exclaimed he must be the second coming of Zwingli. Oswald Myconius, a follower of Zwingli, said, “Like the phoenix, he [Zwingli] has risen from the ashes.” It was vitally important for the Swiss churches that Zwingli be replaced by a man of the same Reformed convictions and abounding energy in the Lord’s work. In Bullinger, they found such a man.

Chief Minister of Zurich

Six weeks later, on December 9, 1531, Bullinger, only twenty-seven years old, was unanimously elected by the Council of Zurich and the citizens to succeed Zwingli. After the council agreed to guarantee the clergy’s freedom to preach on all aspects of life in the city, Bullinger accepted the position. He became the antistes—the “chief minister”—of the city. In so doing, he assumed the leadership of the Reformed movement in German-speaking Switzerland. On December 23, he took the pulpit of the Grossmünster, a position he held for forty-four years until his death in 1575. In this role, Bullinger presided over the other churches of the cantonal synod as a sort of “Reformed bishop.” He was also responsible for the reform of the school system.

Bullinger was a tireless preacher. For the first ten years of his ministry in Zurich, he preached six or seven times a week. After 1542, he preached twice a week, on Sundays and Fridays, which allowed him to devote himself to a rigorous writing schedule. Bullinger followed Zwingli in the lectio continua method of preaching, moving verse by verse through whole books of Scripture. His expository sermons were biblical, simple, clear, and practical. In all, it is estimated that Bullinger preached in Zurich between seven thousand and seventy-five hundred sermons. These expositions became the basis for his commentaries, which covered much of the Bible.

Bullinger was also a big-hearted pastor. His house was open to widows, orphans, strangers, exiles, and persecuted brethren. He freely bestowed food, clothing, and money on those in need. Bullinger even secured a pension for Zwingli’s widow and educated Zwingli’s children with his own sons and daughters. He was a devoted pastor who produced one of the first Protestant books for comforting the sick and dying. Many of the persecuted believers of England escaped Mary Tudor’s reign of terror in Zurich, finding refuge in Bullinger’s open arms. Upon their return home, these refugees became leading English Puritans.

A man of considerable theological abilities, Bullinger helped co-author the First Helvetic Confession (1536) and played a key role in the Consensus Tigurinus (1549). The former was the first national Swiss confession; the latter was an attempt by Calvin and Bullinger to rectify Protestant disagreements over the Lord’s Supper. During the discussions over this document, Bullinger invited Calvin to Zurich for face-to-face talks. Calvin accepted the invitation. On May 20, 1549, he and William Farel journeyed to Zurich, where they met with Bullinger. Calvin and Bullinger reached an agreement regarding the sacraments that united the Reformed efforts in Geneva and Zurich. By these confessional documents, Bullinger helped galvanize Switzerland during the beginning of its Reformation period. He combated the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation in the Lord’s Supper and refuted Anabaptist teaching on baptism. However, he remained open-minded toward the various radical movements.

Throughout this time, Bullinger was consulted by English royalty, including Edward VI (1550) and Elizabeth I (1566). He viewed the leaders of the Church of England as fellow Reformed churchmen as they struggled against Rome. Portions of his book Decades were dedicated to Edward VI and Lady Jane Grey. On a broader scale, he maintained correspondence with Reformed leaders all over the Protestant world, including Philip of Hesse. His wise and balanced counsel gave much-needed direction to many in the Reformed movement.

In Bullinger’s closing years, he suffered the tragic deaths of his wife, Anna, and several of their daughters. Their lives were taken in outbreaks of the plague in 1564 and 1565. Bullinger himself became severely ill during the second outbreak. Though he survived the outbreak, his health remained poor, and he died on September 17, 1575, after four decades of tireless and effective ministry. He left behind a rich legacy in the truths of sovereign grace that helped give theological and ecclesiastical order to the Reformation.

See also:

This excerpt is taken from Pillars of Grace by Steven Lawson.

Prince of Translators: William Tyndale

William Tyndale (ca. 1494–1536) made an enormous contribution to the Reformation in England. Many would say that he made the contribution by translating the Bible into English and overseeing its publication. One biographer, Brian Edwards, states that not only was Tyndale “the heart of the Reformation in England,” he “was the Reformation in England.” Because of his powerful use of the English language in his Bible, this Reformer has been called “the father of modern English.”

John Foxe went so far as to call him “the Apostle of England.” There is no doubt that by his monumental work, Tyndale changed the course of English history and Western civilization.

Tyndale was born sometime in the early 1490s, most likely in 1494, in Gloucestershire, in rural western England. The Tyndales were an industrious and important family of well-to-do yeoman farmers, having the means to send William to Oxford University. In 1506, William, age twelve, entered Magdalen School, the equivalent of a preparatory grammar school located inside Magdalen College at Oxford. After two years at Magdalen School, Tyndale entered Magdalen College, where he learned grammar, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, rhetoric, logic, and philosophy. He also made rapid progress in languages under the finest classical scholars in England. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1512 and a master’s degree in 1515. Before leaving Oxford, Tyndale was ordained into the priesthood.

Cambridge and the White Horse Inn

Tyndale next went to study at Cambridge University, where it is believed he took a degree. Many of Martin Luther’s works were being circulated among the instructors and students, creating great excitement on the campus. In this environment, Tyndale embraced the core truths of the Protestant movement.

