Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles Review

Article by   May 2008
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John Calvin, Sermons on the Acts  of the Apostles 1-7
(Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust, 2008)
Reviewed by Paul Helm

Students of Calvin know the story of how many of his sermon transcriptions, bound in volumes and kept in the University Library in Geneva, were sold off for next to nothing to free up shelf room.  So it is that while Calvin preached entirely through the Acts, only his sermons on Acts 1-7 remain (and even then not a complete series),  except for what may yet turn up in some Genevan attic.  (I know someone who would be willing, if necessary, to trade his entire holding of C.S. Lewis, beginning of course with the Narnia Chronicles, for Calvin's sermons on Acts 17).  Nevertheless the translations of Rob Roy McGregor still make a book of over 600 pages.

Calvin communicated at various levels, to different audiences, to the rising generation of Reformed ministers in his Institutes and Commentaries, to an international audience in his polemical doctrinal works; and to the people of Geneva in his sermons, delivered extempore and taken down in shorthand by the indefatigable Denis Raguenier.

These days the sermons themselves can be read at various levels. Currently we are told that to obtain a rounded scholarly view of Calvin's thought we must attend to the sermons as well as to the other works. This is obviously true. But whether we find another Calvin here is a moot point. Yet his sermons take us to the heart of the man, for he undoubtedly regarded his preaching as of the highest importance. In one of his few autobiographical references in his writings, that in the Preface to his Commentary on the Psalms, he compares himself to David. "But as he was taken from the sheepfold, and elevated to the rank of supreme authority; so God having taken me from my originally obscure and humble condition, has reckoned me worthy of being invested with the honourable office of a preacher and minister of the gospel." Not so much a Reformer or theologian, more a preacher.

The themes of the Acts - the establishing of a primitive church, the centrality of preaching, persecution, faith, growth - have an obvious appeal to Calvin. The application of this material to the Reformation was obvious - the need for direct, Christ-centered preaching, simplicity of life, firm faith in the face of persecution by Rome, churchly unity and fellowship. It is interesting that at one place Calvin compares the fragmentation of the Church of Rome, uniting only to persecute, with the unity of the Reformation movement.  Would that it were still so.

Calvin had no hang-ups over how to read a two thousand year old document so that it spoke to his day. So there is no agonizing over hermeneutics, and comparatively little time is given to exegesis and exposition. Calvin simply reads the words off the page, providing clear direct commentary, and applies them.  These are expository sermons, I suppose, but also topical exhortations.  There is quite a bit of repetition. I don't think that the best idea is to read them all at one sitting.

The sermons are not ornamented.  The style is plain and direct. Calvin did not feel the need to settle his hearers and gain their attention by a couple of funny stories.  There are no jokes, of course, but also no anecdotes or personal reflections, and there are few illustrations. But the language is graphic, clear, caustic, earnest.  He shows his irritation at the slow pace of things, at the large number of still nominal Christians among his hearers. But his use of the first person plural prevents him from simply whining at his people.  Speaker and hearers were together under the Word of God,  and it is made plain that the entire congregation was engaged in God's work.

The translation is excellent, clear and colloquial; and the book is beautifully produced. Each sermon has been given a title. One of these, "Judged According to Our Merits and Demerits," jumped out at me. Calvin hated the word "merit." "Why," I ask, "was there need to drag in the term 'merit' when the value of good works could without offense  have been meaningfully explained by another term....as it is a most prideful term, it can do nothing but obscure God's favor and imbue men with perverse haughtiness." (Inst. III.15.1) The sermon in question does not even contain the word 'merit'. Calvin would not have been amused.

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