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Online Text Sermon - What is Calvinism

PreacherRev. Maurice Roberts, Inverness
Sermon TitleWhat is Calvinism (Time not certain. Preached in Ayr)
Sermon ID500

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The subject then is, 'What is Calvinism?' That immediately brings us face-to-face with the question, which we must begin with surely, as a matter of logic: Who is John Calvin, after whom Calvinism takes its name?

John Calvin is a spiritual leader who deserves to be well known by us all. The details of his life can be spelled out quite briefly in this way. He was a Frenchman. He was born in Picardie in 1509. He came from a home that could afford a good education, and he made rapid strides in his own studies. Indeed, when he went to college in Paris, as he did, he left his fellow students far behind. When he became old enough, he went to the city of Orleans in France, to study for the Law. He was preparing to become a great humanist, or a great student of Law and classical literature.

When he was at Orleans, he made such amazing progress in learning that he often acted as a professor, and was rather regarded as a teacher than as a scholar.

At that time he began to develop an interest in the Scriptures. The prevailing religion of Europe was, of course, Roman Catholicism. However, a few years before this time, Martin Luther had nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517, and that was the spark which began what we now call the great Protestant Reformation, which for present purposes, we can call a rediscovering of the Gospel.

This Reformed Movement soon influenced the life of John Calvin and, as I said, he began to study the Bible for himself. He was converted through a similar kind of experience to that of Martin Luther. Searching in the Scriptures, he was awakened to his sins. Let me give it to you in his own words. "I have been taught," he said, "that Jesus Christ the Son of God, has ransomed me by His death. But I have never felt in my heart the power of His redemption." Now there are many people in Britain today like that. They would say, "I believe," but like Calvin at this stage, have not felt the power of the Gospel in their own lives. So Calvin did the obvious thing. He went to his Roman Catholic priests because they were the ministers of the day in France. He fell on his knees and confessed his sins to God's minister, asking for forgiveness. "O God," he said, "I desire by my good works to blot out the remembrance of my bad works." You can see that he had not understood the Gospel at all. He did not therefore find peace. "Every time I descend into the depths of my heart, every time, O God, I lift up my soul to Thy throne, extreme terror comes over me." He knew he was guilty before God.

A great trembling came over John Calvin. He paced his room as Luther had once paced his monk's cell at Erfurt in Germany. He tells us that he uttered deep groans and shed floods of tears because he was seeking forgiveness. Terrified of the holiness of God, like a man frightened by a violent thunderstorm, Calvin cried out, "O God, Thou keepest me bowed down as if Thy thunder bolts were falling on my head." Then he fell down and cried out, "Fallen wretch I throw myself on Thy mercy, which Thou hast shown to us in Christ Jesus. I enter that only harbour of salvation." Then he began to study the Bible. "Thou hast placed Thy Word, O God, before me like a torch. Thou hast touched my heart in order that I should hold in abomination all other merits save that of Jesus Christ." Calvin comments later, "When I was the obstinate slave of the superstitions of Popery and it seemed impossible to drag me out of the deep mire, God, by a sudden conversion, subdued me and made my heart obedient to His words."

Such was the conversion experience that John Calvin had. We can't pinpoint the date exactly, but we do know this, that he had to leave France because of persecution. He fled to Italy for a brief spell, but he came in the providence of God to the city of Geneva in Switzerland. There he was to spend the rest of his life, apart from a very brief spell in exile. Though, it must be pointed out, he did not know what lay before him as he entered the city of Geneva.

When he was there, he intended only to spend one night or two as an overnight stop travelling away from France. The great preacher in the city, called William Farel, heard about the young man, and had a most famous interview with him. This interview is recorded by Theodore Beza, the successor of John Calvin, in his 'Life of Calvin'.

Farel, a man obviously inspired with a heroic spirit, strongly urged Calvin, instead of going any further, to stay and labour with him at Geneva. When Calvin could not be induced to consent, Farel thus addressed him. "You are following only your own visions, and I declare in the name of God Almighty, that if you do not assist us in this work of the Lord, the Lord will punish you for seeking your own interest rather than His."

Calvin tells us that he was struck with this fearful denunciation, and he immediately submitted to the wishes of the church in Geneva. The effect of his decision was momentous. He was appointed preacher in the city, and made Professor of Sacred Literature. The year was 1536. He laboured the whole of the rest of his life in Geneva with the exception of a few brief months in exile in Strasbourg.

He died in 1564, aged fifty-four years and ten months. So he was a comparatively young man. He was buried in a simple grave, without any stone to mark it. Nobody knows today exactly where Calvin is buried.

