Will the sovereign God survive COVID-19? A Theological Emergency

COVID-19 is a theological emergency, more urgent than our health and economic emergencies. What will we make of God through this heart-wrenching tragedy? Will we worship the true God who rules absolutely or some kind of emasculated, dubious sort of deity? What will unbelievers around us think of God and will we be able to interact with them on our shared theological angst?

Will we worship the true God who rules absolutely or some kind of emasculated, dubious sort of deity?

Of course, we are faced with perpetual theological emergencies that make us cry out, where is God? We’re appalled by the ethical failures of abortion legislation and the moral failures of corruption in the church to highlight just two dilemmas we face today.

We rightly comfort each other with a reminder that God is in control with the promise of Romans 8, ‘that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose’.

But what do I mean when I tell someone that God is in control? Do I believe God was in control of past events that hurt people close to me? Is he in control of all the injustice, death and mayhem that plague our planet?

COVID-19 is potentially a powerful learning moment for growing in the knowledge of God. And for speaking this knowledge into our churches and the world. Do we have a robust theological framework for living and speaking by faith in the midst of plagues and all the chaos and dangers of this life?

We should be asking and answering some fundamental questions about God, for our own perseverance and for our conversations with sceptics and seekers alike.

We could survey the whole Bible and formulate answers to our questions through detailed study and meditation on God’s word. How edifying would that be? But frankly, who of us has the time, resources or capacity for such a project? We call them theologians, students of the knowledge of God.

I have two aims in writing, firstly to show how the writings of John Calvin, the 16th Century Reformer, address the hard questions that confront us today in our theological emergency. And secondly to inspire more reading of sound theology generally, and of Calvin in particular. I want to show how reading theologians like Calvin is not an optional extra for the literary or theological types but a gift from God for all of us.

Why Read Calvin and his Institutes of the Christian Religion?

I’ve become a bit obsessed with Calvin in recent years, just ask my wife and colleagues. There is a veritable cottage industry (as J.I. Packer calls it) of Calvin devotees to which some of you have belonged for years. You are more familiar with Calvin than I ever will be.

To help promote a culture of theological reading, please send me your list of the top five books on any aspect of Christian doctrine that you think all Christians should read at some stage. You can send an email to: [email protected]
We hope to publish the results of this feedback.

But from our Vinegrowers network, I have a hunch that reading books that fit the category of systematic theology (or Christian doctrine) has dropped off our priorities in many churches (depending on where you live in the world). Reading a theologian like Calvin sounds too academic, requiring specialist training and not very practical.

From an historical perspective, he was one of the seminal Reformers of the 16th Century, rescuing Christ’s church from philosophers and leading the church back to the gospel.

Personally I find Calvin helps in several ways: he organises my knowledge of the Bible so that I know God more deeply and comprehensively; he anticipates my questions and dilemmas; his logic is compelling, but he is not just solving theological puzzles; he pastors me, moving my heart to repentance and perseverance as I confront the majestic God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I resonate with Calvin’s pictorial figure of the labyrinth (or maze) which he frequently employs as a symbol of human frustration and confusion.

Let it be remembered that men’s minds, when they indulge their curiosity, enter into a labyrinth. And so, let them yield themselves to be ruled by the heavenly oracles, even though they may fail to capture the height of the mystery (1.13.21).[1]

Calvin leads me out of the maze of human opinions and toward reality in God’s Word.

Calvin leads me out of the maze of human opinions and toward reality in God’s Word.

Calvin and God’s Providence

Calvin wrote much about the subject of God’s providence, where he gives biblical answers to our fundamental questions that disturb us in a pandemic.

He is not theologizing as an intellectual exercise, for he knew all about adversity including plagues, without the health and economic systems that some of us enjoy. Calvin’s wife Idelette bore him one son who died through plague and possibly a few daughters, all of whom died in infancy. Though she survived the plague when it ravaged Geneva, Idelette died after a lengthy illness in 1549.[2]

From some selected passages in Calvin’s Institutes, let me show you how he addresses our theological emergency in the midst of a pandemic.

I have organised these passages around five questions that should be exercising our hearts and minds.

1. What does it mean that God is in control of his creation?

2. Does God send plagues, pestilence and pandemics?

3. Is God evil?

4. Why does God send particular plagues, pestilence and pandemics?

5. What are the fruits of knowing God’s providence?

Reading Calvin is Enriching but not Easy

The Institutes are highly regarded as a literary masterpiece and you will enjoy Calvin’s use of imagery and his punchy, argumentative style.

However, even with the best English translation available[3], we often need to re-read a section to get his meaning. It will feel like he is training theological students (which he was), and we may not be familiar with his philosophical and theological contexts. Nevertheless, Calvin will help us know the God of the Bible and submit to his will, which is his stated intention.

Now, in order that true religion may shine upon us, we ought to hold that it must take its beginning from heavenly doctrine and that no one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture (1.6.2).

These readings will prompt more questions rather than fully satisfying our minds.

Not surprisingly, I struggle with some of Calvin’s conclusions regarding God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Helpfully, a friend who is a serious member of the Calvin research cottage industry, pointed out that we only get a full representation of his views from reading The Institutes along with his Commentaries and Letters. Nice to know even Calvin was learning along the way as a pupil of God’s word. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counsellor?”

As I read The Institutes, I often bristle, finding his conclusions discomforting in the extreme and at the same time a comforting balm to my fears. This kind of admonition is just what I need but I don’t want to hear.

He alone has duly denied himself who has so totally resigned himself to the Lord that he permits every part of his life to be governed by God’s will. He who will be thus composed in mind, whatever happens, will not consider himself miserable nor complain of his lot with ill will toward God (3.7.10).

I have been shocked by my bias toward a prosperity gospel (that good comes from God, but not adversity), my closet deism (God governs in a general way but not in every detail of his creation), my expectations of ease rather than suffering, my hope more anchored in this life than the impending resurrection life of the redeemed.

My aim is to let Calvin speak without commentary from me.

It’s best to read each excerpt out loud or with others, to help you focus on what Calvin is saying and how we apply this to our confusion, doubts and fears. Take the time to look up the biblical references to hear the voice of God.

At the end of the quotations from The Institutes, I have included one of Calvin’s plague prayers from his Geneva liturgy of 1542.

It’s a wonderful prayer that captures the mind and heart of this godly pastor and theologian who trusted in the Providence of our God and Saviour for this life and eternal life. Here is one sentence to indicate the disposition of Calvin before his God in the midst of plague.

Now were you to punish us more rigorously than you have done so far, and were we to be inflicted by a hundred plagues instead of one—even if the curses with which you previously corrected the faults of your people Israel were to fall upon us—we confess that it would truly be just, and we would not dispute that we deserve it.

May we be ‘filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God’ (Col 1:9).

If reading these Calvin morsels whets your appetite, here are two suggestions to ease your way into Calvin’s writings.

Read Calvin’s, A Little Book on the Christian Life. It’s available in print and on Kindle and was incorporated into his Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book 3, Chapter XII). It is only 132 short pages!

Take a look at Justin Taylor’s article, How to Read Calvin’s Institutes and Why You Should Seriously Consider It

Readings from Calvin’s Institutes on God’s Providence and Governance as Creator and Redeemer 


i. God as creator will govern and preserve his creation (1.16.1)[4]

But faith ought to penetrate more deeply, namely, having found him Creator of all, forthwith to conclude he is also everlasting Governor and Preserver—not only in that he drives the celestial frame as well as its several parts by a universal motion, but also in that he sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made, even to the least sparrow (Matt. 10:29; Ps 33:6, 13-15; Ps 104:27-30).

ii. There are no such things as fortune or chance (1.16.2)

We must know that God’s providence, as it is taught in Scripture, is opposed to fortune and fortuitous happenings. Now it has been commonly accepted in all ages, and almost all mortals hold the same opinion today, that all things come about through chance. What we ought to believe concerning providence is by this depraved opinion most certainly not only beclouded, but almost buried.

But anyone who has been taught by Christ’s lips that all the hairs of his head are numbered (Matt. 10:30) … will consider that all events are governed by God’s secret plan.

iii. God’s providence governs all by his unlimited power and particular deliberation (1.16.3)

And truly God claims, and would have us grant him, omnipotence—not the empty, idle, and almost unconscious sort that the Sophists [philosophers] imagine, but a watchful, effective, active sort, engaged in ceaseless activity. Not, indeed, an omnipotence that is only a general principle of confused motion, as if he were to command a river to flow through its once-appointed channels, but one that is directed toward individual and particular motions.

Governing heaven and earth by his providence, he so regulates things that nothing takes place without his deliberation. For when, in The Psalms, it is said that “he does whatever he wills” (Ps. 115:3) a certain and deliberate will is meant… In times of adversity believers comfort themselves with the solace that they suffer nothing except by God’s ordinance and command, for they are under his hand.

Those who ascribe just praise to God’s omnipotence […] may safely rest in the protection of him to whose will are subject all the harmful things which, whatever their source, we may fear; whose authority curbs Satan with all his furies and his whole equipage; and upon whose nod depends whatever opposes our welfare.

iv. God’s governance is not mere foreknowledge (1.16.4)

And indeed, when Abraham said to his son, “God will provide” (Gen. 22:8), he meant not only to assert God’s foreknowledge of a future event, but to cast the care of a matter unknown to him upon the will of Him who is wont to give a way out of things perplexed and confused. Whence it follows that providence is lodged in the act; for many babble too ignorantly of bare foreknowledge.

v. God’s governance is not only general but also in particular events (1.16.4 & 5)

I propose to refute the opinion (which almost universally obtains) that concedes to God some kind of blind and ambiguous motion, while taking from him the chief thing: that he directs everything by his incomprehensible wisdom and disposes it to his own end. And so, in name only, not in fact, it makes God the Ruler of the universe because it deprives him of his control. What, I pray you, is it to have control but so to be in authority that you rule in a determined order those things over which you are placed (John 5:17; Acts 17:28; Heb.1:3)?

