The Magisterial Reformation: Part 4

  1. The Reformers’ false notion of the Church.
  2. The Reformers’ false notion of Infant Baptism.
  3. The Reformers’ false notion of Conversion. The Reformers deny Conversion Experience.

The idea of the church as a ‘mixed multitude’ of wheat and tares – ‘Christendom’.

We have looked at the views of the reformers regarding the relationship between the church and state, and how they firmly believed that the authority and force of the government should act as a divine arm of the church in suppressing and eliminating heresy from its regions. We will now consider in more detail what has been mentioned before, namely, what the reformers’ view was on the nature of the church, and in this matter, the reformers’ view of infant baptism certainly played a central role.

I have already mentioned that believer’s baptism was vigorously and hotly opposed by the reformers because this one teaching directly struck at the heart and foundation of a system that had lasted for over 1000 years – it impinged on the concept of Christendom, on the nature of the relationship between Church and State, indeed, on the nature of the Church itself. The reformers were entrenched in the view that the Church consisted of all those within the territory of the governing ‘Christian’ government – and this was underpinned and secured by infant baptism. Whereas the Anabaptists were clear in their understanding that the Church was made up of members who could testify to a personal repentance and faith – a personal conversion – followed by baptism, and leading to a changed life. Who can doubt that this latter view was the scriptural one?

This inevitably represented a clash of two mutually exclusive views.

We will start our survey of this debate by looking at some of the statements of Luther, who, in what he says, also misrepresents the Anabaptists. He wrote:

“From the beginning of the church, heretics have maintained that the church must be holy and without sin. Because they saw that some in the church were the servants of sin, they denied forthwith that the church was the church, and organised sects…This is the origin of the Donatists…and of the Anabaptists in our times…It is the part of wisdom not to be offended when evil men go in and out of the church…The greatest comfort of all is the knowledge that they do no harm but that we must allow the tares to be mixed in…By this zeal for only wheat, and a pure church, they bring about, by this too great holiness, that they are not even a church, just a sect of the devil.” (Werke, St. Louis Edition, Vol. VII. P. 200. Quoted in The Reformers And Their Stepchildren, Verduin, p. 107.)

‘Holy and without sin’ is not what the Anabaptists taught. ‘Holy’, yes, but ‘without sin’ is a teaching he wrongly imputes to them. Luther’s remarks raise the question again regarding what kind of ‘conversion’ the reformers had experienced in their lives when they could not conceive of a church made of ‘committed’ members whose lives had been radically changed by the power of the Gospel. They could only perpetuate this nebulous, indistinct mixture of the ‘wheat’ and ‘tares’. The pursuit of holiness among the flock is simply dangerous, Luther claims. Those who oppose his doctrine, Luther calls a ‘sect of the devil’.

In this writing, Luther picks up on Augustine’s persecution of the Donatists. Luther claims that the ungodly within the church do no harm, that the godly and ungodly are meant to live side by side without really being able to tell who the godly ones are! However, Luther’s statement stands in direct contradiction to what Paul writes to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 5:6, 7, 9-13; 2 Cor. 6:14). In this passage, Paul also clearly writes about those who are ‘outside’ the church and those ‘within’. The ability of the reformers, who trumpeted the phrase, ‘the Scriptures alone’, to ignore and contradict the clear meaning of biblical passages is amazing. Calvin does actually mention the Corinthian church in this context, but the point he makes is that the passage in the Corinthian letter proves that the Church is made up of sinners and saints! (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book. 4, Ch.1, P. 14.) Calvin ignores the context of the letter, which simply confirms that Paul was dealing with the sins of some of the believers who were part of a church, but a church that was distinct and separate from the world.

The Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession declares: “For truly all creatures are in but two classes, good and bad, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who [have come] out of the world, God’s temple and idols, Christ and Belial; and none can have part with the other. To us then the command of the Lord is clear when He calls upon us to separate from the evil and thus He will be our God and we shall be His sons and daughters.”

It seems obvious that the Anabaptists had a far better understanding of the nature of the church than the reformers. However, to this the Protestant pastors in northern Germany objected and wrote the following:

“When men talk about the marks of the Christian church, the characteristics by which men may find it, so as to be joined to it, then we call the church, that mass of people among which the word of God is purely preached and the sacraments are administered according to the institution of Christ. Where these two marks are in evidence, then we are not to question it, but that God has more certainly, among this unwieldy mass of called ones, his own little group of true believers, let them be few or many… The kingdom of God is like a man who sowed good seed in his field but….” (Italics mine. Quellen Hesse, p. 444) (N1)

Here is the religious ‘worldview’ of the reformers. It is significant. It is what I have been highlighting throughout this study. The reformers now found a view that enables them to contradict the Scriptures – not by appealing to the word of God, but by an argument outside of it. The mass of people who have in their midst a church building, where the Bible is taught and the sacraments administered, are now all considered as incorporated into ‘the church’, and are part of it. The church encompasses all those in the given locality. Both Calvin and Luther held exactly the same view. This is one of the foundational teachings of the Reformation.

The Anabaptists sought a church of committed members, and the reformers wanted to maintain the status quo of the ‘Christianised’ community.

John Calvin takes the same view as Luther and asserts that, “…because oftentimes no difference can be observed between the children of God and the profane, between his proper flock and the untamed herd…But as they are a small and despised number, concealed in an immense crowd, like a few grains of wheat buried among a heap of chaff, to God alone must be left the knowledge of his Church, of which his secret election forms the foundation.” (Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P. 2. Italics mine). Calvin proceeds to assert that, “we are not enjoined here to distinguish between the elect and the reprobate (this belongs not to us, but to God only…”). (Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P. 3. Italics mine). Calvin then goes on to agree with Luther and the German pastors quoted above that, “Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence…”. (Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P. 9).

In other words, the presence of a state-recognised Church building in a location defines the locality and its citizens as ‘Christian’, and Calvin bizarrely asserts that we cannot know, and it is not our place to know who God’s children are in the church community, and that you cannot generally pick them out anyway, but he admits that “in this Church there is a very large mixture of hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance: of ambitious, avaricious, envious, evil-speaking men…”. (Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P. 7). To validate the existence of such a ‘Church’, Calvin defines this mixture, where the ungodly outnumber the godly, and the latter can scarcely be identified, if at all, as the ‘visible church’. The ‘invisible’ Church is that group of believers from all ages who are known only to God. Thus, the reformers’ doctrine of the Church was constructed to be ‘inclusive’ of all infant-baptised citizens in the community, city or country.

What kind of religion were the reformers in? They show no understanding of the Scriptures or scriptural truths regarding the nature of the Church.

