Back to the Bible
Did you ever wonder how and why the Protestant church was started? It happened when learned men of God attempted unsuccessfully to bring the Roman church back to the Bible, from which it had strayed.
John Wycliffe in England (1320-1384) insisted that Christ was the head of the church, not the pope, and that the Bible, not the church, was the sole authority for the believer. He urged the Roman church to model itself after the pattern of the early New Testament church.
To promote these beliefs, he made the first complete translation into English of the New Testament. Up until then, few people could read the Bible since it was only in Latin. Wycliffe’s followers, the Lollards, went everywhere proclaiming biblical teachings, thus paving the way for the Reformation in England.
Huss and Luther
When John Huss, rector of the University of Prague, read Wycliffe’s writings, he led the Reformation in Bohemia. He was burned at the stake by the Roman church for his ‘heresy’ of proclaiming biblical doctrines instead of tradition.
Perhaps the best-known reformer during the Middle Ages was Martin Luther – the priest who strove to find peace with God by self-inflicted suffering. The vicar-general of his monastic order urged him to trust God and study the Bible. His study of God’s Word led him to regard it as the only true authority – and opened his eyes to the fact that only faith in Christ could make a person just before God (Romans 1:17).
Appointed a professor at Wittenburg University, Luther began to lecture from the Bible. ‘We cannot merit the forgiveness of sins by our own works or by the discipline of the law’, he declared; ‘Jesus bore our sins and his favour is to be received by faith alone!’
Luther was charged with heresy. Rejecting traditions of the church that were contrary to God’s Word, he answered, ‘The head of the church is Christ. No Christian can be compelled to hold any doctrine which is not contained in the Holy Scriptures. Only the Bible is infallible!’
Luther translated the Bible into the German language so that people could read the truth for themselves. He and his followers were the first to be called ‘Protestants’.
Calvin and Zwingli
When John Calvin, a French lawyer, was accused of heresy for teaching the biblical doctrines of God’s love, grace and justification by faith, he fled to Switzerland, where he spearheaded the reform movement.
His teaching swept through Scotland, England, the Netherlands, and eventually America. Many other notable men of God rose up – then and later – to proclaim the good news of salvation through Christ alone and the doctrines of God’s Word.
Huldreich Zwingli, a Swiss priest, was one who furthered the trend back to the Bible. He emphasised salvation by faith, the authority of the Bible, the headship of Christ in the church, and the right of clerics to marry. He opposed images and relics and condemned other unscriptural practices and urged his followers to study God’s Word.
Wesley in England
The Protestant movement had advanced greatly by the time John Wesley was born in 1703. Unfortunately, however, many had become ‘Protestants’ for the wrong reasons. The Anglican church had become the official church of England, and by the decree of King Henry VIII many Roman churches became Anglican – bringing whole congregations into the ‘Protestant’ movement without them understanding the biblical gospel of salvation.
John Wesley was one such nominal Christian but at least he was deeply concerned. Thinking that salvation could be attained by keeping strict moral rules, he became the leader of a group at Oxford University (known as ‘Methodists’) who also were searching for righteousness.
Still seeking his own salvation, John sailed to America as a missionary to the Indians. When a fierce storm hit his ship, everyone panicked except a group of Moravians, who sang psalms. John marvelled at their lack of fear, and this gave them an opportunity to talk to him about trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation.
When John returned to England, he visited a Moravian meeting. There, readings from Luther’s treatise on Romans warmed his heart. That night Wesley trusted in Christ alone for his salvation.
His heart aflame with fervour, he set out on horseback to evangelise. He preached 42,000 sermons, wrote 233 books, and founded Bible study groups everywhere. Wesley not only taught the great truth of salvation by faith in Christ alone, but stressed the importance of living according to the teaching in God’s Word.
What principles, then, can we learn from the Reformation? Here are a few.
1. The Bible is the inerrant Word of God, and its teachings are to be followed rather than any traditions of man. Jesus told the Pharisees, ‘You nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition’ (Matthew 15:6). Again, Timothy 3:16 says, ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’.
2. Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone, through his sacrifice for our sins on the cross. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, ‘by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast’.
3. God in his love freely gives his righteousness to the believer in Christ and we become new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17; 6:21). We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works (Ephesians 2:10). We have all this potential, but realising it depends on our obedience to our Lord (John 15:10; 2 John 6, 9).
That is why it is so important for us to hear, read, memorise and study God’s Word, and live by it. When we do this, we experience the peace, joy and abundant life that Jesus promised to his followers.
Dr Muriel Larson