Now began the greatest part of Ridley’s witness to the cause of the Reformation in England and to biblical truth. Last month, we traced his life up to the time he was imprisoned by the newly-enthroned Mary Tudor. From the early days of his imprisonment he did all that he could, by word of mouth and by pen, to defend the Reformed doctrines.
His fellow prisoner in the Tower was Hugh Latimer, formerly Bishop of Worcester. Foxe has left us an account of their conferences, in which they helped each other prepare for their ‘examinations’.
The main subject on which they would be questioned was the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. This was so important because it was fundamental to whole Roman Catholic system, and that is still true today. It is one of those points in which the total difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism is focused, so that acceptance or rejection of this one matter entails acceptance or rejection of the whole Roman Catholic system of religion.
The mighty oak tree is, in a sense, contained in the acorn. All its branches, leaves, bark and roots are latent in that small seed. So it is with the doctrine of transubstantiation. It contains the germ of Roman Catholic religion, whose manifestations and implications can all be developed from that single tenet with a perfect and logical coherence.
The ‘real presence’ of Christ in the elements (which is what the doctrine teaches) presupposes the power of the priest to bring about this presence. This, in turn, implies that the priest is a sacrificing priest and, indeed, Roman Catholic priests are ordained with exactly this intention.
The power of the priest is confined to the so-called apostolic succession. The essence of priestly power is that grace is only communicated through a valid priesthood. Without such priesthood, and the sacraments administered by them, salvation cannot be assured.
This is the nature of Roman Catholic religion — grace tied to an order of men. Once you accept the ‘real presence’, all the rest follows as night follows day. All of this is the antithesis of true biblical religion.
That is why this issue was so important to the Reformers. It became a defining question and for them, a matter of life or death. In his prison conferences with Latimer, Ridley rehearsed, from the Scriptures and the Fathers, the reasons he would give for rejecting the ‘real presence’. Here he sharpened his sword for the conflict to come.
He remembered from his boyhood the men at Tynedale, training under arms to repulse the Scottish raiders. So, he told Latimer, he was exercising himself through their conferences to do combat with the adversaries of the faith.
Bertram’s book, to which we referred last month, helped him greatly for it showed that the doctrine of the ‘real presence’ was not as ancient as the Church of Rome implied, but of relatively recent origin. ‘This Bertram’, said Ridley, ‘was the first that pulled me by the ear, and that brought me from the common error of the Roman church, and caused me to search more diligently and exactly both the Scriptures and the writings of the old ecclesiastical Fathers in this matter’.
Benefits of Christ’s death
In the disputation held at Oxford in April 1555, Ridley defended his view of the Lord’s Supper. This was no mere academic dispute; he was on trial for his life.
His examiners asked ‘whether the natural body of Christ, conceived of the virgin Mary, and offered for man’s redemption upon the cross, is verily and really in the sacrament by virtue of God’s Word spoken by the priests, and whether the mass be a sacrifice propitiatory’.
Ridley answered that he submitted to the Word of God, and that the first proposition was ‘false and erroneous, and plain contrary to the doctrine, which is according to godliness’. The bread in the Lord’s Supper is a figure of the body of Christ. It is no empty figure, for it conveys to those who worthily receive it the power and efficacy of Christ’s death for his people.
If we receive the bread and wine at communion with repentance and faith, we receive the benefits of Christ’s death — his body given and blood shed for us. But to insist, as Rome does, that it is the actual material body and blood of Christ vitiates the nature of the sacrament. For, as Ridley said, ‘it is against reason and destroys the analogy and proportion of the sacrament’.
With regard to the mass being a ‘true propitiatory sacrifice’ for sins both of the living and the dead, Ridley said there was nothing in Scripture to support such a claim. There is neither sacrificing priest nor propitiatory sacrifice today in the church.
‘In the New Testament’, he declared, ‘there is one only sacrifice now already long since offered, which is able to make the comers thereunto perfect for ever; therefore, in the New Testament church they ought to cease from offering any more propitiatory sacrifice. “By himself he hath purged our sins”. I beseech you mark these words’.
Ridley continued, ‘”by himself … he hath reconciled us in the body of his flesh”. Mark, I beseech you: he saith not in the mystery of his body, but “in the body of his flesh”’. All the subtle shifts of the Roman ‘doctors’ could not nullify these clear assertions of the Scriptures.
Ridley declared the disputation at Oxford ‘a shameful display’. ‘They cried, “Blasphemies, blasphemies, blasphemies”; like the riot at Ephesus or the disputes with the Arians, all was tumult’.
Ridley was condemned and formally divested of all his symbols of office. When they uttered the words, ‘We do take from thee the office of preaching the gospel’, Ridley looked toward heaven and sighed, ‘O Lord God, forgive them their wickedness’.
When the day came for him to suffer, he was led out to the stake with Latimer following behind. At the stake he said to Latimer, ‘Be of good heart, brother, for God will either assuage the fury of the flame, or else strengthen us to abide it’.
A sermon was preached, but they were not allowed to say anything in response to it, but at the conclusion of it Ridley said, ‘Well, so long as the breath is in my body, I will never deny my Lord Christ and his known truth: God’s will be done in me’.
When the fire was lit, Latimer being elderly died quite soon, but Ridley was younger, and the wind blew the flames away from him. He suffered badly as the faggots smouldered around his legs, and cried out for the fire to be stirred up. After much suffering, the fire suddenly flared up, and Ridley died. Those who witnessed his death were struck with awe and sorrow.
Before Ridley died, he wrote from prison a ‘piteous lamentation’ on the miserable state of the Church of England in its ‘late revolt from the gospel’. He was referring to what had happened following Mary’s accession to the throne.
The communion service had been replaced once again by the Roman mass; altars had been restored in the churches; images were worshipped again; sacrificing priests had replaced gospel ministers; and the supremacy of the pope had been reintroduced into the realm of England.
The nation had again fallen into apostasy, because these changes were not the result of the errors of a few, but had been enacted as laws of the land by which the nation had been incorporated into the see of Rome.
‘When I consider’, said Ridley, ‘the ways of the Romish religion and how it contrasts with Scripture, it may be evident and easy to perceive, that these two ways, these two religions, the one of Christ, the other of the Romish see, in these latter days, be as far distant the one from the other, as light and darkness, good and evil, righteousness and unrighteousness, Christ and Belial’.
When we now look upon the miserable state of the Church of England (among others), should we not also raise a lamentation for its condition? In our time a similar apostasy has taken place.
The Book of Common Prayer, fashioned by the Reformers, has been replaced by new services, approximating more and more to the Roman mass, to which they aspire. Mass vestments have been introduced, images erected. The remains of Thomas à Becket have been brought back to Canterbury Cathedral.
The Archbishop of Canterbury joins with the pope in Rome in opening a door, which is supposed to confer plenary indulgence on pilgrims. Ecumenical agreements between Rome and Canterbury have been drawn up which affirm transubstantiation, the sacrifice of the mass, and papal primacy.
As Ridley said, what compounds these errors is that they are not the aberrations of individuals, but express the collective will of the Synods of the Church of England. They have become the official position.
Anyone who has a heartfelt concern for the spiritual state of our land can only echo Ridley’s lamentation: ‘Alas! England, alas! That this heavy plague of God should fall upon thee. Alas! My dear beloved country, what thing is it now that may do thee good?’