We must prove God so attends to the regulation of individual events, and they all so proceed from his set plan, that nothing takes place by chance… But because it would take too long to collect all the reasons, let the authority of God himself suffice (Lev. 26:3–4, 19; Deut. 11:12–14; 28:12, 22; Isa. 28:2; Hag. 2:18–19).

vi. Natural occurrences prove God’s special providence (1.16.7)

Particular events are generally testimonies of the character of God’s singular providence. [Calvin goes on to say that the Bible attributes these peculiar natural occurrences to God—the weather (Ps. 107:25–29; Amos 4:9), conception (Gen. 30:2; Ps. 113:9), provision of food (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4; Isa. 3:1; Matt. 6:11; Ps. 136:25)].

vii. God’s providence does not excuse us from due prudence (1.17.4)

“Man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord will direct his steps” (Prov. 16:9). This means that we are not at all hindered by God’s eternal decrees either from looking ahead for ourselves or from putting all our affairs in order, but always in submission to his will. The reason is obvious. For he who has set the limits to our life has at the same time entrusted to us its care; he has provided means and helps to preserve it; he has also made us able to foresee dangers; that they may not overwhelm us unaware, he has offered precautions and remedies. Now it is very clear what our duty is: thus, if the Lord has committed to us the protection of our life, our duty is to protect it; if he offers helps, to use them; if he forewarns us of dangers, not to plunge headlong; if he makes remedies available, not to neglect them.

vii. God’s providence does not exculpate our wickedness (1.17.5)

The same men wrongly and rashly lay the happenings of past time to the naked providence of God. For since on it depends everything that happens, therefore, say they, neither thefts, nor adulteries, nor murders take place without God’s will intervening. Why therefore, they ask, should a thief be punished, who has plundered someone whom the Lord would punish with poverty? Why shall a murderer be punished, who has killed one whose life the Lord had ended? If all such men are serving God’s will, why shall they be punished?

On the contrary, I deny that they are serving God’s will. For we shall not say that one who is motivated by an evil inclination, by only obeying his own wicked desire, renders service to God at His bidding. A man, having learned of His will, obeys God in striving toward the goal to which he is called by that same will. From what source do we learn but from his Word? In such fashion we must in our deeds search out God’s will which he declares through his Word. God requires of us only what he commands.

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i. Filthy plagues derive from the curse upon Adam and his offspring (2.1.5)

As it was the spiritual life of Adam to remain united and bound to his Maker, so estrangement from him was the death of his soul. Nor is it any wonder that he consigned his race to ruin by his rebellion when he perverted the whole order of nature in heaven and on earth. “All creatures,” says Paul, “are groaning” (Rom. 8:22), “subject to corruption, not of their own will” (Rom. 8:20]. If the cause is sought, there is no doubt that they are bearing part of the punishment deserved by man, for whose use they were created. Since, therefore, the curse, which goes about through all the regions of the world, flowed hither and yon from Adam’s guilt, it is not unreasonable if it is spread to all his offspring. Therefore, after the heavenly image was obliterated in him, he was not the only one to suffer this punishment—that, in place of wisdom, virtue, holiness, truth, and justice, with which adornments he had been clad, there came forth the most filthy plagues, blindness, impotence, impurity, vanity, and injustice—but he also entangled and immersed his offspring in the same miseries.

ii. We all share Adam’s guilt and so are entangled in the curse (2.1.8)

We must, therefore, distinctly note these two things. First, we are so vitiated and perverted in every part of our nature that by this great corruption we stand justly condemned and convicted before God, to whom nothing is acceptable but righteousness, innocence, and purity. And this is not liability for another’s transgression. For, since it is said that we became subject to God’s judgment through Adam’s sin, we are to understand it not as if we, guiltless and undeserving, bore the guilt of his offense but in the sense that, since we through his transgression have become entangled in the curse, he is said to have made us guilty. Yet not only has punishment fallen upon us from Adam, but a contagion imparted by him resides in us, which justly deserves punishment… And the Apostle himself most eloquently testifies that “death has spread to all because all have sinned” (Rom 5:12).

iii. God sends particular adversities as a call to repentance (1.17.8)

Certainty about God’s providence helps us in all adversities. If anything adverse happens, straightway he will raise up his heart here also unto God, whose hand can best impress patience and peaceful moderation of mind upon us.

But if the destruction and misery that press upon us happen without human agency, let us recall the teaching of the law: “Whatever is prosperous flows from the fountain of God’s blessing, and all adversities are his curses” (Deut. 28:2 ff., 15 ff.). Let this dreadful warning terrify us: “If you happen to walk contrary to me, I will also happen to walk contrary to you” (Lev. 26:23–24). In these words, our sluggishness is rebuked as a crime; for after the common sense of the flesh we regard as fortuitous whatever happens either way, whether good or evil, and so are neither aroused by God’s benefits to worship him, nor stimulated by lashes to repentance. It is for this same reason that Jeremiah and Amos bitterly expostulated with the Jews, for they thought both good and evil happened without God’s command (Lam. 3:38; Amos 3:6). In the same vein is Isaiah’s declaration: “I, God, creating light and forming darkness, making peace and creating evil: I, God, do all these’ (Isa. 45:7).

