JOHN DE WYCLIFFE
The writings of this eminent man of God who was so graciously used to bring the light of God’s truth and glorious gospel to this land in a time of gross darkness which covered the people are very little known. The following are extracts from his works upon important subjects and would appear to have a voice to us in the present day.
Description of a “Good Priest”
Various stories, it would appear, are current to this day in the town of Lutterworth, respecting its ancient and renowned rector. But the only one among them that appears worthy of attention, is that which represents him as admirable in all the functions of a parochial minister. A portion of each morning, it is said, was regularly devoted to the relief of the necessitous, to the consolation of the afflicted, and to the discharge of every pious office, by the bed of sickness and of death. Every thing which is actually known respecting Wiclif combines to render this account entirely credible. The duties of the Christian ministry form the incessant burden of a considerable portion of his writings. To the faithfulness and assiduity with which he discharged one very essential portion of those duties, the extant manuscripts of his parochial discourses bear ample and honourable testimony. There is nothing, therefore, which can tempt the most sceptical caution to question the report which describes him as exemplary in every department of his sacred stewardship. “Good priests,” he himself tells us, “who live well, in purity of thought, and speech, and deed, and in good example to the people, who teach the law of God, up to their knowledge, and labour fast, day and night, to learn it better, and teach it openly and constantly, these are very prophets of God, and holy angels of God, and the spiritual lights of the world! Thus saith God, by his prophets, and Jesus Christ in his Gospel; and saints declare it well by authority and reason. Think, then, ye priests, on this noble office, and honour it, and do it cheerfully according to your knowledge and your power1!” It is surely delightful to believe that the people of Lutterworth had before their eyes the living and breathing form of that holy benevolence which is here portrayed with so much admirable simplicity and beauty.
Denial of Papal Supremacy and Assertion of the True Doctrine of the Atonement
“It is known that Anti-Christ hath enthralled the Church more than it was under the old law, though then the service was not to be borne. New laws are now made by Anti-Christ, and such as are not founded on the laws of the Saviour. More ceremonies
are now brought in, and more do they tarry men in coming to heaven, than did the traditions of the Scribes and Pharisees. One cord of this thraldom, is the lordship claimed by Anti-Christ, as being full lord, both of spirituals and temporals. Thus he turneth Christian men aside from serving Christ in Christian freedom; so much so, that they might well say, as the poet saith in his fable, the frogs said to the harrow, ‘cursed be so many masters!’ For, in this day, Christian men are oppressed, now with Popes, and now with bishops; now with cardinals under Popes, and now with prelates under bishops; and now their head is assailed with censures. In short, ‘buffeted are they, as men would serve a football’. But, certainly, if the Baptist were not worthy to loose the latchet of the shoe of Christ, Anti-Christ hath no power to impede the freedom which Christ hath bought. Christ gave this freedom to men, that they might come to the bliss of heaven with less difficulty; but Anti-Christ burdens them that they may give him money. Foul, therefore, is this doing, both to God and his law2.”
Doctrine like this must have made the ears of the good people of Lutterworth to tingle again! They had probably heard nothing at all resembling it from his predecessor: and if so, they must almost have looked to see the roof of their church falling upon their heads, when it first echoed to sounds of such audacity. Equally strange to most of them, though not perhaps so fearfully astounding, were his instructions on the mode of their acceptance with God. Having solemnly dwelt on the supreme majesty of Jehovah, and shewn that His justice must be violated by forgiving sin without an atonement, (“else must He give free licence to sin, both in angels and men, and then sin were no sin, and our God were no God,”) he proceeds to consider what that atonement must be. His people, probably, might, at first, have expected to hear of the good offices of the saints, or of the maternal influence and authority of the Holy Virgin, who alone could secure the effective intercession of her Son, in behalf of transgression against the laws of the Father. Not a syllable of all this did they hear from the parson of Lutterworth. He refers, directly, and solely, to the only Name whereby men can be saved; and this in language which might entirely become a Protestant pulpit at the present day. “The person,” he says, “who may make atonement for the sin of our first father, must needs be God and man. For, as mankind trespassed, so must mankind make satisfaction: and, therefore, it could not be that an angel should make satisfaction for man; for neither has he the might, nor was his the person for nature) that here sinned. But since all men are one person, if any member of this person make satisfaction, the whole person maketh it. And by this we may see that, if God made a man of nought, or anew, to be of the kind of Adam, yet he was holden to God, as much as he might, for himself; and so he might not make satisfaction for himself, and also for Adam’s sin. Since then, satisfaction must be made for the ‘
