On this Reformation Sunday, we’re going to take a look at some of the people that preceded Martin Luther. We might call these people, “forerunners” to the reformation. Through them the stage was set for the Gospel of Jesus Christ to break free from a cold and corrupt church, once again taking its rightful place at the center of Christian teaching.
1 John 4:1 (NIV) “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world”
JOHN WYCLIF (1320?-1384)
The message of preachers must ever be judged on the basis of what the Bible says. Those who preach Christ as Savior are from God. Those who don’t, aren’t. But what if we did not have the Bible with which to judge their message?
Un-biblical teaching consistently came from the church of Wyclif’s day. Since Bibles were unavailable in English, the English people had no reliable way of judging what they heard. False teachings went largely unchallenged.
Knowing Latin, John Wyclif was able to study the Bible extensively. Seeing that the teachings of the church did not mirror the teachings of God’s Word, he spent much of his life attempting to reform the church. He spoke out against un-biblical teachings and even challenged the authority of the Pope, preaching that the true church of God needed only one head - Christ (Ephesians 5:23).
Wylclif’s greatest gift to the world, however, was his translation of the Latin Bible into English. Corrupt church leaders greeted this first EVER English translation of the Bible with contempt, saying, “the jewel of the clergy has become the toy of the laity.”
Thirty-one years after Wyclif’s death, the church showed their appreciation for Wyclif’s work by excommunicating him. Twelve years later, Pope Martin V had Wyclif’s remains exhumed, burned and cast into the river Swift.
What Wyclif placed in the Englishman’s hand, let us place in our hearts. That is where God intends His Word to live. Then we will be ready to test the spirits with confidence.
Mark 10:42-45 (NIV) “Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”
GIROLAMO SAVONAROLA (1452-1498)
The church was corrupt. High ranking religious leaders godlessly abused their office to gain wealth and power.
But not all men of the church were so spiritually bankrupt. Martin Luther would later honor one such man, the Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola, by publishing his meditation on Psalm 51. And now the rest of the story.
When Savonarola spoke out against the immorality of Pope Alexander VI, he was commanded to cease preaching. When he refused, he was imprisoned. After six weeks of torture, in which the rack was used, Savonarola signed a confession with the arm his torturers had spared for this purpose. This would not be the last word from Savonarola’s hand.
Before being burned as a heretic, Savonarola wrote the meditation on Psalm 51 that Luther would publish in 1528. In it Savonarola pleads for God’s mercy for his weakness under torture, and expresses his hope for salvation:
“Who will take pity on me? To heaven I dare not lift up my eyes, for I have deeply sinned against it; on earth I find no refuge, for I have been an offence to it. What therefore shall I do? Shall I despair? Far from it. God is merciful, my Savior is loving. God alone therefore is my refuge…”
It is a humble service that Savonarola’s life and death provide to us, but such is the service that Christ gives His children to provide. Through Savonarola we see the depravity of the days preceding the Reformation, and the depth through which God’s love was willing to reach.
1 Timothy 6:3-6 (NIV) “If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.”
JOHN HUSS (1369-1415)
In 1411 two Popes were claiming leadership in the church. Pope Gregory XII and Pope John XXIII. Today, the Catholic church only recognizes the first as a real pope.
In 1411, Pope John XXIII was at war with Naples, Italy. In order to raise money for this war, he authorized the selling of “plenary indulgences”. These slips of paper claimed that some of the “extra” good deeds done by previous Christians had been transmitted to your record and would therefore lessened your suffering in “purgatory”.
John Huss, a priest working in Prague, protested the selling of indulgences. So did many of the students of the University. Three students were detained and beheaded in secret because of their opposition to indulgences. These murders enraged the people, but their anger didn’t stop the Pope from excommunicating Huss and placing Prague under the “interdict”. This meant that no clergy of that city could perform the regular “sin cleansing acts” that supposedly absolved the people of their sins to that point.
Many religious leaders of our time still preach lies in order fill their bank accounts. But their false teachings cannot give true peace or forgiveness.
