Doctrine & Theology

The Reformer You Need to Know: Meet William Farel

Today we mark the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenburg. It is a great day in the history of the Church. Yes, today is Reformation Day.

When we think of the Reformation, we often think of the “big names.” Men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli dominate our thoughts of this era of Church history. The Master’s Seminary has helpfully shared brief details of some of those men who began the work of reformation long before that fateful day of nailing in 1517. Today, however, on this Reformation Day in 2015, I would like to introduce you to another important presence of the Reformation: William Farel.

William Farel was a fervent reformer in his own right, but the Church also has him to thank for convincing John Calvin to remain in Geneva and further the cause of the Reformation there. Dr. Steve Lawson writes,

In 1536, Calvin decided to move to Strasbourg, in southwest Germany, to further his studies as a quiet scholar. But a war between Francis I and Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor, prevented him from taking the most direct route. Calvin was forced to detour to Geneva, where he intended to spend only one night. But when he entered the city, he was immediately recognized as the young author of the Institutes. Those sympathetic to the Reformation took him to meet William Farel, who had led the Protestant movement in Geneva for ten years.

Geneva had recently voted to leave the Roman Catholic Church and become a Reformation city, but it was in dire need of a teacher who could articulate Reformed truths. The fiery Farel challenged Calvin to take up the task; when Calvin hesitated, Farel resorted to an imprecatory threat. Calvin reports it this way:

Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me. And after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies, for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquility of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken. (Steve Lawson, Pillars of Grace: A Long Line of Godly Men, vol 2., Reformation Trust Publishing: 2011, 506). 

Yes, the Church must offer its gratitude to William Farel for his role in John Calvin’s ministry, but who was William Farel? With fiery red hair and an equally fiery character, this French evangelist was dedicated to the proclamation of the Gospel. Frances Bevan has written a fascinating account of Farel’s life, and the following excerpt may offer the reader a bit of insight into the life and doctrine of Farel. Bevan tells of a time when Farel traveled to the valleys of the Waldensians, wherein an important “mountain meeting” would separate those who were faithful to the Gospel from those who were not.

The meeting divided itself into two parties—those who wished to be on terms of fellowship with Rome, and those who desired to stand aloof from every trace of popish observances. The speakers for the first party were two barges called Daniel of Valence and John of Molines. The speakers for the second, Farel and [Anthony] Saunier….

Farel rose up, and at once proceeded to the point. “Christians,” he said, “have no ceremonial law. No act of worship has any merit before God. The multitude of feasts, consecrations, ceremonies, chants, and machine-made prayers are a great evil. What then is worship? The Lord has answered this question—’God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him, must worship Him in spirit and in truth.'”

Daniel and John were ill-pleased at Farel’s address. They would not throw over all feasts, ceremonies, and chants, but take some and reject others. But the other barnes said that their fathers had spoken as Farel did…The meeting, with few exceptions, declared that Farel was right.

But Farel was not satisfied with this admission. He knew that faith in forms and love of ceremonies are but the branches which grow from a root that is deep in the heart of every natural man. It would be of little use to lop off the branches, and leave the root untouched. What is this root? It is in your heart, and in mine. The root is the belief that we all naturally have, that we ourselves must needs have a share in the work of salvation, and that the power by which we worship God is in ourselves, not in the Holy Ghost. If there are any who are brought to the simple confession, “Salvation is of the Lord,” it is by the power of the Holy Ghost alone. …

In the same way does this pride of our hearts lead us to imagine that we can render prayer and worship more acceptable to God by our addition to it of sights, sounds, and even smells, which are pleasing to our natural senses, and which are contrived by our own imaginations. “The Holy Ghost is not enough,” is the motto which really befits all these attempts of man’s heart, to manufacture something which is called the worship of God.

“It is by means of this teaching of the natural power of man,” said William Farel, “that popery took salvation out of the hands of God, and put it into the hands of the priests. God has chosen, before the foundation of the world, all those who have been or will be saved. It is therefore impossible for them not to be saved. Whosoever upholds free-will, absolutely denies the grace of God.”

(Frances Bevan, The Life of William Farel, Bible Truth Publishers: 2000, 215-216). 

Yes, William Farel was a man who was keenly aware of the sovereignty of God in salvation, and was not afraid to proclaim the truth and to exalt that sovereign Lord. May we thank God this day for men like Farel, and those like him who not only fought for God’s Word of truth in the days of the Reformation, but those men and women who continue that fight today by means of faithful gospel preaching and teaching.

Photo of the Reformation Wall and William Farel courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Share this post: