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  • HISTORY OF THE REFORMATION -
    CHAPTER 23.


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    CALVIN’S PREACHING.

    AGREAT work had thus been accomplished; it remained to make practical application of its principles. The machine must work, must bring into action the spiritual forces, and produce a movement in the pathway of light. As soon as Calvin had settled at Geneva he had resumed the duties of his ministry. On Sundays he conducted divine service, and had daily service every other week.’ He devoted three hours in each week to theological teaching; he visited the sick, and administered private reproof.

    He received strangers; attended the consistory on Thursday, and directed its deliberations; on Friday was present at the conference on Scripture, called the congregation; and, after the minister in office for the day had presented his views on some passage of Scripture, and the other pastors had made their remarks, Calvin added some observations, which were a kind of lecture. He wished, as he afterwards said, that every minister should be diligent in studying, and that no one should become indolent.

    The week in which he did not preach was filled up with other duties; and he had duties of every kind. In particular, he devoted much attention to the refugees who flocked to Geneva, driven by persecution out of France and Italy; he taught and exhorted them. He consoled, by his letters, ‘those who were still in the jaws of the lion;’ he interceded for them. In his study he threw light on the sacred writings by admirable commentaries, and confuted the writings of the enemies of the Gospel.

    Calvin’s principal office, however, was that which, in the Ordinances, he had assigned to the minister; namely, to proclaim the Word of God for instruction, admonition, exhortation, and reproof. It is important to observe that he gives to preaching a practical character. He felt the need of this so strongly that he established it in the fundamental law of the church.

    For all this, it has been said that we find in his discourses chiefly ‘political eloquence, the eloquence of the forum, of the agora.’ Unfortunately, the finest finds have believed this on mere hearsay. Reproaches of another kind have been made against him. It has been supposed that his sermons were full of nothing but obscure and barren doctrines. Calvin is certainly quite able to stand up for himself, and needs not the help of others. His works are sufficient, and if they were read as they deserve to be, although he might not be found eloquent after the present fashion, he would be found invariably Christian; a man possessing great knowledge of the world, with a strong popular element.

    It is indispensable, however, to give in this place some account of Calvin’s preaching. He was, with Luther, the most important actor at the epoch of the Reformation; and there is no character in history more misunderstood than he is. It is a duty to come to the aid of one who is assailed—were it even the weakest that offers his aid to the strongest. Besides, it is no task of special pleading that we undertake. We shall confine ourselves to laying before the reader the documentary evidence in the trial.

    Two or three thousand of Calvin’s sermons are extant, he could not spend weeks on the composition of a homily. During great part of the year he preached every day, sometimes twice a day. He did not write his sermons, but delivered them extempore. A shorthand writer took down his discourses during their delivery. These sermons opened the treasures of the Scriptures, and spread them abroad amongst men; and they were full of useful applications.

    Calvin usually selected some book of the Bible, and preached a series of sermons on the divine words contained in it. These were published in large infolios. One volume appeared which contained a hundred and fifty-nine sermons on Job; another which consisted of two hundred sermons on Deuteronomy; in a third were given a hundred on the Epistles to Timothy and Titus. There are volumes of sermons on the Epistles to the Ephesians, the Corinthians, the Galatians, etc. How can it be thought that on these sacred books Calvin would deliver harangues of the forum ? We have seen, from the Ordinances, that he esteemed it a great fault in a preacher to adopt an unusual manner of treating the Scriptures, which gives occasion for scandal; a curious propensity to indulge in idle questionings , etc. While so many prejudices with regard to Calvin exist among Protestants, there are Catholics who have done justice to him. One of these a writer not generally friendly to him, has acknowledged that, according to this reformer, ‘the first and principal duty of the preacher is to be in agreement with Holy Scripture. It is only on condition of his faithfully and conscientiously setting forth the divine word, that he has any right to the obedience and confidence of the church. From the moment that he ceases to preach the pure Gospel, his right to speak is extinct.’ It is a pleasure to record this just and true judgment. It is entirely in agreement with what Calvin said of himself from the pulpit. ‘We must all,’ he said, ‘be pupils of the Holy Scriptures, even to the end; even those, I mean, who are appointed to proclaim the Word. If we enter the pulpit, it is on this condition, that we learn while teaching others. I am not speaking here merely that others may hear me; but I too, for my part, must be a pupil of God, and the word which goes forth from my lips must profit myself; otherwise woe is me! The most accomplished in the Scripture are fools, unless they acknowledge that they have need of God for their schoolmaster all the days their life. In Calvin’s view, everything that had not for its foundation the Word of God was a futile and ephemeral boast; and the man who did not lean on Scripture ought to be deprived of his title of honor, spoliandus est honoris sui titulo . This was not the rule laid down for the orators of the agora.

