Imperishable Issues

Those of us who trace our spiritual ancestry to the 16th century Protestant Reformation are fond of saying that the questions then at issue are of lasting relevance. For that reason self-conscious Protestants never weary of celebrating this great event in the month of October each year, and a magazine such as this one cannot help but fall in with this good custom.

We must decide at the outset, of course, just what we mean by the Reformation. There is, for example, a Roman Catholic and a Protestant evaluation of the fact of the Reformation and its division of the Church. The Romanist opinion of this division is not very happy, as we can see from this quotation found in Father Philip Hughes’ A Popular History of the Catholic Church:

The great revolution is now universally called the Reformation, but, if to reform means to correct abuses in a system, to set right what is wrong, to restore good habits, the name is misleading. What Luther, Calvin, and the rest did was not to reform the Catholic system in which they were bred, but to build up new systems based on their revolutionary theological theories.l

The contrast between this kind of evaluation of the Reformation and a Protestant interpretation may be seen clearly from a statement taken from John Calvin’s “Reply to Sadolet”:2

…all we have attempted has been to renew the ancient form of the Church which, at 6rst distorted and stained by illiterate men of indifferent character, was afterwards criminally mancled and almost destroyed by the Roman pontiff and hls faction.

I shall not press you so closely as to call you back to that form which the apostles instituted, though in it we have the only model of a true Church, and whosoever deviates from it in the smallest degree is in error…Will you here declare one an enemy of antiquity who, zealous for ancient piety and holiness and dissatisfied with the corrupt state of matters existing in a dissolute and depraved Church, attempts to ameliorate its condition and restore it to pristine splendour?3

In addition to a Romanist and a Protestant set of evaluations, there is also a distinction to be made between the Reformation in the broader and narrower senSes. In the narrower sense the Reformation has to do with the Church; in the broader sense it has to do with that mighty movement which gave a new direction to both Christendom and culture, and which resulted not only in great change, but also in inestimable benefit for both Church and world. It must never be forgotten that such men as Luther and Calvin were not allowed to live their lives cloistered safely within the walls of the Church, far removed from the tensions and the conflicts of every-day life. When they challenged the Roman Church they threatened social patterns and community habits long cherished by the majority, and reinforced by authority as well as tradition. It took unbelievable moral courage to be a Reformer!

We can speak of the Reformation as Church reform, and no doubt that is what it was first of all, and to this we shall give our attention in thiS article. The Reformation delivered a Church which had become estranged from the Word of God from the yoke of the Roman hierarchy. It re-directed the Church out of a labyrinth of errors to the Truth so that she came once again to rest upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles. A vain confidence in good works was taken away, and the Church again sought her righteousness exclusively in Jesus Christ. It is quite likely that this church-reforming work of the Reformation was of so great a significance that we may say that all further effects of this great movement in the world and in society would have been impossible without this purification and renewal of the Church. The Reformation would have had no message for the state and science and culture if it had not first brought the Church back under the sovereign dominion of the Word.

There is a universality to the Reformation which we may never forget. in which Goers rule over all of creation is proclaimed. It is Reformation truth to declare that every area of our variegated life must be made subordinate to the Creator, and to His Son, King Jesus, the Christ. Nothing we do may ever partake of any other character than that of humble service before the King of kings. That is the full message of the Reformation.

Although we wish to sample certain statements made by John Calvin, one of the greatest of the Reformers with respect to the Reformation as it began and developed with respect to the Church, we must not allow this to suggest that the Reformation was a movement which renewed and changed the Church and left the rest of the world undisturbed. On the contrary, its outreach was both broad and deep, and wherever its effect was felt the changes which resulted were tremendous. The Reformation began an entirely new era in the history of mankind. The political structure of several nations was determined by the influence of its basic principle. In fact, unless there is today a return to the standards recognized by the Reformation and a renewed pursuit of the goals set by it there is no escape from the devastating consequences of a total secularization! To be more explicit: Unless we can recover the vision of life in all its spheres under the corrective and disciplinary power of God’s Word we cannot avoid the calamity which that Word pronounces upon all apostasy.

John Calvin was called upon to give account of the nature and significance of the Reformation, and this he very ably did on more than one occasion. From the aforementioned “Reply to Sadolet” we here list a number of issues to which Calvin appeals and on which he makes express statement of his reformatory views.


Sadolet attempted to convince the Genevan congregation from which Calvin had been separated that they should return to the worship of God as prescribed by the ancient Roman Church. It strikes me that the force of his argumentation is quite similar to something which we can see and hear today. This line of reasoning appears to be very wise and moderate: it insists that worship is so important that no one ought to get away from its benefits, even for the sake of some point of doctrine or truth. Sadolet made a strong appeal, it would seem, to the believer’s interest in the future life (“going to heaven”), and urged Genevan Christians not to be so much concerned with issues of current dispute. as to be concerned with that religious worship which would give them solace with respect to the matters of eternity.

