A REFORMATION SUNDAY MESSAGE
A Sermon first printed in the English Churchman, October 16,1964
Â“And when they say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep (chirp), and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? or the living to the dead? To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” Is. 8.19-20.
By God’s good providence we meet this morning in a building which proclaims to all who have eyes to see and to read that the twentieth century in this land is not as the fifteenth century; that the passing of half a millennium has meant not only vast upheavals on the political, social and economic planes but a mighty revolution so far as religion is concerned. Nothing proclaims this revolution more than the position of the Bible and the appearance of the Lord’s Table, to say nothing of the apparel of your ministers and the ordering of our worship in our mother tongue.
Five hundred years and less ago all would have been very different. Of a Bible there would not have been a trace here, of a table there would have been no evidence, and as your ministers would have been nothing but massing priests they would be attired in apparel befitting the performance of that blasphemous fable and dangerous deceit, mumbling through their office in a tongue, which to the congregation would have been unintelligible and which to themselves would have been little if any better. Parson and people were together blind. The blind led the blind. They both fell into the ditch.
At this distance of time it is well nigh impossible for us to enter into the situation as it confronted our ReformersÂ—the crass superstition, the utter ignorance, the gross immorality within the visible church. These are all matters of fact which you will find recorded in the standard histories of that time. They cannot be gainsaid.
Those who hark back to the days before the Reformation as though it were some kind of halcyon age are living in a dream world. The slightest acquaintance with those times cannot but bring a sigh of relief from the true Christian for the wonderful deliverance that God has wrought on our behalf. It is nothing if not miraculous that men like Cranmer and Ridley and Latimer and John Bradford and John Rogers and Hooper and the other Godly men and women who went to the fires, but who were children of that age, were delivered from their historical situation.
How was it possible that they who had been born and bred in that dark age, who from their mother’s knee had imbibed the paganism
tinged with Christianity which was the staple religious diet of their day, how was it possible that they were able to break out of that prison-house into which they had been born and in which they had been schooled? I say it was impossible, impossible but for the wonder-working power of their God and of our God.
FROM DARKNESS TO LIGHT
But having said that we have not said all. Though we give all the glory and all the praise to God Almighty, who in His sovereign power opened the blind eyes of these who brought liberty in all its manifold forms to our nation, though we bow in worship and adoration before the Lord of Hosts who did this mighty work, we also revere the men themselves. They were not mere puppets being manipulated by some divine autocrat. They were men and women who, though moved by the sovereign Spirit of God towards the light of truth, yet moved freely, exercising their minds and hearts and wills away from their environment of darkness and error, and groping, sometimes painfully slowly, towards light and life and immortality. The agonising story of Thomas Cranmer’s recantation is evidence enough that these people were flesh and blood who valued life on this earth.
They were people with fears and some of the failings that we too confess, yet despite these human foibles they broke out of their cage. Despite the weakness of the flesh they triumphed over the torment of the fire. Despite the primitive brain-washing to which they were subjected day in and day out, month in and month out, having once tasted the true Bread of life they had no desire to return to the old husks upon which for so long they had been feeding.
NOT IN VAIN
Today we honour these men and women. We say with one heart and one voice that their blood was not shed in vain. Under God we confess that we owe our own salvation to them, for but for them we would still be groping in the blackness of medieval Romanism. If any one doubts this let him examine the species of Roman Catholicism which is evident in Spain and parts of Italy, to say nothing of South America.
Does it amaze you that only a week or so ago thousands of people were thronging the Cathedral at Florence to witness the liquefaction of the blood of some almost unheard-of saint who died over a thousand years ago? Do we say to ourselves, How ridiculous that people living in 1964 should be duped by that kind of superstitious nonsense? Let us remember that the measure of enlightenment which we enjoy today was purchased four centuries ago, purchased it the price of blood shed in agonising death.
WHY SO HARDLY BOUGHT?
Does somebody ask why it was that the way to this freedom was so hardly bought. The answer is surely that the way was costly because those who trod it must needs overthrow the established ultimate authority. If in these comparatively enlightened days we are hearing more and more frequently the invitation to listen to the voice of the Church, we do well to remember that in the times of our Reformers this cry was no invitation but a positive command, disobedience to which brought temporal and threatened eternal penalties.
Such was the power of the ecclesiastical machine in those distant days that in the life of the common people its voice was as the voice of God. However ridiculous may have been its claims and its biddings, they were heeded with a reverence which a true Christian will only accord to the Word of the Lord. When every priest was blindly believed to hold within his hand the keys of death and of hell, as well as of life and heaven, it is little wonder that our forefathers went cap in hand to the confessional and gladly bought the forgiveness of sins for whatever price the priest would care to charge. When the Church, in its bishops and priests, spoke, the people listened and obeyed.
