A man who sinn'd th' unpardonable sin!
Sinn'd against knowledge and the Holy Ghost.
A man who, dying, lay for many days
Facing hell torments, hopeless of relief!
Not dazed, nor frenzied; horrent, unamazed,
Knowing his sin beyond the Grace of God!
And his name Francis Spira, man of Law.
One of the most fearful stories in church history concerns Francis Spira, an Italian Roman Catholic jurist (1502-1548), who converted to the Protestant religion, but after he was brought before the Inquisition, he recanted, adjuring the faith publicly at church on consecutive Lord's Days, after which, in great horror of conscience, he eventually died of illness in Judas-like despair, believing himself to have committed the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost. Though his name may not be well-known today, throughout the centuries Spira has been an example and a byword for an extreme case of spiritual desertion. Charles Spurgeon wrote:
You know, also, the wonderful death of Francis Spira. In all literature, there is nothing so awful as the death of Spira. The man had known the truth; he stood well among reformers; he was an honored, and to a certain extent apparently a faithful man; but he went back to the Church of Rome; he apostatized; and then when conscience was aroused he did not fly to Christ, but he looked at the consequences instead of at the sin, and so, feeling that the consequences could not be altered, he forget that the sin might be pardoned, and perished in agonies extreme. May it never be the unhappy lot of any of us to stand by such a death-bed; but the Lord have mercy upon us now, and make us search our hearts.
In musing over the very dreadful sentence which closes my text, “He also will deny us,” I was led to think of various ways in which Jesus will deny us. He does this sometimes on earth. You have read, I suppose, the death of Francis Spira. If you have ever read it, you never can forget it to your dying day. Francis Spira knew the truth; he was a reformer of no mean standing but when brought to death, out of fear, he recanted. In a short time he fell into despair, and suffered hell upon earth. His shrieks and exclamations were so horrible, that their record is almost too terrible for print. His doom was a warning to the age in which he lived.
Spira's death was recounted in Henricus Scotus, Exemplum memorabile desperationis in Francisco Spera, propter abjuratam fidei confessionem (1550), for which John Calvin wrote a foreword dated December 1549. Nathaniel Woodes' historical drama, The Conflict of Conscience (1581), and Nathaniel Bacon, A Relation of the Fearful Estate of Francis Spira (1638), provided English accounts of his tragic death. One of these was influential in the conversion of John Bunyan, who quotes Spira directly through a character in The Pilgrim's Progress: the Man in the Iron Cage.
John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners:
163. I found it hard work now to pray to God, because despair was swallowing me up; I thought I was, as with a tempest, driven away from God, for always when I cried to God for mercy, this would come in, It is too late, I am lost, God hath let me fall; not to my correction, but condemnation; my sin is unpardonable; and I know, concerning Esau, how that, after he had sold his birthright, he would have received the blessing, but was rejected. About this time, I did light on that dreadful story of that miserable mortal, Francis Spira; a book that was to my troubled spirit as salt, when rubbed into a fresh wound; every sentence in that book, every groan of that man, with all the rest of his actions in his dolours, as his tears, his prayers, his gnashing of teeth, his wringing of hands, his twining and twisting, languishing and pining away under that mighty hand of God that was upon him, was as knives and daggers in my soul; especially that sentence of his was frightful to me, Man knows the beginning of sin, but who bounds the issues thereof? Then would the former sentence, as the conclusion of all, fall like a hot thunderbolt again.
William Perkins wrote in his Cases of Conscience:
[O]ft it will fall out that the conscience of Gods child shall bee so exceedingly tormented in temptation, that hee shall cry out, he is forsaken of God, and shalbe damned; when as indeed he stil remains the deare child of God, as Christ our Saviour did Gods welbeloved in the deepest assaults of Satan. And therefore the relation published of Francis Spira his desperation, doth inconsiderately taxe him for a cast-away; considering that nothing befel him in the time of his desperation but that which may befall the child of God: yea our owne land can afford many examples which match Francis Spira, whether we regard the matter of his temptation, or the deepnesse of his desperation, who yet through the mercy of God have received comfort. And therefore in this case Christian charity must ever bind us to thinke and speake the best.
Others who have written concerning spiritual desertion, such as Robert Bolton, Thomas Watson, Thomas Vincent, and Johannes Hoornbeeck, have consistently cited Spira as an example and a warning to believers against complete and total despair of the grace of God.
The other Italian lawyer in this tale is Pier Paolo Vergerio or Petrus Paulus Vergerius (1498–1565). He started his career as a lawyer, but soon entered the service of the Papacy, rising to the office of Papal Nuncio to Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I. While in Germany, he met Martin Luther and was exposed to the Protestant faith. He attended the Colloquies at Worms and Regensburg, in 1540 and 1541, where he met Philip Melanchthon (who presented him with a copy of the Augsburg Confession) and John Calvin, and was later charged with having conceded too much to the Protestants. He was first brought before the Inquisition in 1544, but the charges were not sustained, though he was denied the privilege of participating in the Council of Trent. In 1548, he was present during Francis Spira's deathbed agony, later writing an account of this saga, which led him to a decisive break with the Roman Catholic Church.
Philip Schaff writes:
Vergerio was overwhelmed by this experience, and brought to a final decision. He wrote an apology in which he gives an account of the sad story, and renounces his connection with Rome at the risk of persecution, torture, and death.The story of his conversion is notably recounted in John Flavel's The Mystery of Providence, and elsewhere.
He was deposed and excommunicated in 1549, which forced him to flee Italy, finding refuge in Switzerland and Germany, where, having turned from Papal Nuncio to zealous Reformer, he wrote tracts against the Papacy, and histories of Papal persecution through the Inquisition.
While Spira is a monument to the despair and hopelessness that comes from our inability to keep God's law, Vergerio is a testimony to our only true hope, the grace of God through Jesus Christ, which is able to reach even into the heart of Rome to save a sinner.