William Farel

William Farel was born in 1489. He died on September 13, 1565. He was a significant figure in the Protestant Reformation and was the man who, from a human standpoint, was responsible for John Calvin’s coming to minister in Geneva.

Farel was a student at the University of Paris during the early years of the Reformation when Martin Luther was calling for reform in Germany. Luther’s influence had reached Paris, and Farel was right in the middle of the debates over the ideas of the Reformation.

During this time, Farel came under the influence of Jacobus Faber, also known as Jacques Faber, who was a Catholic theologian. Faber was an acquaintance of Desiderius Erasmus, and being influenced by Erasmus’ work, he paid significant attention to the Reformation. Faber helped Farel get his first job as a professor of grammar and philosophy in Paris, and Faber appointed Farel to be a preacher in 1522.

In his position as the preacher for the dioceses, Farel was responsible for appointing other ministers. A number of the ministers he appointed were Protestants. In the course of his interactions with them, these Protestant ministers influenced Farel and introduced him to Luther’s ideas. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, Farel was converted and sided with the cause of the Reformation.

Because of his newfound faith and the surrounding controversies, he fled Paris and went to Switzerland. He spent some time in Zurich with Huldrych Zwingli and also spent some time with Luther. Farel saw himself as an evangelist, and in 1530, he set his sights on the town of Neuchâtel and convinced the town to join the Reformation.

After Neuchâtel, he set his sights on Geneva. He was often kicked out of the city, and at one time, he was beaten. In fact, Farel was even shot at because someone was offended by his preaching, yet he would bring the Reformation to Geneva in 1536. That same year, he heard about a man coming through the city on his way up to Strasbourg. This young man was named John Calvin.

Farel convinced Calvin to stay in Geneva. In fact, in Calvin’s own words, he said, “Upon this, Farel, who burned with a marvelous zeal to advance the gospel, went out of his way to keep me.” Here, Calvin is referring to what Farel had said to him, that if he were to leave the city of Geneva, may God curse his studies.

Farel and Calvin were both kicked out of Geneva in 1538. Calvin finally made it to Strasbourg, and Farel went back to Neuchâtel. Their paths continued to cross, as Farel helped Calvin in his search for a wife and officiated at Calvin’s wedding in 1540.

The 60 Pound Commentary

Joseph Caryl was a Puritan pastor who was born in London in 1602 and died on March 10 in 1673. In between those dates of his seventy-one year-old life, he was mostly a pastor. He was educated at Exeter College in Oxford where he received his bachelor of arts in 1625 and his master’s degree in 1627. He was ordained to the ministry and held a post in a pulpit at Lincoln’s Inn from 1632 to 1647. After that, he was appointed as minister at St. Magnus near London Bridge, where he preached from the late 1640s until 1662. That year was called the, “Year of the Restoration.” Charles II was on the throne, the Act of Uniformity was enacted, and this Puritan pastor was kicked out of his pulpit. So Caryl found an independent congregation in London and managed to have the freedom to preach there for the last decade of his life.

You can set Joseph Caryl’s interesting life against a fascinating time in the British reformation. The 1640s was the time of the English Civil War where the Parliament was against the king. This was also the time of the Westminster Standards, and Caryl was part of what we would call the Westminster Divines, the group of ministers who met at the Westminster Assembly to produce the Westminster Catechisms and the Westminster Confession of Faith. He preached many times there, and was often a preacher at various meetings at the different times during the year. He is, however, probably most famous for his commentary on Job.

