The Amazing Power of a Testimony – Bilney and Latimer

Thomas Bilney

Thomas Bilney

Hugh Latimer was one of the shining lights at Cambridge University in the early 1500’s. He was intelligent, articulate, influential – a born leader.

But he was both alarmed and repulsed by the new Lutheran teachings that were slowly pervading the intellectual discussions of the University.

Speaking against the Reformation

When he graduated as Bachelor of Divinity in 1524 he was required to speak at a public lecture on a theological theme.

Biographer Robert Demaus wrote that, ‘With the characteristic zeal of an ardent lover of the Church, indignant at the success of the heresy which was everywhere finding disciples, he directed his whole oration against Philip Melancthon, the eminent German Reformer, who had recently impugned the authority of the school-doctors, and had maintained that they must all be tested by the supreme standard of Holy Scripture.’ (Robert Demaus, Hugh Latimer, A Biography, Religious Tract Society, London 1904, p.45)

Latimer even said that the reading of Scripture was dangerous! But there was someone in the crowd that day whose heart and mind had already been transformed by the ‘heresy’ of an open Bible. His name was Thomas Bilney.

Bilney was very clear that Luther had been correct, and that Scripture was our only true guide. Our justification before God was not on the basis of our good works, or of obedience to church ritual, but rather through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. But how was he to convince such an important and formidable opponent as Latimer?

He who is wise wins souls!

Being a wise soul winner, Bilney sought to speak to Latimer directly. Latimer had already been ordained and was therefore able to hear confessions. Bilney considered that he had a particular confession that he wanted Latimer to hear.

And so, Latimer, no doubt expecting that his stinging sermon had turned Bilney back to the old ways, agreed to a private meeting where he would hear Bilney’s confession.

For something like two hours, Thomas Bilney, on his knees, faithfully told the story of his desperate attempts to please God and how, through faith in Jesus, he had experienced a breakthrough at last. He emphasised the vital role the Bible had played in his relationship with God as opposed to the scholars of his day.

Latimer said, ‘To say the truth, by his confession I learned more than before in many years.’ (Demaus p.45)

As JH Merle d’Aubigne writes, ‘It was not the penitent but the confessor who received absolution. Latimer viewed with horror the obstinate war he had waged against God; he wept bitterly; but Bilney consoled him.

‘Brother, said he, ‘though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.’
These two young men, then locked in a solitary chamber at Cambridge, were one day to mount the scaffold…’ (The Reformation in England, Banner of Truth, Vol 1 p.204)

Latimer and Ridley, standing together to the very end

Latimer and Ridley, standing together to the very end

They did indeed, both giving up their lives as martyrs in Oxford, being burned at the stake. You can see the place today, marked by a small cross in stone on the ground. In the end, Latimer gave everything he had for Jesus Christ.

The testimony of a changed life is powerful.

From the day a man said, ‘One thing I know, I was blind but now I can see!’ (Jn 9:25) to Bilney reaching the hard heart of Latimer, to you in your situation.

Be encouraged! What God has done for you, by forgiving your sins through Christ, is powerful – even before those with greater influence or learning or who seem resistant.

Don’t be silent. Find a way to graciously and appropriately share the good news of God’s amazing love with someone.

Latimer went on to be one of the English Reformation’s great heroes, preaching before the king and in many circles of influence. Who knows what God might do through you, and those you speak to?

You can purchase JH Merle d’Aubigne’s ‘The Reformation in England’ in two volumes here

© 2009 Lex Loizides