Category Archives: Persecuted Church

Quotable Church History — “The blood of the martyrs…”

Today I’m starting a new series on famous quotes from church history.  Most of the quotes will be familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention — but who knows?  Perhaps you’ll learn something new.  We’ll look at who said it, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

You may have heard it said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  It’s often said to point out that persecution, rather than diminishing the church, often has the opposite effect.  It’s counter-intuitive.  Where do we get this saying from?

The original source is the early church father Tertullian (~155-~240 AD).  He was an African church father based out of Carthage.  He lived in the days of the Roman Empire and so was familiar with persecution and martyrdom.  Tertullian’s most important writing is entitled The Apology, a work in which he provided a defense of the Christian faith to the provincial governors of the Roman Empire.  Towards the end of the document, Tertullian makes the memorable statement:  “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed” (Apol. 50.13, original Latin:  “Plures efficimur quotiens metimur a vobis; semen est sanguis Christianorum.”).

There is some variation in how these words are translated in various English editions.  Many translators have felt compelled to add some words to explain what the seed is going to produce:  faith, a greater harvest, the church, or a new life.  However, the context is clear enough.  Tertullian believed that God uses martyrdom and persecution in some mysterious way to cause the Christian faith to grow in strength and numbers.

Now one might say that this was simply an observation.  Certainly it seems to be often the case, especially if we consider the global picture.  Considered universally, persecution has been helpless to undo the advance of the gospel.  Even if the faith declines in one part of the world, it moves forward in another part.  Christ continues to preserve and increase his church.

Is there any biblical support for what Tertullian says?  Not directly.  What I mean is that there is no single Bible passage that speaks in exactly those terms.  However, Scripture does speak of how God continues to work in us and through us even when we’re suffering.  In Acts 14:22, after being stoned at Lystra, Paul and Barnabas encouraged their fellow disciples by telling them that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”  Or you could think of what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”  Or later in the same epistle:  “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).  Most of all, we think of Christ and the path he travelled:  from suffering to glory.  The cross appeared to be his undoing, but it was anything but!  His blood was seed from which grows our life in him.

Still today Tertullian’s words ring true.  Persecution and martyrdom are horrible phenomena.  Yet God continues to work not only despite suffering, but even through it.  Nothing will stop him from accomplishing his purposes for the gospel.


The Reformation and Martyrdom

In parts of Europe, the Reformation was marked with the spilling of blood.  In the first half of the sixteenth century, nowhere were more martyrs murdered than in the Low Countries.  Reformed believers experienced intense persecution from the Spanish authorities.  One of those believers was the author of the Belgic Confession, Guido de Brès.  As a leading pastor in the Reformed churches, De Brès was a wanted man.  Finally, on March 28, 1567, he was arrested and imprisoned.  As he waited for his inevitable death sentence, de Brès wrote several letters.  These letters survived and were later published.  The most notable among them is the letter he wrote to his wife Catherine.  You can hear the author of the Belgic Confession speak tenderly as a husband and father.  In these words he comes alive, not only as a human being, but as a redeemed sinner bought with the blood of Jesus Christ.  He went to his martyrdom on May 31, 1567 with full confidence in Christ.  It was through martyrdoms like that of de Brès that God continued to spread the Reformation.  Not only his preaching, but also his martyrdom served as a witness to the Son of God.

Here’s the letter.  See if you can read it out loud without tears welling up — I never can.

********************

Letter of Comfort from Guido de Brès to His Wife

The grace and mercy of our good God and heavenly Father, and the love of His Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, be with you, my dearly beloved.

Catherine Ramon, my dear and beloved wife and sister in our Lord Jesus Christ:  your anguish and sadness disturbs somewhat my joy and the happiness of my heart, so I am writing this for the consolation of both of us, and especially for your consolation, since you have always loved me with an ardent affection, and because it pleases the Lord to separate us from each other.  I feel your sorrow over this separation more keenly than mine.  I pray you not to be troubled too much over this, for fear of offending God.  You knew when you married me that you were taking a mortal husband, who was uncertain of life, and yet it has pleased God to permit us to live together for seven years, giving us five children.  If the Lord had wished us to live together longer, he would have provided the way.  But it did not please him to do this and may his will be done.

