John Hus was born about 1370 in the village of Hussenitz, in what is now the Czech Republic. In the 1380’s he began studies at Charles University in Prague, where he earned several degrees. He was ordained a priest in 1400, and in 1402 he became rector of the University, which meant he began to preach regularly at Bethlehem Chapel, where the people of the city came to worship.
Hus became an immensely popular figure as he preached regularly at Bethlehem. He preached twice a day on Sundays and feast days, wrote hymns, and introduced congregational singing in Bohemian, the language of the people, where before the only music in worship had been priests singing in Latin. He was known for his solid Bible exposition with lots of practical application. As is often the case in early periods of reformation, God’s people were being fed God’s Word, and it stirred up a desire for reform in the church.
A generation before Hus, John Wycliffe, the “morning star of the Reformation,” had turned England upside down by teaching against the primacy of the Pope, proclaiming the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and translating the Bible into English, making it accessible to the common people. Wycliffe’s ideas had been condemned by the Pope, but when they began to be debated at the University in Prague Hus refused to reject them outright. In fact, the more Hus studied Wycliffe he found himself in substantial agreement with most of his writings, which he also worked to translate into Bohemian.
Keep in mind that Hus lived a century before the Reformation really kicked into gear. But at this point he already taught that Christ, not Peter, is the rock on which the church is built. He preached a simple Christianity based on repentance and faith, and urged moral and theological reform in the Roman Catholic Church. He taught that Scripture (not the rulings of the pope) were the “only infallible norm” for Christian belief, and that salvation was only through true faith in Christ, a faith that works by love and good deeds and endures to the end. He believed that the efficacy of the sacraments comes from God, and offered both the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper to the people. His highest priority was that the church be free to preach the Gospel, which is her most important task. His last letter to a student who took his place at Bethlehem Chapel closed with the words, “Preach the Word of God.”
Hus was charged with heresy for teaching the doctrines of Wycliffe, and his archbishop began to burn Wycliffe’s books whenever he could find them. Hus remarked in a sermon, “Fire does not consume truth. It is always a mark of a little mind to vent anger on inanimate and uninjurious objects.” He was summoned to Rome to stand trial, but refused to go, knowing that there would be no fair trial, only a death sentence. For this he was excommunicated, and the city of Prague was put under papal interdict, meaning there could be no sacraments, no public worship, not even Christian burial for anyone but priests.
In 1411 Pope John XXIII proclaimed a holy war against the king of Naples and granted a full indulgence to all Christians who joined the fight. Hus refused to publish the announcement, arguing that Christ’s kingdom does not advance by the sword. A papal emissary came to ask if he was ready to obey the “apostolical mandate,” and Hus said that he was. When the emissary responded was pleased, he clarified:
My lord, understand me well. I said I am ready with all my heart to obey the apostolical mandates. But I call apostolical mandates the doctrines of the apostles of Christ; and so far as the papal mandates agree with these, so far will I obey them most willingly. But if I see anything in them at variance with these, I shall not obey, even though the stake were staring me in the face.
The Council of Constance was called in 1414 to deal with various problems in the church, including the “heresies” of Hus and Wycliffe. Hus traveled to Constance, having been promised a chance to debate his theological differences with the authorities of the Church. Instead he was thrown into prison for months and never given the chance to defend himself, but only to recant. When offered a final chance to recant he refused, declaring that to do so would be unfaithful to God, to the people to whom he had preached the Gospel, and to the others who were proclaiming it faithfully. The bishops said, “We commit your soul to the devil!”, to which Hus responded “And I commit it to my most gracious Lord Jesus Christ.”
On the way to his execution his books were burned. Just before the fire was started he addressed the crowd:
What shall I recant, not being conscious of any errors? I call God to witness that I have neither taught nor preached what has falsely been laid to my charge, but that the end of all my preaching and writings was to induce my fellow men to forsake sin. In the truth which I have proclaimed, according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the expositions of holy teachers, I will this day joyfully die.
Hus’ last words were addressed to his executioner: “You are now going to burn a goose, but in a century you will have a swan whom you can neither roast nor boil.” Hus was burned on July 6, 1415. 102 years later, on October 31, 1517, a young monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg. One of Luther’s early influences was the writings of John Hus, a heretic whose work he was surprised to agree with.
We live in a day where truth is negotiable, and theology even more so. This has not always been the case– there have been times when men would “joyfully die” for the truth, especially the truth of God’s Word. The mantle now falls to us. May God be pleased in our day to raise up an army of Husses and Wycliffes and Tyndales– men and women who love God and the Gospel above all else, who “overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony, and love not their lives even unto death.”
For more Reformation Day articles, see Tim Challies’ Reformation Day Symposium.