Gifts from God to his Church
On 10 July 1509, almost exactly 500 years ago, one of God’s greatest gifts to his Church was born. This was John Calvin, whose life began in Noyon in northern France. His father held several important positions in the town, some civil and some ecclesiastical; his mother – who died when John was no more than 6 – faithfully brought him up in the Romish ceremonies. John’s abilities were obvious and his father gave him a good university education.
Little information has survived about his conversion, but by at least 1533 he had been delivered from the formal, superstitious religion in which he had been brought up, and he was now trusting in Christ alone for salvation. But someone with his robustly-Protestant outlook could not remain in France and be safe; he had to flee. After various wanderings, he reached Geneva in 1536, intending to spend only one night there. However, William Farel, whose work in Geneva had resulted in the city embracing the Reformed faith, put Calvin under severe pressure to join him in his work, and that one night stretched on to the day of his death – apart from three years of exile in Strasbourg after his expulsion from Geneva.
William Cunningham describes Calvin as
by far the greatest of the Reformers with respect to the talents he possessed, the influence he exerted and the services he rendered in the establishment and diffusion of important truth . . . After all that Luther, Melancthon and Zwingle had done, there was still needed some one of elevated and comprehensive mind who should be able to rise above the distraction and confusion of the existing contentions, to survey the wide field of scriptural truth in all its departments, to combine and arrange its various parts and to present them, as a harmonious whole, to the contemplation of men.This was the special work for which God qualified Calvin, by bestowing upon him both the intellectual and the spiritual gifts necessary for the task, and this He enabled him to accomplish. God makes use of the intellectual powers which He bestows upon men for the accomplishment of His own purposes, or rather He bestows upon men those intellectual powers which may fit them naturally, and according to the orderly operation of means, for the purposes which He in His sovereignty has assigned to them to effect. He leads them, by His grace, to devote their powers to His glory and grace; He blesses their labours, and thus His gracious designs are accomplished.1
Cunningham particularly refers to ‘the systematising of divine truth and the full organisation of the Christian Church according to the word of God’ as Calvin’s special achievements.2 In speaking of systematising divine truth, Cunningham has, of course, particularly in mind Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he describes as ‘the most important work in the history of theological science’.3 It has never gone out of date. Calvin’s commentaries, on most of the books of the Bible, also continue to be available today4. However, more of Calvin’s sermons have been published in English5 within the last 40 years than possibly ever before – certainly since the sixteenth century.
All this means that John Calvin was a great gift, not only to the Church of his own time, but also to the Church of every succeeding generation. In his Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul refers to the Psalmist’s description, in Psalm 68, of Christ rising to heaven bearing the blessings of redemption: ‘When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men’ (Eph. 4:8). And the particular gifts Paul mentions are the Church offices from ‘apostles’ to ‘pastors and teachers’ (v 11).
Calvin was, of course, a pastor and teacher, and we may quote his comments on verse 11:
The apostles did not appoint themselves, but were chosen by Christ; and, at the present day, true pastors do not rashly thrust themselves forward by their own judgment, but are raised up by the Lord. In short, the government of the Church, by the ministry of the word, is not a contrivance of men, but an appointment made by the Son of God. As his own unalterable law, it demands our assent. They who reject or despise this ministry offer insult and rebellion to Christ its Author. It is himself who gave them; for, if he does not raise them up, there will be none. Another inference is that no man will be fit or qualified for so distinguished an office who has not been formed and moulded by the hand of Christ himself. To Christ we owe it that we have ministers of the gospel, that they abound in necessary qualifications, that they execute the trust committed to them. All, all is his gift.
The Church today very much needs such gifts. John Calvin was no doubt a unique gift, but every generation needs spiritually-minded men in the ministry who will expound the truth, speak to the consciences of sinners, feed the flock of God and resist error – and the Church needs men who can write as well as preach. But they must all be men who live godly lives, have a sense of God’s glory and a desire to see that glory advanced throughout the world. Many others may enter the ministry, particularly in an age like this when the Church as a whole no longer seems to care about the standards God has set for those who would become preachers. While these others may live upright lives, they do not feel their need as sinners; they do not know God; they are not dependent on his grace; they seek their own glory rather than his. Because God did not call them to the ministry, we cannot think of them as God’s gifts to his Church and we cannot expect that he will use them to the advancement of his cause.
There is no doubt that Calvin had, in Cunningham’s words, a ‘special work’ to do, and that God had endowed him with particular abilities so that he could carry out that work. And if we saw a significant number of such men – conspicuously-godly men with obvious intellectual abilities and leadership qualities – entering the ministry, we might expect that God had a great work for them to do. That has indeed been the case at various points in the history of the Church. But the Church in every generation also needs ministers whom, without disparagement, we might describe as men of ordinary abilities – but truly born again and called by God himself to the work of the ministry. The Church cannot expect to have many Calvins, but in a generation when most people seem intent on rushing down the broad way that leads to destruction, there is tremendous need for many men to go out as ambassadors of Christ to make known clearly and unashamedly the whole doctrine of Scripture, and particularly the basic facts of sin and salvation. And Christ’s followers are under obligation, today as much as in any other age, to pray ‘the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest’ (Luke 10:2).
But we must bear clearly in mind that, while men such as Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Knox were given both grace and abilities to fit them to do a great work in Reformation times, they were only instruments in the hand of Almighty God. But the Holy Spirit did bless their preaching and writing to the spiritual good of their hearers and readers – and blessed also the work of a multitude of lesser men, then and in more recent times. Equally, today’s preachers and writers, whatever their abilities, need the same divine power if their work is to be effective. We may be painfully conscious that, in comparison with the need of the world, God is sending out few men in our time to preach the gospel. But what should concern us even more is the extent to which the Holy Spirit is denied in these days. How much God’s children need to pray for an outpouring of the Spirit so that the work of Christ’s ambassadors would once more be blessed on a large scale!
- The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, Banner of Truth reprint, pp 292-3.
- The Reformers, p 294.
- The Reformers, p 295.
- Calvin’s commentaries published by the Trust (in the ‘Geneva’ series) are Genesis, Jeremiah & Lamentations (5 volumes), Daniel, and the minor prophets in 5 volumes – Hosea (Vol 1), Joel, Amos, Obadiah (Vol 2), Jonah, Micah, Nahum (Vol 3), Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai (Vol 4), and Zechariah, Malachi (Vol 5).
- The Trust publishes the following volumes of Calvin’s sermons in English translations:
Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, translated by Rob Roy McGregor.
Sermons on 2 Samuel: Chapters 1-13, translated by Douglas Kelly.
Sermons on the Beatitudes, translated by Robert White.
Songs of the Nativity: Selected Sermons on Luke 1 & 2, translated by Robert White.
Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles: Chapters 1-7, translated by Rob Roy McGregor.
Sermons on Galatians, translated by Kathy Childress.
Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians, translated by Arthur Golding, revised by Leslie Rawlinson and S. M. Houghton.
- The translation is that of the Calvin Translation Society.
Rev Kenneth D. Macleod is editor of The Free Presbyterian Magazine, from the June 2009 edition of which the above article is reproduced by permission (Notes 4 & 5 added).
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