In this connection Calvin says:

I know not for what reason you have so protracted your discourse upon it (“the excellence of eternal blessedness”) here…it is not very sound theology to confine a man’s thoughts so much to himself, and not to set before him as the prime motive of his existence zeal to show forth the glory of God. For we are born first of all for God, and not for ourselves.4

Calvin is willing to meet his opponent on the basis of the assertion that “there is nothing more perilous to our salvation than a distorted and perverse worship of God.5 Sadolet’s claim was that the Romanist manner of worship was a product of the Spirit’s guidance of the Church over the centuries, and that therefore it ought not be altered or rejected. Here Calvin re-emphasizes the well-known Reformation principle of the supremacy and primacy of the Word. also for the determination of true worship. He states:

When you describe it (worship) as that which in all past as well as present time, in all regions of the earth. being united and of one mind in Christ, has been always and everywhere directed by the one Spirit of Christ, what becomes of the Word of Cod, that clearest of all marks, which the Lord himself in designating the Church so often commends to us? For seeing how dangerous it would be to boast of the Spirit without the Word, he declared that the Church is indeed governed by the Holy Spirit; but in order that this government might not be vague and unstable, he bound it to the Word….In short, why is the preach4 ing of the Gospel so often styled the kingdom of God, but because it is the scepter by which the heavenly King rules His people?6

Calvin is also convinced that the preaching of his day was in need of reform:

 …what sermons in Europe then exhibited that simplicity with which Paul wishes a Christian people to be always occupied? Indeed what one sermon was there from which old wives might not carry off more fantasies than they could devise at their own fireside in a month? For, as sermons were then usually divided, the first half was devoted to those misty questions of the schools which might astonish the rude populace, while the second contained smooth stories, or not unamusing speculations, by which the people might be excited to cheerfulness. Only a, few expressions were thrown in from the Word of God, that by their majesty they might procure credit for these frivolities…7


Calvin ranks doctrine as the first of the things by which the safety of the Church is secured. Since the Reformation sought only to bring all things under the discipline of the Word, Calvin’s claim is that the doctrine of the Reformers clearly reveals their attempt to restore these “to the native purity from which they had degenerated.” Calvin does not advocate theology or doctrine in the scholastic sense, as will appear from this citation:

Do you remember what kind of time it was when the Reformers appeared. and what kind of doctrine candidates for the ministry learned in the schools? You yourself know that it was mere sophistry, and so twisted, involved, tortuous and puzzling, that scholastic theology might well be described as a species of secret magic. The denser the darkness in which any4 one shrouded a subject, and the more he puzzled him4 self and others with nagging riddles, the greater his fame for acumen and learning.8

Sadolet seems to have been one of those who felt that the common, uneducated people could not be trained in the doctrines of the Church and the Gospel. This aroused Calvin to affirm another cardinal Reformation idea:

Give me, I do not say some unlearned man from among the people. but the rudest clown; if he is to belong to the flock of God, he must be prepared for the warfare he has ordained for all the godly. An armed enemy is at hand, on the alert to engage—an enemy most skillful and unassailable by the strength of the world; to resist him what guards must defend that poor man and what weapons arm him, if he is not to be instantly annihilated! Paul informs us (Eph. 6:17) that the only sword with which he can fight is the Word of the Lord.9

Calvin illustrates how he would teach the most important and profound doctrine of justification by faith; and the experiential, practical flavor of this paragraph is most delightful:

First, we bid a roan begin by examining himself, and this not in a superficial and perfunctory manner, but to present his conscience before the tribunal of God and, when sufficiently convinced of his iniquity, to reflect on the strictness of the sentence pronounced upon all sinners. Thus confounded and stricken with misery, he is prostrated and humbled before God; and, throwing away all self-confidence, he groans as though given up to final perdition. Then we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is completed. As all mankind are lost sinners in the sight of God, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since by his obedience he has done away our transgressions, by his sacrifice appeased the divine anger, by his blood washed away our stains, by his cross borne oW’ cW’se, and by his death made satisfaction for us. We maintain that in this way man is reconciled in Christ to God the Father, by no merit of his own, by no worthiness of works, but by gratuitous mercy. When we embrace Christ by faith, and come, as it were, into communion with him, we term this in the manner of Scripture the righteousness of faith.1o



We conclude with a few quotations from Calvin which bear on other more familiar Reformation issues. Here are a few brief but pungent statements with respect to penances, the eucharist or the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the intercession of saints, and purgatory.

Calvin accuses Sadolet of being ignorant of the true doctrine of justification by faith, which leads him to the error of teaching “that sins are expiated by penances and satisfactions.”

