John Calvin’s death occurred on May 27, 1564, toward eight o’clock in the evening. For him this was a welcome relief from the host of ailments that had burdened him for some time: asthma, gout, ulcer, hemorrhoids, colic, kidney and liver stones, not to speak of the headaches that had been his constant companion for the last twenty years of his life. Yet in spite of almost unbearable sufferings, Calvin had taken with poise and forethought all necessary steps to prepare for his death.
In February, he preached and lectured for the last time. In April, he said farewell to the civil authorities of Geneva, and later to his fellow pastors. Hearing that William Farel was planning to take the long journey from Neuchâtel to Geneva on foot, he had written, “I don’t want you to make this effort for me.… I am expecting momentarily that my breath will cease. But it is enough that I should live and die in Christ.… Farewell.” But Farel (by twenty years Calvin’s senior) missed or disregarded this note and came anyway.
Late in April Calvin prepared his testament. The sum total of his property was 225 pounds, probably less than $1,000. So Pope Paul IV was heard to exclaim, “What made the strength of this heretic has been that money could never reach him.” And it surely did not. In fact, in the last weeks of his life he was refusing his wages as pastor because he could no longer preach.
Two days after his death, his body was brought in a simple pine box to the common cemetery of Plainpalais, Geneva. There was no ceremony, not even a stone for his grave, so that the place where he is buried is lost altogether. These were his express instructions. He did not want any monument. What he wanted was that attention should be paid to the Word of God and to the glory of God. Thus his epitaph can be expressed in the motto that dominated the whole Reformation movement, Soli Deo Gloria (“to God alone be the glory”).
It is safe to say that these few words go to the heart of Calvin’s ministry. The principle of divine sovereignty was one of the controlling features of his life, theology, and biblical exposition. Perhaps even more than his fellow Reformers, he was ready and willing to carry this principle into his whole life and thought.
What Sovereignty Implies
For Calvin the sovereignty of God meant, in the first place, that the Bible must be acknowledged as the book God has inspired and in which his revelation is made available unto men, and that it is not to be watered down or evaded by church interpretations but to be received and accepted as it reads in the plain meaning of its message to every believer. Calvin made a moving statement in the closing moments of his life when he said, “I never knowingly corrupted or distorted a single passage of Scripture.” Here was a book to which no human criteria were to be applied to sift the good from the unserviceable. The Bible was received from the hands of God himself and was acknowledged as the supreme rule of faith and the ultimate authority.
With respect to the doctrine of man, the sovereignty of God meant for Calvin that God’s standards must prevail rather than any self-appointed code of ethics devised so that man may be thought able to fulfill its demands. When God is truly acknowledged as sovereign, it is quickly perceived how far short man falls of meeting his requirements. Man is seen as depraved and completely devoid of any merit. The first mention of the sovereignty of God in the writings of Calvin relates to the subject of merit. The Roman Catholic Church had developed a prodigious theology of merit, in which men were attempting to build and accumulate a potential of good works to insure their own standing in God’s eyes. Against this and in keeping with the Scriptures, Calvin asserted that man has no merit whatsoever, that he is radically corrupt, totally depraved, utterly unable by himself to do anything truly pleasing to God. He clearly affirmed the misery of man, his total helplessness even to the point of being powerless to exercise faith without the aid of the Holy Spirit.
The sovereignty of God meant that recognition was given the deity of Jesus Christ and the substitutionary work he accomplished in the atoning ministry of the Cross. Here was the sovereign remedy that God himself and God alone had prepared by which men could be brought back into newness of life and fellowship with him.
Calvin asserted the sovereignty of God in his emphasis upon the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who came down upon the Church at Pentecost; who regenerates, energizes, indwells, and keeps the believer; and by whom alone anything that can at all please God is accomplished in the life of those who trust in Christ.
The sovereignty of God was reflected in Calvin’s doctrine of the Church, her divine origin, her reality as an invisible body corresponding to the divine purpose and transcending all earthly organizations, her constant dependence upon the headship of Christ. And it was seen in Calvin’s view of the sacraments—their origin, their number, their nature, their efficacy.
The sovereignty of God was starkly revealed in the mysterious doctrine of predestination, of that double predestination which Calvin was never afraid to assert.
The sovereignty of God culminated in Calvin’s view of the last things, where God would have the last word in everything, manifesting his glorious grace and his glorious justice in total triumph for ever and ever.
In a similar vein, one could review many more areas of Christian doctrine to see the implementation of this great principle of divine sovereignty. From beginning to end, we find in Calvin a studied determination to acknowledge that God is to receive the glory, that it is he who must be exalted, and that it is to him that all praise and honor are due.
Objections may rise and press for a hearing as the implications of the sovereignty of God are enumerated. If this doctrine is asserted, some will urge, does it not inevitably follow that morality, liberty, and human activity are undermined at their very foundations? Does not this doctrine confront us with an impossibility?
1. If God is sovereign and man is totally corrupt, it is thought that moral distinctions in human actions are obliterated, because all human actions are seen in the one context of wickedness and corruption. Thus there can be no difference between more evil deeds and less evil deeds, there can be no merit, and the very springs of moral action will disappear in this self-destroying uniformity. Total depravity leaves man totally despondent and must, it is argued, lead to a carelessness and abandon in sinning that will ruin the personal ethical life not only of the individual but also of society. To assert the sovereignty of God is thought to be suicidal, because it makes morality impossible.
