Message 25, Optional Session: The English Reformation:
The English Reformation had a profound impact upon the course of the world, and today we still benefit from the spiritual wisdom and discernment of this movement. This session looks briefly at the English Reformation and considers what it meant then and for our time.
Thank you. Well, I would like to look with you, or really, introduce you to some friends of mine from the English Reformation. I say “friends of mine” because I got to know some of these English reformers, dead though they are, and have found them to be some of the most encouraging friends I’ve got to know.
And I want to, in this short session, share with you why I care. Not so much to give you a history lesson, but to tell you a little bit about some of these friends, the English Reformers. And why I care about them, why I found them so refreshing, so liberating, so enriching.
I work in Central Oxford. And if you throw a bad book out of my window, with a good aim, you will hit a little cobbled cross in the middle of Broad Street, which is the central wide street in Oxford, in the very middle of England. And that cobbled cross was a spot where 450 years ago the two men, and then a few months later, one man, Ridley, Latimer, and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, were burned together in the middle of the street for upholding justification by faith alone.
Those two men, first of all, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were burned back to back. And Ridley, the wood was laid badly under his legs, and all his legs burned off before the rest of him was touched, and, screaming in pain, Hugh Latimer turned and shouted to him through the flames: “Be of good courage, Master Ridley, and play the man! For we shall this day by God’s grace, light such a candle in England, as shall never be put out.”
When you live and work in Oxford you can’t get away so easily from this story. But it’s not just their bravery, their faithfulness. These men have changed my life wonderfully, and I’ll tell you how. When I was student age, 20-21, I had a catastrophic crisis of faith in which I doubted everything. I doubted whether there was a God, I doubted how to be saved.
And I didn’t really know anyone around me who was giving me robust answers to those profound questions. There were those people, but I wasn’t speaking to them. And so what happened was, I walked into old, second-hand bookshops in London and I just stumbled around and picked up books. And I came across Martin Luther, Richard Sibbes, John Owen, Thomas Goodwin. And I would rifle through the pages, and think “That looks interesting, I’ll have a read.” And made great friends who changed me enormously.
The first friend was Martin Luther, and Luther I warmed to very quickly, because I was in a position personally where I just wasn’t convinced of how to be saved. Is justification by faith alone? I’ve heard that message. Or are the Roman Catholics right? That it’s not by faith alone. And when you’re unsure, if you’ve ever been unsure of that issue, you’ll feel the terror that wells up in you at the prospect of what that’ll mean when you die. Because you don’t know.
And I read Martin Luther, and I saw there just the same anxiety and stress. And I felt, here’s a man who’s feeling what I’m feeling. Who’s taking eternity seriously but who doesn’t yet have answers. And then, he made his gospel discovery and found answers. But let me tell you, first of all, where Luther was at. And then show you the discovery that leaked into England and transformed so many lives including mine. Here’s where Luther started.
Luther was brought up believing in salvation by grace, not salvation by grace alone. And grace worked something like this: imagine a situation as this: your problem is not that you are helpless in sin, dead in sin naturally. The human problem is we’re just a bit lazy. So God is a holy God who would have us be holy.
And we know that, but we think, “Uh, really? Do I have to? I’ll be holy tomorrow.” And the preachers tell us, “Go on, be a bit more holy.” And we think, “Yeah, I will tomorrow.” But we can’t really be bothered. And in this theology, in medieval Roman Catholic theology, there was an answer to your laziness. And it was called grace. And grace, the best way to understand what grace meant here, was to think grace was a bit like an energy drink. Grace was like a can of spiritual Red Bull.
So you’re feeling a bit “Uh, I just can’t be bothered to do the holy thing,” and the priest says, “Here, have grace.” And so you go along to the mass, and you get ordained and married, I know you can’t do both of those, but you do some of the other sacraments. And you get as many of the sacraments as you can, and through them you’re downing your grace. And when you get that grace in you, you start feeling ready to do holy things. And so you go out and do holy things, empowered, energized by grace.
And doing those holy things, God recognizes that you are holy, meritorious. And the verse that was used to really explain most clearly this view of justification, what Luther understood justification to be, here was the proof text for justification. It was Romans 5:5, where we read: “God has poured His Spirit, His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit he’s given us.”
The idea was, God pours His love into our hearts, transforming our hearts so that by His love, by His Spirit working in our hearts, our hearts become more and more just. More and more justified. Through grace I am internally transformed and become internally inherently more and more righteous.
