The Reformers Deny Personal Conversion


Some background.

The Protestant Reformers wrongly attributed to infant baptism a divine agency of regeneration and incorporation into the church. We also saw that they believed that baptism was the main God-ordained vehicle to make a person a Christian and thus perpetuate Christendom, where the whole infant-baptised community represents the church.

Added to this is the Reformers’ view that man’s nature is so bound and corrupted by sin that not only he is totally incapable of anything good, but that this inability extends to him being utterly unable to personally repent and believe the Gospel when he hears it.  To say that a sinner can hear the Gospel and respond in repentance and faith by his own choice is regarded by the reformers as utmost pride and self-delusion, and it is to be rejected as a work of self-righteousness. The reformers maintained that man is so sinful that it is God who has to start the work of faith and repentance in man. And how does God do that, according to the Reformers? It is by firstly regenerating that person by His Spirit, without that person’s will or choice being involved in any way. Then, once a person is born again by the sovereign act of God, to which the person has contributed nothing, it is only then that person finds the ability to respond to the Gospel and to begin to believe and repent. This is standard reformed teaching to this present day.

The notable reformer Ulrich Zwingli highlights this point in his writing, ‘Refutation of the Tricks of the Anabaptists’. Zwingli protests at the idea that anyone can just ‘choose’ to repent and become a Christian. He accuses the Anabaptists of imputing free will to man, as if a person by their own free choice can believe and be converted. He and other reformers viewed this as ‘justification by works’, since it implies that God would then be ‘honouring’ my choice to believe in Him. Reformed theology denies this ability. Luther wrote a work entitled ‘Bondage of the Will’ to defend this view of our total inability as sinners to respond to God – and it is a view that Erasmus wrote against. Zwingli argues that if we are saved solely by God’s grace through no effort or choice of our own, why shouldn’t we baptise infants just as circumcision was performed on infants as a sign of their participation in the first Covenant of God? Zwingli continues by saying:

“The children of Christians are no less sons of God than the parents, just as in the Old Testament. Hence, since they are sons of God, who will forbid their baptism? Circumcision among the ancients (so far as it was sacramental) is the same as baptism with us. As that was given to infants.” (Selected Works Of Huldreich Zwingli, 1484-1531, The Reformer Of German Switzerland, Ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson, 1901, p.139. Italics mine.)

The argument he and other reformers make is that if God saves us with no initial participation our part whatsoever, then why can’t God extend this kind of initial grace to infants in baptism?

In the series of studies on the Magisterial Reformation, we saw clearly that the Reformers believed baptism regenerated infants and incorporated them into the Church. What need of a further conversion if you believe this? This was the thrust of the reformers’ argument.

The Anabaptists taught that it was a person’s faith and repentance that brings about their conversion, which is then confirmed and testified to by baptism. They taught that this was the true beginning of Christian life. This also must then be witnessed to by a changed life and a demonstrated commitment to Christ. Believers are then to meet together as a company of committed Christians that is separate from the world. This would seem not just reasonable but totally in line with the Scriptures. However, the Reformers railed against this teaching of the Anabaptists.

They found this too subjective and too dependent on ‘fickle’ man and his deceptive feelings. They claimed such an ‘experience’ could not be trusted and was no basis for faith; God had already provided infant baptism as an ‘objective’ source for our faith, and therefore a sure means of incorporating us into His Church and making us His children. Luther would go on to say that yes, we should have faith, but faith in God-ordained infant baptism, not faith in our own experience. What then does this tell us of Luther’s own experience of conversion – or absence of it from his life?

It becomes clear that the argument revolves around the very nature of conversion and salvation. It could not be more crucial.

The reformers imputed to the religious ceremony of infant baptism God’s grace and saving power, thus excluding the need, or even the existence of a need for that individual to be baptised ‘again’ later in their life; it also then renders any ‘further’ experience of salvation not only completely redundant, but a denial of faith, and of their original baptism if such an experience were to be claimed!  The reformers were exasperated by this teaching and were very vigorously engaged in writing repeatedly against it. By their false teaching the reformers were thus depriving people of ever knowing God’s work of salvation in their lives through a personal experience of salvation, since the Reformers claimed that infant baptism, not personal experience – which is far too subjective and unreliable – is the sufficient foundation of our faith and salvation. It is no wonder that the reformers were never engaged in biblical evangelism, since they considered the infant-baptised community to be the Church.

