When thinking about the work of John Calvin our minds may take us to the Institutes of the Christian Religion or to the many volumes of commentaries on books of the Bible. Some of us may think of his fabulous treatises On the Necessity of Reforming the Church and An Inventory of Relics. All these works are worthy of reading and studying and will be rich sources of edification to any believer.
But if we restrict ourselves to these works we miss a vital part of Calvin’s output. We will miss out on what Calvin thought was the most important part of his life and ministry. We will miss out on his preaching.
Calvin was, first and foremost, a preacher. He ascended the steps of St Peter’s pulpit almost every day to preach the Word of God to the people under his care. And in the pulpit we hear the voice of a man who used his considerable intellect and learning to bring that Word to the lowliest child in the faith.
Calvin preached without notes and only with the original Greek or Hebrew text in front of him. But from very early on in his time at Geneva a stenographer was found to record the sermons. These records have long been extant but only a few volumes have ever been translated into English.
The Banner of Truth Trust, however, has published many volumes of Calvin’s sermons in English. One of their most recent volumes makes fabulous reading over the Christmas period. In Songs of the Nativity Calvin expounds the songs found in the first two chapters of Luke. The songs of Mary, Zechariah, the angels and Simeon are here opened up to the reader in a way that directs our thoughts to the glory of God and the riches of Christ.
If you’ve never read Calvin before you will find him to be more readable than Karl Barth or Rowan Williams. He will have better applications than Rick Warren or Tim Keller, despite the gap of time between him and us. Calvin’s sermons were preached to people like you. Pick up this volume (or any volume of his sermons) and delight yourself in the Christ who has saved you.
The last weekend has seen the four of us occupied with denominational events. The other three men were in Scarborough for the General Assembly making brave stands for Biblical Christianity. Meanwhile, this correspondent was wandering around outdoor shops looking at family tents. However, I was getting regular text messages and sneakily following the debates through Twitter and Facebook.
For many of us, last week’s Assembly was a reminder that the United Reformed Church is a difficult place to be for traditional, evangelical, orthodox ministers. But it was ever thus.
In times like this one of the best things we can do is to revisit the lives of the saints that have gone before us and take inspiration from their example. It is a good practice to see how our heroes coped with opposition, good times and the bits in between. And we’ll also see that there is not that much exceptional about them – except that God showed his grace and accomplished his purposes through them.
The first biography I want to draw your attention to is Here I Stand by Roland Bainton. This is a popular level book detailing the life of Martin Luther. From his promise to become a monk in the midst of a thunderstorm, through his early battles with the Roman church to the end of his life this book takes a lively look at the German Reformer.
Bainton writes in an accessible way and the volume is packed full of illustrations. The fact that it’s a small paperback is another bonus. Read this and be thrilled.
The second is a recent biography of John Calvin titled Pilgrim and Pastor. Written by W. Robert Godfrey, president of Westminster Seminary California, this book looks at Calvin’s life before and after his permanent settling in Geneva. Although the book details many biographical details its great value is seeing how Calvin’s teaching played out in practice in the Swiss city.
I lent this book to one of my elders who lapped it up. It makes an excellent introduction to Calvin’s thought.
The last book I want to recommend is Arnold Dallimore’s two volume biography of George Whitefield. This book may not win too many prizes for historical writing and it strays into hagiography at times but it makes a thrilling story. Delight as young George comes to faith after almost starving himself to death! Marvel at the tales of the crowds that came to hear him preach! Be amazed at how he responds to the man who showed Whitefield his backside whilst he was preaching in London!
All these books will lift any gloom you may be feeling and remind you of our gracious, awesome God who gives us “this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” 2 Corinthians 4:7