In 1520, just three years after Luther had posted his Ninety-five Theses, a small group of Cambridge scholars began meeting regularly to discuss this “new” theology. They gathered at a pub on the campus of King’s College called the White Horse Inn. As they debated the ideas of the German Reformer, this group became known as “little Germany.” The group included many future leaders in the Reformed movement.

In 1521, Tyndale felt he needed to step away from the academic atmosphere in order to give more careful thought to the truths of the Reformation. He also wanted time to study and digest the Greek New Testament. So he took a job back in Gloucestershire, working for the wealthy family of Sir John Walsh. During this time, he realized that England would never be evangelized using Latin Bibles. He came to see that “it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except the Scripture were laid before their eyes in their mother tongue.”

Local priests often came to dine at the Walsh manor, and Tyndale witnessed firsthand the appalling ignorance of the Roman clergy. During one meal, he fell into a heated argument with a Catholic clergyman, the latter asserting, “We had better be without God’s laws than the pope’s.” Tyndale boldly responded: “I defy the pope and all his laws.” He then added these famous words: “If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” From this point forward, the ambitious task of translating the Bible into English was Tyndale’s driving mission.

To London with a Plan

In 1523, Tyndale traveled to London to seek official authorization for a translation project. He arranged to meet the bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall. Tyndale felt Tunstall would be open to his translation project, but he met resistance. Tunstall was determined to resist the spread of Luther’s ideas, fearing an upheaval in England such as had occurred in Germany after the release in 1522 of Luther’s German Bible. Tunstall knew that an English Bible, accessible to the people, would promote Reformed teachings and challenge the Catholic Church. Tyndale soon realized that he would have to leave the country to accomplish his translation project.

In April 1524, Tyndale, about age thirty, sailed to the Continent to launch his translation and publishing work. Tyndale would live in exile from England for the final twelve years of his life, a fugitive and outlaw.

After arriving in Hamburg, Germany, it appears that Tyndale first journeyed to Wittenberg to be under the influence of Luther, who had thrown off the last vestiges of popish authority. Here Tyndale began the work of translating the New Testament from Greek into English.

In August 1525, Tyndale traveled to Cologne, where he completed his first translation of the New Testament. In this bustling city, Tyndale found a printer, Peter Quentell, to publish his translation. He wanted the secrecy of the printing to be guarded at all costs, but the news about the project leaked. A bitter opponent of the Reformation, John Cochlaeus, overheard and immediately arranged for a raid on the press. However, Tyndale was forewarned; he gathered the printed leaves after only ten pages had been run and escaped into the night. He fled up the Rhine to the more Protestant-friendly city of Worms.

In 1526, Tyndale found a printer, Peter Schoeffer, who agreed to complete the printing of his English New Testament. This was the first portion of the Scriptures to be translated into English from the Greek and to be mechanically printed. Some six thousand copies were printed in clear, common English. In spring 1526, Tyndale began to smuggle his English New Testaments into England in bales of cotton. Demand quickly outstripped supply.

By the summer of 1526, this underground circulation of Tyndale’s New Testament was known to church officials. Both the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London were enraged. They attempted to destroy all the copies of Tyndale’s New Testament that they could find and declared it a serious crime to buy, sell, or even handle it. But these actions failed to stop the spread of Tyndale’s translation. Demand only increased.

On June 18, 1528, the archbishop of York, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, dispatched three agents to the Continent to search aggressively for Tyndale. Wolsey also ordered John Hacket—the English ambassador to the Low Countries (the Netherlands)—to demand that the regent of the Low Countries authorize the arrest of Tyndale. But Tyndale withdrew to Marburg for safety. Hacket eventually reported that Tyndale could not be found.

Translating the Pentateuch

In September 1528, another attempt was launched to track Tyndale down. John West, a friar, was dispatched from England to the Continent to apprehend the fugitive and bring him back. West landed at Antwerp, dressed in civilian attire, and began hunting for Tyndale. He scoured the cities and interrogated printers. Sensing the pressure, Tyndale remained in Marburg. He spent the time teaching himself Hebrew, a language that had not been taught in the English universities when Tyndale was a student. With this new skill, Tyndale began translating the Pentateuch from Hebrew into English.

In 1529, Tyndale moved from Marburg to Antwerp. This thriving city offered him good printing, sympathetic fellow Englishmen, and a direct supply route to England. Under this new cover, he completed his translation of the five books of Moses, but he felt the danger was too great to stay in this large city. He realized that the Pentateuch must be printed elsewhere. So Tyndale boarded a ship to sail to the mouth of the Elbe River in Germany and then to Hamburg. But a severe storm struck the ship and it was wrecked off the coast of Holland. Tragically, his books, writings, and the Pentateuch translation were lost at sea. He had to start the work from scratch.

Tyndale eventually made his way to Hamburg. There he was received into the home of the von Emersons, a family with strong sympathies for the Reformation. In this protective environment, Tyndale undertook the laborious effort of retranslating the Pentateuch from the Hebrew language. This task took from March to December 1529. In January 1530, the five books of Moses in English were printed in Antwerp, then smuggled into England and distributed.

