Category Archives: Great Preachers
The weight, beauty and comfort of the Gospel
Recently I came across a stunning preface John Calvin wrote for Pierre Robert Olivétan’s French translation of the New Testament (1534). To my knowledge the English translation of this preface is found only in Joseph Haroutunian’s work, Calvin: Commentaries [a strange place to find it since this preface is not part of the commentaries]. Anyways, in it Calvin traces out the biblical storyline and the Messianic promises throughout Scripture, shows the supernatural unity of the bible’s message and the significance of the gospel message revealed in Scripture. He writes,
“Without the gospel everything is useless and vain; without the gospel we are not Christians; without the gospel all riches is poverty, all wisdom folly before God; strength is weakness, and all the justice of man is under the condemnation of God. But by the knowledge of the gospel we are made children of God, brothers of Jesus Christ, fellow townsmen with the saints, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, heirs of God with Jesus Christ, by whom the poor are made rich, the weak strong, the fools wise, the sinner justified, the desolate comforted, the doubting sure, and slaves free. It is the power of God for the salvation of all those who believe …” (66)
Because of the weight of this gospel revealed in Scripture, it’s no surprise that Calvin closes this preface with words for preachers: “O you who call yourselves bishops and pastors of the poor people, see to it that the sheep of Jesus Christ are not deprived of their proper pasture; and that it is not prohibited and forbidden that any Christian feely and in his own language to read, handle, and hear this holy gospel…” (72).
These two quotes – one on the centrality of the gospel and the second on the importance of preaching – really reveal the heart of John Calvin as a man riveted to the Cross.
But I was especially struck by the following section where Calvin shows us that all the Christian’s comfort and hope rests in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He writes,
“It follows that every good thing we could think or desire is to be found in this same Jesus Christ alone. For, he was sold, to buy us back; captive, to deliver us; condemned, to absolve us; he was made a curse for our blessing, sin offering for our righteousness; marred that we may be made fair; he died for our life; so that by him fury is made gentle, wrath appeased, darkness turned into light, fear reassured, despisal despised, debt canceled, labor lightened, sadness made merry, misfortune made fortunate, difficulty easy, disorder ordered, division united, ignominy ennobled, rebellion subjected, intimidation intimidated, ambush uncovered, assaults assailed, force forced back, combat combated, war warred against, vengeance avenged, torment tormented, damnation damned, the abyss sunk into the abyss, hell transfixed, death dead, mortality made immortal. In short, mercy has swallowed up all misery, and goodness all misfortune. For all these things which were to be the weapons of the devil in his battle against us, and the sting of death to pierce us, are turned for us into exercises which we can turn to our profit. If we are able to boast with the apostle, saying, O hell, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? it is because by the Spirit of Christ promised to the elect, we live no longer, but Christ lives in us; and we are by the same Spirit seated among those who are in heaven, so that for us the world is no more, even while our conversation [life] is in it; but we are content in all things, whether country, place, condition, clothing, meat, and all such things. And we are comforted in tribulation, joyful in sorrow, glorying under vituperation [verbal abuse], abounding in poverty, warmed in our nakedness, patient amongst evils, living in death. This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father.” (69-70)
These are beautiful words! The introduction as a whole is a masterpiece, taking the reader from the biblical storyline and the Messianic promises to the gospel itself, showing that our eternal life and present comforts rest in Christ alone. Then he finishes with an exhortation that preachers be diligent to proclaim this Word.
It is good for us to remember the grace of God in revealing His Word to ungrateful truth-suppressors and and illuminating His Word to blind sinners. Let us remember that, “Without the gospel everything is useless and vain” and let us study Scripture seeking to “truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father.”
So how do you persuade the French people towards Reformation theology? You point them to Scripture and specifically to the complete and perfect work of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Calvin persuaded masses because his message was Scripture-saturated, grace-filled, and Cross-centered. The gospel was everything! With this in mind, French readers could read right into Matthew and the rest of the New Testament on a quest to see Christ’s glory for themselves.
Click here to access previous posts in the Humble Calvinism index.
