Beware of excuses, when it comes to things spiritual they are inexcusable. Think for a moment, there is a steep icy slope which culminates in a great precipice. You place a foot on the slope and what happens? You begin to slide, even if you want to you cannot stop yourself now, you must go on. Why? The law of gravity you say. No, the unchangeable operations of God in everything, that is what pulls you down. God doesn’t stop because you place your foot on the slope, he doesn’t change. So for you to stop or reverse the slide would take a miracle. The slope we are speaking of here is of course sin. It could be any aspect of sin or sin in general, but it’s sin. You put your foot on the slope by making an excuse. You begin to excuse yourself from going to Church on the Sabbath day, just the evening service to begin with. You make the excuse others do, and you can’t see that it affects them too much. But your foot is on the slope. Or it could be lust, gluttony, alcohol, you name it, the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21).
You have begun to slide and no way can you stop, you are being pulled down. By the operations of God’s wrath that effectively works in and upon the world (Romans 1:18). It surrounds us, on every side. You begin to suppress the truth when you excuse yourself you place your foot on the icy slope. And immediately the operations of God’s wrath begin to carry you downward. He does not change. God, it is said, cannot be wrathful towards his own children, he loves them folk cry! Yes, he does. That is exactly why he is wrathful. Has the father who is angry with his children because they have done wrong stopped loving them? Of course not. It is because he loves them that he is angry. The father who is never angry with his children is the one who does not love them (Hebrews 12:6). Are there not times when a father has to say to his child, “if that’s the way you want to go, then go.” “You must learn the hard way”, and he pushes them out the door. He has loved them, gently chastened them, tried to reason with them, he has done everything to correct them, but to no avail. This is what Paul means when he says “God also gave them up” (Romans 1:24).
It began with an excuse. You knew that it was. But you are on the slope, you can’t get off. Now you believe the excuse to be the truth. You’re being pulled down toward the precipice. Who knows where it will end, religious folly, moral corruption? The further down the slope you slide the more sin, the more darkness, the more wrath. It is from the heart the issues of life spring (Proverbs 4:23). This is where the excuses begin “through the lusts of their own hearts” (Romans 1:24). You begin to desire something, then it becomes an ingrained lust, then our relish for God and the things of God diminishes, then God is abandoned altogether. Down, down, deeper and down towards the precipice of hell. Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23). “Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude 1:21). “Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen” (1John 5:21).
Beware of making excuses in things spiritual (Luke 14:18-19). But let your heart burn with desire for God the fountain of living water. Let the hunger you feel within become a hunger for Jesus Christ. Let the thirst you feel be transferred to an insatiable thirst and panting for streams of living water that flow from out of the throne of God and of the Lamb (Revelation 22:1). He is able to satisfy your deepest longing, to fill your heart with the choicest, the best of heaven (Matthew 5:6). Do not draw back with excuses but draw near to him whom to know is eternal life (John 17:3). These are days of terrible darkness, when many are being drawn away from God, when men seek for excuses to fulfil their own desires. These are dangerous days for even the child of God when hearts have grown cold within the church. The holiness and the house of God are no longer paramount. The world has flooded the Church, I mean the hearts of many of God’s people. It begins in the heart with excuses.
Let it be understood that we are dealing with the unfathomable here, miraculous even. However, if you can’t cope with this initial and fundamental part of the gospel you are going to have issues with the rest of it. Because it is all miraculous, from a literal six-day creation to God’s providential intervention through all history and all its events. The work and ministry of Christ and his apostles, the dead raised to life, the sick healed, demons cast out, rocks rent, and the Son of God raised from the dead to the highest heights of heaven. Man’s salvation, redemption is a miracle from start to finish, get over it. The Saviour that was needed to deliver us from the mire of sin, darkness and death had to be a man, he had to be a perfect man, and he had to be God. But you say that is a sheer impossibility! With man, yes, but with God “nothing shall be impossible.” It needed a miracle. That is what the birth of Jesus Christ was, according to the Apostle’s Creed, “Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.” He had to be a real man and he had to be very God.
That there have been and still are denials of this fundamental truth of the gospel we are well aware. The apostle John in his first epistle had to deal with this in early church times “every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist” (1John 4:3). Such opposition is not new. However, when I say this is fundamental, I mean to be a Christian it is an aspect of truth that must be believed. There is an inseparable link between salvation and true doctrine, you deny true doctrine and you end up denying God’s salvation. Man’s redemption stands and falls upon the real and perfect humanity and deity of Christ. This is a Divine, sacred necessity, a ‘must.’ Our rebellious nature’s within rear up against that saying, “why must!” The simple answer is God says so.
