The sound of psalms wafted through the open windows of a country cottage near Bedford, England in 1675. A small group of men, women, and children had assembled together to sing, to fellowship, and to hear the Bible preached. It was no cathedral they were in, and everyone in the room knew that this Nonconformist meeting was illegal. The sound of larks and sparrows took the place of the peals of the organ. Here, there was no high altar, no surplice, no prayer book, no candles, and no stained glass. A simple table served as a pulpit, upon which rested the well-worn Bible of John Bunyan.
Most of these people were farmers, and their faces were tanned just like that of their preacher. This was just the kind of congregation Bunyan loved. It was said of our Lord Jesus, “The common people heard him gladly.” The same could be said of John Bunyan. He was a tinker by trade, a mender of pots and pans, and he spent the week travelling through the countryside with his portable brazier. It was in the countryside, talking to farmers and their wives, that John Bunyan had come to know the common man. He spoke in a direct way that they understood and loved.
But of all the faces in the cottage, a few were dearest. Nearest the pulpit was seated his wife, Elizabeth, and their children. Because of John Bunyan’s many years in prison, Elizabeth had been forced by circumstances to raise the children almost alone. By 1675 Bunyan had already spent 12 years of his life in the Bedford jail. At Elizabeth’s side were arranged the children God had given them. Mary, the oldest daughter, had been blind from birth. Bunyan’s few references to her are always tender, and he called her “my poor blind child.” Sometimes, during her father’s extended imprisonments, Mary had been forced to beg for the sustenance of the family. Her father’s heart ached for this, but as he told his family, “I must venture all with God, though it goeth to the quick to leave you.” On this day, the eyes of “poor blind Mary” were raised to meet her father’s. Her eyes could see nothing physically, but her spiritual vision was very clear.
Little did John Bunyan know that this day would bring him yet another painful separation. As the singing ended, the snort of a horse was heard outside. A party of armed men stomped up the stairs and into the room. The assembled saints kept their seats, and all eyes were fixed, not upon the sheriff and his men, but upon their beloved pastor. John Bunyan looked the sheriff calmly in the eye and announced his text from Luke 23:40, “Dost not thou fear God?” Instead of breaking up the service, the sheriff quietly took a chair. His men did likewise. Bunyan could sense the abiding power of God in the room, and he knew that he must obey God rather than men if he would truly “venture all for God,” Slowly, Bunyan read again his text from the words of the penitent thief on the cross, “Dost not thou fear God?” He read on, “seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.” When Bunyan looked up from his Bible, he saw the sheriff visibly shaken by the text. The sheriff was holding the warrant for Bunyan’s arrest, but the hand that held the warrant began to tremble. Bunyan knew the power of the Word of God, and he proceeded, “Behold how this man trembles at the Word of God.”
John Bunyan proceeded to preach. He described the wretchedness of man’s sin, the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. Bunyan knew what it was to be a lost and dying sinner. He had once been a man as wicked as the sheriff, a blasphemous, lustful, and proud young man. The text brought to mind Bunyan’s own conversion. He remembered the crushing weight of his own sin. He called to mind the iniquity of his own heart. He remembered the passages of Scripture that seemed to forever condemn him under the righteous judgment of an offended God. He had been terrified by the Scriptures in Hebrews that warned of falling “into the hands of the living God.” He feared that he, like Esau, could find no place of repentance. But he eventually found rest in the same book of Hebrews that pointed the sinner to the perfect righteousness of Christ. He remembered the day that he read the text in Hebrews 12:22, “But ye are come to mount Zion . . . to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus Christ, the mediator of the New Covenant.” Having realized that sinful men are “made perfect” by the “mediator of the New Covenant,” Bunyan had come to rest in the perfections of Christ and the burden of sin rolled from his shoulders at the foot of the cross.
In his autobiography, “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners,” John Bunyan relates the agonizing process by which God brought him from sin to salvation, from doubt to faith, from darkness to light, and from defeat to victory. Now, in his sermon, he sought to proclaim the Good News of salvation to farmers and sheriffs alike. If the grace of God could save “the chief of sinners” — Bunyan himself, the same grace could save the sheriff.
Through the entire sermon the sheriff sat riveted to his seat. At the end the sheriff could not bring himself to bind the man of God. Instead, with great respect, he served the arrest warrant to John Bunyan and told the Nonconformist preacher that he should follow him to the Bedford Jail. Then, the sheriff left the cottage. Bunyan was a free man at that moment. He could have disappeared into the hills. He could have disguised himself. There may have been times when this would have been appropriate. But John Bunyan believed that he should demonstrate before his family and congregation that he was willing to suffer for the sake of the Lord Jesus and that he was not afraid of imprisonment or even of death.
