Late English Reformers
WHILE Luther was opening a closed Bible to
the people of Germany, Tyndale was impelled by the Spirit of God to do the same for
England. Wycliffe's Bible had been translated from the Latin text, which contained many
errors. It had never been printed, and the cost of manuscript copies was so great that few
but wealthy men or nobles could procure it; and, furthermore, being strictly proscribed by
the church, it had had a comparatively narrow circulation. In 1516, a year before the
appearance of Luther's theses, Erasmus had published his Greek and Latin version of the
New Testament. Now for the first time the word of God was printed in the original tongue.
In this work many errors of former versions were corrected, and the sense was more clearly
rendered. It led many among the educated classes to a better knowledge of the truth, and
gave a new impetus to the work of reform. But the common people were still, to a great
extent, debarred from God's word. Tyndale was to complete the work of Wycliffe in giving
the Bible to his countrymen.
A diligent student and an
earnest seeker for truth, he had received the gospel from the Greek Testament of Erasmus.
He fearlessly preached his convictions, urging that all doctrines be tested by the
Scriptures. To the papist claim that the church had given the Bible, and the church alone
could explain it, Tyndale responded: "Do you know who
taught the eagles to find their
prey? Well, that same God teaches His hungry children to find their Father in His word.
Far from having given us the Scriptures, it is you who have hidden them from us; it is you
who burn those who teach them, and if you could, you would burn the Scriptures
themselves."--D'Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, b. 18,
Tyndale's preaching excited
great interest; many accepted the truth. But the priests were on the alert, and no sooner
had he left the field than they by their threats and misrepresentations endeavored to
destroy his work. Too often they succeeded. "What is to be done?" he exclaimed.
"While I am sowing in one place, the enemy ravages the field I have just left. I
cannot be everywhere. Oh! if Christians possessed the Holy Scriptures in their own tongue,
they could of themselves withstand these sophists. Without the Bible it is impossible to
establish the laity in the truth."-- Ibid., b. 18, ch. 4.
A new purpose now took
possession of his mind. "It was in the language of Israel," said he, "that
the psalms were sung in the temple of Jehovah; and shall not the gospel speak the language
of England among us? . . . Ought the church to have less light at noonday than at the
dawn? . . . Christians must read the New Testament in their mother tongue." The
doctors and teachers of the church disagreed among themselves. Only by the Bible could men
arrive at the truth. "One holdeth this doctor, another that. . . . Now each of these
authors contradicts the other. How then can we distinguish him who says right from him who
says wrong? . . . How? . . . Verily by God's word."-- Ibid., b. 18, ch. 4.
It was not long after that a
learned Catholic doctor, engaging in controversy with him, exclaimed: "We were better
to be without God's laws than the pope's." Tyndale replied: "I defy the pope and
all his laws; and if God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the
plow to know more of the Scripture than you do."--Anderson, Annals of the English
Bible, page 19.
The purpose which he had
begun to cherish, of giving to
the people the New Testament Scriptures in their own
language, was now confirmed, and he immediately applied himself to the work. Driven from
his home by persecution, he went to London, and there for a time pursued his labors
undisturbed. But again the violence of the papists forced him to flee. All England seemed
closed against him, and he resolved to seek shelter in Germany. Here he began the printing
of the English New Testament. Twice the work was stopped; but when forbidden to print in
one city, he went to another. At last he made his way to Worms, where, a few years before,
Luther had defended the gospel before the Diet. In that ancient city were many friends of
the Reformation, and Tyndale there prosecuted his work without further hindrance. Three
thousand copies of the New Testament were soon finished, and another edition followed in
the same year.
With great earnestness and
perseverance he continued his labors. Notwithstanding the English authorities had guarded
their ports with the strictest vigilance, the word of God was in various ways secretly
conveyed to London and thence circulated throughout the country. The papists attempted to
suppress the truth, but in vain. The bishop of Durham at one time bought of a bookseller
who was a friend of Tyndale his whole stock of Bibles, for the purpose of destroying them,
supposing that this would greatly hinder the work. But, on the contrary, the money thus
furnished, purchased material for a new and better edition, which, but for this, could not
have been published. When Tyndale was afterward made a prisoner, his liberty was offered
him on condition that he would reveal the names of those who had helped him meet the
expense of printing his Bibles. He replied that the bishop of Durham had done more than
any other person; for by paying a large price for the books left on hand, he had enabled
him to go on with good courage.