“Those who attend our ministry have a great deal to do during the week. Many of them have family trials, and heavy personal burdens to carry, and they frequently come into the assembly cold and listless, with thoughts wandering hither and thither; it is ours to take those thoughts and thrust them into the furnace of our own earnestness, melt them by holy contemplation and by intense appeal, and pour them out into the mold of the truth. A blacksmith can do nothing when his fire is out and in this respect he is the type of a minister. If all the lights in the outside world are quenched, the lamp which burns in the sanctuary ought still to remain undimmed; for that fire no curfew must ever be rung. We must regard the people as the wood and the sacrifice, well wetted a second and a third time by the cares of the week, upon which, like the prophet, we must pray down the fire from heaven.“
- C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students
This week I am hoping to complete the wonderful book on earnestness by John Angell James. Spurgeon also has much to say on this topic in Lectures to My Students. Here is just one example …
If I were asked – What in a Christian minister is the most essential quality for securing success in winning souls for Christ? I should reply, “earnestness”: and if I were asked a second or a third time, I should not vary the answer, for personal observation drives me to the conclusion that, as a rule, real success is proportionate to the preacher’s earnestness. Both great men and little men succeed if they are thoroughly alive unto God, and fail if they are not so. We know men of eminence who have gained a high reputation, who attract large audiences, and obtain much admiration, who nevertheless are very low in the scale as soul-winners: for all they do in that direction they might as well have been lecturers on anatomy, or political orators. At the same time we have seen their compeers in ability so useful in the business of conversion that evidently their acquirements and gifts have been no hindrance to them, lint the reverse; for by the intense and devout use of their powers, and by the; anointing of the Holy Spirit, they have turned many to righteousness. We have seen brethren of very scanty abilities who have been terrible drags upon a church, and have proved as inefficient in their spheres as blind men in an observatory; but, on the other hand, men of equally small attainments are well known, to us as mighty hunters before the Lord, by whose holy energy many hearts have been captured for the Savior. I delight in M’Cheyne’s remark, “It is not so much great talents that God blesses, as great likeness to Christ.” In many instances ministerial success is traceable almost entirely to an intense zeal, a consuming passion for souls, and an eager enthusiasm in the cause of God, and we believe that in every case, other things being equal, men prosper in the divine service in proportion as their hearts are blazing with holy love.
C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Passmore and Alabaster: London), 1881. 2:145.
I purchased my copy of Marsden’s biography Jonathan Edwards: A Life at CLC this Spring (two days after visiting Edwards’ grave in Princeton). It has become one of my favorite biographies just behind Dallimore’s George Whitefield. Edwards had a powerful preaching style stemming from his intellectual gifts and seriousness with divine things.
“Although Edwards had none of the dramatic gestures of a Whitefield or a Tennent and was said to preach as though he were staring at the bell-rope in the back of the meetinghouse, he could be remarkably compelling. An admirer described his delivery as ‘easy, natural and very solemn. He had not a strong, loud voice; but appeared with such gravity and solemnity, and spake with such distinctness, clearness and precision; his words were so full of ideas, set in such a plain and striking light, that few speakers have been so able to demand the attention of an audience as he.’ Through sheer intensity he generated emotion. ‘His words often discovered a great degree of inward fervor, without much noise or external emotion, and fell with great weight on the minds of his hearers. He made but little motion of his head or hands in his desk, but spake so as to discover the motion of his own heart, which tended in the most natural and effectual manner to move and affect others.’ The combination of controlled but transparent emotion, heartfelt sincerity both in admonition and compassion, inexorable logic, and biblical themes could draw people into sensing the reality of ideas long familiar.”
- George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale: 2003) p. 220
“The most eloquent of all the prophets, the one from whom most can be learned as to preaching, is obviously Isaiah. Isaiah was the very opposite of Amos, the shepherd and gardener. He lived at court during several reigns, and in that of Hezekiah was high in influence. He was a highly educated man, a man of refined taste, and singular literary power and skill. He enjoyed in the best sense of that now often misused term, the advantage of Culture, with all its light and its sweetness. His writings, like all the other inspired books, take their literary character from the natural endowments, educational advantages, and social condition, of the man. They exhibit an imperial imagination, controlled by a disciplined intellect and by good taste. This imagination shows itself in vivid and rapid description, as well as in imagery. The careful and loving study of Isaiah has educated many a preacher’s imagination to an extent of which he was by no means conscious, and few things are so important to an orator as the real cultivation of imagination. True, the book of Isaiah presents the poetic more often than then strictly oratorical use of this faculty. But the two shade into each other; and we also, when we become greatly excited, and our hearers with us, do naturally use in speaking such imaginative conceptions and expressions as generally belonging only to poetry.”
“In part 1 of the book of Isaiah the oratorical element very distinctly predominates – it is direct address, aiming at practical results in those who hear. Sometimes the style even sinks into quiet narrative, but more often it rises into passionate appeal. And in part 2 (from the 40th chapter on), the orator is lost in the poet. The prophet’s soul is completely carried away by imagination and passion, till we have no longer an inspired orator directly addressing us, but a rapt seer, bursting into song, pouring fourth in rhythmical strains his inspired and impassioned predictions. He is like the angel that appeared to the shepherds, whose message soon passed into song. Besides the yet higher blessings which have come to the world from the devotional and practical, the predictive and theological contents of this grand prophet’s writings, who can estimate how much he has done in training servants of God for the highest and truest forms of all religious eloquence!”
- John Broadus, Lectures on the History of Preaching (Solid Ground: 1907/2004) pp. 14-16