Front Page Titles (by Subject) OF PENITENCE. - The Institutes of the Christian Religion
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OF PENITENCE. - John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 
The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1846). 2 volumes in 1.
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The next place they give to Penitence, of which they discourse so confusedly and unmethodically, that consciences cannot derive anything certain or solid from their doctrine. In another place (Book III. chap. iii. and iv.), we have explained at length, first, what the Scriptures teach concerning repentance, and, secondly, what these men teach concerning it. All we have now to advert to is the grounds of that opinion of it as a sacrament which has long prevailed in schools and churches. First, however, I will speak briefly of the rite of the early Church, which those men have used as a pretext for establishing their fiction. By the order observed in public repentance, those who had performed the satisfactions imposed upon them were reconciled by the formal laying on of hands. This was the symbol of absolution by which the sinner himself regained his confidence of pardon before God, and the Church was admonished to lay aside the remembrance of the offence, and kindly receive him into favour. This Cyprian often terms to give peace. In order that the act might have more weight and estimation with the people, it was appointed that the authority of the bishop should always be interposed. Hence the decree of the second Council of Carthage, “No presbyter may publicly at mass reconcile a penitent;” and another, of the Council of Arausica, “Let those who are departing this life, at the time of penitence, be admitted to communion without the reconciliatory laying on of hands; if they recover from the disease, let them stand in the order of penitents, and after they have fulfilled their time, receive the reconciliatory laying on of hands from the bishop.” Again, in the third Council of Carthage, “A presbyter may not reconcile a penitent without the authority of the bishop.” The object of all these enactments was to prevent the strictness, which they wished to be observed in that matter, from being lost by excessive laxity. Accordingly, they wished cognisance to be taken by the bishop, who, it was probable, would be more circumspect in examining. Although Cyprian somewhere says that not the bishop only laid hands, but also the whole clergy. For he thus speaks, “They do penitence for a proper time; next they come to communion, and receive the right of communion by the laying on of the hands of the bishop and clergy” (Lib. iii. Ep. 14). Afterwards, in process of time, the matter came to this, that they used the ceremony in private absolutions also without public penitence. Hence the distinction in Gratian (Decret. 26, Quæst. 6) between public and private reconciliation. I consider that ancient observance of which Cyprian speaks to have been holy and salutary to the Church, and I could wish it restored in the present day. The more modern form, though I dare not disapprove, or at least strongly condemn, I deem to be less necessary. Be this as it may, we see that the laying on of hands in penitence was a ceremony ordained by men, not by God, and is to be ranked among indifferent things, and external exercises, which indeed are not to be despised, but occupy an inferior place to those which have been recommended to us by the word of the Lord.
The Romanists and Schoolmen, whose wont it is to corrupt all things by erroneous interpretation, anxiously labour to find a sacrament here, and it cannot seem wonderful, for they seek a thing where it is not. At best, they leave the matter involved, undecided, uncertain, confused, and confounded by the variety of opinions. Accordingly, they say (Sent. Lib. iv. Dist. 22, cap. 3), either that external penitence is a sacrament, and, if so, ought to be regarded as a sign of internal penitence; i. e., contrition of heart, which will be the matter of the sacrament, or that both together make a sacrament, not two, but one complete; but that the external is the sacrament merely, the internal, the matter, and the sacrament, whereas the forgiveness of sins is the matter only, and not the sacrament. Let those who remember the definition of a sacrament, which we have given above, test by it that which they say is a sacrament, and it will be found that it is not an external ceremony appointed by God for the confirmation of our faith. But if they allege that my definition is not a law which they are necessarily bound to obey, let them hear Augustine, whom they pretend to regard as a saint.1 “Visible sacraments were instituted for the sake of carnal men, that by the ladder of sacraments they may be conveyed from those things which are seen by the eye, to those which are perceived by the understanding” (August. Quæst. Vet. Test. Lib. iii). Do they themselves see, or can they show to others, anything like this in that which they call the sacrament of penance? In another passage, he says, “It is called a sacrament, because in it one thing is seen, another thing is understood. What is seen has bodily appearance, what is understood has spiritual fruit” (Serm. de Bapt. Infant). These things in no way apply to the sacrament of penance, as they feign it; there, there is no bodily form to represent spiritual fruit.
