The Necessity of Reforming the Church – Part 1
by Dr. John Calvin (1543)
To the Most Invincible Emperor, Charles V,
and the Most Illustrious Princes and Other Orders,
Now Holding a Diet of the Empire at Spires,
A Humble Exhortation
Seriously to Undertake
the Task of
Restoring the Church
Presented in the Name of All Those
Who Wish Christ to Reign
You have summoned this diet, that, in concert with the most illustrious princes and other orders of the empire, you may at length deliberate and decide upon the means of ameliorating the present condition of the church, which we all see to be very miserable, and almost desperate. Now, therefore, while you are seated at this consultation, I humbly beg and implore, first of your imperial majesty, and at the same time of you also, most illustrious princes and distinguished personages, that you will not decline to read, and diligently ponder, what I have to lay before you. The magnitude and weightiness of the cause may well excite in you an eagerness to hear, and I will set the matter so plainly in your view, that you can have no difficulty in determining what course to adopt.
Whoever I am, I here profess to plead in defense, both of sound doctrine and of the church. In this character I seem at all events entitled to expect that you will not deny me audience until such time as it may appear whether I falsely usurp the character, or whether I faithfully perform its duties, and make good what I profess. But though I feel that I am by no means equal to so great a task, I am not at all afraid that, after you have heard the nature of my office, I shall be accused either of folly or presumption in having ventured thus to appear before you. There are two circumstances by which men are wont to recommend, or at least to justify, their conduct. If a thing is done honestly, and from pious zeal, we deem it worthy of praise; if it is done under the pressure of public necessity, we at least deem it not unworthy of excuse. Since both of these apply here, I am confident, from your equity, that I shall easily obtain your approval of my design. For where can I exert myself to better purpose or more honestly where, too, in a matter at this time more necessary than in attempting, according to my ability, to aid the church of Christ? whose claims it is unlawful in any instance to deny, and which is now in grievous distress, and in extreme danger.
But there is no occasion for a long preface concerning myself. Receive what I say as you would do if it were pronounced by the united voice of all those who either have already taken care to restore the church, or are desirous that it should be restored to true order. In this situation are several princes, of not the humblest class, and not a few distinguished communities. For all these I speak, though as an individual, yet so that it is more truly they who at once, and with one mouth, speak through me. To these add the countless multitude of pious men, who, scattered over the various regions of the Christian world, still unanimously concur with me in this pleading. In short, regard this as the common address of all who so earnestly deplore the present corruption of the church, that they are unable to bear it longer, and are determined not to rest till they see some amendment. I am aware of the odious names with which we are branded; but, meanwhile, whatever be the name by which it is thought proper to designate us, hear our cause, and, after you have heard, judge what the place is which we are entitled to hold.
First, then, the question is not, whether the church labors under diseases both numerous and grievous (this is admitted even by all moderate judges), but whether the diseases are of a kind the cure of which admits not of longer delay, and as to which, therefore, it is neither useful nor becoming to await the result of slow remedies. We are accused of rash and impious innovation, for having ventured to propose any change at all on the former state of the church. What! Even if it has not been done either without cause or imperfectly? I hear there are persons who, even in this case, do not hesitate to condemn us; their opinion being that we were indeed right in desiring amendment, but not right in attempting it. From such persons, all I would ask at present is, that they will for a little [while] suspend their judgment until I shall have shown from fact that we have not been prematurely hasty have not attempted anything rashly, anything alien from our duty have, in fine, done nothing until compelled by the highest necessity. To enable me to prove this, it is necessary to attend to the matters in dispute.
We maintain, then, that at the commencement when God raised up Luther and others, who held forth a torch to light us into the way of salvation, and who, by their ministry, founded and reared our churches those heads of doctrine in which the truth of our religion, those in which the pure and legitimate worship of God, and those in which the salvation of men are comprehended, were in a great measure obsolete. We maintain that the use of the sacraments was in many ways vitiated and polluted. And we maintain that the government of the church was converted into a species of foul and insufferable tyranny. But, perhaps these averments have not force enough to move certain individuals until they are better explained. This, therefore, I will do, not as the subject demands, but as far as my ability will permit. Here, however, I have no intention to review and discuss all our controversies; that would require a long discourse, and this is not the place for it. I wish only to show how just and necessary the causes were which forced us to the changes for which we are blamed. To accomplish this, I must take up together the three following points.