Zwingli rises in defence of infant baptism with these extraordinary claims:

“But the baptism of Christ is not the pope’s, even though the pope were the archdemon himself and used Christ’s baptism…so when the pope baptized not in his own name, but in that of the Father and Son and Holy Ghost, it could in no way be vitiated so as not to be the baptism of Christ’s church. In the second place Christ himself said: ‘He that is not against us is with us.’ The pope therefore has this much of good, that he baptizes in no other name than that in which we were baptized.” (Ibid, pp. 184,185. Italics mine.)

Zwingli and the other major reformers all acknowledged that the infant baptism they had received at the hands of the Catholic Church was valid in making them part of Christ’s church.

Martin Luther in particular attacks what he regards as the purely subjective and insubstantial nature of repentance and conversion as advocated by the Anabaptists. Writing concerning the person who wants to be baptised on the confession of their faith, Luther writes:

“You may indeed have his confession [of faith], but you still do not know his faithbecause all men are liars and only God knows the hearts. So, he who wants to base baptism on the faith of the candidate will never be able to baptise anyone at all, because even if you baptise a person a hundred times in one day, you will never know if he believes.” (Von der Wiedertaufe, an zwei Pfarrherrn. Luthers Volksbibliothek, Band 2. Italics mine. Translated from the German by me.)

Luther simply could not comprehend the notion or truth of a personal conversion! He cannot identify with this experience in any way! He cannot conceive of an experience that results in an assurance of faith and of forgiveness of sins that does not evaporate with hours or days! Moreover, he says, you cannot trust such a person’s testimony since all men are liars. It is amazing stuff. He continues:

“Yes, it is true that one is to have faith in baptism, but one is not to base baptism on one’s faith…He who allows himself to be baptised on the basis of his faith, he is not only ignorant, but also a godless denier of Christ, because he trusts and builds on that which is his…” (Ibid, Italics and translation mine.)

A person’s confession of faith is of no value whatsoever, according to Luther. One is not to be baptised on the basis of one’s faith but to have faith in the rite of infant baptism, or at least in the baptism conducted in church according to the rubric of the church. What a baptism into darkness and superstition this teaching is. Those who are baptised on the basis of their faith are now condemned by Luther as being ‘godless deniers of Christ’. Those who profess a conversion through repentance and faith, Luther decries for being arrogant and superior, as if they had been given some special gift which puts them above others! In other words, Luther doesn’t believe in a personal experience of salvation to which the Anabaptists gave witness to. Luther cannot identify with it at all.

Luther certainly believed that all men were sinners, but he could not understand that the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ could so convict a person of sin, so as to induce in him or her a deep repentance and faith in Christ, whereby that person was converted. Luther’s own words reveal this. And that such a converted person could have an assurance of sins forgiven, and of an inward change so that they wanted to be baptised as a witness to a new life in Christ – all this was regarded as arrogant pride and self-deception. This was Luther’s view of the conversion of the Anabaptists – as it was of his contemporary Protestant Reformers.

The Reformers’ views made them deadly opponents to the Anabaptists. They regarded Anabaptist teaching and practice as something that deprived people of God’s gracious means of salvation through infant baptism, and moreover, that it threatened to overturn Christendom. Luther is adamant in his defence of infant baptism:

“So I let those rave who want to. I hold that the absolutely surest baptism is child baptism. Since an older person can deceive…but a child cannot deceive…But he who is baptised according to God’s word and command, even if there were no faith, nevertheless the baptism would be true and sure because it is done as God has commanded…So the basis of our baptism is now the strongest and surest, as God has made a covenant with all the world, to be the God of the Heathens in all the world.” (Ibid, Italics and translation mine).

Personal testimonies of conversion are to be discounted, as people simply cannot be trusted! We have the thought clearly expressed again that even if the person being baptised has no faith, yet if it is done as God has ordained, the baptism is valid and effective. And the last sentence represents one of the foundations of Christendom – it is through infant baptism that God makes the heathen to be His own people. Just keep baptising the infants born in the parish and you create your own little Christian nation!