The longer answer is, it is necessary to meet the unshakeable demands of Divine justice. He must be truly man. He must have been with us in the loins of Adam, the first Adam that is. The one who brought sin into the world and death by sin (Romans 5:12). He must be organically related to us. He could not satisfy God’s justice otherwise, the nature that sinned must do that. The punishment is equivalent to the sin. The sin of Adam, original sin, was committed through human nature. So the one who would redeem us needed to be a man with a human mind, will, heart and body. Jesus Christ was such, born a helpless child in a manger, growing and developing as any other child through youth to adulthood. He hungered and thirsted was tried and tempted, “yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He was perfect, sinless. Anyone who is himself a sinner cannot make satisfaction for his own sins never mind anyone else’s, let alone the worlds. Thus the Bible’s emphasis on the reality and the sinless perfection of the One who is to be our Redeemer. He must not be under the imputation of Adam’s sin as we ourselves are, all of us. In God’s sight, we are all as if we were there in the garden of Eden and actually plucked that forbidden fruit ourselves. All guilty of Adam’s sin.
Of course, you may wish to kick against that. But if you do, think a moment, or take the time to read Paul’s exposition of this in Romans chapter five. If you reject God’s charge in regards to the imputation of original sin, then you must also reject the reverse, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to all who believe in him. So he needed to be like us in every respect, except for sin, a perfect man. But with no human father, yet born of a woman. Because the sin nature is passed on through the head of the family, the loins of the male. No intermediaries, other creatures will do “for it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). So a man, and a man who is truly perfect, with no sin of his own, and very God, born of a woman, but no earthly father, this we need and this we look for. Where do we find such a Redeemer? In a manger in the town of Bethlehem. We are left with one possibility, a miracle.
His deity was also a necessity. If we abandon this truth we again abandon God’s redemption. For no human shoulders could bear the weight that the Redeemer must bear. Jesus staggered and collapsed under the weight of a wooden cross, how could he possibly bear the infinite wrath of God if he is but human? The infinite burden the Saviour must bear could not be lifted by a finite man. He must need be very God, he must be enabled by the power of his deity to carry away the world’s sin burden and not perish himself. He suffered in his humanity (for God cannot suffer), but in his deity took our wrath in order to give us righteousness. To reconcile us to God himself to take away our sin and eternal death he himself voluntarily, willingly, lovingly chose death for himself. Thus through his death to impart life to all those who would believe in his name. It’s an astonishing thing that we desire God to take away our trials and afflictions, sicknesses and poverty, to give wealth, health and success and when it doesn’t happen we shrug and give up praying. We give thanks for our meals and Christmas shopping, we’re like kids playing with the wrapping paper while the gift lies in the corner. He redeems us from eternal death! Glory! He saves us from never-ending torment and gnashing of teeth to everlasting happiness and love! Glory! Our wealth surpasses anything we may have to bear in this life. Paul says “for I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). He restores us to God! That covenant fellowship with the family of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit that we lost in the fall is regained. He takes our punishment, that’s good, that’s wonderful even. But as with the child who knows that the threat of punishment has been lifted, he is still not totally happy until he knows he is forgiven and his father gives him a hug. Friendship, the relationship is restored. So the death sentence is commuted, we have the Governor’s pardon, glorious, what relief!
But beyond anything we could ever have imagined, he declares us not just ‘not guilty’ but righteous. And God warns, threatens any who would dare to question his judgment, “who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us” (Romans 8:33-34). His name is Jesus, God, Jehovah saves and he saves his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). We cannot say for all men for we understand from experience that not all men are saved. We understand also from God’s word that not all men are or will be saved, but “all that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37). Sadly many, most even do not want him, they want food, clothing, their immediate problems solved. I don’t minimise those, I am just prioritising, putting things in a right perspective. But we are assured that he will save his people, there are no if’s or but’s to this. If you say he is the Saviour of all men then he is a failure. He does not try to save all or else he is a failure. But he does and will save all that the Father has given him. All that is who believe in his name, his name encompassing all he is and has accomplished. His virgin birth and his resurrection. The former was a necessity but so too was the latter. By the power of his resurrection, he was Divinely declared to be the Son of God (Romans 1:3-4). If you had looked into that manger the child would have looked just like any other baby, how would you know he was the Son of God? Following his death, three days after to be precise, the tomb is empty, he is gone back to heaven. Death is defeated, sin’s power is broken, our darkness has been turned to light, “declared to be the Son of God with power…by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled (Matthew 5:6)
