The Morning Star of the Reformation: John Wycliffe & the Lollard Tradition
2 Peter 1:16-21

Before the sun rises in the morning to drive away the darkness of the night, a bright star often shines beautifully in the eastern sky. We call it the morning star. It tells us that the sun will soon appear above the horizon. The Protestant Reformation was like the sun rising on the church after a long bleak night. John Wycliffe was born during a time of great spiritual darkness. He has been called “the Morning Star of the Reformation” because God used him to shine rays of light into the spiritual darkness of England and much of Europe. He was not actually one of the Reformers, but he, like Peter Waldo, helped prepare the way for the Reformation.

Just out of curiosity, how many of you have ever heard of John Wycliffe? You may not know it, but we are all deeply indebted to Wycliffe—in addition to confronting some of the false teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, he was responsible for the first translation of the Bible into the English language! He paved the way for each of us to be able to read God’s Word in our own language and to see the gospel of Jesus Christ for what is really is! Let me tell you his story!

 

John Wycliffe and the Lollards

John Wycliffe was born in the hinterlands of England, on a sheep farm some 200 miles from London in A.D. 1324. Intellectually gifted, left the family farm and began his studies at Merton College, Oxford University in 1346, eventually becoming a doctor of theology. While a student at Oxford, he came under the tutelage of a godly professor who taught that God alone can save people from their sins. This professor also encouraged him to read the Scriptures for himself. Wycliffe fell in love with the Scriptures and studied them gladly.

In 1349, when he was about 25 years old, the plague reached England. This dreadful plague started in Asia and swept westward across Europe. Because of the black splotches on sick person’s skin, it was called “the black death.” The pandemic was responsible for the death of about one-third of Europe’s population. It left a deep impression on young Wycliffe. He studied the Scripture even more fervently, seeking refuge from the judgment to come. He spent hours in prayer, asking God to show him what to do with his life. God called him into the ministry.

After entering the ministry, he moved three times. His last move was to the little town of Lutterworth where he earned a reputation as a great gospel preacher. He preached with a clarity and power that was rare in those days. Even King Edward III came to hear him.

Over time, the more Wycliffe read the Bible, the more errors he saw in the doctrine and practice of his beloved Roman Catholic church. Many of the clergy had taken vows of poverty, but they dressed up like beggars and traveled all over the country, forcing their way into the houses of the rich and poor, living without paying for things, and taking all the money they could get. They spent so much of their time begging that many of them became wealthy. Like the Pharisees in the Bible, they pretended to be holier than others, although their lives were full of sin and evil.

Wycliffe also realized that many of the Roman Catholic beliefs he had been taught were simply not biblical. He began to write about his conflicts with official church teaching:

  • He wrote against the doctrine of transubstantiation, which teaches that the bread and wine actually becomes the physical body and blood of Christ during communion.
  • He challenged the idea of indulgences, which teaches that you can purchase the souls of loved ones from purgatory.
  • He repudiated the confessional, which teaches that people must confess their sins to a priest if they were to receive forgiveness.
  • He reiterated the biblical teaching on faith: “Trust wholly in Christ; rely altogether on his sufferings; beware of seeking to be justified in any other way than by his righteousness.”
  • Believing that every Christian should have access to Scripture (only Latin translations were available at the time), he began translating the Bible into English, with the help of his good friend John Purvey.

 

The Roman Catholic church bitterly opposed Wycliffe’s teachings. The priests even said of his English Bible, “By this translation, the Scriptures have become vulgar, and they are more available to lay, and even to women who can read, than they were to learned scholars, who have a high intelligence. So the pearl of the gospel is scattered and trodden underfoot by swine.” To that remark, Wycliffe replied, “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.”

The church called Wycliffe to appear before a council to answer for his teachings. It became known as the Earthquake Council, because an earthquake occurred while the meeting was taking place. Wycliffe’s friends believed God was showing his anger toward his enemies and hoped it would thwart them. Despite appearing before multiple church councils and suffering all sorts of persecutions and tribulations, including being fired from his teaching post at Oxford, Wycliffe was never excommunicated or executed for his views.

Wycliffe died a peaceful death on December 31, 1384 at the age of sixty and was buried in the church graveyard at Lutterworth. Forty years after his death, his enemies dug up his bones, burned them to ashes, and threw the ashes into the Swift River. Afterward, someone said that just as Wycliffe’s ashes were thrown into the river that eventually flows into the ocean, so the Word of God that he preached and translated will make its way all over the world.

