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Learned Discourse on Justification
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ERROR AND HERESY NOT ALWAYS IDENTICAL

Howbeit, considering how many virtuous and just men, how many saints, how many martyrs, how many of the ancient fathers of the Church have had their sundry perilous opinions -- and among sundry of their opinions this, that they hoped to make God some part of amends for their sins by the voluntary punishments which they laid upon themselves: because by a consequent it may follow hereupon that they were injurious unto Christ, shall we therefore make such deadly epitaphs and set them upon their graves: "They denied the foundation of faith directly, they are damned, there is no salvation for them"? St. Augustine hath said, "Errare possum, haereticus esse nolo." [I may be mistaken, but I have not the will to be heretical.] And except we put a difference between them that err and them that obstinately persist in error, how is it possible that ever any man should hope to be saved?

Surely, in this case, I have no respect of any person alive or dead. Give me a man, of what estate or condition soever, yea, a cardinal or a pope, whom at the extreme point of his life affliction hath made to know himself, whose heart God hath touched with true sorrow for all his sins, and filled with love toward the Gospel of Christ, whose eyes are opened to see the truth, and his mouth to renounce all heresy and error any way opposite thereunto, this one opinion of merits excepted, which he thinketh God will require at his hands, and because he wanteth, therefore trembleth and is discouraged: "It may be I am forgetful or unskilful, not furnished with things new and old, as a wise and learned scribe should be," [Mt 13:52] nor able to allege that whereunto, if it were alleged, he doth bear a mind most willing to yield, and so to be recalled as well from this as from other errors -- and shall I think, because of this only error, that such a man toucheth not so much as the hem of Christ's garment? If he do, wherefore should not I have hope that virtue may proceed from Christ to save him? Because his error doth by consequent overthrow his faith shall I therefore cast him off as one who hath utterly cast of Christ, one who holdeth not so much as by a slender thread? No, I will not be afraid to say unto a cardinal or to a pope in this plight, "Be of good comfort, we have to do with a merciful God, ready to make the best of that little which we hold well, and not with a captious sophister who gathereth the worst out of everything wherein we err." Is there any reason that I should be suspected, or you offended, for this speech?

Let all affection [that is, sentiment or predisposition] be laid aside; let the matter be indifferently considered. Is it a dangerous thing to imagine that such men may find mercy? The hour may come when we shall think it a blessed thing to hear that if our sins were as the sins of the pope and cardinals the bowels of the mercy of God are larger. I do not propose unto you a pope with the neck of an emperor under his foot, a cardinal riding his horse to the bridle in the blood of saints, but a pope or a cardinal sorrowful, penitent, disrobed, stripped, not only of usurped power, but also delivered and recalled from error and Antichrist, converted and lying prostrate at the feet of Christ; and shall I think that Christ will spurn him? Shall I cross and gainsay the merciful promises of God generally made unto penitent sinners by opposing the name of a pope or a cardinal? What difference is there between a pope and cardinal, and a John a Style, in this case? If we think it impossible for them, after they be once come within that rank, to be afterwards touched with any such remorse, let that be granted. The Apostle saith, "If I or an angel from heaven preach unto you," etc. [Gal 1:8] Let it be as likely that St. Paul or an angel from heaven should preach heresy as that a pope or a cardinal should be brought so far forth to acknowledge the truth; yet if a pope or a cardinal should, what could we find in their persons why they might not be saved? It is not their persons, you will say, but the error wherein I suppose them to die which excludeth them from hope of mercy: the opinion of merits doth take away all possibility of salvation from them. What, although they hold it only as an error; although they hold the truth soundly and sincerely in all other parts of Christian faith; although they have in some measure all the virtues and graces of the Spirit, all other tokens of God's elect children in them; although they be far from having any proud presumptuous opinion that they shall be saved for the worthiness of their deeds; although the only thing which troubleth and molesteth them be but a little too much dejection, somewhat too great a fear, rising from an erroneous conceit [conception] that God will require a worthiness in them which they are grieved to find wanting in themselves; although they be not obstinate in this persuasion; although they be willing and would be glad to forsake it, if any one reason were brought to disprove it; although the only let [hindrance] why they do not forsake it ere they die be the ignorance of the means whereby it might be disproved; although the cause why the ignorance in this point is not removed be the want of knowledge in such as should be able, and are not, to remove it? Let me die if ever it be proved that simply an error doth exclude a pope or a cardinal, in such a case, utterly from hope of life. Surely, I must confess unto you, if it be an error to think that God may be merciful to save men even when they err, my greatest comfort is my error: were it not for the love I bear unto this error, I would neither wish to speak nor to live.