First, I must briefly enumerate the evils which compelled us to seek for remedies.
Secondly, I must show that the particular remedies which our reformers employed were apt and salutary.
Thirdly, I must make it plain that we were not at liberty any longer to delay putting forth our hand, inasmuch as the matter demanded instant amendment.
The Evils Which Compelled Us to Seek Remedies
The first point, as I merely advert to it for the purpose of clearing my way to the other two, I will endeavor to dispose of in a few words; but in wiping off the heavy charge of sacrilegious audacity and sedition, founded on the allegation that we have improperly, and with intemperate haste, usurped an office which did not belong to us, I will dwell at greater length.
If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us, and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity: that is, a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained. When these are kept out of view, though we may glory in the name of Christians, our profession is empty and vain. After these come the sacraments and the government of the church, which, as they were instituted for the preservation of these branches of doctrine, ought not to be employed for any other purpose; and, indeed, the only means of ascertaining whether they are administered purely and in due form, or otherwise, is to bring them to this test. If any one is desirous of a clearer and more familiar illustration, I would say, that rule in the church, the pastoral office, and all other matters of order, resemble the body, whereas the doctrine which regulates the due worship of God, and pointsout the ground on which the consciences of men must rest their hope of salvation, is the soul which animates the body, renders it lively and active, and, in short, makes it not to be a dead and useless carcass.
As to what I have yet said, there is no controversy among the pious, or among men of right and sane mind.
Let us now see what is meant by the due worship of God. Its chief foundation is to acknowledge him to be, as he is, the only source of all virtue, justice, holiness, wisdom, truth, power, goodness, mercy, life, and salvation; in accordance with this, to ascribe and render to him the glory of all that is good, to seek all things in him alone, and in every want have recourse to him alone. Hence arises prayer, hence praise and thanksgiving these being attestations to the glory which we attribute to him. This is that genuine sanctification of his name which he requires of us above all things. To this is united adoration, by which we manifest for him the reverence due to his greatness and excellency; and to this ceremonies are subservient, as helps or instruments, in order that, in the performance of divine worship, the body may be exercised at the same time with the soul. Next after these comes self-abasement, when, renouncing the world and the flesh, we are transformed in the renewing of our mind and living no longer to ourselves, submit to be ruled and actuated by him. By this self-abasement we are trained to obedience and devotedness to his will, so that his fear reigns in our hearts, and regulates all the actions of our lives.
That in these things consists the true and sincere worship which alone God approves, and in which alone he delights, is both taught by the Holy Spirit throughout the scriptures, and is also, antecedent to discussion, the obvious dictate of piety. Nor from the beginning was there any other method of worshipping God, the only difference being, that this spiritual truth, which with us is naked and simple, was under the former dispensation wrapped up in figures. And this is the meaning of our Saviour’s words, “The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). For by these words he meant not to declare that God was not worshipped by the fathers in this spiritual manner, but only to point out a distinction in the external form: that is, that while they had the Spirit shadowed forth by many figures, we have it in simplicity. But it has always been an acknowledged point, that God, who is a Spirit, must be worshipped in spirit and in truth.
Moreover, the rule which distinguishes between pure and vitiated worship is of universal application, in order that we may not adopt any device which seems fit to ourselves, but look to the injunctions of him who alone is entitled to prescribe. Therefore, if we would have him to approve our worship, this rule, which he everywhere enforces with the utmost strictness, must be carefully observed. For there is a twofold reason why the Lord, in condemning and prohibiting all fictitious worship, requires us to give obedience only to his own voice. First, it tends greatly to establish his authority that we do not follow our own pleasure, but depend entirely on his sovereignty; and, secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray. And then when once we have turned aside from the right path, there is no end to our wanderings, until we get buried under a multitude of superstitions. Justly, therefore, does the Lord, in order to assert his full right of dominion, strictly enjoin what he wishes us to do, and at once reject all human devices which are at variance with his command. Justly, too, does he, in express terms, define our limits, that we may not, by fabricating perverse modes of worship, provoke his anger against us.
I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to his worship, if at variance with his command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,” (1 Sam. 15:22; Matt. 15:9). Every addition to his word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere “will worship” (ethelothreeskeia) is vanity. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate.
