Calvin’s “Reply to Sadoleto” is important for more than its brilliant defense of Reformed Christianity. It is also a window into Calvin’s soul. Calvin was usually very reticent to write much about himself, but in this work there is a remarkable personal quality that reveals a great deal about him.

By nature Calvin was a very private person. In few of his works does he write about himself. Even in his letters he does not become introspective or discuss the events of his personal life in much detail. But in “Reply to Sadoleto” he reveals indirectly a good deal of his own experience of the Reformation and the key motivations of his life. These experiences and convictions of his life are also key elements of the religion he taught as a pastor.

The character of Sadoleto’s appeal to the Genevans provided several incentives for Calvin to show something of his own experience in his reply. First, Sadoleto made a very personal attack on Calvin and the other ministers, saying that they had been motivated in their reforming work only by a desire for fame and money. Second, Sadoleto argued that only the Roman Catholic Church possessed truth, certainty, and salvation—issues of deep personal significance for Calvin. Third, Sadoleto had created several prayers in his treatise that he had put in the mouths of an imagined person to illustrate some of the points he was making. These prayers written in the first person evoked from Calvin a response written in the same language. This literary device was well known to Calvin who was acquainted with it from the writings of Quintilian, the ancient teacher of rhetoric, and had been commented on by Calvin in his early commentary on Seneca:

. . . prosopopoeia, by which it is pretended that the emperor is talking with himself, and so to speak entering into meditation. . . . And these words are more appealing through a pretended person, than if conceived as from the person of the author. So Quintilian [Institutes of Oratory, 9.2.29] teaches. For they are effective to arouse the reader, to stir feelings, to vary the discourse. Some call this figure not prosopopoeia but ethopoea, because the former invents persons who nowhere exist, whereas the latter fits these words to definite persons.2

Calvin was not being intentionally autobiographical with these prayers, but they inevitably reflected something of his own personal experience of spiritual things.

Calvin’s “Reply” began with a vigorous rejection of the idea that he was motivated by a desire for fame or money. He could more easily have found those in the Church of Rome. What motivated him, he insisted, above all was a concern for the glory of God. Where Sadoleto had declared that the Christian should first be concerned for his own salvation, Calvin maintained that the Christian must first be focused on God and his glory: “It is not very sound theology to confine a man’s thoughts so much to himself, and not to set before him, as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to show forth the glory of God. For we are born first of all for God, and not for ourselves.”3 Calvin always intended his life and thought to be God-centered.

For Calvin, once the Christian saw the glory of God as central, then a proper discussion of salvation could follow. Only when we see God as truly glorious can we see the true nature of salvation and its importance. He wrote to Sadoleto, “. . . you have a theology that is too lazy, as is almost always the case with those who have had no experience in serious struggles of conscience.”4 Laziness and self-indulgence are not the path to true theology. Calvin believed that such attitudes had dominated the old church in which he had been raised and produced a church life filled with formalism, indifference, and superstition.

Calvin’s criticism of Sadoleto at this point certainly implied that he himself had had serious struggles of conscience. What kinds of struggles? We can see echoes of those experiences in Calvin’s discussions of justification. He had struggled with the great question of how to be right with God. Calvin stressed that a correct understanding of justification was fundamental. He wrote to Sadoleto that justification was “the first and keenest subject of controversy between us.”5