WHY REMEMBER THE MARTYRS?
An Address delivered by Mr. K. W. H. Howard at a Public Meeting convened by the Sussex Martyrs Commemoration Council at the Tabernacle, Hastings, Sussex, on 18th September 1973, under the Chairmanship of the Revd R. H. Gibson, vicar of Fairlight.
Mr. chairman and Christian Friends, I regard it both an honour and a responsibility to be called upon to address this gathering which commemorates the Sussex Martyrs of the Reformation. The question which at once presents itself to my mind is, Why do this at all? Why commemorate? Why recall to mind the Christian Martyrs, whether of this County, or of Britain as a whole? For as you are well aware this is not a Sussex peculiarity. Most of the counties of England and Scotland have witnessed the testimony of Christian Martyrs. Nor did these martyrdoms occur only in the early stages of the Protestant Reformation in our land, but in various ways and places this testimony continued right on to the Act of Toleration of 1689. Many hundreds of persons in all Â— clergy and laity; nobles and commoners; learned and unlearned; men, women, and children Â— were put to death in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in our land, for no other reason than that they were Christians.
I feel it is not much to our credit as a nation that we burned our Reformers, together with many whom God blessed under their ministries. And then, as though that were not enough, that we gaoled, or banished, and in many cases burned or beheaded others who, up to a century later, sought to complete the unfinished work of Reformation according to the Word of God. The Sussex Martyrs are part of a noble army, a large army, an army that includes on its muster-roll the names of Tyndale, Bilney, Bradford, and Hooper of England, and Wishart, Hamilton, Guthrie, Argyll and Warriston of Scotland.
My question, then, is, Why remember them? Why commemorate them? for the whole political and religious atmosphere and temper of our times would counsel the opposite; would say, “Forget them and their religion. Put both them and their Reformation behind you”. I feel that this question has contemporary relevance.
At once I would point out that there are some false and wholly inadequate reasons for commemorating the Martyrs of the Reformation. It will not do to recall these people out of mere sentiment,
vague, nebulous, and unintelligent. Nor is it satisfactory to remember them simply in order to heap praise and honour upon them. ‘Let us now praise great and famous men* is an apocryphal injunction the Martyrs would have abominated; so also should we! Some would recall the Martyrs out of an antiquarian interest; regarding them as a feature, a spectacle, a novelty of history. I submit that we cannot do that. Our own times are too cruel; our day itself too much in need of reform; our Church too supine and weak and uncommitted, to allow us any indulgence in such an idle, useless, and backward-looking exercise. Others would remember the Martyrs in the way they think of any who die an unnatural death; with a certain morbidity and an unhealthy curiosity. Some books that have been written about Christian martyrs savour more of sadism than sanctity; more of devil-worship than of the God of the Martyr-throng. That, clearly, is not the right spirit of commemoration. Or again, we must resist the temptation to commemorate the Martyrs out of local or national patriotism; to be proud of the men of my county, or my country Â— any men whose achievement is in any way outstanding, sensational, or spectacular. Not that patriotism is wrong; nor is it unchristian; but neither is it distinctively Christian, for you may be a patriot without being a Christian at all.
Now we are gathered as a company of professedly Christian people to commemorate the Martyrs of the glorious Protestant Reformation in our land; and, as I see things, there is only one adequate reason for doing this. It is that the God of the Martyrs is our God, and the Gospel of the Martyrs is our Gospel; that their religion is our religion, their Christ is our Christ; and that we therefore feel some union of heart and spirit with them. I am not speaking of circumferential details on which they may have differed among themselves, and with which we feel no need to be identified, but of the essential marrow of their belief and the cordial and lively experience of God and grace that moved their hearts. Do we feel a union with them in this? For if this is not the case we are hypocrites, in the position of those whom our Lord says, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous. And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.” Empty external religion parades under many forms, and one of these is to hide in the shadow of a godly tradition. But the Lord discerns the heart, and says, “…. ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers”. (Matt. 23, 29-32). In other words, says the Lord, your building of tombs and memorials, your commemorations and adulations of the prophets and the godly, is no
more than lip-service to boast your own name before men; while your own religion is utterly opposed to that of those whom you are constantly quoting and praising. I therefore submit, Mr. Chairman, that the only adequate and acceptable reason for doing what we are doing tonight is by way of solemn declaration in the sight of God, among ourselves, and to the community at large, that we believe the religion of our Reformers and Martyrs was, and is, the true Christian religion; that we own this same religion as our own; that we are convinced that our day and generation needs it as desperately as any, and that we dedicate ourselves afresh to its active propagation.
