Calvin presents his thought on justification in his “Reply” in terms of several steps. The first was self-examination. The sinner must come to recognize his own plight: “First, we tell a man to begin by examining himself. He must not do this in a superficial or perfunctory way, but must call his conscience before the judgment seat of God. When he is sufficiently convinced of his iniquity, then he must reflect on the strictness of the judgment pronounced on all sinners. When thus confronted and amazed at his misery, then he prostrates and humbles himself before God. He casts away all self-confidence and groans as if given up for final destruction.”6 The conscience of the sinner must come to see profoundly his lostness and helplessness. Calvin made this same point in his Institutes: “. . . no man can descend into himself and seriously consider his own character, without perceiving that God is angry with him and hostile to him.”7

This theme of very serious and searching self-examination was not an incidental matter for Calvin. Rather it was absolutely central to Reformation theology and spirituality. In many ways the Reformation was born out of the sense of the hopelessness and spiritual powerlessness of sinners. For Calvin the complete lostness of man was not only a teaching of the Bible and of all sound theology since the days of the church father Augustine (354–430)—it was also part of his own experience. Scattered throughout the “Reply” are indications that Calvin had personally struggled with his own sin and the terrible judgment that awaited him apart from Christ.

Calvin preserved something of this struggle before coming to faith in his final edition of the Institutes in the very first section of the first chapter: “. . . every one, therefore, must be so impressed with a consciousness of his own unhappiness as to arrive at some knowledge of God. Thus a sense of our own ignorance, vanity, infirmity, depravity, and corruption, leads us to perceive and acknowledge that in the Lord alone are to be found true wisdom, solid strength, perfect goodness, and unspotted righteousness.”8

For example, in the “Reply” Calvin elaborates on this theme of struggle in one of the prayers he puts in the mouth of his average Christian: “I expected a future resurrection, but hated to think of it, since it would be a most dreadful event. And this feeling not only had dominion over me in private, but had its origin in the doctrine that was then everywhere delivered to the people by their Christian teachers.”9 Further the prayer speaks of efforts to satisfy God with works of righteousness: “When, however, I had performed all these things, though I had some intervals of quiet, I was still far-off from true peace of conscience; for, whenever I descended into myself, or raised my mind to you, O God, extreme terror seized me—terror which no expiations or satisfactions could cure. And the more closely I examined myself, the sharper the stings with which my conscience was pricked, so that the only solace which remained to me was to delude myself by forgetfulness.”10

Although these prayers are not strictly autobiographical, they are so intense and personal that they must reflect something of Calvin’s experiences in his own conversion only six or seven years earlier. He had come to see for himself his desperate condition and had come to see it as essential for all sound theology and religious experience.

To Sadoleto Calvin insisted that after this self-knowledge the next necessity was a knowledge of God’s way of salvation. The sinner could hope only in God and his work since the work of man is utterly futile. Again Calvin puts words in the mouth of his representative Christian: “I was exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen, and much more alarmed at the eternal death that threatened me. As in duty bound, I made it my first business to find your way, condemning my past life, but with groans and tears.”11 That way of God is the way of Christ.