And (to despatch these beasts in their own arena) if any sacrament is sought here, would it not have been much more plausible to maintain that the absolution of the priest is a sacrament, than penitence either external or internal? For it might obviously have been said that it is a ceremony to confirm our faith in the forgiveness of sins, and that it has the promise of the keys, as they describe them: “Whatsoever ye shall bind or loose on earth, shall be bound or loosed in heaven.” But some one will object that to most of those who are absolved by priests nothing of the kind is given by the absolution, whereas, according to their dogma, the sacraments of the new dispensation ought to effect what they figure. This is ridiculous. As in the eucharist, they make out a twofold eating—a sacramental, which is common to the good and bad alike, and a spiritual, which is proper only to the good; why should they not also pretend that absolution is given in two ways? And yet I have never been able to understand what they meant by their dogma. How much it is at variance with the truth of God, we showed when we formally discussed that subject. Here I only wish to show that no scruple should prevent them from giving the name of a sacrament to the absolution of the priest. For they might have answered by the mouth of Augustine,2 that there is a sanctification without a visible sacrament, and a visible sacrament without internal sanctification. Again, that in the elect alone sacraments effect what they figure. Again, that some put on Christ so far as the receiving of the sacrament, and others so far as sanctification; that the former is done equally by the good and the bad, the latter by the good only. Surely they were more deluded than children, and blind in the full light of the sun when they toiled with so much difficulty, and perceived not a matter so plain and obvious to every man.
Lest they become elated, however, whatever be the part in which they place the sacrament, I deny that it can justly be regarded as a sacrament; first, because there exists not to this effect any special promise of God, which is the only ground of a sacrament;1 and, secondly, because whatever ceremony is here used is a mere invention of man; whereas, as has already been shown, the ceremonies of sacraments can only be appointed by God. Their fiction of the sacrament of penance, therefore, was falsehood and imposture. This fictitious sacrament they adorned with the befitting eulogium, that it was the second plank in the case of shipwreck, because if any one had, by sin, injured the garment of innocence received in baptism, he might repair it by penitence.2 This was a saying of Jerome. Let it be whose it may, as it is plainly impious, it cannot be excused if understood in this sense; as if baptism were effaced by sin, and were not rather to be recalled to the mind of the sinner whenever he thinks of the forgiveness of sins, that he may thereby recollect himself, regain courage, and be confirmed in the belief that he shall obtain the forgiveness of sins which was promised him in baptism. What Jerome said harshly and improperly—viz. that baptism, which is fallen from by those who deserve to be excommunicated from the Church, is repaired by penitence, these worthy expositors wrest to their own impiety. You will speak most correctly, therefore, if you call baptism the sacrament of penitence, seeing it is given to those who aim at repentance to confirm their faith and seal their confidence. But lest you should think this our invention, it appears, that besides being conformable to the words of Scripture, it was generally regarded in the early Church as an indubitable axiom. For in the short Treatise on Faith addressed to Peter, and bearing the name of Augustine, it is called, The sacrament of faith and repentance. But why have recourse to doubtful writings, as if anything can be required more distinct than the statement of the Evangelist, that John preached “the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins”? (Mark i. 4; Luke iii. 3).
[1 ] French, “Auquel ils font semblant de porter une reverence inviolable;”—for whom they pretend to have an inviolable respect.
[2 ] August. Quæst. Vet. Test. Lib. iii. De Bapt. Parvul. De Bapt. Cont. Donat. Lib. v.
[1 ] The French adds, “Car, comme nous avons assez declairé ci dessus, la promesse des clefs n’appartient nullement a faire quelque estat particulier d’absolution, mais seulement à la predication de l’Evangile soit qu’elle soit faite ou a plusieurs, ou a un seul, sans y mettre difference; c’est a dire, que par icelle promesse notre Seigneur ne fonde point une absolution speciale qui soit faite distinctement à un chacun mais celle qui se fait indifferement a tous pecheurs, sans addresse particuliere.”—For, as we have sufficiently shown above, the promise of the keys pertains not to the making of any particular state of absolution, but only to the preaching of the Gospel, whether it is made to several or to one only, without making any difference; that is to say, that by this promise our Lord does not found a special absolution which is given separately to each, but one which is given indifferently to all sinners, without particular application.
[2 ] Sent. Lib. iv. Dist. 14, cap. 1. De Pœnit. Dist. 1, cap. 2. August. Dictum in Decret. 15, Quæst. 1, Cap. Fermissime.