To Prison and Death
When five men were arrested and imprisoned in Lyon, John 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 today are so well behind you that you canʼt even see or hear 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 the 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 for 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 every 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 affliction.”
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 during 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 an 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 our hearts 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 practising 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 not 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 of 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 we have 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 a gospel worker, 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 them 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 some of them 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.
“Q. 155. How is the Word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation” (Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 155)
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: Him, 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 preacher. 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 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
#These musings upon John Calvin and his preaching ministry are the development of a historical lecture I was asked to present at the Autumn Meeting of the United Protestant Council in November 2009.