Ever since the time of the Protestant Reformation there has been a saying that goes something like this: “The doctrine of election stands at the very heart of the church.” Maybe you have heard your own minister say that from off the pulpit, or in the catechism room: “The doctrine of election stands at the very heart of what the church is.” What that saying simply means is this: to know what the church is, one needs to know and embrace what the biblical doctrine of election is. If a person does not know the biblical truth of election, he really does not and cannot know what the church is.
The reason that the doctrine of election stands at the heart of the church is this: it is God’s decree of election that governs who the members of the church are. Those whom God chose (elected) in eternity to be his own people are the true members of the church of Jesus Christ. In fact, God elected them as his people exactly so that they might be members in the church. If you and I are the elect children of God, then by virtue of that very election, we are members of the church of Jesus Christ. This is an absolute, unconditional truth. Membership in the body of Jesus Christ is not based on any of your own works or decisions; it is not based on the approval and consent of other men; it is not based on the specific institution where you currently have your church membership. If you are an elect child of God, chosen in grace, then you are a member of the body of Jesus Christ, the church. If you are not an elect child of God, chosen in grace, you are a reprobate, and you are not a member of the body of Jesus Christ.
Now you might read that, and say, “Yes. That makes sense.” Maybe you say, “That is nothing new.” Maybe you even say, “I thought this article was about John Huss.”
But imagine for a moment, young people, that you never knew these things, that you were never taught these things. Imagine that instead of being taught these things, you were taught that you were saved based on your own actions and your own decisions. Imagine that you were taught that ultimately you were saved based on your church allegiance, and that if (and only if) you were a member of a certain, specific church here on earth, could you also be a member of the church in heaven. And imagine that nearly everyone around you believed this kind of lie, so that nearly everyone around you made sure to belong to that one instituted church that was teaching all these things, and thought they were saved because of it. And imagine that you yourself happened to be a member of that church as well.
But now imagine that as you studied the scriptures for yourself, you became aware of how wrong all this was, and you came to a proper understanding of election. And imagine that you were a minister, and so you started to preach that it is God’s decree of election alone that governs membership in the true church of Jesus Christ (just as our ministers do today). And then imagine that as you started to preach these things, others in the church started to persecute you: they labeled you as a heretic, they excommunicated you, and you were forced to go into hiding. And then imagine that eventually you were taken, and you were tied to a stake, set on fire, and burned to death. Ultimately, because you were teaching from the scriptures that eternal salvation is rooted in divine election, and not based on works or on membership in a particular church institute.
Now you might read that and say, “That is a lot to imagine!” And maybe you are still saying, “I thought this article was about John Huss.” Well, what I have just asked you to imagine is exactly the story of John Huss, and what Huss experienced in his life as a member in the Roman Catholic Church.
John Huss was a pre-reformer. He was one whom God used in a very powerful way to prepare the way for the Protestant Reformation. What we enjoy today in the preaching and in catechism instruction, what we enjoy as our Reformed heritage (what we sometimes take for granted), we enjoy, because God raised up men like John Huss and many others to rediscover the truths of the gospel, to preach those truths to God’s people in the face of fierce persecution, and even to suffer and die so that those truths might not be denied, but be spread throughout the world, even until today.
John Huss was born into a peasant’s family around 1369 in Husinec, Bohemia, (which is now part of present-day Czech Republic), and was burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church in 1415. During Huss’ entire lifetime, the Roman Catholic church was overrun with corruption and gross immorality. Many priests did not know how to read. Even more priests had no care for studying the Bible. And even more priests had no care for sound preaching or faithful catechism instruction. What they all did seem to have a care for was money and the earthly, sensual pleasures that money could afford. This was the kind of corrupt church that John Huss grew up in, and in which Huss eventually became a priest in 1401.