The hardest thing was to be separated again from his wife and children. Elizabeth bravely accepted the bitter separation, yielding her husband once again into the hands of an all-wise God. Blind Mary’s sightless eyes were brimming with tears as she embraced her father, but Bunyan had taught his wife and children that the Christian life demands sacrifice for the cause of truth. He wrote this in his autobiography:
I had also this consideration, that if I should now venture all for God, I engaged God to take care of my concernments; but if I forsook him and his ways, for fear of any trouble that should come to me and mine, then I should not only falsify my profession, but should also count that my concernments were not so sure, if left at God’s feet, while I stood to and for his name, as they would be, if they were under my own care.
Venturing all for God, John Bunyan trusted his family into the care of God and walked freely into the Bedford Jail. In some ways, these months of his final imprisonment were the most important months of his life. It was during these six months of imprisonment that he wrote his most famous and lasting work, The Pilgrim’s Progress. John Bunyan was a tinker by profession and was considered by the clergy of England to be ignorant and illiterate. But from his prison cell, Bunyan wrote a book that has been the world’s best selling book ever written originally in the English language. It’s popularity cannot be explained apart from the fact that men and women see in John Bunyan an honest portrayal of the realities of life.
John Bunyan in Prison
In many ways John Bunyan’s famous allegory is an extension of his own autobiography. He reminds every pilgrim that the Christian life is never easy. Even after Pilgrim’s sins rolled away at the foot of the cross, there were struggles and hardships in life. Doubting Castle looms big, and Giant Despair is very real. Doubts, fears, struggles, darkness, and sorrow are just as much a part of the Christian’s life as victory. Apollyon must be met and conquered. But through all of life’s journey we are guided and sustained by the hand of a gracious God, and we can look back to say, “All things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28).
John Bunyan reached the end of his own pilgrimage in 1688. His faith was put to the final test as he came to the brink of the River of Death. “Jesus, the mediator of the New Covenant” had sustained him in life, and was there again to sustain him in death. Bunyan had recorded in The Pilgrim’s Progress how that when Christian and his companion emerged from the river, they were met by two shining ones with this triumphant message, “Ye are come unto Mount Zion, the city of the Living God” (Heb 12:22). The life of John Bunyan encourages us that the glories of the Celestial City await every sincere Pilgrim who will truly venture all for God.
Bibliography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners by John Bunyan The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan Venture All for God: Piety in the Writings of John Bunyan
Christian History in First Person video lectures by Dr. Edward Panosian
This wooden structure overlooks a quiet field on the outskirts of the town of Crecy in France. However, on the 26th of August, 1346, this field was by no means quiet or peaceful, but the scene of one of the most iconic battles of the Hundred Years War. The English and French armies were encamped on this field, doggedly finished for the control of France. The English were vastly outnumbered by the French, and yet they routed their foes soundly, sending them fleeing from the field! Both sides believed that the outcome of the battle was dependent on one all-important fact… find out what it was in our video, “Why Did the English Win the Battle of Crecy”
This year, 2017, marks an important year in the history of God’s providential dealings with man. This is the 500th anniversary of the dawn of the Protestant Reformation. Of course, the Reformation cannot be reduced to a single event or to a single man. The Lord used many men over many years to prepare the way. John Wycliffe, John Hus, Girolamo Savonarola and many others were used in their day as witnesses to the truth. But it is not without reason that Martin Luther and the year 1517 are remembered as the dawn of the Reformation.
Centuries of scholasticism, rationalism, and man-made innovation had clouded the waters of truth. Religion had been gradually synthesized with paganism, and the Roman church was nothing like the church of the first century. The Roman pontiff, Leo X, was an ambitious and conniving man who had attained the papacy by a parade of sins. It was said of him that he would have been a wonderful pope “if, in addition to his other virtues, he would have only been religious.”
Rome was becoming more and more glorious outwardly, but more and more corrupt inwardly. Like the Pharisees in the time of Jesus, the church appeared beautiful on the outside, but within it was “full of dead men’s bones, and all uncleanness.” Masses, indulgences, relics, pilgrimages, prayers to the saints, and all such man-made devices could not satisfy a holy God. When “the fullness of time was come,” God raised up a champion to confront the corruption of his day. J. H. Merle D’Aubigne, in his massive 7,000-page history of the Reformation, introduces Martin Luther with these stirring words:
All was ready. God who prepares his work through ages, accomplishes it by the weakest instruments, when his time is come. To effect great results by the smallest means—such is the law of God. God selected the reformers of the Church from the same class whence he had taken the apostles. He chose them from among the lower rank, which, although not the meanest, does not reach the level of the middle classes. Everything was thus intended to manifest to the world that the work was not of man but of God.
