The Old Preacher

Viewing the World through God's Word

Category: Reformation (page 1 of 3)

Reformation: John Calvin

 One meeting changed John Calvin’s plans.  Calvin’s new plans helped change the world.  Read about it in today’s entry of our 500th commemoration of the Reformation from

Here We Stand

Day 23

John Calvin


The Genius of Geneva

By John Piper

In the fall of 1539, John Calvin wrote to Sadoleto, an Italian cardinal seeking to win Geneva back to the Roman Catholic Church: “[Your] zeal for heavenly life [is] a zeal which keeps a man entirely devoted to himself, and does not, even by one expression, arouse him to sanctify the name of God.” He goes on to say that Sadoleto should “set before [man], as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God” (Selections from His Writings, 89).

This would be a fitting banner over all of Calvin’s life and work — zeal to illustrate the glory of God. The essential meaning of Calvin’s life and preaching is that he recovered and embodied a passion for the absolute reality and majesty of God.

Mastered by Majesty

Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France, when Martin Luther was 25 years old and had just begun to teach the Bible in Wittenberg. The message and spirit of the Reformation would not reach Calvin for twenty years, and in the meantime he devoted his young adult years to the study of Medieval theology, law, and the classics.

But by 1533, something dramatic had happened in his life through the influence of Reformation teaching. Calvin recounts how he had been struggling to live out the Catholic faith with zeal when “God, by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame. . . . Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with [an] intense desire to make progress” (Selections from His Writings, 26).

Suddenly, Calvin saw and tasted in Scripture the majesty of God. And in that moment, both God and the word of God were so powerfully authenticated to his soul that he became the loving servant of God and his word the rest of his life.

Genevan Pastor

Calvin knew what sort of ministry he wanted. He wanted the enjoyment of literary ease so he could promote the Reformed faith as a scholar. But God had radically different plans.

After escaping from Paris and finally leaving France entirely, Calvin intended to go to Strasbourg for a life of peaceful literary production. But while Calvin was staying the night in Geneva, William Farel, the fiery leader of the Reformation in that city, found out he was there and sought him out. It was a meeting that changed the course of history, not just for Geneva, but for the world. Calvin remembers,

Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies, . . . and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquillity of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken.

The course of his life was irrevocably changed. Never again would Calvin work in what he called the “tranquillity of studies.” From now on, every page of the 48 volumes of books and tracts and sermons and commentaries and letters that he wrote would be hammered out on the anvil of pastoral responsibility. For the next 28 years (apart from a two-year hiatus), Calvin gave himself to expositing the word — to displaying the majesty of God in Scripture to his Genevan flock.

Glory Recovered

The need for the Reformation was fundamentally this: Rome had “destroyed the glory of Christ in many ways” (Portrait of Calvin, 9). The reason, according to Calvin, the church was “carried about with so many strange doctrines” was “because the excellence of Christ is not perceived by us” (Portrait of Calvin, 55). In other words, the great guardian of biblical orthodoxy throughout the centuries is a passion for the glory and the excellency of God in Christ.

The issue is not, first, the well-known sticking points of the Reformation: justification, priestly abuses, transubstantiation, prayers to saints, and papal authority. Beneath all of them — at stake in them all for Calvin — was the fundamental issue of whether the glory of God was shining in its fullness, or was somehow being diminished. From the beginning of his ministry to the end of his life, his guiding star in vision was the centrality and supremacy and majesty of the glory of God.

Unlocking the Treasures of Scripture

Geerhardus Vos has argued that this focus on the glory of God is the reason the Reformed tradition succeeded more fully than the Lutheran tradition in “mastering the rich content of the Scriptures.” Both had “cast themselves on the Scriptures.” But there was a difference:

Because Reformed theology took hold of the Scriptures in their deepest root idea, it was in a position to work through them more fully from this central point and to let each part of their content come to its own. This root idea which served as the key to unlock the rich treasures of the Scriptures was the preeminence of God’s glory in the consideration of all that has been created. (Shorter Writings, 243)

The true genius of Geneva was not the mind of John Calvin, but passion for the glory of God. Every generation needs to unlock the treasures of Scripture for the peculiar perils and possibilities of its own time. Our generation no less than any. I think we will only do this well if we have been profoundly and joyfully mastered by the greatest reality the Scriptures reveal — the majesty of God’s glory.

Please like & share:

Reformation: John Knox

The 2001 religion census in Scotland shows 42% of the population belongs to the Church of Scotland.  The church has been Calvinistic due to the Reformation efforts of John Knox in the 16th century.  Read about him today courtesy of, as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Here We Stand

Day 22

John Knox

c. 1513–1572

The Champion of the Kirk

By Sinclair Ferguson

In the early 1500s, Scotland had one thing in common with the rest of Europe: a deeply corrupt and spiritually impoverished church, with morally moribund leadership. To cite one notorious example, David Beaton, cardinal and archbishop, illegitimately fathered at least fourteen children as his own. So much for celibacy in action. The spiritual ignorance was such that George Buchanan could claim that some priests thought the New Testament was a book recently published by Martin Luther.

Enter John Knox, and the Reformation was underway.

Born in Haddington, East Lothian, sometime between 1513 and 1515, Knox received his schooling locally and then at the University of St. Andrews. He became a priest and returned to his home region as notary and tutor. We know as little about his conversion as we do about Calvin’s.

