Contrary to popular perception, John Calvin was passionate about both the spread of the gospel and the salvation of sinners. This book examinesthe Reformer’s life, theology, and impact on the Calvinistic tradition.
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About the Author
Michael A. G. Haykin (ThD, University of Toronto) is professor of church history and biblical spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. He has authored or edited more than twenty-five books, including Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church.
JeffRobinson Sr. (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a senior editor for the Gospel Coalition and serves as the lead pastor for Christ Community Church of Louisville. He also serves as adjunct professor of church history at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the coauthor ofTo the Ends of the Earth: Calvin's Missional Vision and Legacy.
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"For God So Loved the World"
JOHN CALVIN'S MISSIONAL EXEGESIS
Calvin as a Biblical Theologian
The great delight of John Calvin's heart was studying and teaching Holy Scripture. Above all else, he was a student and preacher of God's Word. While Calvin's critics — and they have been myriad — have accused him of everything from inventing predestination to insisting upon the damnation of infants, one accusation that sticks is that Calvin was a lover of the Bible. In his commentaries, theological writings, and sermons, Calvin sought to say what the Bible says. Where God's Word speaks to an issue, Calvin sought to address it. From his own voluminous written analysis of Scripture, Calvin sought to go as far and high and wide and deep as God's Word — but no further. Thus, he wrote much about salvation, sin, eternal damnation, God's sovereignty, prayer, the wrath of God, reprobation, and yes, predestination; he wrote and preached and taught about these topics — controversial and noncontroversial — because the Bible addresses them all.
One senses the depth of his affection for the Bible in the preface to his commentary on the book of Psalms, written toward the end of his life in 1557: If the reading of these my commentaries confer as much benefit on the Church of God as I myself have reaped advantage from the composition of them, I shall have no reason to regret that I have undertaken this work. ... The varied and resplendid [i.e., resplendent] riches which are contained in this treasury it is no easy matter to express in words; so much so, that I well know that whatever I shall be able to say will be far from approaching the excellence of the subject.
Calvin's commentaries were, as David L. Puckett points out, an extension of his spoken ministry as a doctor of theology and were mostly taken from lectures delivered to ministerial candidates. Calvin published his first biblical commentary on the Pauline epistle of Romans in 1540 during his ministry in Strasbourg. After completing the Romans commentary, Calvin took a six-year hiatus from publishing his expositional works. But between 1546 and 1551, Calvin was prolific, publishing verse-by-verse expositions of 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, James, 1 John, and Jude. Over the next four years, through 1555, Calvin published his two-part commentary on Acts, a commentary on John, and a harmony of the Synoptic Gospels. The only New Testament books for which Calvin did not release commentaries were 2 and 3 John and Revelation. Calvin published his lectures on the Old Testament after completing the series on the New Testament and was in the midst of his work in the prophet Ezekiel when his diseased body forced the Reformer to his deathbed in 1564.
Calvin was also a systematic theologian. When he was twenty-six years old, he drafted the first edition of what would become his magnum opus, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Five Latin editions followed the first, 1536 edition, culminating in the final edition in 1559. Nearly five hundred years later, Calvin's Institutes is considered by many to be one of the finest systematic theologies ever written, and it remains the most influential and complete defense of the Reformation to arise from the pen of the magisterial Reformers. Calvin scholar John T. McNeill argued that Calvin's Institutes is "one of the few books that have profoundly affected the course of history." Similarly, the American church historian Philip Schaff wrote, "This book is the masterpiece of a precocious genius of commanding intellectual and spiritual depth and power. It is one of the few truly classical productions in the history of theology, and has given its author the double title of the Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas of the Reformed Church." B. B. Warfield saw the Institutes as "supplying for the first time the constructive basis for the Reformation movement," a work that, for the first time in the history of the church, "drew in outline the plan of a complete structure of Christian Apologetics."
