Is Calvin Still Relevant After 500 Years? It all Depends

by Michael Horton

According to many Protestants-including some evangelical leaders-the Reformation may be over. In an age of rampant secularism, the threat of militant Islam, and moral relativism, surely the issues that unite us are greater than our differences. It seems that a lot of today's heirs of the Reformation are weary of fighting age-old battles and most people in the pews cannot even identify the flash points. Something about the pope, and Mary and the saints, or something.

For that matter, surveys reveal that most evangelicals hold views about salvation that are, if anything, worse than the official position of the Roman Catholic Church. While it's undeniable that Calvin had a major impact on Western history, it is not clear at all whether his driving concerns are still regarded widely as relevant in contemporary Christianity.

I have to admit that I've been a little uneasy with this whole "Calvin 500" celebration. And I'm not sure that a rigorously God-centered minister like Calvin-who demanded to be buried in an unmarked grave, within a plain pine casket-would appreciate all the attention. I am even a little more confident that he would not approve of all the attempts to turn him into an important person for all the wrong reasons. This is where Calvin is brought out by some as the tyrant of Geneva and by others as the pioneer of modern liberties and all sorts of other concerns that were, at best, tangential to the Reformer's interests.

What was central to Calvin's interest also happens to make him more relevant than whatever he may have incidentally and inadvertently done to improve Western culture. Calvin's obsession, the nearest I can tell, was the tender mercy of the Father, shown toward sinners in the Son and through the Spirit. I agree with B. B. Warfield's assessment that Calvin was even more interested in God's fatherhood than his sovereignty. Calvin's robust doctrine of the Holy Spirit leaves its mark on every theological topic. And as for the "in Christ" part of it all, this is the nearest thing to a "central dogma" that I can think of for Calvin.
Is the Reformation Over?

Not out of any relish for the five-century split, but out of concern for the only source of the church's existence, unity, and mission, a couple of fairly recent news items are worth bearing in mind when we ask whether John Calvin is still relevant after five centuries.

U.S. newspapers have recently been running stories on the Vatican's "Year of St. Paul." The focus of most articles is the pope's decision to offer indulgences to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of the apostle's birth. Best known for his rich proclamation of free grace and severe condemnation of any church that would preach a different gospel, Paul's birth being celebrated with indulgences is ironic in the extreme. The special year is to last until June 2009. According to the Vatican website:

The gift of Indulgences which the Roman Pontiff offers to the universal Church, truly smoothes the way to attaining a supreme degree of inner purification which, while honouring the Blessed Apostle Paul, exalts the supernatural life in the hearts of the faithful and gently encourages them to do good deeds....[Supplicants who do this] will be granted the Plenary [full] Indulgence from temporal punishment for his/her sins, once sacramental forgiveness and pardon for any shortcomings has been obtained....The Christian faithful may benefit from the Plenary Indulgence both for themselves and for the deceased, as many times as they fulfil the required conditions but without prejudice to the norm stipulating that the Plenary Indulgence may be obtained only once a day.

The conditions of the indulgence are also clearly stipulated. Absolution will be granted to the soul that does penance, receives Communion, makes a pilgrimage to the Papal Basilica of St. Paul in Rome, "devoutly recites the Our Father and the Creed, adding pious invocations in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Paul...and who prays for the Supreme Pontiff's intentions." If they do this "in a spirit of total detachment from any inclination to sin" and also "take part devoutly in a sacred function or in a pious public exercise in honour of the Apostle to the Gentiles" during this "Pauline Year," they may receive time off in purgatory up to full (plenary) exoneration.

For anyone who might not recall, the sale of indulgences built St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and provoked Luther's Ninety-Five Theses. Since the mid-nineteenth century, direct payment of money is forbidden, but charitable contributions are part of the penance that contributes to the indulgence. Like Luther, Calvin criticized indulgences not merely for overcharging for salvation, but because of the grotesque distortion of the gospel that could make such a travesty possible.

After years of discussion between representatives from the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation, the Joint Declaration on Justification was signed on Reformation Day 1998. The declaration concluded that differences over this issue were no longer church-dividing because the condemnations of each body no longer apply to their conversation partner. Only because the Lutheran partner no longer holds the views condemned at the Roman Catholic Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century could the Vatican recognize this conclusion as valid. It should be noted that the Lutheran World Federation, like the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, represents the more liberal wing of Lutheranism. Their confessional rivals (including the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) rejected the Joint Declaration, however, because they still hold the views condemned by the Council of Trent and all subsequent reaffirmations by the magisterium.

Yet, in mid-celebration, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity issued a caution. The statement began by praising the consensus announced in the Joint Declaration, but then added, "The Catholic Church is, however, of the opinion that we cannot yet speak of a consensus such as would eliminate every difference between Catholics and Lutherans in the understanding of justification" (L'Osservatore Romano, weekly edition in English, 8 July 1998). Citing the Council of Trent, the Pontifical Council reminded Roman Catholics that they must hold as dogma that "eternal life is, at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merits."
Christ Alone

John Calvin considered himself a Catholic Christian, who simply wanted to reform the church, bringing it back to the faith and practice of the apostles. He never left the Church of Rome, but was excommunicated along with all others who followed the "evangelical way." Calvin also considered himself a pupil of Martin Luther, although he exhibited a rare exegetical ability in his own right that brought deeper insight and refinement to the Reformation cause.