Wherefore, to resume that mother-sentence, whereof I little thought that so much trouble would have grown, "I doubt not but God was merciful to save thousands of our fathers living in popish superstitions, inasmuch as they sinned ignorantly": alas, what bloody matter is there contained in this sentence that it should be an occasion of so many hard censures! Did I say that "thousands of our fathers might be saved"? I have showed which way it cannot be denied. Did I say, "I doubt it not but they were saved"? I see no impiety in this persuasion, though I had no reason in the world for it. Did I say. "Their ignorance doth make me hope they did find mercy and so were saved"? What doth hinder salvation but sin? Sins are not equal; and ignorance, though it do not make sin to be no sin, yet, seeing it did make their sin the less, why should it not make our hope concerning their life the greater? We pity the most, and I doubt not but God hath most compassion over, them that sin for want of understanding. As much is confessed by sundry others, almost in the selfsame words which I have used. It is but only my ill hap that the same sentences which favour verity in other men's books should seem to bolster heresy when they are once by me recited. [cf the opinion of Calvin, cited above] If I be deceived in this point, not they but the blessed Apostle hath deceived me. What I said of others, the same he saith of himself: "I obtained mercy, for I did it ignorantly." [1 Tim 1:13] Construe his words, and ye cannot misconstrue mine. I speak no otherwise, I meant no otherwise.

Thus have I brought the question concerning our fathers at the length unto an end; of whose estate, upon so fit an occasion as was offered me, handling the weighty causes of separation between the Church of Rome and us, and the weak motives which commonly are brought to retain men in that society, amongst which motives the example of our fathers deceased is one; although I saw it convenient to utter that sentence which I did, to the end that all men might thereby understand how untruly we are said to condemn as many as have been before us otherwise persuaded than we ourselves are; yet more than one sentence I did not think it expedient to utter, judging it a great deal meeter for us to have regard to our own estate than to sift over curiously what is become of other men; and fearing lest that such questions as this, if voluntarily they should be too far waded in, might seem worthy of that rebuke which our Saviour thought needful in a case not unlike: "What is this unto thee?" [Jn 21:22] When as I was forced, much besides mine expectation, to render a reason of my speech, I could not but yield at the call of others to proceed as duty bound me for the fuller satisfaction of men's minds. Wherein I have walked, as with reverence, so with fear: with reverence in regard of our fathers who lived in former times; not without fear, considering them that are alive.

I am not ignorant how ready men are to feed and soothe up themselves in evil. Shall I (will the man say that loveth the present world more than he loveth Christ), shall I incur the high displeasure of the mightiest upon earth, shall I hazard my goods, endanger my estate, put my life in jeopardy, rather than yield to that which so many of my fathers have embraced, and yet found favour in the sight of God? "Curse Meroz, saith the Lord, curse her inhabitants because they help not the Lord, they help him not against the mighty." [Jud 5:23] If I should not only not help the Lord against the mighty, but help to strengthen them that are mighty against the Lord, worthily might I fall under the burden of that curse, worthy I were to bear my own judgment. But if the doctrine which I teach be a flower gathered in the garden of the Lord, a part of the saving truth of the Gospel, from whence notwithstanding poisoned creatures do suck venom, I can but wish it were otherwise and content myself with the lot that hath befallen me, the rather because it hath not befallen me alone. St. Paul did preach a truth, and a comfortable truth, when he taught that the greater our misery is in respect of our iniquities the readier is the mercy of our God for our release, if we seek unto him; the more we have sinned, the more praise and glory and honour unto him that pardoneth our sin.