This objection could well receive extended attention. If both the sovereignty of God and morality are properly understood, a very good case for their coexistence can in our judgment be made. But our purpose at this point is not to argue the question theoretically but rather to examine whether the anticipated damage actually occurred in history. John Calvin and a vast group of Reformed churches and individuals certainly believed in divine sovereignty and in the radical depravity of man. Did this, then, really lead to a dissolution of morals? Did their view of God make them careless in their conduct? Quite the contrary; history shows that in an atmosphere filled with immorality and at a time when the Church itself had been invaded by infection to an almost incredible degree, there arose a renewal of honesty, of purity, of truthfulness, of eagerness to serve, of humility, and of selflessness. The morality of the early Reformers was noteworthy. In many cases, it was because they were outraged by the prevalent immorality that they sensed so deeply the need of reforming the Church. Had they been grievously lax, their opponents would have ruthlessly used any flaw or failing against the movement. Far from debasing morality, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God restored morality and led men to new heights of courage and dedication. It may seem impossible, but it is true!
2. If God is sovereign and man totally dependent, then, it is further objected, human liberty is ended. For if God controls everything, men become mere puppets or robots. Nothing is left of human responsibility or true liberty. The sovereignty of God makes freedom impossible.
But the objection rests on a misunderstanding, either of divine sovereignty or of human responsibility, and possibly of both. Consider some facts of history. Those who acknowledged the sovereignty of God in the sixteenth century, notably John Calvin and his colleagues, did not shun responsibility or undermine liberty. They sensed so deeply their answerableness to God that they were willing to endure anything in order to discharge their duty. And this has become the foundation for all types of human liberties. In serving God, man was emancipated from the yoke of tyrants. Wherever Calvinism penetrated, people could not be satisfied in submitting to unjust oppression. The Huguenots in France, the Gueux in the Netherlands, the Puritans in Scotland, England, and America, were profoundly mindful of their right to be free and were willing to shed their blood in order to safeguard that right. Calvinism meant a new birth of liberty in the world. In fact, it may be averred that every liberty we enjoy in these United States has, in some sense at least, its foundation in the Reformed thought initiated by Calvin. It may seem impossible, but it is true!
3. If God is sovereign and man without merit and under God’s total control, then, it is objected, this spells the end of any human activity. There is no purpose in making any effort; man is condemned to apathy, or, at best, to quietism. Specifically, this brings to an end the whole evangelistic and missionary enterprise of the Church. For, we are told, the sovereignty of God makes human activity impossible.
Once more, rather than resorting to argument, let us examine the facts of history. In Geneva and in the Reformed churches the sovereignty of God was proclaimed. Did people stop exercising wholesome activity and cease exerting all effort in the pursuit of their calling? On the contrary, those most thoroughly convinced of this doctrine were veritable prodigies of activity. Calvin himself, whatever his human frailties may have been, could hardly have been accused of laziness, even by his most reckless opponents. In the midst of almost desperate illness, he continued to work, to preach his sermons every Sunday and three times a week, to teach his classes, to write his books, to carry on correspondence far and wide, and to bear upon his heart the burdens of Geneva, the Swiss Cantons, France, Germany, England and Scotland, Hungary, Poland, Italy, and other places as well. This man was a veritable dynamo of activity; his performance staggers and humbles us. Those under his ministry were men and women ready to put their shoulder to the wheel and their hand to the plow. The Reformed people of France were known as skillful artisans who brought new excellence to their work. They realized that their activity was in God’s hands and that, therefore, there was meaning in it and blessing upon it. They did not have to concentrate their gaze upon the smallness of what they were doing, for they could see their labors as part of a total pattern in which the sovereign God himself was active and incorporated their contribution into his own majestic purpose. Calvinists have been missionaries and evangelists with a flaming passion for souls, whenever the doctrine of the sovereignty of God has been rightly understood. This may seem a paradox, but the testimony of history is unimpeachable. Impossible, but true!
When in the first century paganism was threatening the Christian Church, the Lord raised up the Apostle Paul, that great preacher of divine sovereignty. By his ministry to the world of the Gentiles, the Lord was pleased to overcome the threatening forces of immorality.
When in the fifth century the teachings of Pelagius presented a new threat of humanism against the Gospel, the Lord raised up Augustine, that great teacher of divine sovereignty and grace; and through his efforts, by the blessing of God, the forces of dissolution were for some time repelled.
When in the sixteenth century unbelief and immorality had again invaded the world and even honeycombed the Church, the Lord was pleased to raise up the Reformers—Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Bucer, Peter Martyr, Farel, Beza, and many others—a company of men who believed strongly in the sovereignty of God. Through them the truth of the Gospel was again brought to light; justification by faith was preached; the souls of countless people were blessed; and immeasurable benefit accrued both to those who left the church of Rome and to those who remained in it, for the cleansing stream had wholesome effects beyond the pale of the Protestant communion.
They were small, these men of the Reformation, almost annihilated in the sense of their own limitations and unworthiness. Yet they were great, very great indeed. Fearing God, they did not fear the face of any man! The sovereign God was with them and in them. They were sure of their Bible, the sovereign Book; sure of their salvation, effected by the sovereign God himself. Permeated with a sense of the divine sovereignty, they were stronger than the strongest rulers, stronger than death itself. Their stand is well symbolized in the granite of the Geneva monument of the Reformation, where they are portrayed as unmovable because they rest in God.
Radically corrupted, but sovereignly purified;
Radically enslaved, but sovereignly emancipated;
Radically impotent, but sovereignly empowered.
This is the fruit of the sovereignty of God in the lives of men who said, as did Calvin, “My heart I give to Thee, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.”
Today there are dangers, too—waves of humanism, of secularism, of Communism. There are insidious movements that threaten the Church from within. May it please the Lord in his mercy to raise up men and women who believe in the sovereignty of God, men and women dedicated to the end that “to God alone be the glory.” The world needs them now.
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