Tyndale was betrayed into the
hands of his enemies, and at one time suffered imprisonment for many months. He finally
witnessed for his faith by a martyr's death; but the weapons which he prepared have
enabled other soldiers
to do battle through all the centuries even to our time.
Latimer maintained from the
pulpit that the Bible ought to be read in the language of the people. The Author of Holy
Scripture, said he, "is God Himself;" and this Scripture partakes of the might
and eternity of its Author. "There is no king, emperor, magistrate, and ruler . . .
but are bound to obey . . . His holy word." "Let us not take any bywalks, but
let God's word direct us: let us not walk after . . . our forefathers, nor seek not what
they did, but what they should have done."--Hugh Latimer, "First Sermon Preached
Before King Edward VI."
Barnes and Frith, the
faithful friends of Tyndale, arose to defend the truth. The Ridleys and Cranmer followed.
These leaders in the English Reformation were men of learning, and most of them had been
highly esteemed for zeal or piety in the Romish communion. Their opposition to the papacy
was the result of their knowledge of the errors of the "holy see." Their
acquaintance with the mysteries of Babylon gave greater power to their testimonies against
"Now I would ask a
strange question," said Latimer. "Who is the most diligent bishop and prelate in
all England? . . . I see you listening and hearkening that I should name him. . . . I will
tell you: it is the devil. . . . He is never out of his diocese; call for him when you
will, he is ever at home; . . . he is ever at his plow. . . . Ye shall never find him
idle, I warrant you. . . . Where the devil is resident, . . . there away with books, and
up with candles; away with Bibles, and up with beads; away with the light of the gospel,
and up with the light of candles, yea, at noondays; . . . down with Christ's cross, up
with purgatory pickpurse; . . . away with clothing the naked, the poor, and impotent, up
with decking of images and gay garnishing of stocks and stones; up with man's traditions
and his laws, down with God's traditions and His most holy word. . . . O that our prelates
would be as diligent to sow the corn of good doctrine, as Satan is to sow cockle and
darnel!"-- Ibid., "Sermon of the Plough."
The grand principle
maintained by these Reformers--the same that had been held by the Waldenses, by Wycliffe,
by John Huss, by Luther, Zwingli, and those who united with them--was the infallible
authority of the Holy Scriptures as a rule of faith and practice. They denied the right of
popes, councils, Fathers, and kings, to control the conscience in matters of religion. The
Bible was their authority, and by its teaching they tested all doctrines and all claims.
Faith in God and His word sustained these holy men as they yielded up their lives at the
stake. "Be of good comfort," exclaimed Latimer to his fellow martyr as the
flames were about to silence their voices, "we shall this day light such a candle, by
God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out." -- Works of Hugh
Latimer, vol. 1, p. xiii.
In Scotland the seeds of
truth scattered by Columba and his colaborers had never been wholly destroyed. For
hundreds of years after the churches of England submitted to Rome, those of Scotland
maintained their freedom. In the twelfth century, however, popery became established here,
and in no country did it exercise a more absolute sway. Nowhere was the darkness deeper.
Still there came rays of light to pierce the gloom and give promise of the coming day. The
Lollards, coming from England with the Bible and the teachings of Wycliffe, did much to
preserve the knowledge of the gospel, and every century had its witnesses and martyrs.
With the opening of the Great
Reformation came the writings of Luther, and then Tyndale's English New Testament.
Unnoticed by the hierarchy, these messengers silently traversed the mountains and valleys,
kindling into new life the torch of truth so nearly extinguished in Scotland, and undoing
the work which Rome for four centuries of oppression had done.
