Refutation of the Roman doctrine of Penance and Satisfaction

by John Calvin

25. General presentation and refutation of the Roman doctrine

They assign the third place in penance to satisfaction. With one word we can overthrow all their empty talk about this. They say that it is not enough for the penitent to abstain from past evils, and change his behavior for the better, unless he make satisfaction to God for those things which he has committed. But they say that there are many helps by which we may redeem sins: tears, fasting, offerings, and works of charity. With these we must propitiate the Lord. With these we must pay our debts to God's righteousness. With these we must compensate for our transgressions. With these we must merit his pardon. For although he has forgiven the guilt through the largeness of his mercy, yet by the discipline of his justice he retains punishment. It is this punishment which must be redeemed by satisfaction. It all comes down to this: we indeed obtain pardon for our transgressions from God's kindness, but only through the intervening merit of works, by which the offense of our sins may be paid for, in order that due satisfaction may be made to God's justice.

Over against such lies I put freely given remission of sins; nothing is more clearly set forth in Scripture [Isa. 52:3; Rom. 3:24–25; 5:8; Col. 2:13–14; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 3:5]! First, what is forgiveness but a gift of sheer liberality? For the creditor who gives a receipt for money paid is not the one who is said to forgive, but he who, without any payment, willingly cancels the debt out of his own kindness. Why, then, is the word "freely" added but to take away all thought of satisfaction? With what confidence, then, do they still set up their satisfactions, which are laid low by so mighty a thunderbolt? What then? When the Lord proclaims through Isaiah: "I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my sake, and I will not remember your sins" [Isa. 43:25], does he not openly declare that the cause and foundation of forgiveness are to be sought in his goodness alone? Moreover, since all Scripture bears witness to Christ—that through his name we are to receive forgiveness of sins [Acts 10:43]—does it not exclude all other names? How, then, do they teach that forgiveness is to be understood under the term "satisfactions"? Nor can they deny that they ascribe this to satisfactions, even if they seem to introduce them as helps. When Scripture says, "by the name of Christ," it means that we bring nothing, we claim nothing of our own, but rely solely upon the commendation of Christ, as Paul declares: "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against men on his account" [2 Cor. 5:19 p.]. And he immediately adds the how and the why: "For our sake he made him to be sin who was without sin" [2 Cor. 5:21 p.].

(The grace of Christ alone provides true satisfaction for sin and peace to the conscience, 26–27)

26. Christ has provided full satisfaction

But such is their perversity, they say that both forgiveness of sins and reconciliation take place once for all when in Baptism we are received through Christ into the grace of God; that after Baptism we must rise up again through satisfactions; that the blood of Christ is of no avail, except in so far as it is dispensed through the keys of the church. And I am not speaking of a doubtful matter, since not one or another, but all the Schoolmen, have, in very clear writings, betrayed their own taint. For their master, after he confessed that Christ on the tree paid the penalty of our sins, according to Peter's teaching [1 Peter 2:24], corrected that statement by adding the exception that in Baptism all temporal penalties of sins are relaxed, but after Baptism they are lessened by the help of penance, so that the cross of Christ and our penance may work together. But John speaks far differently: "If anyone has sinned, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ …; and he is the propitiation for our sins" [1 John 2:1–2]. "I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven in his name." [1 John 2:12 p.] Surely he is addressing believers, to whom, while he sets forth Christ as the propitiation of sins, he shows that there is no other satisfaction whereby offended God can be propitiated or appeased. He does not say: "God was once for all reconciled to you through Christ; now seek for yourselves another means." But he makes him a perpetual advocate in order that by his intercession he may always restore us to the Father's favor; an everlasting propitiation by which sins may be expiated. For what the other John said is ever true: "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!" [John 1:29; cf. ch. 1:36]. He, I say, not another, takes them away; that is, since he alone is the Lamb of God, he also is the sole offering for sins, the sole expiation, the sole satisfaction. For while the right and power of forgiving sins properly belong to the Father, in which respect he is distinguished from the Son, as we have already seen, Christ is here placed on another level because, taking upon himself the penalty that we owe, he has wiped out our guilt before God's judgment. From this it follows that we shall share in the expiation made by Christ only if that honor rest with him which those who try to appease God by their own recompense seize for themselves.