What, then, was the religion of the Reformers and the Martyrs? At once we recognise that they were not perfect men; they were sinners saved by grace, whose only perfection was in God’s ever-blessed Son the Lord Jesus Christ. Again, their beliefs were not identical on every single point, although their differences were on details, and they were certainly united on every matter of major consequence. All I can do in the time I have is to generalize, and I wish to set before you three broad and basic conclusions drawn from a fairly close attention to John Foxe’s great record, and also to the published writings of the Reformers and Martyrs themselves, both English and Scottish. In doing this, my main concern is to underline the relevance of these things to our own day and times.
The first, and the most striking thing about these people is that their religion was THE RELIGION OF THE BIBLE, and, generally speaking, of the Bible alone. They were, of course, children of their own times, and they inherited other religious influences which were not thrown off all at once. But gradually their hearts were taken possession of by that great Reformation principle Â— ‘Sola Scriptura’, i.e. Scripture alone is the sole ground and authority of Christian doctrine, experience, and practice. For the most part they lived before the Authorised Version was published in 1611. They read their Bible in the renderings of Tyndale, Coverdale, and the Great Bible; and then, after 1560, in that rendering so beloved of the Puritans, the Geneva Bible. Few possessed their own copies, of course, but in 1538 came the order that an English Bible should be set up in every parish church in the land, and so all who could read had access to God’s Word written. The Reformation as a whole was essentially a Bible movement directed by the Spirit of God, and this was as much the case in Britain as elsewhere in Europe. It was England’s misfortune that the matrimonial troubles of King Henry
VIII complicated the developement of the emerging Reform. But to say, as some modern historians do, that the English Reformation was a sheer act of State is a profound misreading of the facts of our national story as it progressed following the translation of the Bible into our native tongue.
Now it is a conspicuous mark of our Reformers and Martyrs that they heard and read God’s Word with a simple faith, and with a ready acceptance of its total message. They were led by the Spirit of God to the position that if this is the only Book that God has inspired, it alone is entitled to be received and obeyed on Divine warrant and authority. This particular understanding worked itself out in two fairly distinct stages. In the earlier period of the Reformation they followed the principle that what God’s Word does not forbid, it permits Â— whether in personal religion or public worship. It was in this way that some aspects of the un-Reformed religion were carried over into the English Church ‘by law established’. Later on, however, they came to see that what Scripture does not command, it forbids; in other words, everything in Christianity, whether personal or public, requires the due warrant of the Word of God. This was a point of view totally new at that time. In fact it overthrew the religious thinking of a thousand years and more. The Church of Rome did not believe that. The Church-State connection in England did not believe that. But this, in terms of ultimate principle, is why the Martyrs died. They appealed with a moving simplicity to God’s Word written for their religion. When Church and State said, “No. you must not do that; you must observe our regulations, or else . . .”. these dear people whom we remember tonight replied, “We stand by God’s Word”, and died for doing so.
It is relevant at this point, I feel, to ask Â— Are we garnishing the tombs of these people? or, are we following in their footsteps? True, we are not now faced with a death penalty in this respect; but we are faced with a situation where it is highly unfashionable, even in professedly ‘Christian’ circles, to receive God’s Word alone as warrant and authority for religion.
Take the matter of Evolution as a contemporary example. Evolution says that life in this world began one way; God’s Word says that it began in another way. Both cannot be right. Yet we have the shameful spectacle of professed Christians who receive Evolution for the sake of intellectual respectability, but because they have subscribed a paper creed that acknowledges Scripture authority, then go on to argue that Evolution is the method employed by God to achieve what Genesis says He did with respect to the origin of life.
They have adopted theistic evolution as a compromise. The people we are commemorating tonight would have said, “If God’s Word says one thing, and learned men say another; so much the worse for the learned men!” Are learned men more learned than Almighty God? ‘Sola Scriptura’ Â— Scripture alone! This, I submit, is the only God-honouring position to take, then, or now. This is the religion of the martyrs.