Then the blood of martyrs
gave fresh impetus to the movement. The papist leaders, suddenly awakening to the danger
that threatened their cause, brought to the stake some of the
noblest and most honored of
the sons of Scotland. They did but erect a pulpit, from which the words of these dying
witnesses were heard throughout the land, thrilling the souls of the people with an
undying purpose to cast off the shackles of Rome.
Hamilton and Wishart,
princely in character as in birth, with a long line of humbler disciples, yielded up their
lives at the stake. But from the burning pile of Wishart there came one whom the flames
were not to silence, one who under God was to strike the death knell of popery in
John Knox had turned away
from the traditions and mysticisms of the church, to feed upon the truths of God's word;
and the teaching of Wishart had confirmed his determination to forsake the communion of
Rome and join himself to the persecuted Reformers.
Urged by his companions to
take the office of preacher, he shrank with trembling from its responsibility, and it was
only after days of seclusion and painful conflict with himself that he consented. But
having once accepted the position, he pressed forward with inflexible determination and
undaunted courage as long as life continued. This truehearted Reformer feared not the face
of man. The fires of martyrdom, blazing around him, served only to quicken his zeal to
greater intensity. With the tyrant's ax held menacingly over his head, he stood his
ground, striking sturdy blows on the right hand and on the left to demolish idolatry.
When brought face to face
with the queen of Scotland, in whose presence the zeal of many a leader of the Protestants
had abated, John Knox bore unswerving witness for the truth. He was not to be won by
caresses; he quailed not before threats. The queen charged him with heresy. He had taught
the people to receive a religion prohibited by the state, she declared, and had thus
transgressed God's command enjoining subjects to obey their princes. Knox answered firmly:
"As right religion took
neither original strength nor authority from worldly princes, but from the eternal God
alone, so are not subjects bound to frame their religion
according to the appetites of
their princes. For oft it is that princes are the most ignorant of all others in God's
true religion. . . . If all the seed of Abraham had been of the religion of Pharaoh, whose
subjects they long were, I pray you, madam, what religion would there have been in the
world? Or if all men in the days of the apostles had been of the religion of the Roman
emperors, what religion would there have been upon the face of the earth? . . . And so,
madam, ye may perceive that subjects are not bound to the religion of their princes,
albeit they are commanded to give them obedience."
Said Mary: "Ye interpret
the Scriptures in one manner, and they [the Roman Catholic teachers] interpret in another;
whom shall I believe, and who shall be judge?"
"Ye shall believe God,
that plainly speaketh in His word," answered the Reformer; "and farther than the
word teaches you, ye neither shall believe the one nor the other. The word of God is plain
in itself; and if there appear any obscurity in one place, the Holy Ghost, which is never
contrary to Himself, explains the same more clearly in other places, so that there can
remain no doubt but unto such as obstinately remain ignorant."--David Laing, The
Collected Works of John Knox, vol. 2, pp. 281, 284.
Such were the truths that the
fearless Reformer, at the peril of his life, spoke in the ear of royalty. With the same
undaunted courage he kept to his purpose, praying and fighting the battles of the Lord,
until Scotland was free from popery.
In England the establishment
of Protestantism as the national religion diminished, but did not wholly stop,
persecution. While many of the doctrines of Rome had been renounced, not a few of its
forms were retained. The supremacy of the pope was rejected, but in his place the monarch
was enthroned as the head of the church. In the service of the church there was still a
wide departure from the purity and simplicity of the gospel. The great principle of
religious liberty was not yet understood. Though the
horrible cruelties which Rome
employed against heresy were resorted to but rarely by Protestant rulers, yet the right of
every man to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience was not
acknowledged. All were required to accept the doctrines and observe the forms of worship
prescribed by the established church. Dissenters suffered persecution, to a greater or
less extent, for hundreds of years.
