Calvinʼs Wide Influence
The question, who and what is John Calvin has been answered a countless number of times by an innumerable amount of people, the answer given depends on whether you love him or hate him, it seems it has to be one or the other. One fairly modern American historian thought that Calvin, “darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honoured history of nonsense”. The Oxford Dictionary of the Church calls Calvin “the unopposed dictator of Geneva”. On the other hand, Charles Haddon Spurgeon wrote that “the longer I live the clearer does it appear that John Calvinʼs system is the nearest to perfection”. Whatever your feelings about John Calvin may be, there is no question as to the mighty influence of the man and his ministry, it was huge. His doctrine ran through Europe, transforming, liberating, bringing not only freedom from the thraldom of popery but politically, economically, the doctrine of Calvin brought prosperity to a long impoverished Europe. The Pilgrim fatherʼs took Calvinʼs teaching to what is now called the United States of America, and on that foundation built a mighty and a free nation. Where you find his doctrine, loved and embraced you will find truth, integrity, freedom, and prosperity. Why? Because John Calvinʼs doctrine is the doctrine of Godʼs word, the Bible, the life-giving, liberating gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Where you find the opposite, false religion, in countries yet in the thraldom of popery and Islam, you will find slavery, bondage, poverty, dysfunctionalism. Christ came that men may have life and that more abundant, to set the captive free. John Calvin expounded that doctrine, that was his ministry.
Return to Geneva
We have looked at the conversion of John Calvin, how that the effects of his encounter with the God of truth never left him, his heart was captivated by the truth that set him free from the chains of a very deep self-righteousness. And of course the effect that that also had in terms of his own ministry, if God said a thing, for Calvin, it was to be done, it was that simple for the Reformer. We have looked also at Calvinʼs teaching on the divine law, with its threefold use, pedagogical, political and thirdly, its purpose in the believers life. We now turn to the subject of Calvin and ministry, his preaching and counselling in particular. The prospect of returning to Geneva was very uncongenial indeed when previously he had been released and found a sweet haven in Strasbourg, where he ministered to those who loved him and had the leisure to study and write, to leave this and return to Geneva, was not welcome at all. But when he had to return, though he felt divinely compelled to do so, the thought was nothing but sheer torture to him. But, until he was set free by the hand of God, he regarded himself as bound. He had not called himself to Geneva and so he said, neither would he dismiss himself. The thought of desertion, he said, never entered his mind even though we would hardly believe if we were told, the annoyances and miseries that he endured for a whole year. “I can testify, he said, that not a single day passed that I didnʼt long for death ten times over.” And yet he honestly and truthfully testifies that he never once thought of leaving. He stayed with it. Genevaʼs importance, of course, was not so much its size but more it’s geographical and therefore strategic position. The place was rough; it was immoral; brothels and prostitutes filled the place. But in going back to Geneva, Calvin had very serious intent. He didnʼt, he said, go back there just simply to gather a group of believers around him. He said the church must always be confessional, it must believe in Christ as Redeemer and Lord and it must confess that faith openly in words and in works. His intent was to reform Geneva, to transform the place. The church, Calvin said, is Godʼs instrument for salvation and all the means, the main means, entrusted to her, was the preaching of the pure word of God, the gospel. That for Calvin was the primary means of accomplishing his task, the preaching of Godʼs word. By that, of course, he meant the biblical gospel, “for I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures. And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (1Corinthians 15:3). That is the gospel! You would be amazed how many Christians donʼt know that today, justification by the free grace of God alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from works, that is the gospel! The gospel is to be preached said Calvin, in language familiar to the people. But, as Ministers go about this task faithfully, if they are neglected and despised, then it is because the people neglect and despise the word of God.
Calvinʼs Comfort Zone
When John Calvin was challenged to return to Geneva, he was likened to a runaway Jonah. William Farel, as well as announcing that God would curse his comfort if he remained in Strasbourg, said, “John Calvin, how can you with such gifts, in good conscience decline this ministry?” In connection with that can I say to any young man who may read this, who sits in a church, who has gifts, even an inclination towards the preaching of Godʼs word…..for Iʼm told that we are finding it increasingly more and more difficult to find men for Bible Colleges and seminaries today, that there are young men sitting in our congregations who wonʼt venture into the ministry because of all the hassle and trouble they are seeing Ministers having to endure. Well, can I say to such young men as this, if youʼre sitting back week after week under somebody elseʼs ministry, nice and comfortable, when God has gifted you, and would have you about his business, that likewise, God will curse your comfort. If you have a gift to preach Godʼs word, then that is exactly what you ought to be doing. Surely you must agree, there never was such a time as this, such a time of need in our land, for young men who are gifted of God, mighty in the scriptures, filled with the Holy Ghost, to take courage and to be lifting up their voices and thundering this gospel of ours throughout the land, regardless, of the consequences to themselves, whether within or outside the church. John Calvin left his comfort zone, much as he did not want to return to Geneva, he recognised and obeyed the call of God on his life and ministry. What happened to John Calvin was of no consequence to him, he was not a popular man. He was often seen as the instigator of any trouble as came upon the people of Switzerland. He wrote in 1545, “the Swiss also are uncommonly severe upon me, not only the pensioners but all those who have no other wisdom than that of Epicurus, because, by my importunity, I have drawn down upon their nation the hatred of the king. But may there be nothing of such moment as shall hinder us in the discharge of our duty beyond what cannot be avoided. Charles the schoolmaster, on whose account Sebastion abused me, has deserted his post, induced by what prospect I know not.” Popular or not, he never took his eye of the target, complete reformation of the church, by the preaching of Godʼs word, what people thought of that, was what mattered to Calvin, not what they thought of Calvin himself.
