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Message 19, The English Reformation (Optional Session):

In this session, Dr. Michael Reeves highlights his teaching series The English Reformation and the Puritans as he discusses why he, and why all Christians, should care about the English Reformers.

Message Transcript

We’re going to have a little look at some of why you might want to be interested in the English Reformation and the English Reformers. Now the video series that was recorded is now on DVD and available there. I don’t really want to give you a snapshot and try to even give you a trailer for that. There are so many things we could look at and enjoy in the English Reformation and the Puritans. But instead of trying to give you a taste of half a lecture or anything like that from there, I want to really tell you why I care about the English Reformers, why I’ve benefited from them.

Now, I work in central Oxford, and if you peer out of my study window in central Oxford, you can just about see a little cross of brick in the center of the Broad Street, which is one of the main streets in central Oxford. That little stone cross was a place where three Englishmen, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Cranmer were burned for their belief in justification by faith alone. That’s something if you live in Oxford you can’t get away from.

And there are many, many deeply stirring stories of the sheer heroism and bravery of men and women who died for Christ, now nearly 500 years ago in the English Reformation. But I don’t really want to talk about the history of the English Reformation right now. That’s in the series, if you want to look at that. Let me tell you about why these English Reformers have become good friends for me and I hope they might become good friends for you too.

Here’s my story, this is why they matter to me. When I was about 21, I had been in evangelical circles for awhile and everything fell apart. I had a massive crisis of faith where I was really doubting everything. And there were two key questions that I was wanting to work through that were driving me mad as I tried to work them out. And the two questions — there were others — but two key questions were, “How can I be saved?” Because I’m hearing different Christians give different answers here.

And secondly, “How can I know what is true?” And what I found as I wrestled with these profoundly, eternally significant questions was I wasn’t getting people around me, alive Christians, who were giving me good answers. They were out there, I just didn’t know them. And so I turned to books, and I stumbled across men like Martin Luther, Richard Sibbes, John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, and they gave me answers like I didn’t hear from anyone else alive.

And so I began, I felt, through books, through authors I’d stumbled across in secondhand bookshops in London. I began to find good friends. Luther was the first friend. And Luther, if you know something of his story, Luther had, well, I felt he shared my profound desperate struggle to know, “Is there a gracious God?” So, let’s look at that first question, the issue I shared with Luther, “How can I be saved?”

Now, what Luther was brought up with was a view of salvation that comes very naturally to the human heart. Now, he was taught salvation by grace, not salvation by works. Salvation by grace, but what that meant was this. He was not taught salvation by grace alone. He was taught salvation by grace, and here’s how it looked. It built on Romans 5 verse 5. That, Luther believed and medieval Roman Catholicism taught, Romans 5:5 gives you about the neatest, cleanest, definition of justification where it says, “God has poured His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit he’s given us.”

It built on Romans 5 verse 5. That, Luther believed and medieval Roman Catholicism taught, Romans 5:5 gives you about the neatest, cleanest, definition of justification where it says, “God has poured His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit he’s given us.”

It’s a beautiful truth about sanctification, but it was taken to be a truth about justification. And the idea was God pours His love into our hearts in such a way that our hearts are transformed and as our hearts are turned by His grace being given to us, so we become more and more just, more and more justified.

And so, grace was really being treated like a — an energy drink. Grace was kind of like Red Bull. The idea was that our problem is not that we are spiritually dead and enslaved in our sins. The idea in medieval Roman Catholicism was that we’re just lazy. God will save holy people, and we know that but we just think, “Ah you know, I just can’t be bothered to be holy.” And the preacher says, “Go on! Be holy.” And you think, “Ah! I just can’t be bothered.”

God will save holy people, and we know that but we just think, “Ah you know, I just can’t be bothered to be holy.” And the preacher says, “Go on! Be holy.” And you think, “Ah! I just can’t be bothered.”

And so what the priest would do in medieval Roman Catholicism is he’d say, “I have an answer for you. Have some grace.” And you’ve downed this grace through the sacraments, and suddenly you find yourself all energized, ready to go out and do holy things. And the supreme example was Mary, who was supposed to be full of grace. She was really ready to do holy things.

Where this left Luther was, well he wondered, “Have I received enough grace to do enough holy things to be justified enough to get heaven?” And he said, “It’s true I was a good monk, and I kept my orders so strictly, I could say, ‘If ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I should have entered in.’”

All my companions in the monastery who knew me would bear me out in this. I would have martyred myself to death, and yet my conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, ‘You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.’

I would have martyred myself to death, and yet my conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, ‘You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.’

And the more I tried to remedy an uncertain, weak, and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more daily I found it more uncertain, weaker, and more troubled.” That’s where I was at as well.

And what Luther did in his Reformation discovery is he saw through Romans 1 verse 17 that his understanding of justification had been profoundly wrong and that grace worked in a very, very different way. The first time he positively explained how it is that we can be justified by faith alone, he used the image of a marriage.

This was in a little, a little brochure called “The Freedom of a Christian,” and he told the story of the marriage between a king and a lady of the night, a woman of bad reputation. And there’s nothing she could do to become his wife.

No reformation of herself she could make to become the King’s wife, but the King says to her, “I take you to be my wife.” And when he utters that word, she becomes his. And then on their wedding day, she says to him, “All that I am, I give to you. All that I have, I share with you.” And so she gives to him all her shame, all her debt.

And this is the picture of the poor and wicked sinner. We give to King Jesus all our sin, our death, our judgment, and He takes it. And then He says, “All that I am, I give to you. All that I have, I share with you.” And so King Jesus gives to the sinner all His righteousness, meaning, said Luther, that the sinner can confidently display her sins in the face of death and hell and say, “If I’ve sinned, yet my Christ in whom I believe has not sinned, and all His is mine, His righteousness. And all mine, my sin is His.”