If Calvin is saying that the number of true godly believers is very few in the midst of the so-called ‘visible’ Church, one wonders that this didn’t cause a problem for the reformed ministers in deciding what to preach and teach in churches! If you genuinely believe that the Church is a mixed multitude where the false or ungodly believers predominate, should not the thrust of the preaching be evangelistic? Should your preaching not be adapted and targeted to cater for both? Should you not labour for the conversion of souls? But then you come up against another issue, namely, that the reformers believed that their listeners, having been baptised as infants, were already Christians, or at least on the Christian path. It would seem to me that this kind of outlook and approach would neither build up any true Christians nor convert the sham ones – it just perpetuates the process of Christianisation that had begun under Constantine – it results in dead religion and nominal Christians, however much they may assent to the dogma of the church and to justification by faith.

Justus Menius, was one of Luther’s trusted associates and was ardent in his persecution of Anabaptists. He wrote at length against them, declaring:

“This is an intolerable blasphemy that they reject the public ministry of the word, and teach that one can be saved without the sermon and the ministry of the Church. From this would ensue the destruction of the churches and rebellion against the ecclesiastical order, for which they should be punished just like for any other insurrection.  And it is these two reasons that were brought against the Donatists by the old Emperors in inflicting painful punishments on them. The first, that the Donatists tore the churches apart and condemned the sacraments and the churches in every place, because they [ed. the established churches] tolerate the evil ones in them and they [ed. the Donatists] want a pure church, just like the Anabaptists…in this world a pure church is not possible, even as Christ often warned and taught us, so we should just tolerate them [i.e., the evil ones].” (Schmidt, Gustav, Justus Menius, der Reformator Thüringens, Band I, p.163, 164. Translated from the German by me. Italics mine.)

All the leading Reformers sing from the same song sheet, either quoting Augustine’s or the Roman Emperors’ persecution and punishment of the Donatists to justify their actions against the Anabaptists. It is obvious that the Anabaptists did believe in the ministry of the word, but did not believe that the state-sponsored Church had a Gospel that could change peoples’ lives! On the other hand, Menius could not conceive of anyone obtaining salvation through the preaching of a layman in a home rather than in a state-designated church building.  In this quote we see clearly what I have mentioned a number of times, namely, that the reformers saw believer’s baptism and the creation of a Church of committed believers as a threat that would overthrow the existing order of things. To the reformers, not allowing ‘evil men’ into the Church was an evil approach to take! The impenetrable citadel of ‘Christendom’, which represented their worldview, would not, could not tolerate Anabaptist teaching. Scripture had nothing to do with it, except to be misused and abused by their interpretations of it.

Calvin expresses all these points in his Institutes:

Such of old were the Cathari and the Donatists, who were similarly infatuated. Such in the present day are some of the Anabaptists, who would be thought to have made superior progress…Thinking there is no church where there is not complete purity and integrity of conduct, they, through hatred of wickedness, withdraw from a genuine church, while they think they are shunning the company of the ungodly. They allege that the Church of God is holy. But that they may at the same time understand that it contains a mixture of good and bad, let them hear from the lips of our Saviour that parable in which he compares the Churchto a field which, planted with good seed, is by the fraud of an enemy mingled with tares...” (Bk. 4 Ch. 1, P. 13. Italics mine.)

“…the Donatists…separated themselves from the flock of Christ. Similar, in the present day, is the conduct of the Anabaptists, who, acknowledging no assembly of Christ unless conspicuous in all respects for angelic perfection, under pretence of zeal overthrow everything which tends to edification…ensnaring the weakattempt to draw them entirely away, or at least to separate them; swollen with pride…turbulent in sedition.” (Bk. 4, Ch. 12, P.12. Italics mine.)

It was wholly unjust of Calvin to completely distort the teaching of the Anabaptists by claiming they sought or required an ‘angelic perfection’ and thus to accuse them of claiming a ‘superior progress’. He is creating false alternatives. This is simply a strategy to easily dismiss what they actually did teach in order to justify his idea of Christendom. To justify the latter, reference is made again to the parable of the tares and wheat.            The Anabaptists in their writings did not lay claim to angelic perfection but testified to a repentance and faith that brought them into the salvation offered by Christ. We notice again that Calvin too takes the (Catholic) view that the state-sponsored church with its Bible teaching and sacraments represents the ‘flock of Christ’, the true and only Church.

Like Menius, Calvin accuses the Anabaptists not only of separating themselves and others from the ‘true’ Church, but also of threatening it with division and sedition, and labels them as agents of Satan. He complains that the Anabaptists separation from worldly and ungodly people is excessive and contrary to Scripture:

“…the correction of a brother’s fault, which in Scripture is enjoined to be done with moderation, without impairing the sincerity of love or breaking the bond of peace, they pervert to sacrilegious schism and purposes of excision. Thus Satan transforms himself into an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14) when, under pretext of a just severity, he persuades to savage cruelty, desiring nothing more than to violate and burst the bond of unity and peace…” (Bk. 4, Ch. 12, P.12. Italics mine.)

The reformers repeatedly accused the Anabaptists of blasphemy and sedition, the overthrow of the established order – both of which were punishable by death. In what esteem the State-sponsored Church was held by the reformers is expressed by Calvin in the following words:

“But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels. For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars. Moreover, beyond the bosom of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for…” (Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P 4. Italics mine.)   

According to the reformers, the established state-sponsored Reformed Church is the one true Church, and forgiveness and salvation is not to be found outside of this ‘Mother’ Church. One is (generally) ‘born’ into it through infant baptism and one is nurtured by it until one dies. Holding this view, just as the Catholics did, the reformers were viciously intolerant of all religious dissent. There is nothing evangelical in this outlook.

Moreover, how do these arguments hold water when the Reformed Church separated itself from the Catholic Church and created its own Communion and Church? Which one is the ‘Mother Church’ now? Were they not castigating the Anabaptists for doing exactly what they had done, and for the same given reason, namely, the claim that they were only being true to scriptural teaching?

Despite the claims that the Church consists of ‘wheat and tares’, Calvin did concede the woeful spiritual condition of the established Church when writing against the Anabaptists. He states:

“Others, again, sin in this respect, not so much from that insane pride as from inconsiderate zeal. Seeing that among those to whom the gospel is preached, the fruit produced is not in accordance with the doctrine, they forthwith conclude that there no church exists. The offence is indeed well founded, and it is one to which in this most unhappy age we give far too much occasion. It is impossible to excuse our accursed sluggishness, which the Lord will not leave unpunished, as he is already beginning sharply to chastise us. Woe then to us who, by our dissolute licence of wickedness, cause weak consciences to be wounded!” (Bk 4 Ch 1, P. 13. Italics mine.)