sin of Adam, as it has been said, such a person must make this satisfaction, as was both God and man; for, the worthiness of such a person’s deeds would be even with the unworthiness of the sin3.” The whole tenor of his ministrations points to the agonies of this Divine and Incarnate Saviour as the only object on which the thoughts of men are to be fixed, when they are seeking forgiveness and salvation: and the practical inference is, that “we follow after Christ in his blessed passion,Â—that we keep ourselves from sin hereafter,Â—and gather a devout mind from him4.” In speaking of the deservings of man, and the grace of God, he will be found to set his face, like a flint, against the current notion of man’s sufficient and meritorious righteousness. He teaches us to look up to God as the only source of whatever may be good or acceptable within us. “We should know,” he says. “that faith is a gift of God;
and so God gives it not to man, unless he gives it graciously. Thus, indeed, all good things which men have, is of God: and, accordingly, when God rewardeth a good work in man, he crowneth his own gift. All this is of grace; even as all things are of grace, that men have, of the will of God. God’s goodness is the first cause which giveth men these good things: and so, it may not be that God doeth good to men, but if [except] he do it freely, by his own grace.”
The Teaching of the Holy Spirit
“The Spirit showeth to man what he is, and what peril he is in, and when so he came, and whither he goeth, and what he hath done, and what he hath lost, and what he should have done. And when he seeth that he hath not whereof to make good for his sins against God, then this Spirit maketh him weep and lament, and cry mercy of God . . . and to hold himself the foulest and worst of all others. For this Spirit teacheth man what pain and sorrow Christ suffered for him, and in whom never was spot of sin; how He sweat blood and water, how He was bound to a pillar and wounded from the head to the feet; how He was crowned with thorns, how He was nailed hand and foot, and His heart opened with a spear.”
“O thou good name! O thou sweet name! O glorious name! O healthful name! O name to be desired! … I sought to love Jesus, and ever the more I grew perfect in His love, so much the sweeter His name savoured to me. Therefore blessed be the name of Jesus for ever and ever, and so be it. Amen . . . Thou most sweet Lord, from henceforward pass not from me, dwell with me in Thy sweetness; for only Thy presence is to me solace or comfort, and only Thy absence leaves me sorrowful. O thou Holy Ghost! who inspires! where Thou wilt, come into me, draw me to Thee, that I despise and set at nought in my heart all things of this world …
Come I beseech Thee, Thou sweet and true joy; come Thou sweetness so to be desired; come Thou my Beloved, who art all my comfort.”
Writings of John Wycliffe, R.T.S.
“It is a Satanical excuse, made by modern hypocrites, that it is not necessary now to suffer martyrdom, as it was in the primitive Church, because now all, or the greatest part of living men, are believers, and there are no tyrants who put Christians to death. This excuse is suggested by the devil: for, if the faithful would now stand firm for the law of Christ, and, as His soldiers, endure bravely any sufferings, they might tell the Pope, the cardinals, the bishops, and other prelates, how, departing from the faith of the Gospel, they minister unfitly to God, and what perilous injury they commit against His people.
Instead of visiting pagans, to convert them by martyrdom, let us preach constantly the law of Christ to princely prelates: martyrdom will then meet us, speedily enough, if we persevere in faith and patience5.”
Turner’s History of England.
Description of Mendicant Friars
“Friars say that their religion is more perfect than the religion of Christ, and that it is more meritorious to give alms to hypocrites that say they are holy and needy, when they are strong in body and have overmuch riches, than to give them to poor, feeble, crooked, blind, and bedridden men. Friars draw children to their private order by hypocrisy, lying, and stealing. Friars that be called masters of divinity live as lords and kings, and send out idiots, full of covetousness, to preach not the Gospel, but chronicles, fables, and lies, to please the people and to rob them. Friars deal not faithfully in showing people their sins, but flatter them and nourish them in sin. Friars praise more their rotten habit (clothing) than the body of the Lord Jesus Christ; for they teach lords and ladies that if they die in the habit of St. Francis, they shall never go to hell. Friars are most perilous enemies of the church and of the land; they hinder curates of their offices, and spend needlessly sixty thousand marks a year, of which they rob the poor people. Friars build many churches, and costly waste-houses, and cloisters, as it were castles, and that without need, whereby parish churches and common ways have been impaired and in some cases undone.”