True forgiveness does not come with a price tag that we can pay with currency minted by man. Nor can forgiveness be secured with the imaginary currency of “un-required” good works done by Christians of the past.
Our forgiveness was purchased by Jesus’ sinless life and innocent death and made ours through faith. You see, the church does exists to make men rich – spiritually rich in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Luke 21:12 (NIV) “But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them.”
DEATH OF JOHN HUSS († 1415)
Like Christ, His apostles would also be abused, arrested and falsely accused before secular authorities. But in the end, even the shameful treatment of God’s representatives would serve to bring the Gospel to more people.
After being excommunicated for opposing the church’s selling of salvation by way of indulgences, John Huss went into hiding. But Huss genuinely wanted the conflict to be healed and the truth of God’s Word to be taught.
Therefore, when Emperor Sigismund asked Huss to appear at the Council of Constance, Huss said he would be there. The emperor had convinced Pope John XXIII to call this council to end the Papal schism which had resulted in three popes now claiming authority in the church.
Huss traveled to Constance trusting the emperor’s promise of safe conduct to and from the city and hoping to speak to reasonable men. He would be disappointed in both points.
After arriving in Constance Huss was detained by representatives of the church and held in the dungeon of a Dominican monastery. Though the emperor was furious at how the church had ignored his promise of safe conduct, he chose not to act on Huss’ behalf, fearing that the council would break up and leave other issues unresolved.
After a false trial Huss was condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake.
Remarkably, Huss told his judges that he was willing to change if corrected using the Bible. Like the Apostles, Huss was blessed with the honor of proclaiming God’s truth before men of high authority.
Even in his death, Huss continued to proclaim the name of his Savior. Before the wind shifted and the flames enveloped him completely, Huss was heard repeating this prayer:
“O Christ, thou Son of God, have mercy on me.”
Revelation 14:6 (NIV) “Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people.”
PETER WALDO (?-1218)
Lutheranism has traditionally seen Martin Luther as a fulfillment of this angel. Of course, Martin is not the only fulfillment of this image. The vision of God’s messenger hovering out of harm’s way and continually proclaiming the Good News is fulfilled whenever the Gospel is spoken by God’s people.
Peter Waldo and his followers remind us that the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ will prevail, being preached and proclaimed in every age until we see our Savior’s face on the day of judgment and salvation.
Peter Waldo was a merchant who worked in Lyons, France. He learned of the Gospel and cherished its message greatly. He had the New Testament translated into the language of the people and began to distribute copies of the New Testament. He also began preaching the pure Gospel of Christ to his countrymen. He organized a society to further the Gospel and broaden the distribution of God’s Word.
Waldo’s mistake came when he asked the Pope to confirm the Bible society that he had established. In 1179 Pope Alexander III confirmed Waldo’s vow of poverty, but forbade him to preach. Needless to say, Waldo continued to proclaim the eternal Gospel of Christ.
Eventually Waldo and his followers were excommunicated from the church for their “heresy” and persecuted greatly. The blood of the Waldensians fell heavily on the ground as many thousands were burned or slaughtered for preaching salvation through Christ. But this only caused these “angels” of God to be scattered throughout Europe, bearing the eternal light of the Gospel wherever they went.
My fellow “angels”, by the grace of God, we bear that same light of Salvation through Christ. Let us cherish it as Waldo did, and gift its light to our neighbors also.
“…prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21 NIV).
In our sermon meditation for today, we consider the Holy Spirit’s words as recorded for us in Galatians 1:1-12 (NIV):
1Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—2and all the brothers with me,
To the churches in Galatia:
3Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—7which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!
10Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.
11I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. 12I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
Grace and Peace be to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” is a movie about a treasure hunt. But the treasure is more than just a pile of gold. In “The Last Crusade” the characters are trying to find a magical cup called the “Holy Grail” that has the power to give eternal life.
In the last scene of the movie Indiana Jones finally enters the room where the magical cup is kept. But there isn’t just one cup, there is a bunch of them of all different shapes and sizes. The guardian of the grail tells him that the only way to find the right one is to take a drink and see what happens. The true grail gives life, but the others take it away.