In the seventeenth century
thousands of pastors were expelled from their positions. The people were forbidden, on
pain of heavy fines, imprisonment, and banishment, to attend any religious meetings except
such as were sanctioned by the church. Those faithful souls who could not refrain from
gathering to worship God were compelled to meet in dark alleys, in obscure garrets, and at
some seasons in the woods at midnight. In the sheltering depths of the forest, a temple of
God's own building, those scattered and persecuted children of the Lord assembled to pour
out their souls in prayer and praise. But despite all their precautions, many suffered for
their faith. The jails were crowded. Families were broken up. Many were banished to
foreign lands. Yet God was with His people, and persecution could not prevail to silence
their testimony. Many were driven across the ocean to America and here laid the
foundations of civil and religious liberty which have been the bulwark and glory of this
Again, as in apostolic days,
persecution turned out to the furtherance of the gospel. In a loathsome dungeon crowded
with profligates and felons, John Bunyan breathed the very atmosphere of heaven; and there
he wrote his wonderful allegory of the pilgrim's journey from the land of destruction to
the celestial city. For over two hundred years that voice from Bedford jail has spoken
with thrilling power to the hearts of men. Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and Grace Abounding
to the Chief of Sinners have guided many feet into the path of life.
Baxter, Flavel, Alleine, and
other men of talent, education, and deep Christian experience stood up in valiant defense
the faith which was once delivered to the saints. The work accomplished by these men,
proscribed and outlawed by the rulers of this world, can never perish. Flavel's Fountain
of Life and Method of Grace have taught thousands how to commit the keeping of their souls
to Christ. Baxter's Reformed Pastor has proved a blessing to many who desire a revival of
the work of God, and his Saints' Everlasting Rest has done its work in leading souls to
the "rest" that remaineth for the people of God.
A hundred years later, in a
day of great spiritual darkness, Whitefield and the Wesleys appeared as light bearers for
God. Under the rule of the established church the people of England had lapsed into a
state of religious declension hardly to be distinguished from heathenism. Natural religion
was the favorite study of the clergy, and included most of their theology. The higher
classes sneered at piety, and prided themselves on being above what they called its
fanaticism. The lower classes were grossly ignorant and abandoned to vice, while the
church had no courage or faith any longer to support the downfallen cause of truth.
The great doctrine of
justification by faith, so clearly taught by Luther, had been almost wholly lost sight of;
and the Romish principle of trusting to good works for salvation, had taken its place.
Whitefield and the Wesleys, who were members of the established church, were sincere
seekers for the favor of God, and this they had been taught was to be secured by a
virtuous life and an observance of the ordinances of religion.
When Charles Wesley at one
time fell ill, and anticipated that death was approaching, he was asked upon what he
rested his hope of eternal life. His answer was: "I have used my best endeavors to
serve God." As the friend who had put the question seemed not to be fully satisfied
with his answer, Wesley thought: "What! are not my endeavors a sufficient ground of
hope? Would he rob me of my endeavors? I have nothing else to trust to."--John
Whitehead, Life of the Rev. Charles Wesley, page 102. Such was the dense darkness
settled down on the church, hiding the atonement, robbing Christ of His glory, and turning
the minds of men from their only hope of salvation--the blood of the crucified Redeemer.
Wesley and his associates
were led to see that true religion is seated in the heart, and that God's law extends to
the thoughts as well as to the words and actions. Convinced of the necessity of holiness
of heart, as well as correctness of outward deportment, they set out in earnest upon a new
life. By the most diligent and prayerful efforts they endeavored to subdue the evils of
the natural heart. They lived a life of self-denial, charity, and humiliation, observing
with great rigor and exactness every measure which they thought could be helpful to them
in obtaining what they most desired--that holiness which could secure the favor of God.
But they did not obtain the object which they sought. In vain were their endeavors to free
themselves from the condemnation of sin or to break its power. It was the same struggle
which Luther had experienced in his cell at Erfurt. It was the same question which had
tortured his soul--"How should man be just before God?" Job. 9:2.
The fires of divine truth,
well-nigh extinguished upon the altars of Protestantism, were to be rekindled from the
ancient torch handed down the ages by the Bohemian Christians. After the Reformation,
Protestantism in Bohemia had been trampled out by the hordes of Rome. All who refused to
renounce the truth were forced to flee. Some of these, finding refuge in Saxony, there
maintained the ancient faith. It was from the descendants of these Christians that light
came to Wesley and his associates.