Although Huss became a priest in the corrupt Roman Catholic church, it quickly became clear that John Huss was no normal, corrupt priest. Instead of having a love for money, Huss had a love for the gospel. Instead of having a love for sinful pleasure, Huss had a love for holy living. And what began to characterize John Huss above all things was a love for the preaching. While the preaching in Huss’ day was either non-existent or thoroughly unbiblical, Huss stood out as an outstanding and passionate preacher. He was a preacher who studied the scriptures, who preached the scriptures, and who applied the scriptures to his congregation. He viewed the scriptures as the inspired, infallible word of God, and as the supreme authority for doctrine and for life. He preached the scriptures accordingly, and his congregation loved him for it.
But not surprisingly, this is exactly where John Huss came into trouble with the Roman Catholic church, for almost as soon as Huss became a priest and began preaching to the people, he started to preach against the gross sins that characterized the other priests around him. As Huss also carried out his work as a lecturer at the university in Prague, he began to study the writings of the English pre-reformer John Wycliffe. Through studying Wycliffe, Huss began to see not only the wicked lifestyles of the clergy, but also the thoroughly false doctrine that characterized the Roman Catholic Church. And so Huss started to preach against false doctrine as well. He started to preach against indulgences, he started to preach that the pope was not infallible (only the scriptures were, he said), and he started to preach more and more about the glorious truth of predestination and election. The saints in Prague loved him for it, but the Roman Catholic church hated him for it.
Soon Huss became a marked man. In 1407, John Huss was ordered to stop preaching against the sinful lifestyles of the other priests. In 1410 Huss’ church was forced to close down. Soon enough Huss was excommunicated and became a hunted man. From 1412–1414, Huss went into exile, hiding in castles, translating portions of the Bible into the vernacular Czech language, and writing his most important work, “On the Church.” In 1414, the Roman Catholic Church summoned the Council of Constance and invited Huss to come to the meeting, promising him a safe passage back to his hometown after the meeting was done. Huss decided to go to the Council, thinking he needed to show his fellow Christians and church members that he was not ashamed of the gospel and was ready to give a defense of the truth. But soon after his arrival, the promise of a safe return home was broken, and Huss was thrown into an utterly filthy prison. After five months, Huss was taken out of prison and asked if he would recant. He said he would only recant if he was shown that his teachings were not Biblical. The Roman Catholic Church was furious with Huss, and after four more weeks in prison, Huss was burned at the stake.
When we look at how the Roman Catholic church treated Huss, we might ask why the Roman Catholic church hated John Huss so much and went so far as to burn him at the stake. If all John Huss preached was the scriptures, the need to live holy lives before God, the glorious truth of predestination and election, and other such things, then why put the man to death?
This is where we must see John Huss as truly a pre-reformer. What John Huss emphasized was this: the scriptures alone are the supreme rule of faith and conduct. That kind of thinking attacked the very foundation of the Roman Catholic church, for what the Roman Catholic church was doing (and still does) was this: it was elevating the sayings of men (the church institute) above the scriptures. What the Roman Catholic Church was saying (and still says) was this: “In order to go to heaven, you need to go through the Roman Catholic church institute. If you are not in good standing with the Roman Catholic church, then you cannot be saved. But if you are a member of the Roman Catholic church, in good standing with the church hierarchy, then you are guaranteed to go to heaven. The church saves you. What John Huss showed was this: it is not an instituted church here on earth that decides or determines your salvation and eternal life, but it is just the opposite: it is God’s decree of election unto salvation that governs the church and the members of the true church. As Huss emphasized, true and faithful instituted churches on earth need to recognize this and preach this as the plain teaching of the scriptures.
But you see, this means that it is God that saves, and not the Roman Catholic instituted church. This means that it is God who saves, and not the pope or priests or an instituted church. That kind of thinking threatened the complete control that the Roman Catholic church had over its members, who for fear of their eternal salvation were obeying and believing everything that the Roman Catholic church was telling them without comparing it with the scriptures. The Roman Catholic church could not tolerate giving up any control it had over the people. So Huss, even though all he was teaching was the scriptures, had to be put away and put to death.
Over a hundred years before the Protestant Reformation even began, John Huss was preaching loudly and clearly, “The doctrine of election stands at the very heart of the church. Election governs the church.” By God’s grace, that continues to be sounded forth across Reformed pulpits today. Thanks be to God if we hear that preaching in our churches. It needs to be that way, for this is how God saves: through faithful churches that faithfully preach the truth of what the church actually is—“the company of the predestinated.”
