What Is Calvin’s God Like?

Many wrongly assume that they know Calvin’s God as the stern God of predestination.  Or they wrongly assume that Calvin’s God is the Kingly Sovereign, untouched by human pleadings and unmoved by human suffering as he relentlessly pursues his single-minded inexplicable purpose.  But that isn’t Calvin’s God and in fact that isn’t the God known to and worshiped by Christians.

The God Calvin loved, the one true God, is aptly described as follows:

A God who is not holy is no God. A God who is not just or good or true is no God. A God who does not satisfy and surpass our highest conception of ethical ideal is no God. A God who is not supreme over all, who shares the throne of His rule and glory with angel or man or devil, who does not know all things, who does not control all things, whose eyes are closed to any scene of tragedy or distress, whose ears are stopped to any cry of suffering or of need, whose love is quenched by any offense against His holy will, whose arm is bound by any force or fate or law—this is no God. When we hear any one declare that he believes in God, it is necessary to wait until he tells us what kind of a God he believes in that we may be sure that he believes in God at all. Many a qualified theism is, at bottom, an unqualified atheism.  — Henry Collin Minton, in Calvin, the Theologian.

Minton has perfectly captured Calvin’s view of God and summarized it in a single paragraph.  Never has a better, more specific, and more useful summary been written.

Calvin’s Sermons Sold as “Waste Paper”

It is painful to think of how many of John Calvin’s sermons were lost over the years. One wonders what troves of treasure were lost as trash:

Over 2,000 of Calvin’s sermons have been preserved. Unfortunately many others have been lost. Bouwsma comments on this point:

Not all Calvin’s sermons have yet been published; many, indeed, have disappeared. Early in the nineteenth century the pastor in charge of the Bibliothèque de Genève where they were stored sold most of the volumes of Calvin’s manuscript sermons ‘by weight,’ that is, presumably as waste paper; and although some were eventually recovered, about a thousand were permanently lost.

This painful and tragic story has been told in various places; for an account in English the reader ought to consult the work of T. H. L. Parker.

John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 22.

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Calvin’s Prayers: A Model of Scholarly Humility

Calvin prayed at the conclusion of his lectures.  Those prayers are both intriguing reading and profound spiritual instruction.  For example, at the conclusion of the 38th lecture on the Minor Prophets, he prays

Oil painting of a young John Calvin.

Grant, Almighty God, that as almost the whole world give such loose reins to their licentiousness, that they hesitate not either to despise or to regard as of no value thy sacred word,—Grant, O Lord, that we may always retain such reverence as is justly due to it and to thy holy oracles, and be so moved, whenever thou deignest to address us, that being truly humbled, we may be raised up by faith to heaven, and by hope gradually attain that glory which is as yet hid from us. And may we at the same time so submissively restrain ourselves, as to make it our whole wisdom to obey thee and to do thee service, until thou gatherest us into thy kingdom, where we shall be partakers of thy glory, through Christ our Lord. Amen.  [Calvin, J., Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets (Joe 1:1–4)].

Noteworthy here is the focus of Calvin’s prayer:

1- that his hearers value Scripture; 2- that they reverence God’s speech; 3- that they be humbled by the fact that God stoops to speak to them; 4- and finally, that they heed it to the point of real active obedience.

The background to this prayer is the remarkable claim of Calvin that

The Prophet reproves the Jews for being so stupid as not to consider that they were chastised by the hand of God, though this was quite evident. Hence they pervert, in my judgment, the meaning of the Prophet, who think that punishments are here denounced which were as yet suspended; for they transfer all these things to a future time. But I distinguish between this reproof and the denunciations which afterwards follow. Here then the Prophet reproaches the Jews, that having been so severely smitten, they did not gain wisdom; and yet even fools, when the rod is applied to their backs, know that they are punished. Since then the Jews were so stupid, that when even chastised they did not understand that they had to do with God, the Prophet justly reproves this madness. Hear, he says, ye old men; give ear, all ye inhabitants of the land, and declare this to your children. But the consideration of this passage I shall put off till tomorrow.

Calvin’s rather gruff remarks – set in balance with the prayer he uttered moments afterward- indicate that for Calvin there was a terrible danger in refusing to respect God’s address.  Such refusal was, in his terminology, ‘stupid’.  As those who refused to hear Amos were ‘stupid’ so too, Calvin would argue, are those who refuse to hear God today (in Calvin’s day).

Calvin was absolutely convinced that God must be heard.  Surely Christians today would assert the same (albeit without such free use of the word ‘stupid’).

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Calvin’s Exegesis of Isaiah 54:7

It scarcely needs to be said to readers here, given as they are to an interest in Calvin’s work, that he offered amazing insights into biblical texts every time he turned his attention to exegesis.

