Written by: DR. Peter Hammond
In the book of Judges we read about another generation which arose, which knew neither the Lord nor what He had done (Judges 2:10). Today, it appears that a generation has arisen, which like Israel under the Judges, knows little of either the Lord nor of what He did during the time of the Protestant exodus and the struggles in the wilderness, which followed in the 16th and 17th century. Sometimes this is from a cowardly dislike of controversy and confrontation. But few people seem to understand either the evils from which the Reformation delivered us or the blessings which the Reformation won for us.
The Reformation delivered the Church from gross ignorance and spiritual darkness
The church, before the Reformation, was a church without the Bible. And a church without a Bible is as useless as a lighthouse without light, a candlestick without a candle, or a motor vehicle without an engine. The priests and people knew scarcely anything about God’s Word or the way of salvation in Christ.
Bishop J.C. Ryle described the situation: “The immense majority of the clergy did little more than say masses and offer up pretended sacrifices, repeat Latin prayers and chant Latin hymns (which of course most of the people could not understand), hear confessions, grant absolutions, give extreme unction, and take money to get dead people out of purgatory.”
Bishop Latimer observed: “When the devil gets influence in a church, up go candles and down goes preaching.”
Quarterly sermons (that is, once every three months) were prescribed to the clergy, but not insisted upon. Latimer noted that while the mass was never left unsaid for a single Sunday, sermons might be omitted for 20 Sundays in succession. Indeed, to preach much was to incur the suspicion of being a heretic.
Bishop Hooper, who along with Bishop Latimer was burned alive at the stake under Queen Mary, did a survey in 1551 and found that out of 311 clergy in his Diocese, 168 were unable to repeat the Ten Commandments, 31 of those 168 could not even say in which part of the Scripture the Ten Commandments were to be found, 40 could not tell where the Lord’s Prayer was written, and 31 of the 40 did not even know who the author of the Lord’s Prayer was!
Bishop Ryle summarised the situation: “Before the Reformation was a religion without knowledge, without faith and without lively hope – a religion without justification, regeneration and sanctification – a religion without any clear views of Christ and the Holy Ghost. Except in rare instances, it was little better than an organised system of Mary worship, saint worship, image worship, relic worship, pilgrimages, alms giving, formalism, ceremonialism, processions, penances, absolutions, masses and blind obedience to the priests. It was a huge higgledy-piggledy of ignorance and idolatry, and serving an unknown God by deputy. The only practical result was that the priests took the people’s money and undertook to secure their salvation. And the people flattered themselves that the more they gave to the priests, the more sure they were to go to Heaven!”
The Reformation delivered the church from childish superstitions
The Roman Catholic church, before the Reformation, taught its members to seek spiritual benefit from so-called relics of dead saints and to treat them with divine honour. Calvin’s “Inventory of Relics” and Hobart Seymour’s “Pilgrimage to Rome” catalogue some of the ludicrous swindles which were perpetrated by the church of Rome. This included pieces of wood “of the true cross” enough to load a large ship, thorns professing to be part of the Saviour’s crown of thorns, enough to make a huge faggot, at least 14 nails said to have been used at the Crucifixion, four spearheads – each perporting to be the one which pierced our Lord’s side, at least three seamless coats of Christ, for which the soldiers cast lots, Saint James’s hand, bones of Mary Magdalene, toenails from Saint Edmund, some bread, purported to have been used by Christ at the Last Supper, a girdle of the Virgin Mary and milk from the Virgin Mary! The Royal Commissioners of Henry VIII examined a vial at the Abbey in Gloucestershire, which was said to contain the blood of Christ! The Commissioners found that it contained the blood of a duck.
There were literally thousands of profane and vile inventions, fabrications and deceptions, which Roman priests imposed on the people before the Reformation. They must have known that they were deceiving the people, yet they persisted in presenting these lies and requiring that the ignorant laity believe them. Sometimes the priests induced dying sinners to give vast tracts of lands to abbeys and monasteries, in order to atone for their bad lives. In one way or another, they were continually separating sinners from their money and accumulating property and wealth in the hands of the Roman church.
