Life not your own if God intends personal dealings with you

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Hugh Latimer

By David Tulis

I would like today to tell you an unlikely Reformation-era story of Hugh Latimer, a superstar in the church and (once) an enemy of God.

The Latimer tale reveals how God acts by sovereign and irresistible grace. It shows that God creates personal relationships with strangers and enemies and unexpectedly saves them from the consequence of the fall. From the record of history we obtain a spiritual and intellectual tool to see how local economy works as a fruit of Christianity of which God’s people have in times past been worthy.

Local economy does not exist if people refuse to seek after personal relationships and care about each other. Local economy does not occur where people serve their part of the marketplace with a primary interest in profit and market share as opposed to service to others, self-mortification and self-denial. These latter virtues, if exercised for God’s glory, bring profit and market share as a result, or fruit, of the virtue.

If people live out their prejudices and desires and fail to seek the well-being of others, even enemies, local economy is simply a hare-brained fantasy.

Meet a religious fanatic, ‘obstinate papist’

Hugh Latimer, born in 1485, was a student at Cambridge notorious for his ardent religious fanaticism. “In the processions, amidst the pomp, prayers, and chanting of the train, none could fail to notice a master of arts, about thirty years of age, who, with erect head, carried proudly the university cross. Hugh Latimer, for such was his name, combined a biting humor with an impetuous disposition, and indefatigable zeal, and was very quick in ridiculing the faults of his adversaries. There was more wit and raillery in his fanaticism than can often be found in such characters.”

Latimer, an ardent defender of the organized church of his day, would pursue friends of the Gospel into their houses and debate with them, pressing them to abandon their faith and return to the church, which viewed the verities of the Bible as so much heresy and corruption.

From his youth Latimer had been ferocious in his beliefs and judgmental. He followed hard after the religious superstitions taught by the church of that day. “As the missal directs that water should be mingled with the sacramental wine, often while saying mass he would be troubled in his conscience for fear he had not put in sufficient water. This remorse never left him a moment’s tranquility during the service. In him, as in many others, attachment to puerile [childish] ordinances occupied in his heart the place of faith in the great truths. With him, the cause of the church was the cause of God, and he respected Thomas Becket at least as much as St. Paul.” Latimer later confessed, “I was then an obstinate a papist as any in England.”

Form over substance

Men in this day were beholden to the forms of Christianity and not motivated by its substance. They were preoccupied with their own works rather than the works of Christ. Like the Pharisees of old, they had established a mighty tradition of toils and ceremonies done in God’s name but not ordained by God and which had no power unto salvation and gave no nourishment to the work of sanctification, the gift of holiness.

Latimer in his zeal was upset that many around him were not as pious as he. As students studied the scriptures he urged them to stop their “sophistry.” He attacked a professor, Stafford, whom he contended was much too interested ad Biblia, the study of ancient Hebrew and Greek. He would attend a Stafford lectures with signs of impatience, cavil at it after leaving and denounce him publicly as a heretic. Latimer shifted his sights to an even more important target, Philip Melanchthon, a noted friend of reformer Martin Luther. At last, exclaimed admirers of the church, we have found a true defender of the church in Hugh Latimer, a champion in tongue and zeal.

A true confession, a startling envelopment

There was among Latimer’s many hearers “one man almost hidden through his small stature: it was Bilney,” the historian records. “For some time he had been watching Latimer’s movements, and his zeal interested him though it was a zeal without knowledge. Thomas Bilney’s energy was not great, but he possessed a delicate tact, a skilful discernment of character which enabled him to distinguish error, and to find the finest method for combating it. Bilney was not deceived by Latimer’s sophisms and came to love Latimer’s person.”

He conceived that Latimer could be, as we say, “won to the gospel.” But how to bring this about? Bilney realized he could gain no audience with Latimer, whose prejudices were many and whose custom of thought would not allow him to consider any argument or biblical passage in favor of God’s grace.

“The latter reflected, prayed, and at last planned a very candid and very strange plot, which led to one of the most astonishing conversions recorded in history,” says the beloved historian, who goes on. “He went to the college where Latimer resided. ‘For the love of God,’ he said to him, ‘be pleased to hear my confession.’ The heretic prayed to make confession to the catholic: what a singular fact! My discourse against Melanchthon has no doubt converted him, said Latimer to himself. Was he not once among the number of the most pious zealots? His pale face, his wasted frame, and his humble look are clear signs that he ought to belong to the ascetics of catholicism. If he turns back, all will turn back with him, and the reaction will be complete at Cambridge.

“The ardent Latimer eagerly yielded to Bilney’s request, and the latter, kneeling before the cross-bearer, related to him with touching simplicity the anguish he had once felt in his soul, the efforts he had made to remove it; their unprofitableness so long as he determined to follow the precepts of the church and, lastly, the peace he had felt when he believed that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world. He described to Latimer the spirit of adoption he had received, and the happiness he experienced in being able now to call God his Father …. Latimer, who expected to receive a confession, listened without mistrust. His heart was opened, and the voice of the pious Bilney penetrated it without obstacle. From time to time the confessor would have chased away the new thoughts which came crowding into his bosom; but the penitent continued. His language, at once so simple and so lively, entered like a two-edged sword.

“Bilney was not without assistance in his work. A new, a strange witness — the Holy Ghost — was speaking in Latimer’s soul. He learned from God to know God: he received a new heart. At length grace prevailed: the penitent rose up, but Latimer remained seated, absorbed in thought. The strong cross-bearer contended in vain against the words of the feeble Bilney. Like Saul on the way to Damascus, he was conquered, and his conversion, like the apostle’s, was instantaneous. He stammered out a few words; Bilney drew near him with love, and God scattered the darkness which still obscured his mind. He saw Jesus Christ as the only Savior given to man: he contemplated and adored Him. ‘I learnt more by this confession,’ he said afterward, “than in many years before. From that time forward I began to smell the word of God, and forsook the doctors of the schools and such fooleries.’ 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 as white as snow.’ These two young men, then locked in their solitary chamber at Cambridge, were one day to mount the scaffold for that divine Master whose spirit was teaching them.”

One conversion at a time, local economy bears fruit

We thank historian J.H. Merle D’Aubigne and his Reformation in England for giving us this scene of the two students crouched in the Cambridge garret.

You ask what connection has one man’s conversion 600 years ago has to do with my hometown and your arguments about Christianity and local economy.

Namely the following. Local economy is part of Christian reformation. Reformation, as D’Aubigne and others lead me to understand it, is a total and holistic transformation of a society and culture, as it was a transformation of Latimer by the power of the Holy Spirit via means of Bilney. Reformation is the effect of God’s people taking seriously every part of the scriptures and applying it to every part of life.

Local economy has many elements — economic, demographic, educational, cultural. We have been identifying its religious components, which are perhaps its most fundamental. It is the fruit of personal transformations such as Latimer, written out through the lives of hundreds, thousands of people in a particular district. The life of Latimer was intrinsically a life of Christian conviction and a living out of the personal relationship he has with Jesus Christ in the context of other people.