A Lesson from Calvin on Concluding Sermons

Calvin’s Central Contribution: The Majesty of God

Calvin’s central theological contributions was his view of God’s infinite majesty, that is, God’s impressive beauty, dignity and transcendence.[1] Calvin said his aim in his ministry was to “set before [man], as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God.”[2] It was Calvin’s “zeal to illustrate the glory of God” which constitutes the heart of his theological reform as well as the legacy he has left the church. In speaking of Calvin’s conception of God’s infinite majesty, we must enter a thought world that almost seems foreign to contemporary religion. As David Wells said, “It is this God, majestic and holy in his being…who has disappeared from the modern evangelical world.”[3]

Instead the church today has espoused what has been called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,[4] which portrays God as a grandfatherly figure who wants people to be happy and morally good in life. We speak of God in very intimate terms as being among us, on mission, ready to answer our prayers. He treasures us. He speaks to us with advice for living the good life. And we think of Jesus primarily as man. But “Christ” (Anointed One), his majestic title, has fallen into disuse. And we prefer instead to think of the carpenter who lived an exemplary and loving life. And while most of this is true so far as it goes, it simply doesn’t go far enough. It’s damning with faint praise. Calvin saw these realities, the nearness of God, as essentially linked to other realities, the transcendence and majesty of God. And it was this perspective that motivated his efforts toward reform.

So to understand Calvin, we must first gather his understanding of God’s majesty. Then we will be prepared to understand what influence that conception had on his preaching. As John Murray said:

“We must first have a firm grasp on Calvin’s view of God’s infinite majesty. This we may derive in part from Institutes. As we bring even elementary understanding to bear upon our reading of the Institutes we shall immediately discover the profound sense of the majesty of God, veneration for the Word of God, and the jealous care for faithful exposition and systematization which were marked features of the author. And because of this we shall find the Institutes to be suffused with the warmth of godly fear.”[5]

The Creator has the right to rule and to demand obedience, and man’s self-understanding must take God’s loftiness into account, as Calvin notes, “Man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.”[6]

This then is Calvin’s understanding of God’s infinite majesty, which is the “formative principle of Calvinism” according to B.B. Warfield. Warfield explains what he believes it means to “be a Calvinist”:

The Calvinist is the man who has seen God, and who, having seen God in His glory, is filled on the one hand, with a sense of his own unworthiness to stand in God’s sight as a creature, and much more as a sinner, and on the other hand, with adoring wonder that nevertheless this God is a God who receives sinners. He who believes in God without reserve and is determined that God shall be God to him, in all his thinking, feeling, willing—in the entire compass of his life activities, intellectual, moral, spiritual—throughout all his individual, social, religious relations—is, by the force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles into thought and life, by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist.[7]

Many others have also noted the foundational or central role of this aspect of Calvin’s thinking, referring to the marrow of Calvinism as the sovereignty of God. “Thus, if we had to reduce Calvinism to one concept,” says Joel Beeke, we must agree, “to be Reformed means to be theocentric.”[8]

1. God’s Majesty in Calvin’s Preaching Method

The majesty of God gave shape to the structure of Calvin’s pulpit ministry. As light is emitted from the sun, so also the Word reveals the brilliance of its source. And precisely because Calvin believed that God had revealed his glory through the rays of the Word, he was committed to treating the Word with the same reverence and humility that is appropriate to God himself. So his method of teaching the Word needed to accord with this high reverence. Calvin is known for consecutive expositional preaching: beginning in chapter one verse one of a book, and moving verse by verse through that book to uncover its meaning. In this sense, Calvin tethered himself to the text, recognizing his own lowliness before the Word and not wanting to speak his own opinions over and above God’s revelation. He has such a high view of God’s Word simply because he has such a high view of God himself. “The glory of God so shines in his word, that we ought to be so affected by it, whenever he speaks by his servants, as though he were near to us, face to face.”[9]

2. God’s Majesty in Calvin’s Concluding “Formula”

Not only was Calvin’s expositional method a demonstration of his sense of divine majesty, but so was the manner in which he closed each of his sermons. His closing line in nearly every sermon exhorted the congregation toward humility in light of all that had been taught from the Word. All his sermons in Job ended with the nearly uniform pronouncement, “Now let us bow in humble reverence before the face of our God.”[10] In his 22 sermons from Psalm 119, there is an equal uniformity in his closing words. The final paragraph of each sermon begins this way, “And according to this holy doctrine, let us prostrate ourselves before the face of our good God, in acknowledging our faults.”[11]

A similar pattern is evident in almost all the sermons Calvin preached. In fact, it appears in many of the sermons that having called on the congregation to bow before the majesty of God, Calvin would then ask them to join together in a prayer of praise and confession. In his sermons on the Beatitudes, his final words are recorded at the end of each sermon: “Now let us cast ourselves down before the majesty of our good God, acknowledging our sins….Therefore together let us say, Almighty God and heavenly Father…”[12] Although the rest of the corporate prayer is not recorded, one can imagine the congregation together acknowledging their sins and pleading for mercy because of Christ. Every sermon’s conclusion was marked by this reverence.

The humility that is evident in this constant exhortation points back to Calvin’s understanding of God and what it means to be in fellowship with God. Calvin said that Augustine’s statement pleased him very much: “If you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third, and always, I would answer, ‘Humility.’”[13] Understanding God to be so far exalted above man, he regularly concluded his preaching with a call to submission before divine transcendence.