Imagine that’s your theology. That’s how you go to heaven. You need to down the Red Bull, to do the good things, and to do enough of them, to merit for yourself heaven. Imagine you believe that. That’s what Luther believed, and it left him terrified, thinking “Well, I’ve taken a lot of grace, but have I done enough with it?”
And so he said, “It’s true, I was a good monk, I kept my orders so strictly, I could say if ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I should’ve entered in. All my companions in the monastery who knew me would bare me out in this. If it would’ve gone on much longer, I would’ve martyred myself to death with vigils, prayers, readings, other works. And yet, my conscience wouldn’t give me certainty.
I always doubted, and I said: ‘You didn’t do that right, you weren’t contrite enough, repentant enough. You left that bit out of your confession.’ And the more,” Luther said, “the more I tried to remedy an uncertain, weakened, troubled conscience with human traditions, the more daily I found it uncertain, weak and troubled.”
And like Luther, that was exactly where I was at. And then, Luther wrestled with Romans 1:17, “In the gospel a righteousness is revealed, a righteousness from God that is from faith to faith.” And he saw that God is not giving us grace to energize us to do works, and on the basis of that save us. God gives us the righteousness of Christ.
And so we are clothed with the righteousness, and in that righteousness, in Christ’s righteousness, I can be bold before God. And confident, and hopeful for the future. And so as Luther saw it, grace then, is not like a can of Red Bull, it is, as he would it explain it in his track ‘The Freedom of a Christian,’ it is like a marriage. This was the illustration Luther used.
He described the marriage of a King to a lady of ill repute who was in great debt. Now, that poor lady with all her guilt, and poverty, and debt, and shame, she could never make herself the queen. But, the King on their wedding day utters His promise: “All that I have, I share with you.” And in that promise, she becomes His, she becomes the queen. And she says, “All that I have I share with you.” And she gives to Him all her debt and all her shame. And Luther said that is how it is with the poor sinner and King Jesus.
We share with Jesus all our sin, our death, our debt, our judgment. And He takes them all and destroys them, drowns them in His blood on the cross. And He says, “All that I have, My righteousness and My life, I share with you.” Now, think of that young girl, at that moment, because of His promise, because of His word, that girl is now the queen. And notice, she doesn’t know how to behave like a queen, she doesn’t talk proper. She doesn’t know the ways of the court. So she is still wayward in heart, and yet a queen by status, immediately.
“And just so,” said Luther, “The sinner upon faith immediately becomes at the same time righteous by status and remains a sinner at heart.” And so, Luther said, “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, and all mine is His.”
And he said, “Therefore, when the Devil throws up our sins to us and declares that we deserve death in Hell, we ought to speak thus to him: ‘Devil, I admit I deserve death in Hell, but what of it? Does this mean I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know one who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and where He is, there I shall be also.’”
That message, that sweet message liberated people who heard it across Europe. It started flowing across the English Channel. I love it how the English name the water that separates it from Europe ‘the English Channel.’ It flowed into England and transformed so many lives, including the great Richard Sibbes, one of the Puritans, they were the next generation who wanted to carry on the Reformation, to keep reforming the church.
And Richard Sibbes, whose works are so worth reading today and easily accessible, he said this, in applying the same truth to those who sense their own sin and find that a knowledge of their sin prevents them from praying, prevents them from any bold or thankful or cheerful or strong Christian living, Sibbes said this. And this was the Puritans all over. Taking Reformation theology and applying it, drilling it into lives so that that sweet theology actually made a profound difference in every day Christian living.
Sibbes said this: “Often, you should think with yourself, ‘What am I?’ I am a poor, sinful creature. But I have a righteousness in Christ that answers all. Oh, I’m weak in myself, but Christ is strong. I am foolish in myself, but I am wise in Him. And what I lack in myself, I have in Him, for He is mine. And His righteousness is mine, which is a righteousness of God-man.
And being clothed with this,” Sibbes said, “I stand safe against conscience, Hell, wrath and whatsoever. And though I have daily experience of my sins, yet” — and this is the line Sibbes would say again and again, memorize this: “yet, there is more righteousness in Christ who is mine, than there is sin in me.” I heard that sort of truth, I read Sibbes and I read Luther.
And struggling as I was, I wanted to know: can this possibly be true? Because that is so good. That is so good that I can entirely rest on the sufficiency of Christ, and don’t have to depend on myself before God. For my standing and my status. But is it true?
