Peter Witkowski is the senior pastor of Amissville Baptist Church (ABC) located at the edge of the Blue Ridge mountains in Northern Virginia. Peter earned his Master of Divinity Degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2012. Seeking to put his theology into action, he became a certified member of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) in 2016. Peter is currently a PhD candidate in historical theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to his best friend, April. Together, they are raising three young children.
Set against the backdrop of all the Christmas business that threatens to overwhelm us, the season of advent proves to be a blessing. It calls us to pause and to find hope afresh in the Christ child. Here are three fantastic devotionals that will help you and your family care for your soul this Christmas season.
Put together by the editors and writers of the Gospel Coalition, this five-week devotional contains focused meditations centered upon the traditional themes of the advent wreath that can be used in a variety of ways. Each of the 25 devotionals begins with a Scriptural passage and then moves on to a 1–2-page reflection that feeds into a response section that contains a couple of questions that will help the reader (and if applicable the reader’s family) to apply the message to their life. Each devotion ends with a rejoice section that highlights a hymn. This 117-page devotional devotes 5 readings to each of the of the 5 advent themes that churches often focus upon when lighting their candles: Hope, Peace, Joy, Love, and Faith. The book can be read from Dec 1- Dec 25 or can be used once or twice a week to compliment your family devotions. I will be using modified selections from this book for some of our church’s advent readings and will also be reading this book with my kids during our family devotions. If you are looking for an advent devotional that will emphasize the traditional themes of advent through faithful exegesis of the Scriptures, I encourage you to grab a copy of this book.
Christopher Ash’s 153-page book beautifully applies Luke’s account of the Christmas story to our lives over the span of 25 devotionals. Each day begins with a passage from Luke which then is followed by 2-4 pages of exposition that apply the Scriptures to the fears, struggles, traditions, expectations, and hopes that shape our holiday experiences. At the conclusion of each devotional, the reader will find a suggested hymn, prayer, and space to write down their own reflections. If you long to know the theology behind the first Christmas story better, I encourage you to grab a copy of this fantastic devotional. My family and I worked through it last December and were encouraged by Ash’s gospel-centered meditations which helped us to appreciate what Jesus has done and what he promises to do again. Adults, teenagers, and families with older kids intent upon enriching their faith this advent season would do well to spend this December reading their own copy of Repeat the Sounding Joy.
Jared Wilson wants this book to serve as a spiritual advent calendar that presents its readers not with a Lego minifigure or a piece of chocolate but with something far more sustaining….one of the “myriad of gifts that Christians receive through the coming of Christ and belief in his gospel.” Not only is Wilson’s advent devotional quite readable, containing fantastic lines such as “Santa Clause is a big, fat legalist,” it is also profoundly theological. Each of the 25 devotions found in this 136-page book opens with a Scripture passage before turning to a story that guides the reader from fun reflections to deep theological meditations tied to terms such as propitiation, expiation, and idolatry. Each of the 4-page devotionals also contains a Christmas song theme that are clearly laid out in the book’s last two pages. Those looking for a fresh, engaging (you’d be hard press to find another devotional that mentions Donald Duck), and yet theologically sound devotional for their quiet times or their family’s devotional time should order a copy of Gifts of Grace.
The calendar date escapes me but the memory replays vividly in my mind. As April and I headed to Charlottesville for her last chemotherapy appointment, my dear bride once more laid out her hopes for the future. She knew death lurked just around the corner. But she was not ready. She desperately longed to see our church mount the summit of self-sustaining health, to see me complete my doctorate, and to see our children come to faith. She was willing to relinquish the dream of shepherding her children into adulthood, but the rest remained nonnegotiable for her. Perhaps in a few more years, she would be ready to entrust her soul to eternity. But not now.
I openly doubted her conviction. She was such a planner and possessed such a love for others, I could not foresee her ever wanting to leave us. Even if she saw our three kiddos embrace Jesus and graduate high school, I know her heart would have longed to see them married and then establishing godly families of their own. She would have wanted to see our church accomplish this goal or that and watch me complete the next task God placed before me. Even at 45 or 50, she still would have had many a reason to keep on living. As the apostle Paul, she knew that to, “live is Christ (Phil 2:21).”
And so I slowly turned toward her, laid out my thinking, and then gently said, “I don’t think, you’ll ever be ready to leave us.” She smiled shyly and said, “I suppose you right.”
Can there ever be a good time to die?
