John 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 antichrist? 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 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 were the godly 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.