While most think of Calvin's Institutes as a tour de force of Reformed thought (an accurate assessment), it is also a work that pulsates with concern for a lost and dying world, a world that profoundly needs to hear the message of God's redeeming love in Jesus Christ. Yes, the Institutes exposits in great detail the Bible's teaching on predestination and election, as expected since Calvin found those doctrines clearly established in the Bible; but it does so with a full awareness and expression of both the absolute sovereignty of God and the full responsibility of humanity. Thus, Calvin makes plain that the chief end of gospel proclamation and theological engagement is its service in the missio dei, the mission of God: to glorify himself through the salvation of sinful mankind. Thus, election is secret and beyond humankind's ability to know. This being the case, we must pray for the conversion of all people, as Calvin wrote:
The prayer of the Christian ought to be conformed to this rule in order that it may be in common and embrace all who are his brothers in Christ: not only those whom he presently sees and recognizes as such, but all people who dwell on earth. For what the Lord has determined regarding them is beyond our knowing, except that we ought to wish and hope for the best for them.
Calvin was a theologian whose theology animated and did not undermine such praying for the salvation of all people, which will be the focus of a section later in this chapter.
The chapter will examine the fruit of Calvin's labors as an exegete of the Bible, as a theologian, and as a preacher of Scripture, with particular attention to Calvin's commentaries, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, and his sermons. The key "problem" texts of Scripture that have led opponents of Calvin to brand him "anti-missional" and "non-evangelistic" will be analyzed, as well as Calvin's approach to such matters as the universal call of the gospel in light of his doctrine of predestination. The picture that will emerge will reveal an approach to Scripture and theology that was clearly pro-missions and pro-evangelism. While Calvin was a first-generation Reformer concerned more directly with purifying the church than birthing a worldwide missions movement, his interpretation of the Bible and understanding of theology were consistent with a free and uninhibited proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of the lost.
First, this chapter will examine the so-called "universal" texts that many have used through the ages to expose Calvin as a theologian at odds with missions and evangelism. We will also examine the most prominent among the so-called Calvinistic texts that address salvation in terms of election and predestination, such as Ephesians 1 and Romans 9, among others. In addition to Calvin's sermons and the Institutes, the research will also draw from some of Calvin's important polemical works, including his debates with Albert Pighius (c. 1490–1542), Sebastian Castellio (1515–1563), and others on predestination, the bondage of the will, and the providence of God.
Calvin on the "Universal" Texts
Many of Calvinism's critics view the "all" passages in Scripture as the Achilles' heel of the system of theology most closely associated with the teaching of John Calvin. The logic goes like this: If the Bible says that God desires the salvation of every single person without exception, and he invites every single person without exception to receive saving grace, then Christians who believe doctrines such as election, predestination, and particular atonement cannot honestly call on sinners to repent and trust in Christ for salvation. In an attempt to refute Calvin's theology, many call upon what they consider an indicting series of "Arminian" verses, including Ezekiel 18:23, Matthew 23:37, John 3:16, 1 Timothy 2:4, and 2 Peter 3:9, to show such inconsistent thinking within Calvinism. One such critic was the late William Estep, the American Baptist historian quoted in the introduction to this work, who argued thus against Calvinism: "Calvinism appears to deny John 3:16, John 1:12, Romans 1:16, Romans 10:9–10, Ephesians 2:8–10, and numerous other passages of scripture that indicate ... that salvation comes to those who respond to God's grace in faith." While Calvin is usually best remembered for his articulation of the biblical doctrine of predestination, the Reformer did not see a call to the unconverted as inconsistent with the doctrines of God's secret choosing of a people before the foundation of the world. For the sake of biblical chronology, let us begin in the Old Testament with two texts in the prophet Ezekiel.
"Have I Any Pleasure in the Death of the Wicked?"