Like Luther and the other reformers, Calvin emphasized that human beings are born into the world under God's wrath. Everyone wants to ascend to God through their own works, devotion, speculations, and pious experience, but Calvin warned that no good can come of any approach to the Father apart from the incarnate Son. A thread of quotations from the Institutes provides a flavor of Calvin's concentrated emphasis:

The situation would surely have been hopeless had the very majesty of God not descended to us, since it was not in our power to ascend to him. Hence, it was necessary for the Son of God to become for us "Immanuel, that is, God with us," and in such a way that his divinity and our human nature might by mutual connection grow together. Otherwise the nearness would not have been near enough, nor the affinity sufficiently firm, for us to hope that God might dwell with us [2.12.1]....Therefore, relying on this pledge, we trust that we are sons of God, for God's natural Son fashioned for himself a body from our body, flesh from our flesh, bones from our bones, that he might be one with us. Ungrudgingly, he took our nature upon himself to impart to us what was his, and to become both Son of God and Son of man in common with us [2.12.2].... Therefore, in order that faith may find a firm basis for salvation in Christ, and thus rest in him, this principle must be laid down: the office enjoined upon Christ by the Father consists of three parts. For he was given to be prophet, king, and priest [2.15.1]....In short, from the time when he took on the form of a servant, he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us. [2.16.5]

It is in Christ, not in the church, that the treasury of merit is to be found, and he dispenses it freely to all who throw themselves upon him in faith. Although there is no salvation outside of the church, there is no salvation from the church. Although the church is "the mother of the faithful," she is not the source or object of faith.

Calvin challenged both Rome and the Anabaptists for encouraging people to look to Christ for only some gifts. Everything that we have in our heavenly inheritance is granted to every believer, extra nos (outside of us), in Christ alone. In a moving passage, he testifies,

We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is "of him." If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects that he might learn to feel our pain. If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given to him to judge. In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other. (Inst. 2.16.19)

For Calvin, Christ is not a means to an end. He is not merely a great example to imitate, an important bridge to cross from wrath to grace so that we may go on to other mountains to climb for spiritual blessings. He is the source, the means, and the destination. "The apostle does not say that [Christ] was sent to help us attain righteousness but himself to be our righteousness" (Inst. 3.15.5).

In his preface to the Institutes, addressed to King Francis I, the vicious persecutor of the church in France, the Reformer pleads,

For what is more consonant with faith than to recognize that we are naked of all virtue, in order to be clothed by God? That we are empty of all good, to be filled by him? That we are slaves of sin, to be freed by him? Blind, to be illuminated by him? Lame, to be made straight by him? Weak, to be sustained by him? To take away from us all occasion for glorying, that he alone may stand forth gloriously and we glory in him? When we say these and like things our adversaries interrupt and complain that in this way we shall subvert some blind light of nature, imaginary preparations, free will, and works that merit eternal salvation....For they cannot bear that the whole praise and glory of all goodness, virtue, righteousness, and wisdom should rest with God. But we do not read of anyone being blamed for drinking too deeply of the fountain of living water. (Prefatory Address to King Francis I, Inst. 13)

The Reformers were not innovators; it was the medieval church that had corrupted the worship and doctrine of Christ's assembly with a perpetual string of novelties. "But he who knows that this preaching of Paul is ancient, that 'Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again for our justification,' will find nothing new among us" (Inst. 16).

Calvin believed that all of Scripture pointed to Christ-and, specifically, to Christ's death and resurrection for sinners: "Whenever we take the sacred books [of Scripture] into our hands, the blood of Christ ought to occur to our minds, as if the whole of its sacred instruction were written therewith" (Four Last Books of Moses III:320). In his Commentary on Corinthians, he wrote, "All the wisdom of believers is comprehended in the cross of Christ" (I:74). Further interpreting Paul, he adds, "There is no tribunal so magnificent, no throne so stately, no show of triumph so distinguished, no chariot so elevated, as is the gibbet on which Christ has subdued death and the devil" (Commentary on Philippians-Colossians, 191).
Justification: "The Hinge on Which All True Religion Turns"

At least since Albert Schweitzer there has been a trend in Protestant studies of Paul to treat justification as a "subsidiary crater" in the apostle's theology. Following this trend, some heirs of Luther and Calvin have sought to downplay the centrality of justification in the Reformers' teaching.

However, this trend is as bound to fail in consideration of the Reformers as in its treatment of Paul. According to Calvin, " the principal hinge by which religion is supported" (Inst. 3.11.1) and "the sum of all piety" (Inst. 3.16.7). "Whenever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown" (Calvin's Reply to Cardinal Sadoleto in Tracts I:41). "There is nothing intermediate between being justified by faith and justified by works" (Commentary on the Psalms V:251). Furthermore, "Whatever mixture men study to add from the power of free will to the grace of God is only a corruption of it; just as if one should dilute good wine with dirty water" (Inst. 2.5.15). "Therefore, we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ's righteousness" (Inst. 3.11.2).

