The Presbyterian Pulpit

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

BIG, BAD JOHN...CALVIN

Delivered 7/12/09
Text: Romans 8:26-31
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As you may know, I have just spent an intriguing several days at Montreat as part of a conference honoring the man who is considered the father of Presbyterianism, John Calvin. Friday (July 10) was Calvin's 500th birthday, and yes, I sang to him, but not on the phone (it would have been really, REALLY long distance). In fact, we all sang Friday night. We enjoyed some cake and wine (which Calvin would have enjoyed - he believed food and drink were God's good gifts for our delight). He would have rolled over in his grave at the thought of the lottery drawing for the John Calvin bobble-head dolls that were door prizes. As to whether he would have approved the commemoration at all is an open question because, in his commentary on those verses in the book of Job, where Job laments the day he was born, (1) Calvin waxes eloquent on NOT celebrating birthdays. But 500? That's a biggee, so...

Calvin has gotten an awful lot of bad press over the years. Richard Mouw, the President of Fuller Seminary in California, had a column in Presbyterian Outlook a few weeks ago and said this:
In a speech I once gave to a Jewish audience, a rabbi friend introduced me as a Calvinist. After the session ended, a couple walked up to me to thank me for my presentation. They said they appreciated my remarks, but were puzzled by the Calvinist label. "You seem like a nice person,' the woman said. "That's not the image we have of Calvinists." (2)
I know, I know. Ask the average person to describe a Calvinist and you will probably get a response along the lines of "somebody constantly on the lookout for anyone having fun so they can make them stop." Thus, the big, BAD John. But if you suffered from chronic indigestion, gout, fevers, kidney stones, tuberculosis, migraine headaches, and to add insult to injury, hemorrhoids, you might be a bit of a crank yourself.

Born in France on July 10, 1509, Calvin grew to be a brilliant young man who intended to be a Catholic priest but entered law instead. After encountering the writings of Protestant Reformers, Calvin had a conversion experience. "God subdued and brought my heart to docility," he said.

Breaking away from Catholicism, he left France and settled in Switzerland as an exile. In 1536, Calvin published one of the greatest theological works ever written, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. This major systematic theology, which begins with God the Creator and ends with reflections on civil government, stands as one of the most important expressions of Reformation thought. Not bad for a 27-year-old.

Calvin's writings impressed the people of Geneva, Switzerland, so he was invited to move there and help with the Reform movement. Calvin's workload in the city was staggering: he pastored a church and preached daily in it, wrote commentaries on almost every book in the Bible, authored dozens of Christian pamphlets, trained and sent out missionaries, and influenced the schools and the civil government. No wonder he suffered those migraines!

The city of Geneva became a magnet for Protestant exiles from all over Europe. One of them, John Knox, who took Presbyterianism to Scotland, described Calvin's city as "the most perfect school of Christ since the days of the apostles." (3)

What made Calvin and Geneva so magnetic? It was his theology, I think. It was solid, it made sense, and it answered the questions that people had.

It begins with God. Many of you have read Rick Warren's book, The Purpose-Driven Life. (4) You may recall that the first line in that mega-best-seller is, "It's not about you." He says, "If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God." You do not discover your life's purpose by focusing on yourself. Instead, you turn to your Creator, and discover the reason God has put you in this world. It's not about you. It's about God.

That is Calvin's thinking. This is his bedrock doctrine; we refer to it today as the Sovereignty of God. "God is Lord over all!" he wrote. (5) This was good news then; it is good news now. He stressed that no human being -- whether king or bishop -- could demand our ultimate loyalty. You can see why such thinking attracted people who were suffering under the authority of oppressive churches and governments. It was this belief in God's sovereignty that made such a dramatic impact before World War II, when a group of faithful Germans took a stand against the Nazis in a statement of faith called "The Theological Declaration of Barmen." God is sovereign, not Hitler.

