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Martyn Lloyd-Jones on John Calvin

Category Book Excerpts
Date March 5, 2024

The following was given as a radio address for the BBC in Wales, 25 June, 1944 and is featured in Knowing the Times: Addresses Delivered on Various Occasions, 1942–1977.

Nothing is more significant of the great change which has happened in the field of theology during the past twenty years than the place now afforded, and the attention given, to the great man of Geneva who is the subject of this address. Up to almost twenty years ago there was very little attention paid to John Calvin, and when someone spoke of him it was in order to heap insults on him scornfully. He was looked upon as a cruel, masterly, hard person. As for his work, it was said that he was the author of the most oppressive and iron-like theological system that had ever been seen. The main effects of his work in the field of religion, according to this belief, were to place and keep people in a state of spiritual bondage, and in a wider sphere, to open the way for capitalism. It was believed, therefore, that his influence was totally harmful and that he was of no apparent interest to the world apart from being a specimen, if not a monster, in the museum of theology and religion. But that is not the situation today. In fact, there is more mention of him than there has been for almost a century, and Calvin and Calvinism are the subjects of many an argument and debate in theological circles. Perhaps it is the theological revival that is connected with the name of Karl Barth, which chiefly accounts for this, if one looks at things outwardly. But one has to explain Barth and his standpoint also. What sent him back to Calvin? His own answer is that he could not find a satisfactory explanation of life, and especially of the problems of the twentieth century, anywhere else, nor an anchor for his soul and faith in the bitterness of the storm.

Whatever the explanation, the fact is that Calvinist societies have been formed in this country, in the United States and Canada, in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, apart from those that were formed in other countries in Europe before the war. Indeed, an International Calvinistic Congress was held in Edinburgh in 1938, and two similar conferences have been held in America during the war. As well as this, periodicals are published regularly to discuss topics and problems from the standpoint of Calvin’s teaching; and this year the textbook being studied in the theological classes at New College, Edinburgh is Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin. It would please me a great deal if I were able to add that there was a similar movement in Wales. The time is ripe, therefore, for us to cast another glance at this man who has influenced the life of the world to such an extent.

What of the man himself? He was born at Noyon in Picardy in 1509. We know very little of his father and mother, except that his mother was renowned for her godliness. Calvin showed from the beginning that he had exceptional mental capacities. His parents were Roman Catholics, of course, and their natural intention was to prepare their clever son for an eminent career in the Church. His fields of study, therefore, were philosophy, theology, law, and literature. Although he excelled in every field, his favourite sphere was literature, and we see him at twenty-two in Paris as a humanist scholar, his main ambition in life being to earn a name for himself as a writer. He was such an exceptional student that he would often lecture to his fellow students in place of their teachers, and as for his life-style and conduct in those days, he was renowned for his sobriety. Indeed, he was so keen to emphasize the moral note that he won for himself the nickname ‘The Accusative Case’. But as with Luther before him, and John Wesley and many others after him, morality was not enough to quench his thirsty soul. When he was twenty-three years old he experienced an evangelical conversion and the course of his life was altogether changed. Having seen the evangelical truth, and having experienced its power in his soul, he turned his back on the Church of Rome and became a Protestant. We have no time to follow his life story, but we know that he spent almost the whole of the rest of his life in Geneva as a minister of the gospel. He worked there from 1536 until his death in 1564 with the exception of the period from 1538 to 1541 when the Genevan authorities drove him out, and he went into ‘exile’ in Strasburg.

Calvin was a thin man, of average height, with a high forehead and piercing eyes. His health was very fragile throughout his life because he suffered from asthma. It was extremely difficult to persuade him to eat or to sleep. Although he had a masterly spirit, the evidence of those who knew him best suggests that there has never been such a humble and holy man. His chief aim in life was to glorify God, and he devoted himself to doing that completely, without any mercy on his body or on his resources. He liked to think of himself as a Christian writer, and if he had followed his own inclination, he would have confined his work solely to this field; but a friend threatened him with God’s judgment if he did not undertake to preach, and the result was, according to the chief authority on his life, that he preached on average every day, and often twice a day, in Geneva for twenty-five years. Because of the asthma he spoke slowly, and one could not describe him as an eloquent speaker. We must not think of him, either, as a preacher who appealed only to the mind and the intellect. A certain godly tenderness would often break upon the meetings, so that the congregation would be quite overpowered.

The world remembers him not so much as a preacher, but as the author of fifty-nine thick volumes. He wrote thirty commentaries on the books of the Bible, including the whole New Testament except for the Second and Third Epistles of John and the book of Revelation. On top of this Calvin was a constant letter-writer and 4,000 of his letters have been published. He had endless opportunity also in an age so fond of debates to use his incomparable ability as a debater. There was no-one ever like him in the use of the ‘rapier’ and when one adds to this his special gift in logic, we find possibly the greatest ‘controversialist’ which the world has ever seen. When we remember that he was perpetually involved in contentions or consultations with the authorities in Geneva concerning the moral and social state of the city, we are not surprised that he died when he was only fifty-five years old. The mystery is how he managed to accomplish so much in so little time. No-one knows where he is buried, but his main contribution to theological literature, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, stands as a memorial to him. He wrote this when he was about twenty-five years old, and it was first published in Basle in 1536, but Calvin worked on it, adding to it and republishing it all through his life. This is undoubtedly his masterpiece. Indeed, one could say that no book has had such an influence on man and on the history of civilization. It is not too much to say either that it was the Institutes which saved the Protestant Reformation for this was the summa theologica of Protestantism and the clearest declaration which the evangelical faith has ever had. In the Institutes we see Calvin’s place in the Protestant Reformation. He belongs to the second wave of reformers. Luther had virtually finished his work before Calvin began. Luther was the ‘Morning Star’; in God’s hand, he began the movement. Luther is the great hero of Protestants; he is characterized especially by his originality and his audacity, and the dynamic element in his life. Luther was a volcano, spewing out fiery ideas in all directions without much pattern or system. But ideas cannot live and last without a body, and the great need of the Protestant movement in the last days of Luther was for a theologian with the ability to arrange and to express the new faith within a system. That person was Calvin. It can be said, therefore, that it was he who saved Protestantism by giving it a body of theology within his Institutes; and it is from this that the faith and theology of most of the Protestant churches has sprung. This was the backbone of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England and of the Westminster Confession, which regulates the belief of the Presbyterian churches in Scotland, the United States, and every other country. On the Institutes was based the faith of the Puritans, and the history of Switzerland and Holland cannot be explained except in this context.

