Memoirs of the Reformers - John Lambert (d. 1538)

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A remarkable contender of the faith.

THE real name of this very remarkable contender for the truth of the gospel was Nicholson; but the dangers to which his religious opinions subjected him, during the latter part of his life, induced him to assume the surname of Lambert. It does not appear when he was born, though his having suffered in 1538, makes it probable that it might be about the end of the fifteenth, or beginning of the sixteenth century. Neither has the place of his birth been precisely ascertained, only he is said to have been born in some part of the county of Norfolk. He received his academical education at the university of Cambridge, where he acquired the learned languages; and, by the instrumentality of the pious Bilney, was also converted to the knowledge of Christ and his gospel.

Lambert, who began to be distinguished for his learning and piety, was soon obliged to save himself, from the outrageous fury of Henry VIII, by retiring to the continent. Accordingly, he went over to Antwerp, where Tyndale and Frith, who seem to have been his confidential friends, had also taken refuge from the violence of the persecution. There he officiated as preacher and chaplain to the English factory in that city, for nearly two years. But the tenor of his discourses, though admired by the reformers, proved gall and wormwood to the zealots of the Roman church; and one Barlow, in the fervor of his zeal for Rome, lodged an accusation against him with the lord chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More; and poor Lambert was carried a prisoner to London, and handed over to his persecutors in 1532, as an innocent lamb to the callous and cold-blooded butcher. His first examination was taken at Lambeth, by Warham, then archbishop of Canterbury, and afterwards at the bishop’s house at Oxford, before a multitude of his adversaries. He was interrogated on forty-five articles; to all of which he replied, at great length, in an animated, powerful, and very learned address, highly honorable both to himself and the noble cause he so triumphantly defended. It is even doubtful, whether a more solid and comprehensive apology for the principles of the reformation can any where be found; its great length exceeds the limits of our plan, otherwise we should have willingly inserted it. The curious reader will find it at large in Fox s Monuments of the reign of Henry VIII. We shall nevertheless give a short extract at the end of his life as a specimen.

Lambert continued in custody till the next year, 1533, in which the archbishop died, and was succeeded by Cranmer, which circumstance, together with the marriage of Anne Boleyn, seem to have been the immediate cause of Lambert’s release; which he had no sooner obtained, than he repaired to London, where he became a teacher of the Greek and Latin, languages. The aspect of the times induced him to follow this secular employment, in preference to the priesthood; and having resolved to marry, and settle in London, he had proposed to take up the freedom of the city in the grocer’s company. But God, who overrules all the purposes of men according to his own good pleasure, called this eminent individual to act on a more honorable and exalted theatre. Some time in 1538$ Lambert having been present at a sermon, preached by Dr. Taylor, who, at that period, was considered rather friendly, as otherwise, to the reformation principles. Lambert, not altogether satisfied with what he had heard, desired a friendly conference with the doctor; in the course of which, he proposed several theological points, on which he wished the doctor’s opinion, and particularly that relating to the corporeal presence of Christ in the sacrament. Taylor, pressed perhaps too close, excused himself for the present, on account of other business; but suggested, that it might better answer the purpose for Lambert to write his opinion on these matters, which they would afterwards talk over at their leisure.

Lambert accordingly proposed ten arguments in writing, of supporting his opinion against transubstantiation; most of which are lost. The first, however, is founded on these words of our Saviour, This cup is the New Testament. Now, says Lambert, if these words neither change the cup nor the wine it contains substantially into the New Testament, which nobody asserts, or ever has asserted; then, by a parity of reasoning, the words, This is my body, spoken of the bread in the same passage of scripture, do not change it into the real body of Christ, His other nine arguments are said to be equally acute, and the whole supported with abundance of scripture evidence, and quotations from the primitive fathers. Taylor was seriously inclined to satisfy Lambert; but finding himself unable to withstand the force of his reasoning, applied, among others, to Dr. Barnes, a good man, but, like many good men at the dawning of the reformation, in a state of hesitating dubiety with regard to the sacrament of the supper. Under these circumstances, Barnes advised Dr. Taylor to lay the matter before Cranmer, the archbishop, who, at this time, was still an advocate for transubstantiation. Thus Lambert was under the necessity of defending his propositions before a court of bishops, with Cranmer at their head, by which means his sentiments were published to the whole city, the court, and the country.

Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, ever ambitious of royal favor, thought this opportunity, for insinuating himself into the good graces of the king, was not to be neglected, and accordingly suggested to his majesty the propriety of seizing the propitious moment for silencing the clamors of his subjects, and satisfying his friends, that though he had renounced the Roman authority, he had not thereby abandoned the catholic faith, and that by punishing, with salutary severity, all who dared to set forth doctrines opposed to the faith of the church. Moreover, that Lambert, an obstinate and contumacious heretic, who held the most heretical and blasphemous tenets, and supported them with audacious pertinacity, had thereby subjected himself to the heaviest censures of the canon law, and would prove, by his death, a wholesome example to the nation at large.

