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The sermon of the plough

January 1998 | by Roger Fay

Hugh Latimer
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450 years ago, on 18 January 1548, Hugh Latimer preached a notable sermon. It was a clarion call for action from England’s bishops and clergy. Standing in the shelter of ‘the Shrouds’ at St Paul’s in London, he uttered an impassioned plea to the nation’s prelates to devote themselves to the true work of the ministry, that is, to preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Latimer exhorted them to turn from the affairs of political office and from hawking, hunting and dicing, and address the spiritual and moral darkness of the nation. The year before, Edward VI, the young ‘Josiah’, had ascended the throne, and nationwide reformation had become a realistic goal.

Latimer’s sermon was a rallying call to gospel ministers to sow and labour in the harvest field. The present opportunity could not be taken for granted, since the days were uncertain and many of England’s clergy were still destitute of gospel light. Much depended on the support of the king and his advisers. Latimer closed his sermon with these words: ‘Pray for him [the king], good people; pray for him. You have great cause and need to pray for him.’

God’s plough

The message began by comparing preaching to ploughing. ‘I compare preaching to the labour and work of ploughing,’ declared Latimer, ‘and the preacher to a ploughman.’ Ploughing requires a variety of activities: ‘For as the ploughman first sets forth his plough and then tills the land, and breaks it in furrows, and sometimes ridges it up again … dungs it and hedges it, digs it and weeds it, and makes it clean; so the preacher has many diverse offices to do. He has first a busy work to bring his parishioners to a right faith … to a faith that embraces Christ, and trusts to his merits; a lively faith, a justifying faith; a faith that makes a man righteous, without respect of works … now casting them down with the law, and with the threatenings of God for sin; now ridging them up again with the gospel … now weeding them by telling them their faults, and making them forsake sin … It is God’s work, God’s plough, and that plough God would still have going. Such then as loiter and live idly are not good prelates.’

A diligent preacher

Alluding to 1 Peter 5:3, Latimer continued: ‘Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.’ He castigated negligent ministers as ‘unpreaching prelates, lording loiterers and idle ministers’. Then, in a climax of gathering power and pathos, he startled his hearers with this question. ‘And now I would ask a strange question: who is the most diligent bishop and prelate in all England, that passes all the rest in doing his office? I can tell, for I know who it is; I know him well. But now I think I see you listening and hearkening that I should name him. There is one that passes all the other … And will ye know who it is? I will tell you – it is the Devil.’

Latimer explained his assertion to a startled audience. The devil ‘is the most diligent preacher of all others; he is never out of his diocese; he is never from his cure: you should never find him unoccupied; he is ever in his parish; he keeps residence at all times … call for him when you will, he is ever at home. He is the most diligent preacher in all the realm; he is ever at his plough; no lording or loitering can hinder him.’ In an undisguised reference to Romish practices, Latimer continued: ‘Where the devil is resident, and has his plough going, there away with books and up with candles; away with Bibles and up with beads; away with the light of the gospel, and up with the light of candles; … down with Christ’s cross, up with purgatory pickpurse; up with him, the popish purgatory, I mean … Up with man’s traditions and his laws, down with God’s traditions and his most holy word … Oh that our prelates would be as diligent to sow the corn of good doctrine, as Satan is to sow cockle and darnel!’ With grim irony, the preacher offered his concluding counsel, ‘Therefore, ye un-preaching prelates, learn of the devil: to be diligent in your office, learn of the devil … if ye will not learn of God, nor good men, for shame learn of the devil!’

Dramatic reverse

For what must have seemed heady months of opportunity, Hugh Latimer preached regularly and with great boldness before king and court. But the ascendancy of gospel preaching was short-lived. In the sovereign wisdom of God, the circumstances were dramatically reversed when the young king coughed away his life at the tender age of sixteen. In July 1553 Mary Tudor ascended the throne, and in October 1555 Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burned at the stake, condemned by the very ‘unpreaching prelates’ castigated in Latimer’s sermon. The ‘crime’ which cost Latimer his life was to dissent from the Roman dogma of transubstantiation; that is, the belief that the bread and wine of the mass become the actual body and blood of Christ. His ‘heresy’ was to confess that Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross was fully sufficient: ‘a perfect sacrifice; neither needeth there to be any other, neither can there be any other propitiatory sacrifice’.

One plough only

Today, 450 years later, we face a situation that Hugh Latimer might have recognized. The false ‘gospels’ of sacramentalism, pluralism, mysticism, and univer-salism (with its Trojan Horse, Arminianism) have spread far and wide. The devil is as active a prelate as ever! Salvation by works, in an endless variety of guises, is the staple diet of most religious people. Latimer’s exhortation resonates with urgency; the biblical gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, must sound forth like a trumpet call, or else the darkness will envelop us.

Gospel ministers are not commissioned by God to be social workers or counsellors; Christ has not sent them to engage in politics or build ’empires’ of their own. There is one great object, one calling, and that is to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ. There is one plough, and one plough only, with which to till the earth. It is the Word of God. Like Latimer, and like our Lord himself, preachers must confront the darkness with the light of Christ. They must do it boldly, whatever the cost to their persons or reputations.

Perhaps Latimer’s noblest words came in his dying moments, as he turned to his ‘fellow-ploughman’ Nicholas Ridley, and said,’Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust shall never be put out.’ We too must plough in hope!