"Faith that Maketh a Man Righteous": Hugh Latimer on Being Saved by Faith Alone
The English Reformer, Hugh Latimer (c.1485-1555) is probably best remembered today for his stirring statement at the time of his Oxford martyrdom in the autumn of 1555 when he urged his co-martyr Nicholas Ridley, "Be of good comfort Master Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God's grace in England, as I trust shall never be put out." But in previous generations Latimer was equally remembered for his preaching. The twentieth-century historian Patrick Collinson, for instance, once described him as one of the greatest English-speaking preachers of the sixteenth century.1 And according to Augustine Bernher, a Francophone pastor who was mentored by Latimer and later pastored during the reign of Elizabeth I, "if England ever had a prophet, he was one."2
Latimer preached hundreds of sermons, but there are only forty-one extant. These sermons were copied down as Latimer preached, which proved to be quite difficult, as the copyists struggled to keep up with what Allan G. Chester has called "the torrent of the preacher's eloquence" and fluency.3 The sermons especially reveal a preacher who was able to adapt himself to his audience: he explicates a biblical text in its context, explains points of doctrine, emphasizes moral lessons, warns against the errors of the Roman Catholic Church, and all the while the sermons are suffused with what Allan Chester has called a "heartfelt earnestness."
Here, for example, is Latimer speaking about salvation being by faith alone in Christ in a sermon that he preached on December 27, 1552:
"... by [Christ's] passion, which he hath suffered, he merited that as many as believe in him shall be as well justified by him, as though they themselves had never done any sin, and as though they themselves had fulfilled the law to the uttermost. For we, without him, are under the curse of the law; the law condemneth us; the law is not able to help us; and yet the imperfection is not in the law, but in us: for the law itself is holy and good, but we are not able to keep it, and so the law condemneth us; but Christ with his death hath delivered us from the curse of the law. He hath set us at liberty, and promiseth that when we believe in him, we shall not perish; the law shall not condemn us. Therefore let us study to believe in Christ. Let us put all our hope, trust, and confidence only in him; let us patch him with nothing: for, as I told you before, our merits are not able to deserve everlasting life: it is too precious a thing to be merited by man. It is his doing only. God hath given him unto us to be our deliverer, and to give us everlasting life. O what a joyful thing was this!"
Latimer was thus critical of Roman Catholic theologians for arguing that salvation could be attained by our merits--"patching Christ," to use his words, with our flawed good deeds to merit eternal life. In another sermon, preached around the same time, he bluntly stated that Roman Catholics who argue for salvation on the basis of faith and works are "the very enemies of Christ," for they reckon that "their good works have deserved heaven and everlasting life." In essence, Latimer declared, "this opinion is most detestable, abominable, and filthy in the sight of God. For it diminisheth the passion of Christ; it taketh away the power and strength of the same passion; it defileth the honor and glory of Christ; it forsaketh and denieth Christ, and all his benefits. For if we shall be judged after our own deservings, we shall be damned everlastingly.6
Elsewhere, in his famous sermon The Sermon on the Plough, Latimer positively and in succinct Reformation fashion, described saving faith as "a faith that embraceth Christ, and trusteth to his merits; a lively faith, a justifying faith; a faith that maketh a man righteous, without respect of works."7 Little wonder that Latimer affectively described this faith in the finished work of Christ in the first sermonic extract cited above: "O what a joyful thing was this!"
1. Patrick Collinson, Archbishop Grindal 1519-1583: The Struggle for A Reformed Church (London: Jonathan Cape, 1979), 48.
2. Cited John T. McNeill, "Book Reviews: Hugh Latimer, Apostle to the English. By Allan G. Chester," Church History, 24 (1955): 78.
3. Allan G. Chester, "Introduction" to his ed., Selected Sermons of Hugh Latimer (Charlottesville, VA: The University Press of Virginia for The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1968), xxviii.
4. Chester, "Introduction" to his ed., Selected Sermons of Hugh Latimer, xxvii.
5. Hugh Latimer, Sermon on St. John Evangelist's Day in The Works of Hugh Latimer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1845), II, 125-126.
6. Hugh Latimer, Sermon preached on the First Sunday after Epiphany in Works of Hugh Latimer, II, 146-147.
7. Hugh Latimer, The Sermon on the Plough in The Works of Hugh Latimer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1844), I, 61.