Is It Necessary to Preach Divine Wrath?

The Genevan Reformer John Calvin said, “Preaching is the public exposition of Scripture by the man sent from God, in which God Himself is present in judgment and in grace.” Faithful pulpit ministry requires the declaration of both judgment and grace. …

Whitefield’s Sin Exposing Spotlight

Whitefield was convinced that any presentation of the gospel must begin by exposing the listener’s sin and his dire need for salvation. This necessitated the preacher’s confronting his hearers’ rebellion against God and warning of the eternal conseque…

The Moment of Truth: Its Reception

During the trial of Jesus, Pontius Pilate asked a question that has resounded through the ages: “What is truth?” That is the key question for today, when the idea of absolute truth is increasingly and soundly rejected in our culture. To help us unders…

The Moment of Truth: Its Reality

During the trial of Jesus, Pontius Pilate asked a question that has resounded through the ages: “What is truth?” That is the key question for today, when the idea of absolute truth is increasingly and soundly rejected in our culture. To help us unders…

The Moment of Truth: Its Rejection

Today, it is often said, “I have my truth, and you have your truth.” Our generation likes to deny absolute truth, saying that something can be true for one person but not true for someone else. This view is not new. In John 18, our Lord stood trial be…

The Doctrines of Grace: By His Grace and for His Glory

“Those who have received salvation are to attribute it to sovereign grace alone, and to give all the praise to Him, who makes them to differ from others.” —Jonathan Edwards
The doctrines of grace are so called because these five major headings of theo…

The Institute for Expository Preaching with Steven Lawson

Deep within the soul of every expositor, there must reside an unwavering commitment to the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. Regardless of the cultural currents of the day, and regardless of the changing of the times, the preacher must be persuade…

TULIP and The Doctrines of Grace

The central truth of God’s saving grace is succinctly stated in the assertion, “Salvation is of the Lord.” This strong declaration means that every aspect of man’s salvation is from God and is entirely dependent upon God. The only contribution that we…

Theologian for the Ages: John Calvin

John Calvin (1509–1564) is easily the most important Protestant theologian of all time and remains one of the truly great men who have lived. A world-class theologian, a renowned teacher, an ecclesiastical statesman, and a valiant Reformer, Calvin is seen by many as the greatest influence on the church since the first century. Apart from the biblical authors themselves, Calvin stands as the most influential minister of the Word the world has ever seen. Philip Melanchthon revered him as the most able interpreter of Scripture in the church, and therefore labeled him simply “the theologian.” And Charles Spurgeon said that Calvin “propounded truth more clearly than any other man that ever breathed, knew more of Scripture, and explained it more clearly.”

Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, to Gerard and Jeanne Cauvin in the French cathedral city of Noyon, some sixty miles north of Paris. Gerard was a notary, or financial administrator, for the Roman Catholic bishop of the Noyon diocese and, thus, a member of the professional class. At age fourteen, John entered the leading educational institution of Europe, the University of Paris, to study theology in preparation for the priesthood. There, he was immersed in the principles of the Renaissance, humanism, and scholarship. A serious and remarkably learned young man, he graduated with a master’s degree (1528).

Soon after Calvin’s graduation, Gerard fell into a conflict with the bishop of Noyon, and this falling-out with the church caused him to redirect his brilliant son to the study of law at the universities of Orléans (1528) and later Bourges (1529). Calvin learned Greek and sharpened his skills in analytical thinking and persuasive argument, skills he would use with great effect in the pulpit in Geneva. But when Gerard unexpectedly died (1531), Calvin, twenty-one years old, moved back to Paris to pursue his great love, the study of classical literature. He would later return to Bourges, where he completed his legal studies and received his law degree in 1532.

Suddenly Converted

While he was a student at the University of Orléans, Calvin encountered some of the early reform ideas through Martin Luther’s writings, which were widely discussed in academic circles. Subsequently, Calvin was converted to Christ. Calvin recorded a testimony of his conversion in the preface to his Commentary on the Book of Psalms (1557):

To this pursuit [of the study of law] I endeavored faithfully to apply myself, in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by the secret guidance of His providence, at length gave a different direction to my course. At first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor.

In November 1533, Nicolas Cop, rector of the University of Paris and a friend of Calvin, preached the opening address of the winter term at the university. The message was a plea for reformation on the basis of the New Testament and a bold attack on the Scholastic theologians of the day. Cop encountered strong resistance to his “Luther-like” views. Calvin is believed to have collaborated with Cop on the address, as a copy of the manuscript exists in Calvin’s handwriting. As a result, Calvin was forced to flee Paris before he could be arrested. He withdrew to the estate of Louis du Tillet, a well-to-do man who was sympathetic to the Reformation cause. There, in du Tillet’s extensive theological library, Calvin read the Bible along with the writings of the Church Fathers, most notably Augustine. By hard work, genius, and grace, Calvin was becoming a self-taught theologian of no small stature.