And again,

“because pastors are not always sedulously vigilant, are sometimes also more indulgent than they ought, or are prevented from acting so strictly as they could wish; the consequence is, that even the openly wicked are not always excluded from the fellowship of the saints. This I admit to be a vice, and I have no wish to extenuate it…” (Bk. 4, Ch. 1, P. 15. Italics mine.)

This assessment is true and will also be illustrated shortly below and later when we look at Calvin’s time in Geneva. However, Calvin inevitably tries to justify the unjustifiable. He holds on to this idea that the ‘mixed multitude’ of largely nominal believers does still represent the ‘Church’ and that one should not separate from it:

“But although the Church fail in her duty, it does not therefore follow that every private individual is to decide the question of separation for himself…it is one thing to shun the society of the wicked, and another to renounce the communion of the Church….For when he exhorts us to pure and holy communion, he does not require that we should examine others, or that everyone should examine the whole church, but that each should examine himself…the correction of a brother’s fault, which in Scripture is enjoined to be done with moderation, without impairing the sincerity of love or breaking the bond of peace…”  (Bk. 4 Ch. 1, P. 15 & Ch. 12, P.12. Italics mine.)

Calvin has already admitted to the woeful spiritual and moral condition of many, and now seeks to put a ‘plaster’ on this mortal wound of a ‘Christianised’ Church of largely nominal believers by advocating that discipline is to be exercised with ‘moderation’ so as not to ‘break the bond of peace’ – and this is exactly what Calvin accuses the Anabaptists of doing, namely, they were breaking the ‘bonds of peace’ by their self-exclusion from the State Church. The nature of this Church will become more apparent when we look at Calvin’s attempts ‘Christianise’ Geneva.

Calvin has no biblical understanding of the Church, which is Christ’s. His understanding is Catholic and darkened by a ‘Christendom’ that he is part of and promotes.

Although Calvin realised that not everyone was godly who came to church, he nevertheless treated the community as those who are incorporated within the Church. The Protestant Reformers did not recognise, would not acknowledge that the territory over which they ruled together with the secular authorities was divided between two classes of people, namely, Christians and unbelievers, converted and unconverted. This was not their worldview. The reformers took their cue from the Old Testament and the idea of imposing a ‘theocratic’ rule over the whole community or nation. We will now consider this aspect of their teaching.


Fundamental to this issue, and closely related to the above, was how the reformers made use of the Old Testament (OT) to build their notion of the Church. The reformers had an OT view of the church – they viewed the church not as a gathering of called-out ones from every kindred tribe and nation, but that the church now takes on a national character, incorporating everyone who finds themselves under the territorial jurisdiction of the state church.

The reformers regarded their own city, territory or nation as representing God’s people, as God’s domain, as Israel had been in the OT. The whole community or nation, this mixed multitude, was now basically ‘Christian’, and represented God’s people, where God’s rule was to be imposed as it had been in the Old Testament. Thus, even as there had been many rebellious and idolatrous Jews within the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, even so now there would be many whose behaviour would be bad and ungodly within Christendom so-called, within the national state church. Yes, as we have seen, the reformers understood that there were many that were evil who went to church, but such people were not to be viewed as being unconverted, but rather they were to be admonished, rebuked and even punished within  context that equated to the nation of Israel. In Israel all the nation were God’s people, who were to be taught, admonished, rebuked and even punished for their idolatry and sins. This is how the reformers viewed their communities and lands.

The Anabaptists did not for a moment go along with this, believing that God had done something new and had changed things completely through Jesus Christ. They believed in a New Covenant that was essentially and substantially different to the Old Covenant. On the other hand, the reformers saw in Israel of the OT a model of how the Church should be under the New Covenant. Previously, we saw that Augustine invented the fantasy that like the ‘turnaround’ that happened under Nebuchadnezzar – from forcing people into idolatry to forcing them to honour the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – so too God had turned things around (from the time of Constantine) so that the ‘Church’ instead of being persecuted, was the one with power and authority, ruling over a nation of ‘God’s people’.

What darkness and blindness must have possessed the hearts and minds of the Protestant Reformers to think like this! They were no different to the Catholics in this – and in many other matters also.

Martin Luther’s Exposition of Psalm 82.

I have already reviewed Luther’s exposition of Psalm 82 when referring to his exhortations to the authorities to persecute heretics, but it also contains material relevant to this topic. In his interpretation of Psalm 82, Luther provides the rationale for the perpetuation of the concept of ‘Christendom’ and the religious intolerance that belongs to it. He fully supports and justifies the religious dictatorship that had been ongoing since the time of Constantine. (I have gone through the whole exposition in German, and the translations below from the German are my own.)

Luther’s exposition consists entirely of seeking to demonstrate two points. First, that those in secular ‘authority’ (German: Obrigkeit.) have been placed there by God and that they equate to the ‘gods’ (whether they be Princes, Noblemen or Knights) mentioned in the Psalm. Secondly, to highlight the responsibilities of the divinely appointed secular authorities, which he summarises under three principal ‘virtues’ (Tugunden)..

Luther states that there are two authorities, the spiritual and the secular, and uses this Psalm to emphasise the point that the worldly authority of the secular powers has a divine origin: “…that the worldly authority is of divine arrangement that everyone should obey and honour.”

This may seem fair enough in the light of Romans 13:1-4. However, like Calving in his Institutes, Luther goes much further than this, much further than the apostle Paul. He applies the term ‘gods’ in Psalm 82 to the secular authorities, to the German Princes and Noblemen / Lords (Fürsten und Herren), and that it is God that reigns and judges over and through them. In talking about the Emperor’s or Prince’s duty of protecting society from evil and violence, he says of the secular Rulers that “they have golden crowns in order that they should recognise that they have been made gods by God, and that they have not come to this status of themselves, and so should be His helpers.”

So, like Calvin, he claims that since the secular power is ‘from’ God, they are therefore to be subject to God’s rule of righteousness and to the instruction of the Church, and to administer righteousness through supporting the ministry of the Church and promoting the word of God. Among the three ‘virtues’ that secular rulers should possess, the first he mentions and emphasises is the responsibility to promote and to protect the ministry of the word of God and to look after the pastors. In his introduction (Vorrede) to Psalm 82, he freely criticises the Princes and noblemen for not heeding their responsibilities and exhorts them to a proper use of their power, but he also castigates the immoral and self-indulgent clerics.

Luther exhorts rulers that they should keep the first three verses of Psalm 82 with them at all times to remind them of their responsibilities under God: “Because in these (three verses) is found how the high princely and noble virtue can find its place, so that truly the worldly authority – after the ministry of the Word – is the highest form of Godly service and the most useful ministry on earth.” (Italics mine.)

