The Scandal of His Confession

Where to Look When Christian Leaders Fall

In 1518, Huldrych Zwingli, on his way to becoming the Reformer of Switzerland, was invited to become the pastor of the Great Minster in Zurich. Zwingli’s appointment was delayed, however, after a rumor circulated that he had impregnated a young woman in his previous parish.

More than personal integrity was at stake in this accusation. If proven, Zwingli’s lack of chastity would be a propaganda coup for the Roman Church, who argued that the Protestant Reformation was less about doctrinal purity and more about priests throwing off the restraints of celibacy. Having been confirmed after an investigation, Zwingli began to preach the sermons that would awaken hearts to embrace the Reformation in Zurich.

True Confession

Some 300 years later, Johannes Schulthess (1758–1802), a renowned Zwingli scholar, was working in the archives of the Great Minster. Opening a volume, he discovered a letter written in Zwingli’s script. In the letter, Zwingli admitted to committing fornication, repented with godly sorrow, and committed himself to a chaste and holy life.

From his perspective as a researcher, this letter was the missing link explaining how Zwingli could be called as pastor in the face of such a serious allegation. Personally for Schulthess, however, it also was a black mark tarnishing the reputation of his hero, not to mention that it lent credence to a Roman criticism of the Reformation. Crucially, it was as yet unknown to anyone outside of that dusty archive.

As the significance of the letter sank in, Schulthess walked over and placed the letter in the candle burning on the worktable. He would erase this moral failure from the pages of history.

Cord Between Character and Creed

Many of us can sympathize with this decision. We intuit the link between Christian belief and the behavior of those who proclaim it. And there is scriptural warrant for this connection. Paul tells Titus that “knowledge of the truth” is meant to “accord with godliness” (Titus 1:1). There is meant to be a cord — a connection — between saving faith in Christ and our increasingly living like Christ. Genuine Christian faith doesn’t just change what we know; it changes who we are.

“The center and hope of Protestantism is no mere man, institution, or tradition.”

This link is designed to serve the good advance of the gospel. Scripture shows Christian character being used by God to commend Christian truth. For example, Peter gives believing wives the hope of winning their husbands to their Lord by their own exemplary conduct (1 Peter 3:1–2). Paul makes character central to the selection of church leaders because “those who serve well . . . gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” from those who watch their lives and ministry (1 Timothy 3:13).

In exhorting Titus, Paul reminds him that part of a pastor’s role is to be “a model of good works” (Titus 2:7) so that he might not only “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), but also “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10). In this way, a Christian’s character clothes Christian truth to appear as rich and real as it truly is.

In fact, one of the strategies Paul commends to Timothy when the young man’s faith is buffeted is to recall the character of those who taught him:

As for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:14–15)

Because God has designed living faith to produce a changed life, a winsome life witnesses to the truth and beauty of the faith.

Disorienting Damage of a Disconnect

This living connection between creed (what we believe) and character (the way we behave) is designed to bring life — to adorn the doctrine and commend the truth. But when it becomes disordered, like blood flowing backwards through the umbilical cord, it can damage those connected to our lives. A lack of holiness in the lives of parents, or pastors, or friends who taught us the gospel can introduce offense toward the Jesus they have preached.

This sense of disorientation increases exponentially when they serve in a position of spiritual authority. This is one of the reasons Paul commands Timothy to guard not only his doctrine but also his manner of life. In fact, it is by so doing — guarding his creed and his character — that he will “save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).

Johannes Schulthess grasped this connection holding Zwingli’s letter in his hand — the euphoria of discovery plunging into the bitterness of disappointment as he read the contents of his hero’s confession. His move to burn the letter was motivated, perhaps, by a desire to spare others the same disillusionment and disappointment. Perhaps it arose from the awareness of the high historical stakes. As a pastor, as a Reformer, surely it would be better if the many who had learned from Zwingli and embraced his teaching remained unaware of his failure. This is a common response. But it is an unbiblical one. And Schulthess himself came to see it.

‘Truth in All Circumstances’

After about a quarter of the letter was burned, Schulthess took it out of the candle and extinguished the fire. He turned to his assistant, who was with him in the archive, and said, “No. Protestantism is the truth in all circumstances.” And he went and filed the letter with the archive.

“A Christian’s character clothes Christian truth to appear as rich and real as it truly is.”

This is a powerfully theological response, and one we can learn from in our day of disappointments. The center and hope of Protestantism — the faith that rests on Christ alone, known in Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone — is no mere man, or institution, or tradition. The center and hope of Protestantism, therefore, will hold because of who God is and what God has done in Jesus Christ. And therefore we who are saved by grace alone through faith alone in the perfect man, Jesus Christ, do not need to be afraid when men and institutions and traditions fail.

Protestant Christianity is the truth in all circumstances because the truth — even the truth that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God — always and only serves to exalt the God of our very great salvation. Even as that truth, the glory of his gospel, is held “in jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Yesterday, Today, and Forever

Has God designed Christian character to commend Christian truth? Yes. This is true even though this coin has a second side — a failure of character can cause many to question the faith.

And yet, the foundation of Christ’s church does not rest on the strength of man’s witness. Instead, it rests on the unchanging, unfailing person and work of Christ. This is why surrounding the call in Hebrews to remember those who spoke to us the word of God — especially to “consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” — comes the call to “consider Jesus” who is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 12:3; 13:7–8). Protestantism is the truth in all circumstances because Jesus Christ is the same in all circumstances. He is ever and always true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of our praise (Philippians 4:8).

So, by God’s grace, let our knowledge of the truth accord with godliness. When we fail — and when our heroes of the faith fail — instead of giving in to fear and offense, let us look to Christ, who is greater than all our sin.