Book Review Article: Come Out
From Among Them
(First published in the British Reformed Journal, Issue 43, Summer
Come Out From Among Them:
Anti-Nicodemite Writings of John Calvin
Protestant Heritage Press, 2001, hardback, 317pp.
(Available from the CPRC Bookstore)
At the time of the Reformation, there were certain
would-be Protestants who wilfully dissembled by attending Roman Catholic
worship to avoid persecution. History has come to call these people
Nicodemites1, because they sought to justify
themselves by appealing to the example of Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by
night. This book contains the major treatises Calvin wrote against the
Nicodemite error, most of them only recently published in English.
In 1537 Calvin wrote a treatise called On Shunning
the Unlawful Rites of the Ungodly. His last Anti-Nicodemite work, An
Answer to a Certain Dutchman was penned in 1562, just two years before
his death. In this publication, the first treatise Shunning is not
included. It would have made the book complete to have all the treatises
together, but in this volume we can discover the mind of the Reformer on
this important issue. Can one dissemble in worship? To make the issue more
relevant to today’s Reformed Christian: Can one attend a church where
Arminian hymns are sung, and as a Calvinist pretend to sing along, while
'abhorring the hymns in one's heart'?2 Can one
listen to false preaching and pretend to agree in order to get along in
that church?3 This review
outlines the main arguments of the Nicodemites and Calvin’s responses. The
order in which they are treated is mine.
A. The Nicodemites’ Excuses
1. No idolatry without devotion
The Nicodemites claimed that, although they bowed down
before idols, secretly their hearts were not involved. Calvin rejects this
false dichotomy. If Daniel's three friends had been able to make this
excuse, it would not have been necessary to confess the faith before
Nebuchadnezzar and be subsequently thrown into the burning fiery furnace.
They could have said, as the Nicodemites, "We know there is one true God
and that this image is nothing. We know in our hearts that we are not
worshipping the idol, however it may appear on the outside". Calvin
rejects this evasion: "If a man secretly mocks the idol, while pretending
to honour it, he is still guilty of having transferred the honour of God
to the creature" (p. 56).
2. We dissemble to avoid giving offence
Calvin retorts that they ought rather to fear offending
God and points out how their dissimulation offends in the biblical sense
of the world. He also points out that their true motive is to avoid
We now see what our goal must be in avoiding giving
offence. It is to give no occasion to our neighbour to be torn down in
his faith by us; not to set him a bad example; nor to say or do anything
to cause him to fall. It is easy to judge whether those who bow down
before idols, dishonouring God by hiding their Christianity, thereby
avoid giving offence. First they demonstrate that they have no zeal for
the glory of God, which they thus profane. Then they lead others to do
likewise: I mean the small and the weak, who already have had some taste
of the truth. There, where they would otherwise scruple at staining
themselves through idolatry, they embolden them by their example.
Finally, they confirm the unbelievers and harden them in their errors.
If this is not giving offence, I confess that I am at my wit’s end (p.
3. We believe in Christ in our hearts
The Nicodemites wanted to be secret believers. They
thought it enough to believe the truth in their hearts. However, God is
not satisfied if we believe in our hearts. True faith confesses with the
If God cannot draw us to himself by sweetness, must
we not be more than mad, if threats fail to do the job? Jesus Christ
arraigns before God his father all who have denied the truth through
fear of physical death, and he says that body and soul shall suffer
perdition [Luke 9:26]. In another passage, he says that he will renounce
all who have denied him before men [Matt. 10:33]. Unless we are very
much bereft of our senses, these words ought to make the very hairs of
our heads stand on end (pp. 165-166).
4. Idolatry is not as serious as Calvin says
The Nicodemites viewed idolatry less seriously than
Calvin did. "Look at all the social ills — violence, sexual immorality,
drunkenness and the like. What is idolatry in comparison to these
things?", they said. Calvin responds:
If one were to pass over them [other sins] lightly,
in order to amuse oneself with this one sin of outward idolatry, this
would be a bad way to do things. If I were to spare the whoremongers,
drunkards, thieves and deceivers, liars and others; were I to pardon
avarice, cover over rapine, pomp and pride, being utterly addicted to
reprove this one vice of which I am presently speaking, that would be
doing badly on my part. And then one might rightly reprove my poor
judgment, as if I were leaving many wounds hidden in order to treat one.
