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A History of Spiritual Formation Part 2: Luther, Calvin and Knox




(This week, we continue our series on spiritual formation throughout history. Today, we will take a closer look at Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox and how they influenced the spiritual formation of believers and what it meant to be a follower of Messiah.)


At the end of the Middle Ages, the church looked very different than the one led by humble and devout men such as Abba Anthony, Athanasius, and Augustine in the patristic era. The church that initiated the Reformation was plagued by corruption and extrabiblical doctrine. Gerald Sittser reports, “Many parish clergy kept concubines, charged fees for services, and demonstrated appalling ignorance of the Christian faith. Bishops and cardinals enjoyed the wealth and prestige of high office without actually having to perform their duties.”[1] The laity was dependent on the clergy for doctrinal understanding. Although the Bible had been translated into common languages, these versions were often inaccurate and, in many cases, prohibited.[2] 


Alister McGrath points out many changes in society that contributed to the Reformation. First, the rise in literacy, which spurred on Bible reading, coupled with the invention of the printing press, enabled reformers like Calvin to profoundly impact Europe while residing in one place.[3] Second, a burgeoning middle class challenged the power of the nobles and aristocracy.[4] Finally, the Church faced inherent conflicts of interest, serving as both the spiritual authority and a formidable political and economic force.[5] 


Our focus is on spiritual formation in a period marked by significant political and theological shifts. As the Reformation surged, filling European spirituality with new life, we’ll ask: How did the reformers aid the now-empowered laity in their spiritual growth? This article examines the contributions of three pivotal figures: Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox.


Martin Luther and John Calvin

Martin Luther was the influencer of the Reformation. While there is debate over precisely when it began, there is consensus that 1517 was the tipping point, as Luther posted his fiery “Ninety-Five Theses against Indulgences” in Wittenberg.[6] He was convinced indulgences, a Catholic Church practice aimed at reducing the purgatorial duration for deceased Christians, was a “human doctrine,”[7] weakening “true inner repentance.”[8] The selling of indulgences, he felt, was “theologically questionable, running the risk of … treating God’s forgiveness of sins as [a commodity].”[9] Luther argued that “faith alone,” sola fide, brought salvation,[10] not indulgences.


Calvin had a conversion experience sixteen years later in 1533, “during which he believed he received a mission to restore the church to its original purity.”[11] Luther was a torch ablaze, while Calvin was reserved. Sittser writes, “If Luther served as the major catalyst of the Reformation, John Calvin (1509–1564) became its primary theologian and organizer.”[12] He wrote the first chapters of the Institutes a year after his conversion.[13] Its popularity pushed him to the forefront of the Reformation, though the “unpolished and bashful”[14] Frenchman resisted. Eventually, he agreed to be the “primary preacher” in Geneva, where he “work[ed] to reform the church.”[15] After being briefly exiled, Calvin returned to Geneva for the rest of his life.


Spiritual Formation is the lifelong process of the believer being transformed into the image of Jesus (2 Cor 4:18). The desert fathers embraced a set of disciplines, such as prayer and Bible meditation, along with an ascetic lifestyle to shape the soul’s transformation. They reformed the church by going to the desert. Being a serious Christian “meant to separate oneself from the world and enter a religious community.” The reformers believed that “spirituality” was about “how one lived the Christian life” in the world: with one’s family or at one’s job.[16] 


Luther and Calvin came along at the edge of modernity. They did not leave society but confronted abuses. The printing press (their social media) was used to disseminate their teachings, significantly influencing Christian society. Still, nothing could replace the raw proclamation of God’s word as a means for salvation, the start of spiritual formation.


Preaching is the means God uses to save the lost. “We who are ordained to preach the Gospel ought to know that God honored us when he willed that from our mouth the testimony of salvation should be given to men, that we should be witnesses of his truth, that we should present salvation to those who were formerly damned and lost.”[17]


They believed that “the proclamation of the Word of God is the Word of God. ‘God does not wish to be heard,’ Calvin asserted, ‘but by the voice of His ministers.”[18] Luther believed preaching assists in giving “God an audible voice.”[19] Luther sought to bring people from dependence on the church to reliance on God alone for salvation.