Will your imperial majesty now be pleased to recognize, and will you, most illustrious princes, lend me your attention, while I show how utterly at variance with this view are all the observances, in which, throughout the Christian world in the present day, divine worship is made to consist? In word, indeed, they concede to God the glory of all that is good; but, in reality, they rob him of the half, or more than the half, by partitioning his perfections among the saints. Let our adversaries use what evasions they may, and defame us for exaggerating what they pretend to be trivial errors, I will simply state the fact as every man perceives it. Divine offices are distributed among the saints as if they had been appointed colleagues to the supreme God, and, in a multitude of instances, they are made to do his work, while he is kept out of view. The thing I complain of is just what every body confesses by a vulgar proverb. For what is meant by saying, “the Lord cannot be known for apostles,” unless it be that, by the height to which apostles are raised, the dignity of Christ is sunk, or at least obscured? The consequence of this perversity is, that mankind, forsaking the fountain of living waters, have learned, as Jeremiah tells us, to hew them out “cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). For where is it that they seek for salvation and every other good? Is it in God alone? The whole tenor of their lives openly proclaims the contrary. They say, indeed, that they seek salvation and every other good in him; but it is mere pretence, seeing they seek them elsewhere.
Of this fact, we have clear proof in the corruptions by which prayer was first vitiated, and afterwards in a great measure perverted and extinguished. We have observed, that prayer affords a test whether or not suppliants render due glory to God. In like manner, will it enable us to discover whether, after robbing him of his glory, they transfer it to the creatures. In genuine prayer, something more is required than mere entreaty. The suppliant must feel assured that God is the only being to whom he ought to flee, both because he only can succor him in necessity; and also, because he has engaged to do it. But no man can have this conviction unless he pays regard both to the command by which God calls us to himself, and to the promise of listening to our prayers which is annexed to the command. The command was not thus regarded when the generality of mankind invoked angels and dead men promiscuously with God, and the wiser part, if they did not invoke them instead of God, at least regarded them as mediators, at whose intercession God granted their requests.
Where, then, was the promise which is founded entirely on the intercession of Christ? Passing by Christ, the only Mediator, each betook himself to the patron who had struck his fancy, or if at any time a place was given to Christ, it was one in which he remained unnoticed, like some ordinary individual in a crowd. Then, although nothing is more repugnant to the nature of genuine prayer than doubt and distrust, so much did these prevail, that they were almost regarded as necessary, in order to pray aright. And why was this?Just because the world understood not the force of the expressions in which God invites us to pray to him, engages to do whatsoever we ask in reliance on his command and promise, and sets forth Christ as the Advocate in whose name our prayers are heard. Besides, let the public prayers which are in common use in churches be examined. It will be found that they are stained with numberless impurities. From them, therefore, we have it in our power to judge how much this part of divine worship was vitiated. Nor was there less corruption in the expressions of thanksgiving. To this fact, testimony is borne by the public hymns, in which the saints are lauded for every blessing, just as if they were the colleagues of God.
Then what shall I say of adoration? Do not men pay to images and statues the very same reverence which they pay to God? It is an error to suppose that there is any difference between this madness and that of the heathen. For God forbids us not only to worship images, but to regard them as the residence of his divinity, and worship it: as residing in them. The very same pretexts which the patrons of this abomination employ in the present day, were formerly employed by the heathen to cloak their impiety. Besides, it is undeniable that saints nay, their very bones, garments, shoes, and images are adored even in the place of God.
But some subtle disputant will object, that there are diverse species of adoration: that the honor of dulia [veneration], as they term it, is given to saints, their images, and their bones; and that latria [worship] is reserved for God as due to him only, unless we are to except hyperdulia [high veneration], a species which, as the infatuation increased, was invented to set the blessed virgin above the rest. As if these subtle distinctions were either known or present to the minds of those who prostrate themselves before images. Meanwhile, the world is full of idolatry not less gross, and if I may so speak, not less capable of being felt, than was the ancient idolatry of the Egyptians, which all the prophets everywhere so strongly reprobate.
I am merely glancing at each of these corruptions, because I will afterwards more clearly expose their demerits.
I come now to ceremonies, which, while they ought to be grave attestations of divine worship, are rather a mere mockery of God. A new Judaism, as a substitute for that which God had distinctly abrogated, has again been reared up by means of numerous puerile extravagancies, collected from different quarters; and with these have been mixed up certain impious rites, partly borrowed from the heathen, and more adapted to some theatrical show than to the dignity of our religion. The first evil here is, that an immense number of ceremonies, which God had by his authority abrogated, once for all, have been again revived. The next evil is that, while ceremonies ought to be living exercises of piety, men are vainly occupied with numbers of them that are both frivolous and useless. But by far the most deadly evil of all is, that after men have thus mocked God with ceremonies of one kind or other, they think they have fulfillled their duty as admirably as if these ceremonies included in them the whole essence of piety and divine worship.
