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A Matter of Life and Death

On July 1, 1523, two Augustinian friars named Hendrik Vos and Johann van den Esschen were burned at the stake in Brussels, Belgium under the pope’s banner, marking them as the first Lutheran martyrs of the Reformation.

As Martin Luther’s teachings spread into Belgium in the 1520s, papal authorities initiated a campaign of interrogation and threats. All of the Augustinians in Antwerp were arrested, and all but three of the monks recanted their confessions of faith under the threat of death. The remaining monk was granted a four-day reprieve, leaving Vos and Esschen to face being burned at the stake for heresy.

When the two men were standing on the pyre, the papal authorities demanded one last time that they recant. According to one account, their response was: “We believe in God and in the Christian Church. But we do not believe in your church.” For half an hour before the fire was lit, they repeatedly confessed their desire to die as Christians for the truth of the Gospel.

As the fires were lit, the two men cried out nothing but, “Lord Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us,” before finally succumbing to the flames.

The news of their deaths quickly spread. Instead of halting the spread of Luther’s teaching, it actually caused others, including other Augustinians, to become more steadfast in their confessions of the truth of the Gospel. When Martin Luther learned of Vos and Esschen’s deaths, he was moved to song. His ballad telling their story concludes with the following verse:

For us, we thank our God therefore,

His Word has reappeared.

Even at the door is summer nigh,

The winter now is ended,

The tender flowers come out and spy;

His hand once now extended

Withdraws not till He’s finished.

A confession of faith is a matter of life and death. This was true 500 years ago and remains true today. Our God, whose Word defeats death itself, sets us free from the fear of death, allowing us to live for others’ sake without fear of losing our lives.

Grace and peace to you,

Pastor Raleigh


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