In November 1530, Thomas Cromwell, a counselor to King Henry VIII, tried another strategy to sway Tyndale. He commissioned Stephen Vaughan, an English merchant who was sympathetic to the Reformation, to find Tyndale. On behalf of the king, Vaughan was instructed to offer Tyndale a salary and safe passage back to England. When he arrived on the Continent, Vaughan sent letters to Tyndale. Tyndale replied, and a series of secret meetings took place in Antwerp in April 1531. However, Tyndale feared that the king would break his promise of safe passage, ending the translation work. Therefore, Tyndale told Vaughan that he would return on only one condition—the king must have the Bible translated into the English language by someone else. If the king would do that, Tyndale said, he would return to England, never translate again, and offer his life unto death to the king if need be.

On June 19, Vaughan wrote back to Cromwell from Antwerp these simple words: “I find him [Tyndale] always singing one note.” In other words, Tyndale would not change his tune. He would not return to England until the king had commissioned a Bible in the English language.

Captured in Antwerp

In early 1534, Tyndale moved into a house in Antwerp as the guest of Thomas Poyntz, a wealthy English merchant who was, according to Tyndale biographer David Daniell, “a good, shrewd, friend and loyal sympathizer.” Poyntz took Tyndale into his protection and even provided him with a stipend.

Feeling secure, Tyndale set about the work of completing a revision of his New Testament translation. This second edition contained some four thousand changes and corrections from the 1526 edition. Tyndale’s Hebrew was now as good as his Greek, which allowed him to work masterfully on the next part of his Old Testament translation, Joshua through 2 Chronicles.

Back in England, a certain Harry Phillips had been given a large sum of money by his father to pay a man in London. But Phillips gambled the money away. An unknown high official in the church—probably the bishop of London, John Stokesley—was made aware of Phillips’ plight and offered him a large sum of money to travel to the Continent and find Tyndale. In his desperation, Phillips accepted the offer. He arrived in Antwerp in early summer 1535 and began to make the necessary contacts among the English merchants. When he found Tyndale, he deviously established his friendship and won Tyndale’s trust. Then, one day he lured Tyndale into a narrow passage, where soldiers arrested him. After twelve years as a fugitive, Tyndale was captured.

Poyntz’s home was then raided and a number of Tyndale’s possessions were removed. However, his bulky manuscript translation of Joshua to 2 Chronicles somehow survived the raid. In all likelihood it was in the possession of his friend John Rogers, who eventually printed it in the Matthew’s Bible (1537).

Imprisoned in Vilvoorde

Tyndale was imprisoned in the castle of Vilvoorde six miles north of Brussels. There, Tyndale languished for nearly a year and a half as preparations were made for his trial. Foxe writes that Tyndale “was affecting his very . . . enemies,” because, during the time of his imprisonment “it is said, he converted his keeper, the keeper’s daughter, and others of his household.”

In August 1536, Tyndale at last stood trial. A long list of charges was drawn up against him and he was condemned as a heretic. That same day, Tyndale was excommunicated from the priesthood in a public service. He then was handed over to the secular powers for punishment. The death sentence was pronounced.

Tyndale was executed on October 6, 1536. He was strangled, burned, and his body blown apart by gunpowder, but at some point before his death, he cried his famous last words: “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”

See also:

This excerpt is taken from Pillars of Grace by Steven Lawson.

Zurich Revolutionary: Ulrich Zwingli

Other than Martin Luther, Heinrich Bullinger, and John Calvin, the most important early Reformer was Ulrich Zwingli. A first-generation Reformer, he is regarded as the founder of Swiss Protestantism. Furthermore, history remembers him as the first Reformed theologian. Though Calvin would later surpass Zwingli as a theologian, he would stand squarely on Zwingli’s broad shoulders.

Less than two months after Luther came into the world, Zwingli was born on January 1, 1484, in Wildhaus, a small village in the eastern part of modern-day Switzerland, forty miles from Zurich. His father, Ulrich Sr., had risen from peasant stock to become an upper-middle-class man of means, a successful farmer and shepherd, as well as the chief magistrate for the district. This prosperity allowed him to provide his son with an excellent education. He presided over a home where typical Swiss values were inculcated in young Ulrich: sturdy independence, strong patriotism, zeal for religion, and real interest in scholarship.

The elder Ulrich early recognized the intellectual abilities of his son and sent him to his uncle, a former priest, to learn reading and writing. Thanks to his prosperity, Zwingli’s father was able to provide his son with further education. In 1494, he sent the ten-year-old Ulrich to the equivalent of high school at Basel, where he studied Latin, dialectic, and music. He made such rapid progress that his father transferred him to Berne in 1496 or 1497, where he continued his studies under a noted humanist, Heinrich Woeflin. Here Zwingli was given significant exposure to the ideas and Scholastic methods of the Renaissance. His talents were noted by the Dominican monks, who tried to recruit him to their order, but Zwingli’s father did not want his son to become a friar.

Universities of Vienna and Basel

In 1498, Zwingli’s father sent him to the University of Vienna, which had become a center of classical learning as Scholasticism was displaced by humanist studies. There he studied philosophy, astronomy, physics, and ancient classics. In 1502, he enrolled at the University of Basel and received a fine humanist education. In class, he came under the influence of Thomas Wyttenbach, professor of theology, and began to be aware of abuses in the church. He also taught Latin as he pursued further classical studies. He received his bachelor’s (1504) and master’s (1506) degrees from the school.