    Calvin used to preach in the cathedral church of St. Peter, which was more particularly adapted for preaching. A great multitude thronged the place to hear him. Among his hearers he had the old Genevese, but also a continually increasing number of evangelical Christians, who took refuge at Geneva on account of persecution, and who belonged, for the most part, to the most highly cultivated of their nation. Among them were also some Catholic priests and laymen, who had come to Geneva with the intention of professing there the reformed doctrines, and to these men it was very necessary to teach the doctrine of salvation. But if, in the sixteenth century, people came from a great distance to hear Calvin, will they be ready at this day, without stirring from their homes, to make acquaintance with some of those discourses which at that period contributed to the transformation of society, and which were, as usually stated on the titlepage, ‘taken down verbatim from his lips as he publicly preached them’?

    They are considered by many persons the weakest of his productions, and it is hardly thought worth while even to glance at them. It is generally asserted that what was printed in the sixteenth century is unreadable in the nineteenth. Times are indeed changed; but there are still readers who, when studying an epoch, desire to see at first-hand the words of its most distinguished men. It is our duty to satisfy readers.

    Calvin ascended the pulpit. The words which he uttered, instead of resembling those which were heard in the political gatherings of Greece and Rome, bore rather the impress of the sermon on the mount, addressed by Jesus Christ to his disciples assembled around him. We may enter the church of St. Peter’s any day that we like, and our judgment will soon be formed on these questions.

    Calvin has a word about the young, which is still a word in season for our day. ‘Wherewithal ,’ said he one day, ‘shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed thereto according to thy word . If we desire that our life should be pure and simple, we must not each one devise and build up what seems good to himself; but God must rule over us and we must obey him, by walking in the way which he appoints for us. And if in this passage it is the young man that is spoken of, we are not to suppose that it does not also concern the old. But we know what the ebullitions of youth are, and how great is the difficulty of holding in check these violent affections. It is as if David said—The young go astray like the beasts which cannot be tamed; and they have such fiery passions that they break away just at the moment when they seem to be well in hand. But if they followed this counsel to take heed to themselves according to the word of God, it is certain that though their passions naturally break through restraint, we should see in them modesty and a quiet and gentle demeanor. Let us not put off remembering God till we are come to the crazy years of old age, and till we are broken and worn out in body.’ f167 The same day Calvin addressed those who loved money, and pointed out the way to find true happiness. ‘I have rejoiced , says David, in the way of Thy testimonies as much as in all riches . What must we do to taste this joy? It is impossible,’ says Calvin, ‘that we should know the sweetness of the word of God, or that the doctrine of salvation should be pleasant to us, unless we have first cut off all those lusts and sinful affections which too much prevail in our hearts. It is just as if we expected to get wheat to grow in a field full of briars, thorns, and weeds, or to make a vine flourish on stones and rock where there is no moisture. For what is the nature of man?

    It is a soil so barren that there is nothing more so; and all his affections are briars, thorns, and weeds, which can only choke and destroy all the good seed of God.’ f168 On another occasion Calvin addressed the friends of the world; and quoting these words of DavidI am a stranger on the earth; hide not thy commandments from me ,’ he added, ‘There are some who in imagination make their permanent nest in this world, who expect to have their Paradise here, and feel no war of the commandments of God for their salvation. They are satisfied if they have their meat and drink, if they are able to gratify their appetites, have pleasures and delights, be honored and held in respect. This is all they ask for, and they rise no higher than this perishable and decaying life. Suppose a man given up to avarice, to uncleanness, to drunkenness, or to ambition, and although he should never hear a word of preaching, although he should never be spoken to about Christianity or the life eternal, for all that he would be quite content. To such men indeed it is irksome, it is to talk of gloomy things, to speak to them of God.

    They would like never to hear his name mentioned nor receive any tidings of him. But as for David, it is as if he said—If I had regard only to the present life, it would be better that I had not been born, or that I had been a hundred times destroyed. And wherefore?