Martin Luther was born to a poor miner in the village of Eisleben. Providence directed his parents to send him to Magdeburg to obtain an education. His parents, aware of their own poverty, wanted their son to become a successful man. Young Martin became discontented with the study of law, and in a severe thunder storm, he vowed to St. Anne that he would become a monk if she would save him from the terror of God’s wrath.
Luther’s Parents, Hans and Margarethe
Luther labored many years under the chains of guilt and spiritual darkness. He tried every way he knew to obtain pardon and peace. Masses, vigils, penance, flagellation, and vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were devoutly followed—but in vain. D’Aubigne says:
To be able to deliver his age from the miserable superstitions under which it groaned, it was necessary for him first to feel their weight. To drain the cup, he must drink it to the very dregs.
In mercy, God eventually sent the young monk a kind and compassionate friend in the monastery, John Staupitz. Staupitz was used of God to point Martin away from his own guilt to the righteousness and mercy of the Redeemer.
Luther’s heart was not relieved in a single moment. But over the course of several weeks, he began to find comfort and peace in the very Scriptures which had once condemned him. It was in these months that Romans 1:17 became precious to Luther, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”
Luther himself described his conversion thus:
Although I was a holy and blameless monk, my conscience was nevertheless full of trouble and anguish. I could not endure these words—the righteousness of God. I had no love for that holy and just God who punishes sinners. But when, by the Spirit of God, I understood these words, when I learnt how the justification of the sinner proceeds from the free mercy of our Lord through faith, then I felt born again like a new man. I entered through the open doors into the very paradise of God. Henceforward also, I saw the beloved and Holy Scriptures with other eyes. As previously I had detested with all my heart these words—the righteousness of God—I began from that hour to value them and to love them, as the sweetest and most consoling words in the Bible. In very truth, this language of St. Paul was to me the true gate of paradise.
The simplicity of justification by faith soon became the very theme of Luther’s preaching and writing. Luther was made a professor at the University of Wittenberg and was also consecrated as the priest of the Castle Church.
In 1517, great controversy erupted in Saxony. An ignorant and itinerant monk named Tetzel entered the area, peddling a Roman indulgence. This pompous monk travelled about in a splendid carriage and carried a large red cross with him. He urged people to buy a piece of paper that promised them pardon for all sins—past, present, and future. The proceeds would be used to build St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome. Of course, Tetzel also got his share. One bold knight, seeing an opportunity for a joke, asked Tetzel if the indulgence covered future sins. Teztel assured him that it did indeed. Several days later, Tetzel was ambushed on the roadside by this same knight—who emptied Tetzel’s chest of money. When Tetzel angrily brought suit in a local court of law, the knight produced his indulgence and reminded the irate monk that he had promised forgiveness for all future sins. The case was thrown out of court, and Tetzel did not recover the money.
The Door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg
Luther attacked Tetzel in a more direct way. On the eve of All Saint’s Day, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous Ninety Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. This event is recognized by many as the official date of the dawn of the Reformation. Here are a few of Luther’s most probing statements:
27. They preach mere human follies who maintain that as soon as the money rattles in the strong box, the soul flies out of purgatory.
43. If the pope knew of the extortions of the preachers of indulgences, he would rather the mother-church of St. Peter were burnt and reduced to ashes, than see it built up with the skin, the flesh, and the bones of his flock.
52. To hope to be saved by indulgences is a lying and empty hope although even the pope himself should pledge his own soul for them.
82. Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?
Martin Luther has sometimes been criticized for not going far enough. But this is a haughty and proud charge for all of us who benefit from Luther’s courageous stand. Rather than criticizing Luther for not going far enough, we should thank God for Luther’s courage to go as far as he did. Here are some of Luther’s famous and lasting achievements:
1. Luther was the first to successfully stand against papal power. Men before him had been burned to death for daring to resist the pope. Luther burned the papal bull, asserting that the pope was merely a man, subject to the authority of the Word of God, which is supreme in home, church, and state. As he said at Worms, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God . . . Here I stand.”
2. Luther translated the Bible into German. His skillful translation wove together the various dialects, creating what would later become the German literary language.
3. Luther restored congregational singing and worship. “Ein’ Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott” – “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is only one of many hymns that he wrote and set to music to edify the people of God.
4. Luther set a pattern for what a pastor’s home ought to be. His marriage to Katherine von Bora in 1525 was a source of joy to Luther. His happy home became a haven of peace, fellowship, and contentment. Other reformers would follow Luther’s example.
By the time that Luther died in 1546, the truth he had championed was triumphant not only in Germany, but also in England, France, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Scotland. Others would come along and build on Luther’s work, but God had used him to prepare the way. He had shown the world the simple power of these words, “The just shall live by faith.”
The History of the Reformation by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne
Gaspard de Coligny was an admiral in 16th century Catholic France. He converted to Protestantism and became a leader of the Reformation in France. But on St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572 he fell, a martyr.