Lewis’s Life of Wycliffe.
Value of the Word of God
“Would to God, that every parish church in this land had a good Bible and good expositions on the Gospel, and that the ministers studied them well, and taught truly the Gospel and God’s commands to the people. Then should good life prevail,
and rest, and peace, and charity; sin and falseness should be put backÂ—God bring this end to His people.”
“Let each man look into his own conscience, upon what he most sets his liking and thought, and what he is most busy about to please, and that thing he loveth most, whatsoever it be: and what thing a man loveth most, that thing he maketh his god. Thus, each man wilfully using deadly sin, makes himself a false god, by turning away his love from God to the lust of the sin which he useth. And thus, when man or woman forsakes meekness, the meekness which Christ Jesus commandeth, and gives himself to highness and pride, he makes the devil his god, for he is king over all proud folk, as we read in the book of Job. And so the envious man or woman, have hatred and vengeance for their god. And the idle man hath sloth and slumber for his god. The covetous man and woman make worldly goods their god; for covetousness is the root of all evils, and serveth to idols, as to false gods, as St. Paul saith. Gluttonous and drunken folk make their belly their god, for the love and care they have for it, as St. Paul witnesseth. And so, lecherous folk make them a false god, for the foul delight and lust that reigneth in them. Thus every man and woman, using deadly sin, breaks this first commandment, worshipping false gods. Therefore, saith the great clerk, Grosthead, that each man who doeth deadly sin, runneth from or forsaketh the true God, and worshippeth a false god. All such are false gods to rest upon, and cannot deliver themselves, nor their worshippers from the vengeance of the Almighty God, at the dreadful doom, as God himself declareth by His prophets.”
The Poor Caitiff.
The word caitiff is no other than the Italian word cattivo, a captive:
and is used to signify any one in an abject or wretched condition.
Subjection of the Body
“Man’s body,” he there observes, “is as a horse that bears his rider through many perils. But it were great folly for any man to fight upon an unbridled horse: and if the horse be wild and ill-broken, the bridle must be heavy and the bit sharp to hold him in. This bridle is abstinence, with which his master shall restrain him to be meek, and bow to his will. The bridle, however, must be managed by wisdom; for else the horse will fail at the greatest need, and harm his master, and make him lose his victory. Further, this bridle must have two reins, both strong, and even, so that neither pass the other in length. The one rein is too loose when thou lettest thy flesh have his will too much. The other is held too strait, when thou art too stern against thine own flesh; for then thou destroyest his strength and might, so that to help thee as it should, it may not. Therefore, sustain thy horse that he faint not, neither fail thee at thy need; and withdraw from him that which might turn thee to folly.
“That thy seat may be both stedfast and seemly, thy horse needs to have a saddle: and this saddle is no other than meekness of spirit whereby thou mayest encounter all the roughness and peril of the way with the semblance of ease and mildness. This virtue of mildness of heart and appearance makes man gracious to God, and seemly to man’s sight, as a well fitted saddle maketh a horse seemly and praisable.
“Two spurs it is needful that thou have, and that they be sharp, to prick thy horse if needful, that he loiter not by the way;
and these two spurs are love and dread. The right spur is the love that God’s dear children have for the weal that shall never end. The left spur is the dread of the pains of hell, which are without number, and never may be told out. And if the right spur of love be not sharp enough to make him go forward in his journey, prick him with the left spur of dread, to rouse him.”
The Poor Caitiff.