Calvin also emphasized the importance of grace and claimed that salvation is possible only through the grace of this sovereign God. He believed that nothing earthly can save us, and he criticized the Catholic Church of his day for becoming a religion of salvation by works. Because God is Lord over all, according to Calvin, human beings, human works and human institutions cannot manipulate or control God in any way. We cannot be saved by anything but God's grace, which is a completely free gift to people who trust in Jesus Christ.

In his opening to the Institutes, Calvin says, "Before God nothing remains for us to boast of, save his mercy, whereby we have been received into hope of eternal salvation through no merit of our own." (6) "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound/ that saved a wretch like me."

OK, if God is completely sovereign and in control of everything, what happens to human freedom? Does God micro-manage everything to the extent of having one of us eat eggs for breakfast, another cereal, and another get no breakfast at all? Calvin would say that God COULD if God chose to do so, but God does not. We are free agents, not puppets-on-a-string, and in control of the choices we make.

All right, preacher, what about this doctrine of predestination? Contrary to popular understanding, Calvin did not invent it. In fact, he borrowed it. Predestination is set out in the writings of a number of the church fathers, most notably Augustine of Hippo.

Predestination says that the sovereign God, who is all-powerful and all-knowing, must therefore know not only everything that has happened, but also everything that is going to happen, and is ultimately in control of it all. That was a comfort to people in the Middle Ages who had such a fragile hold on life. To survive childbirth was a big thing and for a child to grow into an adult was even bigger. Death was a constant companion, (Calvin and his wife lost their child, and she died leaving him to care for three other children from her previous marriage), so for worshipers to hear that God's hand was involved was a comfort.

To be honest, that is COLD comfort to us. Some years ago, a beautiful, vivacious 14-year-old was killed in an automobile accident late one spring Saturday night. By the time we gathered for church the next morning, word had swept through the congregation, and the tears flowed freely. As I preached that morning, I said that God had been with Ashley that night - not causing the horrible accident, but staying with her through every moment. I said that God's heart was as broken by what had happened as ours were.

The family said they were comforted by those words, but another couple in the church ended up leaving the congregation because of them. You see, those folks had lost TWO of their children, one in an accident, another to a childhood disease. The only way they had been able to deal with their twin tragedies was to firmly believe that God had caused them. In some inscrutable divine plan, these children had to die, and someday, perhaps, they would find out why. This was their comfort, and Calvin would have been content with their understanding.

Most modern Calvinists would find that hard to preach or teach. We want to say that God is intimately involved in every aspect of our life down to the number of hairs on our heads, (7) as Jesus said, but we do not believe that God goes around killing little children.

Properly understood, the Presbyterian understanding of Predestination is not related to some divinely-ordained plan for the day-to-day events of your life. Predestination has to do with salvation. It was the term chosen by Calvin (and other reformers as well) to explain that our salvation is not simply the result of our choice - God acts first in extending the invitation and providing us an opportunity to respond.

The late John Leith taught theology at Union Seminary in Richmond for many years and was as good a Calvin scholar as anyone I ever knew. Dr. Leith has written that, for Calvin, this doctrine was another source of comfort in that "salvation does not depend upon our faltering human efforts but upon the mercy and power of God." (8)

Remember your history here. Back in Calvin's time, the people in his churches spent a lot more time than most of us worrying about whether or not they would be saved. As we say, it was a dangerous and scary world. What is going to happen to me, people wondered, if tomorrow I wake up with a fever, and it turns out to be the plague, and I die? There are all those resolutions I made, and never got to keep. There are the good deeds I meant to perform, but somehow never got around to. What if I am so sick, I cannot get in to see a priest to confess my sins, and receive the absolution of the church? If something like that happens to me, I am a goner - not only physically, but spiritually. (9)

Not to worry, says Master Calvin. Not to worry. I have a doctrine for you, called predestination. It says God has already chosen those who will be saved by grace, before they were even born. If you are so fortunate as to be numbered in that blessed company, then failing to keep that resolution or do that good deed is not going to make a bit of difference. Your passport to heaven is already written.