If we relate this principle to the Church life of our times, what do we find? Every denomination gives the Word of God some place;
but what place? Some mutilate it with their modern versions; some in their preaching; some in their hearing. Many pay it no more than lip-service, and, in effect consign it to the museum. What is more sad;
many churches claim to believe the Bible ‘from cover to cover’ Â— but have never read it ‘from cover to cover’. They have their favourite passages; if you ask reason for what they believe, or preach, or practice, you find them governed by an unthinking expediency; by the fear to offend man; by the idol of ‘success’ in purely worldly and external terms. Large areas of modern Evangelicalism will not bear investigation on the charge that it does not stand by scripture ALONE. It stands by Scripture plus local traditon; Scripture plus the dictates of this Diotrephes or that; Scripture plus the fads and fancies of this popular personality or the other. But, you see, it was the denial and the refusal of these ‘plusses’ Â— these ‘additions’, that led our Reformers and the Martyrs to the stake, and to the scaffold. Are we merely garnishing their tombs; or, are we following in their steps? Is their Bible our Bible? Or have we still to learn in the right and proper sense, that ‘the Bible and the Bible alone is the religion of the Protestants’? Let “the living …. lay it to …. heart”.
From the primacy of God’s Word in the lives of the Reformers and Martyrs there flowed two great consequences, the one negative, the other positive.
Negatively, the primacy of God’s Word, led them to the DENIAL OF FALSE RELIGION, and a determined opposition to it. As they drew their religion from the Bible, and as the Holy Spirit made that religion effectual in their lives, these people began to see that much that presented itself as ‘Christianity’ around them was in fact widely divergent from the religion of the Bible, even directly opposed to it. Not only that; they came to see that the Bible expressly warns against false religions, false prophets, false Christs, lying
spirits, and so forth. They came inevitably to the conclusion that if you start with the Bible you really cannot say that there are different kinds of Christianity. No, there is only one authentic Christianity,
and thus you have to declare war on its counterfeits and misrepresentations.
Applying this principle, our Reformers and Martyrs found that their great enemy was the Church of Rome. That organisation had for centuries flourished on a closed Bible in the hands of the priests;
but now it came under attack from an open Bible in the hands of the people. And the consequence was that, as the records of the examinations of these Martyrs tell us again and again, they were indicted for their refusal of the sacrament of the Mass. They were charged on other counts as well, but for this most commonly because the Mass was, as it still is, the centre of the Roman Catholic sacramental system. They repudiated the doctrine of tran-substantiation; they would have nothing to do with what they called a ‘wafer-god’. Nor would they respect the sacerdotal priestly system upon which all these things depended. So the more they paid heed to God’s Word, the more they saw what was wrong with the religion of their times, and the more they found themselves both required and enabled to raise their voice in opposition to it.
The denial of false religion was attended to in various ways among the Reformers. I should not wish to say that no mistakes were made in this particular sphere. Most of our English Reformers were very moderate men Â— too moderate in the view of some others. Latimer and Hooper, for example, were far more outspoken than Cranmer and Ridley. Then, the English Reformation was tardy and slow because of the many political complications. The Scottish Reformation, on the other hand, was much more radical and thorough; indeed the great John Knox refused two bishoprics and a wealthy living in the Church of England for this reason (among others), that he felt that there had not been enough clearing out of the ‘rubbish of popery’. He, and others besides him, called for ‘reformation without tarrying for any’. However, whether moderately or radically, there was formulated and carried through a policy of opposition to the false religion of the times; to Rome; to her seven
sacraments, to her priestly system and monopoly; and to her domination of the State.
Inevitably the Reformation movement became a controversy; a battle of ideas and ideals; a strife between truth and error. Some people like controversy for its own sake; some dislike it and favour peace ‘at any price’. The Protestant Reformation however was
necessary controversy because the rediscovery of Bible religion did not start with a ‘clean sheet’; the ‘sheet’ had first to be wiped clean of its false religion. And this is why our Martyrs died. God’s Word forebade them ‘another gospel which is not another’. So, when Church and State required their attendance at Mass, they raised their voice in protest; they reasoned out of the Scriptures against the ‘blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits’ presented to them. The outcome was that Church and State combined to light their bonfires in order to silence the criticism.
Why, then, are we remembering these men who protested at false religion? Are we garnishing their tombs, or do we discern and protest at the false religions of our own day?
The Second Vatican Council has put a new face on the Church of Rome Â— a friendly face that smothers the same old heresies with a hollow charity toward her ‘separated brethren’. Are you prepared to oppose her? The leading question to be faced Â— a question that many professedly Bible-believing ‘protestants’ are unwilling to face Â— is this: Is Rome a Christian Church, or is she not? If you say she is, then you must be charitable towards her; you must condone her blasphemies, justify her errors, and regard her doctrines and her people as ‘Christians’. If, on the other hand, you start with Scripture alone, as the Reformers and Martyrs did, I submit to you will have to conclude that the Church of the New Testament and the Church of Rome are utterly different things, the one excluding the other. So the need for protest and opposition to Roman Catholicism continues.
