"He was a Christian all right" is intended to be understood sarcastically. The point being made is that John Calvin was not a "Christian" because he lived in a time period prophetically described in Revelation 3:1-6! I never expected that answer.
The Sardis = Reformation churches has its roots in a theology known as Dispensationalism. As their paradigm goes, Revelation 2-3 is a prophetic description of future generations of church history beyond the writing of these chapters. The seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2-3 correspond to seven distinct periods of church history. Here's a basic chart of how it works out:
Let's review Revelation 3:1-6.
“‘“The victor will thus be dressed in white, and I will never erase his name from the book of life but will acknowledge his name in the presence of my Father and of his angels. “‘“Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”’
Clarence Larkin (1850-1924)
I was curious as to who first came up with this peculiar interpretation. A number of people point to Baptist pastor, Clarence Larkin, particularly his commentary on Revelation (1919) (pdf). The author states,
This interpretation of the “Messages to the Seven Churches” was hidden to the early Church, because time was required for Church History to develop and be written, so a comparison could be made to reveal the correspondence. If it had been clearly revealed that the Seven Churches stood for “Seven Church Periods” that would have to elapse before Christ could come back, the incentive to watch would have been absent.
While the character of these Seven Churches is descriptive of the Church during seven periods of her history, we must not forget that the condition of those churches, as described, were their exact condition in John's day. So we see that at the close of the First Century the leaven of “False Doctrine” was at work in the Churches. The churches are given in the order named, because the peculiar characteristic of that Church applied to the period of Church History to which it is assigned. It also must not be forgotten, that, that which is a distinctive characteristic of each Church Period, does not disappear with that Period, but continues on down through the next Period, and so on until the end, thus increasing the imperfections of the visible Church, until it ends in an open Apostasy, as shown on the chart--“The Messages to the Seven Churches Compared with Church History.”To summarize Larkin, that the seven churches represented future spiritual church history was "hidden to the early church," so they would maintain "the incentive to watch" for the coming of Christ. Larkin's interpretation though is slippery: these seven churches, while unfolding in seven distinct periods, exist in some form throughout the entirety of church history. In other words, all seven churches exist at all times! Larkin goes on to state specifically of the Sardis / Reformation parallel:
The Church at Sardis was called a “Dead Church” though it had a name to live. That is, it was a “Formalistic Church,” a church given over to “formal” or “ritualistic” worship. It had the “Form of Godliness without the power.” The meaning of the word “Sardis” is the “escaping one,” or those who “come out” and so it is an excellent type of the Church of the Reformation Period.
By the Reformation we mean that period in the history of the Christian Church when Martin Luther and a number of other reformers protested against the false teaching, tyranny and claims of the Papal Church. This Period began about A. D. 1500. The condition of affairs in the realm dominated by the Papal Church became intolerable, and came to a crisis when Martin Luther, on October 31, 1517 A. D., nailed his 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, Germany. From that date the Reformation set in. But it was more a struggle for political liberty than a purely Christian or religious movement.
It had the advantage of encouraging and aiding the circulation of the Holy Scriptures, that had hitherto been a sealed book, the revival of the Doctrine of “Justification by Faith,” and a reversion to more simple modes of worship, but the multiplication of sects only led to bitter controversial contentions, that, while they threw much light on the Word of God, interfered greatly with the spiritual state of the Church, until it could truthfully be said, “That she had a name to live and was dead.”
While the reformers swept away much ritualistic and doctrinal rubbish they failed to recover the promise of the Second Advent. They turned to God from idols, but not to “wait for His Son from the Heavens.” The “Sardis Period” extended from A. D. 1520 to about A. D. 1750.Larkin's Sardis-Reformation church is a "formalistic" or "ritualistic" church. I suspect he means it was too similar to the practices of the Roman church. Perhaps it also is reflective of his move from the Episcopal church to a Baptist church. Elsewhere he asserts that the Baptists are, more-or less, the true descendants of the apostolic church:
Almost all the Anti-papist denominations date, either directly or indirectly, from the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Protestant Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian Churches, came out from the Roman Catholic Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church came from the Protestant Episcopal Church. The Baptists, however, do not date from the Reformation. Though Anti-papists, they are not, in the technical and historical sense of the word, “Protestants,” though they have ever protested, and do now protest, against the heresies and abominations of the Romish Church.-snip-
The Baptists claim to have descended from the apostles.
It is true that the line of descent cannot always be traced. Like a river, that now and then in its course is lost under the surface of the ground, and then makes its appearance again, the Baptists claim that, from the days of the apostles until the present time, there have not been wanting those persons, either separately or collected into churches, and known under different names, who, if now living, would be universallylly recognized as Baptists.Larkin says the Reformation church was "more a struggle for political liberty than a purely Christian or religious movement." Larkin is correct that the Reformation also saw a struggle for political liberty. There were political power struggles with the papacy and empire long before Luther came on the scene, and yes, the Reformation certainly played its role in the centralization of countries. To say though the Reformation was "more of a struggle for political liberty" ignores the fact that religion and politics were so intertwined that those people during this time period probably would not make such a dichotomy.
Even though "the reformers swept away much ritualistic and doctrinal rubbish" they failed to emphasize the second coming of Christ. One wonders how much Reformation history Larkin was actually aware of, particularly the details of Luther's theology. Luther was convinced he was living on the verge of the end of history, and this belief heavily fueled his later polemics. Many of the radicals were also convinced it was the end of the world.
Larkin says, "the multiplication of sects only led to bitter controversial contentions, that, while they threw much light on the Word of God, interfered greatly with the spiritual state of the Church." In every period of church history, there have been controversies, some leading to extreme divisions. Even in the earliest period of church history (the New Testament church), there were divisions: there were those who followed their favorite teacher Paul, Apollos, Peter, 1 Cor. 1:10-17), there were the Judaizers in Galatians, and then there were various Gnostic sects that rose up early in the church. Within some of these broad groups, there were also various sects and divisions (particularly those within Gnosticism). According to Larkin's own interpretive grid, he's simply wrong. Generally speaking, the "multiplication of sects" is not a blatant characteristic of the sixteenth century. In the Reformation period, there were basically six broad groups: the Roman church, the Orthodox church, the Lutheran church, the Reformed church, the Anglican church and the radicals. Certainly, each in this broad grouping had divisions (Luther himself claimed "there is no other place in the world where there are so many sects, schisms, and errors as in the papal church"). Simply compare the Reformation period of church history to post-Reformation time periods.
What strikes me as most absurd about Larkin's comments is his view that the Reformation churches positively circulated the Bible, revived justification by faith, and had "more simple modes of worship," but because there were controversies and "the multiplication of sects" these trump these positives! Think on this for a moment: reviving the very heart of Christianity, the Gospel and the Scriptures (sola fide and sola scriptura) is, according to Larkin, the characteristics of a dead church!
Yes, I did respond to Calvin's detractor, but it didn't go beyond this last reply: