Former Generations Called To Witness
Why hath the Lord done thus unto this land, and unto this house? And it shall be answered, Because they forsook the Lord God of their fathers. 2 Chron. 7: 21-22.
Those that forsake their father’s God, shall be rejected by the Lord God of their fathers. This was the sin that ruined Judah in the time of Jeremiah; possessed with a false confidence that the God of their fathers was still their God, they refused to consider their ways, and ask for the old paths. ‘The Lord hath rejected thy confidences,’ was the message sent unto them, ‘This is a nation that obeyeth not the voice of the Lord their God: truth is perished, and is cut off from their mouth’ (7: 28). Whenever God visits a nation in mercy the whole of that nation’s posterity is involved in greater responsibility; thereafter the relation of the people to their fathers’ God becomes a matter of solemn importance, to forsake Him will prove their ruin.
England is a land which has been visited by God, and we ought therefore to enquire what is our land’s present relation to the God of our fathers? Have we forsaken Him or not? To determine this we need to know whether we worship the same God Who revealed Himself to our fathers, do we hold the same truths as were held by them? We must recall therefore, as Israel was commanded to do, how God has manifested Himself in our national history, and we will look particularly at the history of Oxford from where we write.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century in England there was no visible church, where God’s Word was purely preached. Believers existed only in scattered handfuls, being known as Lollards, and such were there times that one of them was tortured and burnt to death at the instigation of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1517 for denying purgatory. Ignorance, superstition, and immorality reigned supreme in the Church of Rome which occupied the land. The Bible was an almost unknown book. Oxford could be best described in the words of Latimer, ‘Where the devil is resident-there away with books and up with candles; away with Bibles and up with beads; up with the decking of images and down with God’s most Holy Word…‘ Into this ancient city, slumbering in its medieval learning, there came a book in 1516, it was the New Testament in Greek printed on the Continent for the first time. Through this book a mighty awakening was to take place within the next few years. The Reformation-as this awakening was named-was nothing else than a direct return to the Word of God; the doctrines of the Reformers were the doctrines of Scripture.
At Oxford this New Testament came into the hands of a student from Gloucestershire, William Tyndale (1484-1536), he was converted but the wrath of the monks soon forced him to leave. Nevertheless the truth could not be silenced and soon arose in another quarter of the city. In 1523 Cardinal Wolsey-a patron of learning-founded a new College (now called Christ Church) and brought several scholars from Cambridge to direct its learning, little knowing that some of these men had been recently awakened to the truth of God. Under the leadership of Clark these disciples of the Gospel in the University steadily increased. Meanwhile Tyndale, consumed with the desire that his countrymen might have the Bible in their native tongue, had crossed over into Europe and was working night and day translating the New Testament into English; his great task was done by 1525; towards the end of that year the first printed copies of the New Testament were smuggled into London and lodged in the house of a converted priest named Garret. Brave Garret then undertook to convey some of the precious books to Oxford-the city of his student days. How he was there seized by the agents of Rome in the middle of the night, how he escaped but was recaptured, how twenty other brethren were arrested and flung into a deep underground cellar beneath Christ Church, we cannot now relate. The damp foul air, the salt fish (their only food), soon removed their health but not their spirit. After six months four of them lay dying, including Clark. They were released, but it was too late; the seventies of Popery had killed these noble men who had the honour to be the first witnesses to die for the Reformed Faith in England. The remainder of the twenty were also released, some of them like Ferrar and Fryth were later to be burnt at the stake for the sake of the Gospel.
