"For Zwingli the Reformation essentially was a movement from idolatry to the service of the one true God" (Timothy George).
The Swiss Reformer's characteristic description of himself and his office is "by the grace, calling, and sending of God, flock-feeder of the congregation of Zurich." As pastor amidst the people, Zwingli saw himself as God's steward and administrator of His mysteries. As such he never lost or had his vision tarnished as to what he was called to accomplish: the restoration of the true service of God. For God seeks such worshippers as would adore Him in spirit and in truth. This all-encompassing truth motivated the devout Reformer from beginning to end.
Zwingli's prayer addressed to the Holy Spirit, which occurs incidentally in his Confession of Faith, reveals the prophet of Christ and the man of God: "O thou Holy Spirit, the Creator, be present, and lighten the minds of thine; fill with grace and light the breasts which thou hast made." Such an appeal really encapsulates Zwingli's whole desire: to see people freed from idolatrous and superstitious religion, offering themselves living sacrifices to God in grateful and joyous obedience.
As we examine his theology it will be readily seen that Zwingli accomplished much in the cause of Scriptural truth and vital experiential religion. By his natural gifts and sound learning, his spiritual enlightenment and his vindication of the Gospel, his zeal and loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ, he stands among the foremost of those who in a corrupt age contended earnestly and successfully for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
Calvin's tract, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, could well have been written by Zwingli. It expresses his convictions and sentiments in such a lucid way that I quote from its opening pages: "If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us, and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity: that is, a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained. When these are kept out of view, though we may glory in the name of Christians, our profession is empty and vain" (emphasis mine).
Animated by the same Spirit of truth, Zwingli saw it as his task to reform the church by ridding it of its idolatrous practices. Liberated from the yoke of superstition the Christian may (indeed, must) worship God, loving Him with all his heart, soul, mind and will. An examination of his works will prove the truth of this statement.
For Zwingli and the other reformers, it was a horrendous thought to create a wilful schism in the church of God. But as a matter of course, the rent appeared and became progressively wider. This happened not because they wanted to, but only because of the force of Gospel truth with which they were entrusted from above and which they could not hold to themselves. Truth exposes error, as the light dispels the darkness but can never mix with darkness.
At the Latin School at Basle Zwingli came under the influence of Thomas Wyttenbach, from whom he began to learn the truth of the Gospel and to regard the Bible's authority as supreme, determining what man is to believe and what kind of service he is meant to render unto his Creator and Redeemer. Zwingli proved to be a staunch adherent to the truth of Scripture; his departure from Romanism was essentially dictated by his conscience bound to the Word, as Luther's was too. He came to realise that will-worship is both vain and sinful; God would not accept such an approach to Him (cf. Colossians 2:20-23).
In 1516 Zwingli was removed to Einsiedeln monastery, where he gave proof of his spiritual enlightenment by preaching forgiveness of sins through Christ alone. There he began declaring that not Mary, but Christ, is our only salvation. Again, this stand for evangelical truth proves that Zwingli knew that if man is to be accepted before God, he must be in union with Christ through faith, and find all his sufficiency in Him alone (John 14:6). Our acceptable service must be offered through Jesus Christ and no other (1 Peter 2:5).
If idolatry is to be banished, then one must have recourse to the pure preaching of the Word. This is exactly what Zwingli engaged to do. He began a series of discourses on the books of the New Testament, and introduced the preaching of the Word at every service. He was well called "the trumpet of the Gospel." He was perfectly successful in introducing and grounding the reformation of the Church and of the fatherland by an uninterrupted vindication of the divine authority of the Holy Scriptures. For him the Church was at its purest where the preaching was at its strongest. In God's light we see light. Where faith in Christ is thriving, idolatry will wither away. And faith comes by the hearing of the Word. Zwingli knew this and acted upon it.
In a public disputation at Zurich, in 1523, Zwingli set forth sixty-seven theological theses outlining the reformed doctrine. Thus he declared that "Christ who offered Himself once, is for ever a perfect and satisfactory sacrifice for the sins of all believers, from which we conclude that the Mass is no sacrifice." In Romanism the Mass is the pivotal act of worship; but if the very concept of a propitiatory sacrifice in the Mass is anti-biblical, then Zwingli was not reluctant to expose it as such. The spiritual welfare of the people was at stake.
People were to serve God in truth, not in the bondage of superstition. And if transubstantiation is false, then Romanists are evidently idolatrous. Zwingli would not tolerate this.
At the public disputation held at Berne in January 1528, Zwingli with his supporters brought forward the following ten propositions:
1. "That the Holy Christian Church, of which Christ is the only Head, is born of the Word of God, abides therein, and does not listen to the voice of a stranger."