In spite of the downgrade and social problems we see in our society today, there is little appetite for personal change. In reality we are still pretty well-off. But satisfied? No. I read two articles recently, both people said virtually the same thing. Richard Branson of ‘Virgin Atlantic’ fame and the boss of ‘Formula One’ racing Bernie Ecclestone. They both spoke of how rich they were, the latter has just spent ten million pounds on his daughter’s wedding, yes, ten million. Yet both said their riches had never brought them any joy or happiness. Mick Jagger, the lead singer of ‘Rolling Stones’ fame used to sing ‘Can’t get no Satisfaction.’ So where does on get fulfilment, satisfaction? Jesus says those that hunger and thirst after God’s righteousness are the ones who will be satisfied. His, not our righteousness, ours is shot through God says. God’s righteousness is credited to us by faith. It’s implanted into us, so that our heart’s begin to desire what we do not naturally desire, God, his love, forgiveness, eternal life. Instead of the riches of this world that can never satisfy. This hunger is a sense of need even though you may be well off. A sense of impotence, emptiness, hopelessness, even self-despair. You look to other people, the state, the church but they all disappoint. It’s having a right evaluation of yourself. The mirror on the wall has been telling you lies for years, you’re not the fairest of them all, but a sinner before, and in the hands a holy God. Whatever you get no matter how expensive, beautiful, the moment you get it, it falls flat, it doesn’t and cannot satisfy you. No created thing ever can. Only Jesus, the Bread of Life can. God has promised the needed provision, come to his table and eat and drink (Isaiah 55:1-2). Satisfaction is guaranteed. Don’t die a spiritual anorexic, by faith surrender your heart and life to Jesus Christ and you will be saved and satisfied forever.
O Lord of all creation, The God who formed it all;
The universe, the planets,
All creatures, great and small.
Your glory and Your love,
Your majesty and grace;
Are clearly seen by all, Who gaze on Jesus’ face.
Your wisdom and Your greatness,
The vastness of Your being;
Your Godhead in its fulness,
Eternal and divine,
O God You are most splendid,
Your beauty it does shine, But in the lovely Jesus, It’s fulness is most fine.
Who can deny Your being Lord,
Who dares to shut their eyes;
To truth so plain and simple,
That’d make them O so wise.
The sun in all its brightness,
The ocean depths and span;
All things which can’t express,
What only Jesus can.
Your love and Your compassion,
Your reconciling plan;
Your passion and Your pardon,
Your grace to sinful man.
All this is seen in Jesus,
What only he could show;
In him is all the fulness,
Through Him our God to know.
O Jesus how we love You,
You’ve changed us, made us new;
You cleansed and energised us,
Such God alone can do.
You brought us to the Father,
You made us one with him;
You gave us full salvation,
And saved us from our sin.
(Sung to the tunes Aurelia, Bentley or Angels Story; 7 6. 76. D)
The meaning of the word gospel is simply, good news. A good message, a tiding of great joy. But in the Bible’s terms it is a message from God. It is a message from God for his people in this world of darkness and sin and of death. In this darkness comes a message, a divinely authoritative one, a message that is glad tidings. The message? The incarnation! It concerns God’s Son Jesus Christ, “made of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3). How do we know he was the Son of God? As a baby lying in Bethlehem’s manger this is not obvious, he looks just like any other baby. It is later after his atoning death on Mt. Calvary, three days after to be precise, he is raised from the dead, thus divinely “declared to be the Son of God with power…by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). He became a man, walked amongst men, weak and sinful men. Then he died, just like all other men do (Hebrews 9:27). If it, even he, had finished there, then there would be no glad tidings, none. But as he entered into that tomb, freely, voluntarily the world watches with bated breath, what will happen? We all know no one has ever returned from the grave right? What will become of Jesus Christ? He was raised! He bore our sins, and under the weight of them sunk into death, but was by God himself declared to be the Son of God “by the resurrection from the dead.” The message of Christmas, the incarnation as with the resurrection, the beginning and the end are vitally important. For on them hangs the gospel, the glad tidings. Because if the child of Bethlehem is not the Son of God, his cross is meaningless, it was a failure, our sin remains. But, glad tidings, good news of great joy, he is alive from the dead! “Declared to be the Son of God with power…by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).
As a church we understand how demanding the economic downturn has been for everyone, how painful it continues to be for lots of folk. Truly, we live in what we can only call stressful times and as Christians we are not immune to it either. With the world’s economy in free-fall; rising unemployment; the shifting of the moral goalposts in our nation, the hangover of debt; damaged relationships, and no end in sight. Where can we find stability, when everything everywhere is in such a state of flux? If we just had something, someone that doesn’t shift like the shadows in the night; a rock on which to place our feet; a hope that doesn’t disappoint and perhaps a joy that’s not dependent upon circumstances, bank balances or the seasons that come and go. The question is, where is such to be found?