A French warship drifted slowly along the coast of Scotland, ominously symbolizing the bondage of the Scottish people. It was a cold icy day, and fog hung closely around the ship so that the shoreline was barely visible through the mist. A prisoner was on board, a thin man who was already past the prime of life. His body was worn down from many months as a galley slave. His health was broken. His back was sore, and he had recently been very sick. It had been many months since he had seen his native land. But as the fog began to lift, a few of his fellow-prisoners lifted their companion up so that he could peer toward the shore. They asked him what he saw. The sunken eyes of the sick man looked up through the fog, squinting to make out the skyline of the coastal town of St. Andrews, with its frowning castle and massive cathedral spires, the stronghold of Roman Papal power in Scotland. Suddenly, his eyes gleamed with life. He sat erect at his oar, trembling with hope and triumph. “Yes,” said the prisoner, “I know it well. For I see the steeple of that place where God first in public opened my mouth for His glory, and I am fully persuaded, how weak that ever I now appear, that I shall not depart this life till that my tongue shall glorify His goodly name in that same place.”
It seemed merely the vain and delirious hope of a dying man. At this time, Scotland was in the complete grip of a foreign power. A French woman named Mary of Guise was Queen Regent of Scotland, and she sat on the throne in behalf of the princess, Mary Stuart, who was being reared across the channel in the opulent court of France, drinking deeply of French customs, French religion, and French morals as well. The French fleet had been called in to enforce French power, and it seemed that Scotland would never be free from darkness, tyranny, and oppression in church and state. The powerful bishops held complete sway in the land, and simony, adultery, nepotism, and various other sins were notorious among the clergy. St. Andrews was the stronghold of their power.
The few bold Reformers who had dared preach the truth, men like Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart, had been burned to death at the stake. On that cold and foggy day, it seemed that light and truth were gone forever from Scotland. But the light of truth burned brightly in the heart of one man. If all despaired, he would not despair. Let Queen, Regent, Pope, and council rage as they will, Jesus Christ still sat on the Throne. Although he was weak, John Knox prayed with firm resolve, “Lord, give me Scotland, ere I die.”
The God of heaven can work a mighty change in a brief period of time. Sometimes, our Lord changes a culture, a nation, a civilization slowly over the course of many centuries. But the God who brought Israel out of Egypt with a mighty hand and stretched out arm can still work a mighty revolution in a few short years. So it was in Scotland. In only ten years, Scotland would be changed forever. Far away in London, a young king named Edward VI took the throne of England. He had a burning zeal for God’s truth. By his intervention, the galley slaves were released from French vessels.
In 1549, John Knox became a free man. God was answering Knox’s prayer. All across Scotland, the hearts of noblemen, farmers, merchants, seamen, fishermen, and soldiers were being opened. English Bibles from the south found their way into homes. In 1551, Knox was invited to London to become the chaplain for Edward VI. After Edward died, Mary Tudor took the throne and Knox was forced to flee to the continent. Again, it seemed his hopes were vain and empty. In 1553, John Knox became pastor of an English-speaking church in Geneva. Away from loved ones, hopes, plans, and ambitions, Knox prayed on: “Lord, give me Scotland, ere I die.” In 1555, Knox secretly returned to Scotland. He sought to urge the nobles of Scotland to do their duty, and throw off the yoke of idolatry. He preached and taught wherever he had a hearing, right under the noses of his enemies. While in Scotland, John Knox married Marjory Bowes and took his young wife to the safety of Geneva.
In 1558, from Geneva, Knox wrote a series of three blazing letters. The first he titled “First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.” In this treatise, he proclaimed that the rule of female monarchs was a judgment upon Scotland for her idolatry. At the same time, Knox also wrote his “Appellation to the Scottish Nobility,” in which he pleaded with the noblemen to abhor idolatry, renounce the authority of the Pope, bow to the supremacy of the Law of God, and purge the land of oppression in church and in state. The third letter was a “Letter to the Commonalty of Scotland,” urging upon fishermen, shepherds, and farmers their duty before God.
These three treatises had a remarkable effect upon the realm of Scotland. Psalm 110:3 declares, “Thy people shall be willing in the day of Thy power.” The Lord always makes his people willing to act when the day of His power comes. Soon after these letters were sent, several noblemen, soon to be called “the Lords of the Congregation,” wrote to Knox, asking him to return to Scotland and lead them in the work of Reform.
