The Reformation penetrated France along with the rest of Europe as the writings of Luther were distributed far and wide. Many a Frenchman, as well as their families, was converted from Catholicism to the biblical, apostolic faith. The outstanding case, of course, was the conversion of the young Jean Calvinus himself in the 1520s to the “Calvinistic” faith, by which we mean, to confessing salvation by grace alone, sovereign and irresistible, and the Scriptures as the final authority in all matters of doctrine and life. The papal mass was to be condemned as an accursed idolatry and meritorious work-righteousness rejected as a return to the Pelagian lie from hell.
In France the Reformation took root in the lives and confessions of those who would become known as Huguenots, numbering at high tide, it is estimated, a tenth of the French population—2,000,000 souls. For a time, the Reformation movement flourished in France; but not for long, and from its beginning, not without fierce and even brutal opposition. French society was dominated by the Romish church. Papal authority, promoted by ambitious cardinals and bishops, was deeply embedded in French politics.
The Protestant religion was seen as a threat to Rome’s dominating role in France. Already as the Protestant movement began to take root, persecution of its adherents took place in various locations with imprisonments, loss of property, and threats of death. The youthful Calvin himself was reported to the authorities for promoting and defending the ‘new faith’ and found it necessary to flee to Germany, though he was ‘waylaid’ by Farel in Geneva, and got no further than Switzerland as a result.
It was this threat and reality of fiery persecution that served as the occasion for Calvin’s addressing what became known as “Nicodemite practices,” and to his having to take sharp issue with its practitioners, issuing sharply worded warnings and rebukes.
As the publishers of a volume containing Calvin’s “Anti-Nicodemite” writings point out in their introduction:
The temptation to compromise the [Protestant] faith was significant among those who embraced reformed doctrine. Anyone who ceased to attend Mass, or opposed Romish worship, made himself conspicuous among religious and civil authorities. In order to avoid being ostracized, or to keep from being persecuted for renouncing popish worship, some would-be Protestants hoped to maintain their social standing by outward conformity to Romish rituals and worship; these dissemblers claimed that it was lawful to attend the outward ordinances of Romish worship, so long as they did not inwardly receive the heretical tenets of Rome.1
The label ‘Nicodemites’ was taken by Reformed sympathizers in an attempt to justify keeping their Protestant convictions secret by appealing to Nicodemus, who came to Jesus under cover of night to avoid detection by his fellow Pharisees. If such a man could be considered godly, a believer and a disciple of Christ, while he continued to pretend to be a Pharisee in public, why could not they be considered such, though publicly they adhered to Romish worship and ceremonial observances? After all, does not Scripture teach that it is not the outward appearance that God regards but the inward matters of the heart that He judges and approves?
As this mentality took root and began to spread, especially in aristocratic circles (amongst those who had the most to lose if thought to have Protestant sympathies), questions were put to Calvin whether such could be justified. Fearing that such practice would become commonplace as the hostility to the Protestant religion intensified, Calvin was compelled to write a number of treatises refuting its justification. Calvin refused to concede that these dissemblers really even had the right to the name “Nicodemites.” Writes Calvin:
In short, Nicodemus came to Jesus Christ by night during the time of his ignorance. After being instructed, he confesses him openly, in the daylight; even at the time when it was more perilous than ever. Therefore, they who hide behind his example do him a great wrong.2
As Calvin pointed out later, at great risk to himself, Nicodemus maintained “in the assembly of the wicked” that the Sanhedrin should not condemn Jesus without a hearing, and then at Christ’s burial openly identified himself with Jesus.3
Calvin was thrown into the controversy when friends in France asked his counsel about the practice of these professing Reformed Christians. In his response, entitled “Letters to Some Friends,” Calvin, while expressing great sympathy for people living in the midst of great danger and facing threats of unspeakable suffering, rebuked such a practice. In his letters he made clear what was at stake, namely, the purity of the worship of Jehovah God, which he viewed as important as the doctrine of salvation itself. Because how God was worshiped was so important to Him, Calvin was convinced sincere believers were required to testify against all forms of Rome’s ceremonies, as these defiled God’s holiness and corrupted Christ’s name, gospel, and once-for-all sacrifice for sin and sinners.