The commentary was originally published as what are called “quarto volumes.” These are smaller books they are more “hold in the hand” kind of sizes. You take a large piece of paper, called a folio or leaf, which was about 11 x 17 inches, or 12 x 18 or so inches, and you fold it up into four, “quarto,” and that’s the size of the book; twelve volumes that size on Job. But then it was published as two folio sized volumes. Again, that’s about 18 x 12 inches. If you can picture that, it is five and a half inches thick. That’s volume one! Volume two is another five and a half inches thick. So, at almost a foot thick of large paper, each one weighs somewhere around thirty pounds; this is the 60-pound commentary on Job. Archibald Alexander, one of the great Princeton theologians said, “Though this work,” referring to Caryl’s commentary on Job, “possesses great merit, it’s enormous size has been a great obstruction to its usefulness. It has been wittily said that this book is a good exercise of that patience which the book of Job was intended to inculcate and exemplify.” So, you need patience to read it. Each volume has about 2,280 pages, and it’s in double column, and there’s Hebrew text in the margins. Make no mistake about it, this 60-pound commentary is not for the faint of heart.

Tyndale’s Only Surviving Letter

There are many surviving books of William Tyndale. Of course, the most famous one is the Tyndale Bible. But in terms of material from his own hand, only a single letter survives. It is in Latin, and it was written while Tyndale was a prisoner at Vilvoorde Castle in Belgium, about six miles north of Brussels. The castle was built in 1374, and it had a lot of cold and dingy dungeons. This will shed some light on this letter. Let’s read it in full.

I believe, right worshipful, that you are not ignorant of what has been determined concerning me. Therefore, I entreat your Lordship, and that by the Lord Jesus, that if I am to remain here during the winter, you will request the Procurer to be kind enough to send me from my goods, which he has in his possession, a warmer cap, for I suffer extremely from cold in the head, being afflicted with a perpetual catarrh [inflammation in the nose or throat], which is considerably increased in the cell.

A warmer coat also, for that which I have is very thin; also a piece of cloth to patch my leggings: my overcoat is worn out; my shirts are also worn out. He has a woolen shirt of mine, if he will be kind enough to send it. I have also, with him, leggings of thicker cloth, for putting on above; he has also warmer caps for wearing at night. I wish also his permission to have a candle in the evening, for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark.

But above all, I entreat and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the Procurer that he would kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may spend my time with that study. And in return, may you obtain your dearest wish, provided it is always consistent with the salvation of your soul.

But if any other resolutions have been come to concerning me, before the close of the winter, I shall be patient, abiding the will of God to the glory of the grace of my Lord Jesus Christ, whose spirit, I pray, may ever direct your heart. Amen.

William Tyndale

Just as Paul did in 2 Timothy, Tyndale asked for his cloak and for his books. Tyndale would spend his last days in the castle at Vilvoorde. He would be led from the castle and martyred on Friday, October 6, 1536. The accounts of Tyndale’s martyrdom say that he was calm, and in fact he said, “I call God to record that I have never altered, against the voice of my conscience, one syllable of His Word. Nor would do this day, if all the pleasure, honours, and riches of the earth might be given me.”

Tyndale faithfully served God throughout his life. He sacrificed much of his life as he was literally on the run as an outlaw trying to translate the Word of God into English so that his countrymen could have the Word of God in their native tongue. Even up until his death, he was faithful to his God.

It is very obvious, too, what Tyndale was thinking about. As he was led to his martyrdom, his final words were, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.” There was no bitterness. He was not angry; he was not trying to get out of the charge. Instead, he was praying for what he had been working for all of his life: that the king—this was Henry VIII—would recognize the truth and would recognize the light of the gospel and that God would somehow work and open Henry’s eyes so that he would see the gospel and the gospel could be preached abroad in his home nation of England.

Johann Sebastian Bach: JJ

Perhaps you know the initials JSB. If you do, you might also expect them to be followed by another set of initials: SDG. JSB refers, of course, to the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who often signed his works with his initials and with SDG for soli Deo gloria—for God’s glory alone. But Bach used other initials on his compositions as well. He would sometimes write JJ (Jesu juva; Latin for “Jesus, help”) or JH (for the German of the same phrase) at the beginning of a composition. Whether he was writing something for the court, for his friend Prince Leopold, or for the church, he would begin his work by petitioning Christ to help him. And when he was done, he would add the initials SDG, for all of his work was done for the glory of God.