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i. God is pure from every stain

God so uses the works of the ungodly, and so bends their minds to carry out his judgments, that he remains pure from every stain (Title of Book 1, Chapter 18).

ii. No mere “permission” (1.18.1)

From other passages, where God is said to bend or draw Satan himself and all the wicked to his will, there emerges a more difficult question. For carnal sense can hardly comprehend how in acting through them he does not contract some defilement from their transgression, and even in a common undertaking can be free of all blame, and indeed can justly condemn his ministers. Hence the distinction was devised between doing and permitting. Because to many this difficulty seemed inexplicable, that Satan and all the impious are so under God’s hand and power that he directs their malice to whatever end seems good to him and uses their wicked deeds to carry out his judgments.

However, that men can accomplish nothing except by God’s secret command, that they cannot by deliberating accomplish anything except what he has already decreed with himself and determines by his secret direction, is proved by innumerable and clear testimonies. What we have cited before from the psalm, that God does whatever he wills (Ps. 115:3), certainly pertains to all the actions of men.

From the first chapter of Job we know that Satan, no less than the angels who willingly obey, presents himself before God (Job 1:6; 2:1) to receive his commands. He does so, indeed, in a different way and with a different end; but he still cannot undertake anything unless God so wills. However, even though a bare permission to afflict the holy man seems then to be added, yet we gather that God was the author of that trial of which Satan and his wicked thieves were the ministers, because this statement is true: “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away; as it has pleased God, so is it done” (Job 1:21).

The Jews intended to destroy Christ; Pilate and his soldiers complied with their mad desire; yet in solemn prayer the disciples confess that all the impious ones had done nothing except what “the hand and plan” of God had decreed (Acts 4:28). So, Peter had already preached that “by the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, Christ had been given over” to be killed (Acts 2:23). It is as if he were to say that God, to whom from the beginning nothing was hidden, wittingly and willingly determined what the Jews carried out. As he elsewhere states: “God, who has foretold through all his prophets that Christ is going to suffer, has thus fulfilled it” (Acts 3:18).

iii. Even when God uses the deeds of the godless for his purposes, he does not suffer reproach (1.18.4)

We ought, indeed, to hold fast by this: while God accomplishes through the wicked what he has decreed by his secret judgment, they are not excusable, as if they had obeyed his precept which out of their own lust they deliberately break.

[Calvin provides various Scriptural proofs here.]

Let those for whom this seems harsh consider for a little while how bearable their squeamishness is in refusing a thing attested by clear Scriptural proofs because it exceeds their mental capacity, and find fault that things are put forth publicly, which if God had not judged useful for men to know, he would never have bidden his prophets and apostles to teach. For our wisdom ought to be nothing else than to embrace with humble teachableness, and at least without finding fault, whatever is taught in Sacred Scripture. Those who too insolently scoff, even though it is clear enough that they are prating against God, are not worthy of a longer refutation.

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i. God, in his providential acts, reveals his concern for mankind, but especially the church (1.17.1)

Scripture teaches that all things are divinely ordained… that God may reveal his concern for the whole human race, but especially his vigilance in ruling the church, which he deigns to watch more closely.

ii. God’s purposes are hidden but we are to learn from his favour and judgment (1.17.1)

Although either fatherly favour and beneficence or severity of judgment often shine forth in the whole course of providence, nevertheless sometimes the causes of the events are hidden. So, the thought creeps in that human affairs turn and whirl at the blind urge of fortune; as if God were making sport of men by throwing them about like balls.

It is, indeed, true that if we had quiet and composed minds ready to learn, the final outcome would show that God always has the best reason for his plan: either to instruct his own people in patience, or to correct their wicked affections and tame their lust, or to subjugate them to self-denial, or to arouse them from sluggishness; again, to bring low the proud, to shatter the cunning of the impious and to overthrow their devices.

iii. God’s purpose is always our praise and repentance for his glory (1.17.1)

Yet however hidden and fugitive from our point of view the causes may be, we must hold that they are surely laid up with him, and hence we must exclaim with David: “Great, O God, are the wondrous deeds that thou hast done, and thy thoughts toward us cannot be reckoned; if I try to speak, they would be more than can be told” (Ps. 40:5). For even though in our miseries our sins ought always to come to mind, that punishment itself may incite us to repentance, yet we see how Christ claims for the Father’s secret plan a broader justice than simply punishing each one as he deserves.

For concerning the man born blind he says: “Neither he nor his parents sinned, but that God’s glory may be manifested in him” [John 9:3]. For here our nature cries out, when calamity comes before birth itself, as if God with so little mercy thus punished the undeserving. Yet Christ testifies that in this miracle the glory of his Father shines, provided our eyes be pure.

iv. God’s sovereign rule calls us to humility (1.17.1)

We do not try to make God render account to us, but so reverence his secret judgments as to consider his will the truly just cause of all things.

Therefore no one will weigh God’s providence properly and profitably but him who considers that his business is with his Maker and the Framer of the universe, and with becoming humility submits himself to fear and reverence.

v. God’s incomprehensible plans are mysteries revealed in Christ (1.17.2)

Whatever happens in the universe is governed by God’s incomprehensible plans… concerning which Paul also says: “O depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor?’” (Rom. 11:33–34; cf. Isa. 40:13–14).

And it is, indeed, true that in the law and the gospel are comprehended mysteries which tower far above the reach of our senses. But since God illumines the minds of his own with the spirit of discernment (Isa. 11:2) for the understanding of these mysteries which he has deigned to reveal by his Word, now no abyss is here; rather, a way in which we ought to walk in safety, and a lamp to guide our feet (Ps. 119:105), the light of life (cf. John 1:4; 8:12), and the school of sure and clear truth.

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i. God’s providence is solace for believers (1.17.6)

The Christian heart, since it has been thoroughly persuaded that all things happen by God’s plan… will not doubt that God’s singular providence keeps watch to preserve it and will not suffer anything to happen but what may turn out to its good and salvation… As far as men are concerned, whether they are good or evil, the heart of the Christian will know that their plans, wills, efforts, and abilities are under God’s hand; that it is within his choice to bend them whither he pleases and to constrain them whenever he pleases.

There are very many and very clear promises that testify that God’s singular providence watches over the welfare of believers:

“Cast your care upon the Lord, and he will nourish you, and will never permit the righteous man to flounder” (Ps. 55:22). For he takes care of us (I Peter 5:7). “He who dwells in the help of the Most High will abide in the protection of the God of heaven” (Ps. 91:1). “He who touches you touches the pupil of mine eye” (Zech. 2:8). “I will be your shield” (Gen. 15:1), “a brazen wall” (Jer. 1:18; 15:20); “I will contend with those who contend with you” (Isa. 49:25); “Even though a mother may forget her children, yet will I not forget you” (Isa. 49:15). Indeed, the principal purpose of Biblical history is to teach that the Lord watches over the ways of the saints with such great diligence that they do not even stumble.

ii. Without certainty about God’s providence life would be unbearable (1.17.10)

Innumerable are the evils that beset human life; innumerable, too, the deaths that threaten it. We need not go beyond ourselves: since our body is the receptacle of a thousand diseases—in fact holds within itself and fosters the causes of diseases – a man cannot go about unburdened by many forms of his own destruction, and without drawing out a life enveloped, as it were, with death.

Wherever you turn, all things around you not only are hardly to be trusted but almost openly menace, and seem to threaten immediate death… Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs… But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden. Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse upon you. Your field, since it is exposed to hail, frost, drought, and other calamities, threatens you with barrenness, and hence, famine. I pass over poisonings, ambushes, robberies, open violence, which in part besiege us at home, in part dog us abroad.

Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable, since, but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck?

You will say: these events rarely happen, or at least not all the time, nor to all men, and never all at once. I agree; but since we are warned by the examples of others that these can also happen to ourselves, and that our life ought not to be excepted any more than theirs, we cannot but be frightened and terrified as if such events were about to happen to us. What, therefore, more calamitous can you imagine than such trepidation?

Besides that, if we say that God has exposed man, the noblest of creatures, to all sorts of blind and heedless blows of fortune, we are not guiltless of reproaching God. But here I propose to speak only of that misery which man will feel if he is brought under the sway of fortune.

iii. Certainty about God’s providence puts joyous trust toward God in our hearts (1.17.11)

Yet, when that light of divine providence has once shone upon a godly man, he is then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that were pressing before, but from every care. For as he justly dreads fortune, so he fearlessly dares commit himself to God.

His solace, I say, is to know that his Heavenly Father so holds all things in his power, so rules by his authority and will, so governs by his wisdom, that nothing can befall except he determine it. Moreover, it comforts him to know that he has been received into God’s safekeeping and entrusted to the care of his angels, and that neither water, nor fire, nor iron can harm him, except in so far as it pleases God as governor to give them occasion.

Thus, indeed the psalm sings: “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. Under his wings will he protect you, and in his pinions you will have assurance; his truth will be your shield. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the flying arrow by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at midday” (Ps. 91:3–6). From this, also, arises in the saints the assurance that they may glory. “The Lord is my helper” (Ps. 118:6); “I will not fear what flesh can do against me” (Ps. 56:4). “The Lord is my protector; what shall I fear?” (Ps. 27:1). “If armies should stand together against me” (Ps. 27:3), “if I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4).

