Volume Thirty-Nine — Article 2 Volume 39 | Home

The Reformation and Man
Geoffrey J. Paxton


A struggle for the honor and integrity of God lay behind the central Reformation conflict over justification by faith alone. The Roman view of justification embraced one picture of God. The view of justification expounded by the Reformers embraced another picture of God.

The Reformers struggled to preserve the biblical view of God. They held that the true significance and glory of God are found within God Himself. While it is gloriously true that God goes out of Himself in blessing to His creatures, He is not dependent upon anyone or anything outside Himself for His sufficiency. This fundamental tenet lay behind the Reformers' opposition to such Roman doctrines as grace, the mass and the church.

But the Reformation was not only a struggle between two opposing views of God. It was also a struggle between two opposing views of man. We do not mean that after the doctrine of God was settled, the Reformation moved on to settle the nature of man. Rather, the being and character of God and the being and character of man were so bound together in the thought of the apostles and the Reformers that to settle one doctrine was to virtually settle the other also.

The Reformers' fundamental proposition concerning God was that God is totally self-sufficient. He is not in the least degree dependent upon anyone or anything outside Himself for His own well-being. The basic affirmation of the Reformers concerning man was that the true significance and glory of man are not found within man himself. Man is not self-sufficient. He is dependent upon Someone outside himself.

The Reformers and Rome were at variance both theologically and anthropologically. According to the Reformers, Rome's view of grace, the mass and the church threatened the biblical doctrine of God. So also, her view of man was opposed to the biblical picture of man and, in the final analysis, sought to destroy man.

We shall now set forth the Reformers' basic view of man.

Man's Knowledge of Himself

John Calvin's famous statement about man's self-knowledge sums up the basic Reformation position on man's knowledge of himself.

    Man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.1
Man can only know himself in the light of God's revelation of Himself. The unveiling of God brings the unveiling of man. For a true knowledge of himself man must first contemplate the face of God and then descend to look at himself. Thus man's self-knowledge is reflexive. It proceeds from the revelation of God about Himself and about the creative activity of His love. To "come down" indicates the essential direction and motion of all Christian thought. Calvin is reiterating the biblical dictum, "In Thy light do we see light."2

Man's knowledge of himself does not lie within himself. Hence his knowing-activity is directed outward, not inward. The knowing-activity of man is not only specific mental activity but the comprehensive life-activity of man.

Man was created by God to have a special relation to God's Word. Man is dependent upon the communication of that Word for his very existence as man. His true life consists in lifelong and "life-wide" answers to that Word. Man's true life and dignity are found in this response to the Word of God. Calvin captures this responsive motion beautifully in his commentary on Genesis 2:9.

As often as man tasted of the fruit of that tree, he should remember whence he received his life, in order that he might acknowledge that he lives not by his own power, but by the kindness of God alone; and that life is not (as they commonly say) an intrinsic good, but proceeds from God.... The life of all things was included in the Word, but especially the life of men, which is conjoined with reason and intelligence . . . . Wherefore by this sign, Adam was admonished that he could claim nothing for himself as if it were his own, in order that he might depend wholly on the Son of God, and might not seek life anywhere but in him. . . . He possessed life only as deposited in the Word of God, and could not otherwise retain it, than by acknowledging that it was received from him.

True knowledge of ourselves consists in the knowledge of God's light. Without His light we are in darkness and cannot be said to live. True knowledge of ourselves consists in the knowledge that the Known (God) is Master and Lord of our entire being and that we are utterly dependent upon His grace for our entire existence. Man is only truly man when he realizes his creaturely dependence upon the grace of God. The fundamental characteristic of man's true life is therefore thanksgiving and celebration.

Man's Knowledge of God

Man cannot know himself without knowing God. And he cannot know God unless God freely reveals Himself to man. God has done this in the gospel of Jesus Christ. For the Reformers the gospel was the definitive source for the knowledge of God. Hence the knowledge of God, like the true knowledge of man, is outside man. It is in Jesus Christ that man comes to know both God and man. In Jesus Christ God reveals Himself as the God of man and as the Man of God.

For Calvin, understanding man as the image of God could only take place from the standpoint of man renewed in Jesus Christ. Only when we see man face to face with God in Jesus Christ can we understand that man is made in the image of God.

From this standpoint it is clear that the image of God is not any natural property of the soul.3 Rather, it is a spiritual reflection in holiness and righteousness which should characterize all human existence. The image of God is seen in man's response to God the Father. This response is brought about by the Word in the power of the Spirit.

The image of God is man's intelligent life-answer to God's grace. At best it is only a shadow in this world until man reaches perfection. Hence the image of God may also be said to be God's destiny for man, God's goal for man.4

In summary, God's true significance and meaning are not dependent upon any reality outside Himself. On the other hand, man's true meaning and significance are found outside himself. Man can only know himself when he knows God. Man's true meaning is reflexive of the Word which God addresses to him. In order to know God, man is dependent upon God's revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ. When man views man renewed in Jesus Christ, he discovers that the image of God does not consist in any natural property of the soul but in the faithful life-response to the sheer goodness and kindness of God. The image of God is God's mind (communicated by His Word) reflected in the obedient response of the faithful covenant partner.

Man's Knowledge of His Sin

When man is viewed as the renewed man in Jesus Christ, man is seen as a sinner. This is not because Jesus Christ was a sinner. It is because the manhood of Jesus Christ throws into contrast the manhood of every other person.

Hence, for the Reformers the knowledge of sin, its nature and extent, was derived from the gospel. The knowledge of sin follows rather than precedes the grace of God. Thus the knowledge of sin comes from an external source and not from within man.

