Through the centuries, men and women have earnestly sought the truth about the great questions of life. What is the meaning of life? How can I find inner peace? Where can I find hope for the future? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Is there a God and does He care for me? Is there a divine, infallible source of truth that provides the answers to life’s deepest questions? Tens of thousands of people have discovered meaningful answers to these questions in the Bible. The Scriptures provided them with the key to unlock the mysteries of life. The Word of God became a solid foundation to face life’s challenges.
In Middle Ages Europe, from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries, when the light of truth was obscured by the darkness of superstition and tradition, humble men and women of God sought earnestly for truth. Their hearts yearned for a genuine, authentic experience with God. They were tired of the pretense and hypocrisy of a religion that focused on externals but left the soul barren. Their deepest desire echoed the words of the psalmist, David: “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:1, 2).
The universal longing of these men and women of God in the Middle Ages is as relevant in the twenty-first century as it was centuries ago. Once again, in this generation, in the glitz and glamour of a technological, media-savvy age that bombards us with ten thousand messages a day on social media, there is a heart hunger for authentic relationships. A daily tweet or an instant message does not fill the aching void in the heart for a genuine relationship with God.
Overwhelmed with joy
Long before the Protestant Reformation began in Germany with Martin Luther, the dawn of a new day began in France. A professor at the University of Paris began to study ancient literature, and his attention was directed to the Bible. Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples had never studied the Bible before. It was a new book to him, but as he carefully studied its pages something remarkable happened in his life. He was strangely drawn to the Christ of Scripture. A new sense of peace flooded his life. The thought that God loved him and sent His Son to bear the guilt and condemnation of his sins overwhelmed him. Overwhelmed with joy, he wrote, “Oh! The unspeakable greatness of that exchange—the Sinless One is condemned, and he who is guilty goes free—the Blessing bears the curse, and the cursed is brought into blessing—the Life dies, and the dead live—the Glory is whelmed in darkness, and he who knew nothing but confusion of face is clothed with glory.”1
One of Lefevre’s students, William Farel, had a similar experience. The son of godly parents, he was a devoted follower of the teachings of the medieval church. He made the rounds of the churches in Paris, worshiping at their altars and bringing offerings to their shrines, but he could not find peace. The nagging guilt of his unworthiness and a sense of condemnation before God left his soul barren. Conviction of sin tormented him. If only he could find peace!
Farel was an earnest seeker after truth. While listening to Lefevre’s words he was impressed with this thought: “Salvation is of grace. Christ the innocent One was condemned in your place, and you are free.” Initially the thought of God’s free grace given to him in Christ was overwhelming. How could it be? Could it really be true that in accepting Christ by faith he received the gift of eternal life?
Lefevre worked diligently to translate the New Testament into the French language. All of France must be able to read the story of salvation for themselves! Farel returned to his native town in eastern France and passionately proclaimed the good news of Jesus. When the authorities drove him out of the major cities, he traversed the plains and villages, preaching God’s Word in private dwellings, quiet villages and in secluded mountain valleys. He kept moving from place to place to avoid the persecution of the state-church authorities. He often slept in the forests or in the rocky crevices of some mountain pass. Although fiercely persecuted, he continued preaching the message of salvation by faith in Jesus’ grace alone.
God’s Spirit moved upon the hearts of men and women throughout Europe. He was raising up a generation that would change the history of the world. The “good news” of Christ’s grace that they discovered was so good, they had to share it. No amount of slander, ridicule or persecution could silence their voices.
Faith and courage
John Calvin was a brilliant young French priest who struggled to find salvation’s peace. One day he witnessed the burning of a so-called heretic in a public square. He was incredibly moved by the look of peace on this man’s face. Amid torture and a dreadful death, this martyr exhibited a faith and courage that deeply impressed the young John Calvin.
Calvin knew that this “heretic” based his faith on the teachings of Scripture. He determined to study the Bible until he grasped the reason for this man’s undaunted faith. As Calvin pored over the teachings of Scripture, he discovered a Christ more marvellous than his fondest dreams. With joy he exclaimed, “His blood has washed away my impurities; his cross has borne my curse; His death has atoned for me.”2 The gospel of Christ so deeply moved John Calvin that he gave his entire life to preaching the joys of salvation. He was able to endure suffering, experience ridicule, face persecution and toil in poverty for the sake of the gospel.
Calvin powerfully proclaimed the free grace of Christ throughout France. While in Paris, as he was preparing to spend time in quiet meditation, thoughtful Bible study, and earnest prayer, he heard from friends that the authorities were preparing to take his life. A martyr’s death at the flames awaited him. Some of his friends detained the authorities at the door while he was let down from a window and escaped. He was led by friends to the home of a poor farmer, disguised as a peasant, with a hoe over his shoulder, he cautiously made his way to safety.
Terrible persecution bloodied the streets of France. Thousands were tortured and brutally slaughtered—their only crime their belief in the truths of the Bible. Eventually Calvin settled in Geneva and for nearly thirty years he laboured there to advance the cause of Christ.
Calvin did not understand truth perfectly. His understanding of religious freedom was certainly limited; nevertheless, he was unmoved in his commitment to Scripture, his devotion to Christ, and his unwavering desire to share the Christ he loved with others.
Light penetrates the darkness
Each one of these Reformers grasped a portion of God’s truth. The fullness of Bible truth had been hidden under the rubbish of error for centuries. The wise man said, “The path of the just is like the shining sun, that shines ever brighter unto the perfect day” (Proverbs 4:18). When the sun rises in the morning, initially it is not very light. As the day dawns, the light gradually chases away the darkness.
Have you ever left a dark room and walked directly into the sunlight? You are blinded by the light. Light is good, but too much too quickly can blind you. The sun rises gradually, gladdening the earth with its warming rays.
That’s what understanding God’s truth is like. The light of His truth rose slowly in the hearts and minds of His people over the centuries. Although they were different in their understanding of some things, each of these Reformers of the Middle Ages were totally committed to diligently studying the Word of God, discovering the will of God, accepting the gift of salvation freely given by God, and living a life of obedience to God. They rejected the idea that the decrees of the church hierarchy were a higher authority than the authority of the Bible. To these faithful people of God, if truth was worth dying for, it was certainly worth living for. They had experienced the joy of salvation.
These men and woman of faith were unafraid to share their testimony of God’s goodness and grace with others. When the odds were stacked against them, their faith was unshakeable. When they experienced peril and persecution, trials and torture, poverty and perplexity, they rejoiced to be counted worthy to share with Christ in His sufferings (1 Peter 1:21).
You and I can experience His grace as well. It is ours for the asking. He is our righteousness. He is our peace. He is the source of our salvation. He is the river of our joy. In Christ we are complete. In Christ we are forgiven. In Christ we are redeemed. In Christ we are a “new creation.” Reach out for life today, and accept all that Christ offers you right now!
1. JH Merle-D’Aubigné, History of the Great Reformation of the Sixteenth Century in Germany, Switzerland, Etc. (Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1870), bk.12, 379.
2. JH Merle-D’Aubigné, History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin (New York: Carter and Brothers, 1867), bk II, 47.