William Tyndale had come to the realization that a spiritual reformation in England would never take place unless the Bible itself was translated into a language the people could read and understand for themselves. This had become Tyndale’s mission in life.
Last time we ended with William Tyndale decision that he must leave England, never to return, in order to carry out his life’s work of translating the Bible into English.
His First Translation Published:
In 1524, Tyndale went into exile and sailed from England to the European continent, never to set foot on his homeland again. The work he was going to undertake was without the permission of the king or the church. He was clearly choosing to make himself a fugitive and an outlaw. Everything he was about to undertake was illegal. The punishment he could expect to receive, if he were to get caught, was death. You and I enjoy our English Bibles because of the godly devotion and willing sacrifice of such men as William Tyndale.
So Tyndale sailed to Europe. Where did he go? For the next twelve years, until the end of his life, it is hard to keep track of Tyndale’s travels. Tyndale was constantly in hiding. But let me ask you this: If you were to land on the European continent in 1524, where would you go first? To Wittenberg, Germany, of course, where Martin Luther was! (John Calvin was only fifteen years old at this time.)
It appears that as soon as Tyndale landed on the continent, he went to Wittenberg, Germany. And there, most likely, he met Martin Luther. And there, you can be sure, Tyndale received a great encouragement to take up his translation work. Only one year later, Tyndale would complete his translation of the Greek New Testament into English. This is the first ever translation from the original Greek into English.
But now Tyndale had to figure out how to publish his translation work. It is one thing to sit in hiding and translate the Bible; it is another thing to go out in public and try to hire someone to publish an illegal copy of the scriptures. Tyndale did find someone who was willing to publish his work, but it was an extremely dangerous enterprise. On one particular night, one of the publishers who was printing Tyndale’s New Testament drank a little too much wine, and began to speak too freely about the work he was doing. Soon enough, the wrong people found out, and a raid on the printing shop was arranged. In God’s providence, before the authorities could catch Tyndale, he had gathered up his work, and left the city. In 1526, after Tyndale had moved to the city of Worms, he was able to publish his translation of the New Testament. Some 6000 copies were made. But now there was the difficulty of getting these forbidden Bibles back into England.
This is where we see how God’s people were connected back then. In London, England, along the shipping yards on the Thames River, there was a German Lutheran community. These people were cloth merchants who were constantly bringing shipments of cotton from Germany to England. It was in these shipments, hidden among the cotton, that Tyndale’s New Testament English Bibles were placed. The Bibles were shipped from Germany to London, and the German Lutherans would conceal these Bibles so that they could enter England safely. For the first time the New Testament Bible, for a very affordable price, was making its way into the homes of the English people. There was a whole underground network of transporting Bibles, and it was entirely illegal.
Of course, as soon as the authorities in England found out about what was going on, they were furious. The search for William Tyndale and his Bibles began. The authorities started burning Tyndale’s Bibles, and tried to buy up every Tyndale Bible they could get their hands on. But that had two effects: first, it supplied Tyndale with the money he needed in order to edit his work, and produce a second edition; second, it made the people of England more curious about what Tyndale’s Bible had in it, so that more and more the people wanted to get their own copies of the Bible. From this time on, the authorities wanted badly to capture Tyndale. They sent out spies into Europe to try to find where Tyndale was hiding. This lasted for the rest of Tyndale’s life, until he was eventually caught.
His Continued Work:
In 1529, Tyndale moved to Antwerp, in present-day Belgium, and began his translation of the first five books of the Old Testament from Hebrew to English. After he finished his translation, he realized he needed to move base because the English authorities were narrowing in on him. He gathered his things and set sail for Hamburg, Germany. However, on his way through the North Sea, he was caught in a severe storm and the ship sank off the coast of Belgium and the Netherlands, and Tyndale lost all his translation of the five first books of Moses. He had to start all over again, spending another full year redoing the work he had lost. In 1530, Tyndale was able to publish his translation of the first five books of the Old Testament. They too began to make their way into England.