Zwingli was ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church and immediately purchased a pastorate at Glarus, his boyhood church. Paying money to a prince for a church position was a common practice prior to the Reformation. His time was spent preaching, teaching, and pastoring. He also devoted himself to much private study, teaching himself Greek and studying the Church Fathers and the ancient classics. He became enamored with the pagan philosophers and poets of old. Most significantly, he began reading the humanist writings of Desiderius Erasmus and was profoundly impressed with his scholarship and piety. This sparked a highly prized correspondence with Erasmus.

During his service in Glarus, from 1506 to 1516, Zwingli twice served as chaplain to bands of young Swiss mercenaries. Swiss soldiers for hire were in great demand across Europe and were a major source of income for Swiss cantons. Even the pope had Swiss guards around him. But this practice cost the lives of many of the best Swiss young men. As a chaplain, Zwingli witnessed many of them fighting each other, Swiss killing Swiss on foreign soil for foreign rulers. He was forced to administer the last rites countless times. The Battle of Marignano (1515) took nearly ten thousand Swiss lives. Zwingli came to deplore the evils of this system and began to preach against it.

His final year at Glarus proved to be pivotal. It was at this time that Zwingli came to an evangelical understanding of the Scriptures. Erasmus published his Greek New Testament in that year, and Zwingli devoured it; it is said he memorized Paul’s epistles in the original language. This occurred a little more than a year before Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church door. Thanks to his study of the Scriptures, with no knowledge of Luther’s ideas, Zwingli began to preach the same message Luther would soon proclaim. He wrote: “Before anyone in the area had ever heard of Luther, I began to preach the gospel of Christ in 1516. . . . I started preaching the gospel before I had even heard Luther’s name. . . . Luther, whose name I did not know for at least another two years, had definitely not instructed me. I followed holy Scripture alone.”

Popular Preacher at Einsiedeln

Because of political pressures and his sermons against mercenary fighting, Zwingli was forced to leave Glarus in 1516. He served as a priest at the Benedictine monastery of Einsiedeln until 1518. Einsiedeln was a resort city that was known for its shrine to the Virgin Mary. This shrine attracted large numbers of pilgrims from all parts of Switzerland and beyond. This wider audience heard Zwingli preach, which expanded his reputation and influence.

Einsiedeln was smaller than Glarus, so his duties were lighter. That afforded him more time for the study of Scripture and the Church Fathers. He read the works of Ambrose, Jerome, Chrysostom, and Augustine, as well as the writings of Erasmus. Further, he copied by hand Erasmus’s Greek New Testament. As he distinguished himself as a popular preacher, he also began attacking some of the abuses of the church, specifically the sale of indulgences, and his preaching began to take on a stronger evangelical tone. However, Zwingli did not yet see the need for changes in what the church believed. Rather, he felt reform should be primarily institutional and moral. Also, he remained more dependent on the Church Fathers than the Scriptures in his teaching. He was not yet ready for the work of reform.

In December 1518, Zwingli’s growing influence secured for him the office of “people’s priest” at the Grossmünster (Great Cathedral) at Zurich. This pastorate was a significant position. Zwingli immediately broke from the normal practice of preaching according to the church calendar. Instead, he announced he would preach sequentially through whole books of the Bible. On January 1, 1519, his thirty-fifth birthday, Zwingli began a series of expository sermons through Matthew that were drawn from his exegesis of the Greek text. He continued this consecutive style until he had preached through the entire New Testament. This ambitious project took six years and prepared the ground for the work of reform that was to follow.

In autumn 1519, Zurich suffered an outbreak of the plague. Two thousand of its seven thousand citizens died. Zwingli chose to stay in the city to care for the sick and dying. In the process, he himself contracted the disease and nearly died. His three-month recovery taught him much about trusting God. This personal sacrifice also increased his popularity with the people.

Introducing Reform

As Zwingli preached through the Bible, he expounded the truths he encountered in the text, even if they differed from the historical tradition of the church. This kind of direct preaching was not without challenges. In 1522, some of his parishioners defied the church’s rule about eating meat during Lent. Zwingli supported their practice based on the biblical truths of Christian liberty. He saw such restrictions as man-made. That same year, he composed the first of his many Reformation writings, which circulated his ideas throughout Switzerland.

In November 1522, Zwingli began to work with other religious leaders and the city council to bring about major reforms in the church and state. In January 1523, he wrote Sixty-seven Theses, in which he rejected many medieval beliefs, such as forced fasting, clerical celibacy, purgatory, the Mass, and priestly mediation. Further, he began to question the use of images in the church. In June 1524, the city of Zurich, following his lead, ruled that all religious images were to be removed from churches. Also in 1524, Zwingli took yet another step of reform—he married Anna Reinhard, a widow. All of this appears to have happened before Zwingli ever heard of Luther. This was truly an independent work of God.

