Around 1324 A.D. John Wycliffe was born in Yorkshire England. He was educated at Oxford University and later became known as its leading scholar, serving as Master of Balliol College. While at Oxford, Wycliffe began to put his shoulders to the task of reforming the Roman Church. However, unlike many others before him, he attacked not just the worldly lifestyle of the church but also its erroneous doctrines. Indeed, so great did his contribution become in this regard that he is known today as "the Morning Star of the Reformation." Some even call him "the father of the English Reformation."
What has earned him such a designation? There were many different facets to his life but limited space does not permit me to give you a full treatment. For those who are interested in his life, I may refer you to the book of David Fountain, John Wycliffe – The Dawn of the Reformation (Mayflower Christian Books, 1984).
Looking at Wycliffe's life from an evangelistic perspective, there are three aspects to which I wish to draw your attention.
The Struggle against Corruption
The first thing that we should note is that Wycliffe was totally committed to reforming the life of the church. He realized that as long as the church was caught in the grip of all sorts of corrupt practices, it could never function properly as a light and witness in this world.
Needless to say, such a position remains just as valid today. As long as the church does not exhibit and promote a lifestyle that is in harmony with the demands of the Gospel, its attempts at evangelism will be met with scorn and ridicule. Credibility without depends very much on holiness within. Consider only how the scandals surrounding certain television evangelists and the convictions of members of the clergy on sexual abuse charges, have undermined the reputation of the church generally.
Because of this understanding, Wycliffe saw it as his duty to attack the vices and the errors of the begging friars. They were everywhere, all over England and over much of Christendom. They claimed to be walking in the footsteps of Francis of Assisi and said that they depended on the gifts of others. In reality, however, they were a professional group of religious beggars who knew how to size up a crowd and to extract donations by means of long discourses on the seven deadly sins. Also, they used the promise of absolution from sin as a lever to obtain for themselves great riches and comforts.
Little wonder, therefore, that Wycliffe saw these friars as a real blot on the life of the church. They sapped its vitality and compromised its witness.
Indeed, Wycliffe saw the entire preoccupation of the Roman Church with powers and riches as unbiblical and shameful. Not for nothing did he repeatedly urge the rulers of England to stop allowing the church to collect massive amounts of money and send it to the Pope.
The Translation of the Bible
While Wycliffe's work of reforming the life of the church remained a life-long aim, he did see one of his greatest desires bear fruit, namely, the translation of the Holy Scriptures in the English language. Up until then only a few attempts had been made to translate the Bible but they had been limited to the Gospel of John, the Ten Commandments and the Psalms.
Later all such attempts were outlawed. In the 13th century the following decree of the church was handed down, "We forbid the laity to possess any of the books of the Old and New Testaments, except perhaps the Psalter or Breviary for the Offices of the Hours of the Blessed Virgin, which some, out of devotion, wish to have; but having any of these books translated into the vulgar tongue we strictly forbid."
Wycliffe considered this decree to be totally out of order and he ignored it. In the year 1382, he completed the translation of the entire Bible into his native language. It is a fact that he himself translated the whole of the New Testament, but there is reason to believe that in his translation of the Old Testament, he was assisted by two other men.
In any case, there is no doubt that this Bible, in its entirety, was soon ascribed to Wycliffe. Listen to the following outburst,
And Wycliffe by thus translating the Bible made it the property of the masses and common to all and more open to the laity and even to women who were able to read, than formerly it had been even to the scholarly and most learned clergy.
And so the Gospel pearl is thrown before swine and trodden underfoot, and that which used to be so dear to both clergy and laity has become a joke, and this precious gem of the clergy has been turned into the sport of the laity...
Consider as well the words of Archbishop Arundel,
This pestilential and most wretched John Wycliffe of damnable memory, a child of the devil, and himself a child or pupil of Anti-Christ, who, while he lived, walking in the vanity of his mind ... crowned his wickedness by translating the Scriptures into the mother tongue.
It is hard to believe that the translation of the Bible could produce so much venom and hatred, but so it did. It gives us an awareness of how far the church had fallen in those days.
Still, Wycliffe, in his customary brave fashion, was not swayed by these insults. His translation was completed and made available to the masses. Yet also this last thing could only be done with great difficulty. The printing press had not been invented, meaning that this translation had to be copied by hand. This not only took much time, but it also led to significant expense. Only the wealthiest people could afford the whole Bible in English. A complete New Testament cost you six months wages, and a few chapters could be had for a load of hay. Nevertheless, the price was paid and the work was done. Today there are still 170 handwritten copies of Wycliffe's Bible in museums and private hands.
So it was that the most basic instrument in the work of evangelism was made available to the English people. Without the Scriptures in their own hands, the people would forever have remained dependent on the mediating office of the priest. They would have been unable to test his teachings and doctrines. Worse still, they would have remained cut off from the means that God uses to regenerate His people. There can be no proper and complete witness without access to the Word.
The Spread of the Word
Yes, and Wycliffe understood this, for he did more than just translate the Word of the Lord, he also created a vehicle by which the people would hear that Word. What he did was train and send out large numbers of preachers. These men were known either as "Wycliffe's Bible Men," or as "Poor Priests," or as "Lollards." As far as we know the last name came from a German word "lollen," which means to sing in a low voice. It reminds us that these men also became famous for their devotional singing.
Their appearance also set them apart. They wore no shoes and had a staff in their hands. They also wore long, russet coloured gowns that reached to the ground. These gowns had deep pockets in which parts of Wycliffe's Bible were kept. All in all, it would seem that these men were meant to compete head to head with the begging priests who filled the land and who Wycliffe considered to be such an abomination.
Some are of the opinion that these men were in actual fact laymen; however, further research indicates that they were most likely students of theology and clerks of the church. A great number had even been ordained but had grown disenchanted with the corruption in the church.
All that, however, should not lead us to conclude that Wycliffe avoided the so-called "laity." There is ample evidence to indicate that even more than Martin Luther, Wycliffe believed that every true believer is really a "priest" in the sense of the New Testament. Why, he even went so far as to state that believers could administer the Lord's Supper and Baptism, if need be.
In any case, what we need to see more than anything else is the fact that it were these men who went throughout the length and breadth of England and brought the Gospel to the people. They condemned the excesses of the Roman Church, and they also attacked those doctrines that were deemed by Wycliffe to be unbiblical. The political power of the Pope, the riches of the church, the suppression of the Word, the domination of the clergy, the teaching of transubstantiation, the corruption of the liturgy by using drama and elaborate singing, all of these things and more were on the agenda.
Wycliffe taught his men to expound the Word to the people with simplicity, confidence and evangelistic fervour. He gave them the following advice:
It is irrelevant for the priest to have secular lordship or temporal goods on a permanent basis for the carrying out of his office. Curates should live solely on the material alms of their subjects. By means of preaching Christ creates for Himself heirs of the Heavenly Kingdom, even while here on earth. It is not you who preach, but the Spirit of the Father which speaks in you and since the works of the Trinity are inseparable, it is the Trinity which speaks.
To the people the Gospel must be preached as God commands. The truth must be proclaimed to them even though they receive it unwillingly. Not comedies or tragedies, not fables or droll stories, but simply and solely the Law of the Lord as Christ and the Apostles delivered it: for in the Law, that is the Gospel, is hidden the life which is able to quicken the church. The Lord's word is the food which sustains it. He who preaches to the people without reading and explaining to them the Gospel, gives them a meal without bread.
With words such as these Wycliffe instructed his followers. With words such as these he sent them out into the harvest. In time it became a great and mighty harvest. The Word was sown and the Word did what it always does, it works faith in the hearts and lives of many.