The Martyr at the Stake

Isaiah

The Martyr at the Stake

May 3rd, 1964 @ 10:50 AM

Isaiah 51:1

Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the LORD: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged.
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THE MARTYR AT THE STAKE

Dr. W. A. Criswell

Isaiah 51:1

5-03-64    10:50 a.m.

 

 

 

On the radio and on television you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas.  This is the pastor bringing the eleven o’clock morning message entitled The Martyr at the Stake.  This is the one hundred fiftieth, sesquicentennial year celebration of the organized work of our Baptist people on the North American continent.  This month of May, in Atlantic City, shall gather representatives of all of our Baptist work on this great Northern American continent.  And out of deference and in keeping with this year of celebration and jubilee, I am preparing these special addresses being delivered at these Sunday morning hours.  In the fifty-first chapter of Isaiah and the first verse, the great court preacher and prime minister and king’s confidant, the prophet, said, “Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged.  Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you” [Isaiah 51:1-2].  And in keeping with that call of the ancient Hebrew prophet, calling his people to a remembrance of their past history and to their forefathers, in keeping with that call and admonition of the ancient prophet, these services and these addresses are prepared through these immediate weeks.

Last Sunday morning that I preached, Sunday a week ago, the sermon concerned the advance of the Christian faith from the time of the preaching of John the Baptist to the establishment of the church as the state and coercive religion.  And as a summary of that address, in order to prepare us for the following centuries, I briefly review it.

In 324 AD, the emperor Constantine made Christianity the state and established religion of the Roman Empire.  In about 400 AD, Augustine, whose great and towering mind fell from one apostasy to another from the Holy Scriptures, Augustine promulgated the doctrine that if infants were not baptized they would spend an eternity in the fires of hell.  And seven years later, in 407 AD, the Roman emperor signed the edict that all babies must be baptized.  And in 550 AD, the emperor Julian promulgated the edict that the whole Roman Empire—by force—must be baptized.

To show you that we’re not speaking of alien matters, I have in my hand a leaf from Time magazine of last week.  Let’s read an article in it, sentence or two from it:  “A child is born, takes a few agonized breaths, dies un-baptized.  What then happens to its soul?  Un-baptized babies go to a fringe of hell.”  Next paragraph, “Most Christians have always defended the necessity of baptism for salvation.  ‘They are vessels of contumely and the wrath of God is upon them,’ wrote St. Augustine, ‘and if no one frees them from the grasp of the devil, what wonder is it that they must suffer in flames with him?’  These are the eternal consignments of the un-baptized.”  So according to the theology of Augustine, which was accepted by the established church, the power of the Roman Empire was used to force babies to be baptized, finally everyone to be baptized; and the national established church became congruent with the nation, the empire itself.

As the years passed, the Saracens destroyed the churches of Alexandria, of Caesarea, of Jerusalem, of Ephesus; and later on the Mohammedan Turk destroyed the bishopric at Constantinople.  And that left the bishop of Rome without a peer, unchallenged in the whole earth.  And by fire and by fagot, by flame and by flood, by power, and by sword, using the police of the state, the established church sought to make the entire world conform with the state religion.

But in those centuries and in those dark and bloody ages, God was never without His true churches, and God was never without His true witnesses.  And this is the address of this morning hour.  There were literally rivers of blood that bathed the three great things that I speak of this morning:  one, the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God; two, the ordinance of baptism, believer’s baptism; and three, the state and the church.  We begin with the Holy Scriptures.

It was by law, it was by edict, it was by mandate that no one should read the Word of God.  In 1176, there was converted, in the providence of God, marvelously, miraculously, there was converted a rich merchant of Lyons, France, by the name of Peter Waldo.  He took his great fortune, he hired learned scholars who translated the Holy Scriptures out of the ancient languages into the vernacular of the people, into French, into Flemish, into German; and he sent out laymen who had memorized the Word of God, who went up and down the streets of the cities, in the open marketplaces, out in the country lanes, everywhere they began to preach and to teach the Word of God.  That of course brought down upon them the ire and the horrible persecution of the state religion.  But they continued in their testimony and founded communities all over civilized Europe.  They were artisans, they were craftsmen, they were weavers, they went from cottage to cottage, from palace to palace, and opened their wares of silks, and jewels, and gold, and silver to those who were able to buy.