Calvin’s comment follows in this vein: Search all the divine oracles we possess; if the blood of Christ alone is everywhere set forth as purchasing satisfaction, reconciliation, and cleansing, how dare you presume to transfer so great an honour to your works? Nor have you any ground for ascribing this blasphemy to the Church of God. The ancient Church, I admit, had its satisfactions -not those, however, by which sinners might atone to God and redeem themselves from guilt, but by which they might prove that the repentance they professed was not feigned and might efface the remembrance of the offence which their sin occasioned.11

The matter of the Lord’s Supper or the papal mass is perhaps the most familiar of all Reformation issues. There is no need for us to offer anything more than just a few statements from Calvin in order that we might flavor the quality of expression which this great Reformer employed as he comments on this to Sadolet:

In the case of the Eucharist you blame us for attempting to confine the Lord of the universe and his divine and spiritual power (which is perfectly free and infinite) within the comers of a corporeal nature with its circumscribed limits. What end will there be to calumny? We have always distinctly testified that not only the divine power of Christ, but his essence also, is diffused over all and defined by no limits…you are assuredly not ignorant how great a difference there is between the two things; removing the local presence of Christ’s body from bread, and circumscribing hi., spiritual power within bodily limits…it will be better that you read Augustine’s Epistle to Dardanus, where you will find how one and the same Christ more than fills heaven and earth with the fulness of his divinity, and yet is not everywhere diffused in respect of his humanity.

We emphatically proclaim the communion of flesh and blood which is exhibited to believers in the Supper; and we distinctly show that this flesh is truly meat and this blood truly drink—that the soul, not contented with an imaginary conception, enjoys them in very truth. That presence of Christ, by which we arc ingrafted in him, we by no means exclude from the Supper; nor do we obscure it, though we hold that there must be no local limitation, that the glorious body of Christ must not be degraded to earthly elements, and that there must be no fiction of transubstantiating the bread into Christ and then of worshipping it as Christ…12

By one stroke Calvin adequately states the seriousness and validity of the Reformers’ protest against the Romanist view of the intercession of the saints:

…the intercession of Christ was quite erased from men’s thoughts; saints were invoked as gods; the offices peculiar to God were distributed among them; nor was there any difference between this worship paid to them and that ancient idolatry which we all rightly execrate.13

Calvin took the Romanist doctrine of purgatory (the idea that there is an intermediate state after death where expiation and purification take place before entrance into final glory) very seriously. He writes:

As to purgatory we know that ancient churches made some mention of the dead in their prayers…a mention in which obviously nothing more was meant than to testify in passing to affection for the dead. As yet the architects were unborn, by whom that purgatory of yours was built, and who afterwards enlarged it so greatly and raised it so high that it now forms the strongest pillar in your kingdom. You yourself know what a hydra of errors thence emerged; you know what tricks superstition has spontaneously devised with which to play; you know how many impostures avarice fabricated, in order to bleed men of every class; you know how great detriment it has done to piety..14


These quotations will illustrate the imperishability of the issues which Calvin was compelled to meet in his time. There are more than those mentioned here, and their essential character is relevant today as it was then. Today also divine truth is threatened and almost extinguished by the forces of unbelief, the Word of God is often buried, Christ’s peculiar virtue is left in oblivion, and the pastoral office subverted. by a thousand devices. Today also, our “Christian faith must not be founded on human testimony, not propped up by doubtful opinion, not based on human authority, but engraved on our hearts by the finger of the living God, so as not to be obliterated by any deceitful error.”

Thus Calvin prayed at the close of his “Reply to Sadolet”:

The Lord grant, Sadolet. that you and all your party may at length perceive that the only bond of ecclesIastical unity consists in this, that Christ the Lord, who has reconciled us to God the Father, gather us out of our present dispersion into the fellowship of his body, that so, through his one Word and Spirit, we may join together With one heart and one souls.15

1. P. 168.

2. This was Calvin’s answer to the letter written by Cardinal Jacob Sadolet, in which the people of Geneva were urged to return to the bosom of the Roman church.

3. Calvin: Theological Treatises, The Library of Christian Classics, Volume XXII, Translated by J. K. S. Reid, pp. 231, 232. Philadelphia : The Westminster Press.

4. Op. cit. p. 228.

5. Op. cit. p. 229.

6. Op. cit. pp. 229, 230.

7. Op. cit. p. 233.

8. Op. cit. p. 233.

9. Op. cit. p. 243.

10. Op . cit. pp. 234, 235.

11. Op. cit. p. 237

12. Op. cit. pp. 237, 238.

13. Op. cit. p. 239.

14. Op. cit. pp. 239, 240.

15. Op. cit . p. 256.