The Inopportune Nature of Death
In one sense, the answer is no. No matter our age or season of life, death proves unnatural…an interruption of all that is good and right. While officiating the funeral of a dear man who passed in his 80s, I watched as one of his children stood up and tearfully noted that he had left too soon. She longed for a future that would still contain his funny stories and loving antics…things that had enriched his children and grandchildren’s lives for decades. As that day made clear, the human heart remains perpetually at odds with the idea of death.
Where God to come down from heaven in a whirlwind and ask us to name the time and location of our loved one’s death, I suspect none of us would be able to pick a point on the eternal timeline. We know only this world and that knowledge is woefully fragmented and incomplete. We do not see the eternal threads of consequence that make sense of all God’s actions and that make statements like “God works all things together for the good of those who love him,” true (Rom 8:28). Had April lived to be 49, 69, or even 89, I still would not have wanted to wake up in a world without her any more than I do today. As I tearfully told her that day in the car, “We are going to be miss so…so…very much. There is no good time to die.” In one sense, it truly is the greatest of evils.
The Gracious Nature of Death
Thankfully, the knowledge of eternity that we lack God possesses. Though we might be tempted to charge God with taking our loved one to soon whether that be the 1 day mark or the 100 year mark, God’s timing proves perfect. As Psalm 116:15 reminds us, the death of the righteous is precious to the Lord. God takes our loved one home at just the right moment. As Joseph Caryl wisely noted,
Whenever the godly die, it is harvest time with him; though in a natural capacity he be cut down while he is green, and cropped in the bid or blossom; yet in his spiritual capacity he never dies before he is ripe.
God never makes a mistake. He brings us home when he does because he loves both our loved one and us. Jesus delayed going to see Lazarus not only because he loved his friend but because he loved Mary and Martha as well (John 11:5). All things work together for good for both those in heaven and those on earth. No saint above will fault God for having brought them to heaven too soon. As Paul notes, “To dies is gain (Phil 1:21,23).
Why Christians Die
As much as I grieve the loss of my wife, I know she did not grieve her entrance into heaven. The end, the telos, of our existence is not a lifetime of free Starbucks, a winning lottery ticket, nor a fulfilling marriage. As C.S. Lewis noted in his essay the “Weight of Glory,” the very fact that men and women desire a utopia, a heaven, reveals that mankind was made for that eternal destination. To remain forever in the sorrows of earth lacking full access to God and surrounded by brokenness would prove a cruelty and not a mercy. I know a dear man decades my senior who has buried many a friend and family member. Though thankful for his long life, his face grows heavier with each passing year as his sorrows tied to pain and death continue to accumulate.
Where this life never to end, I suspect our sorrows would become insurmountable, and our salvation would remain incomplete R.C. Sproul helpfully noted,
Jesus bore all our sins on the cross. Yet none of us is free from sin in this life…The healing that is in the cross is real…But the fullness of healing from both sin and disease takes place in heaven. We still must die at our appointed times…There is no route to heaven except through this valley.
There is a reason God kicked Adam and Eve from the garden and barred them from the tree of life. An eternity marred by fallenness proves to be the very antithesis of the hope of the gospel. As our hunger for something better reveals, this world does not need to be preserved but remade. For the Christian, death becomes the means by which God ushers us into his presence and thereby satisfies our hunger for eternal goodness. The apostle Paul beautifully writes,
For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life (2 Cor. 5:4).
Just as Christ went from death to glory so to do all his children the moment their heart stops. To quote the apostle Paul again, “Death is swallowed up in victory. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting (1 Cor 15:54-55)?” Death ends in glory.
Good & Bad
So, can there ever be a good time to die? In one sense, no. I wish my April here with me today and forever. We were supposed to grow old together and have those rocking chairs on the front porch that she always talked of. We were supposed to raise a family together. But in the truest of senses, yes there is a good time to die…that perfect moment when God’s ushers our loved ones to their true end…their true purpose. And for my April, that day was June 25, 2022.
The group of dedicated and zealous church officials tossed the decaying skeleton into the newly lit fire with a sense of devotional glee. The men from Lincoln were carrying out the wishes of the Council of Constance which had declared that the scholar and theologian, “John Wyclif, was a notorious heretic, and that he died obstinate in his heresy; cursing alike him and his memory.” In perhaps one of the greatest ironic moments in history, the Catholic Church had Wycliff’s body which had lain peacefully in the ground since December 1384, exhumed burned, and then tossed into the River Swift in 1415 so as to erase his errors if not his very memory from the historical record. And yet as the presence of this discussion of him makes clear, Wycliff’s legacy and ideas continue to live on within the halls of church history and prove worthy of our examination. If for no other reason than curiosity, we cannot help but ask the question of: “What great evil must one do to warrant one’s bones being dug up, burnt, and then cast into a river?” What had Wyclif done?