However, since that is not the case, who will hinder me from
reproving each vice in its turn, not neglecting any of them? (p.
He further warns them that "it is a pernicious fantasy
to imagine that it is a tolerable and pardonable offence to transgress any
commandment of God at all ... I really would like to know what reason
there is to call outward idolatry one of the lesser offences committed"
5. We do it for the good of the church
The Nicodemites claimed that they dissembled in order
to win their neighbours and preserve the church. "If we came out into the
open, they claimed, we would be executed as heretics, and the Church would
be destroyed. Is it not therefore better, they reasoned, to dissemble to
stay alive and be of some use to the Christian Church?" Calvin answers
that, first of all, experience shows that their dissembling has not
succeeded in building the church. Second, the church is built through
preaching, which must be bold. Thirdly, Calvin perceives that it is not a
love of the church which moves them but a carnal fear:
What honour do they render the apostles, saying that
it would be ruining everything, and the undoing of the church to imitate
the boldness they showed in planting the kingdom of Jesus Christ? And if
they were not ashamed to accuse the apostles of imprudence, what will
they say of the results that our Lord gave to their faithfulness and to
the ardour of their zeal. Can they boast of having established a church
of ten persons in a village by means of their great discretion and
circumspect wisdom? The simple preaching of the gospel gained the world.
I turn back to their consciences: is that what guides them? Is it not
rather the fear they have for their skins? (p. 114).
6. Calvin has it easy
Knowing that they could not take refuge in feeble
excuses, the Nicodemites resorted to attacking Calvin. They accused him of
cruelty and over-strictness, comparing him to the captain of an army, who
was safe in the background while he gleefully sent his troops on the front
line to their deaths. Calvin responds to such sentiments:
If I were in a place where I could not flee from
idolatry without danger, I would pray to our Lord to confirm me and give
me the constancy to prefer his glory to my own life, as reason would
have it. And I hope he would not abandon me. However, let us leave
talking about what I would do, for I am not interested in bragging.
Rather I show what anyone should do, including myself (p. 90).
7. The cost is too high
The Nicodemites complain that if they openly confess
Christ in the way that Calvin demands that they shall suffer loss. Calvin
exhorts them to die rather than commit idolatry. He reminds them that
faithfulness to Christ and persecution are inseparable. He urges them to
remember the martyrs and laments that they have less zeal—although more
knowledge—than they, and he reminds them of God's promises in order to
offer them solace and to encourage them:
What!, they say, Shall we all depart to run away to
an unknown place? Or indeed, shall we risk our lives? If we reduce
everything that can be said of this argument, and everything which in
fact they have customarily culled and presented, it is as if they were
to say, ‘What! Can we not serve God, and follow his word, without
suffering persecution?' If they wish to be good Christians on that
condition, they must devise an entirely new Jesus Christ (p. 111).
8. We have examples from Scripture
In order to excuse their own dissimulation, the
Nicodemites appealed to others in Scripture, who, they claimed also
dissembled. The most notable examples here are Nicodemus himself, Naaman
the Syrian and even the Apostle Paul. The most interesting of these, and
one cited by modern day Nicodemites (this reviewer has heard it at least
twice in recent history) is Naaman, the Syrian, who was cured of leprosy
after washing in the river Jordan seven times. After being cleansed he
asks the prophet Elisha:
In this thing the LORD pardon thy servant, that when
my master goeth into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he
leaneth on my hand, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon: when I bow
down myself in the house of Rimmon, the LORD pardon thy servant in this
thing' (II Kings 5:18).