With this additional publication, the authorities became even more devoted in their search for Tyndale. His enemies started calling him horrible names: “The captain of English heretics,” “a hell-hound in the kennel of the devil,” “a new Judas,” “worse than Sodom and Gomorrah,” and “an idolater and devil-worshipper.” All Tyndale wanted was to see his fellow country-folk have a copy of the Bible in their own hands.
In 1534, in Antwerp, Tyndale moved in with a group of English merchants and fell under the care and support of a wealthy English merchant. He translated the book of Jonah, and he translated the books of Judges through 2 Chronicles. He continued to revise his New Testament translation. Tyndale’s goal was to translate the entire Old Testament, but he would be captured before he could finish this work.
His Capture and Death:
Back in England, there was a man by the name of Henry Phillips. He was the son of a wealthy Englishman. One day, his father had given him a lot of money and had sent him to London to pay off some expenses. On his way to London, Phillips gambled and lost all the money his father had given him. Phillips became a desperate man, and was willing to do anything to recover the money he had lost. And so the Church of England came to Phillips, and hired him to capture William Tyndale.
In order to capture Tyndale, Phillips moved to Antwerp. He found where Tyndale was hiding, befriended Tyndale, and gained Tyndale’s trust. One day, as Tyndale and Phillips were going to lunch, Phillips led Tyndale into an alleyway and right into the hands of soldiers who had been waiting for him. After 12 years of being a fugitive for the sake of the gospel, Tyndale was captured and was thrown into a castle dungeon in Belgium.
After being in prison for a year and a half, on October 6, 1536, Tyndale was led to his death. He was taken out of the castle dungeon and paraded through the town to where his execution stake had been set up. His feet were bound to the pole, a chain was fastened around his neck so that his back was right up against the pole. Wood was spread around his body. Gunpowder was the sprinkled on the wood. The order came, and the chain went tight around Tyndale’s neck. Tyndale gasped for breath, and the crowd of people watched him as he suffocated to death. Then, after he was dead, the wood was lit on fire. The fire touched the gun-powder, and Tyndale’s body was blown up. What was left of it fell into the fire. That’s how much the authorities hated him. However, before he died, these were Tyndale’s last words: “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.” Tyndale was 42 years old.
Why did Tyndale die with that prayer on his lips? Tyndale was praying that the king would see the need for God’s people to have the Bible in their own hands. That prayer, in a way, would soon be answered: in 1538, only two years after Tyndale’s death, King Henry VIII issued a decree that a copy of the Bible in English and Latin should be placed in every church in England. In 1539, only three years after Tyndale’s martyrdom, Tyndale’s own Bible became officially approved for publishing.
After Tyndale’s death, other men picked up where he had left off. They used his work and were able to make a complete translation of the scriptures for English readers. Soon, complete Bibles were flowing into England. Soon, the boy in the field who was working the plough was reading the scriptures for himself. And soon, that same boy knew more about the Bible than the priests in the church. Tyndale not only put the Bible in the language of the people, but was an important instrument in God’s hand to bring the Protestant Reformation to England. Brian Edwards, a biographer of Tyndale, goes so far as to say, “William Tyndale was the reformation in England.”
What Motivated Tyndale:
One thing that stands out about William Tyndale’s life is this: his devotion to the glory of God. Tyndale gave up his entire life to follow the Lord’s will for him. And he lost his life because of it. Why? Why was Tyndale so devoted to this work?
Tyndale gave up his life to translate the Bible because Tyndale knew what the Bible was. He knew that the Bible was the inspired, infallible, authoritative word of God. And Tyndale knew that the scriptures are the gospel. And Tyndale knew what the gospel was. Even before John Calvin was on the scene, William Tyndale embraced what have become known as the five points of Calvinism. Tyndale emphasized God’s sovereignty over everything. He knew that salvation is not by works. He knew that the Bible taught the total depravity of the human race. He knew that the Bible taught unconditional election. He knew all the other precious doctrines of sovereign, particular grace: irresistible grace, limited atonement, preservation of the saints. And Tyndale had personally experienced these things in his own life. He knew that he himself was an elect, redeemed, and regenerated child of God—a sinner saved by grace alone! He knew that Jesus Christ had died on the cross for his sins. And Tyndale’s salvation was so precious to him that in thankfulness he wanted to give his life and use his gifts and abilities to the utmost of his power, so that his countrymen might come to know those precious truths as well, so that God might receive the glory.
