The Good (Baptist) Confession
When the Protestant Reformation exploded across Europe, individuals began to question the veracity of church traditions. Martin Luther created questions about the traditional views of salvation through his claim that the Bible teaches salvation is “by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed in Scripture alone, for the glory of God alone.” This view assaulted generations’ old traditions that claimed salvation was from the church administered through the sacraments.
As Luther opened the debate concerning the essential truths of Christianity, many looked to the Scriptures to ascertain the orthodoxy of these traditions, including the sacrament of infant baptism. From Switzerland emerged a group known as the Anabaptists. The prefix “ana” – meaning re (or repeat) was given to the group as a term of derision – “re-baptizers.” They were the most persecuted group during the Counter Reformation. They were persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike, because they believed that baptism should be applied only to individuals who have received Christ as their Savior and Lord. We have much in common with these predecessors to Baptist life. The most famous Anabaptist was Menno Simons (Mennonites draw their lineage from him).
Another Anabaptist (my favorite Anabaptist from church history) is Michael Sattler. In the midst of the Reformation, Sattler left his post at a monastery in the Black Forest in Germany. Fluent in Latin, and possibly a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, Sattler began to study the Scriptures. Finding much of the Reformation theology consistent with the Bible, he went in search of likeminded theologians. Arrested in Zurich in November of 1525 at the bequest of Zwingli (founder of the Reformed Church Movement), Sattler was eventually released and banished from Zwingli’s environs. He travelled to Schaffhusen where he affirmed Anabaptist doctrine and was baptized.
In 1526 Sattler began an itinerant preaching ministry, traveling to Germany, forming several house churches and writing several tracts designed to instruct new converts in the faith. On January 5, 1527, Felix Manz (a prominent Anabaptist leader) was executed by drowning in Zurich Switzerland at the hands of Reformed Church leaders. In addition to the natural fear that ran through the Anabaptist community, this event created a vacuum of leadership. Sattler stepped in to stabilize the churches. He crafted seven articles that constituted the basic principles of faith and ultimately became known as the Schleitheim Confession – a vital Anabaptist statement of faith. During the meeting to affirm this doctrinal confession, authorities from nearby Rottenburg, Germany discovered the gathering and immediately arrested all involved. Sattler and his wife along with a number of other men and women were taken to the tower of Binsdorf. From prison, Sattler wrote to his congregation at Horb. “Beloved companions in the Lord; the grace and mercy of God, our Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord and the power of their Spirit, be with you, brothers and sisters, beloved of God.” In the final paragraphs of this powerful and touching letter he told his fellow believers, “And let no man take away from you the foundation which is laid by the letter of the holy Scriptures, and sealed with the blood of Christ…the brethren have doubtless informed you that some of us are in prison…at one time they threatened us with the gallows; at another with fire and sword. In this extremity, I surrendered myself, entirely to the Lord’s will, and prepared myself, together with all my brethren and my wife, to die for His testimony’s sake…hence I deemed it necessary to animate you with this exhortation, to follow us in the contest of God, that you may console yourselves with it, and not faint under the chastening of the Lord…for the Lord will probably call me to Him, so take warning. I wait for my God. God be with you all. Amen.”
The trial before 24 judges began on May 17. The Roman Catholic Church sent the wrong individuals for the trial, as most of them were trained in the arts and not theology. These untrained men were ill-equipped to handle this self-studied theologian and pastor. With great composure, Sattler answered the seven charges by refuting some charges as incorrectly representing his position and also embracing other charges by defending the Anabaptist position. In each case, he carefully and diligently appealed to Scripture, which he quoted extensively. Much as Stephen, his composure only incited his condemners even more, such that they threatened to kill him on the spot. His response, “Let the will of God be done.”
Under the jurisdiction of Ferdinand, the Catholic king of Austria, the penalty for Anabaptists was determined to be “a third baptism” or death by drowning. Sattler had so graciously and gently confounded his accusers that rage swept the group. The execution order was so severe I am hesitant to record the details. “Michael Sattler shall be committed to the executioner. The latter shall take him to the square and there first cut out his tongue, and then forge him to a wagon and there with glowing iron tongs twice tear pieces from his body, then on the way to the site of execution five times more as above and then burn his body to powder as an arch-heretic.” This they did to him. However, the first step in the process was not as successful as the evil hordes would wish. For in the process of removing his tongue (a common sentencing for heretics – for the authorities viewed them as sinning with their tongues), they failed to silence this great man of faith. From the town square to the place of execution he prayed with great composure for his executioners. At the place of the fire, Sattler proceeded to call the people and the 24 judges who ordered his execution to repent and trust in Christ and be converted. His final prayer, “Almighty, Eternal God, You are the way and the truth: because I have not been shown to be in error, I will with Your help to this day testify to the truth and seal it with my blood. Father, I commend my spirit into Your hands.” On May 20, 1527, Michael Sattler joined a long lineage of Christian martyrs going all the way back to Stephen in Acts 7. He gave the good testimony, following the example of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. One eyewitness said, “All this I saw myself. May God grant us also to testify of Him so bravely and patiently.” Eight days later, Sattler’s wife, despite herculean efforts to procure a recantment from the same group who killed her husband, was drowned near the spot where her husband was burned.
The impact of Sattler and his wife’s brave confession in the face of such evil is still felt even to this day. There are many examples from church history to model our lives after. One contemporary of Sattler writes, his “character lies clearly before us. He was not a highly educated divine and not an intellectual; but his entire life was noble and pure, true and unadulterated.”
Paul tells Timothy in I Timothy 6:13-16, “13I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate, 14that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15which He will bring about at the proper time—He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen.”
May we keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
(Article based in part on the outstanding historical summary by William Estep, The Anabaptist Story Eerdmans Publishing, 1996)