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William

Forerunner of the Reformation

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by Burk Parsons

 

John Wycliffe was the morning star of the Reformation. He was a protestant and a reformer more than a century before Martin Luther ignited the Protestant Reformation in 1517. Through Wycliffe, God planted the seeds of the Reformation, He watered the seeds through John Hus, and He brought the flower of the Reformation to bloom through Martin Luther. The seed of the flower of the German Augustinian monk Luther’s 95 theses was planted by the English scholar and churchman John Wycliffe.

 

Wycliffe died on New Year’s Eve, 1384. Three decades later, he was condemned as a heretic. In 1415, the Council of Constance condemned the Bohemian reformer John Hus (c. 1370-1415) and burned him at the stake, and it condemned Wycliffe on 260 counts of heresy. The council ordered that Wycliffe’s bones be exhumed, removed from the honored burial grounds of the church, and burned, and his ashes scattered. More than a decade later, the Roman Catholic Church sought to counteract the spreading heresies of Wycliffe and his followers, the Lollards, by establishing Lincoln College, Oxford, under the leadership of Bishop Richard Fleming. Although the pope could condemn Wycliffe’s teachings and scatter his bones, he was unable to stamp out his influence. Wycliffe’s ashes were scattered into the River Swift in England’s Midlands, and as one journalist later observed: “They burnt his bones to ashes and cast them into the Swift, a neighboring brook running hard by. Thus the brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; and they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine which now is dispersed the world over.”

 

Wycliffe was committed to the authority and inspiration of Holy Scripture, declaring, “Holy Scripture is the highest authority for every believer, the standard of faith and the foundation for reform in religious, political and social life … in itself it is perfectly sufficient for salvation, without the addition of customs or traditions.” As such, Wycliffe oversaw the translation of the Bible from Latin into the English vernacular. This was a radical undertaking, and it was against the express mandate of the papacy. His understanding of Scripture naturally led to his understanding of justification by faith alone, as he declared, “Trust wholly in Christ. Rely altogether on his sufferings. Beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than by his righteousness. Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient for salvation.”

 

In the fourteenth century, at the dawn of the Reformation, Wycliffe shone as a burning and shining light of gospel truth, and his doctrine mirrored his life as one who lived by God’s grace and before God’s face, coram Deo, and for God’s glory. Soli Deo gloria.

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