27. The Roman doctrine deprives Christ of honor, and the conscience of every assurance

And here we ought to consider two things: that Christ's honor be kept whole and undiminished; that consciences assured of pardon for sin may have peace with God.54

Isaiah says that the Father laid upon the Son the iniquity of us all [Isa. 53:6] to heal us by his stripes [Isa. 53:6, 5]. Peter repeats this in other words: Christ in his body bore our sins upon the tree [1 Peter 2:24]. Paul writes that sin was condemned in his flesh when he was made sin for us [Gal. 3:13 and Rom. 8:3, conflated]; that is, the force and the curse of sin were slain in his flesh when he was given as a victim, upon whom the whole burden of our sins—with their curse and execration, with the dreadful judgment of God and the damnation of death—should be cast. Here we never hear such falsehoods: as that after the initial purgation each one of us feels the efficacy of Christ's suffering solely in proportion to the measure of satisfying penance; but as often as we lapse we are recalled solely to the satisfaction of Christ.

Now set before yourself their pestilent absurdities: that in the first forgiveness of sins only the grace of God operates, but if we have fallen afterward, our works co-operate in obtaining the second pardon. b(a)If these principles have a place, do those functions which have previously been attributed to Christ remain intact with him? What a vast difference there is between saying that our iniquities have been lodged with Christ in order that they be expiated in him and saying that they are expiated by our works; that Christ is the propitiation for our sins, and that God must be propitiated by works!

But if it is a question of quieting the conscience, what will this quieting be if a man hears that sins are redeemed by satisfactions? When can he at length be certain of the measure of that satisfaction? Then he will always doubt whether he has a merciful God; he will always be troubled, and always tremble. For those who rely upon trifling satisfactions hold the judgment of God in contempt, and reckon of little account the great burden of sin, as we shall state elsewhere. But even though we should grant that they redeem some sins by appropriate satisfaction, still, what will they do when they are overwhelmed by so many sins for the satisfaction of which a hundred lives, even if they were wholly devoted to this purpose, could not suffice? Besides, all those passages which declare forgiveness of sins do not pertain to catechumens, but to the reborn children of God, who have long been nourished in the bosom of the church. That embassy which Paul so glowingly extols—"I beseech you in Christ's name, be reconciled to God" [2 Cor. 5:20 p.]—is directed not to outsiders, but to those who have already been reborn. But having bidden farewell to satisfactions, he relegates them to the cross of Christ. So where Paul writes to the Colossians that Christ has "reconciled all things that are on heaven or earth … by the blood of the cross" [Col. 1:20 p.], he does not confine this to the moment we are received into the church, but extends it throughout life. This is readily apparent from the context, where he says that believers have redemption through the blood of Christ, that is, the forgiveness of sins [Col. 1:14]. Now it is superfluous to heap up more such passages, which repeatedly occur.

(Various distinctions and objections critically examined, 28–39)

28. Venial and mortal sins

At this point they take refuge in the foolish distinction that certain sins are venial, others mortal; for mortal sins a heavy satisfaction is required; venial sins can be purged by easier remedies—by the Lord's Prayer, by the sprinkling of holy water, by the absolution afforded by the Mass. Thus they dally and play with God. Though they are always talking about venial and mortal sins, they still cannot distinguish one from the other,57 except that they make impiety and uncleanness of heart a venial sin. But we declare, as Scripture, the rule of righteous and unrighteous, teaches, "the wages of sin is death" [Rom. 6:23]; and "the soul that sins is worthy of death" [Ezek. 18:20 p.]; but that the sins of believers are venial, not because they do not deserve death, but because by God's mercy "there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" [Rom. 8:1], because they are not imputed, because they are wiped away by pardon [cf. Ps. 32:1–2].

I know how unjustly they slander this doctrine of ours, for they call it the paradox of the Stoics, concerning the equality of sins, but they will be easily refuted by their own mouth. For I ask whether among those very sins which they confess as mortal they recognize one as less than another. It does not therefore immediately follow that sins that are mortal are at the same time equal. Since the Scripture precisely states that "the wages of sin is death" [Rom. 6:23], but obedience to the law is the way of life [cf. Lev. 18:5; Ezek. 18:9; 20:11, 13; Gal. 3:12; Rom. 10:5; Luke 10:28]—transgression of the law, death [cf. Rom. 6:23; Ezek. 18:4, 20]—they cannot evade this verdict. Amid such a great heap of sins, what outcome of satisfaction will they find? If it takes one day to make satisfaction for one sin, while they are contemplating it they implicate themselves in more. For not a day passes when the most righteous of men does not fall time and again [cf. Prov. 24:16]. While they gird themselves to make satisfaction for their sins, they will heap up numerous—or rather, innumerable—others. Now that the assurance of being able to make satisfaction for their sins is cut off, why do they tarry? How dare they still think of making satisfaction?

