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The Necessity of Reforming the Church by Dr. John Calvin

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One of Calvin’s best works on Reformation and the need for it. The Necessity of Reforming the Church – Introduction

Publisher’s Introduction
In 1544, the emperor Charles V presided over an imperial diet at Spires. Theodore Beza describes the events which preceded the diet.

The year before, Charles V … in view of turning all his strength against the French, promised the Germans that, for a short period, until a general council was held, which he engaged to see done, neither party should suffer prejudice on account of religious differences, but both enjoy equal laws. The Roman pontiff, Paul III, was exceedingly offended, and addressed a very severe expostulation to the emperor because, forsooth, he had put heretics on a footing with Catholics and, as it were, put his sickle into another man’s corn. Caesar gave what answer seemed proper; but Calvin, because the truth of the gospel and the innocence of the godly were deeply injured by that letter, repressed the audacity of the pontiff. A diet of the empire was as this time held at Spires, and Calvin, availing himself of the occasion, published a short treatise on The Necessity of Reforming the Church. I know not if any writing on the subject, more nervous or solid, has been published in our age.[1]

The chief value of this tract is that it succinctly states the principal disputes of the Protestant Reformation. What were the central grievances which caused Protestants to demand reform? What issues made it necessary to separate completely from Rome? What measures were essential to achieve genuine reformation? Calvin addresses such questions, stating at the outset, “I wish only to show how just and necessary the causes were which forced us to the changes for which we are blamed.”

Of course, the differences between the Papists and the Protestants produced a colossal struggle over the doctrine of justification. Calvin’s response to Sadoleto illustrates this conflict in a pointed manner,[2] as well as major portions of The Necessity of Reforming the Church. Nevertheless, the battle over justification was not the only struggle between the reformers and Rome. Calvin declares the wider scope of the Reformation: the need to restore biblical doctrine and practice regarding the proper means of worship, the correct administration of the sacraments, and the government of the church. He writes:

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.

The Genevan reformer next mentions the sacraments and the government of the church, which were instituted for the preservation of doctrine.

Unfortunately, in many churches today, the Reformed faith is equated merely with the “five points of Calvinism,” or some other truncated portrayal of the reformer’s theology. In Calvin’s tract, we get the bigger picture.

In setting forth the necessity of reformation, Calvin defends Protestants against the charge of schism. Whenever men lift a voice for reform, corrupt religious leaders defame the reformers as schismatics, and corrupt assemblies appropriate to themselves the name of the church. Calvin replies: “It is not enough, therefore, simply to throw out the name of church,but judgment must be used to ascertain which is the true church, and what is the nature of its unity.” Further, “any man, who, by his conduct, shows that he is an enemy of sound doctrine, whatever title he may meanwhile boast, has lost all title to authority in the church.”

Calvin rebukes the spirit of toleration which masquerades as “moderation.” The reformer states:

In a corruption of sound doctrine so extreme, in a pollution of the sacraments so nefarious, in a condition of the church so deplorable, those who maintain that we ought not to have felt so strongly, would have been satisfied with nothing less than a perfidious tolerance, by which we should have betrayed the worship of God, the glory of Christ, the salvation of men, the entire administration of the sacraments, and the government of the church. There is something specious in the name of moderation, and tolerance is a quality which has a fair appearance, and seems worthy of praise; but the rule which we must observe at all hazards is, never to endure patiently that the sacred name of God should be assailed with impious blasphemy; that his eternal truth should be suppressed by the devil’s lies; that Christ should be insulted, his holy mysteries polluted, unhappy souls cruelly murdered, and the church left to writhe in extremity under the effect of a deadly wound. This would be not meekness, but indifference about things to which all others ought to be postponed.

The perceptive reader will see many parallels between the spiritual climate of Calvin’s day and the religious chaos in our own society. If religious corruptions required reformationthen, similar corruptions demand serious reform today. We witness the sad spectacle of Protestant churches fascinated with liturgical rites and innovations in worship. Prominent “evangelical” leaders have endorsed a peace pact with Rome.[3] Many “reformed” denominations tolerate evangelistic methods and gimmicks built upon Pelagian presuppositions. If anything, Calvin’s tract demonstrates how far modern Protestants have declined from the doctrines and practices of the Reformation. The Necessity of Reforming the Church is more than just an historic monument to the Reformation. It is a spiritual manifesto, calling us to repentance in an era of gross religious corruption.

The Publisher



1. The Life of John Calvin, published in The Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters (1844; rpt. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), Vol. 1, pages xliv-xlv.

2. Calvin’s reply to Cardinal Sadoleto is found in The Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, Vol. 1, pp. 25-68.

3. “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (1995). This document has received wide circulation in a variety of forms. For an analysis of the document, see Making Shipwreck of the Faith: Evangelicals and Roman Catholics Together by Kevin Reed (Dallas: Protestant Heritage, 1995).

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