Now remember that I did not fall into the hands of my enemies by mere chance, but through the providence of my God who controls and governs all things, the least as well as the greatest.  This is shown by the words of Christ, “Be not afraid.  Your very hairs are numbered.  Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?  And not one of them shall fall to the ground without the will of your Father.  Then fear nothing.  You are more excellent than many sparrows.”  These words of divine wisdom say that God knows the number of my hairs.  How then can harm come to me without the command and providence of God?  It could not happen, unless one should say that God is no longer God.  This is why the Prophet says that there is no affliction in the city that the Lord has not willed.

Many saintly persons who were before us consoled themselves in their afflictions and tribulations with this doctrine.  Joseph, having been sold by his brothers and taken into Egypt, says, “You did a wicked deed, but God has turned it to your good.  God sent me into Egypt before you for your profit.” (Genesis 50).  David also experienced this when Shimei cursed him.  So too in the case of Job and many others.

And that is why the Evangelists write so carefully of the sufferings and of the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, adding, “And this was done that that which was written of Him might be accomplished.”  The same should be said of all the members of Christ.

It is very true that human reason rebels against this doctrine and resists it as much as possible and I have very strongly experienced this myself.  When I was arrested, I would say to myself, “So many of us should not have traveled together.  We were betrayed by this one or that one.  We ought not to have been arrested.”  With such thoughts I became overwhelmed, until my spirits were raised by meditation on the providence of God.  Then my heart began to feel a great repose.  I began then to say, “My God, you have caused me to be born in the time you have ordained.  During all the time of my life you have kept me and preserved me from great dangers and you have delivered me from them all – and if at present my hour has come in which I will pass from this life to you, may your will be done.  I cannot escape from your hands.  And if I could, I would not, since it is happiness for me to conform to your will.”  These thoughts made my heart cheerful again.

And I pray you, my dear and faithful companion, to join me in thanking God for what he has done.  For he does nothing that is not just and very equitable, and you should believe that it is for my good and for my peace.  You have seen and felt my labours, cross, persecutions, and afflictions which I have endured, and have even had a part in them when you accompanied me in my travels during the time of my exile.  Now my God has extended his hand to receive me into his blessed kingdom.  I shall see it before you and when it shall please the Lord, you will follow me.  This separation is not for all time.  The Lord will receive you also to join us together again in our head, Jesus Christ.

This is not the place of our habitation – that is in heaven.  This is only the place of our journey.  That is why we long for our true country, which is heaven.  We desire to be received in the home of our Heavenly Father, to see our Brother, Head, and Saviour Jesus Christ, to see the noble company of the patriarchs, prophets, apostles and many thousands of martyrs, into whose company I hope to be received when I have finished the course of my work which I received from my Lord Jesus Christ.

I pray you, my dearly beloved, to console yourself with meditation on these things.  Consider the honour that God has done you, in giving you a husband who was not only a minister of the Son of God, but so esteemed of God that he allowed him to have the crown of martyrs.  It is an honour the like of which God has never even given to the angels.

I am happy; my heart is light and it lacks nothing in my afflictions.   I am so filled with the abundance of the richness of my God that I have enough for me and all those to whom I can speak.  So I pray my God that he will continue his kindness to me, his prisoner.  The One in whom I have trusted will do it, for I have found by experience that he will never leave those who have trusted in him.  I would never have thought that God would have been so kind to such a poor creature as I.  I feel the faithfulness of my Lord Jesus Christ.

I am practicing now what I have preached to others.  And I must confess that when I preached I would speak about the things I am actually experiencing as a blind man speaks of colour.  Since I was taken prisoner I have profited more and learned more than during all the rest of my life.  I am in a very good school:  the Holy Spirit inspires me continually and teaches me how to use the weapons in this combat.  On the other side is Satan, the adversary of all children of God.  He is like a boisterous, roaring lion.  He constantly surrounds me and seeks to wound me.  But he who has said, “Fear not, for I have overcome the world,” makes me victorious.  And already I see that the Lord puts Satan under my feet and I feel the power of God perfected in my weakness.