‘THE MEDIUMS AND THE WIZARDS’
Into this situation came men of God, or perhaps we should say, from within this situation came men of God. They were as it were indigenous, and part of their message can be summed up in the words of Isaiah, ‘And when they say to you, “Consult the mediums and the wizards who chirp and mutter,” should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! Surely for this word which they speak there is no dawn.’ O yes, Isaiah was berating the people of his day for paying heed to false prophets and teachers who were advising them to consult mediums and to indulge in spiritism and necromancy in their problems and calamities. The prophet rightly says that there is no dawn by way of this advice. In other words to consult witchcraft and spiritism is the way of darkness and not light, the way of death and not life.
And yet was not this akin to the times which we have been recalling and is it not akin to much that is still prevalent in Roman Catholic worship. The praying to saints, the conversing with the Virgin Mary, the lighting of candles to the dead; is not this a method of religion for which there is no dawn? Can a man really live by such practices? Is there guidance for life along such a way? It is the voice of the Church. It is the voice of tradition which in turn is the voice of the Church, but is this the way of life, or is it the way of death?
Here lay the crux of the upheaval of which our Reformers were the human instruments. They rejected this authority, this guide as unreliable, as ungodly. ‘Should not a people consult their God? . . . To the law and to the testimony,’ was their watchword. In other words they had found the only ultimate authority, for they had found Jesus Christ as He has revealed Himself in His Word. They had found their rule of faith, a yardstick by which even the voice of the Church must be measured, and when they measured it by that yardstick they found it to be very wanting. Every reform which so gloriously came over the face of our Church in those years of trial finds its source in this mighty discoveryÂ—the supreme authority of Christ and of His Word, for the two stand and fall together. We may regret that reform within our Church of England did not go further than it did, but when we consider the mighty hindrances to even the slightest movement away from the status quo it is incredible that so few were able to do so much in so short a time. To God be the glory.
It is not in vain that we constantly reiterate the fact that the greatest benefit which the Reformation brought to this land was the open Bible, for from this spring all other benefits, when once we see the Scriptures as our authority for life and worship. ‘To the law and to the testimony’ is but another way of proclaiming that we shall consult our God, for it is in the Scriptures that He has been pleased to reveal His will for the Church and for the individual members of it. However we may value tradition, and some of it is to be valued, however we may respect the heritage which has become ours, we shall always be willing simply and sincerely to allow this Word of the Lord to arbitrate in any dispute. More than that we shall allow this Word to lord it over us, to sit in judgment upon us, because it is the Word of the Lord.
Now we gather this morning as a company of God’s people who are, I assume, largely in accord with these sentiments. But we do well to remind ourselves that this is not a day when we can say that these sentiments are taken for granted within the Church of England. Increasingly these truths which we have been considering are either at a discount or flatly rejected. On the one hand we have .many who think the Reformation was necessary but that it did its work and is now best forgotten. On the other hand there are some who regard itÂ—yes, even within the Church of England as having been an unmitigated misfortune.
If we imagine that many churches, comparatively speaking, will be keeping today as a reminder of God’s mercies four centuries ago,
we are deceived. Our Church of England has in a very real degree counted the blood of our martyrs an unholy thing. We immediately think of the Measures which received the Royal Assent during the last session of Parliament, but more fundamental is the abandoning of the true authority of the Word of God. While there are signs within the Church of Rome of a genuine concern to understand the Scriptures and for them to be in the hands of the people, albeit with strong safeguards, in the Church of England there has long since been an ousting of the Scriptures from their supreme place.
TRADITION AND EXPEDIENCY
The brevity of many sermons is evidence of this, as is the emphasis on new liturgical experiments which are more often than not at the expense of the preaching of the Word. Though our hierarchy pay lip service to the place of the Bible, in reality there is a great leaning to tradition and to expediency. It is not without significance that the Anglican/Methodist Report apparently places tradition alongside Scripture, for it is only from tradition that the figment of Apostolic Succession can be maintained and foisted upon nonconformity.
The recent visit of the Patriarch of Moscow and the words of welcome addressed to him are further evidence of this sad trend. If Scripture is given its rightful place it is impossible to accord to the rites and ceremonies of the Orthodox Church of Russia and Greece the reverence which the dignitaries of our own church have accorded to them. They are too much like the old refuse of Rome to receive from us any respect or welcome or applause. Yet it is in these directions that our prelates are looking. It is to these customs and modes of unreformed worship that they give their wondering gaze, as though mesmerised by the mysticism, mystery, pomp and pageantry. Is it too strong language to say that the God of this world has blinded their eyes?