It is amazing how influential God made him. He wrote commentaries on many books of the Bible. This includes all the New Testament books, apart from Revelation. His books fill a shelf extending for several yards. He also wrote letters to various Christian leaders. There are known to be well over four thousand of these - some of them very lengthy.

Consider now the influence that God gave this man in his own lifetime. His ministry was confined, directly you might say, to Geneva - a city in Switzerland. Yet, the benefit of his teaching and his writing went all over Europe. You must appreciate that the continent of America doesn't really come into the reckoning at this date because it had only recently been discovered and therefore was not a Christian country in any meaningful sense of the word at this stage. Asia was under the blight of complete darkness. Africa was not really opened up till the nineteenth century. Christian missions to India were unknown. Australia was unknown. So Europe is what we are here talking about. Calvin's Geneva was an enterprise affecting the whole of Europe. As one writer puts it: "It was a European enterprise."

Through Calvin's influence, the Gospel became powerful in France, so that of every three people you might meet on the roads of France in the next few years, one of these would be a person professing the Reformed faith. Poland, Hungary, Germany, Holland and Britain were all deeply influenced by Calvin. John Knox the Reformer of Scotland was taught by John Calvin. What he learned from Calvin's lips he brought to Scotland.

I would like to quote to you something that John Knox said about Geneva. "I know no town in which religion and morals are so thoroughly reformed." That was the view of John Knox; he was tremendously impressed by John Calvin. The letters of Calvin include those to princes, to emperors, to kings - like Edward V1, in this country. He advised the King of Poland how to reform the religion of his own country. Unhappily, Poland fell under the blight of Socinianism, which is a very unspiritual form of the Christian faith.

You would hardly think that any man could do all this in a short lifetime, preaching every day, lecturing many times a week, writing many important letters every week. Any man of fifty-four years who did all this would need to be a man, you would think, of great physical strength. Not so. As a matter of fact, we know that he was a man of feeble health.

At the end of his life, before he died he said: "My life here has been spent in strange conflicts. In the evening, at my own front door, I have been greeted with derision by fifty or sixty blunderbuss shots." A Blunderbuss, of course, was a primitive sort of gun. He was sometimes in the early stages of his ministry, so hated because he preached the Word of God and holy living, that the people of Geneva actually shot at the door of the house. Sometimes he said, they set their dogs on him, crying, "knave, knave." "But," he said, "I have not corrupted one single passage of Scripture nor twisted it, as far as I know. I have written nothing out of hatred against anyone, but I have always set before me faithfully, what I considered was for the glory of God."

This man was a 'walking hospital'. He had a continual migraine headache, so that he could not eat, because the only remedy known in those days for migraine apparently, was fasting. He for many years ate nothing before ten o'clock at night. Sometimes he hardly slept at all; he was so busy, dictating letters and writing books.

In sum, we can say about this man, that he was the Reformer, par excellence. Luther was the hero of the Reformation; Calvin was the thinker of the Reformation. As he said himself, "God gave me the ability to write."

When he first came to Geneva, there was nothing. By the time he left it, there was a Christian University, a Christian College, a massive Christian congregation. His influence was spreading throughout the whole world. There isn't a country in the world but owes a great debt under God to this man. His life can be summarised by his own motto: "I offer my heart to God, as a sacrifice."

Let me now come then to some of the leading features of Calvinism. In other words, 'What is Calvinism?' Let us notice some of the most prominent elements in the system of Calvinism. We must begin by saying that Calvinism really is the gospel itself, without human addition or subtraction. Calvinism, like the Bible itself, insists first of all upon the glory of God as that which is supreme and ultimate.

Calvinism is perfectly reflected in the first question and answer of the Shorter Catechism. 'What is the chief end of man?' 'Man's chief end (the most important thing in life) is to glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever.' The Christian view of God as sovereign is the leading feature of true Calvinism.

I want to read you something here from the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Westminster Confession of Faith was not written, of course, by Calvin, but it was written by Puritan theologians who thought the world of Calvin and loved his influence.

Then consider the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter three, "Of God's Eternal Decree": "God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established."

Then listen to these words similarly in chapter two, "Of God, and of the Holy Trinity": "There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal most just and terrible in His judgements: hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty." That therefore is what I call the first principle of Calvinism: the ultimacy of the glory of God.

One of the Puritans put it like this: "It would be better for all mankind eternally to be damned, than for one beam of God's glory, in the least degree to be eclipsed." Now there is food for meditation. That is Calvinism in its essence: this lofty view of God.

Deriving from that is a second principle. All that matters in life is that we should please God. Nothing else matters in life but to live to God's glory. So Calvinism, really, is the attitude that all of life must be lived to God's honour and to God's praise. Whether it be our pleasure, our work, our family, our health, our church especially, our nation - all is to be done consciously and deliberately in obedience to the revealed will of God in the Bible.