Now the above mentioned, along with their brethren at Cambridge-particularly Bilney, Latimer, and Barnes-were those appointed by God to lay the foundations of the Reformation in England. What then were the foundation truths which God gave them from His Word? Their common testimony was to the great doctrine that man is justified by faith in Christ alone, and to establish this truth they saw that it was necessary to assert that neither man’s works nor his will led to his justification. Salvation, they apprehended, was determined solely by the distinguishing grace of God, faith was His gift granted unto those whom He had predestinated unto life. Rome held that salvation depended on the twin principles of free-will and justification by good works, the Reformers denied both, and held two opposite principles, the eternal election of God and justification by faith. The God they knew and loved was the sovereign ruler of all persons and events. ‘The will of God,’ writes Tyndale to Fryth, ‘Be fulfilled! And what He hath ordained to be, ere the world was made . . . There falleth not an hair till God’s hour be come; and when His hour is come necessity carrieth us hence.’ In his preface to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Tyndale tells us that in chapters 9 to 11, ‘the apostle teaches us of God’s predestination, from whence all things spring; whether we shall believe, or not believe; be loosed from sin, or not be loosed; by which predestination, our justifying and salvation are clear taken out of our own hands, and put into the hands of God only: which thing is most necessary of all. For we are so weak, and so uncertain, that if it stood in us, there would of truth be no man saved: the devil no doubt would deceive him. But now God is sure of His predestination; neither can any man withstand or hinder Him.‘
Tyndale’s herculean labours ended with his martyrdom in Belgium in 1536; though he died separated by distance from his brother martyrs-Bilney, Lambert, and Barnes-who suffered in England about the same time, they were all undivided in the truth. Let the testimony of Barnes to the sovereign grace of God suffice, ‘Sayest thou that God giveth to the one mercy; and to the other none? I answer, what is that to thee? Is not His mercy His own? Is it not lawful for Him to give to whom He will? For, if He will shew His wrath and make His power known, over the vessels of wrath ordained to damnation; and to declare the riches of His glory; unto the vessels of mercy, whom He hath prepared and elected unto glory; what hast thou therewith, to do? But here will subtle blindness say, God forsaw before, that Jacob should do good; He saw also that Esau should do evil; therefore did He condemn him.’ Alas, for blindness! What? Will you judge of that which God forsaw? These children being yet unborn, they had done neither good nor bad: and yet one of them is chosen, and the other of them is refused. St. Paul knoweth no other cause but the will of God; and will you need discuss another? He saith not, I will have mercy on him whom I see shall do good; but I will shew mercy to whom I will.’
These early English martyrs all died confident that the truth would not die with them. Barnes declared, ‘If they burn me, what will they gain by it? The sun, and the moon, fire and the elements-yea, and also stones shall defend the cause against them, rather than the truth should perish.’ And Bilney prophesied, ‘A new time is beginning. Someone is coming unto us, I see Him, I hear Him-it is Jesus Christ.’ His words were true. In 1547 the pious young King Edward VIth ascended the throne, and the errors of Rome no longer received the protection of the monarchy. Under the leadership of men like Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury) and Ridley (Bishop of London), godly men, a true church began to be established founded on the Bible. The Articles and Catechism drawn up at this time, reveal to us the truths these men held. In the Catechism we read, ‘The first, principal, and most proper cause of our justification and salvation, is the goodness and love of God, whereby He chose us for His, before He made the world. After that God granted us to be called by the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.‘
The bright reign of Edward VIth terminated suddenly by his death on July 6th, 1553; the dying prayer of this boy of sixteen was, ‘Bring me into Thy Kingdom, free this kingdom, from Antichrist, and keep thine elect in it.’ It was a dark day for the elect; once more they found themselves under a Roman Catholic sovereign; Mary, a woman filled with all the superstition and persecuting fervour of her religion, succeeded to the throne. She was wise enough to know the foundations upon which Romanism rested; she knew how the doctrines of Wickliffe and Huss, who had preached that the eternal election of God was the cause of salvation, had been condemned by Martin Vth in his Papal bull of 1418; she knew also how these doctrines had revived again in that present century under men like Luther and were the very basis of Protestantism. The Tenets essential to the interests of Popery, such as free-will and the merit of works before justification, could not be re-introduced without the suppression of the contrary. No wonder then that the English Bible was removed from all churches and publicly burnt; no wonder that the possession of books by Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, Latimer, and other predestinarians was forbidden; no wonder that all who held these truths were forthwith removed from Oxford and Cambridge, and an oath appointed for all students that they should not ‘keep, hold, maintain, and defend, at any time during your life, any opinion erroneous, or error of Luther, Wickliffe, Huss, or any other condemned of heresy: And that you shall namely and specially, hold as the Catholic church holdeth in all these articles, wherein lately hath been controversy, dissention, and error; as concerning faith and works, grace and free will….’