Do you know the doctrines of grace? Do you know the riches of having your own personal Bible? Do you know that you are a sinner saved by grace alone? Then may God, in his grace, also give you the same kind of devotion that Tyndale had, the kind of devotion that says: “Here are all my gifts and abilities, Lord. I am thy willing servant. Here is my life. Use me for thy glory.”
 Brian H. Edwards, God’s Outlaw: The Story of William Tyndale and the English Bible (Welwyn, Hertfordshire, England: Evangelical Press), 170. Besides the biography by Steven Lawson, this too is a shorter biography of William Tyndale’s life that is very enjoyable to read.
When we pick up our English Bibles and read them – whether it is at church in the worship service, or whether it is at home at the supper table or beside our beds at night – there are two things that we as English-speaking people probably take for granted every single time. First, we probably take for granted that our Bibles are written in English, a language that we can actually read and understand. Second, we probably take for granted that we have access to our own personal Bibles, and that we do not have to share one Bibles with every other member of our entire congregation. There was a time when English-speaking people did not enjoy such rich privileges. In this article, we will travel back to that time – to the time of William Tyndale at the beginning of the 16th century.
There is also a third thing about our English Bibles that perhaps none of us notices as we read. And that is this: the words we read out of our English King James Bibles come almost word for word from the translation work of one man. Every time we open our King James Bibles, and every time we memorize a verse or two from the scriptures, the English words that we are using and the ways in which the sentences flow off our tongues have been heavily influenced by the life and work of one man whom few of us know anything about, and who sacrificed his entire life in order to give a faithful, accurate, and beautiful translation of the Bible into the English language. That man, of course, was William Tyndale.
Words that had never existed before in the English language – words like “scapegoat” or “Passover” – were words that William Tyndale coined. Words such as “atonement” and “mercy seat” are familiar to us because of William Tyndale’s work. The phrases “the twinkling of an eye,” or “filthy lucre,” or “a moment in time,” or “the powers that be,” – all these phrases (and many more!) come to us through the translation work of William Tyndale.
Our beloved Kings James version was commissioned by King James of England almost 100 years after William Tyndale lived. 47 scholars were assigned to the task. These scholars spent 7 years doing their translation work, with the purpose that the King James Version would be the definitive, the trustworthy, and accurate translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament into the English language. And this is what happened: Those 47 scholars ended up borrowing 86% of their translation of the New Testament from William Tyndale, and they ended up borrowing 76% of their translation of the Old Testament (the first half of it) from William Tyndale. William Tyndale was such an excellent translator of the English Bibles, he got things so right, so accurate, and at the same time, put it in such beautiful and dignified language, and yet also with such a simple and clear style, that what you have in the King James Version is due in large part to the work of this one man, William Tyndale. It is no wonder that William Tyndale has gone down in history with the title, “the Father of the English Bible.”
It was through William Tyndale that God gave the English-speaking people a Bible they could read and understand for themselves. And it was through William Tyndale that God gave the English-speaking people a Bibles they could personally afford and possess. But all this work would cost Tyndale his life. It would cost him his life at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church and the government authorities.
His Early Life:
William Tyndale was born in England around 1494. He was born in a country that was covered in spiritual darkness. England was under the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Roman Catholic Church was ruthless in its suppression of gospel truths. The priests themselves were nearly entirely illiterate. It is said that of the 20,000 priests in England, not one could translate a line from the Lord’s Prayer from Latin to English. Besides that, the priests were characterized by gross immorality and corruption in their personal lives and in church government. The church played upon the superstition and ignorance of the common people, who were dreadfully being taken advantage of. The people had no Bibles of their own, and had nothing to go off of but the word of the priests. If the people wanted any hope of salvation, they had to pay their priests and submit to them. It is hard for us to imagine living in this kind of bondage.