In his comments on Ezekiel 18:23 ("Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?"), Calvin affirmed that there is one sense in which God, according to his eternal will, desires the salvation of all men and women even while God predestines every person who will ever be saved. This text, Calvin argued, makes clear that God calls all people without exception to salvation. During Old Testament times, the prophets called God's people to repentance and faith, and the call was without respect of persons. In the same way, the gospel goes forth to all people without exception in the new covenant. Though Calvin certainly affirmed election and predestination, there is nothing in those doctrines that hinders the prophet or preacher from demanding universal repentance.
In this text, Calvin argued that Ezekiel is calling people to repentance, and, while aware of the reality of predestination, the prophet is not speaking of God's secret purpose of election. Thus, Calvin maintained, there is no contradiction between the two doctrines — God's general call to sinners and his choosing of a people for salvation — both of which clearly appear in the Bible. Calvin chose to let the biblical tension between divine election and the free offer of the gospel stand without trying to solve what he calls elsewhere "an unfathomable mystery." While many throughout history will refuse God's overtures of grace, thus confirming God's secret election of some to salvation, Calvin saw no reason whatsoever to withhold the offer of God's redeeming love in Christ from any person. If one genuinely repents, God will receive him, Calvin asserted.
We hold, then, that God does not will the death of a sinner, since he calls all equally to repentance and promises himself prepared to receive them if they only seriously repent. If any one should object — then there is no election of God, by which he has predestinated a fixed number to salvation, the answer is at hand. The prophet does not here speak of God's secret counsel, but only recalls miserable men from despair, that they may apprehend the hope of pardon, and repent and embrace the offered salvation. If anyone again objects — this is making God act with duplicity, the answer is ready, that God always wishes the same thing, though by different ways, and in a manner inscrutable to us. Although, therefore, God's will is simple, yet great variety is involved in it, as far as our senses are concerned. Besides, it is not surprising that our eyes should be blinded by intense light, so that we cannot certainly judge how God wishes all to be saved, and yet has devoted all the reprobate to eternal destruction, and wishes them to perish.
A similar verse that appears several chapters later in Ezekiel seems to stand at odds with the eternal decrees of God: "As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?" (Ezek. 33:11). In the Institutes, Calvin understood both Ezekiel 18:23 and 33:11 as setting forth the grace of God in the midst of Israel's spiritual adultery. The prophets, whose messages Calvin ultimately interpreted through a christological lens, promise the light of God's grace to even the darkest of rebels. God's promises are good news of mercy to God's people in both the old and new covenants. For Calvin, grace and not sin will have the final word:
The prophets are full of promises of this kind, which offer mercy to a people [Israel] though they be covered with infinite crimes. What graver iniquity is there than rebellion? ... Surely, there can be no other feeling in him who affirms that he does not desire the death of the sinner, but rather that he be converted and live [Ezek. 18:23, 32; 33:11]. Accordingly, when Solomon dedicated the Temple, he intended it also to be used so that thereby the prayers offered to obtain pardon of sins might be answered.
"For God So Loved the World, That He Gave His Only Son"
The Ezekiel passages are often quoted in refutation of Calvin's doctrine of predestination, but the most prevalent verse employed against Calvin and Calvinism is typically the first passage a child learns in Vacation Bible School, John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." This is undoubtedly the text most often quoted to refute Calvinistic expressions of the doctrines of election and predestination. Calvin, however, as the original "Calvinist," did not stumble over the collective or universal words in the text. Contrary to popular opinion about the Reformer, he affirmed both God's universal love for humanity and the universal offer of the gospel that must be made to all sinners without exception:
The whole substance of our salvation is not to be sought anywhere else than in Christ, and so we must see by what means Christ flows to us, and why he was offered as our Savior. Both points are clearly told us here — that faith in Christ quickens all, and that Christ brought life because the heavenly Father does not wish the human race he loves to perish.
