What The Reformed Can Learn From A 1532 Synod: Free Justification Leads To Free Sanctification

The Reformed theology, piety, and practice is about as old as the Reformation itself. Scholars often describe the Reformation as if it were the child of the second phase of the Reformation. This is because when they think of the Reformed Reformation, they tend to think almost exclusively of Calvin and Geneva, which reformation did not begin until 1536. By that time, the mature (or more mature) Lutheran Reformation had been underway for about 15 years. The Reformed, however, embraced the Protestant Reformation right away. They were Luther’s children on justification, sanctification, sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura. Zwingli embraced the Reformation in the early 1520s and began arriving at identifiably Reformed convictions after his brief dalliance with the Schwärmerei, i.e., the Anabaptists. Remember, Luther did not become a Protestant in one shattering experience, the so-called Türmerlebnis or Tower Experience. He gradually developed and embraced the essentials of the Reformation theology and piety from 1513–21. Oecolampadius, Zwingli, and Bucer were not far behind chronologically. All were indebted to Luther. There is another carnard that must die: the utterly unjustifiable notion that there were two parallel Reformation movements, the Lutheran and the Reformed. There was no such thing. The Reformed Reformation was Luther’s child. Calvin called Luther his father.

This Synod is prima facie evidence of Luther’s influence on the Swiss Reformed Reformation. When the series is done, I expect to gather it into one (large) post but as we have moved through the document we have documented the remarkable ways in which Synod was, in effect, countering the caricature of Swiss Reformed theology that would develop over the centuries. It is almost as if Synod was looking ahead and seeing what scholars would be writing about them. Ad fontes!

Now comes a series of brief chapters, a few of which we will survey here, on the Christian life and sanctification:

The apostle writes that God commends His love toward us, in that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and enemies of God (Rom. 5). From this it follows that sin should be to us detestable and odious, inasmuch as the Son of God had to die for us, to bear away such a weight of sin. Through the Holy Spirit, He was once offered for us and obtained for us an eternal redemption.

From this it is evident how much mischief and accursedness lies in our hearts, which may be cleansed and healed only through so costly a sin offering and the sprinkling of the blood of God. Besides this there is no other help.

God is man’s Creator, and man ought to submit himself wholly to his God. But that is not in his nature, for instead he seeks the creatures, himself, and his own pleasure. He makes of himself an idol and assigns to himself divine honor, and this is his fundamental urge. This explains why no one wishes to be scorned.1

The Christian life is grounded in the objective work of Christ for his elect: Christ died for sinners (Rom 5:8). That is the gospel. Contra Rome and all the other moralists, this gospel truth does not lead to sin but to sanctity. The gospel seizes a believer. It makes him say, “I am not my own. I have been bought with a price.” This is why talk of a “debtor’s ethic” is so wrongheaded. It fundamentally misunderstands not only Paul’s vision of the grateful Christian life, lived in union and communion with Christ, but also the Reformation recovery of the gospel and the free Christian life.

Outside of Christ our sin is not odious because we are dead in sins and blind. In Christ, however, sin becomes odious because we are given new life and a love for the Savior who lived and died for us. We see how great our sins and misery are, that they cost Jesus his life and caused him to bear the weight of  God’s wrath for us.

We also learn that we can only be gradually and graciously sanctified, i.e., brought into conformity to Christ, on the basis of and through the death of Christ. That is our justification but it is also the beginning of our sanctification. In the state of fallen nature, we are idolaters. In a state of grace, we seek to honor God—not in order to be saved but because we have been saved.

The death of Christ quite quickly acquainted the apostle with our accursed nature, while through the law of Moses it was only with great labor and difficulty that the Jews came to know their sin. For this reason it is simply through Christ, rather than by the law, that the Gentiles have been shown their sin and the reconciliation, and without any of the tutelage which entails a backward glance at Moses. It is nothing but a dead and cold thing, and lacks life, when one comes to know his sin through the law. What work you have had to turn the Jews away from Moses and lead them to Christ! Why then would we wish to refer our people away from Christ to the servitude of the law?2

When the Synod contrasts the law with the cross, it is contrasting the Old Covenant with the New Covenant. These are organically related but they are distinct administrations of the one covenant of grace. Under the Old Covenant, Moses, the law worked slowly. Under the New Covenant, the cross works, as Synod said, “quite quickly.” Synod notes, in this shorthand, the compressed history of the apostolic period. The history of the Old Covenant stretches a millennium. The Apostolic period lasts a century.

We can tell that the Swiss Reformed were thinking and speaking in redemptive-historical terms, rather than in purely theological categories, here because they speak of a “backward glance at Moses.” They are not denying that the law convicts sinners. They are confessing that the Old Covenant laws had no power to do what only Christ can do. In that there is an implied contrast between the two principles of law and gospel. They are also implicitly rebuking the Romanists for leading the church back into a servitude of the law by taking the church back to types, shadows, codes, and priests, as if Christ never was.

Where the false apostles have gotten a footing, and taught that the law is necessary in addition to Christ, the true apostle is compelled to point out to what purpose and how far Moses and his ministry is useful. But he has no need to do this with the Gentiles who have believed with simplicity, and hoped for the forgiveness of sin from Christ, and who follow and imitate Christ, and look to Him in all their conduct. For he who believes on Christ has eternal life. Therefore, the believing Gentile does not need a legal schoolmaster, for he has already attained the freedom of sonship.3

Just as the Apostle Paul faced “false apostles” in Corinth and Judaizers in the Galatian churches (and perhaps in Philippi and Colossae) Synod appeals to the first-century controversy between Jews and Gentiles to speak, again implicitly, to the Judaizing done by the Romanists. The medieval church had come to live under an incredibly complex church calendar and a welter of church laws and doctrines that were neither taught in Scripture nor imposed by the Apostles. These were made “days of obligation” and obedience to them became a condition for justification and salvation. The church had been placed again under a covenant of works for salvation. As Protestants, the Swiss Reformed were leading the church back to the gospel and to her freedom in Christ. 