Take, for example, his explanation of Isaiah 54:7-

7. For a little moment I forsook thee. The Prophet explains more fully the former statement, and shews what will be the nature of this divorce, namely, that she shall be speedily restored to her former condition. He magnifies the mercy of God, and extenuates the sorrow by which the hearts of believers might be oppressed. It was not enough for believers to expect some revival, if they were not convinced that God’s wrath would be of short duration. We quickly lose courage and faint, if the Lord be not nigh, and if he do not quickly stretch out his hand to us. For this reason Isaiah, after having spoken of restoring the Church, adds that this divorce shall last but “for a moment,” but that his mercy shall be everlasting.

When he says that he forsook his people, it is a sort of admission of the fact. We are adopted by God in such a manner that we cannot be rejected by him on account of the treachery of men; for he is faithful, so that he will not cast off or abandon his people. What the Prophet says in this passage must therefore refer to our feelings and to outward appearance, because we seem to be rejected by God when we do not perceive his presence and protection. And it is necessary that we should thus feel God’s wrath, even as a wife divorced by her husband deplores her condition, that we may know that we are justly chastised. But we must also perceive his mercy; and because it is infinite and eternal, we shall find that all afflictions in comparison of it are light and momentary. Whenever, therefore, we are pressed by adversity, we ought to betake ourselves to this consolation. At the same time it ought to be observed, that what was said was actually true as to the whole body of the people, who had been divorced on account of their wickedness; and although God did not receive all of them indiscriminately into favour with him, but only the elect remnant, yet there is nothing absurd or improper in addressing his discourse as if it had been to the same persons.  —  Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (Is 54:7). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

I have set off in bold face both the phrase with which Calvin is concerned and the stunning insights he gleans from the text.  And, it has to be said, his insights are in no respect ‘eisegesis’.  Calvin reads Isaiah theologically.  And therefore, Calvin reads Isaiah correctly and interprets him effectively.

This slight example of Calvin’s exegetical work will, I hope, convince readers to dive deeply into Calvin’s commentaries.  They are a treasure trove.

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Jim West

Calvin Always Makes Me Feel Lazy

It never ceases to amaze (and humble) me when I look at how much work John Calvin did in his lifetime. Besides all his writing, travel, and other work, here is a report of his preaching efforts:

During the decades of the 1540s and 1550s, Calvin was the senior minister in Geneva. This position, as one would expect, entailed a considerable amount of preaching. Between 1541 and 1564, it has been estimated that Calvin preached no fewer than 4,000 sermons on the Bible. On the Old Testament alone he preached at least 2,000 sermons, and that figure only covers the years 1541 to 1556. Calvin usually preached twice on Sundays, at dawn and at 3.00 p.m.; in the morning service he exposited a New Testament passage, and he tackled the Psalms in the afternoon. One or two mornings a week (6.00 a.m.), he would deliver a sermon on an Old Testament passage.

John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 21-22.

I seriously need to remember this next time I feel the pressure of writing ONE sermon.

The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, pt. 1

During the seventeenth century, a number of issues in England helped bring about the change from the first (1644) to the second (1689) LBC. Moreover, the Baptist and Presbyterians would be closer in work and deed than today’s American counterparts. Four major events prompted the Second London Baptist Confession to be created in the likeness of its earlier cousin, the Westminster Confession of Faith.

  • 1661—the Episcopalians recaptured the machinery and endowments of the Church of England and were bent on achieving uniformity in England and not accepting Presbyterians, nor the WCF-1646.
  • 1661–1665—a series of coercive acts forming the Clarendon Code were put into effect, suppressing dissidents, namely Presbyterians, but effecting Baptist as well, and other Congregationalists throughout England.
  • 1672—King Charles favored the restoration of Roman Catholicism and issued a Declaration of Indulgence that suspended all penal laws of an ecclesiastical nature against all Protestant dissenters, Presbyterian and Baptist.
  • 1673—England’s Parliament passed the Test Act which barred nonconformists from all military and civil offices.

These four key issues motivated the Particular Baptist of London to show agreement with Presbyterians and other Congregationalists through England. They did this by making the Westminster Confession the basis of a new (second) confession of their own. Thus the London Baptist purpose had been clearly stated:

“Our [Baptist] hearty agreement with them [Presbyterian] in that wholesome protestant doctrine, which, with so clear evidence of Scriptures they have asserted.

One of the most evident “Presbyterian-friendly” areas the Baptist authors saw fit to change in the 1689 Confession can be found in chapter 30 on The Lord’s Supper. No longer was it restricted to scripturally baptized people in the 1689-LBC, as it had been in the 1644-LBC. The assembly writing the second London Baptist Confession saw fit to work with the Calvinistic Presbyterians for the sake of the Protestantism of their time. While there are differences between the London Baptist Confession of 1689 and the Westminster Confession of Faith (see chapters 7, 19–23, 25 of the LBC of 1689), in all they often have more similarities than differences, thus showing their close relationship during the time of the Protestant Reformation.