Capture and Release

After the Protestant George Wishart’s martyrdom in St. Andrews, Knox came to the town with some of his young students and, in 1547, joined the group of Reformers living in the castle there. When Knox was appointed to preach, he refused, but he was virtually manhandled into accepting a call from the castle congregation to become their minister. Within a matter of months, however, the castle was under siege from French ships in St. Andrews Bay. Knox and others were captured, and he became a galley slave for the next year and a half.

In 1549, Knox was released and made his way to England. He pastored a congregation at Berwick, but soon he moved to Newcastle. He then became a royal chaplain during the days of the young King Edward VI. The death of Edward in 1553 was a body blow to the reforming party in England, leading as it did to the enthronement of Mary Tudor (“that idolatrous Jezebel” were Knox’s carefully chosen words to describe her). Knox sought refuge on the Continent.

Life on the Continent

Between 1553 and 1559, Knox lived a somewhat nomadic existence. He spent some time with Calvin in Geneva, calling it “the most perfect school of Christ . . . since the days of the apostles.” Thereafter, he accepted a call to pastor the English-speaking congregation at Frankfurt am Main.

Knox married Englishwoman Marjorie Bowes and, in 1556, returned to Geneva, where he pastored a congregation of some two hundred refugees. The following year, he received an urgent invitation to come back to Scotland — 1558 was the scheduled time for the marriage of the young Mary, Queen of Scots, to the dauphin of France, an event that seemed to destine Scotland for permanent Roman Catholic rule.

A taste of Knox’s vigor can be savored in a letter he wrote that same year to the people of Scotland, urging them not to compromise the gospel. He reminded them that they must answer for their actions before the judgment seat of God:

[Some make excuses:] “We were but simple subjects, we would not redress the faults and crimes of our rulers, bishops, and clergy; we called for reformation, and wished for the same, but . . . we were compelled to give obedience to all that they demanded.” These vain excuses, I say, will nothing avail you in the presence of God.

Return to Scotland

In 1559, Knox finally returned home to begin his most important phase of public ministry as the champion of the kirk (the Scottish term for church). Despite his lengthy absences from his native land, several things equipped Knox to lead the Reformation there: his name was associated with the heroes of the recent past, his sufferings authenticated his commitment, his broad experience had prepared him for leadership, and his sense of call made him “fear the face of no man.” So, for the next thirteen years, Knox gave himself to the reformation of Scotland.

By the summer of 1572, Knox was a shadow of his former self, and by November, it was clear he was not long for this world. On the morning of November 24, he asked his second wife, Margaret, to read 1 Corinthians 15 to him, and around five o’clock came his final request: “Read where I cast my first anchor” (presumably in faith). She read John 17. By the end of the evening, he was gone.

Many explanations have been forthcoming for Knox’s influence and that of the Scottish Reformation. No doubt there were many factors at work in the providence of God that brought about such spiritual renewal. But Knox’s own conviction was this: “God gave His Holy Spirit to simple men in great abundance.” Therein lies the greatest lesson of his life.

is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary.
Please like & share:

Reformation: Conrad Grebel

Two things stand out from reading about Grebel.  One, the authority the state had over the church.  We take religious freedom in America for granted.  We shouldn’t.  It’s a right to appreciate and protect. ” Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ” (U.S. Constitution, First Amendment).  (See “The Left’s New Plan to Gut Religious-Liberty Protections”– utm_campaign=NR%20Daily%20Saturday%202017-10-14&utm_term=NR5PM%20Actives),
Two, the cost believers were willing to bear to obey the gospel.  Makes me wonder how willing we are.  Anyway, here’s today’s entry for the 500th commemoration of the Reformation from . . .

Here We Stand

Day 21

Conrad Grebel

c. 1498–1526

The Radical Reformer

By Abigail Dodds

A radical among radicals, Conrad Grebel’s vision for the church is a familiar one to most evangelicals today. But at the time it made him an exile, not just from Roman Catholicism, but even among the Reformers.

Grebel was born in 1498 to a prominent family in Zurich. In 1524, Grebel’s university career began in Basel with what seemed like a promising start. But things unraveled as Grebel’s differences of opinion with his teacher, his brawling, and his loose living caused his father to cut him off. Chastened, he returned home to Zurich, where he fell in with a small band of humanists studying Greek, Hebrew, and the Latin Bible under the instruction of Ulrich Zwingli.

Sometime in the year following his stint with Zwingli, Grebel’s life changed. He married a woman below his class, which caused a further break with his family, and he was converted, as evidenced by a dramatic change in his lifestyle. It didn’t take long for Grebel to become one of Zwingli’s most enthusiastic supporters and earn a reputation as a gifted gospel witness.

Dispute and Disrepute

But just a little more than a year later, in October 1523, a wedge began working its way between the two men. The culprit? Mass. In a public disputation, both men favored abolishing the Mass, but when Zwingli saw that the city councilmen were not ready to go that far, he relented. This was unthinkable to Grebel, who felt that the clear word of God must be obeyed without delay. Both sides felt betrayed: Grebel felt Zwingli agreed to do what he had condemned as abominable (that is, continue performing the Mass), and Zwingli felt Grebel was ungrateful and demanding.

This dispute got to the heart of one of Grebel’s deepest differences with the mainstream Reformers: To whom does the church answer? Grebel was convinced that the city councilmen should have no authority over the church and its practice — more so, they should have no authority over the word of God itself. On the flip side, he didn’t think the church should have authority over the state either, and he opposed compulsory tithing and the like. The seeds of a separation between church and state were germinating. To us, this separation is as familiar as the air we breathe; to them, it was revolutionary.