There were many who had no intention of taking such an oath and the truth was still going to be heard though it cost men their lives. In the spring of 1554 the three leaders of the Reformed Faith, Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley, having passed a bitter winter imprisoned in the Tower of London, were brought to Oxford. These three men were to meet the most eminent of the popish divines in public debate before the University. All things were combined in an attempt to remove their confidence and to make their public statements despicable. They were flung into a common prison, deprived of all books and papers that might aid their defence, and finally not allowed to appear together in debate, but singly on separate days. Nevertheless it was a victory. Latimer confounded his enemies by his silence and his refusal to hear any argument not drawn from Scripture. Ridley (who in youth had memorized all Paul’s Epistles) rapidly showed his ability to meet his adversaries on every point, at length he was shouted down and refused a hearing. Both were condemned as heretics and both died together, burnt at the stake outside the north wall of Oxford, 16 Oct., 1555. ‘We shall this day brother, light such a candle in England as shall never be put out,’ were Latimer’s parting words and Ridley prayed, ‘I beseech Thee, Lord God, have mercy on this realm of England.’ Cranmer followed them to heaven by the same fiery chariot the following March.
We will give an instance of the doctrines these martyrs held fast till death. While they were imprisoned in Oxford a letter arrived addressed to ‘My dear fathers, Dr. Cranmer, Dr. Ridley, Dr. Latimer, prisoners in Oxford for the testimony of the Lord Jesus, and His Holy Gospel.’ It was from that mighty evangelist John Bradford, who wrote on behalf of the believers imprisoned in London. Bradford’s great concern was to oppose an error that had appeared among a small sect of professing Protestants who asserted that man’s free-will was necessary to his salvation. ‘Great evil,‘ he writes, ‘is like to come hereafter to posterity, by these men … Christ’s glory and grace is like to lose much light if your sheep be not something holpen by them that love God, and are able to prove that all good is to be attributed only and wholly to God’s grace and mercy in Christ . . . The effects of salvation they (the free-willers) so mingle with the cause, that, if it be not seen to, more hurt will come by them, than ever came by the papists, inasmuch as their life commendeth them more to the world than the papist.. In freewill they are plain papists; yea, Pelagians. God is my witness that I write not this, but because I desire God’s glory and the good of His people . . . I complain of it to you as the chief captains of Christ’s church here. And truly I must complain of you even unto God at the last day if you will not, as far as you can, help that the truth of doctrine may remain among those that come after … My brethren here with me have thought it their duty to signify that this need is not less than I make it.’
With this letter Bradford sent a short treatise entitled ‘A Defence of the doctrine of Election and Predestination,’ concerning which Bradford wrote ‘All the prisoners hereabouts in manner have seen it and read it; and therein they agree with me, nay rather with the truth.’ The treatise opens with these words, ‘Faith in God’s election, I mean to believe in very deed we are the children of God through Christ, is of all things that God requires of us not only the principal, but also the whole sum.‘ Bradford goes on to show that the mercy of God is nowhere more magnified than in election, nor can humility be rightly seen save in the elect ‘for they alone reckon nothing at all due to themselves but damnation, that their whole glory may be in God only and forever.’ This treatise was approved by Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley, and in reply to Bradford’s exhortation, Ridley himself wrote on Predestination at this time. The fact is that the Reformers were all undivided in these great truths, they viewed them as a most essential part of the faith once delivered to the saints.