Bach was born in the town of Eisenach, which has a great Luther connection. Eisenach sits in the valley below Wartburg Castle, where Luther was holed up after the Diet of Worms. Bach grew up in the town below the Wartburg, so he literally grew up in the shadow of Martin Luther, and he very much appreciated Luther. Bach’s library grew to about eighty theological works, and for the 1700s, that wasn’t bad. Among those books were a number of Luther’s works, and of course he had Luther’s German Bible.

Bach came from a family of musicians. Sometime near the end of the sixteenth century, a musician named Veit Bach fled Hungary because of persecution over his Lutheran faith. He ended up in the German state of Thuringia, and there the Bachs flourished. Johann Sebastian was born March 21, 1685, 202 years after the birth of Luther. With all these musicians and Lutherans in his background, it is no surprise that Bach became a Lutheran musician—arguably, the Lutheran musician.

Bach was married twice; his first wife died. He had twenty children, nine of whom survived into adulthood. He also had a great relationship with Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, and composed many pieces for him. At one point, Leopold got married and his wife didn’t like music, meaning Leopold no longer needed Bach’s services. Forced to look for work elsewhere, Bach ended up working primarily as a cantor at Leipzig from the 1720s through 1750. He was actually not the top candidate for that job. He was third in line, and the other two candidates ahead of him couldn’t accept the position. A town councilor is on record as saying, “Since the best man cannot be obtained we will have to resort to a mediocre one.”

That’s Johann Sebastian Bach, who composed his music Jesu juva, with the help of Jesus, and soli Deo gloria, for the glory of God alone.

Shakespeare’s Bible

William Shakespeare is, of course, known as one of the greatest names in English literature. And one of the fascinating things about Shakespeare is how extensively he quotes and refers to the Bible. In fact, one scholar has put together a book of biblical references in Shakespeare’s plays, and it is a big volume that totals more than eight hundred pages. The Bible is all through Shakespeare.

When we’re looking at Shakespeare’s use of the Bible, one of the first questions to ask is which version he used. Scholars, after looking at the references in his poems and plays, have concluded that he used three versions. The main version he used is the Geneva Bible, which was published by English and Scottish refugees in Calvin’s Geneva in 1560. It’s very likely that Shakespeare owned a copy. Shakespeare also refers to the Great Bible, which was commissioned in 1538 by Thomas Cromwell. It first appeared in 1539 and was widely circulated during Shakespeare’s time. The third version was called the Bishop’s Bible. A revision of the Great Bible, it was produced by a group of bishops between 1561 and 1564, hence its name.

So, those three Bibles in the English Bible tradition are the versions that Shakespeare used, with the Geneva Bible being the one he went to most often. Scholars have determined this by comparing the text of Shakespeare with the language of the various versions of the time. So, for example, in Richard II, Shakespeare writes, “Lions make leopards tame. Yea, but not change his spots.” That is a reference to Jeremiah 13:23: “Can a leopard change his spots?” Fascinatingly, only the Geneva Bible has “leopard” in that passage. All of the other English versions of Shakespeare’s day have the word “cat” as in big cat, but it’s the Geneva Bible that has “leopard,” so that is the version that Shakespeare was depending on in this case.

Shakespeare was fascinated by Revelation. Again, in Richard II, Shakespeare writes, “My name be blotted from the book of life.” And that is taken right from Revelation 3:5: “to blot out the name in the book of life.” In fact, that shows us that Shakespeare was reading the Bishop’s Bible, because it was only the Bishop’s Bible that uses the phrase “blot out.” The others use the expression “put out.”

Of the books of the Bible, Shakespeare quoted the Psalms most often. In As You Like It, he writes, “How brief the life of man, the stretching of a span,” referencing Psalm 39:6: “Thou hast made my days as it were a span long.” And in Timon of Athens, Shakespeare writes, “Who like a boar too savage does root up his country’s peace.” This is a reference to Psalm 80:13: “The wild boar out of the wood doth root it up.”