With regard to self-abasement, on which depends regeneration to newness of life, the whole doctrine was entirely obliterated from the minds of men, or, at least, half buried, so that it was known to few, and to them but slenderly. But the spiritual sacrifice which the Lord in an especial manner recommends, is to mortify the old, and be transformed into a new man. It may be, perhaps, that preachers stammer out something about these words, but that they have no idea of the things meant by them is apparent even from this that they strenuously oppose us in our attempt to restore this branch of divine worship. If at any time they discourse on repentance, they only glance, as if in contempt, at the points of principal moment, and dwell entirely on certain external exercises of the body, which, as Paul assures us, are not of the highest utility (Col. 2:23; 1 Tim. 4:8). What makes this perverseness the more intolerable is, that the generality, under a pernicious error, pursue the shadow for the substance, and, overlooking true repentance, devote their whole attention to abstinences, vigils, and other things, which Paul terms “beggarly elements” of the world.
Having observed that the word of God is the test which discriminates between his true worship and that which is false and vitiated, we thence readily infer that the whole form of divine worship in general use in the present day is nothing but mere corruption. For men pay no regard to what God has commanded, or to what he approves, in order that they may serve him in a becoming manner, but assume to themselves a licence of devising modes of worship, and afterwards obtruding them upon him as a substitute for obedience. If in what I say I seem to exaggerate, let an examination be made of all the acts by which the generality suppose that they worship God. I dare scarcely except a tenth part as not the random offspring of their own brain. What more would we? God rejects, condemns, abominates all fictitious worship, and employs his word as a bridle to keep us in unqualified obedience. When shaking off this yoke, we wander after our own fictions, and offer to him a worship, the work of human rashness, how much soever it may delight ourselves, in his sight it is vain trifling, nay, vileness and pollution. The advocates of human traditions paint them in fair and gaudy colors; and Paul certainly admits that they carry with them a show of wisdom; but as God values obedience more than all sacrifices, it ought to be sufficient for the rejection of any mode of worship, that it is not sanctioned by the command of God.
We come now to what we have set down as the second principal branch of Christian doctrine: that is, knowledge of the source from which salvation is to be obtained. Now, the knowledge of our salvation presents three different stages. First, we must begin with a sense of individual wretchedness, filling us with despondency as if we were spiritually dead. This effect is produced when the original and hereditary depravity of our nature is set before us as the source of all evil a depravity which begets in us distrust, rebellion against God, pride, avarice, lust, and all kinds of evil concupiscence; and making us averse to all rectitude and justice, [it] holds us captive under the yoke of sin; and when, moreover, each individual, on the disclosure of his own sins, feeling confounded at his turpitude, is forced to be dissatisfied with himself, and to account himself and all that he has of his own as less than nothing; then, on the other hand, conscience (being cited to the bar of God) becomes sensible of the curse under which it lies, and, as if it had received a warning of eternal death, learns to tremble at the divine anger. This, I say, is the first stage in the way to salvation, when the sinner, overwhelmed and prostrated, despairs of all carnal aid, yet does not harden himself against the justice of God, or become stupidly callous, but, trembling and anxious, groans in agony, and sighs for relief.
From this he should rise to the second stage. This he does when, animated by the knowledge of Christ, he again begins to breathe. For to one humbled in the manner in which we have described, no other course remains but to turn to Christ, that through his interposition he may be delivered from misery. But the only man who thus seeks salvation in Christ is the man who is aware of the extent of his power: that is, acknowledges him as the only priest who reconciles us to the Father, and his death as the only sacrifice by which sin is expiated, the divine justice satisfied, and a true and perfect righteousness acquired; who, in fine, does not divide the work between himself and Christ, but acknowledges it to be by mere gratuitous favor that he is justified in the sight of God. From this stage also he must rise to the third, when instructed in the grace of Christ, and in the fruits of his death and resurrection, he rests in him with firm and solid confidence, feeling assured that Christ is so completely his own, that he possesses in him righteousness and life.