29. Forgiveness of sins involves remission of penalty

Indeed, they try to extricate themselves, but "the water," as the proverb goes, "clings to them."59 They fashion a distinction between penalty and guilt. They admit that guilt is remitted by God's mercy, but after guilt has been remitted there remains the penalty that God's justice demands to be paid. Therefore, they hold that satisfactions properly are concerned with the remission of the penalty.

b(a)Good God, what flitting levity is this! They admit that forgiveness of guilt is freely available, yet repeatedly teach men to deserve it through prayers and tears, and all sorts of other preparations. And yet all that we are taught in Scripture concerning forgiveness of sins directly opposes this distinction. But even though I believe I have already more than fully confirmed this, I shall add certain other testimonies by which these wriggling snakes may be so held fast that after this they will be unable to coil up even the tip of their tail. This is the new covenant that God in Christ has made with us, that he will remember our sins no more [Jer. 31:31, 34]. What he meant by these words we learn from another prophet, where the Lord says: "If a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, … I will not remember his righteous deeds" [Ezek. 18:24 p.]; "if a wicked man turns away from his impiety, I will not remember all his sins" [Ezek. 18:21–22 p.; cf. v. 27]. His statement that he will not remember their righteous acts means virtually this: he will not keep an account of them to reward them. The statement that he will not remember their sins therefore means that he will not demand the penalty for them. The same thing is said elsewhere: "Cast … behind my back" [Isa. 38:17]; "swept away like a cloud" [Isa. 44:22]; "cast … into the depths of the sea" [Micah 7:19]; "not to reckon it to his account and to keep it hidden" [cf. Ps. 32:1–2]. By such expressions the Holy Spirit clearly would have explained his meaning to us, if we had listened to them attentively. Surely, if God punishes sins, he charges them to our account; if he takes vengeance, he remembers them; if he calls to judgment, he does not hide them; if he weighs them, he has not cast them behind his back; if he scrutinizes them, he has not blotted them out like a cloud; if he airs them, he has not cast them into the depths of the sea. And Augustine explains it in clear words as follows: "If God has covered sins, he has willed not to look upon them; if he has willed not to pay attention to them, he has willed not to punish them; he has willed not to recognize them, and he has preferred to overlook them. Why, then, does he say, 'Sins are covered'? That they may not be seen. Why was it that God saw sins, except to punish them?"

But let us hear from another passage of the prophet by what laws the Lord forgives sins: "Though your sins," he says, "are as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool" [Isa. 1:18]. In Jeremiah we read as follows: "In that day iniquity shall be sought in Jacob, and it shall not be found; sin in Judah, and there shall be none; for I shall be propitiated by those whom I leave as a remnant" [ch. 50:20 p.]. Would you like briefly to understand what these words mean? Ponder what, on the other hand, he means by these expressions: the Lord "gathers up my iniquities in a bag" [Job 14:17 p.]; "binds them up and stores them in a bundle" [Hos. 13:12 p.]; "with a pen of iron engraves them upon a diamond" [cf. Jer. 17:1]. Now if these passages mean that vengeance shall be repaid—which is beyond doubt—we also must not doubt that by contrary statements the Lord affirms that he remits all penalty of vengeance. Here I must adjure my readers not to heed my glosses, but only to yield some place to the Word of God.62

30. Christ's unique sacrifice can alone remove both penalty and guilt*

What, I ask you, would Christ have bestowed upon us if the penalty for our sins were still required? For when we say that he bore all our sins in his body upon the tree [1 Peter 2:24], we mean only that he bore the punishment and vengeance due for our sins. Isaiah has stated this more meaningfully when he says: "The chastisement (or correction) of our peace was upon him" [Isa. 53:5]. What is this "correction of our peace" but the penalty due sins that we would have had to pay before we could become reconciled to God—if he had not taken our place? Lo, you see plainly that Christ bore the penalty of sins to deliver his own people from them, and whenever Paul mentions that redemption was accomplished through Christ, he customarily calls it ἀπολύτρωσις63 [Rom. 3:24; see also 1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14]. By this he does not simply signify redemption as it is commonly understood, but the very price and satisfaction of redemption. This is why Paul writes that Christ gave himself as a ransom for us [1 Tim. 2:6]. "What is propitiation before the Lord," asks Augustine, "but sacrifice? What is the sacrifice, but what has been offered for us in the death of Christ?"65

But what is prescribed in the law of Moses for the expiation of the harmful effects of sins furnishes us, first of all, with a stout battering-ram. For the Lord does not there establish this or that manner of making satisfaction, but he requires a complete payment in sacrifices. Yet in other respects he sets forth most minutely and in most rigid order all rites of atonement [Ex. 30:10; Lev., chs. 4 to 7:16; Num. 15:22 ff.]. How does it happen that he bids committed transgressions to be recompensed by no works at all, but requires sacrifices alone in expiation, unless he wills to testify that there is only one kind of satisfaction by which his judgment is appeased? For such sacrifices as the Israelites offered were not accounted works of men but were judged in their very reality, that is, by the unique sacrifice of Christ. Hosea has eloquently expressed in few words what sort of recompense the Lord requires of us: "Thou shalt take away," O God, "all iniquity." See, there is forgiveness of sins. "And we will render the calves of our lips." [Hos. 14:2.] See, indeed, there is satisfaction.