It is interesting how art imitates life. All around us there are people who want to tell us how to get to heaven. All the religions of the world claiming to know how to reach God are like the many cups that Indiana Jones saw: There’s only one among them that is true. Only Christ’s Gospel gives life, all the rest take it away.
“Only Christ’s Gospel Gives Life”
1. Apostle Paul Offers
2. What Christ Secured
3. And Satan Hates
You and I are disciples of Christ, but we are not apostles of Christ. Jesus had many disciples during his ministry, but only twelve apostles. The disciples were his followers, those who learned from Him. That’s what “disciple” means, “learner”. The twelve apostles on the other hand were selected from the large group of Jesus’ disciples. These twelve men would become Jesus’ closest friends. They would learn from Him in more intimate settings than the rest of the disciples would. When they were ready, Jesus would send out His apostles into the surrounding villages to speak His message, and later He would send them out into the world. That’s what “apostle” means, “one sent out”.
The apostle Paul was an unusual apostle. When the original twelve apostles were selected by Christ, Paul was not yet a Christian. When the first Christian was stoned to death for his faith, Paul was on the stoning team’s side. Paul wasn’t selected by Christ to be His apostle until after Christ’s death and resurrection.
Paul was on his way to Damascus to see if he could find some Christians to take back to Jerusalem in chains. Paul hated Christ’s people. He thought Christianity was a manmade cult that was leading good followers of God astray. But then our resurrected Lord appeared to Paul and told him that he would be carrying a new message soon. The true message. The Good News that sins can’t be forgiven because of good deeds that we do, but sins have already been paid for because of what Jesus did.
In his letter to the Christian churches of Galatia, Paul reminds them that he is a Christ appointed apostle right at the beginning. Paul does this because he wants them to know that what he had told them before, and what he was about to tell them again, was not some man-made counterfeit good news. It was the very Gospel that the resurrected Jesus had revealed to him on the Damascus road.
Paul wasn’t selling some man-made philosophies and logically constructed religious ideas. He was offering them the message he himself had been given from Son of God.
This is what made Martin Luther such a great preacher too. Luther wasn’t selling some religious ideas that he had come up with while passing time in a monastery. Martin offered the world what he himself had been given from the Son of God.
The resurrected Jesus did not visibly appear to Martin in his little monk’s cell. But as Martin struggled with his sin and guilt Christ came to Him through the words of the Bible.
The head of Martin’s order had assigned him to study the Bible. And as Martin meditated over the book of Romans, he found something that church had never taught him.
“17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:17).
Martin discovered that sinners cannot erase their own sins with good deeds. Martin discovered that God forgives our sins because Jesus Christ suffered the punishment for our sins. Through trust in Jesus, God covers the sinner with Christ’s righteousness!
Martin later explained to his friends that when he realized what Christ’s Gospel was saying, he felt like he had been born all over again.
What the Apostle Paul offered to the world in the first century, Martin Luther offered in the 16th century. Both Paul and Luther simply took what they had been given by Christ and offered it to others. May God loosen our hearts and minds and mouths that we might do the same today.
Paul describes exactly what it is that Christ had secured for the people of Galatia in verses 3-5.
“3Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be glory for ever and ever…” (Galatians 1:3-5 NIV).
Through Christ’s Gospel the Galatian Christians had received grace and peace.
The Greek word for “grace” is “charis”. It means a love which is not deserved. Through Christ Jesus sinners receive forgiveness for their sins, and an eternal place in heaven. These things are totally undeserved, but are given by God through faith in Christ Jesus.
Along with God’s undeserved love, Paul tells the Galatians and us that they also have peace. Paul wasn’t talking about peace with this world and the people in it. Christians will never have peace with this world and the unbelieving people in it. Paul was talking about peace with God because the punishment for sin has been paid by Christ.
Paul summarizes the Gospel right here for the Galatians: Undeserved love and peace with God are yours because Jesus gave himself for your sins. And because He did, you don’t have to fear this world, heaven is your destination. And why? Because God the Father wanted sinners saved.
