Eternity Had Taken Root in Their Hearts
Knox, Hus, Calvin, Wycliffe, Fox, Luther. These were cut from a similar cloth as Paul, Peter, John, Apollos, Polycarp, and then Augustine, Jerome and still others. These heroes of the faith, reminiscent of the Hebrews 11 roster of prophets and martyrs, are fresh on my mind as I’ve begun reading the God’s Generals book series by Roberts Liardon. And this grouping of saints from very early in church history up to the middle ages is just a snapshot of some of the great revivalists of the past 2,000 years. Rather than story, lore, or tale though, these lives lived should push us to action, not mere memorialization. So the obvious question (at least to me) is: what did they know or believe that we don’t? I’d like to try to answer that question in this blog post.
Scottish Reformer John Knox
There were three key igredients to the birth of the reformer in the middle ages. These men were primed to make a stand.
A. History and societal circumstance compelled them to take a stand. (Call, Purpose, & Timing)
B. Eternity was a reality to a degree that death wasn’t a real threat. (Right Identity and Right Faith)
C. Persecution, as it has throughout church history, didn’t expunge the fire in the their bellies, it provoked it. (Revival)
- a. Roman Catholicism dominated Europe in the 1400’s & 1500’s. The words of the Bible were reserved for latin-speaking elites, or Cathlolic clergy, and hidden from commoners and laymen. The Catholic church in a lot ways resembled the mob, yet it was more ruthless. The roaring reformers would not tolerate this. Having the conviction, after seeing and believing the scripture for themselves, legends like Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin, and Knox, made sure, with the help of the printing press, to expose the sins and strategy of the papacy and demand reform. Their “in,” by God’s grace, was their scholarship, and for most of them their history with the Catholic church. Many of the reformers from this era were formerly Catholic, thus they had the opportunity to see and touch scripture. It started with the hard work of actually translating the Bible (Wycliffe) into common languages like German and eventually English. Then came preaching the true Gospel despite heavy ridicule, persecution, and imminent death from Rome after sensing its power beginning to wane. It’s interesting to see how this emerging body of believers indeed did have many members, each with its own function. There were intellectuals and scholars like Calvin and Wycliffe, evangelists like Farel, and emboldened prophets like Knox, who was known for his black and white resolve and his famous letter to English royalty – ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.’
- b. The reformers either knew something we didn’t (unlikely) or eternity had taken root to a greater degree than we know, personally and corporately. The stakes were higher in that challenging the spirit of religion and holding fast to convictions about Christ and the Gospel could and did frequently result in excommunication or even death. So setting their eyes on eternity, death, or the threat of death, literally had no sting. So, generally speaking, the one thing that did not exist amongst the reformers was a fear of man or death. In fact, it was said of Knox as he lay dying “Here lies one who neither flattered nor feared any flesh.” To put it differently, the call of the Gospel, to these people, was much more important to them, not just in their heads but their hearts also, than their own welfare.
- c. Persecution was the fuel to the reformer’s fire. The biggest mistake any king, queen, or government could do at the time was give the reformer of great influence the honor of being martyred. This historically made things much worse for the ruthless Catholic regime at the time. Unflinching faith being demonstrated by the willingness to die stoked the fires of revival and reformation; it only spurred others on to fight the good fight of faith with more gumption.
The story that grabbed my attention the most in reading about the “Roaring Reformers” was of George Wisehart, but a fleeting side story en route to the legacy of The Scottish Reformer John Knox in Liardon's book. Wisehart, in many ways Knox’s predecessor, was one of the first protestant martyrs of the reign of the Regent Mary, filling in for a time before Mary, Queen of Scots, could come of age and take the throne. The deeply entrenched and religious Roman Catholic regime could not bare the protestant call to repent and transform the church, so they sought to silence any and all dissenters. And so the story goes (and I’ll paraphrase) of George Wisehart being put to death:
`While being prepared for his execution (being burned at the stake) Wisehart preached to the crowd that had assembled to watch. In so doing, the hangman fell to his knees sobbing and asking for forgiveness. It’s documented that Wisehart kissed his forehead and forgave him, then urged him to do his job (which meant preparing him for death). As the flames were rising and beginning to consume Wisehart he shouted out to God to forgive those who persecuted him and effectively executed him. The crowd that had showed up perhaps out of bloodlust dropped to their knees, mourning and weeping.`[see the image of Wisehart below]
As Liardon rightly points out in The 'Roaring Reformers', the reformist spirit could not and would not be born from a peaceful ivory tower. It had to be born and perpetuated with a double-edged sword by men and women who did not count their own lives unto death. And so it was in places like Scotland, Britain, Switzerland, Bohemia, and France – and it worked.
Wisehart’s boldness spurred Knox and others on, and in many ways Knox is credited with the complete reform of Scotland, purging it of the sins, corruption and worthless idols of Roman Catholicism.
It's certainly clear that we benefited from the boldness and faith of the early church, and the ground gained in the middle ages to get just the bible in our hands in our native tongue is remarkable. Those saints sowed seeds that we're reaping even today.
It may take a corps of believers, like the progenitors and forerunners of the faith, that are 1. called, 2. driven by purpose, 3. with the right timing, 4.who have just the right faith, 5. who know exactly who they are, to bring about the next great reformation and spark the revival that we so desperately need in our nation.