As for those who sought to justify their participation in the Romish Mass, arguing that there was yet some reference to Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sin in Rome’s sacrament and that they did not really believe it to be Christ’s body and blood when they genuflected, Calvin responded:
For I consider the popish Mass a pure abomination which is disguised with the title of Supper in just the way the devil transforms himself into an angel of light…. [Some] maintain that the man who fears God only goes there to share with the Christians in prayers and invocations and to honor God by remembering his sacrament…. This does not seem solid to me. For, as the prophet says, “He keeps himself from idolatry, who does not partake of sacrifice to idols” (Ps. 16:4). Now it cannot be denied that the Mass is an idol set up in the temple of God. Therefore, whoever attends it, gives an example to the simple and ignorant that he holds it in reverence as good: and he is thus guilty before God of the ruin of the one whom he deceives in this manner.4
Calvin’s rebuke of these ‘dissemblers’ was not well received by many. He was charged with being insensitive to the plight of those facing loss and perhaps even martyrdom for any open display of their Protestant convictions. Pamphlets were written criticizing Calvin for his harshness. Additional arguments were adduced to justify disguising one’s inner ‘convictions’ and participating in Romish ceremonies without being judged so harshly by God.
In the quote above, notice Calvin’s contention that whoever attended the Romish Mass was guilty before God of “the ruin” (the blood) of the ignorant, those whom the Nicodemites left in their deception.
This was part of Calvin’s refutation of the Nicodemites’ reference to the I Corinthian passage in which Paul did not condemn Christians for eating things offered to idols. As the apostle states in I Corinthians 8:4, “[W]e know that an idol is nothing in the world.” The Nicodemites argued, the same could be said about themselves. They knew Rome’s Mass was not really Christ’s body and blood; therefore, they were not guilty of worshiping bread as if it were God.
Calvin pointed out, first, that it was one thing to purchase at the marketplace meat offered to an idol in a pagan ceremony and eat it. Of that the apostle did not disapprove. “An idol is nothing.” It was another if those newly converted Christians continued to attend pagan ceremonies, bowed before the idols, and then ate the meat sacrificed. Astutely, Calvin points out, if the argument of the Nicodemites had merit, what did this say about Daniel’s three friends, who refused to bow before Nebuchadnezzar’s image on pain of death? Who can deny these are for our example? Can any imagine that God would have approved if they had decided to save their skins by joining the pagan crowd and bowing down also? They would have denied Jehovah as the one, true God.5
Second, Calvin upbraids them for being an offense to their fellow worshiper, contrary to the apostle’s reproof. As Calvin points out to those Christians who tried to excuse their participation in pagan, idolatrous feasts, the apostle rebukes them:
[F]or by their example they induce others to worship idols. He says [in effect], “Will not the weak man who sees you think that you have some regard for the idol, and be encouraged to do the like?… But if you have a good understanding in your heart, must he for whom Christ died perish for the credit of [that is, how he perceives] our knowledge?” By this response, does [the apostle] not reject all excuses of which many today wish to avail themselves?6
Not easily deterred, the Nicodemites responded with the example of Naaman, the Syrian general healed of his leprosy in the Jordan. According to I Kings 8, having assured Elisha he would henceforth serve only Jehovah, the God of Israel, Naaman yet pleaded not be to condemned when he was required to go with his king into Syria’s temple and kneel before their idol. Elisha granted him permission. Why then should Protestants not be permitted to do likewise in Romish cities?
Calvin reminded the dissemblers of the vast difference between the knowledge (revelation of truth) that New Testament believers had in comparison to Naaman. Unlike Naaman, they had “the whole word of God like a great and well-traveled road.” Calvin pointed out:
It is no wonder if Naaman was sent away by the prophet with such permission, seeing that he had only a small glimmer of truth. Should you, however, who have quite another measure of understanding, take your rule from [this case], as if you were not more expected to confess your faith than he? [To such people] I say that they falsely wrest the scripture, when all is duly considered.7
And then Calvin clinches his argument by reminding the Nicodemites that neither did the prophet demand that Naaman be circumcised. “Would you use that as an excuse not to receive baptism?”8
The answer is obvious. The exceptional history of Naaman is not to be used as the model for what is permissible for believers in the New Testament age.