A Romish Water Bath

The last nail in the coffin on Grebel’s association with the mainstream Reformers was over infant baptism. Grebel had hoped that Zwingli might be amenable to his conviction that only believing adults should be baptized, but it was not to be so.

On January 17, 1525, Zwingli called for a public debate to force the issue. Grebel was joined by Felix Manz and George Blaurock for the side of believers’ baptism. In the end, the city council agreed with Zwingli and ordered Grebel’s group to cease meeting for Bible study. They also ordered all unbaptized infants to be brought for baptism or else be exiled. Grebel’s daughter was two weeks old at the time and, in Grebel’s words, “had not yet been baptized and bathed in the Romish water bath.” Nor would she be while Grebel drew breath, which wasn’t for long.

A few days after the debate, Grebel gathered at Felix Manz’s home with the exiled radicals, and he performed the first adult baptism on Blaurock, a married former priest. In the months following, Grebel preached the gospel of “repent and be baptized” in St. Gall, and around five hundred people responded by doing just that.

Grebel was arrested and imprisoned in October 1525. After escaping from prison the following year, he continued preaching the gospel until he died of the plague just a few months later.

Preach and Obey

The driving force behind Grebel’s actions and doctrinal reforms could be summed up this way: preach and obey the word without compromise. In his own words,

Seek earnestly to preach only God’s word unflinchingly, to establish and defend only divine practices, to esteem as good and right only what can be found in definite clear Scripture, and to reject, hate, and curse all the schemes, words, practices, and opinions of all men, even your own.

Even if it means exile or worse.

(@abigaildodds) is a wife and mother of five. She’s a homemaker seeking to know and love God through the study of his word. She’s a regular contributor to Desiring God and blogs at
Please like & share:

Reformation: Heinrich Bullinger

 After reading this, I’m thinking of the countless stories heaven will reveal of “ordinary” men and women significantly used by God to advance his gospel throughout history.  Thanks to for making this 500th Reformation commemoration possible.

Here We Stand

Day 20

Heinrich Bullinger


The Majestic Beard of Zurich

By David Mathis

In an age when the celibate priesthood set itself apart from the laity, in part, with clean-shaven faces, the Protestant Reformers grew beards to make a statement. They were restoring both maleness and humanity to church leadership, and they weren’t afraid to have it written on their faces.

Word is that Heinrich Bullinger, chief minister in the leading Swiss city of Zurich, had the best beard of all. One historian describes Bullinger’s as “majestically bushy” — and it wasn’t altogether disconnected from the theology he carefully grew, and groomed, in the wake of the Reformation’s first shocking loss.

Protestant and Preacher

Bullinger, son of a Catholic priest, was born in the Swiss town of Bremgarten in 1504. He went off to the University of Cologne in Germany in 1519 to study humanities, not medieval theology. While there he encountered a book-burning of Luther’s works, and it piqued his interest. He then determined to read the Reformer for himself, and as he did, his world turned upside down. He was now eighteen years old, and a Protestant convert.

In 1523, the year after his conversion, Bullinger met Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), who had been converted in 1519, around the same time as Luther, and quickly became the leader of the Swiss Reformation. Zwingli was twenty years Bullinger’s elder, but the two became allies, and eight years later their lives were forever linked when disaster struck the fledging Reformed movement.

Zurich Successor

Zwingli was not only pastor in Zurich but also army chaplain. On October 11, 1531, the great Reformer joined the Battle of Kappel to defend the city against Catholic forces. He was wounded, then found by the invading army, and executed.

After the Protestant loss, Bullinger’s hometown, where he now was pastoring a Protestant church, came under threat. He fled for Zurich. There he took into his own household the wife and two surviving children of his dead friend, and within weeks he was chosen as his successor as chief minister in Zurich, a post at which Bullinger would stand for 44 years, from age 27 until his death at 71 in 1575.

Early Covenant Theologia

How often history pairs the strengths of great men with attendant weaknesses. One of Bullinger’s signature contributions was his primitive form of “covenant theology.” Here he followed the lead of Zwingli, who organized his theology by the covenant motif, rather than by medieval categories.

Zwingli located his theological center in God’s creation covenant with Adam. Bullinger matured and modified that theology to focus on Abraham, a step in the right direction, but as historian David Steinmetz notes, both located their theological center of gravity in the Old Testament rather than the New. The strengths included reading the whole Bible as one story; the weaknesses included a penchant to minimize (or reject) discontinuities revealed in the New.

In short, Zwingli and Bullinger read the whole Bible but still a flat Bible. What remains unclear is how much such early covenant theology led to the mistreatment of Zurich’s so-called Anabaptists (“re-baptizers”), and how much it developed in response to these “radicals.” In 1525, Zwingli and Bullinger together defended infant baptism at a public disputation against the Anabaptists, which led to the eventual drowning of some.

Bullinger also followed Zwingli in opposing church music because of its danger to become an idol and hinder true worship. Bullinger groomed Zwingli’s instinct into a matter of principle, and church music was not restored in Zurich until almost 25 years after Bullinger’s death.


Yet his life and enduring legacy would not be as a divider, but as a unifier. Behind his majestic beard was one of the biggest hearts of the Reformation era, and one of its most tireless peacemakers. Though he rarely left Zurich, he engaged in voluminous personal correspondence (some twelve thousand of his letters have survived) to counsel and build coalition with Reformed leaders across Europe.

