Thomas Cranmer: God Must Intervene for Salvation

Who comes to mind if I ask you to list major theologians of the Protestant Reformation? You probably thought of Martin Luther, John Calvin, or Ulrich Zwingli. What about Thomas Cranmer? Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) was an important leader of the English Reformation. He served as the archbishop of Canterbury and wrote a Reformed confession of faith, a Reformed prayer book, and a Reformed book of discipleship for the Church of England.

No Power to Help Ourselves

In his recorded prayers, Cranmer articulated a robust, biblical view of God’s gracious salvation and the tragedy of the human condition (The Collects of Thomas Cranmer). He believed that the commands of God are the perfect and true expression of the will of God. However, they do not have the power to generate what they command because the will of humans is bound because of sin: “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Because of this, Cranmer preached and taught salvation by grace through faith in Christ. He defined faith as “nothing else but assured hope and confidence in Christ’s mercy.” Without grace and left on our own, we are hopeless. We are completely dependent on the redemption accomplished for us by Christ as our substitute, and the redemption applied to us by the Holy Spirit (Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance: Renewing the Power to Love).

We Need God’s Intervention

Our only hope is for God to take the initiative in our justification and sanctification: “Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise.” In an interview about Cranmer, Ashley Null summarizes powerfully humanity’s problem:

    According to the Thomas Cranmer’s anthropology, what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies. The mind doesn’t direct the will. The mind is actually captive to what the will wants, and the will itself, in turn, is captive to what the heart wants. The trouble with human nature is that we are born with a heart that loves ourselves over and above everything else in this world, including God. In short, we are born slaves to the lust for self-gratification. That’s why, if left to ourselves, we will always love those things that make us feel good about ourselves, even as we depart more and more from God and his ways. Therefore, God must intervene in our lives in order to bring salvation. Working through Scripture, the Holy Spirit first brings a conviction of sin in a believer’s heart, then he births a living faith by which the believer lays hold of the extrinsic righteousness of Christ.

Salvation Transforms the Heart

The miracle of salvation results in the reorienting of our will by transforming our hearts. If our hearts change, then so will our actions and attitudes: “Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.”