    Because we are merely passing through this world and are on our way to an immortal life.’ f169 Subsequently he deals with another class of characters; he directs his attention to those who have sudden and transitory fits of devotion, and who turn to God by fits and starts. ‘We ought not to have fits (bouffees ), as many persons have, for glorifying God; and with whom, lift but a finger, it is all reversed. There may be some to-day who will feign that they are very devout. What a fine sermon! they will say. What admirable doctrine? And to-morrow how will it be with them? They will for all this go on mocking God and uttering taunts against his Word; or if God should send them adversity, then they will be fretted with him. True, the present life is subject to many vicissitudes; to-day we may have some sorrow; tomorrow we may be at ease; afterwards some sudden trouble may fall upon us; and then once more we come right. But notwithstanding this succession of changes, men must not bend to every wind; but while passing over the waves of the sea must be strong in that righteousness and uprightness which is the word of God.’ ...

    Calvin was struck with that exclusive self-love which exists in man. He believed, as was said by Pascal, a man whose intellect in many respects resembled his own, that ‘since sin occurred man has lost the first of his loves, the love for God; and the love for himself being left alone in this great soul, capable of an infinite love, this self-love has extended itself and overflowed into the void left by the love for God; and thus he has loved himself alone and all things for himself, that is to say, infinitely.’ Calvin energetically demands of man love to God. ‘If a man, says he, ‘is so sensitive that he is moved to avenge himself the moment he is wounded, and yet does not trouble himself at all when God is insulted and his law thrown to the ground, does it not show clearly that he is altogether fleshly, yea, more, that he is brutal (tenant de la brute )? It is a common characteristic of men, that if any wrong is done to them, they will be disturbed about it to the end. Let the honor of a man be touched, he flies immediately into a rage, and cares for nothing but to proceed against the offender. Let a man be robbed, his anger will be unappeasable. He is concerned about his purse, his meadows, his possessions, his houses, whichever it may be, and he will feel that he is wronged. But the man who has well regulated affections will not have so much concern for his own honor or for his own property as for the justice of God when this is violated. We ought to be affected by offenses committed against God, rather than by merely concerns ourselves. There are very few who care at all about those offences. And if there be some who will say, ‘It grieves me that people thus sin against God,’ and who nevertheless allow themselves to do as much evil or more than others, they show plainly that they are mere hypocrites. They persecute men rather than hate vice, and they prove that what they say is only feigning.’ f171 Calvin in treating of other subjects appears full of grace and simplicity.

    Surrounded as he was by violent enemies, he felt a lively sympathy with David when in his Psalms he gives utterance to that cry of anguish,—‘O Lord, how are mine enemies multiplied!’ Calvin likewise knew what it was to be hated by furious enemies.

    He draws a touching picture of terror. It is a graceful parable. ‘I have gone astray like a lost sheep; save thy servant! David,’ he says, ‘was so terrified at his enemies because he suffered such great and cruel persecutions. He was in the midst of them like a poor hunted lamb, which when it catches sight of a wolf, flees to the mountains to hide itself. Here was a poor lamb escaped from the jaws of the wolf, and so terrified that if it come to a well, it will plunge in headlong rather than pursue its way, for it knows not what to do nor what is to become of it. And thus David, being terrified, cried out—Lord, redeem thy servant! thus indicating that he leaned entirely on God’s protection and this is what we must do.’ f172 These fragments are taken from sermons on the Old Testament; it is worth while to hear Calvin also on the New. People suppose that he put forward gloomy doctrines, which shut man out from salvation instead of leading him to it, and that he concerned himself with predestination alone. This opinion is at once so widely diffused and so untrue that it is the indispensable duty of the historian in this place to establish the truth. Let us hear him on 1 Timothy 2:3,4, and 5. Calvin declares that it is the will of God that all men should be saved. ‘The Gospel,’ he says, ‘is offered to all, and this is the means of drawing us to salvation. Nevertheless, are all benefited by it?