It should be mentioned, Presbyterians at times make the remark that London Baptists copied their confession. While layout and words are almost identical at times (chapters 1, 9, 16 & 32) there are additions, differences, and sections condensed throughout the whole of the London Baptist Confession of 1689. If you do not agree, you can take a look at a Tabular Comparison of the WCF & 2nd-LBC for yourself.

The Particular Baptists and Calvinism
The London Baptists used the outline of the Westminster for their 1689-LBC because this base was far more complete and better organized than their earlier confession of 1644. It provided a well-established layout for their confession that paved the way for multiple changes. There are a number of differences between the London Baptist Confessions of 1644 and 1689. Sections were added to the 1689 in the areas of marriage, the Scriptures, and the Sabbath, and it contained a stronger emphasis on Calvinism than its predecessor. This emphasis is most evident in the difference of verbiage between the 1644 and 1689 London Confessions dealing with what is called “Calvinistic” doctrines.

Total Depravity
6.2: Our first parents, by this sin, fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and we in them whereby death came upon all: all becoming dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body.

[See also 6.3 and 6.5].

Unconditional Election
3.5: Those of mankind that are predestinated to life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ unto everlasting glory, out of his mere free grace and love, without any other thing in the creature as a condition or cause moving him thereunto.

[ See also 3.6, 10.1, 10.3, 10.4, and 11.4]

Limited Atonement
3.6: As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so he hath, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto; wherefore they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ, by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power through faith unto salvation; neither are any other redeemed by Christ, or effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

[See also 8.5, 8.6, and 8.8]

Irresistible Grace
15.1: Such of the elect as are converted at riper years, having sometime lived in the state of nature, and therein served divers lusts and pleasures, God in their effectual calling giveth them repentance unto life.

[See also 15.2]

Perseverance of the Saints
17.1: Those whom God hath accepted in the beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, and given the precious faith of his elect unto, can neither totally nor finally fall from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved, seeing the gifts and callings of God are without repentance, whence he still begets and nourisheth in them faith, repentance, love, joy, hope, and all the graces of the Spirit unto immortality; and though many storms and floods arise and beat against them, yet they shall never be able to take them off that foundation and rock which by faith they are fastened upon; notwithstanding, through unbelief and the temptations of Satan, the sensible sight of the light and love of God may for a time be clouded and obscured from them, yet he is still the same, and they shall be sure to be kept by the power of God unto salvation, where they shall enjoy their purchased possession, they being engraven upon the palm of his hands, and their names having been written in the book of life from all eternity.

[See also 17.2, and 17.3]

A Baptist Defense of Calvinism

One of the most influential of all British Baptists wrote these lines-

The old truth that Calvin preached, that Augustine preached, that Paul preached, is the truth that I must preach today, or else be false to my conscience and my God. I cannot shape the truth; I know of no such thing as paring off the rough edges of a doctrine. John Knox’s gospel is my gospel. That which thundered through Scotland must thunder through England again.

Who was he? None less than C.H. Spurgeon- one of the most widely cited and influential Baptists in all of Baptist history. But that wasn’t his only assertion about Calvin and Calvinism. In his ‘Defense of Calvinism’ he also suggests

I suppose there are some persons whose minds naturally incline towards the doctrine of free-will. I can only say that mine inclines as naturally towards the doctrine of sovereign grace. Sometimes, when I see some of the worst characters in the street, I feel as if my heart must burst forth in tears of gratitude that God has never let me act as they have done! I have thought, if God had left me alone, and had not touched me by His grace, what a great sinner I should have been! I should have run to the utmost lengths of sin, dived into the very depths of evil, nor should I have stopped at any vice or folly, if God had not restrained me. I feel that I should have been a very king of sinners, if God had let me alone. I cannot understand the reason why I am saved, except upon the ground that God would have it so. I cannot, if I look ever so earnestly, discover any kind of reason in myself why I should be a partaker of Divine grace.

This is so very Calvinistic that Calvin himself would have amen-ed. What follows a little further on in the treatise may well be affirmed by Calvin too- had he a say in the matter:

There is no soul living who holds more firmly to the doctrines of grace than I do, and if any man asks me whether I am ashamed to be called a Calvinist, I answer- I wish to be called nothing but a Christian; but if you ask me, do I hold the doctrinal views which were held by John Calvin, I reply, I do in the main hold them, and rejoice to avow it. But far be it from me even to imagine that Zion contains none but Calvinistic Christians within her walls, or that there are none saved who do not hold our views. Most atrocious things have been spoken about the character and spiritual condition of John Wesley, the modern prince of Arminians. I can only say concerning him that, while I detest many of the doctrines which he preached, yet for the man himself I have a reverence second to no Wesleyan; and if there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitefield and John Wesley.