Even more than his gifted preaching, he was known for his patience, wisdom, and generous spirit. He stabilized the young but influential Zurich church, not only after its shocking tragedy but then for more than forty years. He grew and groomed what Zwingli began. According to Steinmetz, “Without Zwingli there would have been no Reformation in Zurich; without Bullinger it would not have lasted.”

Please like & share:

Reformation: Hellen Stirke

 I find this Reformation account more moving than all the others–maybe because it’s about ordinary people like us . . .

Here We Stand

Day 19

Hellen Stirke

Died 1543

The Ordinary Virgin Mary

By Tony Reinke

The drama of the Protestant Reformation casts big personalities and major characters, the types of men now etched into myths, legends, and giant stone figures. But the Reformation is also the story of everyday, ordinary followers of Christ, mostly forgotten, who lived out Reformation theology on the ground — and who paid the price for it with their lives. Martyrs like Hellen Stirke.

Mary’s Equal

Hellen was a fairly average Scottish Christian in the city of Perth, dedicated to daily domestic work as a wife and mother. Her life remained unnoticed to history until the birth of her last child in 1544.

When the time arrived for Hellen’s labor and delivery, Catholic tradition called for earnest prayers to the Virgin Mary. Having a good sense of Scripture, Hellen repudiated these petitions. It was a tradition she would not follow. Her baffled midwives pressed her to make such a prayer, but she refused the ritual. The physical risk was real, but the prayers were nothing more than superstitious insurance.

“If I had lived in the days of the Virgin,” Hellen said with poise, “God might have looked likewise to my humility and base estate, as he did the Virgin’s, and might have made me the mother of Christ.” Her childbed sermonette must have triggered gasps. But Hellen was settled and comforted by her theology, knowing her prayers were going directly to God through her Savior Jesus Christ.

“I Will Not Bid You Good Night”

News of Hellen’s refusal to pray to Mary, and her bold claim that she was on equal standing before God, very soon found its way to the ears of the local Catholic clergy and quickly up the chain to the presiding cardinal. His response was swift to snuff out this spark of Protestant theology. Before long, Hellen was arrested and imprisoned, along with her husband and four other outspoken Protestants in the city. The small group was soon found guilty of “heresy” and sentenced to death. The following day, soldiers brought Hellen, her husband, and the condemned Protestants to the gallows.

Hellen asked to die side by side with her husband, James Finlason, but her request was denied. Men were to be hanged, women drowned, and James would go first. Holding her young child in her arms, Hellen approached her husband, kissed him, and gave him these parting words:

“Husband, be glad, for we have lived together many joyful days, and this day, in which we must die, we ought to esteem the most joyful of all, because we shall have joy forever. Therefore I will not bid you good night, for we shall shortly meet in the kingdom of heaven.”

James was hanged before her eyes. His life on earth done, eyes fell to Hellen, who was forced to hand her newborn to a nurse entrusted with the child’s care from this point. The authorities led Hellen to a nearby pond, bound her hands and feet, put her into a large gunnysack along with stones or weights, and threw her into the water like a bag of garbage. All for the crime of “blaspheming the Virgin Mary.”

A Cloud of Ordinary Witnesses

Heaven has all the details, but this is all we know of Hellen’s life. She was a bold woman made strong by Scripture. Her birthbed claim, that she was equally qualified to mother Jesus, was a radical ceremonial insubordination — but at the heart it was an act of faith, rendering the strata of all human superiority irrelevant in the presence of Christ’s supremacy.

Look deeper into the Reformation, and you will see that it’s more than printing presses and theses nailed to doors and theological debates. It’s the story of ordinary believers, husbands and wives and fathers and mothers, poised in the words of Scripture, reclaiming the primacy of Jesus Christ for their lives, their marriages, their families, and their eternal hopes, who stand as a cloud of witnesses calling us to do likewise. They call us to hold our biblical convictions without wavering, to enjoy God’s earthly blessings, and to endure all momentary afflictions now for the great eternal joy set before us.

Please like & share:

Reformation: Hans Gooseflesh

 The Lord works in unusual ways.  Sometimes the least-significant act has far-reaching results.  You can read about it  in today’s commemoration of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary, via

Here We Stand

Day 18

Hans Gooseflesh

c. 1400–1468

The Accidental Reformer

By Rick Segal

Hans Gooseflesh came of age at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when the prevailing spirit of the age was “God must be angry.” His parents and grandparents were the generation that watched the Black Death eliminate a third of the continent’s population. In some European villages as many as sixty percent of the people perished.

He was born into an upper-class family. Dad was a goldsmith — “Companion of the Mint” they called him — a maker of coins and medallions. As he roamed around his father’s shop as a boy, he no doubt marveled at and probably even assisted in the process of striking coins. Molten metal was poured into molds (imagine tiny cake pans with scripts and images already debossed in the pans). The mold was made from a die strong enough to punch a clean impression of the coin onto it. The die itself was meticulously engraved by hand into tempered steel by craftsmen using sharp jeweler-like tools capable of removing steel from steel as easily as shaving a butter pat from the stick.

Failed Start-Up

Alas, Hans was not to inherit the family business. An uprising of guildsmen against the employers, which included Hans’s father, caused the family to relocate to Eltville. So, Hans needed to seek other job opportunities.

