Calvin’s Sermons on Genesis 11-20 – A Review by Greg Goswell
A new book by John Calvin? Well, not exactly, but this1 is the first translation into English of Calvin’s 48 sermons on these ten chapters of Genesis. The sermons break off after Genesis 20:7 because a whole series of sermons on Genesis have been lost. Calvin expounds the biblical text for the benefit of ordinary believers with their daily struggles. Both Calvin the pastor and Calvin the theologian shine through these pages, and as a preacher he knows how to warm the heart and pierce the conscience of his hearers. In the incident of the Tower of Babel, we see God mocking the pride and confidence of puny humanity, and the application Calvin draws is that we should acknowledge our weakness and dependence upon God. This is a regular theme in Calvin’s preaching, showing that a ‘proud Calvinist’ (though known to exist!) is a contradiction in terms. God’s favour toward the line of Shem and his choice of sterile Abraham is used by Calvin to teach God’s miraculous preservation of ‘the Church’, the title he routinely gives to the Old Testament people of God to show the connection they have as fellow believers with us. As well, Calvin calls Abraham ‘the father of the Church’, for he sets us an example in that he turned his back on worldly security and ventured forward in faith into an unknown future.
Calvin by no means minimises the trials that Abraham went through, and he draws valuable lessons about trusting God, living on God’s promises and being willing to face the loss of all earthly comforts. We must remember that many in Calvin’s congregation in Geneva were refugees from France, who had been through similar trials. No doubt with such refugees in mind, he says, ‘So let us learn from [Abraham’s] example not to miss what we have left behind’. So too, the faults of Abraham are said to be useful in showing that ‘no one is so perfect that he does not go astray, that he is without shortcomings, and that he does not need God’s mercy’.
A highlight is Calvin’s four sermons on justification based on the text, Genesis 15:6. In his Institutes Calvin describes this doctrine as ‘the hinge on which all true religion turns’. Of this passage in Genesis, he says, ‘it holds the key that opens all that is required for salvation’. Calvin uses it to explain what true faith is and what is meant by God imputing righteousness, such that it excludes works, merit or human pride. For Calvin, the imputation of righteousness is the same as the forgiveness of sins, a teaching he derives from the opening of Romans chapter 4. No one ever had a clearer grasp of the gospel than Calvin, and his sermons will help us to be crystal clear on the way of salvation.
Calvin deals with that ‘old chestnut’ about whether Paul and James disagree over faith and works, which, of course, they don’t. James’ point is that saving faith leads to a life of good works. We live in a day in which many who presume to teach in churches are confused and muddleheaded about the gospel truths, and we can do no better than enrol as students in Calvin’s school if we want to understand the gospel. Calvin uses the institution of circumcision in Genesis 17 to explain the role of the two sacraments of Baptism and The Lord’s Supper as supports for our feeble faith. Calvin does not try to excuse or cover up Abraham’s weaknesses and failings, for this encourages the ordinary believer to try to emulate his virtues and to trust in God in trying circumstances, just as did our father in the faith.
Throughout these expositions, Calvin combines the various qualities needed by an effective preacher: he explains the text and does not shy away from difficulties, he constantly makes applications that address the lives of ordinary believers, and he points his hearers to God as ever faithful to his people. After more than 500 years, this is still the kind of preaching that honours God and builds up churches. Thank you Rob Roy McGregor for making it available to us!
A new book by John Calvin? Well, not exactly, but this1 is the first translation into English of Calvin’s 48 sermons on these ten chapters of Genesis. The sermons break off after Genesis 20:7 because a whole series of sermons on Genesis have been lost. Calvin expounds the biblical text for the benefit of ordinary […]
Taken with permission from Australia’s online magazine New Life, November 15, 2012.
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