Preaching & Presence
For Calvin this was a very important matter, it was for him the driving force of preaching. The word of God is not divorced from the very and dynamic presence of God, God he said is in fact, in the preaching. Properly preached, he said, though coming through the agency of a man, it is to be considered as coming from the very mouth of God.
Agency of Men
God employs ministers as agents and though it is through their agency, biblically preached it is a sign of the presence of God. It is the instrument of Christʼs rule in his church and the primary means by which he speaks to his people, through his word as it is proclaimed in this God-ordained, commanded function: “For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1Corinthians 1:21). And, “Paul, a servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God’s elect, and the acknowledging of the truth which is after godliness; In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began; But hath in due times manifested his word through preaching, which is committed unto me according to the commandment of God our Saviour” (Titus 1:1-3). The Apostle Paul tells us that it was by the commandment of God our Saviour that he was called to preach the word of God, it wasnʼt just Paulʼs thing. For God approaches people through preaching, says Calvin, he comes near to them. It is his ordained instrument to dispense Christ and his grace to men and women, and effectively promises pardon and reconciliation to the elect and we can be fully assured, he says, that it is efficacious. But it is also abundantly efficacious in condemning the wicked reprobate. It is that double- edged sword Paul speaks of that is life to one and death to another: “Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifests the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things?” (2Corinthians 2:14-16).
The Lord Jesus Christ speaks in very same terms concerning the word that he himself has spoken to men: “He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day” (John 12:48). When men are listening to the preaching of Godʼs word, according to Calvin, they are hearing the voice of Christ and are either accepting or rejecting it. It may come through the agency of men, but it is God, and he is present in the proclamation, he comes and he calls. In this same context, commenting on and quoting Isaiah Calvin says: “Wherefore, when I came, was there no man? when I called, was there none to answer? Is my hand shortened at all, that it cannot redeem? or have I no power to deliver?” (Isaiah 50:2). It is a monstrous thing he says, that God should come to a people, for this was his complaint here in Isaiah, he came to Israel and he called them. The people said, when did you come to us, when did you call us? And Calvin says he came to them when he sent his prophet when he sent Isaiah: “I came to you and I called and there was no-one to answer me” (Isaiah 50:2). It is nothing short of a monstrous thing, says Calvin, when God sends his servants to preach his word, deliver his message, and there is none to meet and none to answer Godʼs call. How many times will this be repeated on the day of judgment, when men shall ask the self-same question, when did you come, when did you call? He will answer when I sent my ministers into your neighbourhood, and Sabbath after Sabbath they lifted up their voices and faithfully declared my word. Some of you were there and heard but did not obey my call. Some of you were not there, you thought you had better, more important things to attend to, your sports, your leisure and your pleasure, but I came and you were not there to answer me.
This is the justification for Calvinʼs high view of preaching. It wasnʼt simply that preaching was the current method of spreading propaganda, and it wasnʼt that it was the most effective means of educating the community. The force that drives preaching, that drives the machinery of preaching is theological, God was in it. God came to people, God spoke to people, God called people, through the preaching of his word. And so the real reason for preaching is to be found in the biblical concept, the word of God. That phrase has become a catchphrase amongst us in our modern day, it has become empty, weak, uncertain, we have made it so. We bandy it about, use the words quite loosely but for Calvin that phrase, “the word of God”, had enormous significance. It was fresh, it was living, it was explosive, it meant that God was in it. God was speaking. The work of the gospel, the preaching and the word of God, all these were synonymous terms to Calvin and he saw the preaching of the gospel as simply a continuation of the work of Christ upon earth, which he began (Acts 1:1), and continued through his apostles, and goes on even today through his church by the ministry of the word of God. He is in it and it is the Spirit who unites with the word of God, who empowers the preaching. But all the power and all the action resides with the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit of Jesus Christ is in the preaching. Thus, all the power is entirely ascribed to God alone. Through the agency of man, yes, but ultimately the man himself has nothing. His authority, his justification for preaching lies in simply this, his agency, that he is an ambassador. God has called and sent him, albeit through the mediation of the church, to preach. The one necessary condition for John Calvin was that it must be a faithful interpretation of the word of God. Not a manʼs own dreams, not a manʼs own fantasies or philosophies, but the revelation of God in his word. God has ordained his word as an instrument to save his elect and the primary means of communicating that word is through preaching.