Calvin believed that the whole Epistle to the Romans can be summarized as saying "that man's only righteousness is through the mercy of God in Christ, which being offered by the Gospel is apprehended by faith" (Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, translated and edited by John Owen [rep., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996], xxix-xxx). Calvin knew that faith will never rest unless it is firmly secured by God's promise of plenary indulgence (free favor) in Christ alone, through faith alone. On Romans 4, he comments,

All things around us are in opposition to the promises of God: He promises immortality; we are surrounded with mortality and corruption: He declares that he counts us as just; we are covered with our sins: He testifies that he is propitious and kind to us; outward judgments threaten his wrath. What then is to be done? We must with closed eyes pass by ourselves and all things connected with us, that nothing may hinder or prevent us from believing that God is true....For if justification means renovation, then that he died for our sins must be taken in the same sense, as signifying that he acquired for us grace to mortify the flesh, which no one admits....He therefore still speaks of imputative justification. (Ibid. 180, 186)


Just as "God" and "Christ" have lost much of their specificity in contemporary life, "faith" has become a generic term for religious commitment. For many, it is nothing more than a positive outlook on life. However, Calvin understood faith as "a sure and steadfast knowledge of the fatherly goodwill of God toward us, as he declares in the gospel that for the sake of Christ he will be our Father and Savior" (Geneva Catechism, 1536, in Tracts II:132). "[Faith] is a steady and certain knowledge of the Divine benevolence towards us, which, being founded on the truth of the gratuitous promise in Christ, is both revealed to our minds and confirmed to our hearts by the Holy Spirit" (Inst. 3.2.7). That is not to say that we are justified by faith, as if faith itself were the ground of our favor with God. There is no inherent virtue in faith. "With respect to justification, faith is a thing merely passive, bringing nothing of our own to conciliate the favor of God, but receiving what we need from Christ" (Inst. 3.13.5). Apart from any virtues or actions that might improve our inherent moral condition, "faith adorns us with the righteousness of another, which it seeks as a gift from God" (Commentary on Romans, 159). In fact, it is never perfect in this life. "Some portion of unbelief is always mixed with faith in every Christian" (Inst. 3.2.4). "Our faith is never perfect; ...we are partly unbelievers" (Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels II:325).

Faith then is not a naked knowledge either of God or of his truth; nor is it a simple persuasion that God is, that his word is the truth; but a sure knowledge of God's mercy, which is received from the gospel, and brings peace of conscience with regard to God, and rest to the mind. The sum of the matter then is this,-that if salvation depends on the keeping of the law, the soul can entertain no confidence respecting it, yea, that all the promises offered to us by God will become void: we must thus become wretched and lost, if we are sent back to works to find out the cause or the certainty of salvation...for as the law generates nothing but vengeance, it cannot bring grace. (Ibid. 171)

United to Christ by faith, by the powerful working of the Spirit through the gospel, faith discovers sanctification as well as justification. Christ is the source not only of relief from the fear of judgment and the assurance of peace with God, but of the defeat of sin's bondage.

Although we may distinguish them [justification and sanctification], Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces [1 Cor. 1:13]. Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness. (Inst. 3.16.1)

Therefore, the Roman Catholic charge that the Reformation's doctrine of justification is a "legal fiction" that cuts off all hope of sanctification is completely groundless.

Christ was given to us by God's generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ's blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ's spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life. (Inst. 3.11.1)

This alone is of importance: having admitted that faith and good works must cleave together, we still lodge justification in faith, not in works. We have a ready explanation for doing this, provided we turn to Christ to whom our faith is directed and from whom it receives its full strength. (Inst. 3.16.1)

The believer does not keep one eye on Christ for justification and the other eye on his or her own works with the other, but looks to Christ for both. For in Christ he offers all happiness in place of our misery, all wealth in place of our neediness; in him he opens to us the heavenly treasures that our whole faith may contemplate his beloved Son, our whole expectation depend upon him, and our whole hope cleave to and rest in him. This, indeed, is that secret and hidden philosophy which cannot be wrested from syllogisms. But they whose eyes God has opened surely learn it by heart, that in his light they may see light [Ps. 36:9]. (Inst. 3.20.1)

Furthermore, this union brings not only the immediate possession of justification and the beginning of sanctification, but the hope of glorification: "The spiritual connection which we have with Christ belongs not merely to the soul, but also to the body" (Commentary on Corinthians I:217). In short, clinging to Christ for all saving benefits, we are assured that we will be raised on the last day: without passing through purgatory.

So, as Rome celebrates the "Year of St. Paul" with indulgences, many so-called Reformed and Presbyterian bodies around the world are remembering Calvin and his legacy while burying, obscuring, or denying the central message that consumed his energies. Only if the gospel that they preached is true are these figures still relevant today. And if it is true, then the Reformation is not over. Indeed, a new one must begin. The best way we can honor both the apostle and one of his best interpreters in history is to revive and unleash the revolutionary message of which they were heralds.

SOURCE: Modern Reformation