Our Lord permits me on the one hand to feel my weakness and my smallness, that I am but a small vessel on the earth, very fragile, to the end that he would humble me, so that all the glory of the victory may be given to him.  On the other hand, he fortifies me and consoles me in an unbelievable way.  I have more comfort than the enemies of the gospel.  I eat, drink and rest better than they do.  I am held in a very strong prison, very bleak, gloomy, and dark.  For its gloominess, the prison is known by the name “Brunain.” [Brownie].  The air is poor and it stinks.  On my feet and hands I have irons, big and heavy.  They are a continual hell, hollowing my limbs up to my poor bones.  The chief constable comes to look at my irons two or three times a day, fearing that I will escape.  There are three guards of forty men before the door of the prison.

I have also the visits of Monsieur de Hamaide.  He comes to see me, to console me, and to exhort me to patience, as he says.  However, he comes after dinner, after he has wine in the head and a full stomach.  You can imagine what these consolations are.  He threatens me and says to me that if I would show any intention of escaping he would have me chained by the neck, the body and legs, so that I could not move a finger; and he says many other things in this order.  But for all that, my God does not take away his promises, consoling my heart, giving me very much contentment.

Since such things have happened, my dear sister and faithful wife, I implore you to find comfort from the Lord in your afflictions and to place your troubles with him.  He is the husband of believing widows and the father of poor orphans.  He will never leave you – of that I can assure you.  Conduct yourself as a Christian woman, faithful in the fear of God, as you always have been, honouring by your good life and conversation the doctrine of the Son of God, which your husband has preached.

As you have always loved me with great affection, I pray that you will continue this love toward our little children, instructing them in the knowledge of the true God and of his Son Jesus Christ.  Be their father and their mother, and take care that they use honestly the little that God has given you.  If God does you the favour to permit you to live in widowhood with our children after my death, that will be well.  If you cannot, and the means are lacking, then go to some good man, faithful and fearing God.  And when I can, I shall write to our friends to watch over you.  I think that they will not let you want for anything.  Take up your regular routine after the Lord has taken me.  You have our daughter Sarah who will soon be grown.  She will be your companion and help you in your troubles.  She will console you in your tribulations and the Lord will always be with you.  Greet our good friends in my name, and let them pray to God for me, that he may give me strength, speech, and the wisdom and ability to uphold the truth of the Son of God to the end and to the last breath of my life.

Farewell, Catherine, my dearly beloved.  I pray my God that he will comfort you and give you contentment in his good will.  I hope that God has given me the grace to write for your benefit, in such a way that you may be consoled in this poor world.  Keep my letter for a remembrance of me.  It is badly written, but it is what I am able to do, and not what I wish to do.  Commend me to my good mother.  I hope to write some consolation to her, if it pleases God.  Greet also my good sister.  May she take her affliction to God.  Grace be with you.

At the prison, April 12, 1567.

Your faithful husband, Guy de Brès, minister of the Word of God at Valenciennes, and presently prisoner for the Son of God at the aforesaid place.

 


In Their Sights

Pastor Campbell Markham

Last week I was watching a documentary where a fairly well-known British actor visited Lebanon.  As he walked down a city street dividing armed Sunni and Shia factions, he intimated to us (the viewers) that at that very moment he and his crew may very well have been in the sights of a sniper from one side or the other.  It must be terrifying to consider that you might very well catch a piece of lead from a sniper’s rifle.

Here in Australia, Christians are in the sights of the enemy.  We see more and more evidence of deliberate targeting of believers.  Last week, The Australian broke the story of two Christian preachers from Hobart, in the south of Tasmania.  Campbell Markham is the pastor of the Cornerstone Church, a congregation affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of Australia.  David Gee is a member of the same church and he periodically does street preaching in Hobart.  Markham and Gee have been named in a complaint to Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Tribunal.  Markham is alleged to have offended homosexuals with some things he wrote on his blog in 2011.  The complaint against Gee cites statements he made while preaching at a speaker’s corner in the Central Business District of Hobart.  These statements offended atheists and homosexuals, prompting the complaint.  It is not clear whether both complaints originate from the same individual, though it appears that way.