Whence, I pray you, do they have this never-failing assurance but from knowing that, when the world appears to be aimlessly tumbled about, the Lord is everywhere at work, and from trusting that his work will be for their welfare? Now if their welfare is assailed either by the devil or by wicked men, then indeed, unless strengthened through remembering and meditating upon providence, they must needs quickly faint away. But let them recall that the devil and the whole cohort of the wicked are completely restrained by God’s hand as by a bridle, so that they are unable either to hatch any plot against us… except so far as he has permitted, indeed commanded. Let them, also, recall that the devil and his crew are not only fettered, but also curbed and compelled to do service.

Such thoughts will provide them abundant comfort.

iv. Self-denial helps us bear adversity (3.7.10)

He alone has duly denied himself who has so totally resigned himself to the Lord that he permits every part of his life to be governed by God’s will. He who will be thus composed in mind, whatever happens, will not consider himself miserable nor complain of his lot with ill will toward God.

How necessary this disposition is will appear if you weigh the many chance happenings to which we are subject. Various diseases repeatedly trouble us: now plague rages; now we are cruelly beset by the calamities of war; now ice and hail, consuming the year’s expectation, lead to barrenness, which reduces us to poverty; wife, parents, children, neighbours, are snatched away by death; our house is burned by fire.

It is on account of these occurrences that men curse their life, loathe the day of their birth, abominate heaven and the light of day, rail against God, and as they are eloquent in blasphemy, accuse him of injustice and cruelty.

But in these matters the believer must also look to God’s kindness and truly fatherly indulgence. Accordingly, if he sees his house reduced to solitude by the removal of his kinsfolk, he will not indeed even then cease to bless the Lord, but rather will turn his attention to this thought: nevertheless, the grace of the Lord, which dwells in my house, will not leave it desolate. Or, if his crops are blasted by frost, or destroyed by ice, or beaten down with hail, and he sees famine threatening, yet he will not despair or bear a grudge against God, but will remain firm in this trust: “Nevertheless we are in the Lord’s protection, sheep brought up in his pastures” (Ps. 79:13).

The Lord will therefore supply food to us even in extreme barrenness. If he shall be afflicted by disease, he will not even then be so unmanned by the harshness of pain as to break forth into impatience and expostulate with God; but, by considering the righteousness and gentleness of God’s chastening, he will recall himself to forbearance.

In short, whatever happens, because he will know it ordained of God, he will undergo it with a peaceful and grateful mind so as not obstinately to resist the command of him into whose power he once for all surrendered himself and his every possession.

Especially let that foolish and most miserable consolation of the pagans be far away from the breast of the Christian man; to strengthen their minds against adversities, they charged these to fortune. Against fortune they considered it foolish to be angry because she was blind and unthinking, with unseeing eyes wounding the deserving and the undeserving at the same time. On the contrary, the rule of piety is that God’s hand alone is the judge and governor of fortune, good or bad, and that it does not rush about with heedless force, but with most orderly justice deals out good as well as ill to us.

v. The Christian, unlike the Stoic, gives expression to his pain and sorrow (3.8.9)

This struggle which believers when they strive for patience and moderation maintain against the natural feeling of sorrow is fittingly described by Paul in these words: “We are pressed in every way but not rendered anxious; we are afflicted but not left destitute; we endure persecution but in it are not deserted; we are cast down but do not perish” (II Cor. 4:8–9). You see that patiently to bear the cross is not to be utterly stupefied and to be deprived of all feeling of pain. It is not as the Stoics of old foolishly described “the great-souled man”: one who, having cast off all human qualities, was affected equally by adversity and prosperity, by sad times and happy ones—nay, who like a stone was not affected at all. And what did this sublime wisdom profit them? They painted a likeness of forbearance that has never been found among men and can never be realized.

Rather, while they want to, they have banished its power from human life. Now, among the Christians there are also new Stoics, who count it depraved not only to groan and weep but also to be sad and care ridden. These paradoxes proceed, for the most part, from idle men who, exercising themselves more in speculation than in action, can do nothing but invent such paradoxes for us. Yet we have nothing to do with this iron philosophy which our Lord and Master has condemned not only by his word, but also by his example. For he groaned and wept both over his own and others’ misfortunes. And he taught his disciples in the same way: “The world,” he says, “will rejoice; but you will be sorrowful and will weep” (John 16:20). And that no one might turn it into a vice, he openly proclaimed, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matt. 5:4). No wonder! For if all weeping is condemned, what shall we judge concerning the Lord himself, from whose body tears of blood trickled down (Luke 22:44)? If all fear is branded as unbelief, how shall we account for that dread with which, we read, he was heavily stricken (Matt. 26:37; Mark 14:33)? If all sadness displeases us, how will it please us that he confesses his soul “sorrowful even to death” (Matt. 26:38)?

vi. For the elect, God’s eternal providence is assured through faith in his Son (2.6.4)

Let the first step toward godliness be to recognize that God is our Father to watch over us, govern and nourish us, until he gather us unto the eternal inheritance of his Kingdom. Hence, what we have recently said becomes clear, that apart from Christ the saving knowledge of God does not stand. From the beginning of the world he had consequently been set before all the elect that they should look unto him and put their trust in him.

vii. Our hope is in Christ’s Governance (2.16.15)