I remember when I was a boy, even in my day there were drummers who came by the house, who would open their big suitcases before my mother, and she would choose gingham, and calico, and other things, and would sew, making clothes for the family.  These were the Waldensians.  And as they went from place to place, selling their wares, offering and exhibiting their craftsmanship, they also carried the Word of God.  And I have copied out of the poetry of Whittier, our American Quaker poet, a scene:  there is a Waldensian merchant, and as he finishes showing his wares, the dear lady asks, “Is this all?”

“Yes, there are other great rarities,” he replied.  “I have one precious stone through which you can see God and another that kindles love to Him in the heart.”  And then he proceeds:

 

“O lady fair, I have yet a gem which purer lustre flings,

Than the diamond flash of the jeweled crown on the lofty brow of kings,—

A wonderful pearl of exceeding price, whose virtue will not decay,

Whose light shall be as a spell to thee and a blessing on thy way!”

 

The cloud went off from the pilgrim’s brow, as a small, meager Book,

Unchased with gold or gem of cost, from his folding robe he took!

“Here, lady fair, is the pearl of price, may it prove as much to thee!

Nay—keep thy gold—I ask it not, for the Word of God is free!”

[“The Vaudois Teacher,” John Greenleaf Whittier]

 

So the Waldensian merchants and artisans and craftsmen began to sow Europe down with the seed of the living Word of the Holy Scriptures.

And in 1330, John Wycliffe, in our England, was born.  And John Wycliffe was marvelously converted, and he made it the great commitment of his life that a plowboy in his native England could read and could know the Word of God.  So Wycliffe translated God’s Word out of the original languages into the vernacular of the English people.  And he did the same thing as Peter Waldo: he gathered laymen, they were called Lollards, and he taught them that Word, and they memorized that Book, and they went out in the lanes, and the highways, and the byways of England, preaching the unsearchable riches of the Son of God.  Again the state and established church bathed them in blood.  Every sheriff in England took an oath to persecute the Lollard; and within ten days to deliver an accused heretic for burning at the stake.  But God blessed them; they were unable to lay hands of martyrdom upon John Wycliffe.

He died a martyr’s death.  But after he was dead and buried, they came and dug up his body and burned it and scattered the ashes on the little River Swift.  But the River Swift runs into the Avon, and the Avon runs into the Severn, and the Severn runs into the sea, and the sea bathes the shores of the continents of the earth!  So the gospel message of John Wycliffe covered the globe.  He died in 1384.

In 1385, John Huss brought his Bible and brought his writings to Prague.  And there, under the protection of the queen, he began to preach and to scatter abroad the truth of the Lord.  In 1498, Savonarola was burned.  And in those days the Renaissance began to add to the flame, for men of learning began to appeal from the decrees of the established church to the text of the fathers, and from the fathers to the text of the Latin Vulgate, and from the Latin Vulgate to the original Greek parchments, and men began to know the truth that makes men free.  And to add to the ferment, Gutenberg—between 1450 and 1455—invented movable type and printed the first Book, the Word of God.  This is the blood that bathed the Holy Scriptures in those dark and terrible years.

I speak second of believer’s baptism, a regenerate church membership that these who are saved on a confession of their faith are to be baptized [Matthew 28:19].  The great watchword of the Reformation was sola scriptura, “the Scriptures only.”  There was gathered around Zwingli in Zurich, a little group of faithful students.  And their roots went back through those centuries when the Word of God was magnified.  And the great Reformers—Zwingli in Zurich, Luther in Germany, and Calvin in Geneva—those great Reformers took the Word of God, and they brought to life and to glory some of its tremendous doctrines:  justification by faith [Romans 5:1], regeneration by the blood of Christ [Titus 3:5].  But, but, they still clung to, and held on to, and embraced many, many of the doctrines of the state and established church.  And in each instance they, themselves, established a persecuting and a coercive state religion.  Luther did it in Germany, Zwingli did it in Zurich, and Calvin did it in Geneva; and as I said, around Zwingli there was a little group of students.  They loved and adored their master, but as they began to study the Word of God and as they began to read from its sacred pages, they said, “The Holy Scriptures avow only a believer is to be baptized.  First we’re to be saved, then we’re to be baptized [Acts 8:36-38].  And a church is not made of coercive souls that by force are made to join it; but a church is to be a regenerated fellowship and men are to be free to be baptized or not to be baptized.  This was the doctrine, the first time the world ever heard it, this was the doctrine of that little band gathered around Zwingli.