Now, see how sadly this doctrine has been perverted. On the subject of original sin, perplexing questions have been raised by the schoolmen, who have done what they could to explain away this fatal disease; for in their discussions they reduce it to little more than excess of bodily appetite and lust. Of that blindness and vanity of intellect, whence unbelief and superstition proceed, of inward depravity of soul, of pride, ambition, stubbornness, and other secret sources of evil, they say not a word. And sermons are not a whit more sound. Then, as to the doctrine of free will, as preached before Luther and other reformers appeared, what effect could it have but to fill men with an overweening opinion of their own virtue, swelling them out with vanity, and leaving no room for the grace and assistance of the Holy Spirit?
But why dwell on this? There is no point which is more keenly contested, none in which our adversaries are more inveterate in their opposition, than that of justification: namely, as to whether we obtain it by faith or by works. On no account will they allow us to give Christ the honor of being called our righteousness, unless their works come in at the same time for a share of the merit. The dispute is not, whether good works ought to be performed by the pious, and whether they are accepted by God and rewarded by him; but whether, by their own worth, they reconcile us to God; whether we acquire eternal life as their price; whether they are compensations which are made to the justice of God, so as to take away guilt; and whether they are to be confided in as a ground of salvation.
We condemn the error which enjoins men to have more respect to their own works than to Christ, as a means of rendering God propitious, of meriting his favor, and obtaining the inheritance of eternal life: in short, as a means of becoming righteous in his sight. First, they plume themselves on the merit of works, as if they laid God under obligations to them. Pride such as this, what is it but a fatal intoxication of soul? For instead of Christ, they adore themselves, and dream of possessing life while they are immersed in the profound abyss of death. It may be said that I am exaggerating on this head, but no man can deny the trite doctrine of the schools and churches to be, that it is by works we must merit the favor of God, and by works acquire eternal life; that any hope of salvation unpropped by good works is rash and presumptuous; that we are reconciled to God by the satisfaction of good works, and not by a gratuitous remission of sins; that good works are meritorious of eternal salvation, not because they are freely imputed for righteousness through the merits of Christ, but in terms of law; and that men, as often as they lose the grace of God, are reconciled to him, not by a free pardon, but by what they term works of satisfaction these works being supplemented by the merits of Christ and martyrs, provided only the sinner deserves to be so assisted. It is certain that, before Luther became known to the world, all men were fascinated by these impious dogmas; and even in the present day, there is no part of our doctrine which our opponents impugn with greater earnestness and obstinacy.
Lastly, there was another most pestilential error, which not only occupied the minds of men, but was regarded as one of the principal articles of faith, of which it was impious to doubt: that is, that believers ought to be perpetually in suspense and uncertainty as to their interest in the divine favor. By this suggestion of the devil, the power of faith was completely extinguished, the benefits of Christ’s purchase destroyed, and the salvation of men overthrown. For, as Paul declares, that faith only is Christian faith which inspires our hearts with confidence, and emboldens us to appear in the presence of God (Rom. 5:2). On no other view could his doctrine in another passage be maintained: that is, that “we have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15).
But what is the effect of that hesitancy which our enemies require in their disciples, save to annihilate all confidence in the promises of God? Paul argues, that “If they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect” (Rom. 4:14). Why so? Just because the law keeps a man in doubt, and does not permit him to entertain a sure and firm confidence. But they, on the other hand, dream of a faith, which, excluding and repelling man from that confidence which Paul requires, throws him back upon conjecture, to be tossed like a reed shaken by the wind. And it is not surprising that after they had once founded their hope of salvation on the merit of works, they plunged into all this absurdity. It could not but happen, that from such a precipice they should have such a fall. For what can man find in his works but materials for doubt, and, finally, for despair? We thus see how error led to error.
Here, mighty emperor, and most illustrious princes, it will be necessary to recall to your remembrance what I formerly observed: that is, that the safety of the church depends as much on this doctrine as human life does on the soul. If the purity of this doctrine is in any degree impaired, the church has received a deadly wound; and, therefore, when I shall have shown that it was for the greater part extinguished, it will be the same as if I had shown that the church had been brought to the very brink of destruction. As yet, I have only alluded to this in passing, but by-and-by I will unfold it more clearly.
I come now to those things which I have likened to the body: that is, government and the dispensation of the sacraments, of which, when the doctrine is subverted, the power and utility are gone, although the external form should be faultless. What, then, if there was no soundness in them externally or internally? And it is not difficult to demonstrate that this was the fact.