But mark what lewd collections were made hereupon by some: "Why then am I condemned for a sinner?" And, saith the Apostle, "as we are blamed and as some affirm that we say, why do we not evil that good may come of it?" [Rom 3:7f] He was accused to teach that which ill-disposed men did gather by his teaching, though it were clean not only beside but also against his meaning. The Apostle addeth: "Their condemnation who thus do is just." I am not hasty to apply sentences of condemnation: I wish from my heart their conversion, whosoever are thus perversely affected. For I must needs say, their case is fearful, their estate dangerous, who harden themselves, presuming on the mercy of God towards others. It is true that God is merciful, but let us beware of presumptuous sins. [Ps 19:13] God delivered Jonah from the bottom of the sea: will you therefore cast yourselves headlong from the tops of rocks and say in your hearts, "God shall deliver us"? [cf Mt 4:5-7] He pitieth the blind that would gladly see; but will God pity him that may see and hardeneth himself in blindness? No; Christ hath spoken too much unto you for you to claim the privilege of your fathers.

As for us that have handled this cause concerning the condition of our fathers, whether it be this thing or any other which we bring unto you, the counsel is good which the wise man giveth: "Stand thou fast in thy sure understanding, in the way and knowledge of the Lord, and have but one manner of word, and follow the word of peace and righteousness." [Ecclus 5:10] As a loose tooth is a great grief unto him that eateth, so doth a wavering and unstable word, in speech that tendeth to instruction, offend. "Shall a wise man speak words of the wind," saith Eliphaz -- light, inconstant, unstable words? [Job 15:2] Surely the wisest may speak words of the wind: such is the untoward constitution of our nature that we neither do so perfectly understand the way and knowledge of the Lord, nor so steadfastly embrace it when it is understood, nor so graciously utter it when it is embraced, nor so peaceably maintain it when it is uttered, but that the best of us are overtaken sometimes through blindness, sometimes through hastiness, sometimes through impatience, sometimes through other passions of the mind, whereunto (God doth know) we are too subject.

We must therefore be contented both to pardon others and to crave that others may pardon us for such things. Let no man who speaketh as a man think himself (whilst he liveth) always freed from scapes and oversights in his speech. The things themselves which I have spoken unto you I hope are sound, howsoever they have seemed otherwise unto some, at whose hands if I have, in that respect, received injury, I willingly forget it; although, in truth, considering the benefit which I have reaped by this necessary search of truth, I rather incline unto that of the Apostle, "They have not injured me at all." [2 Cor 2:5,10] I have cause to wish, and I do wish them as many blessings in the kingdom of heaven as they have forced me to utter words and syllables in this cause, wherein I could not be more sparing in speech than I have been. "It becometh no man," saith St. Jerome, "to be patient in the crime of heresy." [that is, "patient when under suspicion of heresy." Jerome, AGAINST JOHN OF JERUSALEM, 2 J P Migne, PATROLOGIOE LATINAE, vol 33] Patient, as I take it, we should be always, though the crime of heresy were intended; but silent in a thing of so great consequence I could not, beloved, I durst not be; especially the love which I bear to the truth in Christ Jesus being hereby somewhat called in question. Whereof I beseech them, in the meekness of Christ, [2 Cor 10:1] that have been the first original cause, to consider that a watchman may cry "An enemy!" when indeed a friend cometh. In which case, as I deem such a watchman to be more worthy to be loved for his care than misliked for his error, so I have judged it my own part in this case, as much as in me lieth, to take away all suspicion of any unfriendly intent or meaning against the truth, from which, God doth know, my heart is free.

Now to you, beloved, who have heard these things I will use no other words of admonition than those which are offered me by St. James: "My brethren, have not this faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ in respect of persons." [Jas 2:1] Ye are now to learn that, as of itself it is not hurtful, so neither should it be to any man scandalous and offensive, in doubtful cases, to hear the different judgment of men. Be it that Cephas hath one interpretation and Apollos hath another, that Paul is of this mind and Barnabas of that; if this offend you, the fault is yours. Carry peaceable minds, and ye may have comfort by this variety.

Now the God of peace give you peaceable minds and turn it to your everlasting comfort!

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