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.
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!