After the martyrdom of the leading Reformers, the above mentioned sect of free-willers attempted to stir confusion among believers by their pretension of likeness of doctrine with the martyrs, and the Reformed faith. But this attempt was overthrown by the surviving Protestant ministers who, says Strype the historian, ‘deemed it a scandal’ to be numbered with those fanatics, who ‘denying predestination’ held ‘free-will and justification by works.’ In order to disclaim any connection with these free-willers, and to publicly own the doctrines which Cranmer, Ridley, and the foregoing martyrs had sealed with their blood, these orthodox ministers drew up ‘A Protestation of the Christian Faith.’ Towards the beginning this document asserts the subtlety of Satan in corrupting the truth. ‘Some denying the doctrine of God’s firm election and free election in Jesus Christ; which is the very certainty of our salvation. And as he (the devil) hath caused them to deny all these things, even so hath he made them affirm many mad and foolish fantasies, which the Word of God doth utterly condemn: as man’s free-will, man’s righteousness, and justifying works; to the great dishonour of God, to the obscuring of His glory; yea to the utter destruction of many a simple soul that cannot shift from these subtle sleights of Satan, except the Lord show His great mercy upon them.‘ This Protestation continues, ‘I do, undoubtedly believe in God the Holy Ghost, Who is the Lord and giver of Life, and the sanctifier of all God’s elect . . . I do confess that Adam by his fall, lost from himself and all his posterity, all freedom, choice and power of man’s will to do good . . . I do acknowledge that God, in Jesus Christ, ordained, predestinated, appointed, before the foundation of the world was laid, an innumerable multitude of Adam’s posterity, to be saved from their sins through the merits of Christ’s death … in whom His mercy shall be magnified forever.‘
We must pass from this glorious generation of believers who preferred to die with truth rather than to live with error; nearly 300 were martyred before this terrible period ended with the death of ‘Bloody’ Mary in 1558. Many years were to pass before Englishmen began to forget the horrors of Romanism.
In the following reign of Elizabeth those doctrines for which the martyrs suffered became the recognized truths of the Word of God. When a new edition of the Bible (known as the Bishops’ Bible) was published in 1568, the leaders of the restored Church of England supplied the prefaces and marginal notes. In the preface to the New Testament we read, ‘By Him (Christ) hath He (God the Father) decreed to give, to His elect the life everlasting.’ On Romans 11: 11, the note is ‘The will and purpose of God is the cause of election and reprobation: for His mercy and calling through Christ are the means of salvation; and the withdrawing of His mercy is the cause of damnation.’ In 1576 a further improved edition of Scripture was published, the Quarto Bible. On Matt. 11: 26, the note is ‘Faith cometh not of man’s will, nor power; but by the secret illumination of God, which is the declaration of His eternal counsel.’ On John 10: 26, where the text says, ‘Ye believe not because ye are not my sheep,’ i.e., because ye are not of the number of the elect; the marginal note is, ‘The cause whereof the reprobate cannot believe.’
In the latter Bibles of Elizabeth’s reign a form of questions and answers were added to aid the understanding of Scripture. They begin thus-
‘Question. Why do men much vary in the matters of religion?
Answer. Because all have not the like measure of knowledge, neither do all believe the gospel of Christ.
Question. What is the reason thereof?
Answer. Because they only believe the gospel and doctrine of Christ, which are ordained unto eternal life.
Question. Are not all ordained unto eternal life?
Answer. Some are vessels of wrath ordained unto destruction; as others are vessels of mercy prepared to glory.
Question. How standeth it with God’s justice, that some are appointed unto damnation?
Answer. Very well: because all men have in themselves sin, which deserveth no less. And therefore the mercy of God is wonderful, in that He vouchsafeth to save some of that sinful race, and to bring them to the knowledge of the truth.
Question. If God’s purpose and determination must of necessity take effect; then why need any man to care? For he that liveth well must needs be damned, if he be thereunto ordained; and he that liveth ill must needs he saved, if he be thereunto appointed?
Answer. Not so: For it is not possible that the elect should always he without care to do well; or that the reprobate should have any will thereunto. For, to have either good will, or good work, is a testimony of the Spirit of God, which is given to the elect only; whereby faith is so wrought into them, that, being graft in Christ, they grow in holiness to that glory whereunto they are appointed. Neither are they so vain, as to think they may do as they please, because they are predestinate unto salvation; but rather they endeavour to walk in such good works as God in Christ Jesus had ordained them unto, and prepared for them to be occupied in, to their own comfort, stay and assurance, and to His glory.
Question. But how shall I know myself to be one of those whom God hath ordained to life eternal?
Answer. By the motions of spiritual life-lothing of sin; love of righteousness; the hand of faith reaching unto Christ; the conscience comforted in distress, and raised up to confidence in God, by the work of His Spirit.