From Oxford to Prague to Luther
To begin with, he had the misfortune of being associated with another heretic by the name of John Huss who arrived on the theological scene more than decade after Wyclif’s body have been entombed. While studying in Prague almost 700 miles away from Wyclif’s beloved Oxford, Huss came across Wyclif’s books while in the University of Prague’s library and would go on to attribute many of his theological beliefs to Wyclif. For example, when Huss discussed heresy, he borrowed Wyclif’s categories of, “simony, blasphemy, and apostacy.” Such citations did not enhance Wyclif’s legacy. The year before the Council of Constance condemned Wyclif’s body to be burned, it had ordered that John Huss be burned at the stake. What was Huss’s great crime?
Huss had proclaimed that salvation came not through sacraments such as the mass nor through the purchasing of indulgences but rather came when men and women adhered, “firmly and without wavering to the truth spoken of by God.” While defending the power of the gospel as revealed in the Bible, Huss rebuked priests for spending more time at the local bar than in their pulpits and took issue with the Pope when he countermanded the clear teaching of Scripture. As Huss noted,
If a pope’s command is at variance with Christ’s commands or counsel or tends to any hurt of the church, then he [a Christian] ought boldly to resist it lest he become a partaker in crime.
In many ways, Huss’s teaching should not have been controversial. Huss had hoped to peacefully reform the church, but the Catholic Church which had two popes at the time and enough scandals to set twitter ablaze for decades had no stomach for this biblical and rather a-political call for its local churches to be defined by pure doctrine derived from the Scriptures and by pure living. Thus, Huss found himself on trial in 1413 for his teaching.
The famed monk, Martin Luther, who started the reformation by nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel on Oct 31, 1517, would declare at his own trial in 1519 that, “I cannot believe that the Council of Constance would condemn these propositions of Huss.” But alas, it did. As the flames reached Huss’s head in 1414, he cried out “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Huss’s body would be so thoroughly burnt that, “not a particle was left of body or garment that could be preserved and taken back to Bohemia to be used as a relic.”
How had Wyclif influenced Huss? Why was the British theologian deemed to be one of the most dangerous enemies of the Catholic Church?
Wyclif had championed three theological positions that had encouraged Huss and earned the commendation of the Church. Wyclif proclaimed that simony or holding church office for the purpose of financial gain was sinful. Second, he proclaimed that the Church’s ultimate authority rested upon Scripture and not tradition. And lastly, he denied that the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper was the physical body of Christ. All three positions (simony, Scripture, and sacraments) had emboldened Huss and indirectly Luther to follow Jesus and succeeded in irking the Catholic for generations to come.
Though Foxe portrayed Wyclif as a great organizer and visionary in his famous Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the historical record revealed Wyclif to have been more of a reactionary as Martin Luther and John Huss would be in later years. Huss more stumbled into his position as a reformer than sought it out.
Wyclif was born in 1330’s in the town of Yorkshire to a family of limited nobility. With the help of some scholarships, he would go on to earn what would be the modern equivalent of his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees at Oxford University where he earned the reputation of being an excellent lawyer, debater and scholar.
Simony and his Rise to Fame
In the 1360s and early 1370s, Wyclif came to prominence when the Duke of Lancaster asked Wyclif to help the English monarchy decide whether they must pay Papal taxes. England was in the middle of a war with France and could ill afford to allow the Catholic Church to take a share of its annual income. Though consulted more for his legal skill than his theological insight, Wyclif’s position on simony or of using the church as a for-profit business (think church greed) quickly became theological in nature. Wyclif affirmed that the church did not have to pay the pope if the pope had sinned. Diverging from Catholic doctrine which proclaimed, that the office made the man, Wyclif argued that the office’s authority depended upon the pope living a righteous life. As he noted in 1377,
No man ought to follow either pope, bishop, or angel but only insofar as he follows Christ, for Christ is both God and man.
If a man lived outside the bounds of Scripture, he ceased to exercise his church office, regardless of its prestige. Wyclif wrote, “Any act that loosens the bond of worship between man and the Father is sin against the Father. The pope, when he has broken by heresy the bond of divine service, is no longer apostolic but apostate.” Secular rulers were to disregard and pull the funding of any priest or pope who had besmirched the purity of the church. Even the threat of excommunication which resulted in one’s removal from the church and being condemned to hell carried no weight if the pope were in sin. Wyclif encouraged the nobles and kings to not fear, “the lightning bolts of excommunication in this case, because a curse resulting from this will be turned into a blessing.” As Wyclif noted, salvation depend upon faith in the providential work on the cross and not upon whims of the pope.