That in turn brings us the third principal, which is this: that the knowledge of God is to be found in the Bible, and only in the Bible. We see something of the glory of God in creation. "The heavens declare the glory of God" (Psalm 19:1). And it is furthermore true that we see something of the knowledge of God through the workings of our own conscience. But whatever light we have from these secondary sources, it is not saving. It will not bring us to enjoy God, or to submit to the will of God. So we need the Bible, because it is an infallible revelation of God's will.

The only proper way to interpret the Bible, says Calvinism, is by the Bible itself. What do you do if you come across something you can't understand? You don't go to the church. You don't go to the encyclopaedia. You don't go to the expert or the scholar. You go to the Bible itself, and you lay Scripture beside Scripture, so that by a knowledge of the whole of the Bible one passage will throw light on another passage. The Bible is the Christian's university. The Bible is the Christian's encyclopaedia. The Bible is the Christian's ladder to lead him to the knowledge of God.

I want to stress how important this is because it is not sufficient simply, in order to prove a point of doctrine, that we find a text somewhere which says what we think is right. You can prove anything by opening the Bible and finding a text which seems to agree with what you think is right. A single text does not necessarily prove a doctrine. What we must do is find the whole of what the Bible teaches on any one subject. In other words, we must be familiar with the contents of the whole of Scripture. Only when we have studied what the Bible says as a whole on any subject are we able to come to safe conclusions as to what God is teaching us.Calvin's Institutes are the best book of theology that ever was written. He spent his whole lifetime writing and rewriting, editing and re-editing, these two volumes of his Institutes. When I began to read these books as a very young Christian, I couldn't make much of them. I had only been converted a very short time. I found them very difficult, but people who know their Bible will find them much easier.

The effect of reading such volumes of theology as these would be to fill your minds with a sense of the glory of God and the claims of the Bible upon your life. It is manna for the soul. I recommend this book most thoroughly and most heartily. It doesn't really matter at which page you open Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, but you will find a large number of Scriptural quotations. Calvin's teaching is all derived from the Bible.

What does Calvin say in the Institutes? There are four sections or books. He begins by telling us something about God the Creator. Then he goes on to tell us about Christ our Redeemer. Then he speaks about how you and I can know this God in Christ, through conversion. The last book is devoted to the church.

Calvinism places great stress upon the importance of preaching. Calvinism encourages the people to read the Scriptures, and so it demands of the minister that he should be a specialist in the Scriptures. A preacher's life should be devoted to the Scriptures. A man in the ministry who does not devote his time and talents to understanding the Word of God, is not a man who should be in the ministry at all. That has been a strong emphasis of Calvinism.

Let me give you now a further principle of Calvinism. Calvinism is a way of understanding the Gospel and, I submit to you, it is the only right way to understand the Gospel. The evidence of it really can be summarised like this: Before God made the world God determined that man be left to the freedom of his own will and should fall into sin. God's decree did not force man to sin. The guilt of our sin is our own. God is not in any way contaminated by the Fall into sin of mankind. Nonetheless, the fall of mankind was not something that took God by surprise. It was contained in the decrees and purposes of God, which are infallible. There is, of course, deep mystery in this teaching.

Furthermore, says Calvinism, God having suffered mankind to fall into sin, then revealed to mankind a way of salvation, which not all will hear, and of those who hear, not all will believe. However, God has in His secret decree again made certain that some will believe; these we call the elect, the rest we call the reprobate. God did not choose some or refuse others because some were worthier than others, or because some were more likely to believe and more religious than others, but simply and solely as an act of God's sovereign free will; based upon His own good pleasure, not upon anything in the creature.

Calvinism then says that God, in order to bring these elect to salvation, sent His own Son - His co-equal, God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity - into the world, to take our place, to die on the cross for the elect and that His blood bought a true redemption, a true payment to the justice of God: a substitutionary and vicarious sacrifice, whereby the wrath of God should be appeased on behalf of the elect. Good should come to others, but the elect were those who would receive the salvation.

Furthermore, Calvinists teach that the elect were given to Christ before the world began, and that the Holy Spirit would, in due course be sent out to work faith in their hearts to bring them to a personal knowledge of Christ. Ultimately, what God is aiming at in all of this is His own glory: the glory of His own grace in saving the elect, and secondarily, the glory of His justice in eternally punishing, most justly, those who are reprobate.

Let me turn aside for a moment to a very practical thing, which concerns the state of Christianity today. One of the sad facts today is that the Gospel has been largely lost. The reason why the people are not crowding to churches in Scotland anymore, as they used to do, is because the Gospel has been lost. The Gospel saves, and when people become disinterested in Christianity, it is probably largely because they are not hearing the Gospel. If only we could get the Gospel into the pulpits of this land, many people would probably believe.

