Luther and Calvin Comment on Scripture

A couple of weeks ago, Professor Scott Manetsch, editor of The Reformation Commentary on Scripture, 1 Corinthians, was on our campus.  He graciously gave me a copy of this amazing book.  Luther and Calvin always build my faith, though their comments can be quite different.   (That is not unusual or troublesome because Scripture has so many things to teach us.)

How do their thoughts compare on 1 Corinthians 1:30: “because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption”?  Luther takes it as an encouragement to the weak and needy believer.

May a merciful God preserve me from a Christian church in which everyone is a saint!  I want to be … in that church where there are the fainthearted, the feeble and the ailing, who feel … the wretchedness of their sins, who sigh and cry to God incessantly for comfort and help, who believe in the forgiveness of sin, and who suffer persecution for the sake of the Word, which they confess and teach purely….  

Then he criticizes the Anabaptists, who diminished preaching the Word, and  required a high moral experience for each true believer.  Luther continues,

“Greater effort is necessary,” they say.  “We must lead a holy life, bear the cross, and endure persecution.”  By such a semblance of self-styled holiness, which runs counter to the Word of God, many a person is misled.  But Christ is our righteousness and our holiness.  In him, not in ourselves, we have perfection.  I find comfort and cling to the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 1, that Christ “became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness, and sanctification…”

I sometimes hear preachers who would love Luther’s cry: “God preserve me from a Christian church in which everyone is a saint!”  They seem to think of moral urging as “legalism,” an attempt to get God to accept us without faith.  They assume (and, sorry to say, even seem to enjoy) that their hearers live under the domination of sin.  They may even discourage the morally serious believer by calling him “self-righteous,” or “controlling.”  To these men, the church is full of “recovering Pharisees.”  Pity the Christian who cares about obedience to God’s commands.  Perhaps their parents cared about rules, but they believe in grace.  But is this what Luther meant to do?

No.  Luther opposed a “gospel” that was really legalistic.  The Roman church taught, if you “do your very best, God will not deny his grace.”  Luther knew he never did his very best, nor did any of his hearers.  Disaster followed anyone who believed this was “grace.”  And the Anabaptists taught that to be a true believer, a person must have suffered persecution for Christ.  In other words, to be a true believer, you must be a strong believer.  This was bad news for children, and for any struggling Christian.  As a loving pastor, the Reformer wanted the Christian, conscious of his weakness, to hear and believe God’s promise of righteousness by faith alone.  He preached it constantly.

Now what about Calvin?  His comments differ from Luther’s.  He says there are many people who look for things “apart from Christ.”  But they need to know that, because they are in Christ by God’s grace, Christ himself is their true treasure.

… Christ has been made our righteousness.  By this he means that in his name we have been accepted by God because he has expiated our sins by his death and his obedience has been imputed to us for righteousness.  For since the righteousness of faith consists in the forgiveness of sins and gracious acceptance, we obtain both by Christ. … Paul calls Christ our sanctification.  By this he means that we, who by nature are unholy, are born again by his Spirit so that we might serve God.  From this we also gather that it is not possible to be justified freely through faith alone without at the same time living in holiness. For these graces are so joined together… that anyone who attempts to separate them tears Christ apart…

Like Luther, Calvin taught free justification, “gracious acceptance.”  Like Luther, he opposed the self-justification urged by Rome.  And like Luther, Calvin opposed the Anabaptists.  One of their worst errors, he says, is that they think Christians can be perfectly holy.  We will be perfectly holy, but not until Christ returns to glorify us.

But Calvin says more.  We are “in Christ.” So our holiness is not simply his holiness counted as ours.  When we are joined to Christ by faith, we have both complete forgiveness, grounded only on Christ’s obedience, and a new life of holiness worked in us.

Luther and Calvin would agree on this.  (Calvin was highly aware of Luther’s writings, though he almost never mentioned him by name.)  For the weak, the struggling, the one who doubts the grace of God, Luther’s words are like an angel’s song.  God freely accepts me as I am.  I do not have to bring him an adequate sacrifice, or pay him morally, to accept me.  Christ bore the whole cost.  When I am at my weakest, I am so thankful for Luther.  I have a strong, loving Christ.  Not just when I am weak, but especially then, I need to hear this and believe it.  None of us can live week by week without this Christ.

But is that the whole message?  No.  Believers are united to Jesus Christ by faith.  We are not banished to a perpetual bondage to sin, because, by God’s grace, we are united to the living Christ.  We have been born again, raised to life in him, so we have power over the sin that indwells.  Sin is not our master.  (John Murray called this “definitive sanctification.”)  To deny this is to deny his life.  We need this Christ every week as well.

How grateful we should be for these Reformers!  Martin Luther taught the world to believe in free justification by believing the Word.  John Calvin agreed, and said something more: don’t tear Christ in pieces.  We are united to Christ, and he is really everything to us.  

Howard Griffith, Ph.D.
Associate Pastor of Systematic Theology and Academic Dean
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington D.C.

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