Writing of the greatest virtues that a ruler can exercise, Luther says, “what greater treasure can be in the land than when God’s word is protected and administered…and false teachings are given no room. That is the place where God indeed must be dwelling as in His own temple.” (Italics mine.)

He continues by claiming that a pious Prince or Lord can “partake (of this virtue), by feeding or protecting the pastor. Indeed, this whole work and all its fruit are his (the Prince’s), as if he had done it himself, because the pastor could not remain / survive without his protection and provision. (“…weil der Pfarrherr ohne seinen Schutz und seine Kost nicht bleiben kann.”)

This is not the teaching of Romans 13! This is not what the apostle Paul was saying. By his teaching, Luther continues to prop up the system that had begun more than 1000 years earlier. The State and Church working as one, where the State supports the Church and is informed by the Church concerning what teachings and religious practices are to be allowed in the land. Did Paul have this in mind? Did Jesus have this in mind, namely, that the secular government should protect God’s Church and provide for it financially? Did Jesus teach that the church and its ministry could not continue and survive without the protection of the State? In Luther’s teaching there is no difference between the outlook that the Roman Catholics had had for centuries and the Protestants of the 16th century. They are one and the same. There is nothing evangelical about it.

The history of the Church of Jesus Christ is one of not only surviving but, at times, thriving under the persecution of the State. Luther and Calvin, blind to obvious truths of the Scripture, chose to place themselves among the many down the centuries that used the notion of Christendom to persecute Christian believers and any who dared to hold different views to the reigning State Church.

Luther sees the secular power as divinely appointed, not just as security against criminal activity (Romans 13:1-6), but as a divinely appointed agent to promote and secure the ministry of the word of God in the land! Luther picks up on the phrase ‘God stands in the congregation’ in verse one and declares, “Take note, that he calls every congregation (Gemeinen = ‘community’) or orderly gathering ‘God’s community’, because they are His own and he considers them as His own work, just as He calls Nineveh a city of God when speaking to Jonah (3:3). Because God has created all communities…”

The point that Luther is making is that a well-ordered community – or nation – is God’s community, where the people of that community represents God’s people, and where God makes the secular authorities to be ‘gods’ to order everything properly by exercising the necessary virtues and administering His righteousness  – just like the kings in Israel of old. From this, we see that verses are corrupted at will to fit in with the concept of Christendom. The reformers had little or no biblical, spiritual understanding of ‘the Church’ of the New Testament.

In Romans 13, the apostle Paul did not make the false quantum leap in logic that the reformers made. The latter started with the idea that the civil powers are ‘of God’ and ‘ordained of God’ (be it from Psalm 82 or Romans 13), but then took up these words to incorporate the State power as a divine agent in promoting and safeguarding religion in the land, making it responsible for protecting the ‘State Religion’ and forbidding teaching that is contrary to it, as well as punishing and banishing those that do. The worldview of Christendom was as a citadel in the minds of the reformers that did not let the light of the Gospel shine into their hearts. It imprisoned them in its darkness. It also imprisoned any Christian believer who had views that significantly differed from those of the State Religion!

Luther goes on to berate the secular authority for failing in their exercise of the first ‘virtue’. In what way are they failing? Luther explains that the Princes and Lords “instead of promoting the word of God as they should, they are promoting the false harmful teachers, which is what we read regarding the Kings of Israel and Judah. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel nourished the eight hundred prophets of Baal and banished instead the prophets of God…”

We notice again how the reformers carried on the delusion that the nation in which there is a recognised State Church with pious Rulers now represents not only a Christian nation, but that the nation (das Volk) itself represents the people of God (das Volk Gottes), just as the nation of Israel did, where the pious secular rulers act like the Kings in Israel, to persecute and punish blasphemers and idol worshippers, and the Lutheran Church with its clerics are the priests who inform the King of his divine duties. Having created this illusion, the reformers (as the religious priests in God’s nation) do not hesitate to tell the secular authorities (as the Kings in God’s nation) how they should treat religious dissenters and with what punishment these dissenters should be punished!

Luther vigorously stresses the prohibition that no one should preach or hold meetings who has not been officially commissioned and sent by the Church, and he makes it clear that the Anabaptists have no such commission. He then proceeds in his exposition to inveigh against them for ‘sneaking’ around and ‘creeping’ into people’s houses secretly without being ‘sent’. This leads him on to make these extraordinary observations about preaching and teaching from house to house.

“True it is that the apostles at first went to people’s homes and preached, for they had the commission and were ordained, called and sent to that work, that they should preach in every place, as Christ had told them…(Mark 16:15). But thereafter no one has such a common apostolic commission any longer. Instead, every Bishop and pastor has his diocese or parish, which Saint Peter also in 1 Peter 5:3 calls ‘kleros’ (kleros is the Greek for heritage, lot, part), that is, ‘Part’ / ‘Lot’, because to each one  (bishops and pastors) is assigned his ‘part’ of the people, as Saint Paul writes (1 Tim. 1:5), so that no one else or a stranger can undermine him [i.e. the bishop or pastor] without his knowledge or teach his parish children, whether secretly or openly. And no one should in any wise listen to such a one but inform and notify his pastor or the authority.” (Luther, Sämmtliche Werke: Band 39, 1846; Erlangen, Heyder. P. 225f.)

This again is remarkable. Yes, says Luther, in the apostolic times of the New Testament, the apostles were commissioned to preach from house to house, but now dioceses and parishes have been established – as witnessed in the NT, Luther claims – and it is the bishops and pastors who now preach and teach their flocks from the pulpit. There is now no need and no commission to preach from house to house – the flock is safeguarded against false teaching by the oversight and supervision of the only delegated authority, which is represented by the bishops and pastors of the State Church. Christendom is safe and secure in the hands of Luther!

This again highlights an aspect which I keep mentioning. Insofar as the reformers regarded their communities as essentially a ‘Christian nation’, there is no need for evangelism; no need to go from door to door or house to house, preaching the Gospel, let alone preach in a market place or field. The bishops and pastors work from their pulpits to instruct the people in the ways of righteousness, rebuking those that err.

Other Quotes.