Since Elisha's response is,"Go in peace" (2 Kings 5:19)
the Nicodemites argued that, since Elisha allowed Naaman to worship in the
temple of the pagan god Rimmon, Calvin should not condemn them
participating in Romish worship. The first thing Calvin says about this is
that it is a foolish and dangerous practice to turn aside to isolated
examples instead of following the clear commands of God:
My friend, seeing you have the whole word of God,
like a great and travelled road that you cannot miss, I am astounded
that you prefer to turn aside to a particular example, which is like a
narrow, and lighty beaten path upon which it is easy for you to lose
your way. Why are you so subtle to seek subterfuges ... it is a very
uncertain thing to follow personal examples without any other
approbation. For, our Lord occasionally permitted some of his believers,
as by way of special privilege, to do what he prohibited concerning them
all in general (p. 71).
Calvin next points out that Naaman in the Old Testament
and as a Gentile had 'only a small glimmer of truth' (p. 72). The
responsibility of Christians in the New Testament is therefore greater and
they are expected to confess their faith more clearly than Naaman. Calvin
then goes on to deny that Naaman was asking permission to worship in the
temple of Rimmon. Naaman, argues Calvin, had very different intentions:
It must first be observed that a lieutenant of the
king (in his idolatry) was accustomed to make many sacrifices ... And
what does Naaman promise? Among other things, he expressly declares that
he will never offer sacrifice again, except to the God of Israel alone.
Now certainly this amounted to a notorious public profession (to all the
world) that he was no longer an idolater, as if he had had it published
with the sounding of trumpets (p. 72).
The word 'worship' means to bow down or lower
oneself. Why is it that he says, noteworthily, 'if the king, leaning on
my shoulders, worships? Namely to indicate that he will not bow down
except by way of courtesy, so as not to impede the king. So, his bowing
his body was not to pretend to honour the idol, but to render his usual
aid to the king (p. 73).
In Acts chapter 18 Paul shaves his head, takes a vow
and keeps a religious (Jewish) feast in Jerusalem. The Nicodemites seized
upon this example to excuse themselves. Calvin refutes their
misappropriation of this text. First of all they greatly wrong God 'by
comparing a ceremony he had instituted with an entirely wicked and
abominable idolatry, such as the popish Mass' (p. 74); then Calvin argues
that the ceremonies cited in Acts 18 were 'still indifferent for that
time, until the gospel was better and more fully brought to light' (p. 75)
and finally Calvin defends Paul's motives (while exposing the cowardly
intentions of the Nicodemites) that Paul used the ceremonies lawfully for
edification to win the Jews (I Cor. 9:20).
B. Answering "Madame Carnal Wisdom"
The Nicodemites were weak, and instead of seeking
strength from God as Calvin urges, they resort to excuses: "Now, once all
these subterfuges have been cast down, Madame carnal wisdom butts in to
play her role" (p. 87).
1. The church would be destroyed
If everybody openly confessed Christ as they ought,
reasoned the Nicodemites, Christians would be exterminated in France and
other parts of Europe. It is safer for the church if we remain silent.
Your fear, says Calvin, that by openly confessing the Protestant faith,
the wrath of the Papists would fall upon the poor church in France, and
therefore the church would be destroyed, is unfounded. We ought rather
trust in the promises of God. It is true that persecution may come, but
God's church is not destroyed by persecution, rather she is weakened by
We should do God the honour of committing to him
whatever might come of it ... If we could cast our care upon God, not
doubting but that he is wise enough to prepare us for a good end when we
are bereft of counsel and in perplexity, he would no more fail us that
he did with his servant Abraham ... When our Lord commands us to do
something, do we think he does not foresee the dangers, or that he does
not consider them? ... Therefore, instead of saying, What shall become
of us if we serve God, let us learn to say, Since all counsel fails us,
God will have some for us. Are we in a strait that seems to have no way
out? He shall enlarge our road. Let us only do what he says, and God
will succour us no matter what peril we are in (pp. 87-88).
2. If all believers emigrated to join a true church,
there would be no witness where it is sorely needed
Calvin urged those who could not worship God purely to
do everything in their power to re-locate to a place where they could. The
Nicodemites retorted that if every believer left France to be near the
true church what would become of those places the believer had forsaken?