“Seated at the right hand of the Father.” The comparison is drawn from kings who have assessors at their side to whom they delegate the tasks of ruling and governing. So it was said that Christ, in whom the Father wills to be exalted and through whose hand he wills to reign, was received at God’s right hand. This is as if it were said that Christ was invested with lordship over heaven and earth, and solemnly entered into possession of the government committed to him—and that he not only entered into possession once for all, but continues in it, until he shall come down on Judgment Day. For the apostle so expounds it when he states: “The Father made him sit at his right hand … far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come” (Eph. 1:20–21; cf. Phil. 2:9). Also, “He has put all things in subjection under his feet” (I Cor. 15:27) and “has made him the head over all things for the church” (Eph. 1:22). You see the purpose of that “sitting”: that both heavenly and earthly creatures may look with admiration upon his majesty, be ruled by his hand, obey his nod, and submit to his power.

viii. Many benefits are imparted to our faith by Christ’s ascension (2.16.16)

From this our faith receives many benefits. First it understands that the Lord by his ascent to heaven opened the way into the Heavenly Kingdom, which had been closed through Adam (John 14:3). Since he entered heaven in our flesh, as if in our name, it follows, as the apostle says, that in a sense we already “sit with God in the heavenly places in him” (Eph. 2:6), so that we do not await heaven with a bare hope, but in our Head already possess it.

Secondly, as faith recognizes, it is to our great benefit that Christ resides with the Father. For, having entered a sanctuary not made with hands, he appears before the Father’s face as our constant advocate and intercessor (Heb. 7:25; 9:11–12; Rom. 8:34). Thus, he turns the Father’s eyes to his own righteousness to avert his gaze from our sins. He so reconciles the Father’s heart to us that by his intercession he prepares a way and access for us to the Father’s throne. He fills with grace and kindness the throne that for miserable sinners would otherwise have been filled with dread.

Thirdly, faith comprehends his might, in which reposes our strength, power, wealth, and glorying against hell. “When he ascended into heaven, he led a captivity captive” (Eph. 4:8; cf. Ps. 68:18), and despoiling his enemies, he enriched his own people, and daily lavishes spiritual riches upon them. He therefore sits on high, transfusing us with his power, that he may quicken us to spiritual life, sanctify us by his Spirit, adorn his church with divers gifts of his grace, keep it safe from all harm by his protection, restrain the raging enemies of his cross and of our salvation by the strength of his hand, and finally hold all power in heaven and on earth. All this he does until he shall lay low all his enemies (I Cor. 15:25; cf. Ps. 110:1) – who are our enemies too – and complete the building of his church. This is the true state of his Kingdom; this is the power that the Father has conferred upon him, until, in coming to judge the living and the dead, he accomplishes his final act.

ix. The fear of death is a monstrous sign of immaturity for a Christian (3.9.5)

But monstrous it is that many who boast themselves Christians are gripped by such a great fear of death, rather than a desire for it, that they tremble at the least mention of it, as of something utterly dire and disastrous. Surely, it is no wonder if the natural awareness in us bristles with dread at the mention of our dissolution. But it is wholly unbearable that there is not in Christian hearts any light of piety to overcome and suppress that fear, whatever it is, by a greater consolation. For if we deem this unstable, defective, corruptible, fleeting, wasting, rotting tabernacle of our body to be so dissolved that it is soon renewed unto a firm, perfect, incorruptible, and finally, heavenly glory, will not faith compel us ardently to seek what nature dreads? If we should think that through death we are recalled from exile to dwell in the fatherland, in the heavenly fatherland, would we get no comfort from this fact?

Let us, however, consider this settled: that no one has made progress in the school of Christ who does not joyfully await the day of death and final resurrection. Paul, too, distinguishes all believers by this mark (Titus 2:13; cf. II Tim. 4:8), and Scripture habitually recalls us to it whenever it would set forth proof of perfect happiness. “Rejoice,” says the Lord, “and raise your heads; for your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). Is it reasonable, I ask you, that what our Lord meant to be sufficient to arouse us to rejoicing and good cheer should engender nothing but sorrow and dismay? If this is so, why do we still boast of him as our Master? Let us, then, take hold of a sounder view, and even though the blind and stupid desire of the flesh resists, let us not hesitate to await the Lord’s coming, not only with longing, but also with groaning and sighs, as the happiest thing of all. He will come to us as Redeemer and rescuing us from this boundless abyss of all evils and miseries, he will lead us into that blessed inheritance of his life and glory.

Calvin’s Plague Prayer of Repentance (Geneva Liturgy 1542)[5]

Introduction for worshippers

Since Scripture teaches us that plagues, wars, and other such adversities are visitations from God, by which he punishes our sins; when we see them coming, we ought to know that God is angry with us; and if we are truly faithful, we are to acknowledge our faults in order to be displeased with ourselves, turning back to the Lord in repentance and change of life, and pray to him in true humility in order to obtain forgiveness.