In the wake of the plague’s devastation, Roman Catholicism fostered an extraordinary consumer market in religious goods and services. Beyond the peddling of everyday rosaries, tokens, icons, and crucifixes to supply the faithful and penitent, a booming tourist industry emerged attracting hundreds of thousands of Catholic pilgrims eager to see relics recovered from the Holy Land.

An Ox Eye was a badge with a mirror on it that you could wear when visiting displayed relics. The idea was if the mirror on the badge caught the reflection of a relic, well, how couldn’t you be blessed? The Cathedral of Aachen housed four so-called Great Relics then, and still does: Mary’s cloak, Christ’s swaddling clothes, St. John’s beheading cloth, and Christ’s loincloth.

Hans Gooseflesh formed a start-up aimed at cornering the market for Ox Eyes at the 1439 Aachen pilgrimage, projected to draw more than 100,000 pilgrims. Leveraging his expertise in coin-making, he planned to mass produce 32,000 Ox Eyes and make a 2,500-percent profit on the venture. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a bad attendance year. The venture failed. Hans and his investors lost their shirts. But in the process of engineering Ox Eye production they created some significant intellectual property.

Lemons into Books

Knowledge transfer was shifting from oral transmission to inscribed manuals, directories, stories, and histories. People wanted books. Most of the demand was supplied by copyists and scribes who, when working earnestly, might be able to knock out a single — and we do mean single — volume of a Bible commentary once every five years. The innovation of woodblock printing helped the uptake of book supply, but woodblocks were unforgiving to error, easily breakable, and limited to a single use.

Hans Gooseflesh made lemonade from the lemon of his failed Ox Eye start-up. In the process of figuring out how to make souvenirs for the Aachen pilgrims, he conceived of a method of building forms into which a collection of metal characters could be racked to create, if you will, a “metalblock” rather than a woodblock that could be used to print sharp, readable words on a page, and then be un-racked, re-ordered, and reused to create new forms for entirely different projects. It was a variation of the die, mold, and punch-making of his childhood performed in miniature to muster legions of metal mercenaries perpetually ready for redeployment.

History Reset

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (anglicized here as “Hans Gooseflesh”) was dead fifty years before Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door. He never preached a sermon. Never authored a theological treatise. Indeed, Hans Gooseflesh, apart from his eponymous Gutenberg Bible, did a banner business in printing papal indulgences. He was a Reformer only by accident — or, better, by common grace. But the printing industry’s quick standardization to Gutenberg’s system of movable type created a production and distribution capability that enabled Luther’s titles to occupy thirty percent of an unheard of seven million–book market in Germany between 1518 and 1525.

The Chinese had invented moveable type seven centuries before, but their writing system was too complex to make use of it. The Muslim world resisted the use of printing for four hundred years after the invention of moveable type. So, in one unique window of human history, God raised up a ne’er-do-well tchotchke-maker to pave the way for a spiritually tortured monk, and his successors, to reclaim the word of God and reset the history of redemption.

Please like & share:

The Pre-Reformation Church

What did it look like?  Why were the reformers convinced it needed reforming?

On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I’ve been blogging about some of its leaders, courtesy of  If you’re unfamiliar with church history, you may be asking those questions.  Here’s a brief look at the church before the Reformation.

It’s impossible, in a brief blog, to trace all church history leading to the 16th century Reformation.  To catch a century-by-century glimpse, go to

European society was hierarchical.  For centuries, church  authority was increasingly concentrated in the Rome bishop.  That process climaxed in the bishop of Rome becoming pope, with a claim to have descended from the apostle Peter and to be Christ’s representative (“vicar”) on earth.   He, not the written Word of God, was the church’s authority.

Doctrines and traditions, alien to the New Testament, crept into the church.  Church and state (king) were the ruling authorities in society.  Eventually, the Roman Empire became the “Holy Roman Empire”, ruling much of Europe.

The hierarchy of authority meant the pope had power to dispense grace, which he did by ordaining bishops and priests who “poured” that grace out to the masses by means of the Mass.

Dispensing grace was quite mechanical.  “Worshipers” were uneducated and illiterate.  Their faith wasn’t expressed, merely implied.  That is, they habitually came and systematically received “grace” through the bread of the Mass.  Since the Mass was said in Latin, the people didn’t understand a word.  Apparently, many priests didn’t either; they didn’t learn Latin, just the words of the Mass so they could repeat them.

The focal point of the church was the altar.  And at that altar an “unbloody sacrifice” was made.  Christ’s body was offered to God.  God’s anger was appeased (again and again).  Sins were forgiven.  Grace was given as the substance of the bread and wine were transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ (“transubstantiation”).

The system was based on an understanding of salvation from Augustine (354-430 A.D.).  Augustine taught that we exist to love God—something we can’t do naturally.  So God “justifies” us.  That is, through the sacraments, recipients receive the grace of love.  By each Mass, we are made a more righteous, loving person who leaves to live more righteously and lovingly.  In this way, we merit salvation.   “God will not deny grace to those who do their best” was a common slogan.

But how could you tell if you were doing your best to live a loving life?  How could you be sure you merited salvation?   That problem was solved in 1215 when a church council required all Christians to regularly confess their sins to a priest.  To neglect confession meant damnation.  In order to probe the penitent’s heart, the priest asked questions from an official list. For example, “Are your prayers, alms, and religious activities done more to hide your sins and impress others than to please God?” “Have you muttered against God because of bad weather, illness, poverty, the death of a child or a friend?”  Obviously, instead of relieving a guilty conscience, confession revealed deeper, darker sins.