John and Charles Wesley,
after being ordained to the ministry, were sent on a mission to America. On board the ship
was a company of Moravians. Violent storms were encountered on the passage, and John
Wesley, brought face to face with death, felt that he had not the assurance of peace with
God. The Germans, on the contrary, manifested a calmness and trust to which he was a
"I had long
before," he says, "observed the great seriousness of their behavior. Of their
humility they had given a continual proof, by performing those servile offices for the
other passengers which none of the English would undertake; for which they desired and
would receive no pay, saying it was good for their proud hearts, and their loving Saviour
had done more for them. And every day had given them occasion of showing a meekness which
no injury could move. If they were pushed, struck, or thrown about, they rose again and
went away; but no complaint was found in their mouth. There was now an opportunity of
trying whether they were delivered from the spirit of fear, as well as from that of pride,
anger, and revenge. In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke
over, split the mainsail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks as
if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the
English. The Germans calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterwards, 'Were you not
afraid?' He answered, 'I thank God, no.' I asked, 'But were not your women and children
afraid?' He replied mildly, 'No; our women and children are not afraid to
die.'"--Whitehead, Life of the Rev. John Wesley, page 10.
Upon arriving in Savannah,
Wesley for a short time abode with the Moravians, and was deeply impressed with their
Christian deportment. Of one of their religious services, in striking contrast to the
lifeless formalism of the Church of England, he wrote: "The great simplicity as well
as solemnity of the whole almost made me forget the seventeen hundred years between, and
imagine myself in one of those assemblies where form and state were not; but Paul, the
tentmaker, or Peter, the fisherman, presided; yet with the demonstration of the Spirit and
of power."-- Ibid., pages 11, 12.
On his return to England,
Wesley, under the instruction of a Moravian preacher, arrived at a clearer understanding
of Bible faith. He was convinced that he must renounce all dependence upon his own works
for salvation and must trust
wholly to "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of
the world." At a meeting of the Moravian society in London a statement was read from
Luther, describing the change which the Spirit of God works in the heart of the believer.
As Wesley listened, faith was kindled in his soul. "I felt my heart strangely
warmed," he says. "I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation:
and an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me
from the law of sin and death."-- Ibid., page 52.
Through long years of
wearisome and comfortless striving-- years of rigorous self-denial, of reproach and
humiliation-- Wesley had steadfastly adhered to his one purpose of seeking God. Now he had
found Him; and he found that the grace which he had toiled to win by prayers and fasts, by
almsdeeds and self-abnegation, was a gift, "without money and without price."
Once established in the faith
of Christ, his whole soul burned with the desire to spread everywhere a knowledge of the
glorious gospel of God's free grace. "I look upon all the world as my parish,"
he said; "in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty,
to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation."--
Ibid., page 74.
He continued his strict and
self-denying life, not now as the ground, but the result of faith; not the root, but the
fruit of holiness. The grace of God in Christ is the foundation of the Christian's hope,
and that grace will be manifested in obedience. Wesley's life was devoted to the preaching
of the great truths which he had received--justification through faith in the atoning
blood of Christ, and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit upon the heart, bringing forth
fruit in a life conformed to the example of Christ.
Whitefield and the Wesleys
had been prepared for their work by long and sharp personal convictions of their own lost
condition; and that they might be able to endure hardness
as good soldiers of Christ, they
had been subjected to the fiery ordeal of scorn, derision, and persecution, both in the
university and as they were entering the ministry. They and a few others who sympathized
with them were contemptuously called Methodists by their ungodly fellow students--a name
which is at the present time regarded as honorable by one of the largest denominations in
England and America.
As members of the Church of
England they were strongly attached to her forms of worship, but the Lord had presented
before them in His word a higher standard. The Holy Spirit urged them to preach Christ and
Him crucified. The power of the Highest attended their labors. Thousands were convicted
and truly converted. It was necessary that these sheep be protected from ravening wolves.
Wesley had no thought of forming a new denomination, but he organized them under what was
called the Methodist Connection.