Geneva would not be able to contain them. This is quite a common objection
today: If all the scattered Reformed believers moved to one place, then
what? Calvin calls such fears frivolous. He sees in such objections a lack
of faith in the promises of God:
I do not say that there is no need to doubt but that
everyone should promptly pack his luggage in order to get underway. It
will always be the case, that some will have their eyes blinded and not
perceive the filth and garbage in which they dwell. Others, although
they recognize the wretched estate in which they dwell, nonetheless will
be held back ... if everyone of those who are here and there were to do
half his duty in his place, there would be no corner of the world not
filled with them. The problem is that most have neither boldness nor
courage. Yet even if all those who cannot live in a country in peace of
conscience were to depart, do we suppose that the seed of God would
therefore be snuffed out? One ought rather to hope that in the place of
every one who left God would raise up four. In conclusion, we will
always be ridiculous when we argue against God (p. 89).
C. Calvin's Advice
What does Calvin advise those who live in areas where
it is impossible to worship God purely, because all the churches are
wicked and apostate and the believer cannot in good conscience have
fellowship with them or take part in their worship? The simple answer is:
Move to where there is a church which worships God aright:
Someone will therefore ask me what counsel I would
give to a believer who thus dwells in some Egypt or Babylon where he may
not worship God purely, but is forced by the common practice to
accommodate himself to bad things. The first advice would be to leave if
he could (p. 94).
It is interesting that Calvin counselled people to
relocate from France or other parts of the world in order to be near the
true church. He knew what hardships that entailed. In those days, a
journey from Paris to say Geneva was long and perilous. Yet, he did not
hesitate to give that advice. What would he say to the believer today who
lives in isolation, far from the fellowship of the saints, far from the
preaching of the Word and the sacraments? Today, re-locating for the sake
of a better job with a bigger salary is common enough. It seems a lot more
radical to modern Christians to uproot oneself to join a church.
Calvin could see that the Nicodemites had the wrong
priorities. They did not see the importance of the church. They were quite
happy to live far away from the church as long as they could live
comfortably. They wanted to keep their worldly prosperity, although that
meant being away from the people of God, the preaching of the Gospel and
the sacraments. Calvin felt so strongly about this that in 1552 he
published sermons to show believers the importance of the church in their
D. The Example of David
In the Psalms there is abundant proof of the importance
of the means of the grace in the Old Testament. Using as his example
David, Calvin demonstrates the importance of having these means of grace,
and he urges all believers to do all in their power to "seek God's face"
in the church. Reformed believers are used to singing about the
Lord's house (Psalm 5:7, Psalm 26:8, Psalm 27:4, Psalm 36:7-8, Psalm
42:1-4, Psalm 65:4, Psalm 84:4, Psalm 122:1). In the Old Testament, the
LORD was especially present in 'His house', the temple. In the New
Testament, although the LORD dwells in the heart of every believer, He is
in the midst of His church in a special way: when the Word is preached,
Christ the Good Shepherd speaks to His sheep and calls them by name (John
10:27, Eph 4:21), and when the sacraments are administered Christ is there
by His Spirit. Yet, today (as in Calvin's day) many believers are content
to be away from God's house, they are content to be without the Word and
the sacraments. Some are even content to remain in places where they hear
false preaching and where they are forced to take part in impure worship
for the sake of friends and family. Calvin rebukes such an attitude in the
Nicodemites, and urges them to learn from David, the man after God's own
1. David's misery being away from God's temple
was a fugitive from the land of his birth and was banished from his
father’s house and from the society of his relatives and friends. He
had been stripped of his goods, rank and honours, which had been
great. His wife had been taken from him. In sum, this was a man
grieved in everything and by everything. Nevertheless, he longs for
just one thing: to have access to the temple (p. 185).
He [David] complains that his condition is worse than
that of sparrows and swallows, who find a place to make their nests.
[Psalm 84:3]5 Why is that? Does
he not have bed and board? He is not saying that at all. Rather, he
finds no abode either good or fit as long as he is far from the altars
of God (p. 188).
