For John 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 in it, he 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 manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. 15 For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them, that perish: 16 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).
So 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 within the church todayʼs an intellectual one, 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 himself 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 out is 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 the 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 anything 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. 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.
(©️ James R Hamilton, February 2020)