Let There Be Light - Part II
This article is continued from the September issue of The Evangelist magazine.
The more clearly Wycliffe discerned the errors of the papacy, the more fervently he presented the teaching of the Bible. He saw that Rome had forsaken the Word of God for human tradition, and he fearlessly accused the priesthood of having abandoned the Scriptures. Wycliffe demanded that the Bible be restored to the people and that it be established once again as the sole authority of the church.
As Wycliffe’s ideas spread, Rome took notice. Church authorities were filled with furor when they perceived that this dissident was gaining influence.
In 1377, Wycliffe was summoned to appear before a group of bishops at St. Paul’s Church in London to answer to charges of heresy. He was escorted by two of his most powerful supporters—Lord Percy, the marshal of England, and John of Gaunt, the head of the English government.
Tempers flared and threats clamored at Wycliffe’s entourage as they made their way through the crowds to the front doors of St. Paul’s Church. Wycliffe had a striking appearance about him, replete with dignity and character. He was confident and not to be intimidated.
I am ready to defend my convictions even unto death. —John Wycliffe
At the onset of the proceedings, John of Gaunt told Wycliffe he could sit rather than stand. The bishops were enraged at the gall of this gesture. The two parties exchanged a barrage of insults. John of Gaunt even threatened to drag one of the bishops from the cathedral by the hair on his head. No longer than it took for the meeting to begin, onlookers siding with the church revolted against Wycliffe and his companions. The scene became so chaotic that Wycliffe and his party were forced to flee for their lives.
Wycliffe knew that if the true gospel of Christ were to ever gain a greater influence on the hearts of the common people, the Bible would have to be translated into their language. During the Middle Ages, there were no Bibles in the common tongue. If one were to get his hands on a Bible, it was written in Latin, and only skilled or highly educated men could read it. The common people were left to the mystic, pagan views of the village priests, many of whom had never read the Bible themselves. In 1380, Wycliffe and other trusted colleagues began work on the very first English translation of the Bible.
The church bitterly opposed it: “By this translation, the Scriptures have become vulgar, and they are more available to lay, and even to women who can read, than they were to learned scholars, who have a high intelligence. So the pearl of the gospel is scattered and trodden underfoot by swine.”
Wycliffe replied, “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.”
John Wycliffe escaped martyrdom and died of a stroke on December 31, 1384, but the revolution he launched did not follow him to the grave. His teachings, though suppressed, only prospered after his death, thanks to his followers, known as the “Lollards”—a term that was considered derogatory at the time and referred to those with little to no academic understanding. They were also quite possibly the first known Protestant group of that era to ever walk the earth. The Lollards continued to preach the gospel, in spite of death threats from the English Parliament. They believed in the authority of the Scriptures, placing the utmost importance in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through faith. All in all, the Lollard movement made a significant impact on England.
The Catholic Church convicted John Wycliffe of more than 250 charges of heresy on May 4, 1415—more than 30 years after his death. They banned his writings and subsequently burned all of his works. To add insult to injury, Pope Martin V issued an order for a posthumous execution. John Wycliffe’s remains were dug up and burned, with his ashes being cast into the river Swift. But, ironically, and perhaps symbolically, his ashes traveled down the river Swift, where it met a number of smaller streams that emptied into the waters of the great Atlantic, spreading his influence—literally—all over the world.
As a later chronicler observed, “Thus the brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; and they into the main ocean. And, thus, the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is dispersed the world over.”
It is no wonder that Wycliffe has been widely characterized as the “morning star” of the Reformation. He was a reformer before the Reformation. For him, the Bible was not just one authority among several others. It stood above all.
Trust wholly in Christ. Rely altogether on His sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than by His righteousness. Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient for salvation. There must be atonement made for sin according to the righteousness of God. The person to make this atonement must be God and man. —John Wycliffe
Wycliffe died a reformer, who never felt himself to be a heretic, but only a preacher whose utmost desire was to see the church cleansed of its unrighteousness and obedient to the Lord.
John 4:37 says, “And herein is that saying true, One soweth, and another reapeth.” Wycliffe’s life embodied that Scripture in that where one sows, another waters, and yet another reaps the harvest. From his efforts, Wycliffe would not reap the harvest, but God was grooming another man— a man who would not cower, a man who would not yield, a man who dared to stand against the stronghold of Rome and bring about a divine change in Christianity.
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