I know, indeed, that they are still more subtly evasive when they distinguish between eternal and temporal penalties. But when they teach that temporal penalty is any sort of punishment that God inflicts either upon the body or upon the soul—apart from eternal death—this limitation helps them little. For the above passages that we have cited mean this explicitly: we are received by God into grace on the condition that whatever penalties we deserve he remits by pardoning our guilt. And whenever David or the other prophets seek pardon for sin, at the same time they pray the penalty be taken away. Indeed, awareness of divine judgment drives them to this. On the other hand, when they promise mercy from the Lord, they almost always avowedly preach about the penalties and their remission. Surely, when the Lord declares through Ezekiel that he will bring the Babylonian exile to an end, and not for the Jews' sake, but for his own [Ezek. 36:22, 32], he shows sufficiently that both are free. Finally, if we are delivered from guilt through Christ, the penalties that arise from it must cease.

31. Misinterpretations exposed: God's judgments, penal and corrective

But inasmuch as they arm themselves with testimonies from Scripture, let us see what sort of arguments they put forward. David, they say, rebuked by the prophet Nathan for adultery and murder, received pardon for his sin, and yet he was afterward punished by the death of his son born of adultery [2 Sam. 12:13–14]. We are taught to recompense with satisfaction such punishments as had to be inflicted even after remission of guilt. For Daniel enjoined Nebuchadnezzar to make recompense for his sins with alms [Dan. 4:27]. And Solomon writes: "On account of equity and godliness iniquities are remitted" [Prov. 16:6 p.]. In another place, also: "Love covers a multitude of sins" [Prov. 10:12]. Peter, also, confirms this opinion [1 Peter 4:8]. In Luke the Lord says the same thing about the sinning woman: that "her many sins are forgiven, for she loved much" [Luke 7:47 p.].66

How perversely and wrongheadedly do they always judge God's deeds! Yet if they had observed—and it is something they ought not at all to have overlooked—that there are two kinds of divine judgment, they would have seen a far different form of penalty in this rebuke of David than one that is to be thought of as directed to vengeance.

But all of us are not a little concerned to understand the purpose of the chastisements by which God reproves our sins, and how different they are from the examples in which he pursues the impious and the reprobate with his indignation. Consequently, I think we can, with good reason, sum up the whole matter.

One judgment we call, for the sake of teaching, that of vengeance; the other, of chastisement.

Now, by the judgment of vengeance, God should be understood as taking vengeance upon his enemies; so that he exercises his wrath against them, he confounds them, he scatters them, he brings them to nought. Therefore, let us consider this to be God's vengeance, properly speaking: when punishment is joined with his indignation.

In the judgment of chastisement he is not so harsh as to be angry, nor does he take vengeance so as to blast with destruction. Consequently, it is not, properly speaking, punishment or vengeance, but correction and admonition.

The one is the act of a judge; the other, of a father. For when a judge punishes an evildoer, he weighs his transgression and applies the penalty to the crime itself. But when a father quite severely corrects his son, he does not do this to take vengeance on him or to maltreat him, but rather to teach him and to render him more cautious therefore. Chrysostom somewhere uses a slightly different comparison, but it amounts to the same thing. "The son," he says, "is flogged; the slave is also flogged. But the latter, as a slave, is punished because he sins; the former is chastised as a freeman and son in need of discipline. Correction for the son serves as trial and amendment; for the slave, as scourge and punishment."67

32. God's judgment in vengeance has a wholly different purpose from that of his judgment in chastisement: the distinction

In order that we may quickly summarize the whole matter, let this stand as the first of two distinctions: wherever punishment is for vengeance, there the curse and wrath of God manifest themselves, and these he always withholds from believers. On the other hand, chastisement is a blessing of God and also bears witness to his love, as Scripture teaches [Job 5:17; Prov. 3:11–12; Heb. 12:5–6].

This distinction is sufficiently pointed out through all God's Word. For all the afflictions that the impious bear in the present life depict for us, as it were, a sort of entry way of hell, from which they already see afar off their eternal damnation. And yet they are so far from changing themselves on this account, or profiting by it at all, that by such preliminaries they are rather prepared for the dire Gehenna that at last awaits them.