Zwingli in arguing against the Anabaptists wrote: “It is apparent to all who believe that the Christian Covenant of the New Testament is the Old Covenant of Abraham, save only for the fact that Christ, who was only promised to them, has been made manifest to us…The intention of this is that the heathen ‘people’ (German: Volk) should after the rejection of the Jews come in their place as the ‘people of God.’” (Corpus Reformatorum.  Vol. 91 p. 635. Italics mine. Quoted, Verduin, p. 214,215.) As the Jews had been a nation of God’s people, now the Gentiles were to be a nation of God’s people. It is not that the Church is the congregation of the called-out ones from among the Jews and Gentiles and distinct from them, but the church has taken on a national dimension; this whole mixed multitude in a given area now represents a nation of God’s people. From every point of view, the idea of Christendom is maintained by the reformers.

Melanchthon is in full agreement with this worldview when writing against the Anabaptists:

“Now let every devout man consider what disruption would ensue if there should develop among us two categories, the baptized and the unbaptized! If baptism were to be discontinued for the greater part, then an openly heathen mode of existence would come about – a thing for which the devil would like very much to have the way opened.” (N2)

This is an utterly extraordinary statement. He believed that the baptised community is already a Christian community. Did he not realise that the ‘ex-Catholics’ who were now under his teaching and care were largely themselves not very different to heathens; that they were, by and large, unconverted people, just nominal Christians? Also important to note here is the assumption that infant baptism by itself makes people Christians.

These comments clearly and beyond any shadow of a doubt reveal that the reformers viewed their infant-baptised communities en masse as Christian believers, without any need of any conversion experience. Moreover, the vast majority of the people they were now teaching in their churches had been baptised as infants within the Catholic Church! To suggest that there should be a later experience (i.e., after infant baptism) that would lead a person to want to be baptised ‘again’ is, according to Melanchthon, only something the devil would advocate! The Reformed outlook was a horror house of heresies. According to his words, Melanchthon could not remotely conceive of how people who were not baptised as infants could then claim to have become Christians later, as a result of a personal conversion!

It seems that Melanchthon has no idea what it means to preach the Gospel to people, to evangelise the unconverted. For him, apparently, to do away with infant baptism would simply leave society with a vast number of heathen people, without him knowing what to do with them! Apart from baptism, he shows no indication of knowing how to bring people to Christ through the preaching of the Gospel. But given the Protestant reformers’ abhorrence and rejection of personal conversion as something deceptively subjective and arrogant, it is quite consistent that someone like Melanchthon would be at a loss to know what to do in a community of unconverted people. In contrast, we have seen that the Anabaptists knew what to do, and did it with great success and effectiveness. From this, as I have said, the question naturally arises whether the Protestant reformers ever experienced conversion in their lives; whether they ever knew that inward change, that regeneration, which is the result of responding to the evangelical Gospel.

The irony is, if not the tragedy, that the outcome of such a ‘Christianising’ of people, of perpetuating Christendom, could and did only result in and perpetuate a nominal Christianity, where many of the citizens were just as much in their sins as any heathen. Moreover, ‘justification by faith’, which was now preached to them, only helped to serve as an antidote to any doubts they might have that their conduct stood in the way of them being Christians, and where it was, the non-evangelical reformed preachers would harangue them with the Law. We will look at this aspect a bit further on.

This brings us suitably to the next topic of infant baptism.



So now we come on to consider what the reformers taught about infant baptism, and what we shall discover here is as startling as what we have already reviewed. This issue was central to the debate between the reformers and the Anabaptists.

As we have already seen, the Protestant Reformers were convinced that God ordained the ritual of infant baptism as the means of imparting grace and making them members of His church. Because they believed that infant baptism itself was of divine origin, the reformers believed that it was a valid ritual if conducted properly – irrespective of who does it or to whom it was done! It did not matter if the pastor was living immorally or if the recipient had no faith, the procedure itself was an effective means of imparting divine grace and had the ability to make the infant a child of God. This was the argument that Augustine used against the Donatists and it was the one the reformers used against the Anabaptists.

The reformers complained that believer’s baptism represents a rejection of God’s way of incorporating someone into the Church and making them a child of God. The fact that Anabaptists were baptised on the basis of a personal repentance and faith was also for the reformers far too ‘subjective’ a basis for baptism. They objected that the Anabaptists were supplanting God’s gracious means of infant baptism with their own subjective experience, which the reformers deemed to be an utterly fallible basis for baptism. You can preach ‘justification by faith’ – and we most certainly ought to – but this in itself does not make you an evangelical!

Zwingli accused the Anabaptists of a double baptism, which of course they denied, stating that the only valid baptism is the one based on a person’s repentance and faith. However, Zwingli now had to defend his stance because he had received his infant baptism at the hands of the Catholic Church. He does this in the following extraordinary way:

“If baptism were of the pope alone, I would not object to their calling the pope’s baptism either ‘not Christ’s’ or a demon’s. 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.” (Selected Works Of Huldreich Zwingli, 1484-1531, The Reformer Of German Switzerland, Ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson, 1901. Pp. 184,185. Italics mine.)

It is the ritual itself, which the reformers claim is graciously God-given, that validates infant baptism when performed in the correct way – irrespective of who performs it. When performed using the correct phraseology, it is effective in incorporating the child into the Church. Both Luther and Zwingli argued that the rite of infant baptism is valid, not because of the character of the priest, but because it is ordained of God, and it is therefore the surest foundation for our faith. Such infant-baptised communities had no need for evangelism, or to be evangelised, since they now ‘belonged’ to the Church. They just needed instruction and teaching regarding how to live as Christians. How could these Reformers believe and say such things? It is not enough to say that they were ‘men of their times’, but rather that their minds were blinded to the nature of Salvation because their hearts had not been changed by the light of the Gospel. Not understanding these things, Zwingli castigates the Anabaptists by accusing them of requiring a ‘second baptism’ from people before they can partake of the Lord’s Supper with them. For Zwingli, any infant-baptised person had a right to the Lord’s Supper since that baptism had made them a child of God. He clearly did not understand what the Anabaptists were talking about when witnessing to a personal conversion.

Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, when writing on ‘Holy Baptism’, states: “For to be baptized in the name of God is to be baptized not by men, but by God Himself. Therefore, although it is performed by human hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own work. From this fact every one may himself readily infer that it is a far higher work than any work performed by a man or a saint. For what work greater than the work of God can we do? (Large Catechism, IV, 10. Italics mine.)

Again, in the Large Catechism, commenting on Infant Baptism, Martin Luther states: “Further, we say that we are not so much concerned to know whether the person baptized believes or not; for on that account Baptism does not become invalid… Baptism is valid, even though faith be wanting…For even though a Jew should today come dishonestly and with evil purpose, and we should baptize him in all good faith, we must say that his baptism is nevertheless genuine. For here is the water together with the Word of God. Thus you see that the objection of the sectarians is vain. For (as we have said) even though infants did not believe, which however, is not the case, yet their baptism is now shown to be valid, and no one should rebaptise them… How dare we think that God’s Word and ordinance should be wrong and invalid because we make a wrong use of it?…” (LC, IV, 52, 54, 55. Italics mine.)