It is not the pope, not the emperor, not the duke who compels me, but my own need compels me.… The need [which drives us to the sacrament] is that sin, devil, and death are always present. The benefit is that we receive forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit. Here, not poison, but a remedy and salvation is given, in so far as you acknowledge that you need it.[20]


In spiritual formation, we tend to focus on spiritual disciplines at the expense of theology. The mystics relied heavily on revelation, while Luther and Calvin emphasized doctrine. Calvin’s opus magnum was his Institutes of the Christian Faith, where he not only taught systematic theology but formation: “[M]an never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.”[21]


Christians had been deprived of the word of God and fed a steady diet of “unchristian doctrine,” in Luther’s words.[22] He and Calvin nurtured the starving masses. Luther bemoaned this theological famine: “The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine … many pastors are altogether … incompetent to teach.”[23]


Luther constantly insists in his Small Catechism that understanding “the Lord's Prayer, the [Nicene] Creed, and the Ten Commandments” are essential to spiritual growth, and the sacraments without such knowledge are worthless.[24] Calvin believed one “not intimately acquainted with [the Scriptures], stands in need of some guidance and direction,”[25] and thus wrote the Institutes, one of the “most popular theological books ever written … known for its remarkable clarity, organization, and theological precision.”[26] Calvin insists, “[M]y only object has been to do good to the Church by maintaining the pure doctrine of godliness.”[27]


The Reformation, thanks in large part to Calvin and Luther, established essential doctrines such as: “Justification by Faith Alone,” sola fide, “Scripture Alone,” sola Scriptura, which maintains that the Bible is the sole infallible, authoritative source (as opposed to the popes or tradition), and “The Priesthood of all Believers,” which taught that all believers have direct access to God through Jesus.


John Knox

Charles Spurgeon said, “When John Knox went upstairs to plead with God for Scotland, it was the greatest event in Scottish history.”[28] John Knox was a spiritual giant in a frail body. Yet, that didn’t stop him from guarding his kinsman, the reformer George Wishart, with a “two-fisted broadsword.”[29] Wishart preached the simple gospel message—forgiveness and grace through Jesus—throughout Scotland, attracting young men like Knox.[30] Wishart was arrested by the corrupt Archbishop of St. Andrews, David Beaton,[31] and burned alive.


Knox couldn’t have had a better example of spiritual formation. “‘For this cause I was sent,’ Wishart said as the executioner chained him to the stake, ‘that I should suffer this fire for Christ’s sake.’”[32] Although not through martyrdom, Knox endured significant suffering due to health issues and, for a time, being “bound with chains”[33] as he reluctantly took up Wishart’s mantle, leading the Scottish Reformation. “Give me Scotland, or I die,”[34] cried Knox. He had another example in John Calvin, who taught the idealistic reformer “how to pastor and preach in the humility of Christ.”[35]


Like Calvin and Luther, he understood that the word must be proclaimed. Knox was not fearless: “I quake, I fear, I tremble.”[36] But all this vanished, says his biographer Douglass Bond, “when he opened his mouth to preach.” His friend James Melville testified, “Knox’s preaching made him ‘so to quake and tremble that I could not hold pen to write.’”[37] 


The sword of God’s wrath is already drawn, which of necessity must needs strike when grace offered is obstinately refused. You have been long in bondage to the Devil, blindness, error, and idolatry prevailing against the simple truth of God in your realm, in which God has made you princes and rulers. But now doth God, of His great mercy, call you to repentance before He pour forth the uttermost of His vengeance.[38]


Knox’s contributions to formation were rooted in his theological reforms, reflected in the Scot’s Confession, written by Knox and five others in just four days. He believed “the image of God was utterly defaced in man”[39] through Adam’s sin. “Because the Godhead alone could not suffer death, and neither could manhood overcome death, he joined both together in one person”[40]—Jesus, to “purchase for us life, liberty, and perpetual victory.”[41] Although Knox's corpus was not as voluminous as Luther’s or Calvin’s, his life bore witness to his deep faith and spiritual formation. Knox penned, “One man with God is always in the majority.”[42]


Conclusion

Those immersed in the teachings of Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, or Henri Nouwen, which stress the spiritual practices cultivated by early monks, may perceive the reformers as audacious and presumptuous. However, it’s crucial not to underestimate their significance. Facing both political and ecclesiastical opposition, these reformers boldly championed the momentous yet simple message that salvation comes by faith in Christ alone through grace. For the first time in hundreds of years, ordinary individuals were liberated from reliance on corrupt bishops, unbiblical practices and traditions, and a church that appeared more focused on political influence than spiritual life, paving the way for a direct relationship with God.