The Lord chastens his servants sorely, but he does not give them over to death [Ps. 118:18 p.]. Therefore, they confess that to be beaten with his rod has been good for them and has furthered their true instruction [Ps. 119:71]. Just as we read everywhere that the saints took such punishments with a calm mind, so they have always prayed fervently to escape scourgings of the first sort. a"Correct me, O Lord," says Jeremiah, "but in judgment, not in thine anger, lest perchance thou bring me to nothing. Pour out thy wrath upon the nations that know thee not, and upon the kingdoms that call not on thy name" [Jer. 10:24–25]. Moreover, David says: "O Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger, nor chasten me in thy wrath." [Ps. 6:1 or 38:2; 6:2 or 37:2, Vg.]

And there is no contradiction in the fact that the Lord is said quite often to be angry toward his saints, when he chastens them for their sins. As in Isaiah: "I shall confess unto thee, O Lord, although thou wert angry with me; thine anger turned away, and thou didst comfort me." [Isa. 12:1 p.] Likewise, Habakkuk: "When you are angry, you will remember mercy." [Hab. 3:2 p.] eAnd Micah, too: "I will bear God's wrath, for I have sinned against him." [Micah 7:9 p.] There he teaches that he who is justly punished gains nothing by loudly complaining, but also that believers get relief from their sorrow by considering God's purpose. For the same reason, he is said to profane his heritage [Isa. 47:6; cf. ch. 42:24], yet, as we know, he will not profane it forever. But that refers not to the purpose or disposition of God as one who punishes but to the acute sense of pain, which those experience who bear any of its rigors. Nevertheless, he not only pricks his believers with slight severity, but sometimes so wounds them that they seem to themselves to be not far distant from the damnation of hell. Thus, he testifies that they deserve his wrath, and so it is fitting for them to be displeased with their own evil acts, and be touched with a greater care to appease God, and anxiously hasten to seek pardon. But, in the meantime, in this very fact he shows a clearer testimony of his mercy than of his wrath. There is a covenant still in force that God made with us in our true Solomon [2 Sam. 7:12–13]. He who cannot deceive has declared that its force will never be voided. "If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my ordinances, if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments, … I will punish their iniquities with the rod and their sins with scourges, but I will not remove from him my mercy." [Ps. 89:30–33; 88:31–34, Vg.; but cf. Comm.] To render us more certain of his mercy, he says that the rod, whereby he will prove Solomon's posterity, will be of man; the stripes, of the sons of man [2 Sam. 7:14]. While by these phrases he signifies moderation and gentleness, at the same time he hints that those who feel the hand of God against them cannot but be confounded by extreme and deadly terror. In the prophet he shows how great a regard he has for this leniency in chastising his people Israel: "In fire I have refined you," he says, "but not as silver" [Isa. 48:10]. For then you would have been totally consumed [cf. Isa. 43:2]. Although the Lord teaches that chastisements serve to cleanse his people, he adds that he tempers those chastisements so as not to wear down his people unduly. And that is quite necessary. For the more any man reveres God and devotes himself to the cultivation of godliness, the more tender he is to bear God's wrath. For although the wicked groan under his scourges, yet because they do not weigh the case, but rather turn their backs on both their own sins and the judgment of God, from this negligence they become hardened. Or because they murmur and kick against him and rant against their Judge, their violent fury stupefies them with madness and rage. But believers, admonished by God's scourges, immediately descend into themselves to consider their sins, and struck with fear and dread, flee to prayer as suppliants for pardon. Unless God assuaged these sorrows with which miserable souls torture themselves, they would faint a hundred times even at slight signs of his wrath.

33. Judgment of vengeance serves to punish; judgment of chastisement to improve

Then let us note a second distinction, that while the wicked are beaten with God's scourges they already begin, in a manner, to suffer punishments according to his judgment. And although they shall not escape unpunished because they have not heeded such evidences of God's wrath, they nevertheless are not punished that they may come to a better mind; but only that in their great distress they may find God to be a Judge and Avenger. But the children are beaten with rods, not to pay the penalty for their sins to God, but in order thereby to be led to repentance. Accordingly, we understand that these things have to do rather with the future than with the past. I would prefer to express this thought in the words of Chrysostom rather than my own: "On this account," he says, "he imposes a penalty upon us—not to punish us for past sins, but to correct us against future ones."69 So also Augustine: "What you suffer, what you complain about, is your medicine, not your penalty; your chastisement, not your condemnation. Do not put away the scourge if you do not want to be put away from the inheritance," etc. "Know, brethren, that all this misery of humankind in which the world groans is medicinal pain and not a penal sentence,"70 etc. I decided to quote these passages in order that the expression I have used may not seem new or unusual to anyone.

