John Calvin > The weight, beauty and comfort of the Gospel

John Calvin
The weight, beauty and comfort of the Gospel

Recently I came across a stunning preface John Calvin wrote for Pierre Robert Olivétan’s French translation of the New Testament (1534). To my knowledge the01spurgeoncalvin4.jpg English translation of this preface is found only in Joseph Haroutunian’s work, Calvin: Commentaries [a strange place to find it since this preface is not part of the commentaries]. Anyways, in it Calvin traces out the biblical storyline and the Messianic promises throughout Scripture, shows the supernatural unity of the bible’s message and the significance of the gospel message revealed in Scripture. He writes,

“Without the gospel everything is useless and vain; without the gospel we are not Christians; without the gospel all riches is poverty, all wisdom folly before God; strength is weakness, and all the justice of man is under the condemnation of God. But by the knowledge of the gospel we are made children of God, brothers of Jesus Christ, fellow townsmen with the saints, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, heirs of God with Jesus Christ, by whom the poor are made rich, the weak strong, the fools wise, the sinner justified, the desolate comforted, the doubting sure, and slaves free. It is the power of God for the salvation of all those who believe …” (66)

Because of the weight of this gospel revealed in Scripture, it’s no surprise that Calvin closes this preface with words for preachers: “O you who call yourselves bishops and pastors of the poor people, see to it that the sheep of Jesus Christ are not deprived of their proper pasture; and that it is not prohibited and forbidden that any Christian feely and in his own language to read, handle, and hear this holy gospel…” (72).

These two quotes – one on the centrality of the gospel and the second on the importance of preaching – really reveal the heart of John Calvin as a man riveted to the Cross.

But I was especially struck by the following section where Calvin shows us that all the Christian’s comfort and hope rests in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He writes,

“It follows that every good thing we could think or desire is to be found in this same Jesus Christ alone. For, he was sold, to buy us back; captive, to deliver us; condemned, to absolve us; he was made a curse for our blessing, sin offering for our righteousness; marred that we may be made fair; he died for our life; so that by him fury is made gentle, wrath appeased, darkness turned into light, fear reassured, despisal despised, debt canceled, labor lightened, sadness made merry, misfortune made fortunate, difficulty easy, disorder ordered, division united, ignominy ennobled, rebellion subjected, intimidation intimidated, ambush uncovered, assaults assailed, force forced back, combat combated, war warred against, vengeance avenged, torment tormented, damnation damned, the abyss sunk into the abyss, hell transfixed, death dead, mortality made immortal. In short, mercy has swallowed up all misery, and goodness all misfortune. For all these things which were to be the weapons of the devil in his battle against us, and the sting of death to pierce us, are turned for us into exercises which we can turn to our profit. If we are able to boast with the apostle, saying, O hell, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? it is because by the Spirit of Christ promised to the elect, we live no longer, but Christ lives in us; and we are by the same Spirit seated among those who are in heaven, so that for us the world is no more, even while our conversation [life] is in it; but we are content in all things, whether country, place, condition, clothing, meat, and all such things. And we are comforted in tribulation, joyful in sorrow, glorying under vituperation [verbal abuse], abounding in poverty, warmed in our nakedness, patient amongst evils, living in death. This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father.” (69-70)

These are beautiful words! The introduction as a whole is a masterpiece, taking the reader from the biblical storyline and the Messianic promises to the gospel itself, showing that our eternal life and present comforts rest in Christ alone. Then he finishes with an exhortation that preachers be diligent to proclaim this Word.

It is good for us to remember the grace of God in revealing His Word to ungrateful truth-suppressors and and illuminating His Word to blind sinners. Let us remember that, “Without the gospel everything is useless and vain” and let us study Scripture seeking to “truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father.”

So how do you persuade the French people towards Reformation theology? You point them to Scripture and specifically to the complete and perfect work of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Calvin persuaded masses because his message was Scripture-saturated, grace-filled, and Cross-centered. The gospel was everything! With this in mind, French readers could read right into Matthew and the rest of the New Testament on a quest to see Christ’s glory for themselves.

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Earnest preaching and worldliness

It is easy, I have found, to fall into a lull in preaching where I forget that souls are eternal and the body is quickly fading. Our country is in need especially of earnest preaching that reminds sinners every week that the temporal life will soon peel back like a stage background to reveal the eternal world (1 Cor. 7:31). Naturally the world and even Christians tend to think more about the temporal world than the eternal. This breads a host of problems and sinful thinking.

So back to John Angell James’ powerful book, An Earnest Ministry. This week we will look at the need of earnestness from the pulpit concerning specific topics of concern. I think it is especially important to note that James is not forgetting the Spirit’s work in all of this. He does not think earnest ministry alone saves and sanctifies. He understands earnest preaching as a type of serious preaching that the Spirit of God answers to and blesses (see pp. 190-191). Here then is the first reason that makes earnest preaching so needful: Worldliness.