In 1534, Calvin moved to Basel, Switzerland, which had become a Protestant stronghold, in order to study in solitude. In Basel, he penned the first edition of what would become his theological masterpiece and the single most important book written during the Reformation, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. In it, he outlined the fundamentals of the Protestant faith and presented a compelling argument for the Reformed interpretation of Scripture. Amazingly, Calvin began this work at age twenty-five, only one year after his conversion. It was published when he was twenty-six.

In 1536, Calvin decided to move to Strasbourg, in southwest Germany, to further his studies as a quiet scholar. But a war between Francis I and Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor, prevented him from taking the most direct route. Calvin was forced to detour to Geneva, where he intended to spend only one night. But when he entered the city, he was immediately recognized as the young author of the Institutes. Those sympathetic to the Reformation took him to meet William Farel, who had led the Protestant movement in Geneva for ten years. Geneva had recently voted to leave the Roman Catholic Church and become a Reformation city, but it was in dire need of a teacher who could articulate Reformed truths. The fiery Farel challenged Calvin to take up the task; when Calvin hesitated, Farel resorted to an imprecatory threat. Calvin reports it this way:

Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me. And after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies, for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquility of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken.

Calvin began his ministry in Geneva as a lecturer, then as a pastor. Along with Farel, he began the task of bringing the life and practice of the church into accord with the teaching of Scripture. Among the reforms he implemented was the exercise of church discipline at the Communion table. This did not sit well with prominent Geneva citizens, many of whom were living sinful lives. This crisis reached the boiling point on Easter Sunday, April 23, 1538, when Calvin refused to administer Communion to certain leading people who were living in open sin. The tensions grew so great that Calvin and Farel were forced to leave Geneva.

Exile and Return

Calvin withdrew to Strasbourg, where he had intended to go two years earlier. His purpose was to escape from the public eye. But Strasbourg’s chief Reformer, Martin Bucer, insisted that Calvin must continue in public pulpit ministry and threatened him much as Farel had earlier. Yielding to Bucer, Calvin became the pastor of nearly five hundred Protestant refugees from France.

However, this theologian-in-exile was also given time and freedom to write in Strasbourg. Calvin wrote his Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and enlarged his Institutes, translating it into French. At this same time, he wrote what has been hailed as the greatest apologetic for the Reformation, A Reply to Sadoleto. After Calvin’s departure from Geneva, Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto had written an open letter to the people of the city, inviting them to return to the Roman Catholic Church. The city fathers appealed to Calvin to respond, which he did with his Reply, a compelling defense of the glory of God in the gospel of grace. Also during his time in Strasbourg, he married Idelette de Bure, a widow with two children, who brought him much happiness.

After Calvin had spent three happy years in Strasbourg, the city fathers of Geneva wrote to ask him to return as their pastor. In his absence, the religious and political situation had deteriorated. Initially, Calvin had no intention of returning. In a letter to Farel on March 29, 1540, he said, “Rather would I submit to death a hundred times than to that cross, on which one had to perish daily a thousand times over.” But Calvin eventually changed his mind, despite the many dangers he knew awaited him in Geneva. Calvin saw his life in Christ entirely and willingly given to God, an attitude depicted in his personal seal—a hand holding a heart, with the motto beneath: “My heart I give Thee, Lord, eagerly and earnestly.” He bowed to what he believed to be God’s will and returned to his pastorate in Switzerland.

Calvin arrived in Geneva on September 13, 1541, after an absence of three and a half years. In his first sermon, he resumed his exposition of Scripture at the next verse after the last one he had covered before being exiled. This continuation was intended as a bold statement that verse-by-verse preaching of the Word would hold the primary place in his ministry.

Calvin’s second Genevan pastorate had two periods. The first was the years of opposition (1541–1555), when he endured much resistance and difficulty. The opposition began to manifest itself in the form of the Patriots, the oldest, most influential families of Geneva. They disliked Calvin in large measure because he was a foreigner. He also faced the resistance of the Libertines, people within Geneva who were antinomians, living in open sin and immorality. But most demanding by far was the ordeal caused by Michael Servetus in 1553. This known heretic was burned at the stake by the city fathers after Calvin had been called as an expert witness. In other trials during this time, Calvin’s son, Jacques, died only two weeks after his birth in 1542, and Calvin’s wife, Idelette, died in 1549 after only nine years of marriage.