It’s important to note something here.  The Cornerstone Church is not the infamous Westboro Baptist Church with hatred as its creed.  Rev. Markham is not a foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalist, and neither is David Gee.  These are simply men who believe what the Bible says about marriage and God’s design for the human race.  As a Christian blogger and pastor, it could have been me in the sights of this complainant.  In fact, for all I know, perhaps I am already in the sights of this activist.

That’s the first thing to take away from this.  No faithful Christian pastor is immune.  If you’re faithful, you will open your mouth and preach what the Bible proclaims without apology.  That makes you a target.  They’ll turn their sights on you eventually.  Even if you’re not a pastor, all it takes is a little question from a boss, co-worker, teacher, or fellow-student.  As soon as you mouth the words, “The Bible says,” the cross-hairs are on your cranium.

The second thing is: we must not let these snipers win.  A sniper makes people take cover.   Under threat of a sniper, no one wants to be out in the open.  Snipers make the fearful hide.  However, we cannot let fear dictate our ministries.  We need the proper perspective to gain courage.  We are at war, but not with human beings who disagree with us and want us silenced.  We’re at war with principalities and powers in rebellion against God.  This war was already decided at the cross.  These skirmishes are like the Allies sweeping through the Netherlands long after D-Day.  The Second World War was decided on June 6, 1944.  But it wasn’t until 1945 that victory was fully realized.  That’s our situation.  We’re on the winning side — the gospel will move forward.  We ought not to be afraid, nor should leaders in this battle run for cover.  We need to remind ourselves:  there may be a sniper’s sight on me, but my Commander has my back and victory is in his grasp.


Eric Liddell and the Transformative Power of Prayer

eric-liddell-400

I quite enjoyed David McCasland’s biography of Eric Liddell.  My generation remembers Liddell because of Chariots of Fire, the somewhat fictionalized account of his go at the 1924 Olympics.  Liddell won gold at the Olympics, despite being challenged to give up his belief in keeping the Lord’s Day holy.  Liddell was a man of Christian convictions.  Following his Olympic triumphs, he became a missionary to China.  The Second World War saw him interned in a Japanese camp.  He died there on February 21, 1945 because of an inoperable brain tumour.

McCasland’s biography includes some snippets of Liddell’s life in the prison camp.  In this excerpt, Liddell taught a powerful truth which many others have discovered:  prayer mysteriously changes the one who prays.

         …when Eric spoke in church or led a Bible study group with them, he rarely dealt with what might happen tomorrow.  Instead, he focused on what could happen today.  During one small group discussion, he read aloud the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:43:  “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you.”  Then he asked if this was merely an ideal or something practical they could actually do.  Could they love the guards in camp and the Japanese people as a whole?  Most thought it was only a lofty goal.

“I thought so too,” Eric said, “but then I noticed the next words, ‘Pray for them that despitefully use you.”  When we start to pray,” he said, “we become God-centered.  When we hate them we’re self-centered.  We spend a lot of time praying for people we like but we don’t spend much time praying for people we don’t like and people we hate.  But Jesus told us to pray for our enemies.  I’ve begun to pray for the guards and it’s changed my whole attitude toward them.  Maybe you’d like to try it too.

Eric Liddell: Pure Gold, David McCasland, page 267.


445 Years Ago Today

On this date in 1567, the author of the Belgic Confession was martyred.  Guido de Brès was executed by the Spanish authorities for celebrating the Lord’s Supper contrary to their orders.  You can read more about his martyrdom here in an eyewitness account.  We can be thankful to God for the faithfulness witness and ministry of martyrs like de Brès!  We should continue to remember in prayer and deed those who continue to suffer for Christ.