By 1525, the Reformation movement in Zurich had gained significant traction. On April 14, 1525, the Mass was officially abolished and Protestant worship services were begun in and around Zurich. Zwingli chose to implement only what was taught in Scripture. Anything that had no explicit Scriptural support was rejected. The words of Scripture were read and preached in the language of the people. The entire congregation, not merely the clergy, received both bread and wine in a simple Communion service. The minister wore robes like those found in lecture halls rather than at Catholic altars. The veneration of Mary and saints was forbidden, indulgences were banned, and prayers for the dead were stopped. The break with Rome was complete.

Anabaptists: Radical Reformers

Zwingli also entered into controversy with a new group known as the Anabaptists or Rebaptizers, a more radical reform movement that began in Zurich in 1523. Though Zwingli had made great changes, he had not gone far enough for these believers. For the Anabaptists, the issue of baptizing believers only was secondary to separation from the Roman Catholic Church. The Anabaptists sought an entire reconstruction of the church that was akin to a revolution.

Zwingli saw the Anabaptist proposals as radical excess. In response to the Anabaptist demands for the immediate overhaul of church and society, he urged moderation and patience in the transition from Rome. He counseled that the Anabaptists must bear with the weaker brethren who were gradually accepting the teaching of the Reformers. However, this approach only caused the conflict between Zwingli and the radicals to widen.

An order by the magistrates of Zurich for all infants in the city to be baptized proved too explosive. The Anabaptists responded by marching through the streets of Zurich in loud protests. Rather than baptizing their infants, they baptized each other by pouring or immersion in 1525. They also rejected Zwingli’s affirmation of the city council’s authority over church affairs and advocated total separation of church and state.

The Anabaptist leaders were arrested and charged with revolutionary teaching. Some were put to death by drowning. It is not known whether Zwingli consented to the death sentences, but he did not oppose them.

The Lord’s Supper Controversy

Meanwhile, a controversy began brewing between Zwingli and Luther over the Lord’s Supper. Luther held to consubstantiation, the belief that the body and blood of Christ were present in, through, or under the elements. There is, he contended, a real presence of Christ in the elements, though he differed from the Roman Catholic teaching of transubstantiation, which holds that the elements change into the body and blood of Christ when blessed by the priest during Mass. Zwingli adopted the position that the Lord’s Supper is mainly a memorial of Christ’s death—a symbolic remembrance.

In an attempt to bring unity to the Reformed movement, the Marburg Colloquy was convened in October 1529. The two Reformers appeared face to face, along with Martin Bucer, Philip Melanchthon, Johannes Oecolampadius, and other Protestant leaders. They agreed in principle to fourteen of the fifteen items put before them: the church-state relationship, infant baptism, the historical continuity of the church, and more. But no agreement could be reached regarding the Lord’s Supper. Luther said that “Zwingli was a ‘very good man,’ yet of a ‘different spirit,’ and hence refused to accept his hand of fellowship offered to him with tears.” To colleagues, Luther commented of Zwingli and his supporters, “I suppose God has blinded them.”

In one of the strange ironies of history, Zwingli, who earlier had opposed the practice of using mercenaries in war, died on the battlefield in 1531. An escalating conflict between Protestants and Catholics had cantons in arms, and a war soon broke out. The city of Zurich went to battle to defend itself against five invading Catholic cantons from the south. Zwingli accompanied Zurich’s army into battle as a field chaplain. Clad in armor and armed with a battle-ax, he was severely wounded on October 11, 1531. When enemy soldiers found him lying wounded, they killed him. The southern forces then subjected his corpse to disgraceful treatment. They quartered him, hacked his remains to pieces, and burned them, then mixed his ashes with dung and scattered them abroad.

Today, prominently displayed at the Water Church in Zurich, is a statue of Zwingli. He is standing with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other. The statue represents Zwingli in his towering influence over the Swiss Reformation, strong and resolute. Though his Zurich ministry was relatively short, he accomplished much. Through his heroic stand for the truth, Zwingli reformed the church in Zurich and led the way for other Reformers to follow.

See also:

This excerpt is taken from Pillars of Grace by Steven Lawson.

Fortress for Truth: Martin Luther

Martin Luther was a giant of history. Some believe he was the most significant European figure of the second millennium. He was the pioneer Reformer, the one God first used to spark a transformation of Christianity and the Western world. He was the undisputed leader of the German Reformation. In a day of ecclesiastical corruptions and apostasies, he was a valiant champion of the truth; his powerful preaching and pen helped to restore the pure gospel. More books have been written about him than any other man of history except Jesus Christ and possibly Augustine.

Luther came from hard-working stock. He was born in the little town of Eisleben, Germany, on November 10, 1483. His father, Hans, was a copper miner who eventually gained some wealth from a shared interest in mines, smelters, and other business ventures. His mother was pious but religiously superstitious. Luther was raised under the strict disciplines of the Roman Catholic Church and was groomed by his industrious father to be a successful lawyer. To this end, he pursued an education at Eisenach (1498–1501) and then at the University of Erfurt in philosophy. At the latter, he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1502 and a master of arts degree in 1505.

Luther’s life took an unexpected turn in July 1505, when he was twenty-one. He was caught in a severe thunderstorm and knocked to the ground by a nearby lightning strike. Terrified, he cried out to the Catholic patroness of miners, “Help me, St. Anna, and I will become a monk.” Luther survived the storm and made good on his dramatic vow. Two weeks later, he entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. His father was furious over Luther’s apparent wasted education, but Luther was determined to follow through on his vow.

