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“Greatly he had sinned, but greatly he had repented.”


As we read about the Christian martyrs of church history, it is easy to see them as great heroes, and so they are. But they were also human and imperfect, and as has been said, “The best of men are men at best.” Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), Archbishop of Canterbury, stands as an example. While, on the one hand, Ryle writes, “There is none certainly in the list of our Reformers to whom the Church of England, on the whole, is so much indebted,” his end was far from glorious.

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Cranmer was imprisoned and examined just like Ridley and Latimer. Like them, he stood his ground firmly before the Commissioners. Like them, he had clearly the best of the argument in all points that were disputed. But, like them, of course, he was pronounced guilty of heresy, condemned, deposed, and sentenced to be burned.

And now comes the painful fact that in the last month of Cranmer’s life his courage failed him, and he was persuaded to sign a recantation of his Protestant opinions. Flattered and cajoled by subtle kindness, frightened at the prospect of so dreadful a death as burning, tempted and led away by the devil, Thomas Cranmer fell, and put his hand to a paper, in which he repudiated and renounced the principles of the Reformation, for which he had laboured so long.

Great was the sorrow of all true Protestants on hearing these tidings! Great was the triumphing and exultation of all Papists! Had they stopped here and set their noble victim at liberty, the name of Cranmer would probably have sunk and never risen again. But the Romish party, as God would have it, outwitted themselves. With fiendish cruelty they resolved to burn Cranmer, even after he had recanted. This, by God’s providence, was just the turning point for Cranmer’s reputation. Through the abounding grace of God he repented of his fall, and found mercy. Through the same abounding grace he resolved to die in the faith of the Reformation. And at last, through abounding grace, he witnessed such a bold confession in St. Mary’s, Oxford, that he confounded his enemies, filled his friends with thankfulness and praise, and left the world a triumphant martyr for Christ’s truth.

I need hardly remind you how, on the 21st March, the unhappy Archbishop was brought out, like Samson in the hands of the Philistines, to make sport for his enemies, and to be a gazingstock to the world in St. Mary’s Church, at Oxford. I need hardly remind you how, after Dr. Cole’s sermon he was invited to declare his faith, and was fully expected to acknowledge publicly his alteration of religion, and his adhesion to the Church of Rome. I need hardly remind you how, with intense mental suffering, the Archbishop addressed the assembly at great length, and at the close suddenly astounded his enemies by renouncing all his former recantations, declaring the Pope to be Antichrist, and rejecting the Popish doctrine of the Real Presence. Such a sight was certainly never seen by mortal eyes since the world began!

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But then came the time of Cranmer’s triumph. With a light heart, and a clear conscience, he cheerfully allowed himself to be hurried to the stake amidst the frenzied outcries of his disappointed enemies. Boldly and undauntedly he stood up at the stake while the flames curled around him, steadily holding out his right hand in the fire, and saying, with reference to his having signed a recantation, ‘This unworthy right hand,’ and steadily holding up his left hand towards heaven. Of all the martyrs, strange to say, none at the last moment showed more physical Courage than Cranmer did. Nothing, in short, in all his life became him so well as the manner of his leaving it. Greatly he had sinned, but greatly he had repented. Like Peter he fell, but like Peter he rose again. And so passed away the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury.

—J. C. Ryle, Light from Old Times (Banner of Truth, 2015), 30–32.

Reading this, I can’t help but be reminded of Jesus’ words to Peter: “I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:32). Peter did fail, but his faith was not lost, and he was restored. And we have this hope as well—“This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:37–40).



Posted 2017·05·05 by David Kjos
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