Agenda is Godʼs Word
But the agenda is Godʼs word, and Godʼs word alone. Preaching must be the exposition of Scripture alone. John Calvin himself preached from a burning sincerity, with an unquenchable and joyful hope, and people listened to him. Geneva did not shut its ears to him. They were instructed seriously in the Christian faith, both the law and the gospel. They were admonished, they were exhorted, they were censured, but they were equipped with a solid foundation that enabled them to challenge the false religion of their day and to challenge the unbelief in the culture of that day in a way that is not seen amongst many Christians today. The problem weʼre faced with in the church todayʼs an intellectual one, an anti-intellectualism. Where do you find a congregation of the Lordʼs people in the United Kingdom today who are thoroughly educated in Christian truth? Do we not have many young people leaving our churches, going to university and what happens? They are totally blown away with everything they hear. They are sunk without trace in the flood of atheism they are presented with, simply because there is not a solid foundation there. The culture challenges and changes them, conformity to the world. Our young people should have such a solid basis of Christian truth, that they should go to university, college or whatever, with the ability to challenge that worldly culture. This is what the Puritans did with their children, they so versed them, they so saturated them with the word of God they were able to go out into the world and face the culture of the day and to challenge it. On one occasion a man challenged Calvin, he said, “you can’t tell me what to do”, to which Calvin answered him “what you are really saying is, you don’t want God to rule over you. You want to abolish the law of God.” “See, he said, “how these sensitive souls can’t bear a single word of reproof. Let them go to the devil’s school, he will flatter them well enough to their perdition.” But isn’t that true in the visible church in our land today? You dare not reprove people. You dare not bring the law of God to bear upon their sinful lives. They whine the pastor doesn’t love people enough. They cannot, they do not have sufficient faith to lift the eye of faith high enough to see it is God who is in the word, and it is he ultimately who is reproving them.
In coming to preaching says Calvin, God holds out his hand of goodness and mercy to people in order that they stand not in their own merits, but in Christ’s and in Christ’s only. God’s worship doesn’t consist in our imagining foolish devotions, we must serve, we must worship God in obedience, we must sacrifice our hearts, we must sacrifice our own affections. All hypocrisy, says Calvin, is detestable to God. The word of God alone shows us how we must call upon the name of the Lord. And the fruit of our baptism is lives that are given over to him, even to the point of death. And this is an important point, John Calvin required no less from anybody else than he was willing to give of himself. The agency of men, the preaching of the gospel, the preaching of God’s word, the redemption of God in Christ, the agenda, the ultimate goal is Christ himself. The negative with Calvin was not neglected for the positive. There were threats of perdition yes, but there were promises of life. Yes, he thundered out the wrath of God, but also the goodness and mercy of God in Christ. Yes, he preached the denial of man’s merits, but also the vital assertion of Christ’s merits. Yes, he attacked the superstitious religion of his day, but he urged obedience to the service, to the true worship of God. Yes, he denounced and rejected the sacraments of Rome, but pointed to the true and glorious sacraments of our Lord Jesus Christ. His preaching was lively, it had passion, clarity, authority, penetration. It was provocative; it made heavy demands on people. But what of the lazy-minded, this hatred that is abroad in the church today for thinking? Again I say the problem is an anti- intellectual one. What do you come to church for on a Sunday? Oh they say, we come to switch off (chill outʼs the modern jargon used). No, you don’t, says God, you come to switch ON, to listen to me. To worship me with all your heart, MIND, and soul. The lazy mindedness, the hatred of thinking abroad today wouldn’t have been brooked in Calvin’s Geneva, he made people work with their minds, he made them think.
Agenda is Hearing Christ
The Gospel is preached through human agency but God graciously gives his Holy Spirit in the preaching, opening the ears and enlightening the minds and giving understanding concerning the things of Christ. We must hear him, says Calvin. Christ is the central theme in all the preaching, or should be: “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1Corinthians 2:2). In the book of Romans, chapter ten and verse fourteen, we have this very thought. Permit me if you will, to give you two translations, you’ll hardly spot the difference. The KJV (Authorised Version) renders it thus, “how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” The other translation reads, “how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard?” Did you spot the difference? The word of in the Authorised Version. Now I esteem the Authorised Version very highly, itʼs the best translation weʼve got, I believe that with all my heart, but itʼs not perfect. The perfect Scriptures are the originals of the Old Testament Hebrew and the New Testament Greek. What Iʼm saying is the better translation is without the word of, it should not be there? How shall they believe in him whom they have not heard, not, of whom they have not heard, but, whom they have not heard? Do you see the difference, hearing of someone who is not present is a different thing altogether from hearing someone who is present? For instance, you tell me of your uncle, if you had one, who lives in Alice Springs in Australia and I could go home to my wife and say I know about such and such a personʼs uncle who lives in Alice Springs in Australia. But what I couldnʼt say to her is, I have heard such and suchʼs uncle who lives in Alice Springs in Australia, a different thing altogether. To hear his own voice, to hear Jesus Christ addressing you, the former you see, the Authorised Version, says that it is impossible to believe unless you have heard about Christ. No, says Calvin, itʼs the latter. You canʼt believe unless you have heard him speak to you unless you have heard his word addressing to you. But thatʼs exactly what God does in preaching says Calvin, he, God, is mediating Christ to us, itʼs the very presence of God in Christ in the preaching of the word of God.
