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Supplements » Cranmer on Faith (December 1999)
Cranmer on Faith by David Holloway
Thomas Cranmer was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 16th century under King Henry VIII. He was archbishop during the critical years of the Reformation in England and a literary genius to compare with Shakespeare: we, indeed, owe the Book of Common Prayer to Cranmer. But he was also a masterly theologian. It was Cranmer who was responsible for the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England and it was Cranmer who wrote three of the most famous 'homilies' (or sermons) from the Anglican Book of Homilies. These were, the sermon Of the Salvation of all Mankind, the 'short declaration' Of the True and Lively Faith, and the sermon Of Good Works. Over 400 years later they are all still readable and relevant. And how they need to be read!
As we approach the new Millennium the omens are not good. The Economist's 'World in 2000' predicts that
'Britain in the year 2000 will be richer, fitter and more sophisticated in its technology and tastes ... But it will also be a lonelier, more atomistic society, in which traditional pillars of support are atrophying away. And it will be divided.'
One of these divides will be over religious commitment: 'more than half of the population will go through the year without any participation in religious activity.' And 'modern Britons will have to fend for themselves with much less in the way of family, corporate or spiritual support.'
Cranmer has much to say to the modern world. So a reading of Cranmer on faith, is no bad way to prepare to celebrate 2000 years of Christianity. What follows (and minimally edited) is the first part of Cranmer's Short Declaration of the True, Lively and Christian Faith.
First, Dead Faith
"The first entry to God, good Christian people, is through faith, by which we are justified before God. So that no-one should be deceived for lack of right understanding of this, you must note diligently that faith is taken in the Scripture in two ways. There is one faith which in Scripture is called dead faith, which brings forth no good works, but is idle, barren and unfruitful. The holy apostle James compares this faith to the faith of devils, who believe God to be true and just, and tremble for fear, yet they do nothing well, but all evil. This is the faith of the wicked and ungodly Christian people, who confess God (as Paul says) with their mouth, but deny him in their deeds, and are abominable, and without the right faith, and in all good works reprehensible. This faith is a persuasion and belief in man's heart, which means that he knows that there is a God, and assents to all truth of God's most holy word, contained in holy Scripture, but it consists only in believing that the word of God is true. This is not properly called faith."
"Someone who reads the works of Caesar believing them to be true, has a knowledge of Caesar's life and noble acts because he believes the history of Caesar. Yet it is not that he believes in Caesar, from whom he expects no help nor benefit. It is the same with someone who believes that all that is spoken of God in the Bible is true, and yet lives in such an ungodly way that he cannot expect to enjoy the promises and benefits of God. It may be said that such a man has a faith and belief in the words of God. Yet it is not really true that he believes in God, or has a faith and trust in God by which he may expect grace, mercy, and eternal life at God's hand. Rather, he may expect indignation and punishment, according to the merits of his wicked life. For, as it is written in a book said to be by Didymus Alexandrinus: 'In as much as faith without works is dead, it is not truly faith, as a dead man is not a man'. This dead faith, therefore, is not that sure and substantial faith which saves sinners."
Secondly, Living Faith
"There is another faith in Scripture, which is not idle, unfruitful, and dead like the previous faith. It works by love as Paul declares (Galatians 5). As the other, false faith is called a dead faith, so may this be called a living faith. This is not only belief in the doctrines of our faith, but it is also a sure trust and confidence in the mercy of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a steadfast hope of all good things to be received from God's hand. It trusts that, although through weakness or temptation by our spiritual enemy we fall from him by sin, yet if we return to him with true repentance, he will forgive and forget our offences for his Son's sake, our Saviour Jesus Christ. He will even make us inheritors with him of his everlasting kingdom. In the mean time, until that kingdom comes, he will be our protector and defender in all perils and dangers, whatever may happen. Though sometimes he sends us sharp adversity, yet he will always be a loving father to us, correcting us for our sin, but not withdrawing his mercy from us. So we must trust in him and commit ourselves wholly to him, hang only upon him, and call upon him, ready to obey and serve him."
"This is the true, living, and unfeigned Christian faith. It is not in the mouth and outward profession only, but it lives and stirs inwardly in the heart. This faith does not exist without hope and trust in God, nor without the love of God and of our neighbours. It does not exist without fear of God, nor without the desire to hear God's word, and to follow it in avoiding evil and doing all good works gladly. This faith, as the Bible describes it, is 'being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see'. And later it says:
'anyone who comes to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him'.
And nothing commends good men to God so much as this assured faith and trust in him."
"Three things should be especially noted about this faith. First, this faith does not lie dead in the heart, but is lively and fruitful in bringing forth good works. Second, without it no good works can be done that will be acceptable and pleasant to God. Third, we should note what kind of good works this faith brings forth."
Thirdly, Good Works
"For just as light cannot be hidden, but will show itself at one place or another, so true faith cannot be kept secret. When opportunity is offered, it will break out and show itself by good works. The living body of a man always does things appropriate to a natural and living body, for nourishment and preservation of itself, as it has need, opportunity, and occasion. In the same way the soul which has a living faith in it will always be doing some good work, which declares that it is living. It will not be unoccupied."
"Therefore, when men hear in the Scriptures such high commendations of faith - that it makes us please God, live with God, and to be the children of God - if then they imagine that they are set at liberty from doing all good works, and may live as they please, they trifle with God, and deceive themselves. It is a manifest sign that they are far from having the true and living faith, and also far from knowledge of what true faith means. For the true, sure and living Christian faith (as said before) is not just to believe all things about God which are contained in holy Scripture, but it is also an earnest trust and confidence in God. It is trusting that he cares for us and looks after us, as the father of a child whom he loves. It is knowing that he will be merciful to us for his only Son's sake, and that we have our Saviour Christ as our perpetual advocate and priest. In his merits, sacrifice, and suffering, we trust that our offences are continually washed and purged, whenever we repent truly, and return to him with our whole heart. At the same time we are steadfastly determined to obey and serve him in keeping his commandments (through his grace), and never to turn back again to sin."
"Such is the true faith that Scripture commends so much. Such faith, when it considers what God has done for us, is also moved, through continual assistance of the Spirit of God, to serve and please him. It is moved to keep his favour, to fear his displeasure, to continue his obedient children, showing thankfulness by observing his commandments. It does it freely, primarily out of true love and not for dread of punishment or love of temporal reward, knowing how much, without deserving it, we have received his mercy and pardon freely."
"This true faith will show itself, and cannot be idle for long. As it is written,
'The righteous man will live by faith.'
He neither sleeps, nor is idle, when he should wake and be well occupied. God says by his prophet Jeremiah:
'Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.'
In the same way, those who are faithful and put away their fear of adversity, will show the fruit of their good works, as opportunity is offered to do them."