He was a devout man who had tried everything the church could offer him to find peace with God. Now, he looked to Christ and found grace, forgiveness, peace and joy.
Hugh Latimer (c. 1485–1555), a priest and a Fellow of Clare Hall, known for his unquestioning loyalty to the Church of Rome and his undying hatred of the Reformation, entered the fray to protect Cambridge students from the heresies of Bilney and Stafford. As more and more students considered evangelical doctrines, Latimer charged them to stick to the traditions of the Roman church. He sought out Stafford’s students and railed against their teacher and this new-fangled way of studying the Scriptures. Latimer publicly denounced any instructors who embraced reform. He disrupted their lectures and warned students, ‘Do not believe them!’
In the spring of 1524, students and teachers packed Great St Mary’s, the university church of Cambridge, to hear Hugh Latimer deliver a theological address. While a Cambridge student, Latimer prepared for the priesthood as men had for 400 years. He wholeheartedly embraced the theology of the schoolmen and the doctrines of the Roman church. When he examined the Scriptures, it was always through the lens of the medieval doctors of the church. He had learned neither Greek nor Hebrew.
As Latimer spoke to the gathering at Great St Mary’s, he lashed out against the German Reformation. With his strong voice, Latimer warned that the Lutheran heresies damned to hell the souls of all who followed them. He scorned the idea that the Bible alone could be the Christian’s supreme authority, and charged the audience not to stray from the protective arms of the church.
In the congregation sat Thomas Bilney, then a Fellow of Trinity Hall. As Bilney listened to Latimer’s tirade, he sighed and said to himself, ‘I was once just like that—full of zeal without knowledge.’
Before the sermon ended, Bilney decided to tell Latimer that sinners could find forgiveness only by trusting Christ. ‘But,’ he wondered, ‘how could I ever get him to listen to me?’ It was dangerous to approach Latimer directly; it might lead to arrest as a heretic, but Bilney felt compelled to tell Latimer about Christ’s love. en he hit upon an idea. He walked to Latimer’s rooms at Clare Hall and with trembling hand knocked on the door. In a moment, there stood the university cross-bearer. His face was long and thin with a sharp nose. With piercing eyes he stared down at little Bilney. ‘Master Latimer,’ Bilney said with his head bowed, ‘for the sake of God, would you hear my confession?’
Latimer was surprised to see Bilney, for he knew him to be the ringleader of the Cambridge reformers. Latimer assumed that his message at St Mary’s must have convinced him of his errors. ‘Come in,’ he said. Latimer sat down. Bilney knelt on the floor before him and said, ‘Let me tell you what happened to my heart; and if I am in error, I am ready to be better instructed.’
‘For years,’ Bilney told him, ‘I did everything in my power to obey the commandments of God and the teachings of the church, but my guilt and sin remained. I went to mass daily and visited priest after priest to confess my sins. I followed their guidance to fast, to hold vigils and to buy pardons until I had no strength left. Nothing relieved me of the sharp sting of my sin. I was a sick and languishing soul.’
en Bilney told Latimer how he bought a Greek New Testament. ‘No sooner had I begun to read it,’ he said, ‘when I was struck by this sentence of St Paul in 1 Timothy Chapter 1: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”’
Bilney explained to Latimer that Paul thought himself the worst of sinners, but he knew he was saved in Christ. Paul believed that Christ had accomplished everything for him through his death on the cross. ‘ at one sentence from Paul’, Bilney said, his face aglow, ‘gave sweet comfort to my soul! My wounded heart, weighed down with guilt, leapt for joy. After this the Scripture became more pleasant to me than honey and the honeycomb. I saw that all my vigils, my fasts, my pilgrimages, my purchase of masses and indulgences were destroying instead of saving me. I looked to Christ and believed that in him I would not perish, but have everlasting life.’
Latimer sat in stunned silence. This heretic was not at all as Latimer had imagined him. He was a devout man who had tried everything the church could offer him to find peace with God. He found forgiveness in Christ by reading the Scriptures and believing them. Although Hugh Latimer did not admit it at the time, he too had an uneasy conscience. His fear of death and damnation had often led him to consider becoming a monk to win God’s favour. Latimer had never heard the gospel so simply explained. ‘I learned more by hearing his confession’, Latimer said later, ‘than I had before in many years. From that time onward, I began to smell the Word of God, and forsook the school- doctors and such fooleries.’
Latimer obtained a copy of the New Testament and began to devour it. He saw that it was not what the church did for him or what he did for himself that mattered, but what Christ did for him. Soon he put all his hope of salvation into the hands of his Saviour, Jesus Christ. He was a changed man, a new creation in Christ. Before, he had looked to the church and found fasting, penance, priestly absolution and despair. Now, he looked to Christ and found grace, forgiveness, peace and joy.