First, in regard to the sacraments, ceremonies devised by men were placed in the same rank with the mysteries instituted by Christ. For seven sacraments were received without any distinction, though Christ appointed two only, the others resting merely on human authority. Yet to these the grace of God was held to be annexed, just as much as if Christ had been present in them. Moreover, the two which Christ instituted were fearfully corrupted. Baptism was so disguised by superfluous additions, that scarcely a vestige of pure and genuine baptism could be traced; while the holy supper was not only corrupted by extraneous observances, but its very form was altogether changed.
What Christ commanded to be done, and in what order, is perfectly clear. But in contempt of his command, a theatrical exhibition was got up, and substituted for the supper. For what resemblance is there between the mass and the true supper of our Lord? While the command of Christ enjoins believers to communicate with each other in the sacred symbols of his body and blood, the thing seen at mass ought more properly to be termed excommunion. For the priest separates himself from the rest of the assembly, and devours apart that which ought to have been brought forward into the midst and distributed. Then, as if he were some successor of Aaron, he pretends that he offers a sacrifice to expiate the sins of the people.
But where does Christ once mention sacrifice? He bids us take, eat, and drink. Who authorizes men to convert taking into offering? And what is the effect of the change but to make the perpetual and inviolable edict of Christ yield to their devices?
This is, indeed, a grievous evil. But still worse is the superstition which applies this work to the living and the dead, as a procuring cause of grace. In this way the efficacy of Christ’s death has been transferred to a vain theatrical show, and the dignity of an eternal priesthood wrested from him to be bestowed upon men.
If, at any time, the people are called to communion, they are admitted only to half a share. Why should this be? Christ holds forth the cup to all, and bids all drink of it. In opposition to this, men interdict the assembly of the faithful from touching the cup. Thus the signs, which by the authority of Christ were connected by an indissoluble tie, are separated by human caprice. Besides, the consecration, both of baptism and of the mass, differs in no respect whatever from magical incantations. For by breathings and whisperings, and unintelligible sounds, they think they work mysteries. As if it had been the wish of Christ, that in the performance of religious rites his word should be mumbled over, and not rather pronounced in a clear voice. There is no obscurity in the words by which the gospel expresses the power, nature, and use of baptism. Then, in the supper, Christ does not mutter over the bread, but addresses the apostles in distinct terms, when he announces the promise and subjoins the command, “This do in remembrance of me.” Instead of this public commemoration, they whisper out secret exorcisms, fitter (as I have observed), for magical arts than sacraments.
The first thing we complain of here is, that the people are entertained with showy ceremonies, while not a word is said of their significance and truth. For there is no use in the sacraments unless the thing which the sign visibly represents is explained in accordance with the word of God. Therefore, when the people are presented with nothing but empty figures, with which to feed the eye, while they hear no doctrine which might direct them to the proper end, they look no farther than the external act. Hence that most pestilential superstition, under which, as if the sacraments alone were sufficient for salvation, without feeling any solicitude about faith or repentance, or even Christ himself, they fasten upon the sign instead of the thing signified by it. And, indeed, not only among the rude vulgar, but in the schools also, the impious dogma everywhere obtained, that the sacraments were effectual by themselves, if not obstructed in their operation by mortal sin; as if the sacraments had been given for any other end or use than to lead us by the hand to Christ.
Then, in addition to this, after consecrating the bread by a perverse incantation, rather than a pious rite, they keep it in a little box, and occasionally carry it about in solemn state, that it may be adored and prayed to instead of Christ. Accordingly, when any danger presses, they flee to that bread as their only protection, use it as a charm against all accidents, and, in asking pardon of God, employ it as the best expiation; as if Christ, when he gave us his body in the sacrament, had meant that it should be prostituted to all sorts of absurdity. For what is the amount of the promise? Simply this that as often as we received the sacrament, we should be partakers of his body and blood. “Take,” says he, “eat and drink; this is my body, this is my blood. This do in remembrance of me.” Do we not see that the promise is on either side enclosed by limits within which we must confine ourselves if we would secure what it offers? Those, therefore, are deceived who imagine that, apart from the legitimate use of the sacrament, they have anything but common and unconsecrated bread.
