WHEN God has a great work to accomplish by human instrumentality, He prepares the stage and all its surroundings, selects and equips the fittest instruments, and times their appearance. All His works praise Him; for they are founded in truth, and executed in wisdom.
Moreover, in the unfolding of His purposes, there is no evidence of hurried effort or noise. His operations are without sound of hammer. The most perfect preparation is made without halting weakness and without undue haste. The leaves of October fall from the tree not only because of their own decay, but because of the activities of the buds of the spring that is to follow. It thus occurs that the leaves and blossoms of the succeeding year are all in existence, endued with initial vigor, though as yet folded in a tiny space, some months before they fully expand to the sunlight.
Thoughts such as these crowd upon the mind in beginning to write the history of the life and times and work ofJOHN CALVIN, one of the instruments selected, prepared, and used by God in effecting the Reformation.
In the fifteenth century, Rome was the metropolis of Europe. Every road on the continent led to Rome. The papacy guarded the gate of every conscience, shadowed the threshold of every home, and sat on the steps of every throne. Blind loyalty to the papal power was rewarded by a liberal supply of little bits of the “true cross,” bones of saints, paper permission to commit sin, and paper pardons for sins committed.
Yet all the time the Bible was in the Vatican, hidden in Latin dust, and bound with an iron chain. The people were hungering, for the bread of life, and yearning for liberty of mind and conscience. In fact, the new buds were beginning vigorously to assert themselves, and to push away the decay and death of the centuries.
The wisdom of God is to be admired in the sequence of events which closed the fifteenth and opened the sixteenth centuries. Three important events now invite our attention. These are, first, the invention of printing; second, the birth of Luther, in 1483; third, the birth of Calvin, in 1509. It would be difficult to over-estimate the importance of these three events, or of the order in which they stand. The printing-press was necessary to any new circulation of the Bible, and thus to the spread of the gospel. It was the battering-ram to make windows in the walls of the prison, and liberate the Bible. The gospel opened the iron gates. A pathway was thus made for Luther. Sensible people shrewdly held up their parchment pardons to the light, and saw through them; yet few dared to speak their minds. It was something, however, that they had begun to think: God was even then preparing the man that would speak, and speak to purpose. The rougher work of a pioneer could not have been so well done by Calvin as by Luther; therefore God sent Luther first to clear the way.
But if Luther was a giant for valor and strength, Calvin excelled him in intellect and learning. This was necessary in the unfolding of God’s plan.
In choosing the apostles, the Lord called the bold Peter before the loving John ( Matthew 4:18-21); while yet designating each of the twelve to the special kind of work suited to his ability. This thought receives apt and striking confirmation from a Roman Catholic source, which may be quoted here: “It cannot be denied that Calvin was the greatest man of the Protestant rebellion. But for him Luther’s movements would probably have died out with him and his associates. Calvin organized it, gave it form and consistency, and his spirit has sustained it to this day. If Luther preceded him, it is still by his name, rather than Luther’s, that the rebellion should be called; and the only form of Protestantism that still shows any sign of life is unquestionably Calvinism. It is Calvinism that sustains Methodism, that gives what little it has to Lutheranism, and that prevents a very general return of Anglicans to the bosom of the church. It is hardly too much to say that no greater heresiarch than John Calvin has ever appeared, or a more daring, subtle, adroit, or successful enemy of the church of God.” … Considering the end of man and the purposes of civil society, murder and robbery are light crimes, and the spread of epidemic disease of no consequence, in comparison with the crime which Luther and Calvin perpetrated when they revolted from the church.” f1 After this significant testimony we may quote one stanza from the lines written by Baptist W. Noel at the time of the passing of the Maynooth Grant: “Oh for an hour of Luther now!
Oh for a frown from Calvin’s brow!
Once they broke the papal chain; Who shall break it now again?” Germany and France were foremost in the work of Reformation. While to languid Italy we owe the restoration of the arts of sculpture and of painting, and to papal Spain the discovery of a new world, we must not fail to realize that God selected Germany to produce “the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and that bringeth forth an instrument for his work” ( Isaiah 54:16).
He entrusted to France the privilege of reviving what had been begun at an earlier date by the Albigenses and Waldenses. Switzerland was afterwards to contribute her share to the great revival; while England, who had already seen Wycliffe, the “morning-star,” was to bring forth a “Noble Army” of witnesses to the living power of the grace and gospel of God.
We shall find that the unfolding of God’s purpose in the Reformation was brought to pass gradually. To use the words of D’Aubigne: “The spring sun had appeared, yet winter still bound all nature in its chains; no flowers, no leaves, nothing that bespoke the arrival of the new season. But these appearances were deceptive; a powerful though hidden sap was already in circulation, and about to change the face of the world.”
We must also remember that every reformation must first take place in the soul of the reformer before it can have any outward and manifest vitality.
If this be true as a principle of social reform, it is more nobly true of every activity in the kingdom of grace. We have before us at this period three men whom God was preparing for the great Reformation; and in each of them we trace one special and essential feature of that Reformation. Luther in great conflict of soul learned the truth that justification before God is by faith in Christ, and not, as he had been taught, by human works or merit.
Zwingle, the Reformer of Switzerland, was led, even more deeply than Luther, into the truth of the excellence and authority of Scripture. Thus we find him copying all the epistles of Paul, the manuscript of which is still preserved at Zurich. Calvin was to learn by soul-experience the doctrine of salvation by free and sovereign grace—the truth that formed the substance of his teaching through life.
These three essential principles we may call the body, soul, and spirit of the Reformation; in every point directly opposed to the teaching of the papacy. The Divine authority and pre-eminence of the Word of God; justification by faith; salvation by rich free grace. These three principles were wrought by the Holy Spirit of God in the three men entirely without any design on the part of either of them. God was the Designer; they were the instruments chosen to carry out the design. God was the Leader; it was for them to follow where He led them.