Sometimes Shakespeare quoted the Bible directly, sometimes he quoted it indirectly, and sometimes what Shakespeare wrote merely resembles and reflects the words of Scripture. But one thing is clear: among the many fascinating things in Shakespeare’s plays, you will also find many references to the Bible.

The Baptist Catechism of 1693

There’s a delightful set of texts called the Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation. It is in four volumes, and the very last document it includes is the Baptist Catechism of 1693. This was a few generations after Luther; the Reformation at this point was firmly established. We have the Lutherans, we have the Reformed church, we have the Presbyterians, and, as this catechism attests, we have the Baptists.

In this edition of the Baptist Catechism, there is a brief introduction, the first line of which is this: “Mystery surrounds the origin of this catechism.” That’s a great line. The mystery is this: there is no first edition. It does not exist. There is a general scholarly consensus that the catechism was first published in 1693, but the oldest copy comes to us from 1695. Second, there is mystery surrounding the author. This catechism was called, at one point, Keach’s Catechism. That title refers to a man named Benjamin Keach, who lived from 1640 to 1704. But another writer is believed to have participated in drafting this catechism, and, perhaps, he was the main author of it. His name was William Collins; he died in 1702. So, it’s a little tricky to figure out exactly where this catechism came from and exactly who wrote it.

This catechism starts off with doctrine questions. It has about forty-three questions that get right at the heads of doctrine, and then it turns to our duty and walks through the Ten Commandments. That raises the question, “Who can keep the law?,” which causes the catechism to discuss some more doctrine, including the doctrine of salvation. It ends, as many catechisms do, by looking at the Lord’s Prayer and the spiritual discipline of prayer.

Let’s take a look at the first few questions and answers from the Baptist Catechism. The first question is, “Who is the first and chiefest being?” and the answer is, “God is the first and chiefest being.” It’s interesting to see where the great catechisms of the church begin. The Heidelberg Catechism begins, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” So, it looks at salvation and what it means for us and how it fills our hearts with gratitude. The Westminster Shorter Catechism’s famous first question and answer are, “What is the chief end of man?” and “The chief end of man is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.” And the Baptist Catechism of 1693 starts with God, asking, “Who is the first and chiefest being?”

The second question is, “Ought everyone to believe that there is a God?” And the answer is this: “Everyone ought to believe there is a God and it is their great sin and folly who do not.” So, there’s our obligation: this great, chief being is God and our obligation is to believe that He is.

So, this raises a question, and that’s question three: “How may we know there is a God?” This is the answer: “The light of nature in man, and the works of God, plainly declare there is a God; but His Word and Spirit only, do it fully and effectually for the salvation of sinners.” So, that God exists is known through the light of nature, through the world that God made; it’s a testimony to His presence, a testimony to His existence. But He is known fully and effectually through the Word and through His ministry of the Spirit, and that is the knowledge that leads to salvation.

The Next Day

The year 2017, of course, was the five-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and October 31 was marked by commemorations of that movement and of Martin Luther’s nailing the Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. But after October 31 is November 1—the day after. It is worth asking what comes next. It is a good time to pause and reflect on what we can learn from the legacy of the Reformation and also to think about our legacy. Church history is a book that is still being written, and chapters are still being added to it.

We have a lot to be thankful for as we look back to the Reformers. We think not only of Luther; it wasn’t just his Reformation in Wittenberg. It was across the German lands. But we can go down to the Swiss city-states and see the Reformation there. And what a great legacy those places have left for us. We could go over to England and the legacy of the British Reformation under Henry VIII and we could also go a generation ahead of that and see the Puritans and what a great legacy they’ve left us. We have the Scottish Reformation and John Knox. And as all of these different branches of the Reformation made their way to the New World and settled into America, the landscape of American Christianity took shape. Ultimately, we can trace our roots back to the Lutheran church in Germany.