Then, again, there is a profanation common to all these religious rites: that is, that they are made the subjects of a disgraceful traffic, as if they had been instituted for no other purpose than to be subservient to gain. Nor is this traffic conducted secretly or bashfully; it is plied openly, as at the public mart. It is known in each particular district how much a mass sells for. Other rites, too, have their fixed prices. In short, any one who considers must see that churches are just ordinary shops, and that there is no kind of sacred rite which is not there exposed for sale.
Were I to go over the faults of ecclesiastical government in detail, I should never have done. I will, therefore, only point to some of the grosser sort, which cannot be disguised.
And, first, the pastoral office itself, as instituted by Christ, has long been in desuetude. His object in appointing bishops and pastors, or whatever the name be by which they are called, certainly was, as Paul declares, that they might edify the church with sound doctrine. According to this view, no man is a true pastor of the church who does not perform the office of teaching. But, in the present day, almost all those who have the name of pastors have left that work to others. Scarcely one in a hundred of the bishops will be found who ever mounts the pulpit in order to teach. And no wonder; for bishoprics have degenerated into secular principalities. Pastors of inferior rank, again, either think that they fulfill their office by frivolous performances altogether alien from the command of Christ, or, after the example of the bishops, throw even this part of the duty on the shoulders of others. Hence the letting of sacerdotal offices is not less common than the letting of farms. What would we more? The spiritual government which Christ recommended has totally disappeared, and a new and mongrel species of government has been introduced, which, under whatever name it may pass current, has no more resemblance to the former than the world has to the kingdom of Christ.
If it be objected, that the fault of those who neglect their duty ought not to be imputed to the order, I answer, first, that the evil is of such general prevalence, that it may be regarded as the common rule; and, secondly, that, were we to assume that all the bishops, and all the presbyters under them, reside each in his particular station, and do what in the present day is regarded as professional duty, they would never fulfill the true institution of Christ. They would sing or mutter in the church, exhibit themselves in theatrical vestments, and go through numerous ceremonies, but they would seldom, if ever, teach. According to the precept of Christ, however, no man can claim for himself the office of bishop or pastor who does not feed his flock with the word of the Lord.
Then while those who preside in the church ought to excel others, and shine by the example of a holier life, how well do those who hold the office in the present day correspond in this respect to their vocation! At a time when the corruption of the world is at its height, there is no order more addicted to all kinds of wickedness. I wish that by their innocence they would refute what I say. How gladly would I at once retract. But their turpitude stands exposed to the eyes of all exposed their insatiable avarice and rapacity exposed their intolerable pride and cruelty. The noise of indecent revelry and dancing, the rage of gaming, and entertainments, abounding in all kinds of intemperance, are in their houses only ordinary occurrences, while they glory in their luxurious delicacies, as if they were distinguished virtues.
To pass over other things in silence, what impurity in that celibacy which of itself they regard as a title to esteem! I feel ashamed to unveil enormities which I had much rather suppress, if they could be corrected by silence. Nor will I divulge what is done in secret. The pollutions which openly appear are more than sufficient. How many priests, pray, are free from whoredom? Nay, how many of their houses are infamous for daily acts of lewdness? How many honorable families do they defile by their vagabond lusts? For my part, I have no pleasure in exposing their vices, and it is no part of my design; but it is of importance to observe what a wide difference there is between the conduct of the priesthood of the present day, and that which true ministers of Christ and his church are bound to pursue.
Not the least important branch of ecclesiastical government is the due and regular election and ordination of those who are to rule. The word of God furnishes a standard by which all such appointments ought to be tested, and there exist many decrees of ancient councils which carefully and wisely provide for every thing which relates to the proper method of election. Let our adversaries then produce even a solitary instance of canonical election, and I will yield them the victory. We know the kind of examination which the Holy Spirit, by the mouth of Paul (epistles of Timothy and Titus), requires a pastor to undergo, and that which the ancient laws of the fathers enjoin. At the present day, in appointing bishops, is anything of the kind perceived? Nay, how few of those who are raised to the office are endowed even slenderly with those qualities without which they cannot be fit ministers of the church? We see the order which the apostles observed in ordaining ministers, that which the primitive church afterwards followed, and, finally, that which the ancient canons require to be observed. Were I to complain that at present this order is spurned and rejected, would not the complaint be just? What, then, should I say that everything honorable is trampled upon, and promotion obtained by the most disgraceful and flagitious proceedings? The fact is of universal notoriety. For ecclesiastical honors are either purchased for a set price, or seized by the hand of violence, or secured by nefarious actions, or acquired by sordid sycophancy. Occasionally even, they are the hire paid for panderism and similar services. In short, more shameless proceedings are exhibited here than ever occur in the acquisition of secular possessions.