2. "That the Church imposes no laws on the conscience of people without the sanction of the Word of God, and that the laws of the Church are binding only so far as they agree with the Word."
3. "That Christ alone is our righteousness and our salvation, that to trust to any other atonement as satisfaction is to deny Him."
4. "That it cannot be proved from the Holy Scriptures that the body and blood of Christ are corporeally present in the bread and in the wine of the Lord's Supper."
5. "That the Mass in which Christ is offered to God the Father for the sins of the living and the dead is contrary to Scripture and a gross affront to the sacrifice and death of the Saviour."
6. "That we should not pray to dead mediators and intercessors, but to Jesus Christ alone."
7. "That there is no trace of Purgatory in Scripture."
8. "That to set up pictures and to adore them is also contrary to Scripture, and that images and pictures ought to be destroyed where there is danger in giving them adoration."
9. "That marriage is lawful to all, to the clergy as well as the laity."
10. "That shameful living is more disgraceful among the clergy than among the laity."
Anyone who could come up with such statements and defend them publicly must have had engaged himself in Scripture-searching. Whatever the cost, Zwingli proved himself bold to attack idolatry, even though well-established, and promote the reform of the Church according to the Word. For if the Church loses its saltiness, she herself must be salted. Zwingli was convinced that if our service to God is to be well-pleasing, it must be in conformity to the truth of the gospel. Unfeigned love must flower from a sincere and true faith.
In common with the other theologians of the Reformation, Zwingli taught the Scriptural doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God, His meritorious and substitutionary death, His Resurrection, Ascension, and Second Advent; he proclaimed justification (declared right with God) by Christ alone through faith alone (faith itself being the gift of the Holy Spirit).
However, in his day the doctrine of the Lord's Supper had been so mangled that it was incumbent upon him to develop a sound and biblical doctrine concerning it. Sad to say, Zwingli has been much misrepresented; he is pictured as having taught that the Supper is "a mere memorial," divested of all other aspects. But if his Confession of Faith, presented to the Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Augsburg in July 1530, is consulted, we can see how he defined a sacrament: "I believe, therefore, that a sacrament is a sign of a holy thing, that is, of grace given already. I believe that it is a visible figure or form of an invisible grace, which by the free gift of God is ministered and given. And that it is a visible example, which, nevertheless, declareth almost a certain conveniency, proportion, or agreement of a thing done by the Spirit. Moreover, I believe that a sacrament is an open witness of grace given, as when we are baptised, the body is washed with a most pure element, but thereby is signified that we, through the grace of God's goodness, are chosen into the company of the Church, and people of God, wherein we ought to live holily, righteously, and godly for so Paul expoundeth the mystery (Romans 6:3-6). Therefore, he which receiveth baptism, witnesseth thereby himself to be of God's Church which worshippeth her God in soundness of faith and pureness of life. And for that cause the sacraments which are holy ceremonies...are devoutly to be revered, that is, to be had in price and estimation, and reverently to be ministered and used." Thus he definitely denies the ex opere operato theory of Romish baptism, another stroke at the root of the evil tree of man-made religion, clearing the way for the true and proper worship of God.
As to the Lord's Supper, Zwingli teaches its sacramental efficacy as used in spiritual faith, while denying any localised presence of Christ in the bread and wine. "I believe," he writes, "that in the holy Supper of thanksgiving the very body of Christ is present to the eye, contemplation, and beholding of faith (adesse fidei contemplationi); that is, that they which give thanks to the Lord for the benefit given to us in His Son, acknowledge Him to have taken to Him very flesh, in it verity to have suffered, and verily to have washed way our sins in His blood, and so all the things done by Christ to be made to them, in the beholding of faith, as it were present. But that Christ's natural body by substance, and really, that is, that His natural body either is present in the Supper, or chewed in our mouths and with our teeth, as the Papists and certain that look back unto the pots of Egypt show and write, that truly, we do not only deny, but constantly affirm to be an error which is contrary to God's Word." Further down he writes: "Whatsoever the old writers spake honourably of the Supper, they did utterly understand it, not of the natural eating of the body of Christ, but of the spiritual."
He accounted the Christian religion as that which binds us to God, "the whole piety of the Christian, his faith and life." Such a religion must be based on God's Revelation, not man's superstitious ideas.
Zwingli emphasised doctrine; he taught, preached, disputed, and wrote in the cause of the gospel of Christ, whom he loved and desired other to taste and see that the Lord is good. The whole objective of his pastoral and reformatory ministry was "that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life."