The phrase "whoever believes" is often used as proof that Calvin's theology of God's sovereign choice in salvation is fallacious; a consistent follower of Calvin's theology should not invite all sinners to salvation, some insist. Calvin, however, had no such scruples with the language, but affirmed the universal invitation of sinners to Christ in his comments on John 3:16:
The outstanding thing about faith is it delivers us from eternal destruction. For he [John] especially wanted to say that although we seem to have been born for death deliverance is offered to us by faith in Christ so that we must not fear the death which otherwise threatens us. And he has used a general term, both to invite indiscriminately all to share in life and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the significance of the term "world" which he had used before. For although there is nothing in the world deserving of God's favor, he nevertheless shows he is favorable to the whole world when he calls all without exception to faith in Christ, which is indeed an entry into life.
Has Calvin abandoned his belief in divine election? Certainly not. After examining the word "world" in John 3:16 and establishing the general call of the gospel, which goes out to all indiscriminately, Calvin set forth the Bible's position on the complementarity of God's sovereignty and human responsibility. Many may be called to repent and believe in Christ through gospel proclamation, but only those whom God enables to come to Christ will do so, as Calvin was quick to point out: "Let us remember that although life is promised generally to all who believe in Christ, faith is not common to all. For Christ is open to all and displayed to all, but God opens the eyes only of the elect that they may seek him by faith." For Calvin, John 3:16 spoke not of the extent of God's love, but of the degree and nature of such divine love: God loves the world he has created in spite of its sin, rebellion, and rejection of him. Calvin understood "world" to refer to all of humanity, including the Gentiles, and no longer exclusively to the Israelites of the old covenant. It is to this world that God sends his only begotten Son as Redeemer. Those who interpret "world" to mean every individual person who has ever lived take the phrase differently than Calvin and many other interpreters in the history of the church. For Calvin, John 3:16 was not an impediment to subscription to the biblical doctrine of election and the simultaneous proclamation of the gospel to all people without exception.
God "Desires All People to Be Saved and to Come to the Knowledge of the Truth"
If John 3:16 is the most popular "anti-Calvinism" passage, 1 Timothy 2:4 may rank as a close second. In his 2001 book Chosen but Free: A Balanced View of Divine Election, Christian apologist Norman Geisler attempted to reconcile the biblical tension between the doctrine of election and the Arminian view of libertarian free will. In it he argued, "From the time of the later Augustine this text has been manhandled by extreme Calvinists." He accuses the eminent Puritan exegete John Owen (1616–1683) of holding a typical but "dubious view" in which "all here does not mean all. His tactic is to divert the issue to other passages where 'all' does not mean the whole human race."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "To The Ends Of The Earth"
Copyright © 2014 Michael A. G. Haykin and Charles Jeffrey Robinson Sr..
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Table of Contents
1 "For God So Loved the World": John Calvin's Missional Exegesis 27
2 "A Sacrifice Well Pleasing to God": The Dynamics of John Calvin's Theology of Mission 53
3 "How Very Important This Corner Is": The Calvinistic Missions to France and Brazil 65
4 "To Convert the World": The Puritans and Being Missional in the Seventeenth Century 75
5 "Advancing the Kingdom of Christ": Missional Praying-the Example of Jonathan Edwards 91
6 "An Instrument of Establishing the Empire of My Dear Lord": Developing a Missional Passion-the Way of Samuel Pearce 103
Selected Bibliography of Secondary Literature 123
General Index 129
Scripture Index 133
What People are Saying About This
“This book traces the story of evangelical Calvinism through several important episodes in the history of Reformed Protestantism. Long before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Christians, informed by Calvin’s missional theology, were planting churches and preaching the gospel in the country we now know as Brazil. This story has long been forgotten, suppressed, and even distorted by those who should have known better. I welcome this well-researched book, which sets the record straight.”
Timothy George, Dean, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University; general editor, Reformation Commentary on Scripture
“Does a belief in sovereign grace stymie missions and evangelism? If that belief is rightly understood and rightly applied, the answer is an emphatic no. Haykin and Robinson skillfully present John Calvin’s evangelistic zeal and channel it toward a new generation of Great Commission minded pastors, teachers, and evangelists. I’m grateful for these men and this book, and pray that God will use it for the greater advance of the gospel and a greater harvest of souls.”