How might the reformers view the contemporary Western church? Undoubtedly, they'd be taken aback by our extravagances. They’d find fault with our scant theology of suffering and vehemently oppose prosperity gospel proponents, seeing parallels with bishops who exploited the gospel for wealth. Their bewilderment might extend to our selective approach to social justice—passionately defending the unborn while neglecting the needs of those already born. Given their staunch advocacy for sola Scriptura, the reformers would likely be troubled by how some churches dilute Scriptural authority, swayed instead by societal norms or personal revelations. In their eyes, today’s church might just be in dire need of another reformation!


 

[1] Gerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries (IVP Books, 2007), 213.

[2] Alister McGrath, Christian History (Hoboken: Wiley and Blackwell, 2013), 160, 164.

[3] Ibid., 134.

[4] Ibid., 150.

[5] Ibid., 151.

[6] Stanley Burgess, The Holy Spirit: Medieval Roman Catholic and Reformation Traditions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2013), Chapter 17, Martin Luther (1483-1546), Kindle.

[7] Martin Luther, “Ninety-Five Theses, The Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” October 31, 1517, Thesis 27, http://reverendluther.org/pdfs/The_Ninety-Five_Theses.pdf.

[8] Ibid., Theses 4, 35 and 36.

[9] McGrath, Christian History, 171.

[10] Ibid., Glossary.

[11] Burgess, The Holy Spirit, Chapter 19, John Calvin (1509–1564).

[12] Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 218.

[13] David Kaywood, “John Calvin: Who He Is, What He Did, and Why He Matters,” Gospel Relevance, accessed April 9, 2024, https://www.gospelrelevance.com/2018/08/20/john-calvin.

[14] Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 218.

[15] Ibid., 219.

[16] Hughes Oliphant Old, “What is Reformed Spirituality?” Theology Matters, January 23, 2023, https://www.theologymatters.com/articles/theology/2023/what-is-reformed-spirituality.

[17] Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 222.

[18] Ibid., 221.

[19] Ibid., 222.

[20] Ibid.

[21] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), 44, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/c/calvin/institutes/cache/institutes.pdf.

[22] Luther, “Ninety-Five Theses,” Thesis 35.

[23] Martin Luther, The Small and Large Catechisms of Martin Luther (Suwanee, GA: St. Polycarp Publishing House, 1921), 6, Kindle.

[24] Ibid., 7.

[25] Calvin, Institutes, 31.

[26] Kaywood, “John Calvin.”

[27] Ibid., 33.

[28] Charles H. Spurgeon, cited in Merle d’Aubigné, The Reformation in England (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2016), 1:18.

[29] Douglas Bond, The Mighty Weakness of John Knox (Sanford, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2011), 2, Kindle.

[30] Ibid., 3-4.

[31] Ibid., 3.

[32] Ibid., 5.

[33] Thomas McCrie, Life of John Knox, The Scottish Reformer (Philadelphia: William S. Marten, 1839), 40.

[34] Burk Parsons, “Give me Scotland or I Die,” Ligonier Ministries, November 25, 2022, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/give-me-scotland-or-i-die.

[35] Bond, The Mighty Weakness of John Knox, 17.

[36] Ibid., 51.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid., 52.

[39] Ibid., 113.

[40] Ibid., 115.

[41] Ibid., 116.

[42] Parsons, “Give me Scotland or I Die.”

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Super good article. I'm wondering if you had a turnaround? You've been associated with prosperity preachers in the past. I'm so glad to see you embracing biblical truth. I too went astray for many years into unbiblical teaching and praise God He rescued me!

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