A Word to Popes
“First, I suppose that the Gospel of Christ is the whole body of God’s law, and that Christ who did give that same law Himself I believe to be very God and very Man, and in that point to exceed the law of the Gospel and all other parts of Scripture. Again, I do give and hold the Bishop of Rome, forasmuch as he is the vicar of Christ here on earth, to be most bound of all other men unto that law of the Gospel. For the greatness among Christ’s disciples did not consist in worldly dignities or honours, but in the near and exact following of Christ in His life and manners; whereupon I do gather out of the heart of the law of the Lord that Christ, for the time of His pilgrimage here, was a most poor Man, abjecting and casting off all worldly rule and honour . . . Hereby I do fully gather that no faithful man ought to follow either the pope himself or any of the holy men, but in such points as he hath followed the Lord Jesus Christ; for Peter and the sons of Zebedee, by desiring worldly honour contrary to the following of Christ’s steps, did offend, and therefore in those errors they are not to be followed. Hereof I do gather, as a counsel, that the pope ought to leave unto the secular power all temporal dominion and rule, and thereunto effectually to move and exhort his whole clergy; for so did Christ, and especially by His apostles. Wherefore if I have erred in any of these points, I will most humbly submit myself unto correction, even by death if necessity so require; and if I could labour according to my will or desire in mine own person, I would surely present myself before the Bishop of Rome; but the Lord hath otherwise visited me to the contrary, and hath taught me rather to obey God than men.”
A Roman Catholic’s description of effect of Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible
“There was another weapon,” says Dr. Lingard, “which the Rector of Lutterworth wielded with equal address, and still greater
efficacy. In proof of his doctrines he appealed to the Scriptures, and thus made his disciples judges between him and the Bishops. Several versions of the sacred writings were even then extant: but they were confined to libraries, or only in the hands of persons who aspired to superior sanctity. Wiclif made a new translation, multiplied the copies with the aid of transcribers, and by his poor priests recommended it to the perusal of their hearers. In their hands it became an engine of wonderful power. Men were flattered with the appeal to their private judgment; the new doctrines insensibly acquired partisans and protectors in the higher classes, who alone were acquainted with the use of letters; a spirit of enquiry was generated; and the seeds were sown of that religious revolution which, in little more than a century, astonished and convulsed the nations of Europe.”
Weakness and Strength
“Worn out by the toil of incessant composition, and by the anxieties occasioned by his recent prosecution, he was seized with an alarming sickness, while at Oxford, in the beginning of 1379. His old adversaries, the Mendicants, were in hopes that, with him, the season of suffering and danger would, likewise, be the season of weakness; and that they might, thus, have an opportunity of extorting from him some healing acknowledgment of his manifold sins against their Order. With this view, they resolved to send a deputation of their body to his sick bed; and, in order to heighten the solemnity of the proceeding, they took care to be attended by the civil authorities. Four of their own doctors, or regents, together with as many senators of the city, or aldermen of the wards, accordingly entered his chamber; and finding him stretched upon his bed, they opened their commission by wishing him a happy recovery from his distemper. They soon entered, however, on the more immediate object of their embassy. They reminded him of the grievous wrongs he had heaped upon their fraternity, both by his sermons and his writings; they admonished him that, to all appearance, his last hour was approaching; and they expressed their hope that he would seize the opportunity, thus afforded him, of making them the only reparation in his power, and penitently revoking, in their presence, whatever he might have uttered or published to their disparagement. This exhortation was heard by him in silence: but when it was concluded, he ordered his servants to raise him on his bed and said ‘I shall not die, but live and expose the evil deeds of the Friars.’ ”
The Word shall not pass away
The remains of Wiclif were disinterred and burned, and the ashes cast into the adjoining brook, called the Swift. “And so,” exclaims the martyrologist*, “was he resolved into three elements, earth, fire, and water; they thinking thereby utterly to extinct and
abolish both the name and doctrine of Wiclif for ever. Not much unlike the example of the old Pharisees and Sepulchre-knights, which, when they brought the Lord unto the grave, thought to make him sure never to rise again. But these, and all other, must know that, as there is no counsel against the Lord, so there is no keeping down of veritie, but it will spring and come out of dust and ashes; as appeared right well in this man. For though they digged up his body, burned his bones, and drowned his ashes, yet the word of God, and truth of his doctrine, with the truth and success thereof, they could not burn; which yet, to this day, for the most part of his articles, do remain. The brook did convey his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wiclif are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is dispersed all the world over.”
Francis Wayland, 1838.
1 MS. For the order of priesthood, cited by Vaughan, vol. ii. p.259. 227
2Vaughan, vol. ii. p.27, 28.
3 On the Nativity of Christ. Postils, p.187, ubi supra.
4Similar statements may be found in his Sermon on the Priesthood of Christ. Postils, p.204, &c.
5Trialogus, cited by Turner, pt. iv. p.424.