But we must remember that history has moved on since the days of the Reformers. It would be idle to pretend that the only false religion in Britain today is the religion of Rome. What calls itself (now somewhat sheepishly) ‘Protestantism’ is equally smitten with false religion. It has a set policy of putting the Reformation into reverse. I refer to the ecumenical movement; the idea that we must unite all bodies and organisations that call themselves ‘Christian’, and then unite Protestantism with Rome, so that we have ‘one Church in one world’. This is the dominant idea of ‘Protestant’ Christendom in our land today. There is, indeed, a true Biblical ecumenism, built on a Biblical Faith; if you start there, you start where the Reformers and Martyrs began. But if you begin with ‘Christendom’ as it now is, bring about a merger, and expect real Christianity to follow, you are chasing a myth! That way you can only deny both the Biblical Faith and those who died for it. So again the voice of protest and opposition must be raised against this false religion. If you do this, I predict you will find the much-vaunted ecumenical charity will be hardly warm enough to burn you; rather, it will be cool enough to
spurn you, and ostracize you, and put you Â— at least in spirit Â— in the great succession of the Reformers and Martyrs, the Prophets and
Apostles of old, who raised a testimony against error as well as a testimony for the truth.
There is another form of false religion new to this twentieth century; something else the Martyrs did not have to contend with;
something that is quite as much a deviation from orthodox historic and biblical Christianity as Roman Catholicism or Ecumenism. I refer to the teaching that unless you speak in ecstatic tongues you are a stranger to the fuller work of the Holy Spirit Â— which is an arrogant, presumptuous, and utterly unscriptural claim. It is a simple fact of history, according to the records of John Foxe, and according to their own writings, that none of our Reformers and Martyrs knew anything of these pseudo-spiritual ‘pentecostal’ practices, nor did they engage in them. The Martyrs gave the plainest evidences of gracious operations of the Holy Spirit on their souls by their godly lives, by their ability to fear God rather than man, and by the fact that “for the Word of God, and the testimony of Jesus” they “loved not their lives to the death”. Yet, according to modern pentecostal and charismatic teaching, these gracious persons would be written down as ‘second-rate Christians’ because they did not possess ‘the gifts’. My conclusion is that for their part, the Reformers and Martyrs, with their sober, solid, God-centred religion, would have been
horrified by the man-centred emotional superficiality of present-day pentecostalism.
Brethren! Why are we commemorating the Martyrs? Is their religion ours? Or are we merely garnishing their tombs, while chasing this new super-spirituality? We must reckon with the fact that Pentecostalism (‘New’ and ‘Old’) is the fastest-growing, if not the only growing, segment of Protestant Christendom today. Many of us are aware of the misery and divisiveness its teachings have introduced into local Churches. Yet for some reason there is a conspiracy of silence among leading Evangelicals on this matter; there is no denunciation, no opposition to this false religion. Some who publicly complain with a monotonous regularity of ‘confusion’ in the contemporary Church scene themselves increase the confusion by their own silence on this particular matter. The latest developement we see is that the charismatic movement, so-called, has infiltrated even the Roman Catholic Church. Roman Catholics who speak with tongues (and testify that by doing so they can better venerate the Virgin Mary and receive the Mass) and Protestants who speak with tongues are now embracing one another as spiritual brethren. Supposedly Bible-believing Protestants who once denounced the errors of Rome are now eating their own words of denunciation in the in
terests of this new, this Pentecostal ecumenism. They who would not be won over by the liberal blandishments of the modernistic World Council of Churches have capitulated under pressure of this equally false ‘charismatic’ religion.
I put the question once more: What are we doing in remembering the Martyrs? Are we merely admiring their names, yet falsifying the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation? Are we garnishing their tombs, or following their example by opposition to all false religion? Neither Romanism, nor Ecumenism, nor Pentecostalism is the answer to the present perilous state of society and the parlous condition of the modern Church. The only answer is a return to the “faith once delivered to the saints”, the faith of the Prophets and Apostles; the Faith of the Confessors and the Reformers and the Martyrs.