3. God’s Majesty in the Themes of Calvin’s Preaching

In addition to these two structural results of Calvin’s understanding of God’s majesty (expositional preaching and closing exhortation to humility), there are numerous thematic elements in his preaching that flow directly from his sense of God’s loftiness. I will describe two of those themes and mention several others.

One of those thematic elements is the depravity of man. Calvin labors in all of his preaching to unpack the first line from the Institutes: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess…consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”[14] In light of this, his exposition attempts to impress the reader with what the passage teaches about God and his majesty, but also about man and his sinfulness. This twofold attempt led Calvin to discuss depravity at length even from passages in which the doctrine of sin is not explicit.

For instance, Psalm 119:1-8 seems to contain very scant evidence of the depravity of man. It is a simple pronouncement of happiness toward those who keep the law of God. For many preachers, depravity may find very little room in the exposition of this passage. But Calvin almost seems to understand this to be a psalm about depravity. He labors throughout his whole sermon to insist on the waywardness of the human heart, that it is so unwilling to respond to God’s law. Calvin says,

First of all, [the psalmist] wants us to note, that we understand not wherein our chief blessedness consists, and the reason is, because we are blind, and do live in the world as savage and wild beasts, utterly void of sense and reason: and suffer ourselves to be led and carried away of our brutish and swinish affections and lusts.[15]

His sermon on 1 Timothy 3:16 also illustrates this point. This verse is a creedal statement about Jesus Christ with hardly a reference to sin, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (ESV). And yet Calvin finds opportunity to impress on the congregation their own condition as sinful people before the majesty of the living God:

There is nothing but rottenness in us; nothing but sin and death. Then let the living God, the well-spring of life, the everlasting glory, and the infinite power, come; and not only approach to us and our miseries, our wretchedness, our frailty, and to this bottomless pit of all iniquity that is in men; let not only the majesty of God come near this, but be joined to it, and made one with it, in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.[16]

Whatever passage Calvin found himself in, he was careful to correlate that passage to a biblical understanding of the human condition, which is inevitably connected to his view of God’s majesty.

A second theme that runs through Calvin’s preaching is that mankind owes obedience to God. “In reading Calvin, nothing challenges me more than the way in which the obedience due to God controlled his thinking and living….For Calvin, to accept compromise when Scripture has spoken is to affront the divine majesty of the Author.”[17] This theme is plainly evident in all of Calvin’s preaching, although perhaps the most striking example comes from his preaching on the book of Job. He understand the entire story of Job’s life to be teaching us that we ought to submit ourselves in all humility and obedience to the sovereign will of God:

“The story [of Job] shows us how we are in the hand of God, and that it belongs to Him to order our lives and to dispose of them according to His good pleasure, and that our duty is to submit ourselves to Him in all humility and obedience, that it is quite reasonable that we be altogether His both to live and to die; and even if it shall please Him to raise His hand against us, though we may not perceive for what cause He does it, nevertheless we should glorify Him always, confessing that He is just and equitable, that we should not murmur against Him, that we should not enter into dispute, knowing that if we struggle against Him we shall be conquered. This, then, in brief, is what we have to remember from the story, that is, that God has such dominion over His creatures that He can dispose of them at His pleasure, and when He shows strictness that we at first find strange, yet we should keep our mouths closed in order not to murmur; but rather, that we should confess that He is just, expecting that He may declare to us why He chastises us.”[18]

There are many other lesser themes related to God’s majesty that are evident throughout Calvin’s preaching. He reminded his listeners that God’s condescension to mankind’s lowly estate ought to evoke not only utter obedience, but also extreme gratitude. He also impressed upon them the same conviction he displayed through expositional preaching, that the word of God itself reveals the divine majesty. But the controlling vision was the majesty and glory of God. This awareness of the majesty of God is perhaps Calvin’s most important legacy. And the impact this awareness had on his preaching provides a timeless example for preachers who want nothing more than to be faithful to God and his Word.

 

 

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. 2 vols. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 3.6.2, 3.20.41.

[2] John Dillenberger, ed. John Calvin: Selections from His Writings (Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1975), 89.

[3] David Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 300.

[4] Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 67. Albert Mohler has called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism “the new American religion” in an article entitled “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—the New American Religion,” available at http://www.christianpost.com/news/moralistic-therapeutic-deism-the-new-american-religion-6266/.

[5] John Murray, “Introduction,” in Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997).

[6] Calvin, Institutes, 1.1.3. This section is entitled “Man before God’s majesty.”

[7] B. B. Warfield, “The Theology of Calvin,” http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/warfield/warfield_calvintheology.html (accessed May 10, 2014). This essay originally appeared in a booklet published by the Presbyterian Board of Education in 1909.

[8] Joel Beeke, Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2008), 40.

[9] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948-1950), 4:343.

[10] John Calvin, Sermons from Job, selected and translated by Leroy Nixon (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), 119. Slight variations of this sentence are used as the final words of every sermon in Job.

[11] John Calvin, Sermons on Psalm 119, translated by Thomas Stocker (Old Paths Publications, 1996), no page numbers. As in the sermons on Job, there is slight variation in the form or word of this sentence, but its distinctness from the closing line in the Job sermons is evident, as is its similarity.

[12] John Calvin, Sermons on the Beatitudes (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006), 48.

[13] Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.11.

[14] Ibid., 1.1.1.

[15] Calvin, Sermons on Psalm 119.

[16] John Calvin, “The Mystery of Godliness,” in The Mystery of Godliness and Other Sermons (Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria, 1999), 12-13.

[17] Iaian Murray, “Foreward,” John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine & Doxology (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2008), xii.

[18] Calvin, Sermons from Job, 3.

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