Lost in Self-Righteousness

In the monastery, Luther was driven to find acceptance with God through works. He wrote: “I tortured myself with prayer, fasting, vigils and freezing; the frost alone might have killed me. . . . What else did I seek by doing this but God, who was supposed to note my strict observance of the monastic order and my austere life? I constantly walked in a dream and lived in real idolatry, for I did not believe in Christ: I regarded Him only as a severe and terrible Judge portrayed as seated on a rainbow.” Elsewhere he recalled: “When I was a monk, I wearied myself greatly for almost fifteen years with the daily sacrifice, tortured myself with fastings, vigils, prayers, and other very rigorous works. I earnestly thought to acquire righteousness by my works.”

In 1507, Luther was ordained to the priesthood. When he celebrated his first Mass, as he held the bread and cup for the first time, he was so awestruck at the thought of transubstantiation that he almost fainted. “I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken,” he confessed. “I thought to myself, “Who am I that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine majesty? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin, and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God’.” Fear only compounded his personal struggle for acceptance with God.

In 1510, Luther was sent to Rome, where he witnessed the corruption of the Roman church. He climbed the Scala Sancta (“The Holy Stairs”), supposedly the same stairs Jesus ascended when He appeared before Pilate. According to fables, the steps had been moved from Jerusalem to Rome, and the priests claimed that God forgave sins for those who climbed the stairs on their knees. Luther did so, repeating the Lord’s Prayer, kissing each step, and seeking peace with God. But when he reached the top step, he looked back and thought, “Who knows whether this is true?.” He felt no closer to God.

Luther received his doctor of theology degree from the University of Wittenberg in 1512 and was named professor of Bible there. Remarkably, Luther kept this teaching position for the next thirty-four years, until his death in 1546. One question consumed him: How is a sinful man made right before a holy God?

In 1517, a Dominican itinerant named John Tetzel began to sell indulgences near Wittenberg with the offer of the forgiveness of sins. This crass practice had been inaugurated during the Crusades to raise money for the church. Commoners could purchase from the church a letter that allegedly freed a dead loved one from purgatory. Rome profited enormously from this sham. In this case, the proceeds were intended to help Pope Leo X pay for a new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

This horrible abuse enraged Luther. He determined that there must be a public debate on the matter. On October 31, 1517, he nailed a list of Ninety-five Theses regarding indulgences to the front door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Nailing such theses to the church door was a common practice in the scholarly debates of the time. Luther hoped to provoke calm discussion among the faculty, not a popular revolution. But a copy fell into the hands of a printer, who saw that the Ninety-five Theses were printed and spread throughout Germany and Europe in a few weeks. Luther became an overnight hero. With that, the Reformation essentially was born.

The Tower Experience

It is possible Luther was still not yet converted. In the midst of his spiritual struggles, Luther had become obsessed with Romans 1:17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” Luther had understood the righteousness of God to mean His active righteousness, His avenging justice by which He punishes sin. On those terms, he admitted that he hated the righteousness of God. But while sitting in the tower of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Luther meditated on this text and wrestled with its meaning. He writes:

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

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.'” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

The time of Luther’s conversion is debated. Some think it took place as early as 1508, but Luther himself wrote that it happened in 1519, two years after he posted his Ninety-five Theses. More important is the reality of his conversion. Luther came to realize that salvation was a gift for the guilty, not a reward for the righteous. Man is not saved by his good works but by trusting the finished work of Christ. Thus, justification by faith alone became the central tenet of the Reformation.

Attacking Papal Authority

Justification by faith alone clashed with Rome’s teaching of justification by faith and works. Thus, the pope denounced Luther for preaching “dangerous doctrines” and summoned him to Rome. When Luther refused, he was called to Leipzig in 1519 for a public debate with John Eck, a leading Catholic theologian. In this dispute, Luther affirmed that a church council could err, a point that had been made by John Wycliffe and John Hus.

Luther went on to say that the authority of the pope was a recent contrivance. Such religious superstition, he exclaimed, opposed the Council of Nicaea and church history. Worse, it contradicted Scripture. By taking this stand, Luther irritated the major nerve of Rome—papal authority.

In the summer of 1520, the pope issued a bull, an edict sealed with a bulla, or red seal. The document began by saying: “Arise, O Lord, and judge Your cause. A wild boar has invaded Your vineyard.” With these words, the pope was referring to Luther as an unrestrained animal causing havoc. Forty-one of Luther’s teachings were deemed to be heretical, scandalous, or false.

With that, Luther had sixty days to repent or suffer excommunication. He responded by publicly burning the papal bull. This was nothing short of open defiance. Thomas Lindsay writes, “It is scarcely possible for us in the twentieth century to imagine the thrill that went through Germany, and indeed through all Europe, when the news spread that a poor monk had burnt the Pope’s Bull.” But though he was hailed by many, Luther was a marked man in the eyes of the church.

