There was in Trinity Hall, Cambridge, a young doctor, much given to the study of the canon law, of serious turn of mind and bashful disposition, and whose tender conscience strove, although ineffectually, to fulfill the commandments of God. Anxious about his salvation, Thomas Bilney applied to the priests, whom he looked upon as physicians of the soul. Kneeling before his confessor, with humble look and pale face, he told him all his sins, and even those of which he doubted. The priest prescribed at one time fasting, at another prolonged vigils, and then masses and indulgences which cost him dearly. The poor doctor went through all these practices with great devotion, but found no consolation in them. Being weak and slender, his body wasted away by degrees, his understanding grew weaker, his imagination faded, and his purse became empty. “Alas!” said he with anguish, “my last state is worse than the first.” From time to time an idea crossed his mind: “May not the priests be seeking their own interest, and not the salvation of my soul?” But immediately rejecting the rash doubt, he fell back under the iron hand of the clergy.
One day Bilney heard his friends talking about a new book: it was the Greek [New] Testament printed with a translation which was highly praised for its elegant latinity. Attracted by the beauty of the style rather than by the divinity of the subject, he stretched out his hand; but just as he was going to take the volume, fear came upon him and he withdrew it hastily. In fact the confessors strictly prohibited Greek and Hebrew books, “the sources of all heresies;” and Erasmus’s [New] Testament was particularly forbidden. Yet Bilney regretted so great a sacrifice; was it not the Testament of Jesus Christ? Might not God have placed therein some word which perhaps might heal his soul? He stepped forward, and then again shrank back......At last he took courage. Urged, said he, by the hand of God, he walked out of the college, slipped into the house where the volume was sold in secret, bought it with fear and trembling, and then hastened back and shut himself up in his room.
He opened it — his eyes caught these words: This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. [1 Timothy 1:15] He laid down the book, and meditated on the astonishing declaration. “What! St. Paul the chief of sinners, and yet St. Paul is sure of being saved!” He read the verse again and again. “O assertion of St. Paul, how sweet art thou to my soul!” he exclaimed. This declaration continually haunted him, and in this manner God instructed him in the secret of his heart. He could not tell what had happened to him; it seemed as if a refreshing wind were blowing over his soul, or as if a rich treasure had been placed in his hands. The Holy Spirit took what was Christ’s, and announced it to him. “I also am like Paul,” exclaimed he with emotion, “and more than Paul, the greatest of sinners!......But Christ saves sinners. At last I have heard of Jesus.”
His doubts were ended — he was saved. Then took place in him a wonderful transformation. An unknown joy pervaded him; his conscience, until then sore with the wounds of sin, was healed; instead of despair he felt an inward peace passing all understanding. “Jesus Christ,” exclaimed he; “yes, Jesus Christ saves!”......Such is the character of the Reformation: it is Jesus Christ who saves, and not the church. “I see it all,” said Bilney; “my vigils, my fasts, my pilgrimages, my purchase of masses and indulgences were destroying instead of saving me. All these efforts were, as St. Augustine says, a hasty running out of the right way.”
Bilney never grew tired of reading his New Testament. He no longer lent an attentive ear to the teaching of the schoolmen: he heard Jesus at Capernaum, Peter in the temple, Paul on Mars’ hill, and felt within himself that Christ possesses the words of eternal life. A witness to Jesus Christ had just been born by the same power which had transformed Paul, Apollos, and Timothy. The Reformation of England was beginning. Bilney was united to the Son of God, not by a remote succession, but by an immediate generation....
Not in the palaces of Henry VIII, nor even in the councils where the question of throwing off the papal supremacy was discussed, must we look for the true children of the Reformation; we must go to the Tower of London, to the Lollards’ towers of St. Paul’s and of Lambeth, to the other prisons of England, to the bishops’ cellars, to the fetters, the stocks, the rack, and the stake. The godly men who invoked the sole intercession of Christ Jesus, the only head of his people, who wandered up and down, deprived of everything, gagged, scoffed at, scourged, and tortured, and who, in the midst of all their tribulations, preserved their Christian patience, and turned, like their Master, the eyes of their faith towards Jerusalem: — these were the disciples of the Reformation in England. The purest church is the church under the cross.
The father of this church in England was not Henry VIII. When the king cast into prison or gave to the flames men like Hitton, Bennet, Patmore, Petit, Bayfield, Bilney, and so many others, he was not “the father of the Reformation of England,” as some have so falsely asserted; he was its executioner.
The church of England was foredoomed to be, in its renovation, a church of martyrs; and the true father of this church is our Father which is in heaven. (J.H. Merle D' Aubigne, Reformation History Library [Albany, Oregon: AGES Software, 1998], History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century, pp. 1733-1734, 2039-2040)