Christ’s Gospel brings peace to us because it brings the forgiveness of sins. But it brings us peace for another reason too. The Gospel of Christ tells us that God the Father loved us before we ever loved Him. God the Father loved sinners even when we hated Him.
“4But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—9not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:4-9 NIV).
Martin Luther knew what it was like to hate God. From his youth, Martin was taught that God lets us be born into the world sinners, and then demands that we be perfect. When that doesn’t happen He damns us to hell. Only through obeying the church and lots of suffering on earth could a person hope to avoid an eternity of pain.
This made Martin hate God. He thought God was unfair, before he discovered Christ’s Gospel. In Christ’s Gospel he discovered that God truly was unfair, but to the sinner’s advantage. God’s Son took all our punishment for sin, and gave us all His perfect righteousness. Talk about unfair! No wonder Martin felt like he had been born again, God’s grace and peace had been given to him free of charge! That same grace and peace have been given to us through Christ’s life giving Gospel.
Satan hates Christ’s Gospel. It’s like a weed to him. When Satan thinks that he’s pulled up all the Christians in one place, in sweeps the wind of the Holy Spirit bringing more Christian seedlings to grow up and proclaim Christ’s Gospel.
When Satan cannot remove all the Christians from a place, he has learned to do what we do when we cannot pull all the weeds from our lawns: He poisons the Gospel. And when unwary Christians suck up the poisoned Gospel, they begin to die.
The Galatian Christians were being served a poisoned Gospel. We can tell what kind of poison was being offered to them by reading through the rest of Paul’s letter. It appears that some Jews were saying that Jesus was great and all, but that you also had to keep the Old Testament laws in order to be saved. In other words, faith in Christ was not enough.
“6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—7which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:6-7 NIV).
God had sent Paul to offer the forgiveness that Christ had secured for sinners. But Satan had sent out his own apostles to preach a Gospel that would kill faith in Christ.
Paul understood right away, if you add your own works to Christ, then you’re trying to earn forgiveness again. That doesn’t work! It’s all Christ or it’s nothing!
Later in his letter Paul says,
“I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21 NIV).
Paul speaks so strongly about those who preaching a different Gospel because he knows that only Christ’s Gospel gives life, all the others take it away.
That’s also why Martin Luther put such a strong emphasis on sticking to the Word of God. If it isn’t from God, it’s from Satan. And every false teaching from Satan has one ultimate goal: kill Christ’s Gospel, and kill saving faith.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy story, “The Lord of the Rings” one of the evil black riders carries a special dagger. This dagger is more dangerous than an ordinary knife because its blade breaks off when used. The detached blade causes infection an will eventually work its way to the heart of the victim if not treated.
That’s how every false teaching of Satan works. If it is left alone, it will infect other teachings as it works its way toward the heart of the Christian’ faith – Christ’s Gospel. The only solution is to remove Satan’s lies from our hearts and minds with the surgical steel of God’s Holy Word. To recognize false teaching before it grows strong, Christians need to know God’s Word well. Especially reviewing the Gospel and the other chief teachings found in God’s Word.
Satan hates Christ’s Gospel, because it gives fallen sinners life and salvation. But if there is a number two on Satan’s list of hated things, it’s Christians who won’t tolerate the poisoning of the Gospel. So, study the Word of God. Meditate on Christ’s Gospel. Read it, listen to it, talk about it. Be someone that Satan hates.
In the movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” Indy finally figures out which cup is the Holy Grail, the cup which will give a person eternal life if you drink water out of it. But in the exciting end of the movie the cup is lost down a deep crack in the earth, never to be seen again.
In the past there have been times when it seemed like Christ’s Gospel had disappeared for good. During the time of Martin Luther, the corrupt church was doing a pretty good job of hiding the source of eternal life from the people. But thankfully, Christ’s Gospel was restored by the power of the Word itself, translated into the people’s language so they could put it in their hearts.
Thank God for the Christ’s life giving Gospel. And thank God for the Reformation which put it back where it belongs. In the hands of the common man. In the hearts of the simple Christian. On the lips of the forgiven. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.