Since were are no longer under the 613 (as the rabbis counted them) commandments of the Torah now we worship and live in simplicity. We expect forgiveness of our sins by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The rule of our new life in Christ is not man-made rules but God’s Word conditioned by our freedom in Christ as adopted sons.

The church which was gathered from among the Jews observed the law with great zeal, as a matter of Christian liberty alongside their commitment to Christ, and without detriment to trust in Christ. To that end, Malachi, in describing the kingdom of Christ, warned in the voice of God, “Remember,” he said, “the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded him on Mount Horeb for all Israel, the statutes and judgments.” This was likewise concluded and confirmed by all the prophets. Why, and for how long, did God command through Malachi that they should be mindful of the law? Because, and until, they had become familiar with its impotence and true use, and thereby gained an ardent desire for the coming of the day of the Lord, and until the appearance of Elijah the preacher of repentance, and until the way of the Lord had been prepared among terrified sinners. Consequently, the office of Moses is finished, though it is kept voluntarily, and without the law’s constraint, among those for whom it is already customary. Their external practice of the law, which refreshes their faith and the inner, heavenly treasure figuratively displayed to them in the law, was observed by the apostolic church at Jerusalem, but by no other church anywhere. On this basis, Saint Paul did not teach a renunciation of the law, but received the purification at Jerusalem according to the law, in deference to the other apostles, so that it would be seen that he observed the law as something good and proper, and did not reject it as evil. On the other hand, the apostolic church at Jerusalem did not intend to bind the believing Gentiles to the law, though they were so zealous for it themselves (Acts 21). It has a usefulness among believing Jews, who make a right use of it on account of its being long customary among them. They remember that their Lord Jesus Christ kept the law, and they remember His gifts and graces, and their own sins. But the inexperienced Gentiles conceived a false confidence in good works, whether this was learned before or after they were in Christ, as if not everything is found in Christ. The believing Jews well knew from experience that the works of the law are useful on account of their figurative meaning. They had no reason to be anxious that they might lose the present grace, and return to the weak elements of this world, so long as they stood in the grace they had attained.4

“Consequently the office of Moses is finished.” This might sound odd in our ears but this was a shared Protestant conviction in response to the ancient and persistent error of speaking of the Bible as composed entirely of law: the old law and the new law. Jesus, the church had come to teach, is the new Moses, a legislator. This is why we see Luther inveighing against Christ as a new Moses and a Legislator. Some, too many really, who have not taken the time to learn the patristic and medieval background of this language have accused Luther of antinomianism and of rejecting the Ten Commandments as moral norm of the Christian church and life. That is absurd, of course, but it happens.

Here Synod also recognized that the law does have a pedagogical function, to teach us the greatness of our sin and misery and to drive us to Christ: “Because, and until, they had become familiar with its impotence and true use, and thereby gained an ardent desire for the coming of the day of the Lord.” Now, however, in Christ, the law is kept “voluntarily” because we have a new life and union with Christ. Our hearts are full of gratitude for the mercies and grace of the Lord who redeemed us from the pit.

Paul kept the Jewish law in order to facilitate his mission. This is what Synod meant by the “external practice of the law…”. In the movement of redemptive history, the Mosaic judicial and ceremonial laws expired with the death of Christ and the Jerusalem Synod recognized that and freed the Gentiles from observing it. Synod was clearly saying, however, that our standing with God is “in the grace they had attained” and not by works.

There is a difference between the office of the apostle to the Gentiles which was laid on Paul, and the office of apostle to the Jews, which holy Peter discharged. This latter office was zealous for the law, and without any harm (Acts 21). But the former did not concern itself with the law, and had nothing to do with Moses, inasmuch as in the Gentiles’ circumstances his function would have directed them away from their beloved Savior, and was useful rather for doctrine, for reproof and for correction, etc. We who spring from the Gentiles and have to do with the Gentiles rather than the Jews, should discover grace in Christ without the law, as was the method of Saint Paul, and not as the church of Peter which was assembled at Jerusalem and which inquired so much after the law, for Christ is our sufficiency, and what more do we desire (John 1)?5

When they spoke of having nothing to do with Moses, they were not speaking of the Ten Commandments but of the types and shadows. The Old Testament is God’s Word and useful for correction, reproof etc but our freedom from types and shadows is in Christ, who fulfilled them all. Their patience in addressing the Jew-Gentile question via redemptive-historical categories is fascinating. It is a witness of how deeply ingrained in the conscience and consciousness of medieval Christians was a de facto Old Testament faith. The Reformers saw themselves as redoing, in the early 16th century, what the apostles had done in the 1st century. The Romanists are, in this analogy, the Judaizers (which was common Reformation rhetoric) and the Protestants are the Gentiles, as it were.



1. James T. Dennison Jr., ed. Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: 1523–1693, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008–14), 239 .

2. Ibid., 239–40.

3. Ibid. 240.

4. Ibid., 240–41.

5. Ibid., 241.

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