Calvin’s “Luther moment”


As is often noted, Calvin rarely gave autobiographical reflections. He was busy thinking about God. But, one such autobiographical moment appears in his letter to Jacopo Sadoleto, a bishop in France who had sent a letter to Geneva, appealing for their return to the Roman fold.

Calvin’s response to Sadoleto’s letter is wide-ranging. Much of it deals with Sadoleto’s — obviously hypocritical — charge that the reformers were in it for self-aggrandizement (honor, prestige, wealth)…you know, the sort of thing that Rome had fully institutionalized! For all of his rhetorical finesse, Calvin is livid at this calumny. Elsewhere, Calvin deals with the doctrinal issues that Sadoleto had touched upon, in his touting of the holiness and purity in the way of salvation which Rome had shepherded souls for centuries. Toward the end of the letter, Calvin gives a brief statement of his own Catholic upbringing and what chiefly brought about his evangelical conversion.

I call this his “Luther moment” for the similarity to Luther’s own crisis of conscience in regards to works-righteousness. Often Luther is accused of being overly preoccupied with such matters (doctrine of justification), which may be true, but I am inclined to think that Calvin and Luther are far more similar than not in their view of justification (against N. T. Wright et al.). Here is an excerpt from the letter:

I, O Lord, as I had been educated from a boy, always professed the Christian faith. But at first I had no other reason for my faith than that which then everywhere prevailed. Your Word, which ought to have shone on all your people like a lamp, was taken away, or at least suppressed as to us. …

I believed, as I had been taught, that I was redeemed by the death of your Son from liability to eternal death, but the redemption I thought of was one whose virtue could never reach me. I anticipated a future resurrection, but hated to think of it, as being an event most dreadful. And this feeling not only had dominion over me in private, but was derived from the doctrine which was then uniformly delivered to the people by their Christian teachers. They, indeed, preached of your clemency towards men, but confined it to those who should show themselves deserving of it. They, moreover, placed this desert in the righteousness of works, so that he only was received into your favor who reconciled himself to You by works. Nor, meanwhile, did they disguise the fact, that we are miserable sinners, that we often fall through infirmity of the flesh, and that to all, therefore, your mercy behooved to be the common haven of salvation; but the method of obtaining it, which they pointed out, was by making satisfaction to You for offenses. Then, the satisfaction enjoined was, first, after confessing all our sins to a priest, suppliantly to ask pardon and absolution; and, secondly, by good to efface from your remembrance our bad actions. Lastly, in order to supply what was still wanting, we were to add sacrifices and solemn expiations. Then, because You were a stern judge and strict avenger of iniquity, they showed how dreadful your presence must be. Hence they bade us flee first to the saints, that by their intercession You might be rendered exorable and propitious to us.

When, however, I had performed all these things, though I had some intervals of quiet, I was still far-off from true peace of conscience; for, whenever I descended into myself, or raised my mind to You, extreme terror seized me — terror which no expiations nor satisfactions could cure. And the more closely I examined myself, the sharper the stings with which my conscience was pricked, so that the only solace which remained to me was to delude myself by obliviousness.

(John Calvin, “Reply to Sadoleto,” in A Reformation Debate, pp. 87-88)

Calvin continues to recount his hesitation at such “novelty” as was the evangelical doctrine of Christ’s complete satisfaction. But,

I at length perceived, as if light had broken in upon me, in what a style of error I had wallowed….Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen, and much more at that which threatened me in the view of eternal death, I, as in duty bound, made it my first business to betake myself to your ways, condemning my past life, not without groans and tears. And now, O Lord, what remains to a wretch like me, but instead of defense, earnestly to supplicate You not to judge according to its deserts that fearful abandonment of your Word, from which, in your wondrous goodness, You have at last delivered me.