And this is the purport of the complaints, charged with indignation, in which God often expostulates concerning the ungratefulness of his people, because they perversely hold all penalties in contempt. In Isaiah: "Why should I smite you further?… From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no health" [Ch. 1:5–6 p.]. But, because the prophets abound in such statements, it will be sufficient to have indicated briefly that the sole purpose of God in punishing his church is that the church may be brought low and repent. Therefore, when He deprived Saul of the kingdom. He was punishing for vengeance [1 Sam. 15:23]. When he took away David's little son from him [2 Sam. 12:18] he was rebuking for amendment. Paul's statement is to be understood in this sense: "When we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world" [1 Cor. 11:32]. That is, while we as children of God are afflicted by the hand of the Heavenly Father, this is not a penalty to confound us, but only a chastisement to instruct us.

In this matter, Augustine is plainly on our side, for he teaches that the penalties by which men are equally chastised by God ought to be variously considered. For the saints these are, after forgiveness of sins, struggles and exercises; for the wicked, without forgiveness of sins, the punishments of iniquity. There he lists the penalties inflicted upon David and other godly persons and says that they are concerned with exercising or testing their godliness by this sort of humbling experience.71 And Isaiah's statement that iniquity is forgiven the Jewish people because they have suffered a full chastisement at the Lord's hand [Isa. 40:2] does not prove that pardon for our transgressions depends upon the payment of the penalty. But it is as if he had said: "You have already suffered enough punishments; on account of their weight and multitude,. because you have already been consumed by long grief and sorrow, it is time for you to receive the tidings of full mercy that your hearts may rejoice and feel me as your Father." For there God takes upon himself the person of Father, and repents even of his just severity when compelled to mete out a rather harsh punishment to his child.

34. The believer undergoing God's chastisement is not to lose heart

In the bitterness of afflictions, the believer must be fortified by these thoughts. "The time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God" [1 Peter 4:17], … in which his name is called upon [cf. Jer. 25:29]. What would the children of God do if they believed the severity they feel is his vengeance? For he who, struck by the hand of God, thinks God a punishing Judge cannot conceive of him as other than wrathful and hostile; cannot but detest the very scourge of God as curse and damnation. In short, he who feels that God still intends to punish him can never be persuaded that he is loved by God. But he who in the end profits by God's scourges is the man who considers God angry at his vices, but merciful and kindly toward himself. For otherwise there must come to pass what the prophet complains of having experienced: "Thy furies have swept over me [Ps. 88:16, cf. Comm.], thy terrors have oppressed me" [cf. Ps. 87:17, Vg.]. Also, what Moses writes: "For we have fainted in thine anger; in thine indignation we have been troubled. Thou hast set our iniquities before thy sight, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance. For all our days have passed away in thy wrath. Our years have been consumed as a word uttered by the mouth" [Ps. 90:7–9; cf. Ps. 89:7–9, Vg. and Comm.]. On the contrary, David, to teach that believers are more helped by God's fatherly chastisements than oppressed by them, sings of them thus: "Blessed is the man whom thou shalt chasten, O Lord, and shalt instruct in thy law; to give him rest from evil days, until a pit is dug for the sinful one" [Ps. 94:12–13; cf. LXX Ps. 93:12–13]. Surely, this is a hard trial when God, sparing the unbelievers and disregarding their crimes, appears more rigid against his own people. On this account, he adds a reason for comfort: the admonition of the law, by which they may learn that there is concern for their salvation when they are called back to the way; but that the impious are borne headlong into their own errors, the end of which is the pit. Whether the penalty is everlasting or temporal makes no difference. For wars, famines, pestilence, diseases, are just as much curses of God as the very judgment of eternal death, when they are inflicted to the end that they may be the instruments of the Lord's wrath and vengeance against the wicked.

35. The punishment of David

Now all see, unless I am deceived, the purpose of the Lord's punishment against David. It is that it might be a proof that murder and adultery gravely displease God. He had declared himself so greatly offended against this in his beloved and faithful servant that David himself might be taught not to dare commit such a crime thereafter; but not that it might be a penalty by which he should make certain payment to God. So also should we judge concerning the other correction, whereby the Lord afflicted his people with a violent plague [2 Sam. 24:15], on account of David's disobedience, into which he had fallen in taking a census of his people. For he freely forgave David the guilt of his sin, but because it was appropriate both for the public example of all ages and also for the humiliation of David that such a crime should not go unpunished, he very harshly chastised him with his scourge.