And would that those who preside in the church, when they corrupt its government, only sinned for themselves, or at least injured others by nothing but by their bad example! But the most crying evil of all is, that they exercise a most cruel tyranny, and that a tyranny over souls. Nay, what is the vaunted power of the church in the present day, but a lawless, licentious, unrestricted domination over souls, subjecting them to the most miserable bondage?
Christ gave to the apostles an authority similar to that which God had conferred on the prophets, an authority exactly defined: that is, to act as his ambassadors to men. Now, the invariable law is, that he who is entrusted with an embassy must faithfully and religiously conform to his instructions. This is stated in express terms in the apostolical commission, “Go and teach all nations whatsoever things I have delivered unto you.” Likewise “preach” not anything you please), but the “gospel” [Matt. 28:19-20]. If it is asked what the authority is with which their successors were invested, we have the definition of Peter which enjoins all who speak in the church to speak “the oracles” of God [1 Pet. 4:11].
Now, however, those who would be thought the rulers of the church arrogate to themselves a license to speak whatsoever they please, and to insist that as soon as they have spoken they shall be implicitly obeyed. It will be averred that this is a calumny, and that the only right which they assume is that of sanctioning by their authority what the Holy Spirit has revealed. They will, accordingly, maintain that they do not subject the consciences of believers to their own devices or caprice, but only to the oracles of the Spirit, which, being revealed to them, they confirm and promulgate to others.
Forsooth an ingenious pretext! No man doubts that in whatever the Holy Spirit delivers by their hands they are to be unhesitatingly obeyed. But when they add that they cannot deliver anything but the genuine oracles of the Holy Spirit, because they are under his guidance, and that all their decisions cannot but be true, because they sit in chairs of verity, is not this just to measure their power by their caprice? For if all their decrees, without exception, are to be received as oracles, there is no limit to their power. What tyrant ever so monstrously abused the patience of his subjects as to insist that everything he proclaimed should be received as a message from heaven! Tyrants, no doubt, will have their edicts obeyed, be the edicts what they may. But these men demand much more. We must believe that the Holy Spirit speaks when they obtrude upon us what they have dreamed.
We see, accordingly, how hard and iniquitous the bondage is in which, when armed with this power, they have enthralled the souls of the faithful. Laws have been piled above laws, to be so many snares to the conscience. For they have not confined these laws to matters of external order, but applied them to the interior and spiritual government of the soul. And no end was made until they amounted to that immense multitude, which now looks not unlike a labyrinth. Indeed, some of them seem framed for the very purpose of troubling and torturing consciences, while the observance of them is enforced with not less strictness than if they contained the whole substance of piety. Nay, though in regard to the violation of the commands of God, either no question is asked, or slight penances are inflicted, anything done contrary to the decrees of men requires the highest expiation. While the church is oppressed by this tyrannical yoke, anyone who dares to say a word against it is instantly condemned as a heretic. In short, to give vent to our grief is a capital offense. And in order to ensure the possession of this insufferable domination, they, by sanguinary edicts, prevent the people from reading and understanding the scriptures, and fulminate against those who stir any question as to their power. This excessive rigor increases from day to day, so that now on the subject of religion it is scarcely permitted to make any inquiry at all.
At the time when divine truth lay buried under this vast and dense cloud of darkness; when religion was sullied by so many impious superstitions; when by horrid blasphemies the worship of God was corrupted, and his glory laid prostrate; when by a multitude of perverse opinions, the benefit of redemption was frustrated, and men, intoxicated with a fatal confidence in works, sought salvation anywhere rather than in Christ; when the administration of the sacraments was partly maimed and torn asunder, partly adulterated by the admixture of numerous fictions, and partly profaned by traffickings for gain; when the government of the church had degenerated into mere confusion and devastation; when those who sat in the seat of pastors first did most vital injury to the church by the dissoluteness of their lives, and, secondly, exercised a cruel and most noxious tyranny over souls, by every kind of error, leading men like sheep to the slaughter; then Luther arose, and after him others, who with united counsels sought out means and methods by which religion might be purged from all these defilements, the doctrine of godliness restored to its integrity, and the church raised out of its calamitous into somewhat of a tolerable condition. The same course we are still pursuing in the present day.