They came to be known as Anabaptists.  “Anabaptists,” to us the word is kind of a pretty word, “Anabaptists.”  It means “rebaptizer,” but for centuries that word meant death.  There was never a word coined, there was never a word spoken that had in it the ridicule, and the sarcasm, and the sadistic persecution and death, as that word “Anabaptist,” a “rebaptizer.”  Menno Simon, for example, wrote:

 

While our murderers are saluted by all around as masters and lords, we are compelled to hear ourselves called Anabaptists, and are thus treated as the pests of society.  What misery and anxiety have I felt in the deadly perils of persecution for my sick wife and little children?  While others lie on soft beds and cushions, we must creep away into secret corners.  While others engage in festivities, we must look around whenever a dog barks, fearing the spies are on our tracks.  Yet those who suffered with Jesus then, reign with Him now. 

 

Anabaptists:  those who believed that no one was baptized until, on a confession of faith, he gave his heart to Jesus—which meant infant baptism was not according to the Word of God—which is the veritable truth of the Holy Scriptures.

Then again there followed that endless bath of blood and burning at the stake, and drowning from one side of Europe to the other.  They suffered as much at the hands of the Reformed church as they did at the hand of the Roman church.  There was no voice lifted in their defense, there was no court to protect them, there was no ruler to befriend them.  They were the hated and the despised and the off-scouring of the earth, wherever they turned and wherever they lived.

In 1498, the year that Savonarola was burned, Felix Manz was born.  In 1522, he became a convert of that Anabaptist faith, the faith of the Word of God.  Immediately there followed persecution, exile, dungeon, imprisonment. On the fifth day of January, in 1527, he was marched through the streets of Zurich, amid contumely and ridicule and ignominious shame.  He was accompanied by his old mother, who brushed away her tears, and encouraged her son to be faithful unto death.  There in the Lamont River—a sacred place where I have stood twice with bowed head, with bowed head—there by the Lamont River, they bound him, tying his hands over his knees, and said, “He likes lots of water, he likes water, let’s give him lots of water!”  And they drowned him in the Lamont River, one out of a multitude.  Wherever a man was rebaptized—as they said “Anabaptist”—where he was baptized, he was executed.  To be baptized meant to die:  they were one, and the synonymous, and the same.

I have copied two of their testimonies out of a multitude.  After five had been drowned in the river, one was tortured on the rack to force him to betray his brethren, especially the man who baptized him; and he cried as his body was torn, and broken on the wheel, he cried:

 

I am a citizen of heaven.  My country is everywhere, and my burial place anywhere.  I will not betray my brethren, even if you tear me to pieces.  My body is yours; slay it, lacerate it, destroy it if you please.  Increase your cruelty, but my soul is free from torture, and full of joy from the consolations which God pours into my heart.  I have received the true baptism; the testimony of the Scriptures persuaded me to do it. I have left a life of sin and put on the likeness of Christ.

 

And the old martyr died in the faith.

Before a court hearing where they sentenced him to death, a simple-hearted miller said this:

 

Since I heard the Word of God, renounced my regular life, and was baptized on confession of my sin, I have been persecuted by everyone; while before, when I was plunged into all manner of vice, nobody chastened me or put me in prison.  I am confined in the tower like a murderer, and what is my crime?  What evil have I done?

 

Just this:  that on a confession of his faith in Jesus he was buried with the Lord in baptism, and raised in the likeness of His resurrection [Romans 6:3-5].

The greatest of all of those Anabaptist preachers was Dr. Balthazar Hübmaier.  He was born in 1480.  He received, in 1512, his doctor’s degree from the University of Ingolstadt; in 1522, he was marvelously saved.  And he, being learned like Felix Manz, his friend, in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin, he began to take the original Scriptures and preaching from them, he began to expound the truth of God to the people.  He was marvelously eloquent and people flocked to hear him and were converted, were saved, and were baptized.  He was exiled; he was placed in a dungeon.  I want you to listen to his description of his dungeon, think of this:

 

Where no light of sun or moon penetrate, in impenetrable darkness, where bread and water are the only nourishment and these cannot be taken for days together on account of the sickening odors.  For the living are set up with the dead, with no hope of escape but in death or recantation.

 

Think of that!  In the throat of a prison never clean, in the innermost dungeon never lighted, for when the dead died by their sides they were left to putrefy and decay.  And the only escape was to be liberated in death itself or to deny the faith.  Think of it.