Something has come into the pulpits which pretends to be the Gospel, but is not. I want to look at this point briefly because it is so relevant to the subject in hand. When professed evangelicals preach today, they tend to say things like this: "Come to Christ because, if you do, you will enjoy life. Come to Jesus, He will make you happy. Come to Jesus, He will give you peace. Christ can put your health right. He may put your marriage right." And so forth.

Now I hope you see that that is not precisely the Biblical Gospel. That is why Calvinism can help us, because Calvinism says to us, the Gospel is not intended by God primarily to be of utility to men. It is for the glory of God. We are not here as preachers to say to men that Jesus can do you good and make you happy, primarily. Of course, He makes you happy; of course He makes you glad; of course He heals the problems, but that is not the first thing.

The Biblical message says also this: "God commands sinners to repent because the world is in rebellion against God. We have dishonoured His laws, and God has sent His Son to die for us, and there is a Judgement Day coming. Sin is that which God will punish because it is that which He hates."

Let me look at the second common error in men's interpretation of the Gospel today. It is this: that it is common and has been common for preachers to say when preaching the Gospel, "You must decide for Christ." "You must accept Christ," they say. This implies that the sinner is, as it were, voting Christ into our heart. You decide for Christ, as though your decision was, as it were, putting Him into the driving seat. You accept Christ as though it was equally within your powers either to accept or to reject. You make your choice: "Take it or leave it!"

But the Biblical message is not that man may make a decision of that kind, or that man may accept Christ of his own free-will.

Rather says Scripture: 'By grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves it is the gift of God'. 'Salvation is of the Lord,' says Scripture. 'The flesh profiteth nothing'. 'No man can come to me except my Father draw him.'

Calvinism insists on returning to God-centredness. It has been well compared to the Copernican Revolution. Copernicus declared that the sun does not go round the earth, as men had been inclined to think before, but that the earth goes round the sun. The sun is the centre of the Solar System. This teaching created a tremendous change in the thinking of the people of Europe. Calvinism brings the same revolution with it. The power that saves is not ours, but God's.

Before the Reformation, men's minds were centred around themselves. People nurtured their souls, their own inner life. They did this in hermitages, cloisters and monasteries. Calvinism leads away from this introspectiveness in which the soul is all you are interested in, and draws us to get back to God. You see how emancipating this is. We are to look outward to God. We are not here for our own sakes, but for the glory and honour of God. In other words, the Gospel is not just an insurance policy for man. It is God's eternal purpose for the salvation of men for His own glory. There is a world of difference between the two points of emphasis.

Calvinism is just the teaching of the Word of God. Between Paul and Augustine, there were four hundred years. Between Augustine and Calvin, there were a thousand years. Between Calvin and us, there are four hundred or so more years. It is a sad fact that the church always declines from the teaching of Scripture. But God raised up these men: Paul, Augustine, Calvin, to bring us back to the pure truth of His Word.

Are you a Calvinist, or are you an Arminian? How would you answer these questions as I give them to you?

Does God choose people because He foresees that they are going to believe in Him, or do they believe in Him because God has chosen us before we were born? Which? The way you answer that determines whether you are in a Calvinist camp or an Arminian. Much more seriously, it determines whether you understand Scripture, or have radically misunderstood Scripture.

What about this question? Is man so sinful and fallen that he cannot come to God unaided of his own free will, or can man respond of himself? The way you answer that determines where you stand in these matters.

Try this test. Do we as Christians have faith in Christ because we are born again, or are we born again because we have faith? What comes first: faith or the new birth?

Try this test. Can a man become a true Christian and yet finally fall away from grace?

I put these questions to you because they bring us to appreciate that we need clear thinking on these issues.

There is nothing more essential for the churches in this country everywhere, than that they should get back to orthodox, Biblical, Calvinism. The word itself does not matter. Whether you call yourself a Calvinist or not, is immaterial. However, whether you are a Calvinist, whether you understand the truth of God aright - or not, that is what is important.

Lay aside the name Calvinism if you wish, and call it Christianity: the real Gospel. The question then arises, have we understood this Gospel? Do we understand that we have nothing except what God has given to us? Do you then say to me that if God has predestinated everything in the way that I have said, what is the point of coming to ask God for mercy, because if I am not chosen I won't be saved?

Calvinism, like the Bible itself, says to you, that you are not to fix your eyes upon the secret things which belong to God, but upon the revealed things of the Bible. 'Whosoever will, let him come and take of the water of eternal life, freely.' God's offer of grace and salvation is to all that want it. Come therefore, says the Bible, believe the Truth of the Gospel. Drink of the well of eternal life, and be satisfied by Jesus Christ, forever.

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