Calvin did not dismiss Sadoleto’s concern for the authority of the church in a cavalier or individualistic fashion. He made clear that he loved the unity and harmony of the church. But that church must honor the Word of God above itself. “May ours be the humility which, beginning with the lowest, and paying respect to each in his degree, yields the highest honor and respect to the Church, in subordination, however, to Christ, the Church’s head. May ours be the obedience which, while it disposes us to listen to our elders and superiors, tests all obedience by the Word of God. Last, may ours be the Church whose supreme care it is humbly and religiously to venerate the Word of God, and submit to its authority.”19 In this same vein, he presents a prayer: “My conscience told me how strong the zeal was with which I burned for the unity of your Church, provided your truth were made the bond of harmony.”20 The Word must be the power of life and peace within the church. True unity and peace are in the truth of the Scriptures.

Calvin acknowledged that asserting the authority of the Word was not a simple solution to all problems. The Word itself was sometimes misunderstood. But whatever the problem or difficulty, the Word was a better and clearer and safer guide than some supposed inerrancy in the church. He has the Christian in his “Reply” pray: “. . . the only thing I asked was that all controversies should be decided by your Word.”21

For Calvin the Holy Spirit taught the truth of justification through the Scriptures in the church. Calvin’s great concerns for justification, the Word of God, and the church were united and energized by his belief in the Holy Spirit. For this reason he reacted sharply to Sadoleto’s improper appeal to the Spirit as a guide for the church apart from the Word. “The Spirit was promised not to reveal a new doctrine, but to impress the truth of the gospel on our minds. . . . And you, Sadoleto, by stumbling on the very threshold [of theology], have paid the penalty of that offense which you offered to the Holy Spirit when you separated him from the Word. . . .The Spirit goes before the Church, to enlighten her in understanding the Word, while the Word itself is like the Lydian stone [a touchstone], by which she tests all doctrines.”22 Only the Spirit could open the eyes of Christians, including leaders of the church, to the truth of God’s Word.

Calvin’s “Reply” in 1539 was shaped by his passion for the glory of God and by the peace with God that he had experienced in Christ after his recognition of the seriousness of his sin. He was convinced that only through the Bible and the work of the Holy Spirit had he come to know this peace in Christ. He was certain that the old church had gravely distorted the truth and needed thorough reform.

These certainties that guided the life and work of John Calvin developed out of his own experience. They met needs in his life that were theological but were also deeply personal. For him personally his struggles of conscience were relieved by the certainty of the gospel of grace. Theologically the certain church of the Middle Ages was replaced by the certain Scripture of the Reformation. These certainties to which Calvin had come gave him a clear focus amidst the anxieties and changes of his life. One scholar called Calvin “a singularly anxious man.”23 While such a statement may be somewhat exaggerated, Calvin did have anxieties that emerged both from his personal experiences and from the rapid changes that society was undergoing in the sixteenth century. In response to these anxieties Calvin found great certainties in religion reformed by the Bible. Those certainties brought a stability to his life that is reflected in the clarity of his thought and his great productivity as pastor and theologian. Calvin lived out the faith about which he had written to Sadoleto, a faith that was “that full and firm assurance commended by Paul, which leaves no room for doubt, and does not hesitate and waver among human arguments about which party to join. Rather it maintains its consistency though the whole world oppose it.”24