Baptists have affirmed the teachings of Calvin, in the main, for a very long time. The rejection of those teachings, in the main, by many among Baptists today (and particularly in the SBC) isn’t so much a return to Baptist roots as it is an aberration.

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Jim West

The Judgement of Arminius

Say what you will about the conflict between Calvinists and Arminians, at the very least Calvinist have this card to play:

The judgment of his great opponent, Arminius, upon Calvin’s merits as a commentator, has been sustained by the verdict of three centuries, and his present advancing reputation. Arminius says, “after the Holy Scriptures, I exhort the students to read the commentaries of Calvin, for I tell them that he is incomparable in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be held in greater estimation than all that is delivered to us in the writings of the ancient Christian Fathers, so that in a certain eminent spirit of prophecy, I give the pre-eminence to him beyond most others, indeed beyond them all.”

Thomas Smyth, Calvin and His Enemies: A Memoir of the Life, Character, and Principles of Calvin. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 24-25.

Baptists and Calvin: Does Calvinism Lead to ‘Antimission’ Sentiments?

The accusation that Calvinism leads to antimission sentiments has sometimes been leveled, but as Michael Horton shows in his recent book For Calvin, nothing could be further from the truth. Horton observes, in the section titled “Calvinism and Christian Missions” (p. 151), that, in fact, Calvinism has been and remains one of the most important sources of Christian missionaries, with no less than Thomas Mayhew, David Brainerd, David Livingstone, Robert Morrison, and Jonathan Goforth stemming from Reformed churches and practicing Reformed theology. Quoting Horton—

With growing interest in Calvinism in Southern Baptist circles, some leaders have expressed alarm that it will dampen the denomination’s enthusiasm for evangelism and missions . . . . [But] the Southern Baptist Convention sponsors “about 5000 home missionaries” and “more than 5000 foreign missionaries.” For a denomination of sixteen million, this comes to approximately “0.000625 missionaries per capita.”

By contrast, the 310,000 member Presbyterian Church in America has “about 600 foreign missionaries.” That is 0.001935 foreign missionaries per capita, commissioned and supported by the PCA. Thus, the PCA supports three times as many foreign missionaries per capita as the SBC supports foreign and domestic missions combined (p. 162).

And the PCA gives twice as much per dollar to international missions as the SBC does (p. 162).

So much, then, for the absurd assertion that Calvinism leads to antimissionary sentiments.

But, some may protest, Calvin himself laid the foundation for less interest in missions with his understanding of the doctrine of predestination. So what does Calvin say himself about missionary activity? In his commentary on the Gospels, at Matthew 28:19, he writes

Here Christ, by removing the distinction, makes the Gentiles equal to the Jews, and admits both indiscriminately to a participation in the covenant. Such is also the import of the term go out; for the prophets under the law had limits assigned to them, but now, the wall of partition having been broken down, (Eph. 2:14,) the Lord commands the ministers of the gospel to go to a distance, in order to spread the doctrine of salvation in every part of the world. For though, as we have lately suggested, the right of the first-born, at the very commencement of the gospel, remained among the Jews, still the inheritance of life was common to the Gentiles. Thus was fulfilled that prediction of Isaiah, (49:6,) and others of a similar nature, that Christ was given for a light of the Gentiles, that he might be the salvation of God to the end of the earth. Mark means the same thing by every creature; for when peace has been proclaimed to those that are within the Church, the same message reaches those who are at a distance, and were strangers, (Eph. 2:17, 19.) How necessary it was that the apostles should be distinctly informed of the calling of the Gentiles, is evident from this consideration, that even after having received the command, they felt the greatest horror at approaching them, as if by doing so they polluted themselves and their doctrine.

I’ve emphasized the most relevant materials. Calvin was himself convinced of the necessity of the preaching of the Gospel to the ‘ends of the earth.’ Calvinism, then, does not in any respect lead to ‘antimissionary’ sentiments. Quite the contrary.

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Jim West

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Calvin’s Last Letter to Farel

Nearing death, Calvin wrote the following to his dear friend Farel,

Farewell, my best and most worthy brother. Since God has determined that you should survive me in this world, live mindful of our union, which has been so useful to the Church of God, and the fruits of which await us in heaven. Do not fatigue yourself on my account. I draw my breath with difficulty, and am expecting continually that my breath will fail. It is sufficient that I live and die in Christ, who is gain to his servants in life and in death. Again, farewell with the brethren.

Thomas Smyth, Calvin and His Enemies: A Memoir of the Life, Character, and Principles of Calvin. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 65-66.