Before his death, he trained a large group of men to help him carry on his call for reform. These men went all over the country, preaching the gospel in churchyards, fairs, marketplaces, in the streets, and wherever they could get people to come and hear them. These men became known as Lollards. “Lollard” was a popular derogatory nickname given to people without an academic background, educated only in English. This name became associated with Wycliffe’s followers.

Over the next few centuries, the Roman Catholic Church condemned many Lollards as heretics and burned them at the stake. But they carried on Wycliffe’s message and influenced Jan Hus, Martin Luther, and many other eventual leaders of the Protestant Reformation. This is why he is called the “Morning Star of the Reformation.”

Wycliffe’s greatest contribution to the church was a renewed emphasis on biblical authority. He spent his whole life teaching people that God’s Word was the final authority for Christian faith and practice, not creeds, councils, or the Pope. These man-made institutions are fallible, but only God’s Word is infallible. (Diane Kleeyn, Refomation Heroes, 7-15)

 

Back to the Bible (2 Peter 1:16-21)

At its core, the Protestant Reformation was what we might call a “Back to the Bible” movement. God’s Word is the only reliable source of guidance for the church and our lives. History has proven that God’s people always get themselves into trouble when they depart from his Word.

The apostle Peter warned the church about this very issue in his second epistle. In chapter 1:16-21, he reminds the church that he and the other apostles did not rely on cleverly devised stories about Jesus’ power, but they were actual eyewitnesses of his majesty. They traveled with Jesus for more than three years and observed his teachings and miracles firsthand. In verses 17-18, he highlights the incredible episode of Jesus transfiguration. Peter, along with James and John, were with Jesus on the holy mountain and they heard the Father’s voice with their own ears. It must have been an awe-inspiring experience to see Jesus shine in radiance and to hear the Father exclaim, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

            Now wouldn’t it be great if God always used his direct audible voice to reveal his divine will to us? Can you image what it would be like to hear God verbalize things like: “Break up with that deadbeat…marry her, she’s a keeper…go to this college, not that one…take this job…don’t buy that house, it’s a money pit…move your retirement account now before the stock market crashes next year…or play these Powerball numbers on Friday!” Just kidding, God never wants us to play the lottery!

Many of us would love to have this type of direct revelation from God, wouldn’t we? But it very rarely works that way. This type of relationship with God wouldn’t require any faith. Instead, God has given us his written Word.

Peter declares, in verse 19, that the prophetic written Word is an even more reliable revelation than a miraculous occurrence of the audible voice of God. But why? Because the prophetic Word (in this case, the Old Testament) can be corroborated by countless people throughout centuries of time. An audible voice can only be verified by the few people who hear it in the moment. This is why Peter tells the church that they should pay close attention to the written Word. The Word of God has the power to penetrate the spiritual darkness and shine Jesus’ light of salvation into human hearts. After all, the Scripture’s origin is divine, not human. It is God’s Word, not mans. The prophets and other human authors of the Bible spoke from God and were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, the Word of God is completely reliable! The Bible—not the pope, not the creeds, not the councils, not the by-laws of our church, and definitely not some claim of God’s voice speaking directly to us—is the church’s final authority in all matters of faith and practice. The Bible is the only dependable source of divine revelation for God’s will in our lives. So, ladies, if some slick talking Romeo ever walks up to you and says, “God told me that I am supposed to marry you…” I want you to look him in the eye and say, “Well, that’s interesting! God told me that whenever I see you I should run like hell!” Tragically, I know some men who have done this—and I know a few women who have fallen for it!

Unfortunately, like John Wycliffe, we live in a time when many people don’t read the Bible or take it seriously. Even though we have the Bible translated into many clear and readable versions of the English language, so few take full advantage of the gift God has given us! Today we are more apt to look to what the broader culture, science, or our own experience as our life authority. Even some churches and whole denominations have abandoned the Bible. They make up their own doctrines and practices in an attempt to accommodate the politically correct culture around them. It is no wonder that the Christian church, as a whole, has drifted so far from God. It is exactly what happened to the Roman Catholic church in the middle-ages!

How about you? Do you take the Bible seriously? Do you read it? Do you study it? Is it your authority? Do you allow God’s Word to dictate your positions and opinions or do you try to conform God’s Word to your positions and opinions? The Bible is our only reliable guide for everything in our lives!

 

John Wycliffe knew that the church was in desperate need of reform. He was the morning star of the Reformation because did his very best to get the Bible in the hands of the people and get it back at the center of the church. Now here we are, many centuries later, and the church is still in need of reform. And so, may the morning star of God’s Word rise in our hearts and shine its light in dark places!

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