Blog 236: 4.19.14 - 4.19.19
Calvin continues his critique of Catholicism by applying a biblical definition of "sacrament" to the Roman rite of penance. He begins with a clear and careful distinction between public repentance, as it was practiced in the early church, and the private absolution offered through the so-called sacrament of penance.
Public repentance traditionally included an assurance of pardon and the offering of peace. Calvin believed that such an act of assurance was spiritually wholesome and thus he wanted to see it restored to the church. He was also open to the possibility that this could include a "laying on of hands," a practice he regarded as a matter of indifference, and thus permissible.
What Calvin opposed, however, was regarding penance as a sacrament--that is to say, "an outward ceremony instituted by the Lord to confirm our faith." Following Augustine, he maintained that penance could not be a sacrament because it did not include an outward and visible element that represented an inward and spiritual reality. There is nothing in penance to correspond to the water of baptism, for example, or to the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper.
If there is a sacrament that is properly connected to repentance, Calvin argues, that sacrament is not penance but baptism. Here Calvin quotes John the Baptist, who referred to "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4).
When he turns, at last, to "extreme unction" (which is yet another purported sacrament of the Roman Catholic Church), Calvin strongly asserts that the spiritual gift of healing has ceased. The miraculous power of the apostles to heal the body was only a temporary gift that quickly disappeared. God has decreed its disappearance so as "to make the new preaching of the gospel marvelous forever."