The church’s official teaching recognized that no one would die righteous enough to have merited salvation.  Therefore:  purgatory.  Unless one died unrepentant of a mortal sin, he could have his sins slowly purged through punishment in order to eventually enter heaven.  The process could take literally thousands of years.  But it could be speeded up if the living said prayers for the souls in purgatory or asking for the grace of the Mass to be applied to them.

Increasingly, Christ was seen as the Doomsday Judge, terrible in holiness.  Who could approach him?  Hence, his mother (to whom he would surely listen)  became the mediator.  Although the church officially declared Mary and all others saints were to be venerated, not worshiped, the distinction was too fine for the masses.  In fact, all the saints were regarded as gods and their relics (bones, jewelry, pieces of clothing, etc.) were treated as objects with powers to avert evil and bring good fortune.

There was the danger of saints and relics becoming idols.  So the church declared relics, pictures and images “the Bible of the poor”.  This, they explained, is how the illiterate learn.

And then there were the indulgences.  After hearing a confession, the priest would prescribe various acts of penance.  Any sins for which penance was not done in this life would be dealt with in purgatory.  But there was good news.  Saints, who had sufficient merit to bypass purgatory and go directly to heaven, had merit to spare.  The church could give them to worthy recipients—for a price.  At the start, the price was participation in the First Crusade; then money was enough for spiritual bliss.

One might expect ordinary people would reject such religion.  But current historical research has shown in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was more popular than ever.  “More masses for the dead were paid for, more churches were built, more statues to saints were erected, and more pilgrimages were made than ever before.”

This, in brief-sketch-form was the church.  You couldn’t go down the street to another.  This was it  And this is why the church needed reforming.

It started sometime in the 1320’s.  A man named John Wycliffe was ordained as a priest and sent to Oxford.  There his theological views made him controversial and his connections to the royal family made him influential.  In 1378, Wycliffe publicly declared the Bible, not the pope as the supreme spiritual authority.  He organized a translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible into English.  The “morning star of the Reformation” had appeared.  In 1517 the priest Martin Luther would nail his 95 theses to the Wittenburg door.  The “morning star” became a thunderstorm.

Thank God.










Please like & share:

Reformation: Ulrich Zwingli

 Reformers repeatedly referred to the authority of God’s Word over human authority and traditions.  Today’s reformer did the same.  And, though his life was short, God’s Word prospered through him.  (Thanks to for these articles on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.)

Here We Stand

Day 17

Ulrich Zwingli


The Swiss Giant

By Travis Myers

Ulrich Zwingli’s career as a Reformer was relatively brief, but his energetic and multifaceted leadership was crucial in the early days of the Protestant movement.

Born to the chief local magistrate of a small alpine village named Wildhaus in 1484, Zwingli attended the universities of Vienna and Basel before serving as priest in the Swiss town of Glarus from 1506 to 1516. While priest in the town of Einsiedeln the following two years (1517–1518), Zwingli broke with traditional Roman Catholic practice by preaching in clear expository fashion in the German vernacular of his people. Such preaching earned him a post in the free city or “canton” of Zurich by 1519.

In Einsiedeln, Zwingli had been an ardent student of the Greek New Testament recently compiled by Erasmus of Rotterdam. Now in Zurich, Zwingli spent six years preaching straight through the New Testament, mingling with the people of his parish, writing against unscriptural Catholic dogma and practices, and engaging in public debates with Catholic authorities before the town leaders. During that time, the town councils of both Zurich and the nearby canton of Bern voted to adopt Protestantism.

The Sixty-Seven Articles

For his public debates with Catholic authorities in early 1523, Zwingli composed “The Sixty-Seven Articles.” The document’s brief introduction and conclusion reveal Zwingli’s deep respect for the authority of God’s word and his firm belief in the Bible’s unique status as the only revelation of the saving good news of Jesus Christ and of God’s will for Christian people. The introduction reads,

The articles and opinions below, I, Ulrich Zwingli, confess to have preached in the worthy city of Zurich as based upon the Scriptures which are called inspired of God . . . and where I have not now correctly understood said Scriptures I shall allow myself to be taught better, but only from said Scriptures.

Zwingli would expand on these articles in a book-length treatise in 1525 titled “The True and False Religion.” In 1526, he composed “Ten Theses” for Bern, which served as a succinct summary of his Reformed perspective.

Away with the Pomp

Zwingli, the Swiss giant of the Reformation, was particularly indignant about the pomp, hypocrisy, and idolatry of man-made religion. His labors for the reformation of Zurich and other Swiss cantons can be best conceived of, perhaps, as an effort to free people from the burdens imposed by a religious system invented by men that can’t deliver on its promise of eternal life.

Article 7 of “The Sixty-Seven Articles” states that Christ “is an eternal salvation and head of all believers, who are his body, but which is dead and can do nothing without him.” Attending Mass, participating in the so-called sacraments of Roman Catholicism, or even being ordained as a priest did not make someone a spiritually alive member of the true “ecclesia catholica” (universal church). That only happens by the gospel and the Spirit.