    Certainly not, as we see at a glance. When once God’s truth has fallen upon our ears, if we are rebels to it, it is for our greater condemnation. God, therefore, must go further, in order to bring us to salvation, and must not only appoint and send men to teach us faithfully, but must himself be master in our hearts, must touch us to the quick and draw us to himself. Then, adapting himself to our weakness, he lisps to us in his Word, just as a nurse does to little children. If God spoke according to his majesty, his language would be too high and too difficult; we should be confounded, and all our senses would be blinded. For if our eyes cannot bear the brightness of the sun, is it possible, I ask you, for our minds to comprehend the divine majesty? We say what everyone sees: It is God’s will that we should all be saved , when he commands that his Gospel shall be preached. The gate of Paradise is opened for us; when we are thus invited, and when he exhorts us to repentance, he is ready to receive us as soon as we come to him.’

    Calvin goes further and rebukes those who by their neglect set limits to the extent of God’s dominion. ‘It is not in Judea alone and in a corner of the country that the grace of God is shed abroad,’ he says ‘but up and down through all the earth. It is God’s will that this grace should be known to all the world. We ought, therefore, as far as lies in our power, to seek the salvation of those who are to-day strangers to the faith, and endeavor to bring them to the goodness of God. Why so? Because Jesus Christ is not the Savior of three or four, but offers himself to all. At the time when he drew us to himself were we not enemies?

    Why are we now his children? It is because he has gathered us to himself. Now, is he not as truly the Savior of all the world? Jesus Christ did not come to be mediator between two or three men, but between God and men; not to reconcile a small number of people to God, but to extend his grace to the whole world. Since Jesus invites us all to himself, since he is ready to give us loving access to his Father, is it not our duty to stretch out our hand to those who do not know what this union is in order that we may induce them to draw nigh? God, in the person of Jesus Christ, has his arms as it were stretched out to welcome to himself those who seemed to be separated from him. We must take care that it be not our fault that they do not return to the flock. Those who make no endeavor to bring back their neighbor into the way of salvation diminish the power of God’s empire, as far as in them lies, and are willing to set limits to it, so that he may not be Lord over all the world.

    They obscure the virtue of the passion and death of Jesus Christ, and they lessen the dignity which was conferred on him by God his Father; to wit, that to-day for his sake the gate of heaven is opened , and that God will be favorable to us when we come to seek him.’

    But Calvin asks how are we to bring a soul to God, and how are we to come to him ourselves? ‘We are but worms of the earth, and yet we must go out of the world and pass beyond the heavens. This, then, is impossible unless Jesus Christ appear, unless he stretch out his hand and promise to give us access to the throne of God, who in himself cannot but be to us awful and terrible, but now is gracious to us in the person of our Lord. If when we come before God, we contemplate only his high and incomprehensible majesty, everyone of us must shrink back and even wish that the mountains may cover and overwhelm us. But when our Lord Jesus comes forward and makes himself our mediator, then there is nothing to terrify us, we can come with our heads no longer cast down, we can call upon God as our father, in such wise that we may come to him in secret and pour out all our griefs in order to be comforted. But such a glory must be given to Jesus Christ that angels and other dignities may be assigned to their own rank, and that Jesus Christ may appear above all and in all things have the pre-eminence. This dignity must always be preserved for him, in that he shed his blood for us and reconciled us with God, discharging all our debts. ‘In every age the world has deceived itself with trifles and trash as means of appeasing God, just as we might try to pacify the anger of a little child with toys. Christ must needs devote himself, at the cost of his passion and death, in order to reconcile us (nous appointer ) with God his father, so that our sins may no longer be reckoned against us. We cannot gain favor in the sight of God by ceremonies or parade; but Christ has given himself a ransom for us. We have the blood of Jesus Christ and the sacrifice which he offered for us of his own body and his own life. In this lies our confidence, and by this means we are forgiven.’ f173 This, then, is what Calvin says—‘The gate of paradise is open to us; the Lord is willing to receive us.’ What! some will say, does he give up the doctrine of the election of God, and of the necessity of the operation of the Holy Spirit for the regeneration of man? Certainly not. Calvin believed, in its full import, this saying of the Savior—‘You have not chosen me, I have chosen you .’ It has been acknowledged by men endowed with a fine intellect, who at the same time did not hold the Christian faith, that there is an election of God, not only in the sphere of grace, but in that of creation. One of them has said—‘The life of children, who differ so much from each other, although they spring from the same stock, and pass through a similar course of education, is well adapted to confirm the followers of Augustine in their doctrine. Minds are not wanting that take offence every time they hear the doctrine of grace set forth without disguise. Have these same minds ever reflected on that strange fatality which stamps us with a mark distinct and deep from our birth and our infancy? If these minds are religious, to what doctrine will they have recourse (to explain this) which does not resolve itself into the doctrine of grace?’ f173a Calvin said to Christians, in conformity with the Scriptures, that it is God who seeks them and saves them; and that this goodwill of God ought to make them rejoice, deliver them from fears in the midst of so many perils, and render them invincible in the midst of so many snares and deadly assaults . But he makes a distinction. There are the hidden things of God, which are a mystery, and of these he says—‘Those who enter into the eternal council of God thrust themselves into a deadly abyss .’ Then there are the things which are known, which are seen in man, and are plain. ‘Let us contemplate the cause of the condemnation of man in his depraved nature, in which it is manifest, rather than search for it in the predestination of God, in which it is hidden and altogether incomprehensible .’ He is even angry with those who want to know ‘things which it is neither lawful nor possible to know (predestination). Ignorance ,’ says he, ‘of these things is learning , but craving to know them is a kind of madness .’ It is a singular fact that what Calvin indignantly calls a madness should afterwards be named Calvinism. The reformer sets himself against this craving as a raging madness, and yet it is of this very madness that he is accused. In Calvin there is the theologian, sometimes indeed the philosopher, although before all there is the Christian. He desires that everything which may do men good should be offered to them. ‘But with regard to this dispute about predestination,’ he says, ‘by the inquisitiveness of men it is made perplexing and even perilous. They enter into the sanctuary of divine wisdom, into which if anyone thrusts himself with too much audacity, he will get into a labyrinth from which he will find no exit, and in which nothing is possible to him but to rush headlong to destruction.’ We are not sure that Calvin did not allow himself to be drawn a step too far into the labyrinth. But we have seen the deep conviction with which he declares that the gate of heaven is opened, that the will of God is that his grace should be known to all the world . This is enough.