Luther and Zwingli find themselves in full agreement in this matter. Here again we meet the concept that the presence of ‘the word of God’ together with the ‘sacrament’ in a church building represents the authority of God and validates the divine nature of the ministry of the church in the locality, and defines the community around it as Christian. As long as the right phrases are used, the child is incorporated into the Church even if the rite of baptism were performed by the ‘archdemon’ pope, even if the person on whom the rite was performed had no faith!

Let us also take note that Luther says “no one should rebaptise them”. Thus he confirms that infant baptism ‘makes the Christian’, and that nothing that happens later should require them, or could possibly or legitimately induce them to renegade on that by a ‘second’ baptism. Luther shows no comprehension of a personal conversion, which the Scriptures clearly witness to.

All this was foundational to the reformers’ teaching, and Calvin agrees. He follows in the same superstitious vein,

“Moreover, if we have rightly determined that a sacrament [of baptism] is not to be estimated by the hand of him by whom it is administered, but is to be received as from the hand of God himself, from whom it undoubtedly proceeded, we may hence infer that its dignity neither gains nor loses by the administrator….so it ought to be sufficient for us to recognise the hand and seal of our Lord in his sacraments, let the administrator be who he may. This confutes the error of the Donatists, who measured the efficacy and worth of the sacrament by the dignity of the minister. Such in the present day are our Catabaptists (Anabaptists), who deny that we are duly baptised, because we were baptised in the Papacy by wicked men and idolaters; hence they furiously insist on anabaptism. Against these absurdities we shall be sufficiently fortified if we reflect that by baptism we were initiated not into the name of any man, but into the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’ (Institutes, Bk. 4, Ch. 15, P. 16.)

Here we see that Calvin takes the same view as Luther and Zwingli. Calvin claims that the baptism that he – and that everyone else – received at the hands of the Catholic Church is valid in initiating them into the body of Christ and making them God’s children. It doesn’t matter who performs the baptism – as long as it is done in the proper way, it is effective in its purpose because it is divinely appointed. The reformers were still steeped in a Catholic mindset that not only blinded them to the truth, but made them oppose the truth of the Gospel. Calvin calls the Anabaptist arguments against his teaching ‘absurdities’. There is nothing evangelical in the approach of the reformers here. Their minds are indeed fortified, but with the darkness of a thousand years of Christendom.

Luther raged against the Anabaptists as he defended infant baptism:

“How can baptism be more grievously reviled and disgraced than when we say that baptism given to an unbelieving man is not good and genuine baptism… What, baptism rendered ineffective because I don’t believe?… What more blasphemous and offensive doctrine could the devil himself invent and preach? And yet the Anabaptists… are full up to their ears with this teaching. I put forth the following: here is a Jew that accepts baptism, as happens often enough, but does not believe, would you then say that this was not real baptism, because he does not believe? That would not only be to think as a fool thinks, but to blaspheme and disgrace God moreover.” (Werke, Vol. VII, p. 990, Louis Ed. Italics mine.)

Luther calls all those who would disagree with his view on infant baptism blasphemers and inspired by the devil. This gives us a clear insight into the nature of the reformation. How could it have been evangelical or evangelistic in changing the spiritual state of their listeners and congregations when they already regarded them as having been incorporated into the church as God’s children by the baptism that they had received in the Catholic Church? I shall keep making the point suggested and implied by the teachings and outlook of the reformers, namely, that the reformation movement was more of a human endeavour in trying to ‘re-educate’ an audience that was generally Catholic in its religion and nominal in its Christianity. The Reformation was not evangelistic in its nature or in its outlook. How could it be, given the words of Calvin and of the other reformers above?

Essentially, neither was it evangelical. Presented with congregations of largely nominal Christians whom they considered already ‘converted’ and within the community of God’s Church because of their Catholic infant baptisms, they necessarily had to resort to moralising from the Law of Moses in order to try and ‘elevate’ the outward moral conduct – and to rebuke the immoral conduct – of their congregations. We shall see this very clearly when considering Calvin’s time in Geneva.

The reformers had no insight into the spiritual condition of the congregations they were taking over from the Catholic Church – they could only recognise that they had been taught doctrine wrongly by the Catholic priests, and so addressed themselves to the matter of correcting the religious thinking of their parishioners together with their superstitious and idolatrous practices. This failure in the thinking and insight of the reformers inevitably led to an ‘elevation’ of the Law of Moses in their teachings. Of the many quotes that reveal this are the following by Calvin:

“By the word Law, we understand what peculiarly belonged to Moses; for the Law contains the rule of life, and the gratuitous covenant of life; and in it we find everywhere many remarkable sentences by which we are instructed as to faith, and as to the fear of God. None of these were abolished by Christ, but only that part which regarded the ancient priesthood.” (Calvin on Heb.7:12) 

“The substance is, that we are freed from the rigour of the law in order that we may adhere to Christ, and that the office of the law is to convince us of our depravity, and make us confess our impotence and wretchedness. (Institutes, Bk. 4, Ch.15, P.12. Italics mine.)

According to Calvin the application of the Law of Moses to our lives was not abolished by Christ. It is the Law that convinces us (Christian believers) of our depravity and wretchedness. This is the teaching of the Reformation. The Lutheran Formula of Concord (1577), states:

“We believe, teach, and confess that the proclamation of the law is to be diligently impressed not only upon unbelievers and the unrepentant but also upon those who believe in Christ and are truly converted, reborn, and justified through faith…they have been redeemed by the Son of God so that they may practice the law day and night.” (Article VI, Concerning the Third Use of the Law, paragraphs 1, 2.)

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) is equally clear in this erroneous belief:

“The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God, the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ in the gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.” (Chpt. 19, V)

John Owen, the English puritan, regarded as the Prince of Puritans, was also very clear in his view:

“Christ not only obeyed all the commandments on behalf of man, but he also bore the penalty of death. But though we are freed from the penalty of death, we are still bound to obey the law. Yet that obedience is not to gain acceptance with God, but rather it is an expression of gratitude to God for our deliverance from death. (Communion with God, p. 120)

All these statements show no understanding of the Gospel, nor of what Christ’s death on the cross accomplished, nor of the meaning of Romans 8:2-4. The quotes above directly contradict the teaching of the New Testament, epitomised by Owen’s phrase that ‘we are still bound to obey the law’. They evidently did not understand Paul’s teaching regarding the Law.