Just a word about his doctrine. Calvin’s main feature is that he bases everything on the Bible. He does not have a mixture of Aristotle’s philosophy and the Scripture, with the first practically as important as the second, as in the Summa of Thomas Aquinas. The Bible for Calvin is the only authority, and he does not wish for any philosophy apart from that which emanates from the Scripture. It is in the Institutes that one gets biblical theology for the first time, rather than dogmatic theology. Calvin does not reason in an inductive way like the Roman Catholics, but rather he draws conclusions and works out in a deductive way that which is taught in the Bible. Revelation is not an addition to reason and one cannot reason properly outside of revelation.

For him the great central and all-important truth was the sovereignty of God and God’s glory. We must start here and everything else issues from here. It was God, of His own free will and according to His infinite wisdom, who created the world. But sin entered and if it were not for God’s grace, there would be no hope for the world. Man is a fallen creature, with his mind in a state of enmity towards God. He is totally unable to save himself and to reunite himself with God. Everyone would be lost if God had not elected some for salvation, and that unconditionally. It is only through Christ’s death that it is possible for these people to be saved, and they would not see or accept that salvation if God through His irresistible grace in the Holy Spirit had not opened their eyes and persuaded them (not forced them) to accept the offer. Even after that, it is God who sustains them and keeps them from falling. Their salvation, therefore, is sure, because it depends, not on them and their ability, but on God’s grace. The church is a collection of the elect. It is, therefore, free and there is no king over it except the Lord Jesus Christ, and, because of that, it claims complete and perfect spiritual freedom. As for the world outside the church, it would quickly be destroyed by sin if God through common grace did not keep it and set bounds on the effects of sin. The world is still God’s world, and even sin and Satan are, ultimately, under the control of God. Before the foundation of the world, God had His infinite purpose, and this purpose can be seen being worked out gradually, but surely, through the Old Testament, and especially in the life of Israel; but chiefly it is seen in Jesus Christ, what He did while on earth, and what He continues to do through the centuries. Nothing can hinder His purpose, and in the fullness of time the kingdoms of the world will become the property of our Lord and His Christ; and He will reign evermore. In the meantime we must teach men that this world is God’s world, that every gift which man possesses is a gift from God, that men are all one as sinners before God, and that no king, nor any other, has a right to tyrannize his fellow men. We must have order, we must have discipline. Man has a right to freedom, but not to free licence. That is the essence of Calvin’s teaching. He worked it out minutely to cover every aspect of life. During his ministry in Geneva he persuaded the authorities to put these ideas into action, and there was never a town like it. Mark Pattison does not exaggerate when he says: ‘He was the means of concentrating in that narrow corner a moral force which saved the Reformation and indeed Europe. It may be doubted if all history can furnish another instance of such a victory of moral force.’ It is no wonder that far-seeing men today, in a world such as this, turn back to the prophet of Geneva. What apart from the gospel he taught can save the world? And this is the teaching: ‘The Lord reigneth; let the people tremble’ (Ps. 99:1). ‘The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice’ (Ps. 97:1). Soli Deo Gloria.

A Further Note:

The republication by James Clarke in 1949 of Calvin’s foremost work carried the following cover blurb by Dr Lloyd-Jones: The announcement that Messrs James Clarke & Co. are about to issue a new edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is the best news I have heard for some time. That they are able to do so at the remarkably low price of thirty shillings, in these days, is astonishing. Someone may ask why a work like this, which was first issued over four hundred years ago should be reprinted and why anyone should read it. I would suggest the following answers as a minimum. The Institutes are in and of themselves a theological classic. No work has had a greater or a more formative influence on Protestant theology. It is not always realized, however, that in addition to its massive and sublime thought it is written in a style which is most moving, and at times thrilling. Unlike most modern theology, which claims to derive from it, it is deeply devotional. No book repays reading more than this, and especially so in the case of preachers of the Word. It is particularly appropriate that the new edition is appearing now. There has been a new interest in reformed theology during the past thirty years, and the name of Calvin is more frequently quoted than it has been for over half a century. It is in the Institutes that one finds the systematic and formulated statement of his essential position. It is imperative, therefore, that one should read the Institutes in order to understand much of the present-day theological discussion. The most urgent reason why all should read the Institutes, however, is to be found in the times in which we live. In a world which is shaking in its very foundations and which lacks any ultimate authority, nothing is so calculated to strengthen and to stabilize one’s soul as this magnificent exposition and outworking, of the glorious doctrine of the sovereignty of God. It was the ‘iron ration of the soul’ of the Reformation martyrs, of the Pilgrim Fathers, the Covenanters, and many others who have had to face persecution and death for Christ’s sake. Never was it more needed than today. Messrs James Clarke & Co. have placed us all greatly in their debt.

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