The Diet of Worms: Luther’s Stand

In 1521, the young Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, summoned Luther to appear at the Diet of Worms in Worms, Germany, in order to officially recant. The renegade monk was shown his books on a table in full view. Then Luther was asked whether he would retract the teachings in the books. The next day, Luther replied with his now-famous words: “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 recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.” These defiant words became a Reformation battle cry.

Charles V condemned Luther as a heretic and placed a hefty price on his head. When Luther left Worms, he had twenty-one days for safe passage to Wittenberg before the sentence fell. While he was en route, some of his supporters, fearing for his life, kidnapped him and took him to the Wartburg Castle. There, he was hidden from public sight for eight months. During this time of confinement, Luther began his translation of the Bible into German, the language of the commoners. Through this work, Reformation flames would spread even swifter.

On March 10, 1522, Luther explained the mounting success of the Reformation in a sermon. With strong confidence in God’s Word, he declared: “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept . . . the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.” Luther saw that God had used him as a mouthpiece for truth. The Reformation was founded not on him and his teachings, but on the unshakeable footing of Scripture alone.

In 1525, Luther married Katherine von Bora. This amazing woman was an escaped nun committed to the Reformation cause. The two repudiated their monastic vows in order to marry. Luther was forty-two and Katie was twenty-six. Their union produced six children. Luther had an extremely happy family life, which eased the demands of his ministry.

Till the end of his life, Luther maintained a heavy workload of lecturing, preaching, teaching, writing, and debating. This work for reform came at a high physical and emotional price. Each battle extracted something from him and left him weaker. He soon became subject to illnesses. In 1537, he became so ill that his friends feared he would die. In 1541, he again became seriously ill, and this time he himself thought he would pass from this world. He recovered yet again, but he was plagued by various ailments throughout his final fourteen years. Among other illnesses, he suffered from gallstones and even lost sight in one eye.

Faithful to the End

In early 1546, Luther traveled to Eisleben, his hometown. He preached there and then traveled on to Mansfeld. Two brothers, the counts of Mansfeld, had asked him to arbitrate a family difference. Luther had the great satisfaction of seeing the two reconciled.

That evening, Luther fell ill. As the night passed, Luther’s three sons—Jonas, Martin, and Paul—and some friends watched by his side. They pressed him: “Reverend father, do you stand by Christ and the doctrine you have preached?” The Reformer gave a distinct “yes” in reply. He died in the early hours of February 18, 1546, within sight of the font where he was baptized as an infant.

Luther’s body was carried to Wittenberg as thousands of mourners lined the route and church bells tolled. Luther was buried in front of the pulpit in the Castle Church of Wittenberg, the very church where, twenty-nine years earlier, he had nailed his famous Ninety-five Theses to the door.

Upon his death, his wife, Katherine, wrote concerning his lasting influence and monumental impact upon Christendom: “For who would not be sad and afflicted at the loss of such a precious man as my dear lord was. He did great things not just for a city or a single land, but for the whole world.” She was right. Luther’s voice sounded throughout the European continent in his own day and has echoed around the world through the centuries since.

See also:

This excerpt is taken from Pillars of Grace by Steven Lawson.

The Reformation and the Men Behind It

As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaches, we will be presenting a series of blog posts, excerpted from Pillars of Grace by Dr. Steven J. Lawson, about some of the major Reformers—Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, William Tyndale, Heinrich Bullinger, and John Calvin. Today, Dr. Lawson offers some background on the Reformation and the Reformers.

The Protestant Reformation stands as the most far-reaching, world-changing display of God’s grace since the birth and early expansion of the church. It was not a single act, nor was it led by one man. This history-altering movement played out on different stages over many decades. Its cumulative impact, however, was enormous. Philip Schaff, a noted church historian, writes: “The Reformation of the sixteenth century is, next to the introduction of Christianity, the greatest event in history. It marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times. Starting from religion, it gave, directly or indirectly, a mighty impulse to every forward movement, and made Protestantism the chief propelling force in the history of modern civilization.” The Reformation was, at its heart, a recovery of the true gospel of Jesus Christ, and this restoration had an unparalleled influence on churches, nations, and the flow of Western civilization.

Under the guiding hand of God, the world scene had been uniquely prepared for the Reformation. The church was greatly in need of reform. Spiritual darkness personified the Roman Catholic Church. The Bible was a closed book. Spiritual ignorance ruled the minds of the people. The gospel was perverted. Church tradition trumped divine truth. Personal holiness was abandoned. The rotten stench of manmade traditions covered pope and priest. The corruption of ungodliness contaminated both dogma and practice. 

On the other hand, a new day was dawning. Feudal states were giving way to nation-states. Exploration was expanding. Christopher Columbus discovered the New World in 1492. Trade routes were opening. A middle class was rising. Opportunities for learning were increasing. Knowledge was multiplying. Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press (1454) had vastly improved the dissemination of ideas. Under all of these influences, the Renaissance was at high noon. Moreover, a further alteration in the world scene was soon to be ushered in by the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, bringing great changes especially in the church of Jesus Christ.

In light of such dramatic upheaval, certain questions beg to be asked: What factors led to the Protestant Reformation? Where was the Reformation born? How did this powerful movement come about? Where did it spread? Who were the key leaders who stoked its flames? What biblical truths were unleashed on the world at this time? To begin to answer these questions, we must focus in on those giants of the faith who led the Reformation.