More importantly, Wyclif believed the very act of collecting taxes to support the secondary ministries of the church in ways that did not directly benefit local parishes and churches from which the money came was an act of simony or of church-based greed. According to Wyclif, Jesus had called the church and its officers to collect only those funds needed to support gospel ministry. As Wyclif said, “it is appropriate that he [the priest] duly feed his body sparingly and moderately.” But the money collected to support monasteries or other civic functions of the church were sinful. He also strongly condemned friars, medieval – traveling preachers whom Wyclif called “a pack of apes,”- and anyone else who directly exchanged gospel ministries such as prayer, the appointment of church officials, or the sacraments for money. He wrote,
When someone in exchange for money performs a service or ministers in an office in which the Holy Spirit is conferred, he not only makes money his god, but sacrifices both persons to the idol that he adores.
He similarly took issue with indulgences, the idea that people could purchase their salvation or sanctification, declaring, “that priests granting indulgences commonly blaspheme…God’s wisdom.” Grace freely bestowed by God resolved the complexities of human sin apart from payment. To quote Wyclif once more, “It is clear that a viator [traveler] can take it that his sin is destroyed or that he is contrite in soul only through hope in the mercy of Jesus Christ, a marked sorrow and a holy life.” Salvation came through belief in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. To quote the theologian, “A right-looking of full belief on Christ saves His people.”
The only remedy for the greed, “the leprosy,” that consumed the church of Wyclif’s day was for, the “Lord pope, bishops, all religious Lords, simple clerics endowed with…possessions…to renounce these possessions into the hands of the secular arm of the church, and if they stubbornly refuse, they should be forced to do so by secular lords.” Wyclif believed the king had a moral and biblical duty to resist any pope who stole from his parishioners. Those kings that refused to protect the spiritual quality of their nations would endure an even worse punishment than the sinful church officials. The church was to instruct the state and the state was to preserve the church.
While this understanding of church-state relationships would understandably trouble modern readers who believe the church and state should be separate entities, they also troubled Wyclif’s contemporaries. The Catholic Church thought herself above the state and disliked the idea of church-state cooperation.
In 1377, Pope Gregory XI issued Papal Bulls or decrees condemning Wyclif’s teaching. One of the Pope’s letters went to Oxford and another to the King. While not necessarily in favor of Wyclif’s ideas, Oxford refused to act, seeking to prove itself independent of papal authority. The king at the time was twelve years old and highly influenced by his Queen Mother and the Duke of Lancaster, Wyclif’s protector, John Gaunt who also took no action. But in 1377, Wyclif had to defend his ideas before a tribunal of Bishops at the chapel in Lambeth, England. That tribunal condemned Wyclif’s ideas as heretical and forbad Wyclif and others from teaching his ideas. But nothing much came of this decision for Gregory XI died in 1378 and then two different men claimed to be pope which brought the administrative wheels of the church to a temporary halt.
The Sufficiency of Scripture
As the screws of persecution began to tighten around him, Wyclif increasingly turned to the Scriptures for wisdom. As he wrote in 1384,
Scripture is the foundation of every Catholic opinion and within it resides the very salvation of the faithful.
As Wyclif read and study God’s Word, he became convinced of the authority of the Scriptures. He boldly asserted that, “the certitude and authority of Scripture should be given preference over human reason…since Holy Scripture is the word of the Lord and thus must be of the highest authority.” Scripture could be trusted for it was “true in all of its parts according to its intended sense.” For any doctrine or idea to be believed, it had not only to align with church practice but with the clear and authoritative teachings of Scripture. To quote Wyclif,
It is lawful for bishops and vicars of Christ to formulate statutes designed to help the church…they ought to be accepted, unless they…prove contrary to Holy Scripture.
He continued, “To say…that all papal bulls are of equal authority or certainty with truth with Holy Scripture would be blasphemous attributing to pope the claim of being the Christ.” Christ alone was the Word of truth as contained in the Scriptures. And the Word was the final authority. Wyclif concluded, “Holy Scripture exceeds all human canons in usefulness, authority, and subtley.”