This draining opposition finally subsided, and the last nine years of Calvin’s life (1555–1564) could be described as the years of support. At long last, Calvin gained the support of the city fathers. With this backing, he established the Geneva Academy in 1559, based on the example he had seen in Strasbourg. The academy had a private school for elementary instruction and a public school offering more advanced studies in biblical languages and theology to train ministers, lawyers, and doctors. Also in 1559, the fifth and final edition of the Institutes was released. In 1560, the Geneva Bible was released, an English translation that was the first Bible with theological notes in the margins. This monumental work, produced by men under Calvin’s teaching, presented a worldview of the sovereignty of God over all creation.

Calvin dispatched French-speaking pastors, whom he had trained for the gospel ministry, from Geneva to other French-speaking provinces in Europe. Most went to France, where the Reformed movement grew to encompass about one-tenth of the population. Eventually, thirteen hundred Geneva-trained missionaries went to France. By 1560, more than a hundred underground churches had been planted in France by men sent out from Geneva. By 1562, the number of churches had multiplied to as many as 2,150, with more than 3 million members. The membership of some of the churches numbered in the thousands. This growth produced a Huguenot church that almost overcame the Catholic Counter-Reformation in France. Further, Geneva-trained missionaries planted churches in Italy, Hungary, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, England, Scotland, and the Rhineland—even Brazil.

A Farewell Address

In early 1564, Calvin became seriously ill. He preached for the last time from the pulpit of Saint Peter’s Cathedral on Sunday, February 6. By April, it was obvious that he did not have long to live. Calvin, age fifty-four, faced death as he had faced the pulpit—with great resolution. The strength of his faith, built on the sovereignty of God, appears in his last will and testament. On April 25, 1564, Calvin dictated the following words:

I render thanks to God, not only because he has had compassion on me, His poor creature, to draw me out of the abyss of idolatry in which I was plunged, in order to bring me to the light of His gospel and make me a partaker of the doctrine of salvation, of which I was altogether unworthy, and continuing His mercy He has supported me amid so many sins and short-comings, which were such that I well deserved to be rejected by Him a hundred thousand times—but what is more, He has so far extended His mercy towards me as to make use of me and of my labour, to convey and announce the truth of His gospel.

Three days later, on April 28, 1654, Calvin called his fellow ministers to his bedchamber and issued his farewell address to them. He cautioned them that the battles of the Reformation were not over, but only beginning: “You will have troubles when God shall have called me away. . . . But take courage and fortify yourselves, for God will make use of this church and will maintain it, and assures you that He will protect it.” With that, he passed the torch from his feeble hands to theirs.

Calvin died on May 27, 1564, in the arms of Theodore Beza, his successor. Calvin’s last words—”How long, O Lord?”—were the very words of Scripture (Pss. 79:5; 89:46). He died quoting the Bible he had so long preached. Appropriately, this humble servant was buried in a common cemetery in an unmarked grave—at his own request.

See also:

This excerpt is taken from Pillars of Grace by Steven Lawson.

Covenant Theologian: Heinrich Bullinger

Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575) is regarded as the most influential second-generation Reformer. As the heir to Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, Switzerland, he consolidated and continued the Swiss Reformation that his predecessor had started. Philip Schaff writes that Bullinger was “a man of firm faith, courage, moderation, patience, and endurance . . . [who was] providentially equipped” to preserve and advance the truth in a difficult time in history. During his forty-four years as the chief minister in Zurich, Bullinger’s literary output exceeded that of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Zwingli combined. He was of monumental importance in the spread of Reformed teaching throughout the Reformation. So far-reaching was Bullinger’s influence throughout continental Europe and England that Theodore Beza called him “the common shepherd of all Christian churches.”

Bullinger was born on July 18, 1504, in the tiny Swiss town of Bremgarten, ten miles west of Zurich. His father, also named Heinrich, was the local parish priest, who lived in a common law marriage with Anna Wiederkehr. This practice was officially forbidden by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but Bullinger’s father had received permission to enter into such a relationship by agreeing to pay his bishop a yearly tribute. The younger Heinrich was the fifth child born of this illegitimate wedlock. The marriage between Bullinger’s parents was eventually formalized in 1529, when the elder Bullinger joined the Reformed movement.