This end we ought to hold in view with regard to the universal curse of the human race [cf. Gen. 3:16–19]. For when, after we have obtained grace, we nevertheless put up with all the miseries that were inflicted upon our first parent as a penalty for sin, we feel that we are warned by such trials how gravely God is displeased with our transgression of his law. Thus, dejected and humbled by the consciousness of our miserable lot, we aspire more eagerly to true blessedness. Anyone would be utterly foolish to think that calamities of the present life have been imposed upon us for the punishment of our sin. This is what Chrysostom seems to me to have meant when he wrote as follows: "If God inflict punishments on this account—that he may call those who persevere in evil-doing to repentance—after penitence has been shown, penalties will already be superfluous." Therefore, according as he knows it to be expedient for the nature of each man, he treats this one with greater harshness, that one with more kindly indulgence. Consequently, when he would teach that he is not immoderate in meting out punishments, he reproaches a hard and stubborn people because, when smitten, they do not cease to sin [Jer. 5:3]. In this sense he complains that Ephraim is like a cake scorched on one side, uncooked on the other [Hos. 7:8], obviously because the corrections did not reach the hearts, so that, with vices cooked out, the people might become capable of pardon. Surely, he who speaks thus shows that, as soon as anyone repents, he will soon be placable; and that it is our stubbornness toward him that causes him to exercise rigor in chastising our transgressions—a rigor that voluntary correction may counteract. Since all of us, however, have such hardness and ignorance as to need chastisement, our most wise Father saw fit to exercise all of us without exception throughout life with a common scourge.

But it is strange why they thus cast their eyes upon the one example of David, and are not moved by so many other examples in which they could have contemplated the free forgiveness of sins. We read that the publican went down from the Temple justified; no punishment ensues [Luke 18:14]. Peter obtained pardon for transgression [Luke 22:61]; we read of his tears, says Ambrose, we do not read of satisfaction. And the paralytic heard: "Rise up, your sins are forgiven" [Matt. 9:2]; no punishment is imposed. All the absolutions that are mentioned in Scripture are described as free. The rule ought to have been sought from these frequent examples rather than from a single one that contained some special feature.

36. Good works as redemption of punishment

Daniel, by the exhortation with which he persuaded Nebuchadnezzar to make recompense for his sins by righteousness and his iniquities by pity for the poor [Dan. 4:27], did not mean to imply that righteousness and mercy were the propitiation of God and the recompense of punishment. Banish the thought that there should be any other ransom than the blood of Christ! But in the phrase "to make recompense," he referred to men rather than to God. It was as if he said: "O King, you have exercised unjust and violent mastery, you have oppressed the humble, you have despoiled the poor, you have treated your people harshly and unjustly; now replace with mercy and righteousness your unjust exactions, your violence and oppression."

Similarly, Solomon says that "love covers a multitude of sins" [Prov. 10:12], not before God, but among men. The whole verse reads: "Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses" [Prov. 10:12]. In this verse, as his habit is, through antithesis, he contrasts the evil things that arise out of hatreds with the fruits of love. His meaning is that those who hate one another bite, harry, reproach, injure, one another and make a fault of everything; but that those who love one another conceal many things among themselves, wink at many things, condone many things in one another—not that one man approves of another's faults, but that he tolerates them, and heals them by admonishing instead of aggravating them by reproaches. Undoubtedly, Peter quotes this passage in the same sense, unless we would accuse him of debasing and craftily twisting Scripture [cf. 1 Peter 4:8].

Where Solomon teaches that "by mercy and kindliness sins are atoned for" [Prov. 16:6 p.], he does not mean that they are paid for in the Lord's sight, that God, appeased by such satisfaction, may remit the punishment that he otherwise was about to mete out. Rather, in the familiar manner of Scripture, he indicates that he will be found merciful to those who, having bidden farewell to past vices and evils, are in piety and truth turned to him. It is as if he said that the Lord's wrath subsides and his judgment rests when our transgressions rest. eAnd he is not describing the cause of pardon, but rather the means of true conversion. Just as the prophets frequently denounce hypocrites for vainly forcing upon God false rites instead of repentance, when God is pleased, rather, with uprightness and the duties of love. In like manner the author of The Letter to the Hebrews, praising kindliness and humaneness, reminds us that such sacrifices are pleasing to God [Heb. 13:16]. When Christ, deriding the Pharisees for paying attention only to cleansing dishes but neglecting cleanness of heart, bids them give alms to make all things pure [Luke 11:39–41; cf. Matt. 23:25], he surely does not urge them to make satisfaction. Rather, he teaches only what sort of purity is approved of God. We have discussed this expression in another place.75