(p. 90)

There you have it: Calvin’s terrors of conscience, profound self-examination, the fearful judgment of a holy God — all the makings of a Luther crisis! This is rudimentary for understanding the Reformation and the confessional theology that arose from it. Moreover, the sacramental process — by which the devout are transferred back into a state of grace after mortal sin — is still unequivocally taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, under the auspices of Pope John Paul II.



Just to be clear, I have no problem with designating the Roman Catholic Church as “Christian,” and I certainly do not question the salvation of Catholics…who will, statistically speaking, far outnumber Protestants in the hereafter. One of the silliest developments in Presbyterian history is when Southern Presbyterians in the 19th century rejected Catholic baptisms!



  1. The interesting thing about this – at least, for me – is how little (ie, how poorly) Calvin actually seems to understand about Catholic Christianity. He paints a picture here that is as grossly distorted and caricatured as anything coming from the mouth of a kooky fundamentalist today (e.g., his claim that the Catholic must “do good” to earn God’s favor to compensate for his/her sins, etc. — like some kind of debit/credit accounting system — is preposterous). It’s interesting, indeed, and for all the right reasons to this Catholic, which is to say it merely affirms my take on Calvin, his systematic theology, and its inherent flaws.

    • So, Midnight Lumen, do you believe in mortal sin? You believe in salvation by grace, yes, but can you compromise that salvation by committing a mortal sin? (which have been traditionally delineated by using the ten commandments, including the deeper significance taught by Christ…anger, lust, coveting, etc.)

      There is no caricature in Calvin’s presentation. It’s a rather straightforward assessment of Rome’s position. Rome introduces works through the back door, so to speak, by making them necessary in order to retain a person’s standing in a “state of grace.”

      • One can, and should, legitimately acknowledge that one can sever his/her relationship with God through evil acts of freewill. This does not equate to, nor should it be confused with, the pharisaical caricature of debits/credits that Calvin would have you believe is real. Apples and oranges.

      • The debts/credits is in reference to works of satisfaction, after confession, in order to minimize the damage done by sin (and possibly reduce time in purgatory) — which is also mitigated by indulgences.

        No one denies the role of grace in Roman Catholic soteriology, especially at the front end. The dispute is over the precise thing that you just said, “that one can sever his/her relationship with God through evil acts of freewill.” Grace is contingent upon keeping the law.

  2. As a former Roman Catholic, my experience was that the effort to achieve or remain in a “state of grace” was the equivalent of Sisyphus’ mythical task, only without ever reaching the mountain’s summit before the boulder got out of my control and crashed down to the valley below. I thank God for the Reformation.

    • Very true, Robert. For a Protestant, the path to greater maturity and sanctification involves an ever increasing awareness of one’s corruption — the impossibility of Sisyphus’ task or, to use religious terms, mounting a spiritual ladder. We always stay at the bottom of the ladder, but God comes to us. We get smaller as God gets bigger.

  3. Random point #1: The Catholic Church of Calvin’s day was very different from the one we have today, and Occam (arguably) said some crazy shit (that plays into this conversation about how grace works).

    Random point #2: I’m not entirely sure how much of this apparently autobiographical comment from Calvin ought to be understood as truly autobiographical. Calvin is in very high rhetorical mode in this piece (it’s well nigh a work of art), and I think it is safe to say that — at best — he’s offering here a highly rhetorico-theological gloss on his own experience.