Young Heinrich’s father groomed him for the priesthood from a very early age. At age twelve, he was sent to the monastic school at Emmerich, known as the School of the Brethren of the Common Life. This school was a citadel of the via antique, the “old way” of learning that was stressed by the theologians of the High Middle Ages, such as Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and John Duns Scotus (ca. 1265–1308). There, Bullinger received an advanced education in humanistic principles, especially Latin. At the same time, he came under the influence of the devotio moderna, the “modern devotion,” a medieval emphasis on the Eucharist and the deep spiritual life. Augustine and Bernard were among the earlier leaders of this pietistic movement, and it had been revived by Thomas á Kempis in his book The Imitation of Christ. Bullinger was attracted to this movement’s stress on meditation and the search for a personal spiritual experience with God. Also at this time, Bullinger began displaying a remarkable aptitude for scholarship.

The University of Cologne

Three years later, in 1519, Bullinger proceeded to the University of Cologne, where he began studying traditional Scholastic theology. Cologne was the largest city in Germany, and Roman Catholicism was deeply entrenched there—papal superstitions ran high in the city and German mystics gathered there in large numbers. Aquinas and Scotus had taught there earlier, and their Scholastic influence remained firmly embedded in Cologne. But Bullinger was convinced of the humanist approach. In his studies, he pursued the writings of the Church Fathers, especially Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Augustine. Their insistence on the priority of Scripture moved him to study the Bible for himself. Such a pursuit, he later admitted, was unknown to most of his fellow students.

While at Cologne, Bullinger was exposed to the teaching of the leading humanist of the day, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (ca. 1466–1536). Erasmus had elevated the Scriptures over Aristotelian logic and sought to reform the church through humanistic scholarship and the moral teachings of Christ. But it was Luther’s works that most challenged Bullinger’s thinking. Luther’s books were being burned in Cologne, which only piqued Bullinger’s interest in their content. Soon his mind was captured by Luther’s ideas. He also studied Philip Melanchthon’s Loci communes (1521), the first systematic treatment of Lutheran theology. In it, Melanchthon treated the Reformed hallmark doctrines of the bondage of the will and justification by faith alone. This work further impacted Bullinger. Seeds of reform were being sown in his mind. At age seventeen, he embraced the pivotal truth that justification is by faith alone in Christ alone. Amid this personal transformation, Bullinger gained his master’s degree.

In 1522, Bullinger returned home to Bremgarten a new man. He continued his persistent study of Scripture along with his reading of the Church Fathers, Luther, and Melanchthon. The next year, he became the head teacher of the school at the Cistercian convent at Kappel. From 1523 to 1529, he instructed the monks from the New Testament and introduced Reformed teaching. Under his influence, Protestant worship replaced the Mass. Further, many monks became Reformed ministers.

Bullinger took a five-month leave of absence in 1527 and made a trip to Zurich. This journey proved to be life changing for him. He attended lectures by Zwingli and met the Swiss Reformer, starting a relationship that would have a profound effect on him and the future of the Swiss Reformation. He was appointed to accompany Zwingli to the Disputation in Berne, which opened on January 7, 1528. On this occasion, the Ten Theses of Berne was presented and subscribed. Through all this, Bullinger was given a privileged inside look at Reformation workings. Subsequently, Bullinger made an annual journey to Zurich to discuss theology with Zwingli. Through this close association, Zwingli became aware of Bullinger’s abilities in the Scriptures. Though neither knew it at the time, Bullinger was being prepared to become Zwingli’s successor.

Pastoring at Hausen and Bremgarten

Later in 1528, Bullinger became the part-time pastor of the village church at Hausen, near Kappel. He preached his first sermon on June 21, beginning an appointment that would allow him to develop his pulpit gifts. The following year, Heinrich Sr. publicly declared his commitment to Reformed teaching and started to reform his parish at Bremgarten. However, the elder Bullinger was forced to resign his position because of the resistance of his parishioners. In an unusual turn of events, the younger Bullinger succeeded his father as pastor of the church. He continued the biblical reform his father had begun and became known as the Reformer of Bremgarten.

Yearning for a wife, Bullinger traveled to the former Dominican convent at Oetenbach in 1529, having heard that the nuns had become Reformed. The nunnery had disbanded, but two women had stayed to establish a Protestant witness. One was Anna Adischwyler, a devoted believer. Bullinger asked her to become his wife and she accepted. Through the years, they had eleven children of their own and adopted others. Remarkably, all six of their sons became Protestant ministers.

For the next two years, Bullinger helped spread Reformed teaching through his pulpit and the beginning of his prolific writing ministry. At this time, he began his long series of commentaries on the books of the New Testament.

