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Calvin to the Persecuted Faithful

Resident Faculty, W. Robert Godfrey   |   March 1, 1990   |  Type: Articles

John Calvin was a counselor. We usually think of him as a theologian or biblical commentator or preacher. But he was also a counselor. Particularly through a vast correspondence Calvin counseled men and women, helping them to face various trials ranging from sickness to religious persecution.

In his counsel to the persecuted - largely to Reformed brothers and sisters in France - Calvin labored to build up the faith of those facing imprisonment and death. Calvin knew the temptation to renounce the faith to save one's life. He knew the ferociousness of the persecutors and the subtleties of Satan seeking to overturn faith. He wrote many letters of exhortation and encouragement. His counsel was always personal, yet reflected a common perspective on how to build up faith in the face of difficulty.

Calvin certainly recognized that faithfulness did not come naturally. Living for Christ is always difficult: “... if I would live to Christ, this world must be to me a scene of trial and vexation; the present life is appointed as the field of conflict.” The theme of conflict is often presented by Calvin in military language. The Christian is “called to combat.”

In the combat of the Christian life Calvin wrote that the greatest enemy we have is the weakness of our own flesh: “But the capital point is that instead of indulging this weakness we should seek to shake it off and be reanimated by the Spirit of God. I say then that nothing is more opposite to Christianity, of which we make a profession, than that when the Son of God, our captain, calls us to the combat, we should be not only cold and faint hearted, but seized with such consternation as to desert his standard. Let us then strive against our flesh, seeing that it is our greatest enemy, and that we may obtain pardon of God let us not pardon ourselves, but rather let us be our own judges to condemn ourselves.”

The way to strengthen the weakness of our flesh is to seek our strength in God. God's strength comes to us particularly through earnest prayer and careful attention to the Word of God. Calvin wrote: “May the reliance which God commands us to have in His grace and in His strength always be to you an impregnable fortress; and for the holding fast the assurance of His help, may you be careful to walk in His fear, although, when we have made it our whole study to serve Him, we must always come back to this conclusion, of asking pardon for our shortcomings. And inasmuch as you know well from experience how frail we are, be ever diligent to continue in the practice which you have established, of prayer and hearing of the holy word, to exercise you, and to sharpen and confirm you more and more.”

Calvin at times became very specific on how the Christian had to take himself in hand to make progress in overcoming weakness and fear. He knew that the struggle took different forms in different people, but he also knew that the basic solution was the same for all: “Many are overcome, because they allow their zeal to grow cold, and run off in self-flattery. Others, on the contrary, become so alarmed when they do not find in themselves the strength they wish, that they get confused, and give up the struggle altogether. What then is to be done? Arouse yourself to meditate, as much upon the promises of God, which ought to serve as ladders to raise us up to heaven, and make us despise this transitory and fading life, as upon the threatenings, which may well induce us to fear His judgments. When you do not feel your heart moved as it ought to be, have recourse, as to a special remedy, to diligently seek the aid of Him without whom we can do nothing. In the meantime, strive to your utmost, blaming coldness and weakness, until you can perceive that there is some amendment. And in regard to this, great caution is required so as to hold a middle course, namely, to groan unceasingly, and even to woo yourself to sadness and dissatisfaction with your condition, and to such a sense of misery as that you may have no rest; without, at the same time, any doubting that God in due time will strengthen you according to your need, although this may not appear at once.”

At the same time that Calvin stressed the reality of the struggle and the necessity of constant battle, he also repeatedly reminded the Christian that he should be assured of God's care and love. The aim of the promises and exhortations of Scripture were to support and reenforce the assurance inherent in true faith. Calvin encouraged the persecuted to be assured from God's providential care of them (“an impregnable fortress”) and the rich promises of God's Word. Calvin also directed the suffering to find assurance in the Holy Spirit's work in their lives: “You know, however, in what strength you have to fight - a strength on which all those who trust, shall never be daunted, much less confounded. Even so, my brothers, be confident that you shall be strengthened, according to your need, by the Spirit of our Lord Jesus ...”

The power of Calvin's spiritual counsel was in the fine balance that he maintained between his insistence on militant faithfulness in the real battles of the Christian life and his constant reminders of the assurance of victory that the Christian has in Christ. That spiritual counsel is as good today as it was in the sixteenth century. Today Christians can face every difficulty strengthened in the same ways that Calvin counseled long ago. 

Previously published in The Outlook, March 1990 by Reformed Fellowship, Inc. Used with permission.

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