Calvin takes the same view completely. In his Institutes he states:

“But how, they ask, are infants regenerated, when not possessing a knowledge of either good or evil? We answer, that the work of God, though beyond the reach of our capacity, is not therefore null. Moreover, infants who are to be saved (and that some are saved at this age is certain) must, without question, be previously regenerated by the Lord. For if they bring innate corruption with them from their mother’s womb, they must be purified before they can be admitted into the kingdom of God, into which shall not enter anything that defiles (Rev. 21:27). If they are born sinners, as David and Paul affirm, they must either remain unaccepted and hated by God, or be justified. And why do we ask more, when the Judge himself publicly declares, that “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God”? (John 3:3.) But to silence this class of objectors, God gave, in the case of John the Baptist, whom he sanctified from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15), a proof of what he might do in others. They gain nothing by the quibble to which they here resort—viz. that this was only once done, and therefore it does not forthwith follow that the Lord always acts thus with infants.” (BK 4, Ch. 16     P. 17.)

It is clear here that Calvin taught baptismal regeneration of infants, going so far as to state that through infant baptism ‘innate corruption’ is purified so that the infant can be regenerated into the kingdom of God. Calvin’s justification of his view is his reference to John the Baptist being filled with the Holy Spirit from infancy. Did he not read that ‘he that is least in the Kingdom of God is greater’ than John the Baptist? Truly it could be said of the Reformers that they taught ‘understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm’. (1 Timothy 1:7)

In their writings, fundamentally the reformers reject totally the idea of a personal conversion outside of baptism – they certainly rejected all the testimonies that the Anabaptists gave of their repentance and faith. In other words, no one can be saved based on their personal testimony of what God has done in their lives. Therefore, our trust needs to be in our baptism, not in any personal feelings or experiences. We see that it was not just the Catholic Church, but that the Protestant Reformers too had their teachings that kept people out of the Kingdom of God, that deprived them of knowing God’s salvation. For Luther, you are just a godless denier of Christ if you claim to have been converted through your own faith and repentance! The institutional church, with its infant-baptised community represented the Christian Church, represented Christendom. To seek salvation outside of her and her procedures, even if it’s through personal conversion, was simply blasphemy and rendered you outside of the church and outside of salvation – and subject to the cruel persecutions of the Protestant lands.

John Calvin writes of the Anabaptists the following: “I allude to great numbers of Anabaptists… Such are the fruits which their giddy spirit produces, that repentance, which in every Christian man lasts as long as life, is with them completed in a few short days.”  (Institutes, Bk. 3, Ch. 3, P. 2)

It is clear from the statement above that neither could Calvin personally relate to the idea or experience of a personal repentance that leads to an assurance of sins forgiven through the witness of the indwelling Spirit of God. (Hebrews 10:1-3; 15-17). The Anabaptists were not claiming sinlessness or sinless perfection – they were just giving witness to what the Scriptures themselves declare, and to their experience of it. It is also completely false to impute to the Anabaptists the belief that one only needed to repent once in one’s life – there is simply a distinction between a repentance that leads to salvation – conversion – and a repentance that relates to the specific sins of a believer in his daily walk. And the Anabaptists most certainly believed in the latter also. Calvin’s misrepresentation of the Anabaptists issues out of his failure to understand personal conversion.

Calvin’s theology keeps a person perpetually repenting because it is a theology that produces that kind of experience, since it lacks that sense of the assurance that the Gospel and its power brings into a person’s life.

What is noteworthy is that there was nothing in Calvin’s life, or in any of the other reformers’ lives, that in any way could help them identify, or have sympathy with the kind of experience that the Anabaptists were testifying to. It is a remarkable revelation of the state of their own hearts, of their own spiritual condition. The conclusion that must be drawn is that Calvin and Luther had never had an experience anything like it. The Reformers could not even reply with a “Yes, I know what you mean, but….”