Here we have the inevitable tension or contradiction of the reformers’ teaching. Their lack of an understanding of the Gospel and its transforming power leads them into a legalistic approach. Yes, ‘free justification’ they preach, but the absence of an inward transformation by the power of the Gospel leaves the moral and spiritual condition of people unchanged. Thus, the reformers are forced to apply the Law to convince them continually of their immorality and to keep their sins in check. All the above quotes make it clear that the comments apply to believers.

The reformers believed in a gospel that saved from the guilt of sin, but not the Gospel that also saves from the power of sin and radically transforms lives so that they do not ‘serve sin’ any longer. (I shall be looking into this in the next study, which addresses the doctrines of the reformers in detail.) To keep the sins and immoral conduct of their essentially unconverted congregations in check, the reformers preached the Law from their pulpits and drummed it into their listeners as a moralising influence. The Ten Commandments and the use of the Law was an integral part of Protestant teaching. Both Luther and Calvin devote significant space in their teachings and Catechism to the exposition of the Law, and its application to the life of the believer.

This all ties in with the fact that we read of no spiritual awakenings, let alone of revivals, or of people turning to Christ, of being converted and finding salvation through the labours of the reformers. They were not engaged in evangelistic endeavours. The reformers were continually engaged in trying to reform the behaviour of a largely nominal Christian community; to do this, they inevitably resorted to preaching the commandments of the Old Testament. As I have said, this becomes abundantly clear when one reads of Calvin’s endeavours in Geneva.

We need to note again that the congregations that the reformers were now pastors of were ‘made reformed’ by a vote of the city councils in Switzerland and by the patronage of the Princes in Germany. This could impossibly result in a spiritual awakening among the people. All this simply confirmed and sealed them in a religion that was dead – be it called Catholic or Reformed.


Calvin, like other reformers, identified baptism very closely with circumcision, and he asserted infants could be regenerated. Referring to the Anabaptists, Calvin writes:

“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 and void. 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 …what I have said again and again I now repeat, that, for regenerating us, doctrine is an incorruptible seed, if indeed we are fit to perceive it; but when, from nonage (infancy), we are incapable of being taught, God takes his own methods of regenerating.” (Institutes, Bk. 4, Ch. 16, P. 16, 31. Italics mine.)

In his Institutes, Calvin argues that infants are regenerated and made partakers of Christ and incorporated into his body by baptism. Calvin in refuting the arguments of a certain person in his writings continues to emphasize this point:

“Who can infer from this that baptism is to be denied to infants, whom, when begotten of the flesh, the Lord consecrates to himself by gratuitous adoption? His objection, that if they are new men, they must be fed with spiritual food, is easily answered. By baptism they (the infants) are admitted into the fold of Christ, and the symbol of adoption is sufficient for them, until they grow up and become fit to bear solid food When he objects, that it is strange why the infant does not partake of the Supper, I answer, that souls are fed by other food than the external eating of the Supper, and that accordingly Christ is the food of infants, though they partake not of the symbol…” (Institutes, Bk 4, Ch. 16, P. 31. Italics mine.)

Calvin claims that to attack their teaching on infant baptism is a device of the devil because it deprives the baptised person of the assurance that they are God’s:

“Doubtless the design of Satan in assaulting pædobaptism with all his forces is to keep out of view, and gradually efface, that attestation of divine grace which the promise itself presents to our eyes…For it is no slight stimulus to us to bring them up in the fear of God, and the observance of his law, when we reflect, that from their birth they have been considered and acknowledged by him as his children.” (Bk 4, Ch. 16, P. 32. Italics mine.)

Calvin is here teaching that infant baptism is actually the beginning of Christian life. It is their spiritual birth into the body of Christ, and by it, they are born and fed mysteriously until they are old enough to understand solid teaching. Here again we can clearly see how the foundation of Christendom depends upon the continuation of infant baptism. It is infant baptism that Christianises a whole nation, or in the eyes of the reformers, safeguards Christianity within its territory.

Martin Luther teaches along the same lines in his Large Catechism. He says that what takes place at baptism, at infant baptism, is the putting to death of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new man. Then he states, “Where this (infant baptism), therefore, is not practised, but the old man is left unbridled, so as to continually become stronger…Therefore the old man goes unrestrained in his nature if he is not checked and suppressed by the power of Baptism…For those who are without Christ cannot but daily become worse” (LC, IV, 68).

A remarkable statement which suggests that if infant baptism is lacking, then the truth and power of Romans 6 will be absent from the person’s life and they will grow up to experience greater temptations of the flesh and more prone to sin! He also clearly states that those who have not been baptised as infants are ‘without Christ’, meaning that those who have been baptised, have Christ.

In Luther’s Small Catechism (1529) in answer to the question, “What gifts or benefits does Baptism bestow?”, the answer given is that “it effects forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and grants eternal salvation to all who believe, as the Word and promise of God declare.”

So Luther believes that it is baptism that effects salvation in a person’s life. Needless to say, the Anabaptists dismissed these arguments of the reformers as having no foundation in the Scriptures.



For both Calvin and Luther, infant baptism is a great source of comfort and encouragement when facing trials and difficulties as a Christian.

When writing on ‘Holy Baptism’ in his Large Catechism, Luther states:

“Thus, we must regard baptism and put it to use in such a way that we may draw strength and comfort from it when our sins or conscience oppress us, and say: ‘But I am baptized! And if I have been baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body…’ No greater jewel, therefore, can adorn our body and soul than baptism, for through it we become completely holy and blessed, which no other kind of life and no work on earth can acquire.” (LC, IV, 44‒45. Italics mine.)

CALVIN echoes this bizarre thought as well. He writes:

“We ought to consider that at whatever time we are baptised, we are washed and purified once for the whole of life. Wherefore, as often as we fall, we must recall the remembrance of our baptism, and thus fortify our minds, so as to feel certain and secure of the remission of sins. For though, when once administered it seems to have passed (Ed. He is talking about infant baptism), it is not abolished by subsequent sins. For the purity of Christ was therein offered to us, always is in force, and is not destroyed by any stain: it wipes and washes away all our defilements. Nor must we hence assume a licence of sinning for the future…”. (Bk. 4, Ch.15, P. 3.)

Firstly, we notice that Calvin believes that infant baptism purifies for the whole life. The forgiveness of sins imparted at baptism is an effective foundation for all sins committed later on in life. Moreover, it is a strange if not superstitious concept of these Reformers to teach that our present comfort and encouragement should be based on an outward act, a procedure, that was performed long ago in the past when we were but infants. We are to cling on to that for comfort and assurance rather than on Christ Himself, rather from a present ongoing relationship with God, on a present faith in God and His word, and to be comforted by the consequent witness that is brought to us by the Holy Spirit. This latter context of a present faith in God rather than in a rite in the past indicates that we have a living relationship with God, where His word and Spirit are the source of our comfort and joy. Although reformers might indeed agree with this latter idea, their emphasis, and even just the notion, that infant baptism is of supreme value in bringing present comfort in trials, very much indicates a lack of personal relationship to God, and an almost superstitious belief in a religious rite. It is not some previous religious act which I was unaware of as an infant, but my present response to God that should form the basis of my comfort in trials.