The Bible alone reveals the character of God. It says he is absolutely, utterly sovereign. That means he is the first cause of everything and in control of all events in the universe he created. Most Christians though pay mere lip-service to this. What does the Bible mean then when it says God is sovereign? That he is God. He does as he pleases, when he pleases, in the heavens and the earth which he created. Evolution is a denial not only of God, but his sovereignty, and leaves you with nothing but blind chance and the purposelessness that’s so prevalent in our society and leads to so much of the despair we witness. It means God is sovereign over everything, the good and the bad. Yes, God is sovereign in salvation too. He works in us to do of his good pleasure. He chooses some to salvation and others not (Romans 9:21). He sent his Son to die for some and not others. He gives faith to some and not to others. He opens the hearts of some to believe and hardens others.
God is sovereign over sin. He willed it in the beginning (Acts 2:23; Acts 4:27-28), and he rules, governs and uses it all for his own purpose. It must be so or God is not God. Of course only faith can receive this. Even believers balk at this, pride, self-righteousness and illusions of grandeur get in the way. But faith, believing the truth about God, as taught in the Bible will find that rock, that stability, that hope that will not disappoint, in a God who is, absolutely, utterly sovereign.
The first words of Scripture declare that God has made a beginning, thereby appointing a distinction between the beginning of a matter and its further course. One’s birth is different from one’s further life, so is one’s conversion from one’s later life of faith. This distinction’s seen in all of life, a distinction that comes not by itself but is appointed by God. All things on earth have not just their career but their beginning, all things. This is important because the wise of the world try to demonstrate that the world has no beginning. But Scripture again and again points to that beginning from which the rest derives its progress. The world’s bent on obliterating that beginning; denying it in order to proclaim the lie that the world has always been and is as eternal as God.
Many people ask the question, is there a God? That’s the wrong question, because the answer’s known, the Bible’s clear, “God’s shown it to us” (Romans 1:19). Truth is people can’t find God for the same reason a thief can’t find a policeman. We have an inbuilt tendency not to want to find God. No the question we ought to be asking is, not is there, but what is God? That is, in relation to ourselves. Friend or foe? The Bible tells us that God’s attitude is one of constant displeasure because of man’s hell- bent efforts to obliterate, deny, not just that beginning, but even God himself. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), unbelief keeps us in his displeasure, therefore from all the goodness, stability and hope that we so much need in our modern society.
The speech of God’s holy displeasure’s heard all over the world we live in, call them what you will, natural disasters, whatever. What do you call the economic disaster hanging over the world? What do you call the rioting, killing and looting in our towns and cities? What do you call the out-of-control social problems that leave our public social services over-laden, at breaking point? Oh we know so much, so clever, the origins of the universe, life, we have scientific answers to everything, except those social problems; except the unrest that’s only just emerging; except how to live with one another; except how to live with ourselves. So, so empty. No fuel left in the tank of life. We’re blown about with every wind of political change. Like a cork on the waves, tossed to and fro, no stability, no hope. One set back after another, the bills and the bank statements coming through the door, when the redundancy notice is served, no hope.
This ungodly world talks much about peace, in Iraq, Afghanistan, peace where there’s nothing but continual fighting and war. True peace is the fruit of having peace with God (Romans 5:1). The Bible tells us that there is no peace for the wicked (Isaiah 57:21). Peace, peace when there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14). There is only one way to peace with God and therefore to peace within ourselves. Through Jesus Christ, God’s Son from heaven. For all who believe in him, he says, “peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27).
The question, who and what is John Calvin has been answered a countless number of times by an innumerable amount of people, the answer that is 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 believer’s 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 did not 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 did not, 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 retard 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. 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 was not 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. 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 was not simply that preaching was the current method of spreading propaganda, and it was not 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 exactly 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 today is 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 or cafe culture). 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 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 will 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 we have 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 could not 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, he did not 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? Was it not 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 recognised 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 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 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.
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 rigours 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 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 spacious quality with a fair appearance that seems worthy of praise. But that the eternal truth, ought to oppressed, 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, 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 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, (does not that have a contemporary ring to it), that would attract modern men. Of course, they did not 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. “I have not made my mind up in a hurry,” he says. I have 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 that it is better to suffer as witnesses unto the Lord than to deny the faith.
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 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. We have 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 street. We need to be encouraging all Christians to stand firm, sending them out, encouraging them to go with the gospel to 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 they have 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 did not 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.” “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 with 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 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 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-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 a 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 fertilising 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 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 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 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. 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 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 does not 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 has not 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 are. Why does he not 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. Has not 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 did not just come to the front and say a prayer, they did not 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, that 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.
(This study booklet is the development of a historical lecture I was asked to present it at the Autumn Meeting of the United Protestant Council in November of the same year, 2009).