In 1559, John Knox returned in triumph to his native land. Only ten years before, he had been a galley slave on a French ship, peering through the fog at the Cathedral of St. Andrews. Now, he was back. It was a dramatic showdown of power. St. Andrews was the stronghold of Papal power in Scotland. The Queen Regent hated Knox for his “Blast of the Trumpet” and for his defiance of her tyranny and idolatry. Knox had been publicly burned in effigy, and he knew the enemy sought his life. Knowing of Knox’s intention to come to St. Andrews, the Bishop sent a message to the Lords of the Congregation, threatening to have 100 spearmen outside the church to prevent Knox from entering that pulpit.
Knox Preaching Before the Lords of the Congregation
Knox was not a man to quail before such threats. He said, “My life is in the hands of Him whose glory I seek, and therefore I fear not their threats.” The Lords of the Congregation backed Knox with their own men-at-arms, and Knox entered the pulpit of St. Andrews and boldly preached against the Queen and the Bishop, asserting that Jesus Christ is supreme in church and state. To the astonishment of all, the civil magistrates of St. Andrews agreed to rid the town of all monuments of idolatry. Altars of mass were overthrown, images were toppled, carvings were chiseled out of niches, artwork was removed from walls, candles were snuffed out, and the pulpit became the simple and central focus of public worship. Immediately, the Queen Regent launched her troops against the Reformers. The Lords of the Congregation would not back down, but banded together to defend with the sword of civil power the Gospel that Knox preached.
Knox Before Queen Mary
In 1560, the Queen Regent died, and the young Mary Queen of Scots came to rule the realm in her own right. John Knox became pastor of the Church of St. Giles in Edinborough where he preached the truth right down the street from the palace of the new Queen. Mary Queen of Scots was young, beautiful, and persuasive, but Knox could not be moved by tears, smiles, threats, or false promises. During one interview, Mary Queen of Scots said that her conscience was assured that the Roman religion was correct. Knox replied respectfully but boldly, “Conscience, Madam, requireth knowledge; and I fear that right knowledge ye have none.” He also told her, “If princes exceed their bounds, Madam, no doubt they may be resisted, even by power.”
On another occasion, when Mary wept bitterly over Knox’s rebuke of her immorality, he answered “I never delighted in the weeping of any of God’s creatures, but seeing I have spoken the truth as my vocation craves of me, I must sustain your Majesty’s tears rather than betray my Commonwealth through my silence.” Eventually, the young queen’s bad morals and secret plots became so outrageous that Mary was deposed and convicted of treason, adultery, and idolatry.
By the time of Knox’s death in 1572, Scotland was thoroughly Reformed. The pulpits were aflame with truth. The Lords of the Congregation were triumphant. Idolatry was outlawed throughout the land. The Scottish nobility had boldly united in covenant to uphold the Law of God throughout the realm. When Knox was dying, he asked his wife to read from John 17, the passage instrumental in his conversion many years earlier, saying, “there I cast my first anchor.” One of the Scottish earls said of Knox, “There lies one who in his life never feared the face of man.”
In our current crisis, we need the confident hope of Knox. America cannot be made great by a political party or a conservative candidate. A nation will only prosper when it will unite in covenant to acknowledge Christ as King and His Word as Law.
Knox’s Native Scotland
The Reformation in Scotland by John Knox John Knox: A Biography by Peter Brown Knox and the Reformation Times in Scotland by Jean L. Watson The Scots Worthies by John Howie
A thin and frail man sat huddled over an open book as a candle shed its feeble light upon the open page. The book was opened to Isaiah 43:1-2:
Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.
Looking up from the passage, Thomas Bilney looked long and hard into the yellow flame on the top of his candle. He cautiously reached out his finger toward the flame, but the hot fire defied his approach and he pulled back in alarm and dismay. If he could not touch the candle, how would he have the courage to face the flames of the stake tomorrow morning?
This question plagued the soul of Thomas Bilney, for he had always been a shy man, hardly the man to be considered a “mighty man of valor.” In fact, he had been just the opposite. He had even faced the stake before and had renounced the truth in order to spare his life. He shuddered as he remembered the awful guilt that had crushed his heart since that day of denial. He leaned back and closed his eyes, remembering the steps that had brought him a second time to the fire.
Thomas Bilney had been born in Norwich, the very city in which he now sat awaiting the dawn of his final morning on earth. During those days of boyhood and early manhood, Thomas Bilney had groped in the darkness of human reason. A bright lad, Thomas was sent off to the University of Cambridge. There, he filled his mind with knowledge, but his heart was empty of any real truth. He made splendid advancement in the arts and sciences, but could not satisfy his hunger for truth. Thomas wrote of these days, “I spent all that I had upon these ignorant physicians.” Confessions, vigils, fastings, and penance could bring but temporary relief to his troubled heart.