Calvin’s early French treatises were soon translated into the languages of Europe—German, Dutch, Italian, and even English. This occasioned a flood of responses that became the occasion for Calvin to preach four sermons on the issue in 1552, which were then printed for distribution in various countries and translated.
The heart of these sermons stressed how important, even essential, for true Christianity and godliness, faithful, biblically-prescribed worship was. The sermons were an expansion of the central point of a treatise Calvin had written earlier, “The True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church.” As the editors of the collection of Calvin’s anti-Nicodemite writings point out, “The book came at a critical period during the Reformation, when some would-be Protestants were content to address the subject of justification, without going forward to consider the matters of worship.” 9
Calvin rebuked such a mentality:
Those, therefore, who…abandoning the worship of God, urge the other head only [that is, justification], have not yet learned what true religion is. If anyone objects, that a principal part of divine worship is comprehended in faith and its exercises, I admit it; but to debate about the mode in which men obtain salvation [that is, by faith alone], and say nothing of the mode in which God may be duly worshiped, is too absurd.10
To Calvin the subject and mode of worship was equal in importance to the doctrine of justification itself. Corruption of worship meant corruption of the gospel—salvation based on Christ’s one, only sacrifice. The sacraments were to underscore this truth.
It was biblically-prescribed worship with its means of grace that protected this gospel from corruption. This was what was at stake in the Nicodemite controversy and the attempt of many to minimize the manner in which one worshiped God. God was not pleased with Israel when, under Jeroboam, they sculpted a golden calf and claimed it was worshiping God through this image, contrary to the second commandment. Rather, God brought judgment on northern Israel for this sacrilege. So it was and would be if Christians persisted in claiming to worship God under Rome’s sacrilege.11
In conclusion, we note that Calvin’s controversy with the Nicodemites is not simply a piece of interesting antiquity. It is relevant for our own day and age. First, because contemporary worship has become pluralistic to the extreme. Whatever seems good in men’s eyes and can attract attenders, especially, it is hoped, the youth, is deemed as proper and appropriate. Calvin’s treatises against the Nicodemites and their participation in Romish worship underscore again and again that, when it comes to worship, it is not only a matter of whom we claim to be worshiping, but also how we worship the Holy One, namely, according to His Word.
[S]ince God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly an abomination, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, ‘Obedience is better than sacrifice.’ ‘In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men’ (I Sam. 15:22; Matt. 15:9).12
Twenty-first century Christendom does well to pay heed.
But Calvin’s counsel also becomes increasingly relevant as the days of fiery trials and persecutions fast approach. The temptation will be to compromise our identity to escape detection, and then try to justify it. Calvin’s treatises remind us we cannot claim to stand with the ‘heroes of faith’ if we deny our true spiritual identity. It is one thing to flee persecution (as Calvin and many others did); it is another to deny our identification with the apostolic faith if, to save our skins, it means bowing the knee to Baal (Antichrist) and denying Christ’s Lordship.
As Christ declared, “He who will be my disciple, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).
1 John Calvin, Come Out from Among Them: ‘Anti-Nicodemite’ Writings of John Calvin. Seth Skolnitsky, tr. (Dallas, TX: Protestant Heritage Press, 2001), 2.
2 Calvin, “Answer to the Nicodemites” in Come Out from Among Them, 119.
3 Calvin, 119.
4 Calvin, Come Out from Among Them, 40-41.
5 Calvin, Come Out from Among Them, 56-57.
6 Calvin, 57-58.
7 Calvin, 69-70.
8 Calvin, 69.
9 Calvin, 26.
10 Calvin, “The True Method” in Tracts and Treatises, vol. 3, Henry Beveridge, tr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1958), 260.
11 Calvin, Come Out from Among Them, 59-60.
12 Calvin, “On the Necessity of Reforming the Church,” in Tracts and Treatises, vol. 1, 128-29.