With the growing entrenchment of Protestant beliefs in Switzerland, Roman Catholic resistance soon arose. Five Catholic cantons (states), alarmed at the rise of Protestantism in Zurich, declared war on this Reformed stronghold in October 1531. No Protestant canton offered Zurich any support. On October 11, at the Battle of Kappel, the Protestants were ambushed and Zwingli, serving as a military chaplain, was killed. Zurich was forced to accept unfavorable terms of peace. Some regions of Switzerland, including Bremgarten, reverted to Catholicism.

Bullinger, a recognized Protestant leader, was threatened with the scaffold at Bremgarten. He fled to Zurich, where, three days later, he was prevailed upon to preach in Zwingli’s empty pulpit. So powerful was Bullinger’s preaching that the people exclaimed he must be the second coming of Zwingli. Oswald Myconius, a follower of Zwingli, said, “Like the phoenix, he [Zwingli] has risen from the ashes.” It was vitally important for the Swiss churches that Zwingli be replaced by a man of the same Reformed convictions and abounding energy in the Lord’s work. In Bullinger, they found such a man.

Chief Minister of Zurich

Six weeks later, on December 9, 1531, Bullinger, only twenty-seven years old, was unanimously elected by the Council of Zurich and the citizens to succeed Zwingli. After the council agreed to guarantee the clergy’s freedom to preach on all aspects of life in the city, Bullinger accepted the position. He became the antistes—the “chief minister”—of the city. In so doing, he assumed the leadership of the Reformed movement in German-speaking Switzerland. On December 23, he took the pulpit of the Grossmünster, a position he held for forty-four years until his death in 1575. In this role, Bullinger presided over the other churches of the cantonal synod as a sort of “Reformed bishop.” He was also responsible for the reform of the school system.

Bullinger was a tireless preacher. For the first ten years of his ministry in Zurich, he preached six or seven times a week. After 1542, he preached twice a week, on Sundays and Fridays, which allowed him to devote himself to a rigorous writing schedule. Bullinger followed Zwingli in the lectio continua method of preaching, moving verse by verse through whole books of Scripture. His expository sermons were biblical, simple, clear, and practical. In all, it is estimated that Bullinger preached in Zurich between seven thousand and seventy-five hundred sermons. These expositions became the basis for his commentaries, which covered much of the Bible.

Bullinger was also a big-hearted pastor. His house was open to widows, orphans, strangers, exiles, and persecuted brethren. He freely bestowed food, clothing, and money on those in need. Bullinger even secured a pension for Zwingli’s widow and educated Zwingli’s children with his own sons and daughters. He was a devoted pastor who produced one of the first Protestant books for comforting the sick and dying. Many of the persecuted believers of England escaped Mary Tudor’s reign of terror in Zurich, finding refuge in Bullinger’s open arms. Upon their return home, these refugees became leading English Puritans.

A man of considerable theological abilities, Bullinger helped co-author the First Helvetic Confession (1536) and played a key role in the Consensus Tigurinus (1549). The former was the first national Swiss confession; the latter was an attempt by Calvin and Bullinger to rectify Protestant disagreements over the Lord’s Supper. During the discussions over this document, Bullinger invited Calvin to Zurich for face-to-face talks. Calvin accepted the invitation. On May 20, 1549, he and William Farel journeyed to Zurich, where they met with Bullinger. Calvin and Bullinger reached an agreement regarding the sacraments that united the Reformed efforts in Geneva and Zurich. By these confessional documents, Bullinger helped galvanize Switzerland during the beginning of its Reformation period. He combated the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation in the Lord’s Supper and refuted Anabaptist teaching on baptism. However, he remained open-minded toward the various radical movements.

Throughout this time, Bullinger was consulted by English royalty, including Edward VI (1550) and Elizabeth I (1566). He viewed the leaders of the Church of England as fellow Reformed churchmen as they struggled against Rome. Portions of his book Decades were dedicated to Edward VI and Lady Jane Grey. On a broader scale, he maintained correspondence with Reformed leaders all over the Protestant world, including Philip of Hesse. His wise and balanced counsel gave much-needed direction to many in the Reformed movement.

In Bullinger’s closing years, he suffered the tragic deaths of his wife, Anna, and several of their daughters. Their lives were taken in outbreaks of the plague in 1564 and 1565. Bullinger himself became severely ill during the second outbreak. Though he survived the outbreak, his health remained poor, and he died on September 17, 1575, after four decades of tireless and effective ministry. He left behind a rich legacy in the truths of sovereign grace that helped give theological and ecclesiastical order to the Reformation.

See also:

This excerpt is taken from Pillars of Grace by Steven Lawson.