Henry caught the bait, and forthwith issued a general ordinance, commanding the immediate appearance of all the nobility and bishops of England, to assist him against increasing heresies and heretics, as he purposed personally to sit in judgment on these important and national concerns.

Such was the apparent solemnity and splendid apparatus of this extraordinary trial, that crowds of spectators arrived from every quarter. The king, attended by a strong guard, made his appearance, and seated himself on a throne prepared for the occasion. He was arrayed in white garments, emblematical of innocence and impartial justice. On his right hand sat the bishops, and behind him the judges and crown lawyers, all clothed in purple; while, on his left, the peers of the realm, and other officers of the crown, were arranged according to their presidency. The scene was awful and imposing, while the severe looks, the reckless language, and despotic manner of the royal judge, was more than sufficient to sink the courage, and destroy the self-possession of any man, whose confidence was not founded on the promise of an infinitely more powerful Judge.

It were too tedious to enter on the cruel, despotic, and shamefully partial proceedings of this memorable day. The imperious frowns, and bullying threats of the judge; and the mild, but firm and self possessing deportment of Lambert, has scarcely a parallel, even in the records of catholic cruelty. Lambert defended himself with the firmness of a man, the learning and acuteness of a consummate scholar, and, at the same time, with all that gravity, meekness, and modesty, expected in the demeanor of a Christian; but truth was of no avail, the propriety of his conduct, the force of his reasoning, and the captivating power of his eloquence, went all for nothing. His case was predetermined, the tyrant had resolved to destroy him. The king commanded Cromwell to read the cruel sentence of condemnation and death. It was Lambert’s peculiar case, not only to become a martyr for the truth, but also to suffer by men who soon after vindicated the same cause, and suffered death for the selfsame opinions. Having received his sentence, he seems to have been confined to Cromwell’s house, where, it is said, Cromwell asked his forgiveness for what he was compelled to do against him. On the day of his death he breakfasted among Cromwell’s gentlemen with cheerfulness; and on his departure to the stake, saluted them with much ease and respect, and was thus led like a lamb to the slaughter.

No man ever suffered more diabolical cruelty at the stake than this evangelical martyr, he was rather roasted than burnt to death; if the fire became stronger, or if the flame reached higher than they chose, it was removed or damped. When his legs were burnt off, and bis thighs were reduced to mere stumps in the fire, they pitched his broiling body on pikes, and lacerated his flesh with their halberds. But God was with him in the midst of the flame, and supported his spirit under the anguish of expiring nature. Almost exhausted, he lifted up his hands, such as the fire had left him, and with his last breath, cried out to the people, NONE BUT CHRIST! NONE BUT CHRIST! These memorable words, spoken at such a time, and under such peculiar circumstances, were calculated to make a deeper and more lasting impression on the minds of the spectators, than could have been effected by a volume written on the subject. At last his remains were beat down into the flames, while his triumphant soul “mocked their short arm, and, quick as thought, escaped where tyrants vex not, and the weary rest.”

During his confinement, he wrote a long treatise to the king, In which he apologized for his faith and doctrine; part of which has been preserved in Fox’s Monuments, to which we refer the reader. We shall now, according to promise, extract a few words from his first examination, in order to give the reader some idea of the evangelical principles of this distinguished soldier of. Jesus Christ.

On his first examination before archbishop Warham, he was asked, “Dost thou believe, that whatsoever is done of man) whether it be good or ill, cometh of necessity.” Lambert could easily perceive that the question was a trap laid for his life, and answered it with equal prudence and faithfulness. “Unto the first part of your riddle, I neither can, nor will give any definitive answer. Concerning the second part, whether man hath freewill or no to deserve joy or pain: As for our deserving joy, in particular, I think it very little or none, even when we do the very commandments of God. When you have done all that is commanded you, saith our Saviour, say ye be unprofitable servants. When we have done his bidding, we ought not so to magnify neither ourselves or our freewill, but laud him with a meek heart through whose benefit we have done (if at any time we do it) his liking and pleasure. Hence Justin prayeth, Domine, da quod jubes, et Jube quod, viz. Lord, give what thou commandest, and require what thou wilt. Concerning freewill, I mean altogether as St. Austin, that of ourselves we have no liberty or ability to do the will of God, but are shut up and sold under sin; as both Isaiah and Paul bear witness. But by the grace of God we are rid and set at liberty, according to the portion that every man, that is, every regenerate man, hath received, some more, some less.” He was farther questioned, whether faith alone, without good works, may suffice to the salvation and justification of a man who has fallen into sin after baptism. The martyr answered in the words of Austin, “The performance of good works does not justify a man, but the wan that is justified performs good works.”

Bible Verse:

“I will be sanctified by those that draw near to me…” (Lev. 10:3).

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