37. The woman who was a sinner

As far as the passage in Luke is concerned [Luke 7:36–50], no one, who has read with sound judgment, the parable set forth there by the Lord will pick a quarrel with us over it. The Pharisee thought to himself that the Lord did not know the woman whom he had so readily received. For he felt that Christ would not have received her if he had known what sort of sinner she was. And he inferred from this that Christ was not a prophet, since he could be deceived to this extent. The Lord, to show that she was not a sinner whose sins he had already forgiven, set forth a parable. "A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed fifty denarii, the other five hundred. The debt of each was forgiven. Which one has the greater gratitude? The Pharisee answered, 'The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.' The Lord said: 'From this know that this woman's sins are forgiven, for she loved much' " [Luke 7:41–43, 47 p.]. By these words, you see, he does not make her love the cause, but the proof, of forgiveness of sins. For they are taken from the comparison of that debtor who was forgiven five hundred denarii; to him he did not say that they were forgiven because he loved much, but that he loved much because they were forgiven. Hence, this comparison ought to be applied in this form: You think that this woman is a sinner, yet you ought to have recognized that she is not such, since her sins have been forgiven her. Her love, by which she gives thanks for his benefit, ought to have convinced you of the forgiveness of her sins. Now this is an argument a posteriori, by which something is proved from the evidences that follow. The Lord clearly testifies in what way she obtained forgiveness of sins: "Your faith," he says, "has saved you" [Luke 7:50]. By faith, therefore, we gain forgiveness; by love we give thanks and testify to the Lord's kindness.

38. The Roman doctrine cannot claim the authority of the church fathers†

The opinions widely expressed in the books of the ancient writers concerning satisfaction move me little. I see, indeed, that some of them—I will simply say almost all whose books are extant—have either fallen down in this respect or have spoken too sharply and harshly. But I do not admit that they were so rude and untutored as to write those things in the sense in which they are understood by our new exponents of satisfaction. Chrysostom in one place writes as follows: "Where mercy is importuned, investigation ceases; where mercy is implored, judgment does not rage; where mercy is sought, there is no place for penalty; where there is mercy, there is no inquisition; where there is mercy, the answer is pardoned."76 However these words may be twisted, they cannot ever be made to agree with the tenets of the Schoolmen. But in a book, The Dogmas of the Church, ascribed to Augustine, one reads as follows: "The satisfaction of repentance is to cut off the causes of sin, not to grant entry to their suggestions." From this it is clear that even in those times the doctrine of satisfaction, which was said to be in recompense for sins committed, was commonly laughed at, since they associated all satisfaction with caution in abstaining from sins thereafter. I shall not quote what the same Chrysostom teaches, that God requires nothing of us beyond our confessing our transgressions before him with tears,78 since statements of this sort occur frequently in his and others' writings. It is true, Augustine somewhere calls the works of mercy "remedies to obtain forgiveness of sin"; but, lest anyone stumble over this word, he meets this objection in another place. "The flesh of Christ," he says, "is the true and only sacrifice for sins, not only for those sins which are wholly blotted out in baptism, but for those which creep in afterward through weakness. For this reason, the whole church daily cries: 'Forgive us our debts' [Matt. 6:12]; and they are forgiven through that unique sacrifice."

39. The Schoolmen corrupt the teaching of the fathers*

Now they have largely called satisfaction not a payment that was rendered to God but a public testimony whereby those who had been sentenced with excommunication, when they wish to be received back into communion, assure the church of their repentance. For there were imposed upon those repentant ones certain fastings and other duties by which they might prove that they truly and heartily loathed their former life, or rather, that they would wipe out the memory of their previous actions, and thus were said to have made satisfaction not to God but to the church. Augustine has expressed this in these very words in his Enchiridion to Laurentius. From that ancient rite, the confessions and satisfactions that today are in use took their origin. Truly viperous offspring [cf. Matt. 3:7; 12:34], these, by which it comes to pass that not even a shadow of that better form remains!

I know that the old writers sometimes speak rather harshly; and, as I have just said, I do not deny that they perhaps erred; but those of their writings that were marred with a few spots here and there become utterly defiled when they are handled by these men's unwashed hands. And if we must contend by the authority of the fathers, what fathers, good God, do these men thrust upon us? A good part of those authors from whom Lombard, their leader,82 has sewn together his patchworks, were collected from the senseless ravings of certain monks, which pass under the names Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Chrysostom; as in the present argument almost all his evidence is taken from Augustine's book On Repentance, which was bunglingly patched together by some rhapsodist from good and bad authors indiscriminately. Indeed, it bears the name of Augustine, but nobody of even mediocre learning would deign to acknowledge it as his. Let my readers pardon me if I do not expressly examine the Schoolmen's follies, for I would lighten their burden. It would surely not be very difficult for me, and a praiseworthy thing, to expose to ridicule, to their great shame, what they have heretofore boasted of as mysteries; but because my purpose is to teach profitably, I pass them over.


Calvin, John (2011). Institutes of the Christian Religion  (J. T. McNeill, Ed., F. L. Battles, Trans.) (Vol. 1, pp. 651–669). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

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