Scripture talks about how we drink from wells that we did not dig and we eat from vineyards that we did not plant (Deut. 6:11). We have to think of that when we think of the Reformers: they dug the wells, they planted the vineyards, they’ve helped us think through theology, they’ve helped us think through how to function as a church, and above all they’ve helped us think biblically about what we do and how we live. We drink from their wells and we eat from their vineyards.

But if Christ does not come back, there will be centuries still to come and many will come after us. What kind of wells are we digging for them? What kind of vineyards are we planting for them? Are they going to enjoy the same wells and the same vineyards that we’re enjoying from the Reformers? As we think through these questions, there is a monument to Luther at Eisenach that is worth contemplating. On the back of the statue are the words from his hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Above all, the Reformers reminded us of the importance and the primacy of knowing who God is. From there, we understand who we are. From there, we understand who Christ is and our relationship to God. It all flows from this knowledge of God.

Another thing about this monument that we need to note is that Luther is holding a Bible. This captures the essence of the Reformation. The Reformation was a movement that had tremendous reach and staying power; it impacted not just the church but also the culture. It was not simply a church history event; it was a world history event. And it happened because the Reformers knew they had to stand on the timeless, eternal, abiding truth of the Word of God. And if we want to leave a legacy for those who come after us, we need to realize that we too must stand upon the solid and sure foundation of God’s Word. That’s our task in our moment of church history: to be timeless by appealing to the eternal and living and the abiding Word of God.

The 95 Theses, Part 2

In our last look at the Ninety-Five Theses, we left off with thesis 56, where Luther said that the truth was not sufficiently known among the people. Luther went on to say in thesis 62, “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” What Luther is referring to here is the treasury of merit, the idea that the saints had accumulated more grace than they needed. All that accumulated grace is laid up in heaven. At the top of the chain of saints is Mary, and she is full of grace. We lowly sinners can tap into that accumulated grace. Luther said that the treasury of merit is not the true treasure of the church; the true treasure of the church is the gospel.

In thesis 90, Luther writes, “To repress these convincing arguments of the laity by force alone and not to resolve them by giving reasonable answers is to expose the church and the pope to ridicule of their enemies and to leave Christians unsatisfied.” Luther, as he finishes up his Ninety-Five Theses, is warning against simply dismissing his points; he says the church should take them seriously. Of course, we know that the church didn’t. In fact, when Pope Leo X got a copy of the Ninety-Five Theses, his first response was, “Ah, the ramblings of a drunken German. He will think differently when he sobers up.” He clearly underestimated Luther and he clearly underestimated what was happening in that moment when Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the church door. I’m not even sure Luther had a full sense of the implications and the consequences of this singular action of posting of the Ninety-Five Theses.

As he gets to thesis 92, Luther quotes Jeremiah and tells us, “Away, away then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ‘Peace, peace,’ and there is no peace.” What Luther is saying is that the church is a false prophet. The church was saying, “Here, come buy this indulgence. Take this pilgrimage. Give money to this. Light this candle in front of this relic and you’ll have peace with God.” Luther said that’s a false prophet and there’s no peace there but only despair.

Then Luther says in thesis 93, “Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ‘Cross, cross,’ and there is no cross.” What does that mean? Luther is saying there is no cross because there is no cross for us. Christ endured the cross so that we don’t have to, and through His work on our behalf, He brought us peace with God. We can be reconciled to God not because of anything we have done but by being justified by faith alone through what Christ has done for us.

So, that’s Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses. It was the beginning of the Reformation. Luther continued to serve the church over the coming decades, but it all started at the doors at the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.

The 95 Theses, Part 1

Last time, we looked at the introduction and the first two of the Ninety-Five Theses. Now let’s look at a few more of the Ninety-Five Theses.