Lollards & the Wyclif Bible
Since the Scriptures were true, understandable and authoritative, Wyclif placed great priority upon the preaching of the Word. Wyclif concluded, “the right preaching of God’s Word is the most worthy work a priest may do among men…more fruit comes from good preaching than from any other work.” Faithful preaching would reflect the clear teaching of the Scriptures and would lead people to salvation and holiness. To quote Wyclif, “God does not ask for cleverness or rhymes from one whose duty it is to preach, but simply to explain rightly God’s Gospel and his words, to stir his people thereby.” Though the Reformation term of Sola Scriptura or Scripture Alone would not appear for a few hundred more years, the concept proved to be a fixture of Wyclif’s theology.
Given Wyclif’s high view of preaching, his name became readily associated with the Lollard movement, a movement of lay preachers devoted to the gospel. While the extent of Wyclif’s involvement in the movement remains debated, historians fully affirm both Wyclif’s high view of the Scriptures and of preaching. As Wyclif noted in his pastoral handbook, “the best life for a priest is a holy life keeping the commands of God through faithfully preaching the gospel, as Christ did and charged all his priest to do likewise.” Even if he did not create the Lollard movement, his teachings inspired the lay men who traveled about England preaching the gospel.
Similarly, the extent of Wyclif’s involvement in the English translation of the Bible remains a topic of debate given the fact that John Purvey the main editor of the Bible makes no mention of Wyclif’s influence upon the project. But historians do not doubt that Wyclif wanted the common people to have the Bible in their own tongue. As he said in 1384, “the knowledge of God’s word should be taught in the language known to the people, for God’s Word is essential knowledge.” Commenting on Pentecost, he concluded,
God willed that the people were taught his Word in diverse tongues; therefore, what man acting on God’s behalf would reverse God’s ordinance and his revealed will?
Those who only allowed the Bible to be translated into Latin and who restricted lay people from reading the gospels went against God’s will. Though Wyclif understood that English translations would need to be constantly updated, he believed such translations would empower people to follow God’s law and would prevent the church from falling into heresy. If they lay people could read the Scriptures, they could hold their clergy accountable. While the extent of his involvement in the Lollard preaching movement and in the translation of the Bible that bears his name are debated, his support of such ideas can be easily found in his writings. As Steve Lawson noted, Scripture was, “the vital heartbeat of Wyclif’s ministry.”
Understandably, the church which claimed to have the exclusive right to both teach and interpret the Scriptures took issue with Wyclif’s ideas.
Sacraments & Trouble
In 1381, he found himself called before another council for his teaching on the church, the Scriptures, and lastly the Eucharist or the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
In 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council, the Catholic Church had declared that when the priest prays over the elements of the Lord’s Supper, the bread and the wine become the physical body of Christ. By consuming the bread and wine, Christians ate Jesus and gained additional strength to fight sin. After studying the Scriptures and the early church fathers, Wyclif concluded that such a theory was unbiblical. He wrote,
We ought to believe not that it is itself the body of Christ, but that the body of Christ is sacramentally concealed in it…The spiritual receiving of the body of Christ consists not in bodily receiving, chewing, or touching of the consecrated host, but in the feeding of the soul out of the fruitful faith according to which our spirit is nourished in the Lord…nothing is more horrible than the necessity of eating the flesh carnally and of drinking the blood carnally of a man [Jesus Christ] loved so dearly.
While such a move might seem insignificant, it proved significant for Wyclif for he had openly written against a rather standard and well-known doctrine of the fourteenth century church.
In May 1382 at the Black friars Synod, Oxford condemned Wyclif’s teachings and forbade him or anyone else from teaching any of Wyclif’s ideas. Facing house arrest as well, Wyclif appealed to the king for help. John Gaunt arrived and kept Wyclif out of prison but also showed him the necessity of resigning from Oxford. Given the young king’s precarious position, the crown could not afford a long and protracted battle with Oxford or the Catholic Church. Thus, Wyclif moved to Lutterworth to live out his days writing about the Scriptures and sharing the gospel he loved so dearly. He died from a stroke on December 31, 1384, at (most probably) the age of 54.
As the catholic officials digging up his tomb made clear, Wyclif’s ideas did not die with him. The man who called priest to repent of simony or greed, who championed the authority of the Scriptures, and who advocated for a scriptural understanding of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper will in once since never die. For what made Wyclif famous was not his ingenuity but his foundation, the gospel of Jesus Christ. What God promised Isaiah in 55:11 would prove true of Wyclif,
“My word…that goes out form my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
God’s word continued on from Wyclif to Huss to Luther and then to millions of us today. No one can stamp out the Word of God or those who stand with it. Even if they burn our bodies and toss our ashes into the sea, the God’s Word abideth still.