Calvin without Hobbs


In 1517 Johann Tetzel,  a travelling preacher and ambassador of the Pope travelled through Germany with another catchy little tune.

“As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs”

He was exhorting people to offer Indulgences, a financial payment protecting you and  your family from Purgatory.[1]  The Catholic faith at that time had developed into a form of “Semi-Pelagianism.” The idea was that we had fallen through original sin but that grace received at baptism enabled a person to live a good life that could earn enough merit for salvation. This was a  recipe for corruption and abuse.

Martin Luther and the alternative Trick or Treat

Martin Luther was born on the  10th November 1483. On the  2nd July 1505 whilst studying law he was nearly struck by lightning and cried out in fear.  “Help Saint Anna, I will become a monk.” Surviving the storm he fulfilled his vow.

Then about a decade later, Tetzel turned up with his little ditty.  Of course it wasn’t just the one little ditty and the one preacher, a whole theological system and a whole church were behind this message.

Luther disagreed and on the  31st October 1517 nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg where he was a monk. This was a known way of protesting and encouraging debate. A fierce debate was certainly provoked leading to Luther’s eventual arrest and trial at the Diet of Worms.  On the April 18th 1521 he appeared  before Charles V King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor who asked him if he would recant from his position and teachings against the pope.

He responded:

“Therefore, I ask by the mercy of God, may your most serene majesty, moat illustrious Lordships, or anyone at all who is able, either high or low bear witness, overthrow them by the writings of the prophets and evangelists.  Once I have been taught I shall be quite ready to renounce every error and I shall be the first to cast my books into the fire.”[2]

However, he went on to say:

“Unless I am convinced by the teaching of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves) I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and I will not retract anything since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.  Here I stand I can do no other.”[3]

The Testimony that underpinned a revolution

In his own words, Luther tells us:

“Though I lived as a Monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience.  I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction.  I did not love, yes I hated the righteousness of God who punishes sinners… I was angry with God.”[4]

The break through came when he re-read Romans 1 and gained afresh insight into what it meant to be justified by faith.

“At last by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous will live. There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith.  And this is the meaning; the righteousness of God is revealed by the Gospel, namely the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith.” [5]

“Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise through open gates.” [6]

“And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hated with which I had before hated the word, righteousness of God’.” [7]

Luther became one of the key leaders of the Reformation, recovering for the Church the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone.  Two other leading reformers were Zwingli and John Calvin.  So, who was John Calvin?

Introducing John Calvin

He was born in France on the 10th July 1509 and died on the 27th May 1564. In 1536 he is invited to Geneva to help lead the Reformation from there.

Developing the Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone

Calvin helpfully expanded on Luther’s insights to give us a fantastic insight into what it means to be saved by grace and justified by faith alone in the Sovereign God. Here are some of his key insights.

  1. Knowledge of self starts with knowledge of God

“Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists of two  parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”[8]

“In the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves because it is perfectly obvious that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay that our very being is nothing else than substinance in God alone.”[9]


“On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he hve previously contemplated the face of God and come down after contemplation to look into himself.  For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright and wise and holy until we are convinced by clear evidence of our injustice, violence, folly and impurity.”[10]

This stops us from judging our goodness against a relative standard. It must be judged against the objective standard of God’s holiness.

  1. God is Sovereign and Good –in control of the detail of life

“It were cold and lifeless to represent God as a momentary Creator who completed his work once for all and then left.”[11]

“After learning that there is a Creator it must forthwith infer that he is also a Governor and Preserver and that not by producing a kind of general motion in the machine of the globe as well as in each of its parts but by a special Providence sustaining, cherishing, superintending all things which he has made to the minutest, even a sparrow.”[12]

It were cold and lifeless to represent God as a momentary Creator who completed his work once for all and then left.”[13]

Note for Calvin God’s ongoing role in his creation includes predestination but for him Predestination is not about a topic for intellectual discussion and controversy. Rather, his concern was  to accurately and pastorally teach Scripture.  He says:

“But before I enter on the subject, I have some remarks to address to two classes of men.  The subject of predestination, which in itself is attended with considerable difficulty is rendered very perplexed and hence perilous by human curiosity which cannot be restrained from wandering into forbidden paths, and climbing to the clouds, determined if it can that none of the secret things of God shall remain unexplored.”[14]

“It is not right that man should with impunity pry into things which the Lord has been pleased to conceal within himself, and scan that sublime eternal wisdom which it is his pleasure that we should not apprehend but adore, that therein also his perfections may appear.  Those secrets of his will, which he has seen it meet to manifest are revealed in his word – revealed in so far as he knew to be conducive to our interest and welfare.”[15]

“There are others who when they would cure this disease, recommend that the subject of predestination should scarcely if ever be mentioned and tell us to shun every question concerning it as we would a rock.”[16]

“Although their moderation is justly commendable in thinking that such mysteries should be treated with moderation, because they keep too far within the proper measure, they have little influence over the human mind, which does not readily allow itself to be curbed.”[17]

In other words, some Christians delight in the controversy and see theology as a philosophical exercise to search out the most curious of ideas. Others react so strongly the other way that if something looks difficult to understand or potentially controversial then we should stay completely clear of it. No, Calvin argues. The best course is in effect the middle course between the two, to simply try and accurately reflect what Scripture teaches, humbly recognising our human limitations. One can’t help feeling that both some of his most ardent supporters and fiercest opponents would have done well to heed his warning!