In one of those imprisonments, Balthazar Hubmaier wrote a document that we possess, “Twelve Articles of Christian Belief.”  And he closed it with this prophetic and pathetic appeal:

O holy God, O mighty God, O immortal God, this is my belief, which I confess with my heart and mouth, and have witnessed before the church in water baptism.  Faithfully, graciously keep me in that till my end, I pray.  And though I be driven from it by human fear and terror, by tyranny, pain, sword, fire, or water, yet hereby I cry to Thee, O my merciful Father, raise me up again by the grace of Thy Holy Spirit, and let me not depart in death without this faith.  This I pray Thee through Jesus Christ, Thy blessed, beloved Son, and our Lord and Savior.  For in Thee, O Father, I hope.  Let me not be put to shame in eternity.  Amen.

 

In 1527, they arrested the great Baptist preacher and his wife.  And in the square in Vienna, on the tenth day of March, in 1528, he was burned at the stake.  And three days later, because his wife refused to recant, she was plunged into the blue waters of the Danube River, and died.

Menno Simon was the vicar of the state church in Netherlands.  And in 1531, he witnessed the martyrdom of a Baptist preacher.  He was introduced to believer’s baptism in the testimony of that Anabaptist.  He began to study the Word of God, and as he studied the Word of God, in a nearby village three hundred of those Anabaptists were martyred.  In agony of soul, he prayed for the light from heaven.  He was marvelously converted.  He resigned his pulpit and his established church, and he identified himself with those hated and hunted Sectarians, those Baptists.  He himself was a tremendous preacher of glory and power.  So much so, that there were parts of the Anabaptists of Holland that became known as “Mennonites,” who migrated to America—whom you have seen from time to time in different sections of this country.  I haven’t time to speak of it here.  But I have two marvelous quotations from Menno Simon regarding the faith, once for all delivered to the saints [Jude 1:3].

I have spoken of the Holy Word of God, so briefly.  I have spoken of the holy ordinance of believer’s baptism, so briefly.  I now speak of the church and the state.  The trek of the Anabaptists over Europe was a pilgrimage in martyrdom.  For a man to be a Baptist was to die.  For a man to shelter a Baptist was to die.  The confiscation of their property, the drowning of the women, the burning and beheading of the man, the loss and agony was indescribable.  How any man, how any family could ever embrace the faith of the Son of God as is revealed in the Holy Word, I cannot understand, at so great a cost, at so great a price.  Where did that martyrdom arise?  Whence did it come?  It came in the coercive power of the state, guided by the church!  For you see, a regenerated church membership makes impossible the very conception of the idea of an established state church!

In the nature of the church, the Anabaptists found the great fundamental primary doctrine of the separation from the state and religious liberty.  They were the only people in the earth, the only people in the earth who lifted up their voices for soul freedom.  The Reformers had their state churches that coerced and persecuted like the Roman church.  But that little band of surviving Baptists, bathed in blood, drowned in tears, decimated and martyred on every hand, they were the only voice in this earth who pled for freedom, choice of soul, liberty of conscience.  And there was nobody to defend them, and no voice raised in their behalf.

One of the authors, one of the historians I read said that up and down the highways of Europe, you would find their dead bodies rotting and hanging on every tree.  In the reign of Charles V, the emperor of Spain under the Holy Roman Empire, in less than twenty-five years he killed more than fifty thousand of them.  He was succeeded by his son Philip II—and in those days when Philip II had made a secret treaty with Henry II of France to annihilate the Baptists from the earth—in those days, in the providence of God, a ray of light and hope burst from heaven.  God raised up a great statesman and military strategist by the name of William, Prince of Orange.  And in 1568, when Philip II of the Holy Roman Empire began to implement the terrible tyranny and martyrdom to destroy our people from the earth, in those days William of Orange raised a banner of liberty against him.

There came a delegation of beat, persecuted, hated, hunted, and despised Baptists who called upon the Prince of Orange.  They had gathered together all that they could give, and they brought it as a gift for the holy cause of liberty and freedom espoused by his majesty.  And when the small sum, all that they possessed, was laid at the feet of the Prince of Orange, he lifted up his face, and said, “And now, what are your demands?”  And those Anabaptists replied, “With so many widows and orphans left by their martyrs,” in their poverty they apologized that it couldn’t be more, but all they asked was this, and I quote, “Just the friendship of your grace, if God bestows upon you the government of Holland.”  He pledged them his friendship, and God gave success to his armies, and the Netherlands were freed.  And it became a land of refuge, and solace, and encouragement to the hunted and the despised in the earth.  For against the admonition and appeals of his best friends, William, Prince of Orange kept true to that promise to those Anabaptists, “We shall have freedom and liberty in Holland.”

