Calvin’s Sermons on Genesis

Calvin’s Sermons on Genesis

I have just finished reading the first volume of the Sermons of John Calvin on the book of Genesis. This is a modern translation by Rob Roy McGregor that reads quickly and smoothly. I say that, even though it took me five years to read it. But I probably read about one of these sermons every month or so, so that comes out about right since there are 49 sermons. The book is big – over 800 pages – but it is an easy 800 pages.

I bought this book back in October of 2013, while I was in the middle of radiation therapy for oral cancer. I distinctly remember the enjoyment of reading those first chapters while in the midst of great physical pain. Calvin’s Sermons on Genesis have traveled with me through the whole five year period of cancer treatment.

While there is nothing particularly flashy or earth-shaking about Calvin’s sermons, there is a definite solidity about them. It’s like he has the regular people in front of him in mind as he preaches (which we should all try to do) and not a room full of academics. He is constantly bringing Biblical themes and ideas before his people and urging his congregation, “This is what we need to remember,” and then he reinforces it some more.

The fact that these sermons were preached daily, and not weekly, also serves to give us some insight into what was going on in Geneva in the mid-1500’s. How many of today’s preachers could give us such solid doctrine and application on a daily basis without giving up or wearing out?

The first sermons, of course, deal with creation. We have many today who doubt God’s creation of the universe in seven days, but Calvin also had those. I found it interesting to see how Calvin responded to those who thought the universe came to be by some sort of random evolution:

They have conjured up the most obtuse and absurd things a human could utter to resist God’s majesty, and they are unable to contemplate his glory, which ought to be evident as it displays itself so plainly before us. That is why they prefer – I am not joking – to say that the world came together by chance and that there were tiny objects tumbling around that the sun used for building the moon and the stars, the earth, the trees, and even more. Could anyone think up a scenario more stupid than that?

Most of the sermons, however, deal with the application of the first eleven chapters of Genesis to the church in Geneva. In sermon 33 on Genesis 6:5-8, Calvin, in speaking of the punishment that sin deserves by the Flood, brings the teaching of the whole Bible to bear –

“if there exists a single drop of good within us, it proceeds from the regeneration which we have in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In speaking of why Abel was accepted and Cain was not, in sermon 22, Calvin states –

“It is impossible for our works to be acceptable unless God is first favorably disposed toward us… therefore, God must change us before he can love us.”

And then this –

“every time our Lord gives us some sign that he is rebuking us and is not accepting our works, we must hold ourselves in check and in all humility consider what needs to be rebuked.”

So then, how can we be accepted in God’s sight?

“We can do it because God, out of his free goodness, gives us both the will and the power to do it. Therefore, if we understood that as God’s rebuking and admonishing Cain that he was supposed to conquer sin, we would be profitably instructed not to be cowardly when the devil tries to draw us into evil, but to arm ourselves with power from on high until we are victorious, as we are assured we will be, provided we call upon our God to help us.”

Calvin also does not get bogged down in conspiracy theories. When discussing the passage about the sons of God and the daughters of men in sermon 31, he has this to say to his congregation –

“This passage has long suffered from an absurd and stupid error, but learned people have been wrong about it, for the devil has always devised misunderstandings in order to obscure God’s truth, and even to destroy it completely, were it possible. They have understood the children of God to be angels, supposing they were attracted by carnal lust, which is a naive and imbecilic notion. Yet it has been commonly accepted.”

I could give many more examples, but it would take too much time and space. It is much easier just to recommend that you read the book.

John Newton on Attendance at Playhouses

John Newton on Attendance at Playhouses

I am well satisfied, that, if there is any practice in this land sinful, attendance on the playhouse is properly and eminently so. The theatres are fountains and means of vice; I had almost said, in the same manner and degree as the ordinances of the gospel are the means of grace. And I hardly think there is a Christian upon the earth who would dare be seen there, if the nature and effects of the theatre were properly set before him…

Well then may we bid adieu to the perishing pleasures of sin; well may we pity those who can find pleasure in those places and parties where the Lord is shut out; where his name is only mentioned to be profaned; where his commandments are not only broken, but insulted; where sinners proclaim their shame as in Sodom, and attempt not to hide it; where, at best, wickedness is wrapped up in a disguise of delicacy to make it more insinuating; and nothing is offensive that is not grossly and unpolitely indecent.

The Cheerless Attic

The Cheerless Attic

One of the books that has had a great influence on me is The Days of the Fathers in Ross-Shire by Dr. John Kennedy of Dingwall, Scotland. I first read it when our entire family (about nine of us, I think) went to Gulf Shores, Alabama, and stayed in a rented house for a few days back in 1993.

Dr. Kennedy wasn’t converted until in college sometime after (and because of) the death of his father. He was to have a very fruitful and influential ministry in the Scottish highlands during the late 1800’s through his preaching and writing. I think this is his best book because of stories like these that he includes. The Minister of Killearnan (included in Days of the Fathers) is about his father’s ministry. In it, he relates visiting some old women who remembered his father:

I cannot forget a trying scene, into which a streak of light of those days [of my father’s ministry] was once cast to cheer my heart. Being called to see a dying woman, I found on reaching the place to which I was directed a dark filthy attic, in which I could observe nothing till the light I had carried in had quite departed from my eye. The first object I could discern was an old woman crouching on a stone beside a low fire, who, as I afterwards ascertained, was unable to move but “on all fours.” Quite near the fire I then saw a bed, on which an older woman still was stretched, who was stone blind, and lying at the very gates of death.

The two women were sisters, and miserable indeed they seemed to be; the one with her breast and face devoured by cancer, and the other blind and dying. They were from Lochbroom; and we had spoken but little when on of them referred to the days of my father’s labours in their native parish, and told of her first impression of divine things under a sermon which he preached at that time. The doctrine of that sermon was as fresh in her mind, and as cheering, as when she first heard it half a century before. Such was the humble hope of both of them, and their cheerful resignation to the will of God, that I could not but regard them, even in their dark and filthy attic, as at the very threshold of glory.

I left them with a very different feeling from that with which I first looked on them; nor could I, after leaving them, see among the happy and frivolous whom I passed on the street, any who, with all their health, cheerfulness, and comforts, I would compare in point of true happiness with the two old women in the cheerless attic.