And I found myself turning to another Puritan, another Englishman, this time from Oxford. Sibbes was in Cambridge, which is a wonderful city. And Owen was Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, which is the rival, a slightly inferior, rival city. And one of the Owen’s less than friendly antagonists over in Cambridge said, “Doctor Owen has as much powder in his hair as would discharge eight cannons.”
That’s a sort of thing they would say to each other across Cambridge and Oxford. But Owen, though he was Oxford-based, was a great theologian, and possibly the greatest of the puritan theologians. And for one who is struggling to have confidence in the reliability of the Bible, I found myself stumbling into volume four of his works, and a little work he wrote called “The Reason of Faith.”
I’m wondering can I trust the Bible as God’s absolutely, trustworthy Word. I read Owen and Owen said, “You do not need a pope to show you that the Bible is trustworthy. You do not believe the Bible because a pope tells you so. You do not believe the Bible because a clever scholar tells you it’s reliable. You can trust the Bible because the Bible, the Scriptures, by their nature prove themselves to be the Word of God. They are self-evidencing.”
So, there are other wonderful evidences that support the reasonability of that claim, but at the heart of our faith, in confidence in the Scriptures, is the fact that they prove themselves to be what they claim. That God’s Word illumines the whole world to me. Through Scripture, God is revealed, a God beyond my wildest dreams, and imaginings, and thoughts.
But also the Bible diagnoses me in ways I would never have liked or imagined. And yet, when the Bible diagnoses me, I say, “You know me better than I know myself. This is no human reasoning. Whoever wrote this, knew me better than my mother knows me, better than I know me. This is divine.”
And that confidence in the Scriptures meant that in England, though a man, particularly William Tyndale, was one of them in the 1520s, particularly in the early 1530s, who therefore wanted to make the message of Scripture available to all his countrymen. And that was proving that the message of the Reformation is not the message of one man called Martin Luther. It is the message of Scripture. That was what Tyndale wanted to make available.
And so, Tyndale set about translating the New Testament. He managed to do almost all the Old Testament, from its original Hebrew and Greek into a superb, page-turning, English translation. And because it was illegal to have it in England at the time, he translated it abroad in Germany and had it smuggled into England in bales of cloth. If you are caught with one of those, you’d be burned with it. But over sixteen thousand got in before Tyndale was caught and killed.
Something else that I learned from the English Reformers. Through these great truths, through that sweet truth of justification by faith alone, found in the message of Scripture alone, I found an appreciation for Christ that I’d never had before. Through these teachings and doctrines, Christ became more glorious to me than He had ever been before. For when Christ is shown to be the all-sufficient Savior who completely redeems, who is not merely an example for us, but a savior first.
Then, He is shown for how truly glorious He is. This was a beautiful transformation for me. Luther said, “Before you take Christ as an example, you must receive Him as a gift.” And what the Reformers again and again acknowledged was that through all that they were teaching, the glory of Christ was being made known. And I must introduce you to one more English Puritan who demonstrates so beautifully how Reformation teaching glorified, showed the beauty, the awesomeness of Christ.
Thomas Goodwin, he was born in 1600. He struggled just as I did when he was a student. And for seven years, he scratched around inside himself to see if he was — if there was something inside himself he could rest on before God, to give him confidence before God. And then, a pastor took him to one side, and said: “Instead of resting on anything in yourself, give up on yourself, and rest on Christ alone.”
And Goodwin said this: “I’m come to this pass now. I’ve trusted too much to these inside things. I tell you, Christ is worth all.” And he set about a very Reformational ministry of seeking to set forth Christ, so that others would look to Him and trust Him, and find their sufficiency in Him. That’s the ministry of the Spirit, that’s what the Word is seeking to do in us. To get us to look outside of ourselves, to trust in Him. To have faith in Him.
And Goodwin said that many in his day — he said, “Many have been so much carried away with the rudiments of Christ in their own hearts, and not after Christ Himself.” And so he said, “The minds of many are so wholly taken up with themselves, that Christ is scarce in all their thoughts. And so Goodwin set about a ministry of setting forth Christ in all His glory, so that eyes might be turned in faith to the Savior. We need teachers like this today.
And we still need the Reformers — and these English Reformers like John Owen, Richard Sibbes, Thomas Goodwin, today. If more preachers could preach like them, we’d see more joy in Christians, more comfort, more glorying in God, as we saw in these men. And if we had more who preached like them, who held out this doctrine, I think we’d have more who would say what Thomas Goodwin said on his death bed. Goodwin said, “Christ cannot love me better than He does, and so now, I think I cannot love Christ better than I do.” That’s the English Reformers and how they glorified Christ. Thank you very much.</pre>