(A six minute read)
John Wycliffe was either one of Christianity’s great heroes, or a complete heretic. It depends on whom you ask, and when you had asked them. I believe he’s one of the great reconcilers of history. For that I honor his memory.
He died 636 years ago today, on the last day of 1384.
Wycliffe was one of the bold precursors to those churchmen who really upset the apple cart in subsequent centuries: Savonarola, Hus, Luther, Calvin, Tyndale. Heretics all.
Wycliffe was only a hero in his own time to those who thought there should be no intermediary between God and the individual Christian. Wycliffe took seriously the Biblical exhortation, ‘Let us then come with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.’ 1
He wanted people to grow in their faith without an intermediary, and in doing so made himself an enemy of the church. To approach God’s throne directly – not through a confessional priest – was a radical idea. ‘Private confession was not ordered by Christ and was not used by the apostles,’ Wycliffe wrote. Possibly he had James 5:16 in mind.2
The existing church structure, Wycliffe believed, threw two huge roadblocks in the common believer’s path: the priesthood, and esoteric language. Workaday Christians in his day were told to go through a priest to ‘get to’ God.
The church hierarchy claimed that it alone held the keys to knowledge, to wisdom, to forgiveness, to the afterlife. People were told they had no right to a direct relationship with God. It was spiritual oppression by elites. It was an abuse of power.
How could the English people know any better until Wycliffe’s translation appeared?
The book was a protest. It threatened the church’s grip on ecclesiastical control, because an English translation could be read aloud to a predominately illiterate congregation. People could hear the word of God in their own language. Hearing it for themselves grew their faith, because faith comes by hearing.3 It also expanded their thinking.
The church was afraid of this. Empower the masses and they might gain their faith independently! They could overthrow their masters! Knowledge in the hands of the oppressed always threatens the oppressor.
Church leaders thought Wycliffe’s crime so vile that it wasn’t enough for them to condemn him in 1415 at the Council of Constance (31 years after his death). They went the extra mile, dug up his remains from consecrated ground, and then burned them.
What was Wycliffe up to? From here, it looks like the ministry of reconciliation. That is, bringing together two parties that have been separated. God came to earth as Jesus Christ to reconcile people back to Himself. Jesus sent His followers out to continue the work. They did turn the world on its head, but like any human, or human-built construct, the church itself fell into sin and error.
Wycliffe must have seen the church of his day reflecting the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. The Pharisees had invented many rules to follow so people could ‘keep the law’. They themselves were the keepers and adjudicators of these rules.
They took what was once a healthy relationship, and squeezed the love right out of it. Fourteenth century church fathers had done the same. Their church was religious, not spiritual; it was about rules, not relationship. It was about shame, not grace.
Wycliffe wrote, ‘The gospel alone is sufficient to rule the lives of Christians everywhere – any additional rules made to govern men’s conduct add nothing to the perfection already found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.’ 4
His English translation of the Bible reconciled the people of his nation back to the Gospel after lifetimes of separation.
This business of reconciliation is something Jesus took very seriously. ‘First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift,’ 5 He said. He only wanted tender, forgiving hearts to worship Him.
Reconciliation is a word God has highlighted to me for 2021. 2021 is to be a Year of Reconciliation. But reconciliation is not only a noun – it is also a verb. What’s more, reconciliation is not just an action, but can be a lifestyle. It can be a full outworking of Christian faith.
Reconciliation is encompassed and then released in my baptismal verse, John 20:21: ‘So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As My Father as sent Me, even so I send you.”’
Outwardly, the world appears to be changing rapidly. Inwardly, its the same old game: the conflict between our hearts and our spirits. We human beings can be at war with ourselves, with one another, and with God. Or, we can choose to reconcile, and be at peace. We can choose to lay down our hearts.
I’ll be writing a lot on this topic in the coming year, and hope to have some guest writers explore reconciliation as well. If you know someone who would be interested in this, either as a reader or a writer, please point them here, so they can join in the conversation.
Next week: More about the practical aspects of Wycliffe’s work, and some truth from the Sermon on the Mount.
1. Hebrews 4:11 ‘Let us then come with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.’
2. James 5:16 – ‘Confess your faults to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed.’
3. Romans 10:17 – ‘So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
4. John Wycliffe quotes collected by azquotes.com
5. Matthew 5:24 – ‘First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift,’
Image: ‘The Exhumation of John Wycliffe’ from the book The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe, vol. 3, 1837 edition. A public domain image via Wikimedia Commons