An Englishman who picked up on this was the great Puritan preacher, Richard Sibbes. They called him “the heavenly Dr. Sibbes,” “the honey mouthed.” And he said this, knowing that this is how the bride of Christ relates to Christ, he advised believers, “Often think with yourself, What am I? I am a poor sinful creature, but I have a righteousness in Christ that answers all.

Oh, I am weak in myself, but Christ is strong and I am strong in Him. I’m foolish in myself, but I’m wise in Him, and what I lack in myself, I have in Him. He is mine. His righteousness is mine, which is the righteousness of God-man, and being clothed with this,” said Sibbes, “I stand safe against conscience, hell, wrath, and whatsoever.

And though I do have daily experience of my sins, yet,” Sibbes used this line again and again, “there is more righteousness in Christ, who is mine, than there is sin in me.” Isn’t that glorious good news?

Now, as a struggling 21-year-old I read this, and I thought, “This is so good! Oh, how I want that to be true, but is it?” Can I really trust that the Bible is God’s utterly trustworthy Word? Can I? Because so many people tell me otherwise. And I stumbled across another Puritan preacher, this time John Owen.

And John Owen in Volume Four of his works, a little piece called “The Reason of Faith,” he showed to me something that immediately made sense. He said, “We know that the Bible is God’s Word, not because some Pope tells me I can trust it. Not because some scholar tells me I can trust it. I can trust the Bible is God’s infallible Word because God’s Word proves itself to be true.”

And as he articulated that, I knew he was right. That what we see in Scripture is a self-evidencing glorious Word from heaven. It illuminates who God is. It illuminates and exposes what I am. It makes sense of the world in a way nothing else does. This is not the wisdom of the world; this is wisdom from heaven. And that belief that Scripture is the supreme authority that trumps scholars, popes, and anyone else, that belief drove a tank through the theology of Europe. You saw the men and the women who believed this, lives turned around.

William Tyndale would be the classic example of this. William Tyndale came to see the trustworthiness and the beautiful message to be found in the Bible. And so he set about his life’s work of translating the Bible from its original Hebrew and Greek into English, and it was a page turner of a translation.

He managed to have some sixteen thousand copies smuggled into England, where it’s illegal to own it. And this was an incredible feat at a time when the population of England was about two and a half million, most illiterate. Over sixteen thousand copies of his Bible were brought in. He was martyred for that.

He was caught, and he was strangled and burned near Brussels in 1535 uttering the immortal last words, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” That king of England was King Henry VIII. And King Henry VIII made Bible reading in English legal for the first time. And that changed everything, because once people — the enthusiasm with which this was greeted was extraordinary in England. Bible shouters were appointed in churches.

They would gather around Bibles and some would read out Scripture and people would huddle around, and then they would question the man of the cloth, the priest, whatever they’d call him. They’d dare to question the church and say, “How does that fit with what God’s Word says?” God’s Word was trumping everything.

Those were my key two doubts. How can I be saved? How can I know what’s true? But there was a discovery I made as well through meeting these English Reformers, and that was this. I discovered that Jesus Christ is glorious. Glorious in a way I had not conceived beforehand. And this was always the effect of the Reformation. Wherever it went, Christ was seen to be glorious.

See, when Martin Luther was growing up, he was brought to see Jesus Christ primarily as an example for us to follow. Now just imagine that’s how you see things. You have Jesus Christ, this supremely holy man you try to follow. He is impressive, but you hardly love Him, because He is just blazing out there in front of you, able to live in a way you know you’re not.

With his Reformation discovery, Luther said this, “Before you take Christ as an example, you must receive Him as a gift. And when you get that, when people understood that in the days of the Reformation, hearts were turned as people saw a glorious Savior who gives Himself to us through justification by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ. In the Reformation, God was glorified as utterly merciful, holy, good, compassionate, and therefore people could find their comfort and delight in Him.

This was how cities, towns, lives were turned around. They saw that Christ is glorious, glorious in His free salvation, glorious in His grace, in His holiness. They had never seen that before with that eye-opening clarity, and so you’d see many of the Reformers and after them the Puritans and other later few generations in England would write book after book on “The Unsearchable Riches of Christ,” “The Glory of Christ,” “Christ Set Forth,” titles like that.

And let me finish by telling you about one of these Puritans, Thomas Goodwin. Thomas Goodwin, when he was about the age I struggled, had very similar struggles. And for seven years, he doubted and struggled until he was told by a wise pastor, “Stop depending on your own feelings and your own performance for peace with God. Rest on Christ and depend entirely on Him.”

And Goodwin said, “I’ve come to this pass now. I’ve trusted too much for signs in my own life. I tell you, Christ is worth all.” And he said that he felt that many in his own day were like that. He said, “The minds of many today are so wholly taken up with their own hearts, they’re looking in on themselves so much that” he said, “as the psalmist says of God, ‘Christ is scarcely in all their thoughts.’”

And so, Goodwin set out to have a ministry of setting forth Christ to draw the eyes of people from themselves, from dependence on other things, to Jesus Christ the sufficient Savior. For only in Him, in Jesus Christ, when we see His glory, will we find both peace and delight.

We need men like this today. Turn, I recommend you, to men like Sibbes, Owen, Goodwin. We need more who’ll say what Goodwin said on his deathbed, “Christ cannot love me better than He does. I think I cannot love Christ better than I do.” We need the glory of Christ, and the English Reformers help us there. Thank you very much.