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Why were our Reformers burned?

May 2016 | by J. C. Ryle

May 2016 is 200 years since the birth of J. C. Ryle, a staunch Anglican evangelical, whose writings have been greatly used by God. This extract is taken from a much longer lecture given in 1867, on the courageous stand of the Protestant martyrs under Queen Mary I (1553-58).

Why were our Reformers burned? (see p.29) …Great indeed would be your mistake if you supposed that they suffered for the vague charge of refusing submission to the pope, or desiring to maintain the independence of the Church of England. Nothing of the kind!

The principal reason why they were burned was because they refused one of the peculiar doctrines of the Romish Church. On that doctrine, in almost every case, hinged their life or death. If they admitted it they might live; if they refused it they must die.

‘Real presence’

The doctrine in question was the ‘real presence’ of the body and blood of Christ in the consecrated elements of bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. Did they or did they not believe that the body and blood of Christ were actually present under the forms of bread and wine, after the words of consecration were pronounced?

Did they or did they not believe that the real body of Christ, which was born of the Virgin Mary, was present on the so called altar, so soon as the mystical words had passed the lips of the priest? Did they or did they not? That was the simple question. If they did not believe and admit it, they were burned.

There is a wonderful and striking unity in the stories of our martyrs on the subject. Some of them no doubt were attacked about the marriage of priests. Some of them were assaulted about the nature of the Catholic Church. Some of them were assailed on other points. But all, without an exception, were called to special account about the real presence; and in every case their refusal to admit the doctrine formed one principal cause of their condemnation.


Hear what John Rogers said: ‘I was asked whether I believed in the sacrament to be the very body and blood of our Saviour Christ that was born of the Virgin Mary, and hanged on the cross, really and substantially? I answered, “I think it to be false. I cannot understand really and substantially to signify otherwise than corporally. But corporally Christ is only in heaven, and so Christ cannot be corporally in your sacrament”’ (Foxe’s book of Martyrs). And therefore he was condemned and burned.

Hear what Bishop Hooper said: ‘Tunstall asked him to say “whether he believed the corporal presence in the sacrament, and Master Hooper said plainly that there was none such, neither did he believe any such thing”. Whereupon they bade the notaries write that he was married and would not go from his wife, and that he believed not the corporal presence in the sacrament: wherefore he was worthy to be deprived of his bishopric’ (Ibid.). And so he was condemned and burned.

Hear what Rowland Taylor said: ‘The second cause why I was condemned as a heretic was that I denied transubstantiation and concomitation, two juggling words whereby the papists believe that Christ’s natural body is made of bread, and the Godhead by and by to be joined thereto, so that immediately after the words of consecration, there is no more bread and wine in the sacrament, but the substance only of the body and blood of Christ’.

‘Because I denied the aforesaid papistical doctrine (yea, rather plain, wicked idolatry, blasphemy, and heresy), I am judged a heretic’ (Ibid.). And therefore he was burned … [Ryle gives six further examples].

Now, were the English Reformers right in being so stiff and unbending on this question of the real presence? Was it a point of such vital importance that they were justified in dying before they would receive it? These are questions … I am bold to say, on which no well instructed Bible reader can hesitate for a moment in giving his answer.

Huge implications

Such a one will say at once that the Romish doctrine of the real presence strikes at the very root of the gospel, and is the very citadel and keep of popery. Men may not see this at first, but it is a point that ought to be carefully remembered. It throws a clear and broad light on the line which the Reformers took, and the unflinching firmness with which they died.

Whatever men please to think or say, the Romish doctrine of the real presence, if pursued to its legitimate consequences, obscures every leading doctrine of the gospel, and damages and interferes with the whole system of Christ’s truth.

Grant for a moment that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrifice, and not a sacrament; grant that every time the words of consecration are used the natural body and blood of Christ are present on the Communion table under the forms of bread and wine; grant that everyone who eats that consecrated bread and drinks that consecrated wine, does really eat and drink the body and blood of Christ; grant for a moment these things, and then see what momentous consequences result from these premises.

You spoil the blessed doctrine of Christ’s finished work when he died on the cross. A sacrifice that needs to be repeated is not a perfect and complete thing. You spoil the priestly office of Christ. If there are priests that can offer an acceptable sacrifice to God besides him, the great High Priest is robbed of his glory.

You spoil the scriptural doctrine of the Christian ministry. You exalt sinful men into the position of mediators between God and man. You give to the sacramental elements of bread and wine an honour and veneration they were never meant to receive, and produce an idolatry to be abhorred of faithful Christians.

Last, but not least, you overthrow the true doctrine of Christ’s human nature. If the body born of the Virgin Mary can be in more places than one at the same time, it is not a body like our own, and Jesus was not the second Adam in the truth of our nature.

I cannot doubt for a moment that our martyred Reformers saw and felt these things even more clearly than we do, and seeing and feeling them, chose to die rather than admit the doctrine of the real presence. Feeling them, they would not give way by subjection for a moment, and cheerfully laid down their lives…

Crucial question

And now … I must ask you to turn from the dead to the living, to look away from England in 1555 to England in 1867, and to consider seriously the light which the burning of our Reformers throws on the Church of England at the present day.

We live in momentous times. The ecclesiastical horizon on every side is dark and lowering. The steady rise and progress of ritualism and ritualists is shaking the Church of England to its very centre. It is of the very first importance to understand clearly what it all means. A right diagnosis of disease is the very first element of successful treatment. The physician who does not see what is the matter is never likely to work any cures.

Now, I say there can be no greater mistake than to suppose that the great controversy of our times is a mere question of vestments and ornaments; of chasubles and amices; of more or less church decorations; of more or less candles and flowers; of more or less bowings and crossings; of more or less gestures and postures; of more or less show and form…

The things I have spoken of are trifles, I fully concede. But they are pernicious trifles, because they are the outward expression of an inward doctrine. They are the skin disease which is the symptom of an unsound constitution. They are the plague spot which tells of internal poison. They are the curling smoke which arises from a hidden volcano of mischief…

The very life of the Church of England is at stake, and nothing less. Take away the gospel from a church and that church is not worth preserving. A well without water, a scabbard without a sword, a steam engine without a fire, a ship without compass and rudder, a watch without a mainspring, a stuffed carcass without life, all these are useless things. But there is nothing so useless as a church without the gospel. And this is the very question that stares us in the face.

Is the Church of England to retain the gospel or not? Without it, in vain shall we turn to our archbishops and bishops; in vain shall we glory in our cathedrals and parish churches. ‘Ichabod’ will soon be written on our walls. The ark of God will not be with us. Surely something ought to be done!

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