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On October 31, 1517, a young German monk nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg. The monk’s theses mostly dealt with the issue of indulgences and aspects of Roman Catholic worship. Furthermore, they called for a return to the authority of Scripture in determining the proper means of worshiping and serving God.
Martin Luther (for that was the young monk’s name) little knew his quiet deed would light a spark that would soon set Germany ablaze. In time, his actions began what would come to be known as the 16th century Reformation.
Would The Reformation Cross The Rhine?
Luther’s theses were quickly translated from their original Latin into German and distributed to thousands upon thousands. Like wildfire, his words swept across the countryside, bringing the light of Truth and the heat of ecclesiastical disapproval. Rejoicing and rejection followed hand in hand as Luther’s writings passed from city to city and village to village. Everywhere Germany was alive with talk of Luther’s reforms. Would the world ever be the same again?
By the providence of God, the German Reformation had begun. But would it spread? Would Luther’s ideas break through the boundaries surrounding the German lands? Or, would the truth of God’s Word remain within the narrow borders of the Saxon peoples? In short, would the Reformation cross the Rhine?
To the west of Germany lay the devoutly Catholic land of France. Ruled by Francis I, a loyal Roman Catholic, the kingdom of France had long lain under the dark shadows of papist ceremonies and superstition. As in Germany, the Word of God was inaccessible to the common man of France. The people walked in darkness and a hopeless gloom lay over the land. Yet, by God’s grace, a light was about to dawn.
The Early Life Of Jacques Lefèvre
A generation before the birth of Martin Luther, in a small seaport town in southern France called Etaples, a child was born about the year 1455. Born into a well-to-do family, he was given the name Jacques Lefèvre. Little today is known of Jacques’ childhood. However, in his early teens or young twenties, he journeyed to Paris to begin studying at the university. His courses included logic, grammar, and rhetoric, as well as the study of Greek and Hebrew.
Deeply religious, Jacques Lefèvre was eventually ordained to the priesthood. Then, in 1492, he journeyed to Rome to pursue further studies in the heart of the Roman Catholic world. A year later he began teaching at the University of Paris. One of his students, a young Frenchman named William Farel, was astonished at Lefèvre’s devotion to his faith. “Never,” Farel wrote, “had I seen any singer of mass who sang it with greater reverence.”
For many years, Lefèvre had studied the works of ancient philosophers including Aristotle and Plato. Believing that he could find wisdom in their writings, he attempted to reconcile them with what he knew of the Catholic religion. Nevertheless, during his studies, he began to realize that the true light he was seeking he could only find within the pages of Scripture. Turning to the Bible, Lefèvre was astonished—and eternally changed—by what he found there. Biographer Charles Graf notes: “When Lefèvre once tasted the sweetness of the heavenly food of the Bible, he abandoned secular studies and human philosophy in order to study nothing but the Word of God.”
Justification Is By Faith Alone
Enraptured with the Scriptures, Lefèvre soon began writing commentaries on the Holy Writings. A scholar of the highest order, Lefèvre enjoyed approval from the highest ecclesiastical authorities in France. He also held the favor of the king. With the publications of his commentaries on Scripture, however, his standing at court quickly changed.
Penning a commentary on Paul’s epistles in 1512, Lefèvre made a startling discovery. Contrary to what Roman Catholicism taught, justification is by faith alone. In his exposition, Lefèvre wrote: “It is God alone, who by his grace through faith justifies unto eternal life.” Seven years before Martin Luther’s 95 Theses sparked the Reformation in Germany, the quiet writings of Jacques Lefèvre were already preparing the soil in Catholic France for a mighty work of God.
In 1523, Lefèvre published a translation of the New Testament in French. As the first translation of the Scriptures available in the common tongue of France, Lefèvre’s New Testament brought the first light of the Gospel to a darkened, dying country. By the time of its publication, Lefèvre was nearing 70 years of age. Looking toward the future, he could see that God’s dawn was nearing, though he knew he would not live to see it. Yet perhaps the next generation would.
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God Will Renew The World
Turning to his young student William Farel, the elderly Lefèvre declared: “My dear William, God will renew the world, and you will see it!”
Despite Lefèvre’s hopes for a reformation of the Church, his writings on the Holy Scriptures did not long go unnoticed by the Catholic authorities. In 1525, they formally condemned him as a heretic and forced him to flee France. He escaped to Strasbourg and afterward took refuge with the queen of Navarre, dying in Nerac in March of 1536.
Although Jacques Lefèvre did not live to see it, the prophecy he spoke to young William Farel found its fulfillment the very year he died. On May 21, 1536, after many travails by Farel and his fellow laborer Pierre Viret, a city in Switzerland called Geneva embraced the Reformation. It was a city that would soon shake the world. In God’s providence, Lefèvre’s dawn had indeed arrived!
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You may also consider reading another Live The Adventure Letter article: The History Of The Reformation And Why It’s Important
Do you have any more thoughts on Jacques Lefèvre and the role that he played in the Reformation? Let us know in the comments below.