  1. Humans are:

 made good in God’s Image

“We have now to speak of the creation of man, not only because of all the works of God it is the noblest and most admirable specimen of his justice, wisdom and goodness, but as we observed at the outset, we cannot clearly and properly know God unless the knowledge of ourselves be added.”[18]

“God has provided the soul of man with intellect, by which he might discern good from evil, just from unjust and might know what to follow or to shun.”[19]

…but fallen and corrupted by sin

Like Augustine he believed in Original Sin.  This has affected every aspect of our nature

“Our nature is not only devoid of goodness, but so prolific in all kinds of evil, that it can never be idle.”[20]

“Everything that is in man from the intellect to the will, from the soul to the flesh is defiled and pervaded with this concupiscence, or to express it more briefly, that the whole man is in himself, nothing else than concupiscence.”[21]“all parts of the soul were possessed by sin.”[22]

The only remedy is a new heart.  This is completely an act of Divine Grace

“When the will is enchained as the slave of sin, it cannot make a movement towards goodness, far less steadily pursue it.  Every such movement is the first step in that conversion to God, which in Scripture is entirely ascribed to grace.”[23]

  1. Christ does two things


His innocent death means he takes the curse and punishment of sin on himself

“We perceive Christ representing the character of a sinner and a criminal, while at the same time, his innocence shines forth, and it becomes manifest that he suffers for another and not for his own crime.”[24] –e.g. Pilate both sentences and absolves him

“The very form of the death embodies a striking truth.  The cross was cursed not only in the opinion of men, but by the enactment of Divine Law.  Hence Christ, while suspended on it, subjects himself to the cause.  And thus it behoved to be done, in order that the whole curse, which on account of our iniquities awaited us, or rather lay upon us, might be taken from us by being transferred to him.”[25]

See on this: Is 53:5, 10; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13,14; 1 Peter 2:24

His obedient Death on our behalf means that we are justified

Calvin says that we can either attempt to justify ourselves by living a perfect life.  Or we can be justified by receiving Christ’s righteousness

“…wherever sin is, there also are the wrath and vengeance of God.  He on the other hand is justified who is regarded not a sinner, but as righteous and as such stands acquitted at the judgement seat of God, where all sinners are condemned.”[26]

“As an innocent man, when charged by an impartial judge, who decides according to his innocence, is said to be justified by the judge, so a man is said to be justified by God when, removed from the catalogue of sinners, he has God as the witness and asserter of his righteousness.”[27]

“In the same manner a man will be said to be justified by works, if in his life there can be found a purity and holiness which merits and attestation of righteousness at the throne of God, or if by the perfection of his works he can answer and satisfy the divine justice.”[28]

Christ’s obedience through his whole life but specifically in death leads to our justification

“When it is asked then how Christ, by abolishing sin, removed the enmity between God and us, and purchased a righteousness which made him favourable and kind to us, it may be answered generally that he accomplished this by the whole course of his obedience.”[29]

(Cf Romans 5:19; Gal 4:4-5)

“Scripture however, the more certainly to define the mode of salvation ascribes it peculiarly and specially to the death of Christ.”[30]

Why this all matters

Neither Calvin (Servetus) or Luther (alleged ant-Semitism) were perfect but both grasped that Salvation is completely by Grace alone.  This removes the need to go through priests and popes for forgiveness.  In other words, it refutes all attempts to put human obstacles in the way of a living relationship with a loving God.


[1] The place where Catholicism teachers that a soul must go before heaven to pay off any outstanding debt of sin.

[2] Cited in Mark Noll, Turning Points, 153-154.

[3] Martin Luther, Cited in Noll, Turning Points, 154.

[4] Martin Luther, Cited in Noll, Turning Points, 159.

[5] Martin Luther, Cited in Noll, Turning Points, 159.

[6] Martin Luther, Cited in Noll, Turning Points, 159.

[7] Martin Luther, Cited in Noll, Turning Points, 159.

[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.i.1. (Beveridge, 1:37).

[9] Calvin, Institutes, I.i.1. (Beveridge, 1:37).

[10] Calvin, Institutes, I.i.2. (Beveridge, 1:38).

[11] Calvin, Institutes, I.xvi.1. (Beveridge 1: 171)

[12] Calvin, Institutes, I.xvi.1. (Beveridge, 1:172).

[13] Calvin, Institutes, I.xvi.1. (Beveridge 1: 171)

[14] Calvin, Institutes, III.xxi.1 . (Beveridge, 2:203).

[15] Calvin, Institutes, III.xxi.1. (Beveridge, 2:204).

[16] Calvin, Institutes, III.xxi. 2. (Beveridge, 2:204).

[17] Calvin, Institutes, III.xxi.3. (Beveridge 2:204-5).

[18] Calvin, Institutes, I.xv.1. (Beveridge, 1:159).

[19] Calvin, Institutes, I.xv.8. (Beveridge, 1:169).

[20] Calvin, Institutes, II.i.8 (Beveridge 1:218).

[21] Calvin, Institutes, II.i.8 (Beveridge 1:218).

[22] Calvin, Institutes, II.i.9. (Beveridge, 1:218).

[23] Calvin, Institutes, II.iii.5. (Beveridge, 1:253).

[24] Calvin, Institutes,,5. (Beveridge, 1: 439).

[25] Calvin, Institutes, II.xvi.6. (Beveridge, 1:439).

[26] Calvin, Institutes, III.xi.2. (Beveridge, 2:38).

[27] Calvin, Institutes, III.xi.2. (Beveridge, 2:28).

[28] Calvin, Institutes, III.xi.2. (Beveridge, 2:38).

[29] Calvin, Institutes, (Beveridge, 1:437).

[30] Calvin, Institutes, II.xvi.5. (Beveridge, 1:437).