‘THERE IS NO DAWN’
Though our own leaders may not consult the mediums and wizards and the dead, as in Isaiah’s day, they turn to other sources of guidance concerning which we can equally say, ‘for this word which they speak there is no dawn.’ The assumptions deduced from the growth of the ecumenical movement, the reverence which is accorded to some soft word from the Vatican, the demand that all should bow to the demands of the majority, the belief that the old causes for division have disappeared, the denunciations hurled against those who are unable to toe the party line: in the face of this confusion is there not an implicit demand that a people should
consult their God? Should we not with all the power we can muster cry out, ‘To the law and to the testimony’? I have no doubt that this is the fundamental requirement of this age, as of every age of man, for in the realm of religion he sets up his own idols as in every other realm, and debases the revelation of the Almighty into an image of his own fashioning.
REFORM BEGINS AT HOME
But we too must look to the law and to the testimony. It is comparatively easy to charge the hierarchy of our Church with breaking away from the old anchorage, and turning to broken cisterns, but what of ourselves? Does not the judgment of God hover over us in some measure too? Are we not all in danger of capitulating to the spirit of the age in which we live, of turning to twentieth century mediums and wizards for our guidance, when we should be turning to the Book of God? In our honest endeavour to remember positively the mighty works of God four centuries and more ago can we escape the just accusation that our Bibles are too little studied, and too little used as lamps unto our feet and light unto our paths? When we sit down quietly and face ourselves in a mirror can we honestly say that we believe this is the Word for the world of today? Is this for you and for me the Word of God which lives and abides for ever? Does this volume contain for you the secret of life low and life hereafter, or is it just a mass of religious matter to which you pay lip service? Certainly Reformation Sunday 1964 must find is living in submission to the principles and precepts of the Word of God.
On the personal level this means ordering our lives according to this Book. It means that in the midst of this present evil world we must shine as lights in the darkness. So evil is the world in which you and I are placed that if we are living according to the standards set before us here there will be no doubt about it. A city set on a hill cannot be hid; a lighted candle in a dark room is self-evident; so is a man, a woman, a young person, who living in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, is radiating the life of Jesus Christ as He is revealed in this Word. If we think about the Reformation positively it must be in terms of present reformation.
This Word is a reforming Word. It calls for reform in our lives. There will be no time during our earthly pilgrimage when reform is not required, required by this Word. Are we ready for this? Are we ,so submitted to this Word and the Lord of this Word that its
commands meet with instant obedience? Is there in us a conscious and wilful avowal to obey what He says, remembering that He speaks through his Word, for as He is the One who is alive for evermore, so the words of this Book are living words, the living words of a living Lord.
On the congregational level are we constantly endeavouring to find the mind of Christ with regard to the ordering of our worship, the manifestation of our witness, the confrontation with and involvement in the non-Christian world which is the sphere of our witness? Here and elsewhere are spheres for the reforming activity of the word of the living God. All too often we look back and thank God for the past and leave it at that. Each time we do that we heap up to ourselves the wrath of God, for that is neither more nor less than blatant hypocrisy. If gratitude is to mean anything Godward it must express itself in further submission, greater obedience, closer alignment to the pattern shown us in the Word itself. I venture to suggest that it may well be that failure here over past generations has brought our church today to the edge of the pit. Perhaps if evangelicals in the past had been more concerned not with their own past in itself, but only with their past in so far as they could apply its principles to present needs, we should not be in the horrible plight in which we find ourselves today.
CONFORMITY TO THE SCRIPTURES
But again we must beware. We must beware lest indicting our forebears for failing to move towards greater reform with the Church of England in their day we follow in their steps, and thereby play the hypocrite again. In this day when so much which must be a grief to God, and which is a grief to us, has come into the Church of England one call to us is surely to reform ourselves and our Church into greater conformity to the Scriptures.
If you say we are too small, we are too weak, the rot has set in too far, I reply that we are not too small, we are not too weak, the rot has not set in too farÂ—if the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ will lead us. It is too early to say that He has abandoned the Church of England, that He has removed our denominational candlestick, and while there is yet hope of His favour being restored to us it is incumbent upon us to return to Him with our whole being. There is an implicit challenge here to show our sincerity by increased humiliation, prayer, consecration and willingness to follow wherever He will lead us.
Latimer’s candle is not yet out, though it may be burning low. There is yet time, by God’s grace, to fan the flame, and to set in motion a Reformation which should never cease till Christ the Word Incarnate returns in power to reign. Amen.