The power of the priests was practically despotic and was used for every purpose except the advancement of the Christian faith. It seemed that their primary object was power. To them confession had to be made. Without their absolution and extreme unction no professing Christian could be saved. Without their masses no soul could be redeemed from purgatory. In short, they were, to all intents and purposes, the mediators between Christ and man. To please and honour the Roman church was a devout Christian’s first duty. To injure them was the greatest of sins. One of the indulgences issued in 1498, with the authority of the Pope, claimed: “To absolve people from usury, theft, manslaughter, fornication and all crime whatsoever, except smiting the clergy and conspiring against the Pope!”
A starving man in a famine may be reduced to eating rats and rubbish, rather than die of hunger. Similarly, a conscience-stricken soul, deprived of God’s Word, should not be judged too harshly by us, if they struggled to find comfort in the most debassing superstition. However, we must never forget that it was from such superstitions which the Reformation delivered us.
The Reformation delivered the church from blatant immorality
Before the Reformation, the lives of the clergy were simply scandalous. There were brothels in the Vatican. The Popes, Cardinals and Bishops openly consorted with prostitutes and engaged in the most debauched orgies. The local priests became notorious for gluttony, drunkenness and gambling. As Bishop Ryle pointed out: “To expect the huge roots of ignorance and superstition, which filled our land, to bear any but corrupt fruit, would be unreasonable and absurd.”
Contemporary art depicted frairs as foxes preaching with the neck of a stolen goose peeping out of the hood behind; as wolves giving absolution, with the sheep partly concealed under their cloaks; or as apes sitting on a sick man’s bed with a crucifix in one hand and with the other hand in the suffering person’s pocket! Such public contempt in art reflects the scorn with which the clergy were held at the time.
Bishop Ryle pointed out: “But the blackest spot on the character of our pre-Reformation clergy in England is one of which it is painful to speak … their horrible contempt of the 7th Commandment … the consequences of shutting up herds of men and women in the prime of life, in monasteries and nunneries, were such that I will not defile my paper by dwelling upon them … if ever there was a plausible theory weighed in the balance and found utterly wanting, it is the favourite theory that celibacy and monasticism promote holiness … monasteries and nunneries were frequently sinks of iniquity.”
The report of the Royal Commissioners, under Henry VIII, declared: “That manifest sin, vicious, carnal and abominable living, is daily used and committed in abbeys, priories, and other religious houses of monks, cannons and nuns, and that albeit many continual visitations have been had, by the space of 200 years or more, for an honest and charitable reformation of such unthrifty, carnal and abominable living, yet that nevertheless, little or none amendment was hitherto had, but that their vicious living shamefully increased and augmented.”
It was observed that: “There is no surer recipe for promoting immorality than fullness of bread and abundance of idleness.” (Ezekiel 16:49)
It is from such superstition, corruption, immorality, ignorance and idolatry that the Reformation freed the church.
The Reformation gave the church back the Bible
In 1519, six men and a woman were burned at Coventry for teaching their children the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed in English. Nothing seems to have alarmed and enraged the Roman priesthood as much as the spread of Bibles in the local language. It was for the crime of translating the Bible into English that the Reformer, William Tyndale, was burned at the stake. Of all the aspects which combined to make up the Reformation, no other aspect received such bitter opposition as the translation and circulation of the Scriptures. The translation of the Bible struck a blow at the root of the whole Roman Catholic system. The Bible, as the only rule of faith and conduct, freely available in the local languages, was a threat to all the superstitions and abuses of the medieval Roman popery. With the Bible in every parish church, every thoughtful man soon saw that the religion of the priests had no basis in Holy Scripture.
The Reformation opened the road to the throne of Grace
The way of salvation had become blocked up and made impassible by heaps of superstitious rubble. “He who desired to obtain forgiveness had to seek it through a jungle of priests, saints, Mary worship, masses, penances, confession, absolution and the like, so that there might as well have been no throne of Grace at all.” J.C. Ryle
The Reformers hacked their way through this huge jungle of papal obstruction and cleared the way for every heavy-laden sinner to go straight to the Lord Jesus Christ for remission of sins.
The Reformation restored Biblical simplicity to worship
Before the Reformation, the laity were only present at church services as passive, ignorant spectators. The elaborate, theatrical presentations of the sacraments were a solemn farce because the ceremonies and prayers were in Latin. The laity could bring their bodies to the services, but their minds, understanding, reason and spirit could take no part at all. For this reason, the 24th Article of the Church of England declared: “It is a thing totally repugnant to the Word of God and the custom of the primitive church to have public prayer in the church or to minister the sacraments in a tongue not understood of the people.”