Preaching & Purpose
Calvin speaks about the purpose of preaching. For Calvin it is the main means of grace, it is the dynamic of Godʼs grace, enabling repentance and faith. Calvin never despaired, even when he went back to Geneva, he hated the place, didnʼt want to go, but he never despaired of the circumstances in which he preached. He points us back to the Apostles and says, where did the Apostles begin their gospel ministry? Wasnʼt it in the very heartland of anti-christ? He understood that God, whatever the circumstances in which it was preached, would use his word, yes, even in Geneva.
Recognition of the True Church
This primary means of grace, this preaching, is what distinguishes the true church from the false, the true church is recognized by the pure preaching of the word of God. Thatʼs the primary mark for Calvin, of the true church, for where there isnʼt this preaching of the word of God, then there isnʼt a church. And it determines, says Calvin, the one that you will either join or the one that you will leave. This is the thing that you should be looking for, listening for, the pure preaching of the word of God. And the label church ought not to deceive us because every congregation so-called is tested hereby. The apostle Paul tells us that the church is, “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1Timothy 3:15), meaning it is the faithful keeper, the preserver of Godʼs truth, that that truth may not perish in the world. By the preaching of the word of God, God provides all that is needful for souls, for their salvation. Therefore, because of this, God esteems the church highly and so he says in joining the church we never leave it, as long as it bears the mark, as long as it bears this mark, the main means of grace, the pure preaching of Godʼs word. Calvin inveighs against its deserters. Sin, he says, is refusing to join the church and whoever leaves the faithful church is sinning, God counts such as apostates and traitors from the gospel. In expounding his primary marks he gives these necessary principles, on first hearing them you might not think very much of them. First, God is one. Secondly, Christ is God and the Son of God. Thirdly, salvation rests on God’s mercy. But as he begins to unpack what he means by these principles, you begin to think much more of them. This, he says, is the great Reformation gospel, salvation is by the sovereign and particular free grace of God in Christ alone, the very heart, the very centre of the gospel for Calvin. He contrasts the false gospel of the free-will sinner, whether it be coming from Rome, or from Arminianism. Anyone who preaches a gospel that is wider than election, or conditioned by the response of the sinner and is resistible, Calvin reckoned to have fundamentally departed from the faith and if such a church does not repent then the believer has every right to leave. Now doubtless that will sound extreme in todayʼs visible church that has no backbone, that lacks moral fibre; that does not even boldly declare the sovereignty of God, let alone his sovereignty in electing grace. Todayʼs effeminate church, effeminate nation, would be amazed, shocked even, at the teaching of John Calvin. But you would also be amazed at the faults John Calvin would be willing to tolerate. He points to the faults in the New Testament churches in Galatia. Yet, he says, for the church to allow the openly wicked to be members he sharply rebukes. But it is nothing more than surliness, arrogance and over-scrupulousness stemming from pride and a false holiness that motivates many to leave the church on the simple basis that it is not loving or friendly enough. But you see what Calvin was looking for was reformation, not schism. He points to the corruption in the Old Testament church, he says, “look at the people, look at the state they were in. The magistrate, the state and the priesthood were so far gone that Isaiah (chapter 1) likened it to Sodom and Gomorrah.” “That, he says, is the visible church.” The consequence was, religion was despised; there was theft, treachery, idolatry; there were murder and sodomy even. But the prophets never ran off to establish new churches or to erect new altars. They considered that the Lord had set his word amongst them and God was yet worshipped there by those who held out clean hands and who had clean hearts, untainted. We claim overmuch for ourselves, says Calvin, if we dare to withdraw from the communion of the church because of the morals of those who donʼt meet our standards. He points to the example of Christ, the desperate impiety of the Pharisees, the dissolute lives of the people and yet still there was godly folk amongst them who worshipped with clean hands, with a clear conscience, uncontaminated. And of course, he quotes the Lord Jesus Christ concerning the separation of the wheat from the chaff. He, Christ himself, says Calvin, will wield the rod of judgment. Itʼs wicked madness and pious presumption for us to take such a task on ourselves. The vices of others, he says, do not prevent us from a right profession of faith. But here is the point beloved, Calvin is quick to assure us that he will not support the slightest error. He does guard against forsaking and splitting the visible church over petty dissensions, but as long as the pure preaching, that means of grace was there; as long as there was the pure preaching of Godʼs Word in the visible church and the local expression of it; then there is always hope for reform.