Mysterious and trying was the
opposition which these preachers encountered from the established church; yet God, in His
wisdom, had overruled events to cause the reform to begin within the church itself. Had it
come wholly from without, it would not have penetrated where it was so much needed. But as
the revival preachers were churchmen, and labored within the pale of the church wherever
they could find opportunity, the truth had an entrance where the doors would otherwise
have remained closed. Some of the clergy were roused from their moral stupor and became
zealous preachers in their own parishes. Churches that had been petrified by formalism
were quickened into life.
In Wesley's time, as in all
ages of the church's history, men of different gifts performed their appointed work. They
did not harmonize upon every point of doctrine, but all were moved by the Spirit of God,
and united in the absorbing aim to win souls to Christ. The differences between Whitefield
and the Wesleys threatened at one time to create alienation;
but as they learned
meekness in the school of Christ, mutual forbearance and charity reconciled them. They had
no time to dispute, while error and iniquity were teeming everywhere, and sinners were
going down to ruin.
The servants of God trod a
rugged path. Men of influence and learning employed their powers against them. After a
time many of the clergy manifested determined hostility, and the doors of the churches
were closed against a pure faith and those who proclaimed it. The course of the clergy in
denouncing them from the pulpit aroused the elements of darkness, ignorance, and iniquity.
Again and again did John Wesley escape death by a miracle of God's mercy. When the rage of
the mob was excited against him, and there seemed no way of escape, an angel in human form
came to his side, the mob fell back, and the servant of Christ passed in safety from the
place of danger.
Of his deliverance from the
enraged mob on one of these occasions, Wesley said: "Many endeavored to throw me down
while we were going down hill on a slippery path to the town; as well judging that if I
was once on the ground, I should hardly rise any more. But I made no stumble at all, nor
the least slip, till I was entirely out of their hands. . . . Although many strove to lay
hold on my collar or clothes, to pull me down, they could not fasten at all: only one got
fast hold of the flap of my waistcoat, which was soon left in his hand; the other flap, in
the pocket of which was a bank note, was torn but half off. . . . A lusty man just behind,
struck at me several times, with a large oaken stick; with which if he had struck me once
on the back part of my head, it would have saved him all further trouble. But every time,
the blow was turned aside, I know not how; for I could not move to the right hand or left.
. . . Another came rushing through the press, and raising his arm to strike, on a sudden
let it drop, and only stroked my head, saying, 'What soft hair he has!' . . . The very
first men whose hearts were turned were the heroes of the town, the captains of the rabble
occasions, one of them having been a prize fighter at the bear gardens. . . .
"By how gentle degrees
does God prepare us for His will! Two years ago, a piece of brick grazed my shoulders. It
was a year after that the stone struck me between the eyes. Last month I received one
blow, and this evening two, one before we came into the town, and one after we were gone
out; but both were as nothing: for though one man struck me on the breast with all his
might, and the other on the mouth with such force that the blood gushed out immediately, I
felt no more pain from either of the blows than if they had touched me with a
straw."--John Wesley, Works, vol. 3, pp. 297, 298.
The Methodists of those early
days--people as well as preachers--endured ridicule and persecution, alike from church
members and from the openly irreligious who were inflamed by their misrepresentations.
They were arraigned before courts of justice--such only in name, for justice was rare in
the courts of that time. Often they suffered violence from their persecutors. Mobs went
from house to house, destroying furniture and goods, plundering whatever they chose, and
brutally abusing men, women, and children. In some instances, public notices were posted,
calling upon those who desired to assist in breaking the windows and robbing the houses of
the Methodists, to assemble at a given time and place. These open violations of both human
and divine law were allowed to pass without a reprimand. A systematic persecution was
carried on against a people whose only fault was that of seeking to turn the feet of
sinners from the path of destruction to the path of holiness.