Another proof-from among many that could be given-of those truths loved by our forefathers of this period, is a great book by Dr. Willet entitled ‘A General View of Popery,‘ this was dedicated to the Queen and published by authority. Concerning free-will, Willet writes, ‘They that affirm that God offereth grace and faith equally to all, do consequently hold, that, to Grieve, is either wholly or in part, in man’s power. The absurdity of which opinion we declare thus: All cannot have faith; but such as are ordained and elected thereunto, John 10: 26; John 12: 39; Acts 13: 48. Faith and every good gift, the beginning, perfecting, and end, is only of God, Rom. 9: 16; John 6: 44. They that are drawn of God must needs come to Christ.’
In the beginning of the seventeenth century free-will teaching began to invade England from the Continent where it was being promulgated by a Dutchman named Arminius. To show how contrary this teaching was to the recognized truth, we will quote some of the statements laid down by the University of Oxford at that time necessary for students to hold before they could pass a degree in divinity-
‘Man’s will is not free.’- ‘The grace of regeneration is irresistible.’-‘The will of man is entirely passive, in the first reception of grace.’- ‘Christ’s death did not procure reconciliation with God for every man.’- ‘Man’s will cannot resist the efficacious grace of God.’-‘Faith itself and the righteousness of faith, are peculiar to the elect.’… ‘Predestination unto life is not for faith and good works forseen.’-‘God’s grace is not determined by man’s will.‘
When a young preacher named Laud ventured to preach views in Oxford in 1606 which had little resemblance to the Word of God, he was called to account by Dr. Airay, the Vice Chancellor. In 1614 when Laud had risen to be President of St. John’s College, his opinions were publicly denounced in St. Mary’s Church by Dr. Abbot as ‘Popery.’ The fact is that Laud was one of those few in the Church of England who having no love of the faith of the Reformers was willing to receive Arminianism.
On the ascendency of Charles Ist to the throne in 1625 Arminians began to enjoy more of the royal favour and ecclesiastical power was placed in their hands. Laud became Bishop of London and then Archbishop of Canterbury. The preaching of predestination was forbidden, and many ministers who obeyed God rather than man found themselves removed from their churches, imprisoned, or exiled. Parliament stood true to the Word of God in this struggle, and in 1629 passed a resolution that ‘Whosoever shall, bring in innovation of religion, or by favour or countenance seem to extend Popery or Arminianism, or other opinion disagreeing from the true and orthodox church, shall be reputed a capital enemy to this kingdom and commonwealth.‘ Francis Rous pleaded with the House in the manner of a prophet, and denounced that ‘error of Arminianism which makes the grace of God lackey it after the will of man.‘ and called upon his fellow members of Parliament to postpone other questions for this question, which concerned ‘eternal life, men’s souls, yea, God Himself.’ The truth is that Englishmen of that generation had been brought up to believe the doctrine of predestination. Had not their fathers seen the Reformation martyrs die rather than surrender this truth? Had not Arminius openly sought to remove the doctrine in order to re-unite the Reformed church to Rome-that corrupt church under which their forefathers had suffered for centuries? Was it not concerning the very errors of free-will teaching that Bradford and other martyrs had implored those left behind to take heed lest they were deceived? If this error was allowed would not the whole truth of God be corrupted? No wonder then that Parliament acted against it, and believers fasted and prayed against it! The King silenced Parliament by dissolving it, and attempted to rule the nation with the same despotism with which Laud was ruling the church. The dreadful and inevitable result was the Civil War which broke out in 1642, it ended in the restoration of liberty and freedom to teach the truth. These years form the great Puritan period. Great, because of the mighty working of the Spirit of God upon the land; godly men were in the government of the nation; godly ministers were raised up in numbers who preached with tremendous authority, power, and fervour; never in English history was the Gospel more known and loved; prayer, praise, and Bible reading were the usual employment for many of the common people in their leisure hours. What kind of preaching produced these effects? The answer can plainly be seen from reading the great Westminster Confession of Faith. What kind of men were the Puritans? The historian Macaulay will tell us-
‘The Puritans were men whose minds had derived a peculiar character from the daily contemplation of superior beings and eternal interests.