“What can be sufficient but an intense devotedness on the part of ministers to make things unseen and eternal bear down the usurping power of things seen and temporal? Who but the man that knows how to deal with invisible realities, and to wield the powers of the world to come, can pluck the worldling from the whirlpool of earthly mindedness, which sucks down so many, or prevent the professing Christian from being drawn into it? If our own minds are not much impressed with the awful glories and terrors of eternity, we cannot speak of these things in such a manner as is likely to rescue our hearers from the ruinous fascinations of Mammon. How we seem to want a Baxter and a Doolittle; an Edwards and a Howe; a Whitefield and a Wesley, to break in with their thunder upon the money-loving, money-grasping spirit of this grossly utilitarian age!”

- John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times (Banner of Truth, 1847/1993) pp. 192-193.

“Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Ps. 73:25, ESV).

Book review: Sermons on the Beatitudes by John Calvin, translated by Robert White (0851519342)

Book review:

Sermons on the Beatitudes by John Calvin (translated by Robert White)

John Calvin [1509-1564] was a great theologian. I know this from the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin was a great commentator. That his cherished commentary remains printed and popular is evidence enough. But until recently I was unaware Calvin also excelled as a preacher [frequently Calvin has been criticized in church history for being a poor one].

The book, Sermons on the Beatitudes (translated by Robert White), marks my introduction to Calvin the preacher. This collection of recently translated material by the Banner of Truth is a short book (a little under 100 pages of five sermons and a little over 100 pages with the scriptural index and many helpful footnotes). The volume was assembled well and the translation is very sharp and clear.

Examples

Two examples show the tremendous heart Calvin had as a shepherd. The first expounds upon the words of Jesus that those who weep will be comforted:

“Jesus says blessed are those who weep, for in the end they will rejoice and be comforted. Here he affirms more or less what we have already learnt. For if we are poor in spirit, we cannon avoid weeping; we cannot be other than distressed. We are not, after all, without feelings, like those madmen I mentioned earlier, who expect us to remain as immovable as an anvil or a rock! Such a thing goes against our nature. We have instead to feel our miseries, which are meant to press us to the point where we bend and break: we can no longer hold our heads up, our breath is taken from us, we are, so to speak, dead men.”

“That is why our Lord in this passage [Matt. 5:1-4] associates weeping and poverty in spirit. It is as if he were saying: ‘When I tell you that nothing will take away your blessedness, however oppressed and afflicted you are, I do not mean that you should dumbly resist regardless of feelings, or that you should be like senseless blocks of wood. No! You will weep, you will experience want, dishonor, illness, and other kinds of affliction in this world. These things you will suffer; they will wound you to the very core and make you weep. But nothing will take your blessedness from you’” (p. 28).

These are the words of a man who experienced the weeping here explained. He experienced want, dishonor, much illness and afflictions. He was here preaching as a real man to real people through the real promises of God. Our hearts will be broken – we will feel the pain and the pain will be real. What experiential sensitivity and wonderful tenderness!

Much of the volume addresses the dangers of worldliness. This second example helps us to navigate through this temporary world through prosperity and trials. Notice his experiential understanding of the believer and unbeliever in similar situations.

“We should not cling to happiness or greet its passing with a hollow laugh, for it is fleeting. Nor should we exult when men applaud us, as if we had already attained our reward for a virtuous life on earth. No, we are determined to press on through good report and bad. Such is the measured and moderate path pursued by the believer. We do not get drowsy, still less intoxicated, when times are good. And we are always willing to abandon everything if God requires. This is not how it is with unbelievers. Prosperity goes immediately to their heads, fills them to bursting; they are so befuddled that not once do they spare a thought for God or the spiritual life. In time they grow hard, and when misfortune comes they grind their teeth and blaspheme against God” (pp. 78-79).

Each of these examples highlight Calvin’s heart, something we often miss in his theology and commentary.

Conclusion

As you probably already knew, Calvin was an incredibly gifted figure from the Protestant reformation. But these sermons shed new light on the tenderness and experiential-mindedness of Calvin the shepherd. He was as gifted in preaching as he was in commentating and writing theology. This volume, though very brief, is a gem!


Boards
: clothbound, hardcover (green, gilded)
Pages: 114
Dust jacket: yes
Binding: Smyth sewn
Text: recent translation, perfect type
Topical Index: no
Textual index: yes
Publisher: Banner of Truth Trust
Price USD: $20.00/$15.00 + free ship from BoT store
ISBNs: 0851519342, 9780851519340

More information on this book here.

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