Positively, what flowed from the primacy of God’s Word in the lives of the Reformers and the Martyrs, is the fact that they were upheld by, and they in turn upheld FREE GRACE RELIGION both in doctrine and in practice. It is no surprise that there were varying emphases in some matters as the Reformation movement developed from the Lutheran stage to the period of Calvin’s influence. Yet there was essential agreement between Luther and Calvin in all the doctrines of grace. So the people we commemorate are those who lived under a great sense of the glorious sovereignty of Almighty God. They saw from Scripture the depths to which man in sin has fallen; they realized that no man has a right to salvation, so that if God did but save only one sinner He would be seen to be a gracious God. They gloried, however, in the fact that God has chosen a vast “multitude that no man can number” and given them to His Blessed Son in covenant bond. They appreciated that the Son of God came into the world not to undertake some vague potential spiritual work, but with the specific purpose of saving ‘His people from their sins’. They understood that when, by free and sovereign operation, the Holy Spirit bestows salvation on a sinner he is enabled to persevere to the end. They held to the utter sovereignty of God, and to the entire responsibility of man, and faltered not at the fact that they could not rationally reconcile the two things. They saw that if ever a man is saved it is by grace alone; and that if ever a man is lost it is on the sole responsibility of his own guiltness before God. This is free grace religion. It owes nothing to man and everything to God. It humbles sinners as it exalts a precious Christ. It knows nothing of salvation by sinners’ decisions, and much of salvation by
grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, with even the appropriating action of faith as the “gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast”.
Now I wish to set the record straight by observing that this was the religion of our Reformers and our Reformation Martyrs. This was the religion of the Puritans, and also of the Scottish Covenanters with their particularly numerous martyr-roll. It is a fact of history that our Martyrs were in the main, free grace men; they were Calvinists unashamed. There have been very few Arminian martyrs. I am not here to denigrate those that were; I simply present the facts of the case, which are that the positive religion drawn from the Word of God by the Reformers and Martyrs was this kind of religion. That is why this is the kind of religion, broadly speaking, found in the Anglican Thirty Nine Articles; in the Scots Confession of 1560; and
in the Westminster Confession of Faith and others that were derived from it.
It would be quite contrary to fact to think that those we commemorate tonight held this free grace religion in a cold, barren, academic way. Any such notion is belied by their sermons and letters. If you will read their own words you will quickly see that their religion was soul religion. They speak with a reverential awe of Almighty God; with a tender affection towards the Lord Jesus Christ; and with a burden of compassion towards their fellow-men. They knew a great God; they were blessed in communion with a felt Christ; and they had an utter abhorrence of all but Spirit-wrought religion in their souls. And that is free grace religion; that is true Calvinism; that is the religion of the Bible; and it was the religion of the Martyrs, as it was the religion of the Apostles before them, and of Whitefield, Toplady, Newton, and Spurgeon after them.
I feel I am justified in once again putting my question: Why do we commemorate the Martyrs? Is their Gospel our Gospel? Â— or are we just garnishing their tombs? They neither lived nor died for, nor by, a light, effervescent religion that a man takes up at his own will, or loses by his own chosen defection; an easy-believism; a cheap decisionism; an excitable emotionalism falsely attributing to the Holy Spirit actions and experiences much more characteristic of other spirits. These are men who died for a religion by which the Almighty God had laid hold on their souls with eternal love, and would not withdraw His covenant from them; and, to them, His favour was better than life! It was, as Bible religion still is, the religion of the Holy Spirit, who works sovereignly, secretly, as and when He wills. This free grace religion is widely despised today; even in the circles that
profess to believe the Bible and love the memory of the Martyrs. Leaders in the modern ‘Reformed’ movement who have themselves preached these doctrines now condemn others for doing the same thing. In the past ten years or so, in England, an appreciable number of ministers who consistently preached the doctrines of grace with due balance and proportion and with sincerity and affectionate concern for souls, have been forced to resign from supposedly Bible-believing churches for proclaiming the same things the Reformers and Martyrs preached. Shame on us! Â— if we are found pharisaically garnishing the tombs of faithful men, whether Martyrs or not, and yet denying the very doctrines that were the marrow of their religion. My submission is that we can only honourably commemorate the Martyrs of the glorious Protestant Reformation Â— that we can only truly thank God for what He did for them and through them Â— insofar as their religion is ours, and insofar as all is drawn from the Word of God alone; and if it is, it will be Grace, Free Grace; Sovereign Grace, and Grace alone.
We live in the day of small things. So did the Martyrs to begin with. ‘Small things’ Â— but not a small God! Whatever else, whoever else you remember, remember that the God of Elijah lives! The God of Richard Woodman lives! The God of John Bradford and of Patrick Hamilton lives! And the Gospel of these dear men and women of Sussex, as of other parts of the land, Â— the Gospel of a blessed and precious Christ, is still “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth”. And all is to “the praise of the glory of His grace”, for Â—
Grace all the works shall crown
Through everlasting days,
It lays in heaven the topmost stone
And well deserves the praise. (Doddridge)