Having been an active member of the Roman Catholic Church for 28 years, only leaving it 4 years before I started studying at Moore, reading Calvin’s Institutes was for me like discovering the Protestant play book for Catholic Evangelism! Most of the arguments and answers to the questions and challenges I would put to my Protestant friends as a Catholic, I discovered when I started reading Calvin, actually came from him.
Calvin puts these arguments so astutely and biblically that a fresh reading of Calvin is still the best way to remain sharp when it comes to sharing the Gospel with Roman Catholics today. Because sadly the issues at stake during the Reformation still largely remain the issues with Roman Catholicism today.
Take for example Calvin’s answer to Cardinal Sadoleto’s challenge in his Letter to Sadoleto in 1539. Calvin had recently been thrown out of Geneva by the city council and the Libertines were in power. The Libertines were seeking freedom from the moral laws, strict discipline and harsh penalties imposed by the city when Calvin was in power. They would argue that “If we are justified through faith alone, then we are free to do as we like!” Sadoleto used this opportunity to try to manipulate the people of Geneva to turn back to the historic, reliable leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in light of this destabilising doctrine of justification through faith alone. Sadoleto argues, “Surely the faith we have in God through Jesus Christ not only enjoins and commands us to confide in Christ but to confide, working or resolved to work well in Him. For Faith is a term of full and ample signification …” Calvin, rather than shrinking back from the apparent novelty of the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, argues that is more consistent with the teaching of the Old Testament, Jesus, the apostles and the Church Fathers! Secondly, a point you don’t often hear made these days, he grounds his argument in the very nature of God – the Trinity. Calvin in response to Sadoleto’s argument that by “attributing everything to faith, we leave no room for works” (sounds familiar!) points to the Trinity. He says, “Wherever that righteousness of faith, which we maintain to be gratuitous, is, there too Christ is, and wherever Christ is, there too is the Spirit of holiness, who regenerates the soul to newness of life.” In other words, you can’t be justified without “possessing” Christ and you can’t possess Christ without possessing His Spirit and if you have God’s Spirit in you then you can’t just do what you like! Calvin had the courage and the resources to say to Cardinal Sadoleto, by misunderstanding salvation by faith alone, you have misunderstood God.
In a world that wants to tell us that Catholics and Protestants are essentially the same and that rehashing these tired old arguments does no one any good, a fresh look at Calvin might help motivate us to keep sharing the Gospel with our Catholic family, neighbours and friends and might help to sharpen up the way we share the Gospel with them.
The Rev Mark Gilbert