How the Reformers Rediscovered the Holy Spirit and True Conversion


Luther’s story is well known; Calvin’s less so. Luther was wrestling with the concept of the righteousness of God, and had come to hate it; Calvin had an immense thirst for a secure knowledge of God, but had not found it. While not the whole truth, there is something in the notion that Luther was looking for a gracious God while Calvin was seeking for a true and assured knowledge of him.

In Luther’s case, the ordinances of late medieval Catholicism could not “give the guilty conscience peace or wash away the stain.” In Calvin’s case, neither the Church nor the immense intellectual discipline he had displayed in his teens and early twenties, and certainly not all his acquisition of the skills of a post-medieval humanist scholar, could bring him to an assured knowledge of God.


For all the differences in their backgrounds, educations, dispositions, and personalities, a good case can be made for thinking that Romans 1:16ff played a crucial role in the conversion narratives of both these reformers. We know that Luther wrestled hard with the meaning of Romans 1:16–17. He came to hate the words, finding in them an insoluble conundrum. How can “the righteousness of God” be constitutive of the good news of which Paul was so unashamed? Luther felt keenly that all it did was to damn him.

But then, as he later wrote, his eyes were opened. He had, as it were, been blind while reading the text; he had seen the words, he had not grasped their meaning. Now he saw that this righteousness was the righteousness of God by which the sinner is justified. The gates of paradise swung open; he felt himself to be born again.

Calvin seems to have been deeply affected by the verses that follow in Romans 1:18ff on the knowledge of God revealed, possessed, repressed, exchanged for idolatry, and ultimately abandoned by humanity—with faith in Jesus Christ as the alone path back to knowing God. Certainly, Ford Lewis Battles, the translator of the final Latin edition (1559) of Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion thought so. I am inclined to agree, given the tenor of Calvin’s theology and its constant focus on knowing God the Father through the Son and by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.


If asked, most of us might instinctively say that the Reformation was about justification or about (the later coined) sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura, solus Christus, and soli Deo Gloria. But in fact, it was about much more.

For none of these five solas exists in isolation from the others or more especially in isolation from the Holy Spirit. He is the sine qua non of each. Thus, the Reformation was a rediscovery of the Holy Spirit. Calvin, as B.B. Warfield famously remarked, was “the theologian of the Holy Spirit.” Faith is not born in us apart from the Spirit. Grace saves and keeps, but it is not a substance received by us but the disposition of God toward us that is made known to us only through the Spirit. The Scriptures come to us from the mouth of God, as the Spirit breathes out the Word of God through human authors. Furthermore, as Calvin stressed, all that Christ has done for us is of no value to us unless we are united to him—and this takes place through the Spirit. He thus brings glory to the Father and the Son.

What then did the Reformers discover? Luther’s references to the Spirit, like most of his theology, are not found tidily packed in their own separate compartment. Calvin comes nearer to a systematic presentation in The Institutes. But both made a simple but monumental discovery.


Increasingly over the centuries, the Church had usurped the role of the Holy Spirit in the economy of salvation. The most obvious indication of that emerged in the way—indeed quasi-physical way—grace and salvation were mediated to the individual through the sacraments. In a sense, for all practical purposes, salvation was locked up in the sacraments—with the keys kept safely in the pockets of the priests and prelates of the Church.

The consequences of this were theologically and existentially disastrous. The role of the Spirit had been usurped; his authority was sequestered by the priesthood. Consequently, instead of experiencing assurance of forgiveness and personal knowledge of God, both of which are the birth right of every true child of God, members of the Church were kept in doubt and suspense about their salvation. As Luther saw, they were being urged to build up righteousness with the aid of the sacraments, so that, perhaps, they just might develop a faith so suffused with perfect love that they would have become justifiable.

This was the medieval doctrine of “heaven helps those who help themselves,” the justification of those who have been made just, the justification of the righteous-by-sacramental cooperation. While the system enabled the Church to claim this justification was “by grace,” this grace was never “alone.” It required co-operation and progress. But how could people be sure they had “done enough”? No one could be sanguine about his or her salvation. How could they be?

It was just here, for Luther and Calvin, that the Holy Spirit entered, opening eyes to the fact that all our salvation and every part of it is found in Christ alone (as Calvin loved to say); here the Holy Spirit entered, opening blind eyes, melting hardened affections, and drawing forth the response of saving faith.

No wonder Luther felt himself born again, and that “the Gates of Paradise had been flung open.”

No wonder, if Calvin experienced his “sudden” or “unexpected” conversion when he realized the Church had taught him “knowledge falsely so-called.” She had wrongly interposed herself between the believer and Christ. But then the Spirit came and Calvin discovered that every part of salvation is found in Christ alone.

No wonder then, that John Knox said the explanation for the Reformation was that God gave the Holy Spirit to ordinary men in great abundance.

Image Credit

Sinclair Ferguson

Sinclair Ferguson is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor's Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary.

9Marks articles are made possible by readers like you. Donate Today.