One of my favorite zingers from the pen of C.S. Lewis is this one: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.” Like much that issued from Lewis’ pen, that is profound.
The idea, of course, is that unless you understand your story has ultimate value because it is grounded within the larger God-story unfolding, your particular story is negligible. But because God exists, because He has revealed His story, individual stories therefore have significance, overarching significance as they unfold within history.
I read Michael Reeves’ engaging and brief (less than 200 pages) The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation this week. I went through a whole Sharpie highlighter in reading this book; it was that packed with lasting impacts.
When I read it (holding the Lewis quote in mind), I relearned of men and women whose impact ripples even today, 500 years and more after the Reformation. Their ministries endure because they discovered their stories within the larger cosmic story of what God was doing and aligned themselves with God’s revealed will.
John Wycliffe: I read again of John Wycliffe in England in the 1300s. The Roman Catholic church had descended into utter apostasy. Two popes, Clement VII and Boniface VIII, were elected by populations with divided allegiances. Politics and papistry, corruption and compromise. The seeds of the Protestant Reformation continued to take root.
And God was doing something. He was raising up men like John Wycliffe in England. After Roman Catholicism suffered another humiliation in the Great Schism, Christians knew the corruption could not stand. When two popes were inaugurated in 1378, Wycliffe heralded that it was the Bible, not popes, that was authoritative. The papacy was a human invention shot through with sin (Reeves 2009, 29). God used Wycliffe to encourage the saints. God changed England and Europe through the courage and biblical fidelity of John Wycliffe. Gifted in languages, Wycliffe translated Scripture into the language of the people. And they devoured the Word of God. Literacy in no small way saved England and eventually Europe from Romanism and its myriad idolatries.
Martin Luther: In Wittenberg, Germany the Augustinian monk Martin Luther pored over the Scriptures, submissive to what the Bible taught about justification, about how people could ever be made right with God. Was it through praying to saints? Was it through confessing to a human priest? Was it through indulgences and giving money? Was it through attending a mass wherein the human priest purported to literally change bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus? Again and again, day in and day out, did Roman Catholic priests have this ability? What was Calvary for if these priests offered Jesus again and again as a sacrifice via the mass? And the superstitions within Roman Catholicism pricked Luther’s conscience. Reeves writes of Roman Catholicism’s spiritual darkness:
. . . the castle church had nine aisles proudly displaying more than 19,000 relics. There you could see a wisp of straw from Christ’s crib, a strand of his beard, a nail from the cross, a piece of bread from the Last Supper, a twig from Moses’ burning bush, a few of Mary’s hairs and some bits of her clothing, as well as innumerable teeth and bones from celebrated saints. Veneration of each piece was worth an indulgence of 100 days (with a bonus one for each aisle), meaning the pious visitor could tot up more than 1,900,000 days off purgatory (Reeves 2009, 40-41).
Reeves writes of Luther:
Here Luther saw for the first time truly good news of a kind and generous God who gives sinners the gift of his own righteousness. The Christian life, then, could not be about the sinner’s struggle to achieve his own, paltry human righteousness; it was about accepting God’s own, perfect divine righteousness. Here now was a God who does not want our goodness but our trust. All the struggles and all the anxiety could be replaced with massive confidence and simple faith, receiving the gift (Reeves 2009, 48).
Thomas Cranmer and Nicholas Ridley: When Bloody Mary was having Protestants murdered during her reign, three of the most impactful martyrs were Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer in 1555. When Ridley and Latimer were burned at the stake by Roman Catholic Bloody Mary’s forces, Latimer, “aged about eighty, was the first to die, shouting through the flames: ‘Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.'” (Reeves 2009, 138).
Encouragement: Lewis’ wisdom is made clear when we reflect upon the courageous, clear, faithful men and women through the ages who discovered their stories within the overarching story of God. They impacted their generations and countless subsequent generations. “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next,” Lewis penned. Lewis has been dead for almost 60 years now and yet he speaks. The Reformers still speak. And may the Lord be pleased to raise up courageous, clear, faithful men and women again to speak to this generation. Be encouraged. Read Reeves’ book. Learn from the past. Remember the Lord. Be of good courage.