The Reformation gave a Biblical understanding of the office of a minister
Before the Reformation, the concept of the Christian ministry was sacerdotal. That is – it was understood that every clergyman was a sacrificing priest. The clergy were understood to hold the keys of Heaven and to be practically the mediators between God and man.
The Reformers brought the office of the clergy down to its Scriptural level. They stripped it entirely of any sacerdotal character. They cast out the words “sacrifice” and “altar”. They taught that the clergy were pastors, ambassadors, messangers, witnesses, evangelists, teachers and ministers of the Word and sacraments. The Reformers taught that the chief business of every Christian minister is to preach the Word and to be diligent in prayer and the reading of the Scriptures. The Reformers taught the immense superiority of the pulpit to the confessional. For this reason, where the altar used to be, the Lord’s table was placed with an open Bible, or a pulpit, showing the centrality of God’s Word in the worship of Protestant churches.
The Reformation restored a Biblical understanding of holiness
Before the Reformation, it was believed that a monastic life and vows of celibacy were the only ways to escape sin and to attain sanctification. Multitudes of men and women poured into the monasteries and convents under the vain idea that this would please God and ensure their eternal salvation.
The Reformers struck at the root of this fallacy by establishing the great Scriptural principle that true religion was not to be found in retiring into convents and monastries and fleeing from the difficulties of daily life, but in manfully facing up to our difficulties and doing our duty diligently – in every position to which God calls us. It is not by running away from the world, that we fulfil God’s call, but by courageously resisting the devil, the flesh and the world and overcoming them in daily life. That is how true holiness is to be exhibited. For this reason, the Reformers dissolved the monasteries and convents in their areas and freed the inmates to be reintegrated into normal life.
The Reformers also ordered that the Ten Commandments be set up in every parish church and taught to every child, and that our duty towards God and our neighbour be set forth in the Catechism. They insisted that you cannot become saints by shirking your duties in society.
A Heritage of Faith and Freedom
We must continually thank God for the Reformation. It lit the flames of knowledge and freedom which we must ensure are never allowed to be extinguished or to grow dim. We need to continually remember that the Reformation was won for us by the blood of many tens of thousands of martyrs. It was not only by their preaching and praying, and writing and legislation, but by their sacrifices that our religious liberty, freedom of conscience and Christian heritage was won.
The Reformation found church members steeped in ignorance and left them in possession of knowledge. It found them without Bibles and left them with the Bible in every parish. It found them in darkness and left them in light. It found them bound in fear and left them enjoying the liberty and peace which only Christ can give. It found them strangers to the blood of Christ’s atonement, to faith, grace and holiness and left them with the key of all those blessings in their hands. It found them blind and left them with spiritual eyes to see. It found them slaves to superstition and set them free to serve Christ.
As Bishop Ryle declared: “Are we to return to a church which boasts that she is infallible and never changes – to a church which has never repented her pre-Reformation superstitions and abominations – to a church which has never confessed and abjured her countless corruptions? Are we to go back to gross ignorance of true religion? Shame on us, I say, if we entertain the idea for a moment! Let the Israelite return to Egypt, if he will. Let the prodigal go back to his husks among the swine. Let the dog return to his vomit. But let no Englishman with brains in his head, ever listen to the idea of exchanging Protestantism for Popery, or returning to the bondage of the church of Rome. No, indeed! … God forbid! The man who counsels such base apostasy and suicidal folly, must be judicially blind. The iron collar has been broken; let us not put it on again. The prison has been thrown open; let us not resume the yoke and return to our chains … Let us not go back to ignorance, superstition, priestcraft and immorality.”
If you have a Bible in your own language, and enjoy to read and study God’s Word, never forget that you owe that Bible to the Reformation. Brave men and women died that you could have the freedom to delight in God’s Word.
If you know the joy of sins forgiven and new life in Christ, if you are walking by faith and enjoying peace with God, never forget that you owe this priceless privilege to the Reformation.
If you enjoy Church services, Scripture choruses, Hymns, prayers and sermons in your own language, remember that for this you are also indebted to the Reformation.
If you appreciate the Biblical and practical sermons of your pastor, and his counsel, never forget that for this you are indebted to the Reformation.
The Reformation is the source of many blessings. We need to ask if we are on the side of the Reformers, or of those who burned them and the Bible.
“… Contend earnestly for the Faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” Jude 3