One spring day in 1519, the scholar heard of a new book edited by a man named Erasmus. It was a Greek text of the New Testament set side by side with a new Latin translation done by Erasmus. Thomas Bilney was drawn to the new book out of his scholastic love for the ancient languages, for Greek was fast becoming the talk of all Europe. Bilney went into the streets and finally found a copy. But just as he reached out for it, he drew back in fear. He was well aware that the authorities at Cambridge forbade any Greek and Hebrew Bibles, calling them “the sources of all heresies.” But Bilney’s curiosity overcame his fear, and he purchased the volume of the Greek New Testament and tucked it under his scholastic gown.
Back in his room, Bilney drew out the volume and began to read. Hour after hour came and went as he poured over the words of Holy Scripture. In the pages of that book he found what he had long sought. He was particularly struck by a passage from Paul’s first epistle to Timothy,
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. (I Timothy 1:15)
That night, Thomas Bilney was converted to Christ. Fasts, vigils, pilgrimages, purchases of indulgence all had failed. Christ had done on the cross of Calvary what Thomas Bilney could not do for himself. No longer did Bilney seek the chambers of the prelates. He had heard the voice of Jesus of Nazareth.
Soon, the eager young disciple found kindred spirits at Cambridge. Over a period of several years, a few young men began to meet and discuss the Scriptures at a place in Cambridge called the White Horse Inn. Here were gathered men such as John Lambert, Matthew Parker, John Rogers, Miles Coverdale, John Frith, and William Tyndale. They were men of various interests and backgrounds, but all were united in their love for the Novum Testamentum, and they became known as “the Scripture men.” They were not all at Cambridge at the same time, but Bilney was an important friend to all of them, and his influence and example impacted their lives. Bilney was personally responsible for the conversion of Hugh Latimer, a splendid scholar who joined the little group at White Horse Inn in 1524. All these men knew and loved Bilney as their friend. He was kind, gentle, quiet, unassuming, and patient. The more rugged spirits of bold men like Parker, Rogers, and Tyndale were strongly drawn to the gentle Bilney, and they called him by the affectionate name “Little Bilney.” His short stature and frail body matched this name well.
In 1527 “Little Bilney” was arrested and threatened with death if he would not recant. A stronger man like Luther or Knox would have stood firm, but “Little Bilney” had wilted under the fierce threatenings and had renounced his errors. Immediately after his recantation, Bilney was oppressed with a deep sense of guilt and unworthiness. Like Peter, Bilney had denied his Lord and had gone out and wept bitterly.
For over a year, Bilney languished under these doubts and fears. He doubted whether or not God had accepted him. He feared that he had committed the unpardonable sin. He was overwhelmed with the thought that, as he had been ashamed of Jesus, so the Son of Man would one day denounce him before the Father. By degrees, Bilney recovered and resolved that he would intentionally get arrested again. This occurred in Norwich in 1531.
Now, he faced the fire a second time. What would the morrow bring? Would his courage fail again? Would “Little Bilney” again deny his Lord? His mind was filled with doubt as he considered his own frailty, but filled with encouragement as he thought of the Lord visiting Peter on the shore of Galilee. Like Peter, perhaps the Lord had given him another opportunity to seal with his blood the testimony of Christ.
As Bilney thought on these things, he heard the sound of steps outside his cell. He looked up to find his friend from the White Horse Inn, Matthew Parker, future Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I. Parker, knowing the frailty and timidity of “Little Bilney,” had come to strengthen him. But Parker found that his words were unnecessary.
The man who had failed once would not fail a second time. Pointing to the open Bible before him, Thomas Bilney slowly recited these words to his friend, “when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.” Then, with a steady hand, Bilney stretched out his finger again into his small candle. Matthew Parker watched in amazement as his timid friend resolutely held his finger perfectly still as the flame burned the flesh from the finger. This was not a presumptuous test of God, but a firm act of reliance upon the truth of Scripture. We do not know whether Bilney felt the searing heat of that flame, but we do know that God gave him in that moment the grace to bear it.
On the morrow, “Little Bilney” did not waver from his purpose. A crowd had gathered in the streets of Norwich as he walked resolutely to the fire. Some thought that the weak and frail man would probably recant again. But as the fagots were piled around him, “Little Bilney” raised himself to his full height and said in a firm voice, “Good people, I am come hither to die.” After reciting Psalm 143, he took off his outer garments and was bound to the stake.
As the torch was applied to the wood, Bilney did not flinch. The flames burned high around his face, but a strong wind blew them away. Bilney stood firm as the pile was ignited a second and then a third time. The third time, the fire burned in full strength. Whatever pain the noble martyr felt was bearable, for Bilney held his head high as the flames rose in full intensity around him. He cried out one brief phrase in Latin, “Jesu, credo.” – “Jesus, I believe.”
With that dying prayer of faith, “Little Bilney” sunk downward into the fire, and the flames consumed all that was mortal. But in that fire was One like unto the Son of Man, the Christ who had promised “Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.”