Jason K. Allen,President, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
“This book sets the record straight once and for allJohn Calvin was a man consumed with the global proclamation of the gospel, the salvation of souls, and the discipleship of all nations. With historical integrity and pastoral insight, Haykin and Robinson demonstrate the beautiful harmony that exists between Calvinistic theology and a robust biblical missiology. Here is a call for the church to share in that same passionate pursuit.”
Burk Parsons,Senior Pastor, St. Andrew’s Chapel, Sanford, Florida; Editor, Tabletalk
“Among the many myths surrounding Calvinism is the idea that it’s anti-missions. Michael Haykin and Jeffrey Robinson draw into one place the many sources that demonstrate the tradition’s missionary passion. They do so without defensive rhetoricmore out of a love for the Great Commission than for any party label. You don’t have to be a Calvinist to find this story inspiring.”
Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California; author, Justification (New Studies in Dogmatics)
“The rehabilitation of Calvin (and his robust theology of divine sovereignty) as a leading figure in global missions is overdue, and few authors are qualified to do it with such enthusiasm and expertise as Haykin and Robinson. In To the Ends of the Earth, the perennial assertion that Calvin(ism) is destructive of evangelism and missions is convincingly shown to be entirely falsetheologically and historically. Indeed, the very opposite is the case: Geneva proved to be a center of missionary endeavor and expansion. Read this book and then purchase several more copies to give to your friends. I cannot recommend it highly enough.”
Derek W. H. Thomas,Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary; Teaching Fellow, Ligonier Ministries; Senior Minister, First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina
“For all the attention given to John Calvin, it boggles the mind that something so essential to him has gone largely unnoticed and unappreciated. Thank you, Drs. Haykin and Robinson, for introducing us to Calvin’s missionary and evangelistic zeal. Let’s hope it’s contagious.”
Stephen J. Nichols, President, Reformation Bible College; Chief Academic Officer, Ligonier Ministries; author, Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought and The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World
“The modern missionary movement did not begin ex nihilo in the late eighteenth century. To understand the thrust of contemporary global gospel advancement, one need understand that behind Fuller and Carey there were Edwards and Brainerd. And Edwards was the last theological bridge to classic English Puritanism. And the Puritans have their headwaters in Geneva. In this fine volume, readers will have many questions answered and many more questions raised, but a wonderful discovery will take place that I pray stirs many hearts to action in taking the gospel to the world.”
Jason G. Duesing, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives and Assistant Professor of Historical Theology, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
“Haykin and Robinson show convincingly that Calvinist commitment to the gospel of free grace has driven evangelism and missions for five hundred years. Not only does this book provide a much-needed reassessment of Calvin and missions, but it also extends its accounting through the Puritans, Jonathan Edwards, and Calvinist Baptists. In doing this, Haykin and Robinson provide a valuable resource for the church and a tract to motivate us to take the gospel to the ends of the earth in our own time as well.”
Sean Michael Lucas, Senior Minister, The First Presbyterian Church, Hattiesburg, Mississippi;Associate Professor of Church History, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi
“Evangelism, missions, and prayer for the lost cannot long endure without a foundation in the doctrines of God’s glory and sovereign grace. Michael Haykin and Jeffrey Robinson demonstrate through careful historical research that despite all claims to the contrary, Reformed truth has been a vital root feeding visionary and sacrificial efforts to reach the world with the gospel. May God use these thrilling accounts to magnify the glory of his grace, and to move many Christians to pour out their lives for the sake of Christ’s kingdom in all lands.”
Joel R. Beeke, President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary; Pastor, Heritage Reformed Congregation, Grand Rapids, Michigan; author, Reformed Preaching
“Finally a book that not only removes the myth of a lack of mission incentive in the Calvinist tradition, but also solidly and enthusiastically stimulates those inside and outside that tradition to get the message out.”
Herman Selderhuis, Professor of Church History, Theological University Apeldoorn; Director, Refo500