When the Lord was pleased to bring Reformation to break the chains of religious and civil tyranny, He began with the weak things of the earth. A scholar and Roman Catholic priest, John Wycliffe (13301384), studied the sacred Scriptures and realized that the popes and clergy lacked Biblical warrant for their claim to authority over men’s consciences. Wycliffe was the “Morning Star” of the Reformation. The superstitions, corruptions, and usurpations of the Roman Catholic Church were brought under the light of God’s Word, and the chains of religious and civil bondage began to break.
For centuries, popes, cardinals, legates, archbishops, bishops, priests, monks, and other clergy had ruled over men’s souls. Kings and queens, along with their subjects, bowed before the pretensions of an ecclesiastical monstrosity that forbade the reading of the Bible.
In the face of imprisonment, torture, exile, and executions, the Bible ascended to its rightful place, the only rule of faith and practice. It dismantled a massive fraud and an elaborate commercial enterprise, which destroyed souls and channeled the wealth of nations into the coffers of Rome.
Popes incited and clergymen led wars against rivals to their power. The horrors of the Inquisition, with its torture chambers and burning stakes, stilled the voice of doubters. The Bible was a forgotten and illegal Book for the general population.
It was translated into Latin, a dead language to most, and was forbidden to be written in the language of the people. Even Doctors of Theology attained their degrees without reading and knowing the Word of God.
John Wycliffe read the Scriptures, proclaimed its truths, translated it into a known tongue, and weakened the grasp of the pope. Noblemen, longing for freedom from religious tyrants, protected Wycliffe from harm. Wycliffe’s followers copied and distributed his translation and many were burned at the stake with their Bibles chained around their necks.
Flames could not destroy the truth, and humble believers came out of the dungeon of spiritual ignorance into the glorious light of the truths of God’s Word. The Reformation was beginning.
John Hus (c. 1369–1415), a Roman Catholic priest of Bohemia, was appointed to preach in Prague’s Chapel of Bethlehem. A citizen founded the chapel in Prague for the unusual purpose of preaching God’s Word in the language of the people. As Hus preached, his knowledge of the Scriptures increased, and he saw the folly and fraud of the religious system that claimed absolute authority over his soul. He unveiled the treachery and struck at the pope and his claim to be the “visible head of the Church.” Christ alone, he discovered in the Bible, is the only Head of the Church.
Under Hus’s preaching, the city, known for moral degeneration, was remarkably transformed into a city of moral uprightness. Hus denounced the corruptions of the clergy and noblemen. He saw in the Scriptures that Christ, not the pope, was the builder of His Church. He rejected the superstition of the priests’ claim that they had the power to create Christ and sacrifice Him in the mass. By giving a certain sound to the trumpet of God’s Word, Hus became the enemy of the pope and his clergy. They burned him at the stake on July 6, 1415.
Martin Luther (1483–1546) was also prepared by God to overthrow the massive errors that an apostate church had used to enslave the known world in spiritual and civil bondage. He struck at the system of self-righteousness that demanded the use of the mass, confession booth, rosary beads, hair shirts, fastings, worshiping of relics, pilgrimages, indulgences, praying to the dead, and other unbiblical devices, to attain peace with God. The Bible revealed that salvation was free because of Christ’s keeping the law in the place of sinners and satisfying the infinite penalty for sin by His substitutionary sufferings on the cross.
At the same time Luther was striking at the heresy of salvation by works, Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531) was shining the light of God’s Word at Rome’s tangled maze of salvation through the human intellect. In the place of the Bible, Rome’s scholars studied Scholasticism, a complex system of thought, undergirded by such thinkers as Aristotle. Rome’s scholars could spend a lifetime pondering the complexities of Scholasticism and never come to the truth. Zwingli studied the sacred Scriptures and counted Scholasticism a dark, confusing, unprofitable, and unbiblical philosophy. Heavenly truths from God’s Word satisfied his soul. Indeed, it convicted him of sin and brought him to reject the superstitions of Rome, with its teaching of salvation by works, and taught him the Biblical doctrine of salvation through grace alone, by faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone.
The young priest and Bible student was appointed to serve at the Convent of Einsiedeln, Switzerland. This secluded place was renowned for “an image of the Virgin” that attracted many pilgrims. The image supposedly had power to perform miracles. A festival was held once a year and thousands made their pilgrimage to earn God’s favor and, for a price, purchase an indulgence to receive forgiveness of sin.
J.A. Wylie, in his History of Protestantism, wrote of Zwingli’s bold response to the crowds: “He stood up before that great multitude — that congregation gathered from so many of the countries of Christendom — and boldly proclaimed that they had come this long journey in vain; that they were no nearer the God who hears prayer on this mountain-top than in the valley; that they were on no holier ground in the precincts of the Chapel of Einsiedeln than in their own closets; that they were spending ‘their money for that which is not bread, and their labor for that which satisfieth not,’ and that it was not a pilgrim’s gown but a contrite heart which was pleasing to God.”1
Wylie continued: “He preached to them the Gospel. He had pity on the many who came really seeking rest to their souls. He spoke to them of Christ and Him crucified. He told them that He was the one and only Savior; that His death had made a complete satisfaction for the sins of men; that the efficacy of His sacrifice lasts through all ages, and is available for all nations; and that there was no need to climb this mountain to obtain forgiveness; that the Gospel offers to all, through Christ, pardon without money and without price. This ‘good news’ it was worth coming from the ends of the earth to hear.”2
The young Reformer, in 1558, was called as the Preacher in the College of Canons at Zurich. In this center of Switzerland, he preached the Word of God. Wylie explained that there were two important principles: “The Word of God the one infallible authority, and the death of Christ the one complete satisfaction.” Upon this foundation, the Lord was pleased to bring Reformation to Switzerland and deliver from religious and civil tyranny.
Our country may trace its roots to the liberties that were secured through the teachings of the Bible and the sufferings of the Lord’s people in the time of the Reformation. Egbert Watson Smith, in The Creed of Presbyterians, wrote: “At the time of the Revolution the estimated population of our country was 3,000,000. Of this number 900,000 were of Scotch or Scotch-Irish origin, 6,000 were Puritan English, while over 400,000 were of Dutch, German Reformed, and Huguenot descent.”3 All of these were heirs of the Reformation.
When we consider our present religious and civil rebellion against God, we may wonder if the Lord is allowing another “Dark Age” to descend upon us. We see not only the papacy, but much of professing Protestantism steeped in unbiblical teachings and practices. Many have rejected the simplicity and authority of the Word of God and traded the Gospel that saves sinners for a Darwinian social gospel that supposedly saves society. Our need is for repentance of our folly and a return to the soul-saving doctrines of the Scriptures. “What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord. Is not my Word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces (Jeremiah 23:28–29). •