    Calvin did not, however, hide from himself the fact that a minister of God’s Word must look forward to many contradictions and struggles.

    Thus, in his sermon on the duty of a preacher, it is said to the minister— ‘It is thy duty to prepare thy hand betimes, so that no assault should overcome thee. Thou must not retreat nor fly before the foe (que tu placques la tout ), but take warning that henceforth thou must needs fight.’ f177 Such was Calvin as a preacher. He points out the evils which are in man’s heart, but he proclaims still more loudly the love and the power of Him who heals him. He makes man feel that he is powerless, but he breathes into his soul the power of God. He casts down, but he also lifts up; and if he humbles, he is still more in earnest in getting men to run straight to the mark, in entreating them not to go astray in cross-ways, but to ‘get rid of all distractions.’ Forwards! forwards! he cries to the loiterers, and he shows them the means of advancing.

    Calvin certainly was not narrow-minded; and while he was before all a member of the kingdom of God, he did not think it his duty to take no interest in the concerns of nations and of kings. He never forgot his persecuted fellow-religionists; and if for their deliverance it was needful to appeal to the powerful, to the princes of the earth, he did so. Is he to be accused of having therein played the part of a politician? Would it not have been a sad blemish on so fair a life to have forgotten his countrymen who were cast into prisons or bound on the galleys? But Calvin, having gained the rock on which the tempest could not harm him, did not cease to direct his attention to such of his brethren as were still pelted by the storm and well-nigh swallowed up in the abyss. He prayed; he cried aloud; he called upon those in power to stay the sword which was unsheathed against the righteous; he was able likewise, in grave emergencies, from the pulpit to invite to prayer and humiliation, to recall to mind the martyrs of old time, to declare that persecutors will have to render an account, to show that faith in the living God is an impregnable fortress; to urge those who, having come from a distance, had taken refuge at Geneva, to behave themselves holily, and to entreat all Christians, especially the weak, to make no blameworthy concessions, but to continue steadfast in the purity of the faith. What is there in all this incompatible with the evangelical ministry?

    What is there in all this that is not even obligatory and that could not fail to be approved of God? No, Calvin was neither a Dracon nor a Lycurgus; neither a political orator nor a statesman. His pulpit was no tribune for harangues; his work was not that of a secret chief of Protestantism. He was before all things an evangelist, a minister of the living God. Far from addressing himself to the people in general, he laid hold of the individual, and on him he made a deeper and more lasting impression than modern preachers have done with their vague discourses.

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