A Light from the Shadows
During the first half of the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation gained some traction in Italy. Discussions about the new ideas taught by Martin Luther and John Calvin buzzed in Italian universities and monasteries during the 1520s and 1530s. Protestant books poured in to the country through Venice, a city that had a long history of resistance to the power of the papacy. The result was that many Italians, even a few Roman Catholic cardinals, began to hear of and embrace the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
By the early 1540s, however, the light of the Reformation began to grow dim in Italy. In 1541, the well-known Reformer Juan de Valdes died. Valdes lived in Italy, had written and published numerous Protestant books helping spread the Reformation. 1541 also saw the failure of the Colloquy of Ratisbon. This was a meeting between Protestant and Catholic leaders in an attempt to restore their religious unity. The Papal delegate to the Colloquy was Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, who embraced the doctrine of justification by faith alone and had sympathies toward the Protestant movement, but was unable to bring agreement between the two sides. In 1542, Contarini died. That same year, the pope established the Roman Inquisition, led by the merciless Cardinal Gian Pietro Carafa. His singular mission was to cleanse the Catholic Church of Protestant doctrine. As a result, some key Italian figures fled the country that year, including the great scholar Peter Martyr Vermigli.
From a Protestant perspective, these were dark times for the Christian church in Italy. But it was precisely in this dark hour that a light emerged from the shadows. In 1543, a small book of only 70 pages written by an anonymous author appeared on the shelves of Venetian booksellers. The Benefit of Christ (Il Beneficio di Cristo) communicated powerfully and clearly the biblical distinction between the law and the gospel, and the imputed righteousness of Christ received by faith alone. Written in simple Italian for the common man, it aimed to comfort weary believers who lacked assurance of their salvation. The book was an instant success, selling more than 40,000 copies and being translated into several languages. “Beyond all other books,” as one scholar observed, “it popularized the doctrine of Justification by faith in Italy, and probably damaged Rome more than the Sack.”
Rome, however, fought back. The Council of Trent condemned the book in 1546. In 1549, it was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books and burned in Italy’s public squares. Owning a copy became a crime. By the 1560s, all known Italian copies were destroyed. All traces were lost. But in 1843, three centuries after The Benefit of Christ was first published in Venice, an Italian copy was found in Cambridge, England, producing a renewed interest in the work and the identity of its author.
It has been almost five centuries since The Benefit of Christ was first published. The Lord once used this little book to help people understand the gospel and spread it across Italy and Europe. What will he use today? May we return to the message of The Benefit of Christ and proclaim that message once again.