To put it another way, the Reformers give no indication that they had an ‘evangelical’ experience of the Gospel – anything like compared to what the Anabaptists had. Their outlook and the views they express here are not ‘evangelical’ at all. They may correct Catholic teaching and seek to clarify certain biblical truths, such as justification by faith, but insofar as this remains in the realm of the ‘doctrinal’ and ‘intellectual’, it does not make them ‘evangelical’. An evangelical conversion changes your heart – being intellectually convinced about certain biblical truths does not constitute conversion or new birth. Writers make reference to, and seek to explain the little that Luther and Calvin wrote about the turning points in their lives. However, the accounts of these turning points do little to clarify their nature of those events, and simply beg further questions. I touch on this in the extract dealing with Luther’s teaching on justification by faith.

How can I say that these reformers had never seemed to experience this kind of life-transforming personal salvation? Well, by the words – and actions – of the Reformers themselves. Had they known something of it, anything of it, they would have recognised it in the Anabaptists and acknowledged the genuineness of it, even if they disagreed with the way Anabaptists went about doing things. Had the reformers known such a deliverance from the spiritual darkness that Catholicism had brought them into, they would have preached about it. Again, this was certainly true of some of the Catholic priests who were converted and became Anabaptists. However, as we look at the spread of the Reformation in Europe, we see that the Reformers brought about a change in the religious culture and thinking of the people, but not a spiritual awakening or a revival that resulted in the actual conversion of the many people under their ‘care’ – as one can read of the times of Whitefield and Wesley, or any other revival. Under the Reformation, people switched from one form of nominal Christianity to another – from Catholicism to Protestant.

There was little or nothing evangelistic about the Protestant Reformers. You don’t see them going from house to house, or in the marketplace or fields, preaching the Gospel and salvation from sin to those that they considered lost. How could they possibly do this without denying the validity of the infant baptism of everyone in the empire? To deny the validity of infant baptism would be to render nearly everyone, if not everyone, in the whole community as spiritually-dead heathen. This was one of the complaints of the reformers against Anabaptism. The reformers regarded their communities not as Christianised, but as Christian. For them, this society of religious people still represented Christendom. Yes, many were bad and many had been deceived by the false teaching of the Catholics, but nevertheless they were the people of God, and to be instructed as the people of God – just like the people of God in the Old Testament had to be instructed and turned back to God by the kings, judges and prophets. I deal with this when reviewing the reformers’ teaching on the nature of the Church.

The Anabaptists had no such difficulty in distinguishing between a process of Christianisation that does not, and cannot convert and change people, and the preaching of the Gospel which leads people to a genuine repentance and a true conversion, which changes the life of that person in a demonstrable way.

In large part, the Pharisees believed the Old Testament. They taught Law of Moses; they believed in the coming of a Messiah; they believed in the resurrection of the dead and many other things correctly, but their heart was far from knowing God. By their deeds of instigating the crucifixion of Christ and their persecution of Christians, they showed that they did not know God at all and were far from Him. The Pharisees represented a form of religion but denied the power thereof. The Protestant Reformers were the same. Though they might have taught some things correctly – many others they certainly did not – nevertheless, by their deeds of perpetuating a system of cruel religious intolerance against religious dissenters they showed that they did not know God. They had a form of godliness but denied the power thereof. They rejected the testimony of people who said they had been converted through a personal conviction of sin that led to their conversion to Christ, and led to them meeting with other committed believers. Such people were persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, banished and sometimes killed by the Magisterial Reformers of the 16th century, in league with the secular authorities that had given the reformers their seat and power. These are not the works of them that know Christ. The Lord Jesus said “You shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” (Matthew 7:16).

From what we read of their own writings, we see that we are not here talking about certain personal faults or blind spots of a peripheral nature – the Magisterial Reformers were men of murderous intent, and murderous actions. And this speaks of their unchanged natures. They acted according to their nature. They were of this world, of their generation, and they acted accordingly. To talk about the glory of God, and His grace and mercy while casting people into prison for disagreeing with your religion is a monumental contradiction. To say on that day, “but I taught justification by faith’ has as much value as the Pharisees who persecuted Jesus saying, “but we taught coming of the Messiah and the resurrection from the dead.” We are here reminded of the words of Jesus again, when He says, “And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.” (Matthew 7:23). In other words, “I don’t know you. I don’t recognise my nature in you.”

In Extract 2, I review the persecution promoted by the Magisterial Reformers to underline to substantiate the above comments.

Copyright  Ⓒ  David Stamen 2021        

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