Not content with acknowledging, in general terms, an overruling providence, they habitually ascribed every event to the will of the Great Being for whose power nothing was too vast, for whose inspection nothing was too minute. To know Him, to serve Him, to enjoy Him, was with them the great end of existence. If they were unaquainted with the works of philosophers and poets, they were deeply read in the oracles of God. If their names were not found in the registers of heralds, they were recorded in the Lamb’s Book of Life. If their steps were not accompanied by a splendid train of menials, legions of ministering angels had charge of them. The very meanest of them was a being to whose fate a mysterious and terrible importance belonged, on whose slightest actions the spirits of light and darkness looked with anxious interest, who had been destined, before Heaven and Earth were created to enjoy a felicity which should continue when Heaven and Earth should have passed away.‘
The Puritan period was over by 1662. In that year, Charles II having come to the throne, two thousand ministers were ejected from the Established Church because they could not bow to the commands of men. Some were imprisoned, all were silenced, and the truth was silenced with them. The Reformed faith was now to be scarcely heard from the pulpits of the Established Church, as a result the moral condition of the people deteriorated until 1730 such was the profanity and godlessness of the masses that one would scarcely have known there had ever been a Reformation or a Puritan period. The truths of election and salvation by grace almost entirely disappeared. Nothing but a mighty awakening to the truth brought by the Spirit of God could alter England’s downward path. Such an awakening did take place, it brought a return to the Scripture and therefore a return to the doctrines of Scripture. The movement began with students at Oxford between 1730-1740. Men like George Whitefield, Walker, Romaine, Grimshaw, and Venn were raised up to preach salvation by grace through the righteousness of Christ. These men were pre-eminently evangelists, they were burdened with love for men’s souls; Whitfield, it is said, scarcely ever preached without weeping, but their evangelism knew nothing of any belief in man’s will. Let us hear Whitefield, who preached sometimes 40 sometimes 60 hours a week, thousands would assemble in the open air in the early hours of the morning to hear him preach, and multitudes were converted-
‘Oh amazing, Oh infinitely condescending love! . . . I have offered you Christ’s whose wisdom, Christ’s whole righteousness, Christ’s whole sanctification, and eternal redemption, if you will but believe it. If you say you cannot believe, you say right; for faith, as well as every other blessing is the gift of God. But then wait upon God, and who knows but that He may have mercy upon thee.‘
In Oxford Thomas Haweis raised an uproar by preaching the Word of God in the power of the Holy Ghost from the pulpit of St. Mary Magdalene where he was the curate.
These eighteenth century leaders met the same, opposition as the Reformers because they preached the same truths; Whitefield was threatened with arrest if he preached in Oxford again; Haweis was ejected from Mary Magdalene in 1762, for the bishop declared he was determined to suppress ‘heretical doctrine in the University.’ Although the truth was no longer received by the Universities or the majority of the Established Church it profoundly effected the nation at this time.
This then is an account of some of the works of the God of our forefathers. The truths which He honoured in His servants preaching were the truths of His Holy Word. Examine any period when the Spirit worked mightily in England and you will find that the sovereign grace of God was extolled, election was maintained, and man’s free-will in Salvation was denied. It will always be so, the Spirit of Truth will never work contrary to the written Word of Truth. Dear reader, there is no need to bring forward melancholy proofs that the God of our fathers is a stranger in the land to-day. We have forsaken Him and His Word. What was preached in Oxford recently, that ‘the new birth is entirely voluntary, you can at this moment surrender your life to Him,’ is being preached everywhere. Where is the Lord God of the Reformers and Martyrs? Where is the Lord God of the Puritans and eighteenth century leaders? ‘O children of Israel, fight ye not against the Lord God of your fathers; for ye shall not prosper.’ ‘I beseech Thee Lord God have mercy on this realm of England’ was Ridley’s dying prayer, and it ought to be ours. Generally before God gives a land over to judgment, He gives it up to error. But His arm is not shortened, His mercy is still infinite. Let us plead with God lest His wrath fall upon us to our utter ruin, and men shall say ‘Why hath the Lord done thus unto this land? And it shall he answered, Because they forsook the Lord God of their fathers.’
This article has been taken from the first issue of The Banner of Truth magazine, 1955.
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