A Plaque Marking the Sport where Bilney Burned. Source.
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe Masters of the English Reformation by Marcus Loane The Psalms in History and Biography by John Ker History of the Reformation by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne
When the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, it set off a fierce debate. At least a hundred thousand civilians were killed and the cities had been leveled to the ground. A new era had begun where one bomb could destroy vast numbers of civilians. Many questions were raised, which are still debated to this day. Was it right to intentionally make war on civilians? Were the bombings justified because of thousands of American soldiers who would have likely been killed in the alternative – an invasion of Japan? Thousands of pages have been written on these issues, but we will add a few lines of our thoughts.
When considering the morality of dropping the atomic bombs, we need to consider the historical context in which this took place. These were not isolated acts. In fact, the Allies had been targeting civilians for years. Strategic bombing targeted not just factories and infrastructure necessary for the enemy’s war effort, but intentionally used weapons to try to demoralized the enemy public. Many hundreds of thousands of people were killed in these raids. Incendiary firebombs were dropped on Japan to intentionally light the wooden buildings on fire. The people suffered untold suffering as their cities burned, the fire raging hot enough to melt the asphalt in the streets. 75,000 – 200,000 people were killed in the firebombing of Tokyo, more than either atomic bomb. If we condemn the use of the atomic bomb, we must also condemn thousands of other bombings of civilians and the entire strategy of the Allied air force.
When the war began, the Allies did not plan to bomb civilians. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appealed to the combatants to “under no circumstances undertake bombardment from the air of civilian populations in unfortified cities,”i and at first all sides agreed. This commitment soon fell apart. Both sides committed a series of escalating reprisals. Eventually all sides decided to intentionally target the civilian population, to try to break their will to fight. A British staff paper said,
The ultimate aim of an attack on a town area is to break the morale of the population which occupies it. To ensure this, we must achieve two things: first, we must make the town physically uninhabitable and, secondly, we must make the people conscious of constant personal danger.ii
When the United States entered the war they, like the other powers had when the war began, planned to use only precision bombing. They wished to only hit military targets, and avoid damage to the civilians as much as possible. Although the military would continue to insist that that is what they were doing, that was not, in fact, the case. German anti-aircraft fire was very damaging, and it hindered Allied plans. Some bombing runs were conducted at night, which made attempts to hit the target guesswork at best, given the rudimentary navigation equipment. Even if conducted during the day, few bombs hit their target. One survey found that only 20% of bombs came within 1000 yards of their target. The reality was that if a “precision bombing” was ordered on a target anywhere near civilians, they had about the same chance of hitting the civilians as of hitting the target.
Charred Bodies from the Firebombing of Tokyo
There were no international laws which clearly prohibited the aerial bombardment of civilians. The Hague Conventions took place in 1899 and 1907 – before aerial attacks were something to even consider. The Hague Rules of Air Warfare were written in 1927, but nations never agreed to abide by them. When the war was over, and the Axis leaders were being tried for war crimes in the Tokyo and Nuremburg Trials, they were not prosecuted for bombing civilians. The Allies could not do that without appearing as hypocrites before the world.
Leo Szilard was one of the scientists involved in creating the atom bomb at the Manhattan project, but he argued against its use against civilians:
Suppose Germany had developed two bombs before we had any bombs. And suppose Germany had dropped one bomb, say, on Rochester and the other on Buffalo, and then having run out of bombs she would have lost the war. Can anyone doubt that we would then have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and that we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them?iii
Without a doubt, if by some miracle the Japanese had won the war after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Americans would have been charged and convicted with war crimes.
What About the Bible?
A major issue with the Allies decisions were that they were backed up by pragmatic reasoning. They weren’t making them off of a consistent moral standard, they were just trying to achieve victory in the way they saw as the easiest, only constrained by what they felt their conscience said was right and wrong. Thus wiping Hiroshima and Nagasaki off the map could be justified by arguing that if they had instead landed on Japan, more Americans, and also Japanese, would have been killed. However, no one knows the future. Pragmatism ultimately does not work. It was pragmatic reasoning that led the British to try to appease Nazi Germany in the 1930s instead of standing up to their evil. The proper course is to do what is right, even if it doesn’t seem the best way to our reasoning. As the old saying goes, duty is ours, results are God’s.