    • RE #1: Oh yes, most definitely, but it is enormously complicated to parse. I tend to think that a figure like Aquinas is basically Augustinian in his soteriology (and much else), but Aquinas wasn’t the main sparring partner in the early decades of the 16th century like he is today — so the nefarious influence of the late-medieval nominalists did indeed make matters worse. For my money, the fathers at Trent took the sacramental views of Augustine, which were then developed by Aquinas et al., and crystallized them at Trent — but these sacramental (ecclesial) views were then located in a non-Augustinian grasp of Paul’s theology. The true heirs to Augustine were the Lutherans. After Trent, we have a radicalization of anti-Protestant anything in the Roman Catholic Church — so Baroque Catholicism went crazy on everything, culminating in the marian dogmas of the last two centuries and papal infallibility at Vatican 1. On the upside, Vatican 2 did make some significant advances in the Protestant direction — we got moved from damnation to “separated brethren” thank God! But little was changed at the formal level — whether ecclesiology, the sacraments, justification, etc., and ditto for JP2’s redo of the universal Catechism. Yet, when it comes to particular theologians or scholars, we have guys like Balthasar appropriating (as far as he can) Barth’s christocentrism and Joseph Fitzmyer going all Calvinist in his commentary on Romans! And, of course, the American expression of the RCC is decidedly more Protestant than, let’s say, much of Latin America where Baroque Catholicism is still more dominant, though we’ll see how charismatic movements may change that.

      RE #2: I’m not so sure. Behind the rhetorical flavoring are substantive criticisms of the Catholic rigmarole in regard to confession, penance, etc and the lay piety surrounding the cult of the saints — criticisms peppered throughout his commentaries, treatises, and in the Institutes. It is clear that Calvin had a crisis of conscience, anxious uncertainty, and so forth, which was relieved in his grasp of Christ’s complete satisfaction.

      • On #1: I think you’re being too kind to Trent (off all things!). Look at all the work done by folk like Oberman in the obscure volumes he edited, and you’ll see quite a bit of scholarship arguing (rather compellingly) that the nominalists got the better of it at Trent, and that where Thomas is interpreted by Trent he is so in a nominalist direction.

        On #2: I don’t think that is “clear,” at least not in a straightforward way. Of course there are substantive criticisms there – just read book 4 of the Institutes! But this does not mean a crisis of conscience. In fact, the French situation in the late 1520s and early 1530s would have made it easy for Calvin *not* to have such a crisis, which I would think is against his personality anyway. My money is on a slow burn. If there was any sort of crisis, it had to do with a decision to reject his own Nicodemism, but I wouldn’t even necessarily describe this as a “personal” (as in emotional, psychological, etc.) crisis.

      • #1: Yeah, by saying that nominalism dominated, I meant to indicate that nominalism influenced Trent’s reading of Aquinas (and Augustine and the whole tradition). And then things get worse after Trent because Trent’s canons and the Roman Catechism (authorized soon after the council and based upon the council) shaped the Catholic Church and all local catechisms (e.g., America’s Baltimore Catechism) until JP2’s new universal catechism, which didn’t change a whole lot.

        I am indeed influenced by my dabbling in Oberman — a fantastic scholar — though I certainly need to read more of him. Also, Etienne Gilson’s reading of Thomas (and the history of philosophy) influences my understanding, though I am (obviously) critical of a great deal in Thomas…and Augustine for that matter. There are still a great many gaps in my grasp of all of these complex events and personalities, so I am very much still developing my thoughts here — and always will be.

        #2: slow burn I’m sure, but I would still characterize it as a “crisis” full of hesitancy and concerns over the clarity of his conscience before God. Calvin didn’t act on a whim or out of desperation — which is indeed not his personality — but a “Luther” crisis of conscience can manifest itself slowly, as different layers of understanding gain prominence. So, if Calvin is condensing this, then that’s fine — and it’s the sort of thing that we do all of the time when giving autobiographical reflections.

      • Also, to make matters even more complicated:

        I would not want to put all of the blame on nominalism. Aquinas is illustrative: his formal soteriology is heavily Augustinian, but his view of the sacraments closely follows the developments (especially by monks) in the centuries after Augustine, in terms of the penitential system that was so influential on both monastic and lay piety (originating with the former). There are elements of this in Augustine too, just less juridical.

        So, even if Trent had understood and followed Augustine and Aquinas, significant problems would still remain — especially for a Reformed Protestant — but perhaps the problems would not be quite as insurmountable as they currently seem.

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