However, there had been glimmers of spiritual life and of reformation before Tyndale’s day. Over one hundred years before Tyndale, there was a man by the name of John Wycliffe. He was a professor at Oxford who was given the grace to see through the darkness of the Catholic Church, and who emphasized that the Bible needed to be given to the ordinary church member for him to read for himself. Wycliffe translated the Bible into English from the Latin version, and had men who copied this English translation by hand, and spread these copies throughout England. But so angry was the Roman Catholic Church with Wycliffe’s translation, and they felt so threatened by it, that the Roman Catholic Church in England made it illegal for anyone to translate the Bible into English without a license from a Roman Catholic bishop. If anyone should translate the Bible into English, or make copies in English, they would risk being burned at the stake. That law was still in effect in Tyndale’s day, so that when Tyndale was growing up, Bibles were very rare, and were not in a language that the people could understand.
Not much is known about Tyndale’s childhood. When Tyndale was 12 years old, he went to Oxford University – the most prestigious university in all of England, where he received probably the best education in all of Europe and all the world. Tyndale showed himself to be a very hard-working and gifted scholar, especially in the languages. Throughout the course of his life, Tyndale would become fluent in no fewer than eight languages – Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, English, German, and French. He was a linguistic genius.
After his time at Oxford, in 1519 Tyndale went to study at Cambridge University, which had recently become the center of the Protestant teachings of Martin Luther (1483-1546), who had nailed his famous 95 theses on the castle church door in Wittenberg only two years earlier. On the campus at Cambridge, students of Luther-like convictions would meet together at a place called “the White Horse Inn”, and debate the ideas of Luther. Some scholars believe that Tyndale was among this group of students. It seems that it was during his time at Cambridge that Tyndale began to see the gospel more clearly and embraced it.
In 1521, Tyndale left Cambridge and became a tutor and the chaplain for a family in the countryside of England. While living there, Tyndale saw just how ignorant the Roman Catholic priests were, and how they were taking such horrible advantage of the common people. (Again, the common people did not have any access to the scriptures, so that it was easy for the priests to deceive them. Tyndale, of course, could read the Bible for himself, and even read the original Greek New Testament for himself.) In one conversation with a Roman Catholic priest, Tyndale got into an argument about how God saves his people. And the Roman Catholic priest said, “We had better be without God’s laws than the pope’s” (Meaning it would be better to obey the pope rather than obey God). In response, Tyndale said, “I defy the pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, before many years, I will cause the farmer-boy who works with the plough in the fields to know more of the scriptures than you.” And from this time forward, this became Tyndale’s mission in life: to get the Bible itself into the hands of the common people. Not only was it his mission, it was the calling that God had given Tyndale in life. God had given Tyndale the needed gifts, and had worked everything in Tyndale’s life for this purpose.
In order to carry out this work, Tyndale knew what the appropriate steps would be: first, get the approval of a bishop. In 1523 Tyndale went to London and spoke to a bishop about getting permission to translate the Bible into English and publish. However, the entire Roman Catholic Church was well aware of the kind of social and religious upheaval that was taking place in Germany because of Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German only a year earlier. The bishop refused to give Tyndale permission to translate the Bible.
There were only two things for Tyndale to choose from: either go home and ignore the great need that the people had for the gospel, or leave England, never to return again, to carry out his translation and publication of the Bible in English. Tyndale chose the latter. And like the patriarch Abraham, and like many others of God’s people throughout the years, Tyndale went out, not knowing where he was going. But he went out, knowing that he had to obey God, and trust God.
Tyndale knew that the gospel would not come to England, and that reformation would not take place in England unless the people had the Bible in their own language, and could read it themselves.
Let us never take for granted the great privileges we have – to own our own copy of the scriptures (many copies, sometimes), and to be able to ready the scriptures whenever we want.
To be continued…
 Steven J. Lawson, The Daring Mission of William Tyndale (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust), xviii. For those interested in a short biography of William Tyndale, I would recommend this book, upon which I relied heavily for my research.
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