Reformation of Worship
The rule for Calvin, which distinguishes between pure and vitiated worship is of universal application, in order that we may not adopt any device which seems fit to ourselves, but look to the injunctions of him who alone is entitled to prescribe. Therefore, if we would have him to approve our worship, this rule, which he everywhere enforces with the utmost strictness, must be carefully observed. For there is a twofold reason why the Lord, in condemning and prohibiting all fictitious worship, requires us to give obedience only to his own voice. First, it tends greatly to establish his authority that we do not follow our own pleasure, but depend entirely on his sovereignty; and, secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is go astray. And then when once we have turned aside from the right path, there is no end to our wanderings, until we get buried under a multitude of superstitions. Justly, therefore, does the Lord, in order to assert his full right of dominion, strictly enjoin what he wishes us to do, and at once reject all human devices which are at variance with his command. Justly, too, does he, in express terms, define our limits, that we may not, by fabricating perverse modes of worship, provoke his anger against us. For centuries, the church had indeed been buried in superstition, and sensuality, for Calvin the only way to reform the church, to recover true worship, service acceptable to God, was a complete and thorough return to the obedience of scripture.
Fruit of Reformation
So reformation is brought about by the living voice of God in Christ coming to us, thus, the church is reformed, it is built up. God breathes faith into his church. In the preaching of the word of God resides the power to save and restore the church. Calvin appeals to the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, “for I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16). The power, the dynamic of God, in preaching God comes down to us by this earthly means. This is why Calvin did nothing but preach, that was his calling and his life. He did nothing but preaching and preaching the word of God, preaching the scriptures, opening them up and applying them. You squeezed this man and the word of God came out of him. Not just the exposition but the strong and courageous application of scripture to and in every area of the lives of the people of Geneva; the Old Testament and the New Testament, both of them; applying the rigors the law of God. Gospel preaching with the thread of divine law running through it. In our street preaching we often get professing Christians saying, why are you talking about all this sin, why donʼt you just tell them that Jesus loves them? I seriously doubt whether John Calvin ever told anyone that Jesus loved them, but he certainly brought many people to an experience of it. It was the reform that John Calvin was looking for as opposed to revival. The recovery of truth began with Luther, the momentum was carried on through Zwingli and Bullinger, but Calvin consolidated the Reformation, Lutherʼs emphasis was upon personal salvation, Calvinʼs agenda was to establish a holy commonwealth upon the earth. The agenda in Geneva was to found such a commonwealth that would honour God in every area of its life. His preaching was provocative, penetrating and convicting. If God’s Word demanded something then for Calvin it was to be obeyed, simple as that. And what happened to himself was inconsequential as long as God was obeyed, thatʼs all he wanted. But where you have people who are bent on personal pleasure and liberty, you will have folk who dislike, who fear such virtuous authority. Calvin was opposed every step of the way. He got into his pulpit one morning and he found a death threat. Youʼre a dead man, if you donʼt shut up, it read. But with the same seriousness, with that same resolution that began with his conversion, his heart captivated by God, with that same seriousness, that same resolution, he kept on. He wanted a church, he wanted a worship that was approved of God. He rebuked the spirit of toleration. This toleration that masquerades as moderation, a specious quality with a fair appearance that seems worthy of praise. But that the eternal truth, ought to oppress, is nothing but the devilʼs lies. To be silent while Christ is insulted, whilst the holy mysteries of God are polluted and trampled on and souls are being murdered: when the church is left to writhe under the effect of a deadly wound; then it is not meekness but sinful indifference. Well, he says, let our big babies go and complain about me as if I were too extreme! In fact, I have never required of them half of what the prophet demands. Now whether I talk about it or hold my peace on the subject, we are none of us any less bound by this law that God imposes on us. And indeed, it is not for nothing that God addresses the faithful saying, “ye are my witnesses, and my servant whom I have chosen” (Isaiah 44:8). Anyone who would be approved as a member of Jesus Christ must show that this title suits him. Therefore, they who bury the testimony to the truth by their dissembling and hypocrisy have no excuse. So I ask you, what will become of them who undermine the testimony all their life? Who not only hide their Christianity so as to show no sign of it before men but also commit actions which are entirely contrary to it. The children of God who are in the midst of such pollutions, therefore, have no recourse but to afflict their souls, according to the example of good Lot. Yea, they must speak against the evil as God gives them the means and occasion.
