“Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!” These were the last words of William Tyndale (1494-1536) on Friday, October 6, 1536, just before he was strangled and burned at the stake. One might think that Tyndale was burned at the stake for being a Christian, professing belief in Jesus Christ. However, you would be mistaken. Tyndale was martyred because he rejected the papacy and persisted in translating the Scriptures into the vernacular. As Tyndale himself proclaimed, “I defy the pope, and all his laws; and if God spare me I will one day make the boy that drives the plough in England to know more of Scripture than the pope himself!” In case you are not yet shocked by what Tyndale spilled his blood for, let me emphasize this one more time: Tyndale did not die for believing in Jesus (as Christian martyrs today might). He died for believing in the biblical truths of the Reformation.
We would be in error to think that Tyndale, who translated the Scriptures from Greek to English, was an exception. As Tyndale himself witnessed, many other Reformers died for much lesser crimes against the Roman Catholic Church. Men were thrown in prison and even executed simply for being caught with a copy of Luther’s writings! Besides Tyndale, a multitude of other martyrs could be mentioned. Consider the reign of Queen Mary (1553-58), infamously known as “Bloody Mary.” John Rogers was the first to be martyred under her reign. Rogers was burned at the stake for teaching the truths of the Reformation. In fact, Rogers aided Tyndale in distributing his English New Testament.
Others—most famously Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley—would follow in the footsteps of Rogers. Both men rejected papal authority and the Roman Mass, and this solidified their doom on October 16, 1555. As Latimer and Ridley were tied to the stake back to back, Latimer famously said to Ridley, “Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.”
Lessons from Their Testimonies
What is so amazing about the deaths of these men? Not only were they willing to die because they were Christians but also because they believed doctrine mattered. Men like Tyndale, Rogers, Latimer, Ridley, and many others, were willing to be burned at the stake for doctrines like sola Scriptura and sola fide. While we are under no threat in our own day for being burned at the stake for translating the Scriptures into English or for believing in the solas of the Reformation, there are several lessons we can learn from these testimonies.
First, since these are truths so many Christians have died for, we should seek to value them and not take them for granted. When you routinely open your Bible each morning for devotions, take a minute to be reminded that men like Tyndale died so that you can read your Bible in the English language. I recall the example of Steve Lawson, pastor of Christ Fellowship Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama. In the opening page of Lawson’s Bible he has pasted a picture of John Rogers and on the closing page a picture of his martyrdom when he was burned at the stake. For Lawson, these pictures remind him every time he opens God’s Word that Christians like Rogers have laid down their life for the great truths we so freely proclaim today.
Second, “play the man” today by standing by the doctrines so many have died for. Be unwavering in your commitment to doctrine, even at the expense of your own popularity, career, reputation, or success. Today, we are not faced with dying for doctrines like justification by faith alone or the priesthood of every believer. Nevertheless, by witnessing the cost by which these doctrines were won for us we should become all the more bold to stand for these truths.
In other words, if these men were willing to die for such truths how much more should I be willing to stand for them today? Many examples come to mind. If you are a pastor, ministering in a difficult church, do not waver in your commitment to the truth even when those in your congregation criticize the doctrines you are proclaiming. Or perhaps you are a teacher at a school where you are surrounded by more liberal colleagues. Be resolved and steadfast in affirming sound doctrine, even if it be at the expense of your own career. Maybe you are a student being criticized because you believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. Remain determined and immutable in your affirmation of God’s Word. You might be a Christian who is tempted to reject the biblical doctrine of eternal punishment or the exclusivity of the gospel. Be on guard, less you also fall prey to false doctrine and fail to heed Paul’s admonishment and warning to only agree with sound words (1 Tim 6:3-4; cf. 1 Tim 4:6; 2 Tim 4:2-3; Titus 1:9; 2:1).
Are we willing to not only stand up for the fact that we are Christians but also for the important doctrines of the Christian faith? May we be among those who, as Latimer said, “play the man.”
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
The Reformation by Stephen J. Nichols
“Why Doctrine Matters” by R. Albert Mohler Jr.