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Wycliffe, Luther and Heart Language Scripture

by David and Sharon Tan

In 1382, John Wycliffe (1330–1384), the Morning Star of the Reformation, completed his English translation of the Bible, 135 years before the start of the Reformation. However, his life and work influenced other “reformers”, including Martin Luther. Wycliffe, a professor of philosophy and Master of Balliol College, Oxford, strongly believed that the Scriptures were the only reliable guide to the truth about God and that everyone should be able to read it for themselves. For his work of translation, he was posthumously declared a heretic by the Roman Catholic church, his bones exhumed and burned, and the ashes cast into a river.

You say it is heresy to speak of the Holy Scriptures in English. You call me a heretic because I have translated the Bible into the common tongue of the people. Do you know whom you blaspheme? Did not the Holy Ghost give the Word of God at first in the mother-tongue of the nations to whom it was addressed? – John Wycliffe, responding to his accusers.

Martin Luther (1483–1546), lauded as the Father of the Reformation, was the translator of the most influential and widely-used German translation of the Bible. His journey of reform began with his personal experience of the grace of God. He initially hated the word “righteous” in Rom 1:17 — “The righteous will live by faith.” When he later understood “that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith”, he described it "as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open".

Luther’s 95 Theses strongly opposed the practice of selling indulgences, which he felt was contrary to the doctrine of justification by faith alone through God's grace. The 95 Theses went viral; translated from Latin into German and reproduced using the latest technology of the day (the printing press), it spread throughout Germany in two weeks; translated into other European languages, it spread all over Europe in two months. A phenomenal speed in those pre-digital days!

Declared a heretic, Luther went into hiding. Realising that many Germans could not follow the disputes because they were unable to read the Latin Bible, Luther translated the Bible into German. He said, “A simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it.” His translation influenced the spread of Protestant Christianity and other vernacular translations of the Bible throughout Europe, including Tyndale’s English translation which formed the basis of the King James Version of 1611.

Of the approximately 7000 languages in the world today, many do not have the Bible available, or only just portions. Although there are about 2400 Bible translation projects in progress, there are still about 1800 people groups where there is as yet no work to translate the Word of God into a language that speaks to their hearts.

An example of the transforming work of heart language Scripture can be seen in the Bahlzao* people group in Asia. Although a few Bahlzao people came to faith after hearing the gospel in the national language, their understanding is limited. A lady told the translators after hearing Genesis 1-3 in the Bahlzao language: “I have been a believer for four years, but I never really knew this. If you have more of this, please give it to us.” Many, especially the elderly and those in rural areas, cannot understand or are unreceptive to God’s word in the national language.

However, once Scripture portions and songs were made available in the Bahlzao language, believers reported that their relatives and friends were eager to hear more, and lives were being transformed. One man shared, “Uncle says that there are just so many things that make complete sense, that are so good. I was amazed at the change there is in him. Seeing the change in him, I see clearly how powerful God's word is to cause people to grow.”

The goal of Wycliffe Bible Translators is to provide the Word of God in the heart language of every people group that needs it so that their lives can be transformed. Please continue to pray for this crucial work of translation and transformation (reformation).

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. – Nelson Mandela
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