Eat a Sausage, Find a Wife

Zwingli was an activist who not only aimed to teach and apply the Bible alone, but who lobbied both church and civil authorities to realign their laws and policies with God’s word. During the Lenten season of 1522, Zwingli gave his tacit assent in the home of a parishioner, the printer Christoph Froschauer, as he and his guests ate sausage, prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church during Lent but a staple local food. Zwingli successfully lobbied the Zurich town authorities to release these men from jail, where they’d been put for breaking the Lenten fast.

Taking advantage of the town council’s leniency, Zwingli and ten other priests wrote to the Bishop of Constance requesting the right of priests to be married, since the blanket requirement of clerical celibacy was unscriptural and unwise. Zwingli himself was already living with a widow, Anna Reinhart, whom he married soon after Zurich became a Protestant canton free from the bishop’s authority.

Zwingli also held a deep respect for women and longed for them to experience authentic Christian discipleship. In 1522, he visited a convent to deliver a series of lectures titled “Of the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God,” theological lessons on the doctrine of revelation and Bible interpretation.

Twelve Years of Reform

On October 11, 1531, at age 47, Zwingli died unarmed on a battlefield near Kappel, Switzerland, serving as a chaplain to the Protestant troops, carrying only a flag and a Bible.

At the time of his death, Zwingli was only a dozen years removed from his life as a priest in Einsiedeln — a short career compared to Luther’s and Calvin’s decades of reform. But there’s a reason Zwingli is often the third name people mention when remembering the Reformation. By God’s grace, this dynamic Reformer’s dozen years brought countless Swiss men and women away from dead ceremony, and back to Jesus Christ.

Heinrich Bullinger succeeded Zwingli as pastor of Gross Münster church and head of Zurich’s “School of the Prophets,” which trained men in biblical languages, exegesis, and preaching. In the 1560s, Bullinger was the main author of the Second Helvetic Confession, adopted soon after by Reformed churches in Switzerland, Scotland, Hungary, France, and Poland. It remains to this day one of the most influential and beloved doctrinal statements of various Reformed denominations the world over.

Please like & share:

Reformation: Latimer & Ridley

The Reformers’ passion  boggles my mind.  Are we willing to die for the biblical gospel of Christ as they were?  Read about two men who were in today’s edition of the 500th Reformation commemoration from

Here We Stand

Day 16

Hugh Latimer & Nicholas Ridley

Martyred in 1555

The British Candle

By Scott Hubbard

For those familiar with the English Reformation, the name Latimer sounds incomplete on its own. It demands a Ridley.

Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley are fastened together in history primarily because they were fastened to the same stake on October 16, 1555, on the north side of Oxford. But Latimer and Ridley share more than a martyrdom. The bishops also join each other on the list of England’s most influential Reformers — men and women whose allegiance to Scripture and the glory of Christ transformed England from a Catholic kingdom to a lighthouse of Reformation.

Both Latimer and Ridley lived during the reigns of four English monarchs: Henry VII, Henry VIII (the one with all the wives), Edward VI, and Mary I (aka “Blood Mary”). Both witnessed the Reformation’s tug and pull under Henry VIII’s tentative acceptance, Edward VI’s warm embrace, and Mary I’s violent resistance to Reformed doctrine. But they were anything but casual observers.

Latimer the Preacher

Latimer, born around 1485, spent the first thirty years of his life a zealous Catholic — or, in his words, an “obstinate Papist.” “I was as obstinate a Papist as any was in England,” he wrote, “insomuch that when I should be made bachelor of divinity, my whole oration was against Philip Melanchthon [i.e., Luther’s right-hand man].”

But soon after Latimer’s anti-Reformation oration, a young Cambridge divine named Thomas Bilney approached him with a request. Would Latimer allow Bilney to privately explain his own Reformed faith? Latimer agreed, and from then on he “began to smell the Word of God, and forsook the school doctors and such fooleries.” Latimer gathered up the arrows he had been shooting at the Reformation, and he started pointing the bow in the other direction. Throughout the next couple decades, he distinguished himself as a fervent Reformed preacher, at times enjoying Henry VIII’s favor for it, and at other times fearing his persecution (depending on the king’s mood).

Perhaps the most fruitful years of Latimer’s ministry came under Edward VI’s short reign, from 1547 to 1553. Despite his age, Latimer assisted Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer in reforming the English church, and he also preached like a man who just couldn’t stop. According to J.C. Ryle, “No one of the Reformers probably sowed the seeds of Protestant doctrine so widely and effectually among the middle and lower classes as Latimer.”

Then, in 1553, Queen Mary came to power, and Latimer was sent to a cell in the Tower of London.

Ridley the Scholar

Ridley, nearly twenty years Latimer’s junior, was born around 1502 near the border of Scotland. Throughout the next five decades, he would become one of England’s sharpest intellects, even going so far as to memorize all the New Testament letters — in Greek.

After attending Cambridge’s Pembroke College in his teenage years, Ridley continued his studies in France, where he likely encountered Reformation teachings. Unlike Latimer, Ridley left no clear account of his passage from Catholic priest to Protestant preacher. But we do know that he signed the 1534 decree against the pope’s supremacy, that he accepted the post of chaplain to Archbishop Cranmer three years later, and that he renounced the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation by 1545. When he became the bishop of London in 1550, he replaced the stone altars in London’s churches with plain wooden tables. According to Ridley and the Reformers, communion was a spiritual feast, not a sacrifice.

Ridley’s scholarly abilities launched him from one prestigious post to the next, even under Henry VIII’s capricious reign. From Canterbury to Westminster to Soham to Rochester to London, Ridley studied, preached, and, once Edward VI took the throne, threw himself into Cranmer’s reforms.