Thesis number 21 says, “Therefore, those preachers of indulgences are in error when they say that by the pope’s indulgences a man is freed from every penalty and is saved.” This shows Luther going right for the heart of the issue. He knew that the indulgence sales were unprecedented and against church law. They were flat-out wrong. And he was calling the church and the indulgence preachers on it. In thesis 27, Luther says, “They preach man-made doctrines that say so soon as the coin jingles into the moneybox the soul flies out or purgatory.” First, Luther calls this a man-made doctrine. It’s not a biblical doctrine. But he also reveals here the marketing jingle that was part of the practice of selling indulgences. In the German, it rhymes; it’s klingt and springt. When a coin clinks in the indulgence box, a soul from purgatory springs. Luther says there’s no biblical warrant for this teaching. In fact, he says in thesis 28, “It is certain that when the coin jingles into the moneybox greed and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the church is in the power of God alone.” You cannot buy salvation, Luther said, and it certainly doesn’t come automatically by throwing a coin into a moneybox.

In thesis 50, Luther says, “Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.” This is showing what was behind the indulgence sales: the need to refill the papal treasuries that were being exhausted in the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther pointed out that the sales were not for any pious purpose, not to advance any biblical purpose; they were designed simply to fill the church and to build monuments not to God but to men. He goes on in thesis 51, “Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope’s wish as it is his duty to give of his own money to many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons could cajole money.” That is a reference to Johann Tetzel, the Dominican friar who, as Luther saw it, was manipulating people into giving money to this indulgence sale. In thesis 53, Luther says, “The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the indulgence commissary or the pope himself were to stake his soul upon it.” Why is it in vain? Because there is simply no biblical warrant for it.

In thesis 56, Luther says, “The treasures of the church, out of which the pope grants indulgences, are not sufficiently named or known among the people of Christ.” And that’s exactly why Luther wrote the Ninety-Five Theses: because the truth was not known among the people and the truth was not being taught. And that’s what Martin Luther did when he nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the church door; he was being a true teacher.


They are probably the most famous doors in church history; they might even be the most famous doors in history. They are the doors of the Schlosskirche, the Castle Church, in Wittenberg, Germany. The doors that exist now are not the original wooden doors to which Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses. Those doors are long since gone, having burned in 1760; they have been replaced by bronze doors. The bronze doors are very heavy; they weigh about a ton. Inscribed on the doors are the Ninety-Five Theses in Latin.

When he posted the theses, Luther was very troubled by what was happening in his church. He was troubled by the practice of indulgence peddling and by other practices in the church. In the preface to the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther wrote, “Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg over the oversight of the reverend father Martin Luther, master of arts and of sacred theology and lecturer on these subjects at Wittenberg. Wherefore, he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us may do so by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, amen.” And then he went on to present the Ninety-Five Theses.

In the theses, Luther was calling for a debate. In his role as a priest, he saw himself as having an intense obligation concerning the eternal souls of those under his care. And as a theologian, he also had an obligation to the church to see that it maintained the truth and maintained orthodox teaching. As Luther studied the Bible and compared it to what he was seeing in the church, he saw that they were not compatible, that there was a wide gulf between them. So, he called for a debate. We can see in the first two theses what Luther was up to. In the first thesis, he wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ He intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” Now, it’s fascinating that Luther would say that. In 1516, Desiderius Erasmus published his critical Greek New Testament with the Greek text on one side and the Latin text on the other side. A copy made its way to Wittenberg, and Luther read it. He poured himself into this Greek text, and he realized early on that the Latin text mistranslated Christ’s first sermon, in which He says, “Repent.” The Latin has poenitentiam agite, which translates to “Do penance.” Luther knew enough Greek to know that’s not a good translation. In fact, he goes on to tell us in thesis 2, “The word ‘repentance’ cannot be understood to mean the sacrament of penance or the act of confession and satisfaction administered by the priests.”

So, the stage is set. On one hand, we have the biblical teaching, and on the other hand, we have the teaching of the church. As Luther rolled through the Ninety-Five Theses, he continued to challenge the church. He was after the truth, so he walked from the Black Cloister, the Augustinian monastery to the Castle Church and nailed his Ninety-Five Theses. Luther was calling his church for debate, and we can thank God that he did.