Almighty God, heavenly Father, we acknowledge in ourselves and confess as truth, that we are not worthy to lift up our eyes to heaven to present ourselves in your presence, and that if you were to look at what is in us we should not presume that our prayers be answered by you, for our consciences accuse us and our sins testify against us and we know that you are a righteous Judge, who does not acquit sinners and the wicked, but punishes the faults of those who have transgressed your commandments.

Thus, Lord, as we consider our whole life, we are ashamed in our hearts, and we can do nothing other than to beat ourselves and despair, as though we were already in the abyss of death. Nevertheless, Lord, since it has pleased you, in your infinite mercy, to command us to call upon you even from the depths of hell; and since the more we grow faint in ourselves the more we find our refuge in your sovereign goodness; and since you have promised to receive our requests and supplications, not considering what is our own dignity, but through the name and merit of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom you have established as our Intercessor and Advocate, as we renounce all human confidence, we are emboldened by your sheer goodness to present ourselves before you and call upon your holy name, in order to receive grace and mercy.

We have not given your holy Word the honour or obedience such as we owe to it; we have not exalted and magnified you as we should. And although you have always faithfully admonished us through your Word, we have not listened to your rebukes. So we have sinned, Lord. We have offended you. For this we bear shame and ignominy upon ourselves, acknowledging that we are seriously guilty before your judgment; and that if you were to deal with us according to what we deserve, only death and damnation would await us. For when we would excuse ourselves, our conscience accuses us, and our iniquity is before you to condemn us.

And indeed, Lord, we see by the chastisements that have already come upon us that you have rightly been angry with us. For since you are righteous and fair, you do not afflict your own without cause. Therefore, having been beaten by your rods, we acknowledge that we have provoked you. And now, we still see your hand uplifted, ready to punish us, for the swords that you usually use to execute your vengeance are now deployed, and all the threats that you raise against sinners and the wicked are ready.

Now were you to punish us more rigorously than you have done so far, and were we to be inflicted by a hundred plagues instead of one—even if the curses with which you previously corrected the faults of your people Israel were to fall upon us—we confess that it would truly be just, and we would not dispute that we deserve it.

But Lord, you are our Father and we are but dust and filth; you are our Creator and we are the work of your hands; you are our Shepherd, we are your flock; you are our Redeemer, we are the people that you have purchased; you are our God, we are your inheritance. Therefore, do not be angry with us to correct us in your fury. No longer remember our iniquity to punish it, but chastise us gently in your kindness. Your wrath is kindled because of our demerits; but remember that your name has been pronounced over us and that we bear your mark and standard. And continue, rather, the work that you have begun in us by your grace, that all the earth might know that you are our God and our Saviour.

You know that the dead who are in hell and those whom you will have defeated and put to shame will not praise you [Ps. 115:17]; but the sad and desolate souls, the downcast hearts, the consciences oppressed by the sense of their evil, and deeply hungering for your grace, will give you glory and praise. Your people Israel provoked you to anger many times by their iniquity; you afflicted them in your righteous judgment; but when they came back to you, you always welcomed them in mercy. And whatever grief their transgressions caused, out of the love of your covenant, which you had established with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you turned away the rods and curses you had prepared for them, such that you never rejected their prayers.

We have, by your grace, a much better covenant, to which we can appeal; the one you have made and established by the hand of Jesus Christ our Saviour, which you wanted written in his blood and ratified by his death and passion.

So Lord, as we renounce ourselves and any other human hope, we turn to this blessed covenant through which our Lord Jesus, offering his body as a sacrifice, reconciled us to you. Therefore, Lord, look at the face of your Christ and not us, that by his intercession your wrath might be appeased and your face might shine upon us in joy and salvation; and be pleased from now on to guide us in your holiness and govern us by your Spirit, who regenerates us to a better life, through which, your name be sanctified; your reign come; your will be done on earth as in heaven; give us today our daily bread; and forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil; for to you belong the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

[1] 1.13.21 refers to The Institutes, Book 1, Chapter 13, Section 21

[2] Mark Earngey’s lecture on ‘Protestants and Plagues’, surveys the various responses of the Reformers to plagues.

“Calvin had seen so many suffer … and often little children: Huldrych Zwingli’s son William; Johannes Oecolampadius’ son Euzebe; and even his own children.  In a letter to Pierre Viret in 1542, he writes that “The Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our infant son.”  And in a letter to Guillaume Farel in 1544, he writes that “The pestilence again alarms us, and seems to be on the increase. My little daughter labours under a continual fever.” We can, therefore, understand something about Calvin’s extensive efforts to care for others who suffered the plague.  Writing after Calvin’s death, Theodore Beza, remembered how when he was suffering from the plague in Lausanne during 1551, it was John Calvin and Pierre Viret who bent over backwards to care for him from afar.”

[3] J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeil. Translated and indexed by Ford Lewis Battles (The Westminster Press, Louisville KY: 1960)

[4] These quotations are excerpts from the section referenced and not the whole section (in this case Book I, Chapter16, Section 1).

[5] Jonathan Gibson, Mark Earngey. Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2018), 318-21.