2. Comparison of the attitude of David and of the
As we discussed above, the Nicodemites placed
membership in a true church far down their priority list. Some did not
even feel the hardship of being away from the means of grace. Such he
calls "more stupid than the dumb beasts" (p. 184) because even the animals
"having neither sense nor reason, will low for pasture" (p. 181).
If one speaks of the ills that may come, everyone
fears being ravaged by war, suffering losses, troubles and griefs.
However, losing the preaching of the doctrine of salvation, the pure use
of the sacraments, and such helps as are designed to bring us to
God—this is not mentioned, and one does not see people who are
deprived of these things being concerned about it. If their income
does not take them to the end of the year maintaining things as their
ambition makes them desire to do, if their profit and volume of business
decrease, if they lose credit, their self- torment knows no end.
However, the ordinary feeding of the children of God (for which they
ought to hunger) is of no consequence to them (pp. 186-187).
Yet none cry out, 'Thine altars, LORD, where are
Thine altars, my God, my King?' The fact is that they are too much
governed by the vanities of the world to obey God (p. 188).
3. Dealing with excuses why the Nicodemites will not
Calvin shows above how the Nicodemites would move under
other circumstances (such as it they had no food; if they had the offer of
a higher income elsewhere), but to be away from the means of grace is of
no consequence to them:
I only ask them if they would be stopped by such a
scruple if they had nothing to eat or drink at home. There are none who
would not boldly permit themselves to leave their country in order not
to die of hunger. Now I offer a case which is not so clear. If they were
offered six times as many goods in a foreign country, they would have no
great problem leaving to take possession (p. 202).
However, when all is said and done, the only thing
that holds most people back is pure defiance (p. 210).
If this desire (Psalm 84:10)6
reigned in all believers, they would not have so much trouble
disentangling themselves, and would not spend so much time haggling
about the loss. They must take leave of their homes and come to the
church of God. Yet there are precious few who are willing and able to
suffer losses. Everyone would like to be carried on a litter to worship
God when there is freedom to do so, and would like for lands and
possessions, goods and business connections and all other assets to
follow right along. Now if they act this way, how highly do they esteem
Jesus Christ? (pp. 215-216).
Especially because of such exhortations Calvin is
mocked by the Nicodemites and accused of teaching that Geneva is the only
way to Heaven. To this he replies:
As for those babblers who ridicule us, wondering if
one cannot get to paradise except by way of Geneva, I answer: would to
God they had the courage to gather in the name of Jesus Christ wherever
they are, and set up some sort of church, either in their houses, or in
those of their neighbours, to do in their place what we do here in our7
temples! But what do we find? Not deigning to use the means God provides
them, they still want to be saved (p. 192).
although some scoffed, others undertook the journey and moved to Geneva or
other places where God could be worshipped in a faithful Reformed church.
1 Calvin disliked the name "Nicodemite" because he felt this was a
slur on righteous Nicodemus, who, although, before his enlightenment he
sought out the shadows, when the Sun of Righteousness (Mal. 4:2) shone
upon him he no longer remained in his hiding place (p. 118). Calvin points
out that Nicodemus was later bold in defending Christ before the
Sandhedrin and in claiming his body for burial, when it was extremely
perilous to do so. "Here then is the true way of Nicodemising. It is to
grow stronger with time, advancing daily to the glory of God" (p. 119).
2 This present reviewer remembers to his shame times when he sang
along in such a way, even trying to substitute "Calvinistic words"—such as
"His elect" for "all"—while the rest sang the Arminian lyrics. He now sees
that such was an evasion. Surely, there is Nicodemitism in all of us.
3 One can be guilty by association and connivance.
4 Psalm 27:4: "One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I look
after, that I may dwell in the house of the LORD, all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to enquire in his temple."
5 Psalm 84:1-3: "How amiable are thy tabernacles, O LORD of hosts! My
soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the LORD: my heart and
my flesh crieth out for the living God. Yea, the sparrow hath found an
house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young,
even thine altars, O LORD of hosts, my King, and my God."
6 Psalm 84:10: "For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I
would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the
tents of the wicked."
7 Le temple in French usually refers to a Protestant church
building whereas the more common word l’église more commonly
refers to churches in general.