Dr. Leith writes, "Calvin located the doctrine of predestination in the ordering of his theology after his discussion of the Christian life. This suggests that predestination can best be understood, not at the beginning, but at the conclusion of the life of faith. It is the testimony of the believer that what has happened in the life of faith has not been the result of one's own efforts about which one can boast but of the grace of God." (10) In other words, predestination, from a human point of view, is simply 20/20 hindsight about how you and I came to Christ.

By the way, if you are looking for someone to blame for the doctrine of predestination, Calvin is not the man. As we have already noted, he borrowed the idea from Augustine, but in fact, it goes even further back than that. It goes all the way back to the New Testament, to the writings of St. Paul.

Paul, too, teaches predestination as a source of comfort. In our lesson from Romans, he points out that "all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to [God´s] purpose." There is a comforting thought. "All things...ALL things...work together for good" for God's people. Even the pains and heartaches we experience in life can serve some larger purpose - though we may fail to see or understand, right now, precisely what that purpose is.

Where Paul goes next may seem like a surprising move, to modern ears: "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified."

As with John Calvin, for Paul, predestination is a doctrine of comfort. Remember, Paul is writing to a church undergoing persecution, to people whose lives are filled with uncertainty and fear. Even the bad things that happen in life, he says, ultimately lead to a greater good. Paul would give a big "Amen" to Martin Luther King, Jr., who once taught his beleaguered people, "Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."

Back to Romans 8. Paul moves on from his explanation of predestination to ask his suffering people this question: "What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?" Who, indeed?

Back to the birthday boy. As we have noted, he was a lawyer, as well as a theologian. Calvin initially trained as a priest in Paris, but then his father got in trouble with the church and was excommunicated, so family loyalty led young John away from preparing for the priesthood and into law school. This training would stand him in good stead later, when he got to Geneva. He ended up running many aspects of the city's life.

Calvin emphasized representative government in the church, as well as the state. Our Presbyterian system - with the people of God meeting to elect their own leaders and to make other important decisions - may sound humdrum to us, but in Calvin's time, it was revolutionary. Remember that, in most of Europe, the church was ruled over by powerful bishops and the state by kings. In Geneva, Calvin sowed seeds of democracy that eventually sprouted here, on the far shore of the Atlantic, in the American Revolution.

Calvin, like Martin Luther before him, encouraged the reading of scripture. It was in Geneva, among that group of expatriate Englishmen and Scots, that one of the early English translations of the Bible, the Geneva Bible, was produced. Calvin worked to make sure the scriptures were translated into the common tongue, so ordinary people could read them. Early in Calvin's Institutes, he identifies two essential forms of human knowledge, "knowledge of God and of ourselves." Calvin points out that poor, earthbound creatures like you and I can know God only through scripture. The Bible is our means of understanding the ways of God - in this, it is our authority without parallel.

Finally, Calvin presented two signs by which Christians might identify the true church - an important skill, in the turmoil of Reformation Europe, where new, radical churches were springing up all the time, and where a determined Roman Catholic Church was pushing back against the reformers. A true church of Jesus Christ, Calvin says, is a place where the Word of God is truly preached and heard and the sacraments are rightly administered. To this day, Presbyterian worship is built around these two elements: the sermon, by which God's people are fed spiritually, and the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, through which we experience God's presence in powerful, non-verbal ways.

To far too many people today - even many Presbyterians - John Calvin is a nearly-forgotten figure. May we use this 500th anniversary of his birth as a way to call his wise, serious spirit back from the mists of the past: so we, too, might build a church that is "the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles!"

Amen!



1. Job 3:1ff.

2. Richard Mouw, "Trendy Calvinism!" The Presbyterian Outlook, 5/25/09, p. 27

3. "Calvin at 500," Homiletics, July 2009, pp. 9-10

4. Philadelphia : Running Press, 2003

5. Institutes, 1.14.3

6. Institutes, PA 2

7. Matthew 10:30; Luke 12:7

8. John Leith, An Introduction to the Reformed Tradition, (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), p. 105

9. Carlos Wilton, sermon, "John Calvin, We Hardly Knew Ye," delivered at Pt. Pleasant Presbyterian Church, Point Pleasant, NJ, 5/24/09

10. Leith, pp. 105-106

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