Using the Bible as our moral standard, was dropping the atomic bomb right or wrong? In Deuteronomy 20, God gave Israel strict instructions on how to conduct warfare. He says:
When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: and when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: but the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.iv
Israel was instructed offer cities the option of surrender, and if they refused, only the men were to be killed. The women and children were to be spared. But there was little or no warning given to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the bombs indiscriminately killed men, women and children alike. Deuteronomy 20 goes on further:
When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down (for the tree of the field is man’s life) to employ them in the siege:v
The Israelites were not to cut down trees to so as not to destroy the productivity of the land. Atomic bombs dropped on cities do the exact opposite – they destroy everything in their path fruit trees, women and children. Under Biblical law, there is no question that they would be forbidden.
i. Appeal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Aerial Bombardment of Civilian Populations, September 1, 1939 ii. Despatch on war operations, 23rd February, 1942, to 8th May, 1945 by Arthur Travers Harris (1995) Cass Series: Studies in Air Power. 3. Psychology Press. p. 7. iii. “President Truman Did Not Understand,” U.S. News & World Report, August 15, 1960, pages 68-71. iv. Deuteronomy 20:10-14 v. Deuteronomy 20:19
Oliver Cromwell, general in the English Civil War and Lord Protector of England, was one of the great political leaders who took the Protestant Reformation into politics. Join us at the Reformation Wall in Geneva to the connection from Calvin to Cromwell
There are only one hundred and seventy of these books that exist today. That is all. Most publishers and authors would be disappointed at such meager results. These 170 books would never have made the “best-seller list.” But, without question, these books have had more impact on the history of civilization than all the books that have been at the top of the best seller list in the last hundred years put together. When you consider at what time in history these books were put into circulation and what were the circumstances at the time, the number one hundred and seventy is significant indeed.
These one hundred seventy books were never printed. They never rolled off any press. In fact, they were put into circulation two centuries before Johan Gutenburg ever invented moveable type. This means that each one of these one hundred and seventy books were painstakingly copied out by hand by a small group of dedicated men. They lived in the 13th century, and worked in a small chapel off to the side of a church in the Midlands of England. The church still stands today, a rough structure of gray stone that towers above the surrounding fields as a silent testimony to the activity of these men who lived and worked eight hundred years ago.
While these men worked and lived, they were considered outlaws. The work they were engaged in was considered highly illegal. These books were perhaps the most valuable books in the world. Men would give an entire month’s pay just to possess one single page of this treasure. The books were literally worth their weight in gold, that is, to the common peasants and widows of the English countryside. It was not so to the ruling religious power. These books were looked upon as a subversion of Church Authority. Wherever they were found they were seized and burned. The men who copied them out and carried them were ridiculed, mocked, and whenever they were found by the authorities, they were seized and put into custody. Many were burned to death at the stake, with their hated books chained about their necks to burn along with their flesh. Yet the truths of that book have outlasted all the fury of their enemies. Eight hundred years after they were penned, there are still one hundred seventy existing copies.
Who were these men? For what purpose did they painstakingly write out these books? Why were they so hated? Why did the bishops order the bones of their leader to be disinterred and burned to ashes and then scattered on the River Swift? Why were these books so hated? These men were called “Lollards.” There is much debate over what this name means. Some say it was a derogatory term that meant “idler,” “hoodlum,” or “vagabond.” Some say that it meant “babbler.” Others say it was not derogatory at all, but was a name proudly carried by these men, a name that meant “Psalm-singers.”
Wycliffe Sends the Lollards to Spread the Gospel
The books they so carefully copied out by hand were the first complete copies of the New Testament in the English language. Their leader was a remarkable man named John Wycliffe, called “The Morning Star of the Reformation.” Two centuries before Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, he took the book of God and translated it into the language of the common people. He did not know Greek or Hebrew, so he translated from the Latin Vulgate, giving the English speaking people their very first copy of the Word of God.
A Pocket Wycliffe Translation of the Book of John
It is indeed a remarkable thing that one hundred and seventy of these hand-written English New Testaments still survive today, eight centuries after they were produced. Consider that everyone caught with one was burned at the stake and every copy found was also burned. So rare were these Bibles that for one page a peasant was willing to give a month’s wage. A whole New Testament was worth fourteen years of labor. Yet these faithful men copied them out by hand, a ten-month task, and gave them away at the cost of their very lives.
Truly, as Jesus said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matthew 24:35). The writer of the hymn, “The Bible Stands,” Haldor Lillenas (1885-1959), gives his testimony to the abiding truth of the Word of God, and the truth for which John Wycliffe spent his life’s work.
The Bible stands like a rock undaunted, ‘Mid the raging storms of time; Its pages burn with the truth eternal, And they glow with a light sublime.
The Bible stands like a mountain tow’ring, Far above the works of men; Its truth by none ever was refuted, And destroy it they never can.
The Bible stands, and it will forever, When the world has passed away; By inspiration it has been given, All its precepts I will obey.
The Bible stands every test we give it, For its Author is divine; By grace alone I expect to live it, And to prove it, and make it mine.
The Bible stands tho the hills may tumble, It will firmly stand when the earth shall crumble, I will plant my feet on its firm foundation, For the Bible stands.