And that’s why in England in 1602, when John Smyth was converted and left the Church of England and became pastor of a little Separatist church in Gainsborough, in whose congregation was William Brewster—he knew of William Brewster through Scrooby—and soon, the two persecuted little churches fled to Holland.  There John Smyth became an Anabaptist and baptized Thomas Helwys, his successor.  William Brewster took his little congregation and fled away to America and landed in a little place called Plymouth; there now, the state of Massachusetts. 

But Thomas Helwys, pastor of the other little persecuted congregation, gathered his flock together, and preached, saying, “It’s not right for us to enjoy the liberty of Holland, when our people are dying and executed, martyred and burned in England.”  So he gathered his little flock together, and they returned to England, to preach the gospel of the grace of God and the freedom of the soul.  When Thomas Helwys, in 1611, landed in England, he addressed a letter to King James I, His Majesty.  And the first time any king in the history of the world ever heard words like this was when his eyes fell upon this letter, written by the pastor of that little Baptist church to his majesty, King James I.  I’ve written it out here, spelling as he spelled it.  Take a look at it; I read it to you: he said;

 

Hear, hear, O King, and despise not ye counsel of ye poor, and let this complaint come before thee.  The king is a mortal man, and not God; therefore he hath no power over ye immortal souls of his subjects, to make laws and ordinances for them, and to set spiritual lords over them.  If the king have authority to make spiritual lords and laws, then he is an immortal god, and not a mortal man.  O King, be not deceived by deceivers thus to sin against God, whom thou oughtest to obey, nor against thy poor subjects. 

God save ye, King,

Thomas Helwys,

Pastor of that little Baptist church. 

 

They threw him in prison; he stayed there till he died.  But he sent a fire, a light, a glory in England that has never died; for one of the converts to sow liberty and freedom of state and freedom of church was named Roger Williams.  We’ll pick up the story there the next time I have opportunity to follow it with the succeeding address.

Now may I say a concluding word?  As much as in days passed, I have been introduced to our Baptist story and the history of our Baptist people I never knew, I never realized the rivers, the rivers, the rivers of blood that bathed every syllable of that record.  I do not exaggerate when I tell you that literally, poring through those musty pages, literally my heart sickened as I read of the blood, and the martyrdom, and the burning, and the drowning, and the agonizing, and the crying, and the rotting in dungeon, the loss of property, the orphaning of children, the widowing of women.  Wherever they went, the hand of the state through the established church was against them; and they died, and they died, and they died, and they died.  And one great thought came to my soul again and again and again:  how did such witnesses bear up under such heavy, heavy persecution?  How did they face the fagot, and the flame, and the stake?  How were they triumphant in their testimony?  I found a very simple answer:  raising their eyes to glory, beyond the flame that burned, and the water that drowned, and the flood that swept away, they looked for the coming and the appearing and the kingdom of Jesus:

 

For I am now ready to be offered up, and my departure is at hand.  I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith:  Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge shall give me at that day:  and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing

[2 Timothy 4:6-8]

 

I saw the martyr at the stake,

The flames could not his courage shake,

Nor death his soul appall:

I asked him whence his strength was given,

He looked triumphantly to heaven,

And answered, Christ is all!

 

I dreamed that hoary time had fled,

The earth and sea gave up their dead,

A fire destroyed this ball:

I saw the Church’s ransomed throng;

I caught the burden of their song,—

‘Twas this, that Christ is all

[“Christ is All,” Rev. Dr. Edmond]

 

In all, in all, over all—forever and ever, amen and amen!  They were sustained in life, in death, in prison, in forest, in field, in flood, and in fire by the blessed hope of the blessed appearing of the precious, reigning, living Lord Jesus [Titus 2:13].

O God, to us may grace be given to follow in their train.

While we sing our song of appeal, somebody you this morning give his heart and his life to Jesus.  A family you coming into the fellowship of the church; a couple you, or just one, while we sing this hymn of appeal, make it now.  In the balcony round, there’s a stairway at the front and the back, time and to spare, come.  In the press of people on this lower floor, into the aisle and down to the front, “Pastor, I give you my hand; I give my heart to God.”  As the Spirit of Jesus shall say the word and open the way make it now, come now, while we stand and while we sing.