There was much pastoral purpose too in Calvinʼs ministry. He sought to advise local and national churches. John Calvin sought to advise the Duke of Somerset under Edward VI, he sought to present him with a scheme of reform that would reform the English church. Unfortunately, Somerset died before the reforms could be accomplished and his sister, the persecutor Mary, took his place. Some of her persecutees escaped to John Calvinʼs Geneva. His influence with Elizabeth was somewhat limited because Calvin had supported John Knox and with the latterʼs “Trumpet Blast Against Women”, the damage was irreparable. However his influence in England and Scotland was immense, the latter mediated through John Knox. He often wrote to others encouraging them to look out for the persecuted English and Scottish saints, those expelled from Britain by the intolerant policy of Mary, the members of the foreign congregation of London were scattered over the Low countries and Germany. All his writings, his “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, his commentaries all had a tremendous influence. But his main concern was towards his native France. He was always encouraging others in his preaching and counselling and by other means too, pamphlets etc. There was a reign of terror in France akin to that of Mary Tudorʼs persecutions, in the midst of this Calvin, called on the evangelicals to stand firm. This was his message from the start, stand firm. And this was the very basis of his book that he wrote to the Nicodemites. They thought that Calvin was far too rigorous, that he was extreme. Nicodemus was the man who came to the Lord Jesus by night (John 3), it is widely held because he was afraid of his fellow Jews, although this is questionable, this has been the thought of the church for many a long while. And so many of these people in France, who were afraid to profess the gospel openly in the case of what would happen to them were termed Nicodemites. Many of them wanted to embrace the gospel but they feared for their families, their businesses and for their own lives too. There were others who were intellectually and philosophically interested but saw no need for this Reformation that Calvin was preaching for and provoking. There were also clergymen who wanted a contemporary, charming, pleasant religion, (doesnʼt that has a contemporary ring to it), that would attract modern men. Of course, they didnʼt have electric guitars and stuff like that but they were all saying that Calvin was far, far too extreme. “No, argued Calvin, Iʼm not.” This is not a question of my opinion and yours.” Calvin simply showed them what he had found in Scripture. “Iʼve not made my mind up in a hurry, ” he says. Iʼve pondered this long and hard and what I say none of you can contradict without denying Scripture. You must give up your worldly wisdom and worship and serve God according to his word and become obedient to the word of God”. The Reformer made it clear that obedience to the word of God requires of believers an outward practice consistent with an inner commitment to the truth. “There is no room, therefore, for anyone to indulge in crafty dissimulation, or to flatter himself with a false idea of piety, pretending that he cherishes it in his heart, though he completely overturns it by outward behaviour. Genuine piety begets genuine confession. Fear of persecution or death will not serve as an excuse for participation in idolatry. Indeed, godly men and martyrs of old have left eloquent testimony about how it is better to suffer as witnesses unto the Lord than to deny the faith through acts of idolatry.
Counsel & Encouragement
John Calvin never advocated seeking persecution, no wildness, just obedience to the Lord. Not a little, he says, but total obedience. Stop playing at being religious and be religious in earnest. Not hiding yourselves by an outward conformity to the Papist religion. After Nicodemus was taught by the Lord Jesus Christ he confessed Christ openly, unashamedly and even at the hour of greatest peril, says Calvin. The Reformer exhorted and strengthened many churches and many pastors and preachers. He provided all that he could in terms of his preaching, in terms of literature. He raised up and provided Ministers and within a decade he had fifty confessional churches in France. Weʼve already touched on it, but it is worth repeating, that is our own need today, to be encouraging young men and sending Ministers where we can, if we have any responsibility, any influence on such men, let us be seen to be encouraging them. Some of you who will read this are in the ministry, you can open your pulpits, you can help to encourage these young men to preach the gospel. The best encouragement of all, of course, is that we ourselves preach the word of God, expound and apply the scriptures fearlessly, make a firm stand, in church and on the street. We need to be encouraging all Christians to stand firm, sending them out, encouraging them to go with the gospel into our nation. Our literature, our evangelical papers, every means available to us should be informing and stirring up the minds of Christians, and O how our minds need to be stirred up. Awaken the Christian community out of this sleep of death theyʼve gotten into. And this idolatry, music, music, music. It is the preaching of Godʼs word, stirring up the minds of Godʼs people, building them up and giving them a solid platform to go out there and challenge the ungodly, even vicious culture of our day.
