John Bradford and the Comfort of God’s Sovereign Choice
John Bradford and the Comfort of God’s Sovereign Choice
From Treasurer to Preacher
A native of Manchester, John Bradford (c. 1510-1555) started his career as vice-treasurer of the English army in France. An accusation of fraud (which he strongly contested) became the catalyst for a departure from a career for which he already felt unsuited. In 1547, he enrolled at the Inner Temple School of Law in London.
The fraud accusations might have had some merit, because the preaching of Hugh Latimer (c. 1485–1555) persuaded Bradford to make restitution. He also sold some of his goods and gave the proceeds to the poor. After this, he devoted himself completely to the study of Scriptures. In 1548, he was admitted at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, where he met the Strasbourgh theologian Martin Bucer.
Bucer encouraged Bradford to become a preacher. This judgment was confirmed by the bishop of London, Nicholas Ridley (c. 1502-1555), who had met Bradford at Cambridge. In spite of Bradford’s protest of inadequacy, Ridley ordained him deacon on August 10, licensed him to preach, and appointed him chaplain. Bradford preached both in London and in other English regions, especially in southern Lancashire, where he attracted large crowds.
In 1553, after the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor became queen, he was arrested and imprisoned for his beliefs. He was moved around different cells of the Tower of London, then sent to a prison in Southwark, south London, known as “The King’s Bench.” His meek personality gained him the favor of the jailer, who allowed him to preach twice daily to other prisoners, and even to administer the sacraments.
A Crucial Debate
While all the prisoners at the King’s Bench were charged with heresy, they didn’t all hold the same convictions. The greatest controversy arose around the issue of free will – an age-old question which had intensified with the Protestant emphasis on salvation by grace alone through faith alone. If faith and salvation are gifts of God and not a result of works (as Ephesians 8-9 states), does man have any part in it? Can anyone choose to be saved, or contribute to his own salvation?
Most Protestant theologians stood with the Augustinian belief that God is the sole author of salvation. Because of Adam’s fall, man is dead in sin, and incapable of exercising true faith. Many others (then known as “free-willers”) objected to the idea that God would exclude anyone from salvation, or override man’s free will.
What might seem to some an intellectual discussion turned into a spirited dispute in the London prison, to the joy of Mary’s government.
Bradford was firmly in the first camp, chiefly because he found it biblical. But even from a logical point of view, since man rebelled against God, he believed that God had every right to choose as he desired.
The issue was important because it involved many foundational tenets of the Christian faith. To Bradford, the attempt to defend human free will was unwarranted in Scriptures, which give all prominence to God’s glory and grace. He wrote two treatises on the subject, and a concerned letter to Thomas Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer, who were imprisoned in Oxford under similar charges.
“The effects of salvation they so mingle and confound with the cause,” he said about the free-willers, “that, if it be not seen to, more hurt will come by them than ever came by the papists, inasmuch as their life commendeth them to the world more than the papists.”
Ridley responded by writing a treatise of his own.
One of the free-willers’ objection was that if salvation depends solely on God, human beings are left with constant uncertainty on whether they are chosen to be saved. This was true when people looked for certainty in themselves.
Bradford was prompt to assist those who came to him with these fears. He even took time between bouts of a raging fever to dictate a letter to Margery Coke, a lady afflicted by similar doubts. He reminded her that faith “looketh clean out of ourselves into the mercy and grace of God in Christ.” Christ’s life, death, and resurrection – not anything in ourselves – are the foundation of our assurance.
At the same time, he encouraged another troubled friend, Joyce Hales, to thank God when she noticed in herself clear evidence of God’s Spirit at work: “O Joyce, my good Joyce, what gift is this! Many have some sight, but none this sobbing and sighing, none this seeking as you have.” To Bradford, her concern and sorrow for her sins was a clear evidence that she was united to Christ, “married unto him in his mercies.”
Far from being discouraging, the doctrine of God’s unconditional choice in all matters, including salvation, brought Bradford great comfort. While a free-willer might find assurance in knowing that he has chosen to believe in Christ, that assurance is as tenuous as a person’s faith. On the contrary, the assurance that is founded on Christ’s sacrifice is as solid as that historical fact.
“God hath given his own son, that which nothing is greater, to us his enemies,” he said in a sermon, “and we now being become his friends, will he deny us faith and pardon of our sins which, though they are great, yet in comparison are nothing at all?”
Bradford spent much of his prison time writing (his contemporary John Foxe said he slept only four hours per night). Some of his writings were prayers, written down for the encouragement of others, to point their eyes away from themselves and to Christ: “O my soul, lift up thyself above thyself, fly away in the contemplation of heaven and heavenly things…. Bend all thine affections upward unto the superior places where thy Redeemer liveth and reigneth, and where thy joys are laid up in the treasury of his merits which shall be made thy merits, his perfection thy perfection, and his death thy life eternal, and his resurrection thy salvation.”
Once again, the assurance of his salvation informed his hopes and peace: “I am assured that though I want here, I have riches there; though I hunger here, I shall have fulness there; though I faint here, I shall be refreshed there; and though I be accounted here as a dead man, I shall there live in perpetual glory.”
As many other English Protestants during Mary I’s reign, Bradford knew his prospects for martyrdom were high. To prepare himself and others, he wrote A Very Godly Prayer of one Standing at the Stake Ready to be Burnt for Christ's Gospel's Sake, where he remembered how Jesus also experienced “fear and need by the reason of death, and found comfort” in calling his Father.
He prayed for the same consolation other martyrs found in God, “that I may by my death glorify thy holy name, propagate and verify thy verity, comfort the hearts of the heavy, confirm thy church in truth, convert some that are to be converted, and so to depart out of this miserable world (where I do nothing by heap daily sin upon sin) and enter into the fruition of thy blessed mercy.”
These were probably the thoughts he expressed on July 1, 1555, when he was led to the stake. As many other martyrs of his day, he wore his best clothes, including a new shirt made for the occasion by one of his supporters.
According to John Foxe, his last words were expressions of encouragement for John Leaf, a 19-year old man who had been condemned to be burned with him: “Be of good comfort, brother; for we shall have a merry supper with the Lord this night.”
John Bradford, The Writings of the Rev. John Bradford: Prebendary of St. Paul's and Martyr, Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1842, p. 45.
 John Bradford, The Writings of John Bradford, Martyr, 1555, Containing Letters, Treatises, Remains, ed. by Aubrey Townsend, Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005, p. 102.
 John Bradford, The Writings of the Rev. John Bradford, p. 72.
 Ibid., p. 267.
 John Bradford, The Writings of John Bradford, Vol. I - Containing Sermons, Meditations, Examinations, New York: Cosmo Classics, 2007, p. 267.
 Ibid., p. 292.
 Ibid., p. 292-293.
 John Foxe, Actes and Monuments of these latter and perilous dayes, ed. by Stephen Reed Cattley, vol. VII, London: R.B. Seeley and W. Burnside, 1838, p. 194.