But then Queen Mary came to power, and Ridley joined Latimer in the Tower.

England’s Candle

On October 16, 1555, after spending eighteen months in a tower cell, Latimer and Ridley met at an Oxford stake. With Latimer in a frock and cap, and Ridley in his bishop’s gown, the two men talked and prayed together before a smith lashed them to the wood.

Ridley was the first to strengthen his friend. “Be of good heart, brother, for God will either assuage the fury of the flame, or else strengthen us to abide it.” As the bundle of sticks caught fire beneath them, Latimer had his turn. Raising his voice so Ridley could hear, he cried, “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.”

Three years later, Mary I died and passed the kingdom to her half-sister Elizabeth, a Protestant queen. And Latimer and Ridley’s candle burst into a torch.

Please like & share:

Reformation: Guillaume Farel

We’re discovering important men in the Reformation we never heard of (some whose names we can’t pronounce!).   Sure, they lived in a world far from ours.  But, without them, we would locked into a religious system that proclaimed salvation by merit and purgatory after death to fit us for heaven.  Thanks to  for providing this material.

Here We Stand

Day 15

Guillaume Farel


The French Firebrand

By Johnathon Bowers

In a 1791 sermon, Lemuel Haynes remarked, “Nothing is more evident than that men are prejudiced against the gospel. It is from this source that those who are for the defense of it meet with so much contempt” (The Faithful Preacher, 25). The French Reformer Guillaume Farel knew his fair share of contempt.

A fervent gospel minister, Farel spent his days championing the Protestant cause, often in the face of opposition. At times, this opposition arose from true gospel prejudice. At other times, though, Farel’s own foolhardiness was to blame. John Calvin noted that Farel could sometimes get “carried away by the vehemence of his zeal” (Calvin, 152). Blending a headstrong temperament with a deep concern for biblical piety, Farel contended unflinchingly for the faith and was instrumental in the cause of early French reform.

“The Papacy Fell from My Heart”

Born in Gap, France in 1489, Farel grew up in a devout Catholic household. As a twenty-year-old, he enrolled at the University of Paris to study theology. While there, Farel encountered the humanist scholar Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, a man whose devotion to Christ inspired Farel.

After graduating in 1517, Farel began teaching at the Collège du Cardinal Lemoine. Reports of Luther’s reforming efforts in Germany reached him there, bolstering his own growing conviction that Catholic worship and teaching had strayed from their biblical roots. As he studied Scripture over several years, Farel found that “little by little the papacy fell from my heart” (William Farel, 26).

Farel resigned from his teaching position, and in 1521 he began to promote the message of reform wherever he could. He preached in France and in the French-speaking Swiss regions, crossing paths with Johannes Oecolampadius in Basel and Wolfgang Capito and Martin Bucer in Strasbourg. Farel was known for his confrontational style, which prompted the following warning from Oecolampadius: “the more you are prone to violence, the more you must work on being gentle and tone down your lion-like outbursts by the spirit of a dove” (William Farel, 38).

Calvin’s Co-Laborer

In 1533, after an unsuccessful visit the previous year, Farel took up residence in Geneva, intent on leading the city to adopt the Reformation. His hopes were realized in 1536 when the General Council of Geneva officially allied itself with Protestantism.

It was in that same year that Farel famously persuaded Calvin to join him in his work. Calvin was passing through Geneva on his way to Strasbourg, intent on a quiet life of scholarship. Farel learned of Calvin’s presence in the city and tried to convince him to stay. When gentler appeals proved unsuccessful, Farel threatened Calvin with God’s judgment. Farel’s words found their mark. Calvin later wrote, “By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken” (William Farel, 69).

The decision to stay in Geneva was pivotal for Calvin, for although he and Farel were driven out of the city in 1538 — the two had clashed with the magistrates over church discipline matters — Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541 and ministered there for the rest of his life. Farel relocated to Neuchâtel, a city where he and Antoine Froment had introduced Reformation teaching in 1530. Like Calvin in Geneva, Farel established himself in Neuchâtel until his own death in 1565.

Calvin and Farel maintained a close relationship after their time together in Geneva, corresponding at least once a month for twenty years. The two men, together with Pierre Viret in Lausanne, formed a crucial partnership that helped advance the cause of French reform. Sadly, Calvin and Farel’s relationship ruptured when, in 1558, Farel announced his betrothal to Marie Thorel, a teenaged woman over fifty years his junior. Though it seems there was no sexual impropriety involved, the marriage created a scandal because of the vast age difference between the two spouses. Calvin’s friendship with Farel never recovered its former luster.

A Lover and a Fighter

As lion-like and controversial as Farel could be, he was committed to the spiritual vitality of the French-speaking people. He produced some of the first Reformation works available in French, writing a commentary on the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer in 1524 and a summary of Reformed teaching in 1529.

In his writings, Farel displayed a particular interest in the topic of prayer. In an article titled “Guillaume Farel’s Spirituality,” Theodore Van Raalte argues that Farel’s emphasis on prayer shows us a side of him that is too often overlooked, a side marked by “profound piety and pastoral love.” Farel was both a lover and a fighter, a pastor and a pugilist. Whatever his faults, this French firebrand loved the gospel and devoted his life to sharing its riches.

Please like & share:
Older posts

© 2017 The Old Preacher

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)