Said John Wesley, referring
to the charges against himself and his associates: "Some allege that the doctrines of
these men are false, erroneous, and enthusiastic; that they are new and unheard-of till of
late; that they are Quakerism, fanaticism, popery. This whole pretense has been already
cut up by the roots, it having been shown at large that every branch of this doctrine is
the plain doctrine of Scripture interpreted
by our own church. Therefore it cannot be
either false or erroneous, provided the Scripture be true." "Others allege,
"Their doctrine is too strict; they make the way to heaven too narrow.' And this is
in truth the original objection, (as it was almost the only one for some time,) and is
secretly at the bottom of a thousand more, which appear in various forms. But do they make
the way to heaven any narrower than our Lord and His apostles made it? Is their doctrine
stricter than that of the Bible? Consider only a few plain texts: 'Thou shalt love the
Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy mind, and with all thy soul, and with
all thy strength.' 'For every idle word which men shall speak, they shall give an account
in the day of judgment.' 'Whether ye eat, or drink, or whatever ye do, do all to the glory
"If their doctrine is
stricter than this, they are to blame; but you know in your conscience it is not. And who
can be one jot less strict without corrupting the word of God? Can any steward of the
mysteries of God be found faithful if he change any part of that sacred depositum? No. He
can abate nothing, he can soften nothing; he is constrained to declare to all men, 'I may
not bring down the Scripture to your taste. You must come up to it, or perish forever.'
This is the real ground of that other popular cry concerning 'the uncharitableness of
these men.' Uncharitable, are they? In what respect? Do they not feed the hungry and
clothe the naked? 'No; that is not the thing: they are not wanting in this: but they are
so uncharitable in judging! they think none can be saved but those of their own
way.'"-- Ibid., vol. 3, pp. 152, 153.
The spiritual declension
which had been manifest in England just before the time of Wesley was in great degree the
result of antinomian teaching. Many affirmed that Christ had abolished the moral law and
that Christians are therefore under no obligation to observe it; that a believer is freed
from the "bondage of good works." Others, though admitting
the perpetuity of the
law, declared that it was unnecessary for ministers to exhort the people to obedience of
its precepts, since those whom God had elected to salvation would, "by the
irresistible impulse of divine grace, be led to the practice of piety and virtue,"
while those who were doomed to eternal reprobation "did not have power to obey the
Others, also holding that
"the elect cannot fall from grace nor forfeit the divine favor," arrived at the
still more hideous conclusion that "the wicked actions they commit are not really
sinful, nor to be considered as instances of their violation of the divine law, and that,
consequently, they have no occasion either to confess their sins or to break them off by
repentance."--McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia, art. "Antinomians."
Therefore, they declared that even one of the vilest of sins, "considered universally
an enormous violation of the divine law, is not a sin in the sight of God," if
committed by one of the elect, "because it is one of the essential and distinctive
characteristics of the elect, that they cannot do anything that is either displeasing to
God or prohibited by the law."
These monstrous doctrines are
essentially the same as the later teaching of popular educators and theologians--that
there is no unchangeable divine law as the standard of right, but that the standard of
morality is indicated by society itself, and has constantly been subject to change. All
these ideas are inspired by the same master spirit--by him who, even among the sinless
inhabitants of heaven, began his work of seeking to break down the righteous restraints of
the law of God.
The doctrine of the divine
decrees, unalterably fixing the character of men, had led many to a virtual rejection of
the law of God. Wesley steadfastly opposed the errors of the antinomian teachers and
showed that this doctrine which led to antinomianism was contrary to the Scriptures.
of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men ." "This
is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who will have all men to be saved,
and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator
between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave Himself a ransom for all ." Titus
2:11; 1 Timothy 2:3-6. The Spirit of God is freely bestowed to enable every man to lay
hold upon the means of salvation. Thus Christ, "the true Light," "lighteth
every man that cometh into the world." John 1:9. Men fail of salvation through their
own willful refusal of the gift of life.
In answer to the claim that
at the death of Christ the precepts of the Decalogue had been abolished with the
ceremonial law, Wesley said: "The moral law, contained in the Ten Commandments and
enforced by the prophets, He did not take away. It was not the design of His coming to
revoke any part of this. This is a law which never can be broken, which 'stands fast as
the faithful witness in heaven.' . . . This was from the beginning of the world, being
'written not on tables of stone,' but on the hearts of all the children of men, when they
came out of the hands of the Creator. And however the letters once wrote by the finger of
God are now in a great measure defaced by sin, yet can they not wholly be blotted out,
while we have any consciousness of good and evil. Every part of this law must remain in
force upon all mankind, and in all ages; as not depending either on time or place, or any
other circumstances liable to change, but on the nature of God, and the nature of man, and
their unchangeable relation to each other.
