September 19, 2013

The Gospel in Church History (Part 2)

by Nathan Busenitz

File:John Wycliffe at work.jpgClick here to read the first installment in this series.

Many people think of the Reformation as something that started with Luther in 1517. But the reality is that the Reformation was a movement that had begun to gain momentum much earlier than the sixteenth century.

Back in the 1100s, 350 years before Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, a group known as the Waldensians began to teach that the Bible alone is the authority for the church. They defied papal authority, committed themselves to preaching the gospel, and even translated the Word of God into the common language of the people. They were severely persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church, and as a result often found themselves hiding in the Alps. In the sixteenth century, during the lifetime of Calvin and Knox, the Waldensians officially joined the Reformed Movement; because they recognized that the sixteenth-century Reformers valued the same truths that they had been committed to all along.

In the 1300s, still two centuries before Luther, an English scholar named John Wycliffe began teaching that the church was in desperate need of reform. Wycliffe has been nicknamed the “Morning Star of the Reformation” because he affirmed essential Reformation doctrines like sola Scriptura and sola fide; he was also the first to translate the Bible into English. The Oxford scholar opposed the papacy, calling the pope the “antichrist.” Instead, he taught, Christ alone is the Head of the church. Wycliffe denied baptismal regeneration, opposed the mass, criticized indulgences, and taught that the clergy should be able to marry. The Roman Catholic church became so angry at John Wycliffe that, after he died, they dug up his bones and burned them in effigy.

A generation later, in the early 1400s, a Bohemian preacher named John Huss thundered onto the scene. He was influenced by both the Waldensians and the teachings of John Wycliffe. And he was very popular in the city of Prague, where he lectured at the University of Prague and also preached powerfully to nearly 3,000 people every week in—not in Latin, but in their own language. Like Wycliffe, Huss opposed the papacy and taught that Christ alone is the Head of the Church. And if Christ is the Head of the church, than His Word is the only authority in the church. And if His Word is the only authority, then the gospel must be defined from Scripture alone.  In 1415, after being promised safe passage to the Council of Constance, John Huss was arrested, falsely accused, put on trial, condemned as a heretic, and burned at the stake.

One hundred years later, Martin Luther would discover the writings of John Huss. He found them convincing and compelling, and they influenced him greatly. So much so, in fact, that in his own reform efforts, Luther would be nicknamed, “The Saxon Huss.”

From the Waldensians in the twelfth century, to John Wycliffe in the fourteenth century, to John Huss in the fifteenth century, and finally, to Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, John Knox, Thomas Cranmer, and other Reformers in the sixteenth century — as one can see, the Reformation was a movement that began long before 1517. It cannot be limited to just one date, one year, or even one century. It was a tidal wave of momentum that engulfed over four centuries of history as the power of God’s Word burst forth and shattered the layers of false tradition that had petrified the church.

In spite of some Roman Catholic claims to the contrary, Martin Luther did not invent anything. He did not regard himself as a pioneer. Rather, he understood that he was building on a foundation that had been laid in the centuries before him.

But this still leaves open the question of the early church. Were the Waldensians, or the followers of Wycliffe and Huss the first in church history to teach an evangelical gospel of grace alone through faith alone?

The Gospel of Grace in the New Testament

Before answering that question from church history, we must first answer it from the Word of God. As evangelical Christians, Scripture alone is our ultimate authority. And while history provides us with wonderful affirmation of our evangelical convictions, it is not our final authority. Our understanding of the gospel must be established and grounded in the clear teaching of the Word of God. And it is in the pages of Scripture that we find the doctrine of justification by faith clearly presented.

Here is a brief sampling of the many passages that could be cited in this regard.

In Luke 18:13–14, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus emphasized the fact that sinners are not justified through their own self-righteousness. Rather, God justifies those, like the unworthy tax collector, who cry out in faith and depend on Him for mercy. Romans 3:28 states that “a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Romans 4 presents Abraham as an example of that reality. And Romans 5:1 reiterates that since we have “been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” In Galatians 3:8, Paul again emphasizes “that God would justify the Gentiles by faith.” Ephesians 2:8–9 repeats that same truth “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

In Philippians 3:8–9, the apostle reiterated the fact that good works are worthless when it comes to being made righteous in the sight of God. He explained that he did not have “a righteousness of [his] own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” Titus 3:5–7 says this: “[God] saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

As the above sampling demonstrates, the New Testament repeatedly establishes the fact that the believer’s righteous standing before God is not based on the good works that he or she has done; but only on the finished work of Christ on the cross. We are justified by His grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

But what about church history? How did the earliest Christians understand the biblical teaching on justification by faith alone? We will begin to answer those questions next week, in Part 3 of this series.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Steve Hardy

    Nathan–thank you for these series that include glimpses of the history of the church. I provide a devotion to our choir each week and last night shared an excerpt from your previous series that addressed the value of recognizing the history of our music as a vital part of sharing the Christian faith. I kidded them a bit by saying if they thought Polycarp was a group of fish or Gnostics were a bunch of people who sat around and ate a lot (kinda like Baptists), they might want to read a little more about our faith through history. These series are so helpful in seeing the continuity that extends from Jesus through the Disciples and the writing of the New Testament to us in this generation of believers. Thanks again!

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  • Thanks for your passion in sharing this rich history of faithful men that believers can look back to. My first son was born last Friday and we gave him the middle name Wycliffe. As a result, I have of course been sharing this history with many others too.

  • Carry Joe

    Great post. Do you know where I can read further on the Waldensians?
    i’ve only ever heard of them, but from what you say, they sound like a major movement.

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