To Prison and Death
Five men were arrested and imprisoned in Lyon, Calvin didnʼt leave them to their own fate, he wrote to them with the same message, “stand firm men”, he said, “stand firm.” And he made it known personally that he was praying for them and that he was making representation for them in the highest places he possibly could. “I am with you men.” (Some men are so well behind you that you canʼt even see them). “Trust God,” he said, you will never be failed.” They had been in prison for a year, as time went on pardon seemed to be a less and less likely outcome, almost impossible. Calvin wrote to them again and again, “if God should lead you to the stake, be confident of his grace to sustain you.” Here is one such letter he wrote to them, “My Brethren, immediately when word was brought to us of your captivity, I dispatched a messenger across the mountains to procure more certain information about it, and also to learn if there should be any means of succouring you….We have no need to express to you, at greater length, what care we have of you, and with what anguish our hearts are filled on account of your bonds. Since then so many of the brethren pray fervently for you, I doubt not but our heavenly Father will listen to their desires and groanings, and I see by your letters how he has begun to work in you…..You have profited much from the school of Jesus Christ, that you have no need of long letters of exhortation. Only practice what you have learned, and since it has pleased the Master to employ you in this service, continue to do what you have begun….We will strain ever nerve to the purpose of your release….But God urges us to look higher.” It became evident that they would burn, and again Calvin wrote, “since it pleases God to use you unto death maintaining his quarrel, he will strengthen your hands in the fight. He will not suffer a drop of your blood to be shed in vain. Calvin left no stone unturned in seeking to help his persecuted brethren. Many who had escaped the massacres which befell other Christians, were branded as heretics, some were buried alive in dungeons, or condemned to the galleys, some who arrived at Geneva, found there a generous refuge and assistance, Calvin was resolved to help them all he could and exhorted others to do likewise. He wrote eloquent and earnest entreaties to the Ministers of Zurich, of Schaffhausen, and Basle, adjuring them to employ all their power to promote new exertions in favour of their suffering brethren. They were not all men, many women folk suffered too, they were not ignored by John Calvin. He wrote exhorting them to persevere even unto death, “I do not wonder, dearly beloved sisters, if you are astounded by these hard assaults, and feel the natural repugnance of the flesh which strives so much the more as God wills to work in you by his Holy Spirit. If men are frail and easily troubled, the frailty of your sex is yet greater, by reason indeed of your natural constitution. But God who works in frail vessels knows well how to display his strength in the infirmity of his followers. Wherefore it is to him it behoves you to have recourse, invoking him continually, and praying him that the incorruptible seed, which he has sown in you, and by which he has adopted you to be in the number of his children, may bring forth its fruits in time of need, and that thereby you may be strengthened to bear up against all anguish and affliction8.” Among the followers of the Reformed doctrine surprised in the assembly of the Rue Saint-Jacques, and detained in the dungeons of the Chastelet, were several women of the highest rank. Assaulted for several hours by a ferocious populace, they escaped from death by a miracle and saw themselves loaded with all sorts of abuse, and outraged by blows. The articles of their dress were torn in pieces, their bonnets struck off from their heads, their hair pulled out, their faces bedaubed and covered with mud and filth. One of these unfortunate captives, la dame Phillippe de Lunz, widow of the Seigneur de Graveron, first appeared before the judges and received with pious intrepidity the sentence of death. Led to execution, on the 27th, September, along with Nicholas Clinet and Taurin Gravelle, she ascended courageously the funeral pile, bequeathing to her companions and example of heroic courage and admirable meekness.
We are, I guess, a long way from such persecution in our land today, but persecution has begun. How far it will go, I donʼt know? The Lord alone does, but the way that we proceed is, I think, very important. I don’t think that it would be very unlikely if I pick up the British Church Newspaper one day, and read that one of our brethren had been locked up for preaching the word of God on the streets of our nation. To me, it’s just a question of time. That’s not my point, my point is this, are we exhorting the brethren to stand fast, because it does fill your heart with fear. I hear folk say we need persecution, bring it on they say. That, I think is somewhat foolish. Calvin would never have remained silent to such talk as that. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a prison, I’ve ministered in prisons, several of them, the length and breadth of the country. Believe me, you wouldn’t wish that on your worst enemy. Now if God’s going to take us through the crucible, the fires of persecution that’s fine, he’s the sovereign Lord and knows what we best need and deserve, but we don’t go looking for it, we don’t go asking for it. But persecution never surprised Calvin, he expected it, he saw it as a normal attendant of confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. So why donʼt we? Why have we been so long without it in our land? Is it because we have been unfaithful in our confession of Christ, have we been less than disciples, followers of Christ, just professors, pew-fillers for so long? Writing to the church of Aix of the duty of Christians to endure persecution without murmuring and without resistance Calvin said this, “Dearly beloved, be persuaded all of you, that having heard of the extortions and acts of violence that have been committed against several of you, we are touched with such compassion as the fraternal tie which binds us together requires…now though sorrow is common to us with all mankind, yet it is our duty to restrain and bridle it and give such counsels to one another as that he who has all authority over us may be obeyed in simplicity…..Still our whole duty consists in practicing the lesson which our sovereign Master has taught us, to possess our souls in patience….It is for that reason Paul, to moderate our passions, exhorts us to give place to anger, relying on the promise which God has given to sustain and protect his people after their enemies have vented all their rage….If what has taken place astonishes you, wait till God show you by examples what has always been known, not only that the blood of the faithful will cry out for vengeance, but will form a good and fertilizing seed for the multiplication of the church….It is not without a cause that the scriptures insist so much on our correcting our hastiness, when we reflect how difficult it is for us to do God the honour of leaving him to do his own work in his own manner, and not according to our wishes.” We are seeing legislation in our country in terms moral behaviour, we are more and more being marginalised as Christians, a despised minority. But this should not surprise us, what should surprise us is that we have had peace for such an abnormally long time. But weʼve seen nothing yet really. What is more to the point beloved in Christ is, if we canʼt make a stand now, we never will when it gets really serious. The ministry needs to be preparing folk for what is coming, exhorting and encouraging Godʼs tiny flock to make a stand, NOW!