"'I am not come to
destroy, but to fulfill.' . . . Without question, His meaning in this place is
(consistently with all that goes before and follows after),--I am come to establish it in
its fullness, in spite of all the glosses of men: I am come to place in a full and clear
view whatsoever was dark or obscure therein: I am come to declare the true and full import
of every part of it; to show the length and breadth, the entire extent, of every
commandment contained therein, and the
height and depth, the inconceivable purity and
spirituality of it in all its branches."--Wesley, sermon 25.
Wesley declared the perfect
harmony of the law and the gospel. "There is, therefore, the closest connection that
can be conceived, between the law and the gospel. On the one hand, the law continually
makes way for, and points us to, the gospel; on the other, the gospel continually leads us
to a more exact fulfilling of the law. The law, for instance, requires us to love God, to
love our neighbor, to be meek, humble, or holy. We feel that we are not sufficient for
these things; yea, that 'with man this is impossible;' but we see a promise of God to give
us that love, and to make us humble, meek, and holy: we lay hold of this gospel, of these
glad tidings; it is done unto us according to our faith; and 'the righteousness of the law
is fulfilled in us,' through faith which is in Christ Jesus. . . .
"In the highest rank of
the enemies of the gospel of Christ," said Wesley, "are they who openly and
explicitly 'judge the law' itself, and 'speak evil of the law;' who teach men to break (to
dissolve, to loose, to untie the obligation of) not one only, whether of the least or of
the greatest, but all the commandments at a stroke. . . . The most surprising of all the
circumstances that attend this strong delusion, is that they who are given up to it,
really believe that they honor Christ by overthrowing His law, and that they are
magnifying His office while they are destroying His doctrine! Yea, they honor Him just as
Judas did when he said, 'Hail, Master, and kissed Him.' And He may as justly say to every
one of them, 'Betrayest thou the Son of man with a kiss? It is no other than betraying Him
with a kiss, to talk of His blood, and take away His crown; to set light by any part of
His law, under pretense of advancing His gospel. Nor indeed can anyone escape this charge,
who preaches faith in any such a manner as either directly or indirectly tends to set
aside any branch of obedience: who preaches Christ so as to disannul, or weaken in any
wise, the least of the commandments of God."-- Ibid.
To those who urged that
"the preaching of the gospel answers all the ends of the law," Wesley replied:
"This we utterly deny. It does not answer the very first end of the law, namely, the
convincing men of sin, the awakening those who are still asleep on the brink of
hell." The apostle Paul declares that "by the law is the knowledge of sin;"
"and not until man is convicted of sin, will he truly feel his need of the atoning
blood of Christ. . . . 'They that be whole,' as our Lord Himself observes, 'need not a
physician, but they that are sick.' It is absurd, therefore, to offer a physician to them
that are whole, or that at least imagine themselves so to be. You are first to convince
them that they are sick; otherwise they will not thank you for your labor. It is equally
absurd to offer Christ to them whose heart is whole, having never yet been broken."--
Ibid., sermon 35.
Thus while preaching the
gospel of the grace of God, Wesley, like his Master, sought to "magnify the law, and
make it honorable." Faithfully did he accomplish the work given him of God, and
glorious were the results which he was permitted to behold. At the close of his long life
of more than fourscore years--above half a century spent in itinerant ministry--his avowed
adherents numbered more than half a million souls. But the multitude that through his
labors had been lifted from the ruin and degradation of sin to a higher and a purer life,
and the number who by his teaching had attained to a deeper and richer experience, will
never be known till the whole family of the redeemed shall be gathered into the kingdom of
God. His life presents a lesson of priceless worth to every Christian. Would that the
faith and humility, the untiring zeal, self-sacrifice, and devotion of this servant of
Christ might be reflected in the churches of today!