If Calvin and Luther could write the statements above, how much of the witness of the Holy Spirit within their hearts did they really know? All these things impinge on the very nature of the Gospel and of Salvation in Christ. Were the reformers bringing people to the Gospel and to Christ, or barring people from knowing God and the power of His salvation in their lives because of their religious traditions. It couldn’t be more serious. And we are about to look at how serious things become regarding the nature of the Gospel.

After having read Reformed teaching, it came as no surprise to me that one of the perennial topics among reformed churches and conferences today is the question of the assurance of salvation. This lack of assurance is the inevitable result where reformed doctrine takes root in the heart and blinds the person from knowing the power and witness of the Spirit that the Gospel of Jesus Christ brings.

So, all this brings us to the debate on the nature of conversion between the Anabaptists and the Protestant Reformers.


Some background.

The Protestant Reformers wrongly attributed to infant baptism a divine agency of regeneration and incorporation into the church. We have also seen that they believed that baptism was the main God-ordained vehicle to make a person a Christian and thus perpetuate Christendom. 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 the 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 then that the 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. I shall be reviewing this teaching in the next series when we will look at the doctrines of the reformers.

Zwingli highlights this point in his writing, ‘Refutation of the Tricks of the Anabaptists.’ Zwingli argues against the First Article of the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession, which Zwingli quotes:

“Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ and to all those who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and wish to be buried with Him in death that they may rise again with Him…By this all baptism of infants is excluded.” (Italics mine.) To this Zwingli strongly objects. He labels this justification by works (just as Luther does). Zwingli says, “For if it is in our own choice or power to walk in the resurrection of Christ, or to be buried with him in death, it is open to anyone to be a Christian and a man of perfect excellence. Then Christ spoke falsely the word, ‘no one can come to me except the Father who sent me draw him.’” (Huldreich Zwingli, Samuel Macauley Jackson, 1901; p. 178,179 Italics mine.)

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 then wrote against. If we are saved solely by God’s grace through no effort or choice of our own, Zwingli argues, 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,

“But since infants are of the people of God, they are not excluded because they cannot hear or understand. For that they are members of one and the same body of God’s people is clear from this, that circumcision, the sign of the covenant, is given them, so ought baptism to be administered to infants.” (Ibid, p. 222. Italics mine.)

It is clear that the reformers believed baptism incorporated infants into the Church.

The Anabaptists would say that it was a person’s faith and repentance that brings about their conversion, which is then confirmed by the person’s commitment to baptism. The reformers found all this too subjective and too dependent on ‘fickle’ man. 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.

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 person to be baptised ‘again’ later in their life; it also then renders any ‘further’ experience of salvation not only completely redundant, but judges a claim to such an experience to be a denial of faith and of their original baptism!  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.

Thus Martin Luther 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.

We can see how 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 and that 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!

So, Luther rejects totally the idea of a personal conversion outside of baptism – he 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.

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; this completely untrue. There is simply a distinction between a repentance that leads to salvation and a repentance that relates to the specific sins of a believer in his daily walk. 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 which results in that kind of experience because it lacks the power and the sense of assurance that the Gospel brings into a person’s life. We will look at that when we come to review the doctrines of the reformers.       

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 him identify or have sympathy with the kind of experience that the Anabaptists were testifying to. It is a remarkable revelation of the state of his own heart, of his own spiritual condition. The conclusion that must be drawn is that Calvin had never had an experience anything like it. The reformers could not even reply with a “Yes, I know what you mean, but….” Calvin could only testify to a continual sense of sin which needed continual repentance. Calvin, together with Reformed teaching in general, believed that every word, thought and deed of the Christian believer was, without exception, at least to some extent polluted and corrupted by remaining sin, and would be worthy of eternal judgement but for the Atonement in Christ. The reformers teach that yes, the Holy Spirit inspires, stirs and motivates us unto good works and we make progress in sanctification, but nevertheless remaining sin renders every work imperfect and requiring the forgiveness of Christ. Nothing we do as Christians can please God (fully) because it is always polluted or corrupted by us in some measure, so requiring unceasing repentance from us.  It is no wonder that Calvin speaks of a relentless, perpetual repentance in the whole of the believer’s life. (Others have called this ‘the miserable sinner syndrome’.) It seems he had never known a ‘happy day’ when he knew that Jesus had washed his sins away. If he had, he would have at least to some extent been sympathetic to, or shown some understanding of the experience of the Anabaptists. 

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, or that are recorded in the New Testament, as with the apostle Paul, for example. 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 the ‘intellect’, 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, these turning points do little to clarify their nature of such turning points and simply beg further questions – that I hope are here being addressed!

The reformers rejected and condemned the experience of the Anabaptists as arrogant pride and deception; they accused the Anabaptists of making themselves out to be super-spiritual Christians and as having some exclusive access to God. To speak of knowing one’s sins forgiven was virtually blasphemous to the reformers. They could only imagine that the Anabaptists were claiming to be sinless, which was very far from the truth; indeed, it was not true at all of ‘mainstream’ Anabaptist teaching.

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 rejoiced with them. Had they known such a deliverance from the spiritual darkness that Catholicism had brought them into, they would have preached about it. However, as we proceed to look at the spread of the Reformation in Europe, we will 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.

There was little or nothing evangelistic about the Protestant Reformers. You don’t see them going from house to house, or in the marketplaces or fields, preaching the Gospel of 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. But such thoughts had no room in their thinking. They 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 OT had to be instructed and turned back to God by the kings, judges and prophets.

The Anabaptists had no such difficulty in distinguishing between a 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.

What real spiritual change could this bring about in the people they were now preaching to? We will have a look at this in the next part.


(N1) Quellen Hesse =  Urkundliche Quellen zur hessischen Reformationsgeschichte, 4 Band (Wiedertäuferakten, 1527-1626), von Günther Franz (nach Walter Köhler, Walter Sohm, Theodor Sippell bearbeitet) (Marburg, 1951). Quoted in The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, Verduin, p.116.

(N2)  (Werke, St. Louis Edition, Vol. XX  col. 1718. Quoted, Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, p. 209.)


Copyright  Ⓒ  David Stamen 2021