If the death of Christ be our redemption, then we were captives; if it be satisfaction, we were debtors; if it be atonement, we were guilty; if it be cleansing, we were unclean.5

The gospel speaks of man's salvation in total terms. So also it speaks of the depravity of man in total terms. The gospel tells us that man can be restored only by going outside himself to Christ, the very image of God. Man himself must then be bereft of that image. And if anything of it does remain, it is but a fearful deformity.

In the light of the gospel, total perversity is an existence continually turned away from God. All man does, even in the exercise of his God-given gifts, is against God. Instead of imaging the glory of God by faithful response to the will of God revealed in His Word, man does God constant dishonor.6

It is a dubious apologetic which thinks that the only way to bring about a consciousness of sin is to inspire men with terror in order to force them to seek refuge in Christ. In his French Catechism of 1537 Calvin shows that the supremely powerful demonstration of the bondage of the will and of man's predicament comes when we view what God has done to save us in the Mediator. This should help correct those who want man to understand his plight by turning within himself.

Man's Righteousness

For the Reformers the gospel was the ultimate negation of all attempts by man to find meaning and significance in himself even with God's help. The gospel revealed the total extent of man's plight. It also revealed the total nature and extent of God's provision. For the Reformers the grace of God in Christ was more than a message. It was victory over all obstacles, the achievement of total restoration. In the gospel, sin is totally conquered, the new man is totally recreated, life is reestablished, and God and man are fully reconciled. The gospel is the consummation of everything that needed to be done to effect the new heavens and the new earth. The Reformers were captive to the Christ event. They saw it as the ultimate criterion by which man is to measure all things and to adjudicate all reality.

In the gospel the Reformers saw the ultimate demonstration of the true significance of man. The God who created man and gave him purpose and destiny came in the person of His Son to restore man. It is of the highest significance, then, that this God did not come to dwell in man by His Spirit to effect the restoration. That would have suggested that man's real significance is constituted by something within him, even if it is divinely engendered. The fact is however, that God came for man and not in man.

Man's sin has consisted in a dreadful inversion of the God-given perspective. Man has looked to himself as the final arbiter of meaning. His sin has consisted not least in his attempt to call the divine into the service of his quest to make himself the center of meaning. Hence man has from time to time been only too happy to acknowledge divine assistance. This is sinful man's version of "grace alone."

Of course, this is quite different from the understanding of "grace alone" which the Reformers received from Holy Writ. That "grace alone" orients man exclusively to the activity of God outside of man on his behalf. The "grace alone" of redemption in Jesus Christ was as outside of man as was the divine activity in the original creation. The "grace alone" of the re-creation of man in Christ has provided man with as extrinsic a focal point as did the initial creation. The God who gives man his true meaning is the God who is outside of man and over man, not a God who is in man and under him.

Luther agrees with this perspective when he says:

You are righteous through steadfast love and mercy. . . . This [being righteous] is not [a matter of] my disposition or a quality of my heart, but something foreign, namely the steadfast love of God.7

The most fundamental thing that can be said about man must be said not in terms of man himself, but in terms of God. The righteousness of the human person must be defined in terms of the activity of the divine person.

A moment's reflection on something that takes place every day will help us understand this. Someone speaks of a child and says, "That child is precious." This statement points to the fact that the child stands in a peculiar relationship to someone else. The child is being defined in terms of the attitude of someone else toward the child.

So the believer is defined in terms of what God has done in Christ and not in terms of the believer as such. Hence, "You are righteous" is equivalent to "You are precious." Neither statement says anything about the person in himself. Both statements speak about the person in terms of the relationship of attitude and assessment of someone outside that person. This is the fundamental method of the biblical-Reformational definition of man. This is why the gospel brings into clearest relief the true nature of man.

The Reformers opposed the Roman Catholic Church so strongly because she wished to find the significance of man at least partly within himself. It was not that Rome asserted that man gave significance to himself without divine aid. Rather, with divine aid man and his actions were given significance within man. Rome was more or less consistent in this position. She asserted that man could know something about himself without the aid of God. She also taught that man could know certain things about God without God's special revelation. And Rome taught that the righteousness of God was not only the saving action of God in Christ but also that righteousness whereby God makes us righteous in ourselves, albeit by the power of His Spirit.

The Roman Catholic view of man has led to much introspection and consequent misery of spirit and mind. Likewise, in much evangelicalism—which has followed a Roman doctrine of man in more than one area—there has been all too much inward-looking piety. Even the Roman Catholic veneration of the saints has its popular evangelical counterpart in the well-known testimony meeting where the focus is "what the Lord is doing in my life."

For the Reformers a proper biblical understanding of man resulted in giving glory exclusively to God and bringing certainty and comfort to the conscience of man. Concern for the glory of God and the stability of man constituted the heart of the pastoral mission of the Reformation. Only when man finds the true meaning of his existence outside himself will God's grace shine with biblical brilliance and man's conscience rest in the peace and joy of the Holy Spirit.



1 John Calvin, Institutes, I.I.2.
2 Cf. Ps. 36:9 and Calvin's commentary on the same.
3 To think of the image of God as a natural possession of the soul is an act of impiety which does despite to the grace of God.
4 This is yet another reason why the image of God cannot be seen as a static property of man's being which can be handed on from man to man by the will of the flesh (cf. Calvin's Sermons on Job).
5 Cf. Calvin's commentary on Gal. 2:21 and Eph. 1:10 For a variation of this theme cf. Ap. IV.12ff.; Ap. IV.392 in the
Book of Concord.
6 Cf. Calvin's commentary on Eph. 4:24.

7 Luther's Works, 12:328.