What About Us?
My point is this, are we exhorting the brethren to stand fast? Is there a pastor, is there an evangelist, a man, is there somebody who needs a word of encouragement from you, from you personally? Yes, he knows you are praying for him but is that enough? Exhorting the brethren to stand fast, engaging in the fight regardless of the consequences to yourself? Calvin wasn’t asking these men to endure something that he wasn’t willing to endure himself. And if it comes to such beloved in Christ, if it comes to the day when one of our brothers is locked up in prison are we ready to support him and his family? To stand behind him and I mean really stand behind him. Or will he just be left to his own devices? You know the attitude I mean, well, he was extreme, he lacked wisdom, itʼs his own fault, not our affair. That is what they’ll say isnʼt it, that’s what the majority in the visible church will say isn’t it. Well, he was an extremist anyway. Calvin expunged all thought of revolt. Some evangelicals began to think in terms of revolt, of armed resistance against the state, against the government. Calvin’s opinion was sought and he made his thoughts very clear. Nothing is to be done, nothing attempted that is not found in the word of God. “It would be better, he said, if we were all ruined than the gospel be exposed to reproach, caused by armed men, by sedition and by tumult.” As much as I love my native Scottish Covenanters very, very dearly, and I’ve learned a great deal from them but I do think it was ever a great pity that they took up arms. I don’t think they were right in that. In his “Christian Institutes”, Calvin leaves no room for resistance against the state, lawful protest yes, but rulers are to be obeyed, even the unjust and the cruel ones. No private citizen, he says, has the right to overthrow the ruler. The exception that he makes is certain bodies when the state becomes intolerable, and I perceive from that, he means members of the nobility, not private citizens; people who are in a position of authority who can bring pressure to bear on the ruler by constitutional means. His advice is to abstain from arms, better, he said, we all perish first.
Is Reformation Possible?
Geneva was a cesspit of immorality and vice when Calvin went there, very much I guess like the United Kingdom is today. But from the depths of his relationship with God and this love for God’s revelation, this resulted, for John Calvin, in a seriousness of life and ministry, seriousness for the things of God that issued in obedience, without regard for his own self, his own being, his own comfort and his own desires. He went to the place where God wanted him to be, even though he himself did not want to be there, and through the God appointed message and method, the gospel and its preaching, reformation in Geneva was accomplished. So is that possible in the United Kingdom today? We have got to believe it is so, we must. But we must also believe, carry with us the conviction, that the means that God uses, will use, to bring about such a reformation today, is the preaching of his word. The mind of the visible church must be gotten hold of. The content of the preaching and the volume of the preaching must be raised in order to get hold of the mind of the church first and foremost. And then maybe, just maybe, when we’ve got the mind of the church, we’ll get the mind of the nation. But the problem we face is an intellectual one, or rather anti-intellectual. If we are to succeed in our mission, we must turn to the biblical method of preaching, we must learn from the experts. Listen to the apostle Peterʼs preaching, Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: 23Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain (Acts 2:22).
What a hopeless, what a useless evangelist. Can you imagine anyone with preaching like that, getting a job in an evangelistic society or even a pastoral charge in the church today? I mean doesnʼt Peter know we don’t go to the Old Testament and especially so in evangelistic preaching. Yet he takes these people at Pentecost, right back into the Old Testament and explains that everything that has taken place, everything that is happening there before them, was all foretold, all predicted, all prophesied in the Old Testament. But we donʼt do evangelism with the Old Testament! Secondly, he accuses his hearers of sin in the particular. Peter hasnʼt got a clue, you do not point the finger at people and accuse them of being sinners let alone mentioning their particular sins. Peter, if he is ever to make any headway in the ministry, will need to learn what it means to be winsome, inoffensive and talk politely to people, even political correctness. If he wants to win some that is. Why doesnʼt he just tell them that Jesus loves them? Thirdly, the worst mistake of all, he starts doing theology, predestination, the absolute sovereignty of God. The God who controls all events, all men in every day and every generation. Hasnʼt someone told Peter that Calvinism is incompatible with evangelism, that itʼs the greatest hindrance to the mission? Well in spite of Peterʼs foolishness we read in the same chapter, in verse thirty-seven that the result was three thousand souls were added to the church. And, they didnʼt just come to the front and say a prayer, they didnʼt just make professions, they were converted, they were turned out of their sins and brought to the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ and we read, they continued. They went on because a proper preacher preached the gospel to them in a proper manner. He preached the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Amen
(This study is the development of a historical lecture I was asked to present at the Autumn Meeting of the United Protestant Council in November of the same year, 2009).
To God be the Glory!