The Magisterial Reformers

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, God began to raise up a series of strong-willed figures known to history as the Reformers. There had been earlier reformers in the church, but those who came to prominence in this period were the best educated, most godly, and most faithful reform leaders the church had ever seen. These men were steeped in Scripture and marked by audacious courage in the face of opposition. They were emboldened by deep convictions as to the truth and a love for Christ’s church that drove them to attempt to bring it back to its timeless standard. In the simplest terms, they longed to see God’s people worship Him according to Scripture. These men were shining lights in a dark day.

“The Reformers did not see themselves as inventors, discoverers, or creators,” according to historian Stephen Nichols. “Instead, they saw their efforts as rediscovery. They weren’t making something from scratch but were reviving what had become dead. They looked back to the Bible and to the apostolic era, as well as to early church fathers such as Augustine (354–430) for the mold by which they could shape the church and re-form it. The Reformers had a saying, ‘Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,’ meaning ‘the church reformed, always reforming.'”

The Magisterial Reformers are so called because their reform efforts were supported by at least some ruling authorities, or magistrates, and because they believed the civil magistrates ought to enforce the true faith. This term is used to distinguish them from the radical reformers (Anabaptists), whose efforts had no magisterial support. The Reformers are also called “magisterial” because the word magister can mean “teacher,” and the Magisterial Reformation strongly emphasized the authority of teachers.

Scripture Alone

In time, the message of the Reformers became encapsulated in five slogans known as the solas of the Reformation: sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”), solus Christus (“Christ alone”), sola gratia (“grace alone”), sola fide (“faith alone”), and soli Deo gloria (“the glory of God alone”). The first of these, sola Scriptura, was the defining benchmark of the movement.

There are only three possible forms of spiritual authority. First, there is the authority of the Lord and His written revelation. Second, there is the authority of the church and its leaders. Third, there is the authority of human reason. When the Reformers cried “Scripture alone,” they were expressing their commitment to the authority of God as expressed through the Bible. James Montgomery Boice states their core belief: “The Bible alone is our ultimate authority—not the pope, not the church, not the traditions of the church or church councils, still less personal intimations or subjective feelings, but Scripture only.” The Reformation was essentially a crisis over which authority should have primacy. Rome claimed the church’s authority lay with Scripture and tradition, Scripture and the pope, Scripture and church councils. But the Reformers believed that the authority belonged to Scripture alone.

Schaff writes: “While the Humanists went back to the ancient classics and revived the spirit of Greek and Roman paganism, the Reformers went back to the sacred Scriptures in the original languages and revived the spirit of apostolic Christianity. They were fired by an enthusiasm for the gospel, such as had never been known since the days of Paul. Christ rose from the tomb of human traditions and preached again His words of life and power. The Bible, heretofore a book of priests only, was now translated anew and better than ever into the vernacular tongues of Europe, and made a book of the people. Every Christian man could henceforth go to the fountain-head of inspiration, and sit at the feet of the Divine Teacher, without priestly permission and intervention.”

The Fountain of Sovereign Grace

This commitment to Scripture alone led to the rediscovery of the doctrines of grace. Any return to the Bible inevitably leads to the truth of God’s sovereignty in saving grace. The other four solas—solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, and soli Deo gloria—flow from sola Scriptura.

The first Reformer was an Augustinian monk who nailed Ninety-five Theses against the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517. His name was Martin Luther (1483–1546). This bold act by a monk with a mallet launched the Reformation. Other Reformers would follow, such as Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), Hugh Latimer (1487–1555), Martin Bucer (1491–1551), William Tyndale (ca. 1494–1536), Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), John Rogers (1500–1555), Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575), and John Calvin (1509–1564). To a man, they were firmly committed to the truths of Scripture and sovereign grace.

This excerpt is taken from Pillars of Grace by Steven Lawson.

Unclean: Leviticus and Total Depravity

The word unclean is used more than one hundred times in Leviticus 11–15. It is an apt description of the condition of the people; they were morally unclean because of their failure to obey God’s commands. The law of Moses was issued, first and foremost, to reveal the holiness of God. The Ten Commandments, as well as the ceremonial and civil laws, were designed to keep God’s people distinct from the surrounding idolatrous nations. These laws made a clear distinction between what was clean and unclean. But Israel could not keep these laws perfectly. As a result, the people were spiritually unclean, each and every one of them:

For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” This is the law about beast and bird and every living creature that moves through the waters and every creature that swarms on the ground, to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten. —Leviticus 11:44–47

In this representative text, God called His people to be holy, separated from all that is unclean (19:2; 20:7, 26). Through dietary laws and religious rituals, God was teaching them the necessity of being set apart from the defilements of the world. MacArthur comments, “Sacrifices, rituals, diet, and even clothing and cooking are all carefully ordered by God to teach them that they are to live differently from everyone else. This is to be an external illustration for the separation from sin in their hearts.” But no one could keep these laws and regulations perfectly; to break one point of the law was to be guilty of it all (James 2:10). The law was a continual reminder to the Israelites of their uncleanness as they stood before their holy God. Every part of the divine law was an indictment of their sinfulness. Thus, the law testified to their moral separation from God.

This excerpt is taken from Foundations of Grace by Steven Lawson.

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