The Gospel According to Church History (PART 2) By Nathan Busenitz

Many people think of the Reformation as something that started with Luther in 1517. But the reality is that the Reformation was a movement that had begun to gain momentum much earlier than the sixteenth century.

Back in the 1100s, 350 years before Luther posted his 95 Theses, a group known as the Waldensians began to teach that the Bible alone is the authority for the church. They defied papal authority, committed themselves to preaching the gospel, and even translated the Word of God into the common language of the people. They were severely persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church, and as a result often found themselves hiding in the Alps. In the sixteenth century, during the lifetime of Calvin and Knox, the Waldensians officially joined the Reformed Movement; because they recognized that the sixteenth-century Reformers valued the same truths that they had been committed to all along.

In the 1300s, still two centuries before Luther, an English scholar named John Wycliffe began teaching that the church was in desperate need of reform. Wycliffe has been nicknamed the “Morning Star of the Reformation” because he affirmed essential Reformation doctrines like sola Scriptura and sola fide; he was also the first to translate the Bible into English. The Oxford scholar opposed the papacy, calling the pope the “antichrist.” Instead, he taught, Christ alone is the Head of the church. Wycliffe denied baptismal regeneration, opposed the mass, criticized indulgences, and taught that the clergy should be able to marry. The Roman Catholic church became so angry at John Wycliffe that, after he died, they dug up his bones and burned them in effigy.

A generation later, in the early 1400s, a Bohemian preacher named John Huss thundered onto the scene. He was influenced by both the Waldensians and the teachings of John Wycliffe. And he was very popular in the city of Prague, where he lectured at the University of Prague and also preached powerfully to nearly 3,000 people every week in—not in Latin, but in their own language. Like Wycliffe, Huss opposed the papacy and taught that Christ alone is the Head of the Church. And if Christ is the Head of the church, than His Word is the only authority in the church. And if His Word is the only authority, then the gospel must be defined from Scripture alone.

In 1415, after being promised safe passage to the Council of Constance, John Huss was arrested, falsely accused, put on trial, condemned as a heretic, and burned at the stake. One hundred years later, Martin Luther would discover the writings of John Huss. He found them convincing and compelling, and they influenced him greatly. So much so, in fact, that in his own reform efforts, Luther would be nicknamed, “The Saxon Huss.”

From the Waldensians in the twelfth century, to John Wycliffe in the fourteenth century, to John Huss in the fifteenth century, and finally, to Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, John Knox, Thomas Cranmer, and other Reformers in the sixteenth century—as one can see, the Reformation was a movement that began long before 1517. It cannot be limited to just one date, one year, or even one century. It was a tidal wave of momentum that engulfed over four centuries of history as the power of God’s Word burst forth and shattered the layers of false tradition that had petrified the church.

In spite of some Roman Catholic claims, Martin Luther did not invent anything. He did not regard himself as a pioneer. Rather, he understood that he was building on a foundation that had been laid in the centuries before him.

But this still leaves open the question of the early church. Were the Waldensians, or the followers of Wycliffe and Huss the first in church history to teach an evangelical gospel of grace alone through faith alone?

The Gospel of Grace in the New Testament

Before answering that question from church history, we first have to answer it from the Word of God. As evangelical Christians, Scripture alone is our ultimate authority. And while history provides us with wonderful affirmation of our evangelical convictions, it is not our final authority. Our understanding of the gospel must be established and grounded in the clear teaching of the Word of God. And it is in the pages of Scripture that we find the doctrine of justification by faith clearly presented.

Here is a brief sampling of the many passages that could be cited in this regard. In Luke 18:13–14, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus emphasized the fact that sinners are not justified through their own self-righteousness. Rather, God justifies those, like the unworthy tax collector, who cry out in faith and depend on Him for mercy. Romans 3:28 states that “a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Romans 4 presents Abraham  as an example of that reality. And Romans 5:1 reiterates that since we have “been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In Galatians 3:8, Paul again emphasizes “that God would justify the Gentiles by faith.” Ephesians 2:8–9 repeats that same truth “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” In Philippians 3:8–9, the apostle reiterated the fact that good works are worthless when it comes to being made righteous in the sight of God. He explained that he did not have “a righteousness of [his] own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” Titus 3:5–7 says this: “[God] saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” As the above sampling demonstrates, the New Testament repeatedly establishes the fact that the believer’s righteous standing before God is not based on the good works that he or she has done; but only on the finished work of Christ on the cross. We are justified by His grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

The Gospel of Grace in New Testament History

But what about church history? How did the earliest Christians understand the biblical teaching on justification by faith alone?

Perhaps the best place to start in answering such questions is New Testament history. After all, there is a place where both biblical truth and the historical record meet—namely, the book of Acts. The record found in Acts is both Scripture and church history. As I like to tell the students in my historical theology classes, church history is so important that God included a book of it in the New Testament.

The book of Acts was written by Luke around A.D. 60, and it includes the first 30 years of the history of the church – starting at the Day of Pentecost and ending with Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome. Acts begins where the Gospel of Luke ends, immediately following the Resurrection. The first chapter centers on the Great Commission, which really serves as the outline of the book; Christ’s followers were to go and make disciples in Jerusalem and Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth.

We see that mission unfold in Acts. In chapters 1–7, the gospel spreads throughout Jerusalem and Judea. In chapter 8, the good news is taken to Samaria. And in chapter 9, Saul is converted—he is the one who will take the gospel to the Gentiles.  In chapter 10, we meet the first Gentile convert, Cornelius. In chapter 11, we have the establishment of the first Gentile church in Syrian Antioch. From there, to the end of the book, we read about how Saul (whose Roman name is Paul) takes the gospel to the Gentile world on several missionary journeys.

The book of Acts celebrates the advancement of the gospel. Yet, in the middle of Luke’s historical record, a serious controversy arises over the very nature of the gospel itself. The issue was so important that the apostles met together in Jerusalem to settle the controversy.

That meeting of the apostles is known as the Jerusalem Council—the first council of church history. It met around AD 49 or 50 nearly twenty years after the church was established on the Day of Pentecost; and 275 years before the next major church council, the council of Nicaea.

The Jerusalem Council convened to address one essential question: What is the essence of the gospel?” Is it a message of grace alone? Or was it a message of grace plus works? The advancement of the gospel could not continue unless the right message was being proclaimed.

In Part 3 of this series we will seek to answer those questions, before drawing parallels between what took place at the Jerusalem Council and what was happening during the Protestant Reformation.[1]

[1] Dave Jordan, M. E. Pulpit Magazine November 2012 Vol. 01. No. 2.

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