WHAT DO WE OWE TO THE REFORMATION?
John Charles Ryle, D.D.- Adapted for our Bulletin
Our lot is cast in days when it is the fashion to despise everything that is old. There is a morbid readiness to throw aside all things, which bear about them the least mark of antiquity, and to treat them with as little respect as last year’s almanacs or worn-out clothes.
I cannot agree with those who now tell us that the Reformation was a blunder—that the Reformers are over-praised—that Protestantism has done this country no good—and that it would matter little if England placed her neck once more under the foot of the Pope of Rome. Against these new-fangled opinions I enter my solemn protest. I want no departure from the old Protestant paths which were made by Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer, four hundred years ago.
I fear there is a strange disposition to undervalue the Protestant Reformation. Time has a wonderful power of dimming men’s eyes, and deadening their recollection of benefits and making them thankless and ungrateful. Three busy centuries have slipped away since England broke with Rome, and a generation has arisen which, like Israel under the Judges, knows little of the days of the Protestant Exodus, and of the struggles in the wilderness. Partly, too, from a cowardly dislike to religious controversy, partly from a secret desire to appear liberal and condemn nobody’s opinions, the Reformation period of English history is sadly slurred over, both in Universities and Public Schools. It seems an inconvenient subject, and men give it the cold shoulder. The whole result is, that few people seem to understand either the evils from which the Reformation delivered us or the blessings which the Reformation brought in.
We Owe An Enormous Debt
Let me clear the way by saying that I do not pretend to endorse the character of all the agents by whom the English Reformation was carried out, or to approve of everything which they did. I do not ask you to believe that Cranmer, and other Reformers, either in the days of Henry VIII, or Edward VI, or Elizabeth, were angels, and made no mistakes. All I do maintain is, that the whole result of the Protestant Reformation was an enormous gain to this country.
The plain truth is, that a Church without a Bible is as useless as a lighthouse without a light. Except a few scattered copies of Wycliffe’s translation of the Vulgate, there were no English Bibles in the land, and the natural consequence was, that priests and people knew scarcely anything about God’s truth, and the way to be saved. Preaching was utterly at a discount. As Bishop Latimer truly remarked, “When the devil gets influence in a church, up go candles and down goes preaching.”
To sum up all in a few words, the religion of our English forefathers 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 organized system of Mary-worship, saint-worship, image-worship, relic-worship, pilgrimages, almsgivings, formalism, ceremonialism, processions, penances, absolutions, masses and blind obedience to the priests.
But what shall we say of the modern proposal, to give up the principles of the Reformation, and to return to the communion of the Church of Rome? Are we to return to a Church which boasts that she is infallible and never changes—to a Church which has never repented of her pre-Reformation superstitions and abominations—to a Church which has never confessed and abjured her countless corruptions? Are we really to go back to gross ignorance of true religion? 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, and returning to the bondage of the Church of Rome. No, indeed ! We owe a debt to the Reformation for having delivered us from an enormous mass of evil.
With an English Bible came in the right and duty of private judgment, and the assertion of the great principle of our Vlth Article, that ” Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation,” and the only rule of faith and practice.
Of all the agencies which brought about the overthrow of Popery in this country, the translation of the Bible was the earliest and most powerful. It struck a blow at the root of the whole Romish system. It is a striking and instructive fact, that of all the agencies which combined to win the English Reformation, hardly any called forth such bitter opposition as the translation and circulation of the Scriptures. Even in 1519, long before Cranmer began his good work, Foxe records that six men and a woman were burned at Coventry for teaching their children the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. And the charge against the accused persons was, not the possession of a Bible, but of an English Bible…” It was this which cost the martyred Reformer Tyndale his life. He was burned because he would translate and circulate the Scriptures. The relentless enmity with which he was persecuted and finally hunted to death, by Sir Thomas More and others, tells a tale which he who runs may read. The priests knew and felt that their game was up if the people once saw the inside of the Bible. You might as well have tried to stop the tide rising at Chepstow, or prevent Jupiter’s satellites revolving round him, as to stop the progress of the Protestant cause when the laity once began to read the Scriptures. In vain Bishop Tunstall seized the book, and Bishop Bonner burned it at Paul’s Cross. Its leading contents and principles ran through the land like fire, and from that period the Pope’s cause in England was shaven to the centre. You that read the Bible daily and “delight in the law of the Lord,” never forget you owe that Bible to the Reformation.
The Throne of Grace
That blessed road had been long blocked up and made impassable by heaps of rubbish of man’s invention. Under pretence of mending and improving the road, the divines of Rome had spoiled it altogether. 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.
People were taught that justification was by faith without the deeds of the law, and that every heavy-laden sinner on earth had a right to go straight to the Lord Jesus Christ for remission of sins, without waiting for Pope or priest, confession or absolution, masses or extreme unction. You that are walking by faith and enjoying peace with God, by simple trust in the precious blood of Atonement, never forget that you owe this priceless privilege to the Reformation.
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 ” from the Prayer Book, and though they retained the word ” priest,” retained it only in the sense of “presbyter ” or “elder.” They taught the people everywhere that the clergy were not the lords of the Church, but, like Paul and Timothy, its servants (Phil. 1:1), ambassadors, messengers, witnesses, evangelists, teachers, and ministers of the Word and sacraments. You that know the value of a true Christian minister, and the immense superiority of the pulpit to the confessional, never forget that for clear light on this point you are indebted to the Reformation.
The great Scriptural principle was established, that true religion is to be seen, not in retiring into holes and corners, and fleeing from difficulties, but in doing our duty in every position to which God calls us, and manfully facing, our foes. It is not by running away from the devil, and giving up the management of the world to him, but by manfully resisting the devil, and overcoming him, that true holiness is to be exhibited. The Reformers ordered the Ten Commandments to be set up in every parish church and taught to every child, and the duty toward God and our neighbour to be set forth in the old Catechism.
The Duty of All
The Reformation found Englishmen steeped in ignorance, and left them in possession of knowledge—found them without Bibles, and left them with a Bible in every parish—found them in darkness, and left them in comparative light—found them priest-ridden, and left them enjoying the liberty which Christ bestows-found them strangers to the blood of Atonement, to faith, and grace, and holiness, and left them with the key to those things in their hands—found them blind and left them seeing—found them slaves and left them free.
Forever let us thank God for the Reformation. It lighted a candle which ought never to be extinguished or allowed to grow dim. And forever let us remember that the Reformation was won for us by the blood of the martyrs, quite as much as by their preaching and praying, and writing and legislation. Shall we entertain for a moment the idea of forsaking Reformation principles and going back to Rome? Once more I say, God forbid!
Read your Bibles and be armed with Scriptural arguments. A Bible-reading laity is a nation’s surest defence against error. Read history, and see what Rome did in days gone by. Read how she trampled on your country’s liberties, plundered your forefather’s pockets, and kept the whole nation ignorant and immoral. Read Foxe, and Strype, and Fuller, and Burnett, and Soames, and Professor J. J Blunt, and Froude’s Life of Queen Mary. What makes Scotland, the United States, and our own beloved England the powerful, prosperous countries they are at present, and I pray God they may long continue? I answer in one word, PROTESTANTISM— a free Bible, and the principles of the Reformation.