Review: John Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians.

ARCANE AND GERMANE BOOK REVIEWS #4

“After reading a new book, never allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
“All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”
(C.S. Lewis)


Preaching – Engine of the Reformation

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. (Ephesians 1:3)

The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. (Ephesians 2:20)

Jesus Christ is our wisdom … He is the fountain of all good and has in him whatever is necessary for our salvation…He is the foundation of the church and…we ought to be settled on him…because God has revealed himself fully to us by his only Son.[1]

Sermons On The Epistle To The Ephesians
John Calvin
Sermons On The Epistle To The Ephesians
John Calvin
Banner of Truth.

$44.99 at Reformers’ Bookshop

(Older translations of Calvin’s Ephesians series can be found online – here, for example – see from p112)

The great French Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) was many things, but first and fore-most, a preacher whose life’s work was to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ from all the Scriptures. He was one of the greatest humanist scholars of the Renaissance and Reformation. He combined careful scholarship and a vast knowledge of ancient and contemporary sources, with expertise in Latin and the biblical languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek). But more fundamentally, he was a man gripped by God’s glory in the service of God’s people. Compelled by God’s sovereign and holy love, Calvin ‘offered his heart promptly and sincerely’[2] to his Saviour, not least in his unceasing and urgent labours to proclaim God’s word, and to train others in the same:

Let the pastor boldly dare all things by the word of God…Let them constrain all the power, glory, and excellence of the world to give place to and to obey the divine majesty of this word. Let them enjoin everyone by it, from the highest to the lowest. Let them edify the body of Christ. Let them devastate Satan’s reign. Let them pasture the sheep, kill the wolves, instruct and exhort the rebellious. Let them bind and loose, thunder and lightning, if necessary, but let them do all according to the word of God. [3]

Like Luther before him, Calvin was convinced that the Scriptures had remained closed for too long. There was a famine of God’s word, and if the church and her shepherds remained in darkness the world was lost. Men, women and children were starving for want of Jesus the true bread of life; and Calvin and his co-workers understood that there was no greater need but that they be fed by his word (e.g. John 5:31-47; 6:60-65; 8:12-30; 10:1-21etc). It was a matter of eternal consequence that the whole Bible be translated into the native tongues of people everywhere, and proclaimed from pulpits as faithfully, clearly, and as quickly as possible. Calvin preached like a man on fire; an average of five new sermons a week (from the OT on week days, and from the NT and the Psalms on Sundays. This was on top of his lectures on the Bible, commentary writing, theological writing, personal mentoring and letter writing). Just as urgently these sermons were taken down in short-hand by a co-worker as he preached, published in full, translated, and quickly disseminated throughout Europe and England.

Calvin preached like a man on fire; an average of five new sermons a week on top of his lectures on the Bible, commentary writing, theological writing, personal mentoring and letter writing

Just as The Beatles were not the first rock and roll band, but became the prototype; an enduring standard for what a band should be; Calvin, while certainly not the first commentator or preacher, was used by God to teach God’s people how to preach again, and how to carefully listen to God’s word.[4] Calvin’s biblical theology, which was constantly informed by his methodical exegesis of the original text, has provided a clear model for teachers and preachers throughout the ages—and 450 years later, continues to be widely emulated.[5] More than anything else, Calvin’s expository preaching of the Scriptures became the engine of the Reformer’s world-wide ministry. Peter Adam writes:

[Calvin’s] aim was to let God have his say, to project God’s eloquence, to help the congregation hear the voice of God. Calvin’s sermons, heard in Geneva, written down, published, translated and published again, helped to reform Europe.[6]

The Power of Preaching

The Bible is the word of Christ spoken and now written for us by his Spirit, through his chosen human servants (e.g. Deut 29:29; Is 55:8-11; Mark 4:1-20; John 16:12-15;17:20; 1Thes 1:5 cf. 2:13; Eph 2:20; 3:2-13; 2Tim 3:16-17; Heb 3:7f cf. 4:12-13; 2Pet 1:19-21; James 1:16-25; Rev 1:9-20). The Scriptures are powerful and effective; and sufficient to accomplish God’s glorious purposes which find their centre in the gospel of the Lord Jesus. When his word is preached, God is present and powerfully at work in and amongst his people:

Where there is preaching, there God’s voice rings in our ears.[7]

Therefore we must learn to see God when it pleases him to reveal himself to us, which He does as often as Jesus Christ is preached to us.[8]

God works by his words that are preached to us. It is not a bare voice that sounds in the air and disappears. For God puts into his words the power of his Holy Spirit.[9]

Calvin expounded the Scriptures; and through this lens also the human condition and the events of the world around him. He was a passionate and succinct preacher who sought to serve his hearers in love. He stated his points clearly, summarised regularly, and applied the text deeply. As a preacher he was also an evangelist. He proclaimed Christ and prayerfully called for confident faith and deep repentance in response to Jesus’ all sufficient death and resurrection.

Samples and Soundings

The Scottish Reformer John Knox was in exile in Geneva at the time these sermons were first delivered. It is said that on his death bed Knox asked for them to be read to him. But I say, why wait until then?! Here are some tasty morsels to whet the appetite.

Jesus is all

God gives us all things in Christ (Eph 1:3), and Christ says to us: “I am yours, possess you me!”[10]

God’s giving of his gracious gifts to us is not sparingly…Therefore let us understand that, seeing that Jesus Christ is so given to us, in him we obtain all that is necessary for our salvation and for our happiness.[11]

…we should learn to know wherein our true and perfect happiness consists, namely, in the life which we hope for and which is hid from us as yet, in order that we should not be tied to the world.[12]

Blessed Assurance

How do we know that God has elected us before the creation of the world? By believing in Jesus Christ. …faith proceeds from election and is the fruit of it, which shows that the root is hidden within. Whosoever then believes is thereby assured that God has worked in him, and faith is, as it were, the duplicate copy that God gives us of the original of our adoption. Jesus Christ is the mirror on which we must cast our eyes and look, when we desire to come to the knowledge of our election. For whoever believes in Jesus Christ is God’s child and consequently his heir! (Eph 1:4-6)[13]

The work of the Holy Spirit  

…we do not profit as we ought to by the gospel…Therefore God on his part is pleased to empower it by his Holy Spirit, and to print it so certainly in our hearts that we may be steadfast and that the same steadfastness may not be beaten down by all that the devil can ever do or devise to overthrow our faith. (Eph 1:13-14)[14]

…faith serves to give us access to the kingdom of heaven and to the heritage purchased for us by our Lord Jesus Christ…It is needful for God to give it to us by his Holy Spirit…we need not only to have the gospel preached to us, but also that God should pierce our ears (Ps 40:6)…that He may open our eyes to see what He shows us.’ (Eph 1:17-18)[15]

No Lone-Rangers

God must be served with one common consent among us…Paul does not speak here to each man separately…he comprehends the whole body and company of the church. As if to say, ‘My friends it is not enough for every one of us to withdraw himself and to abstain from evil…but we must also have mutual care one for the other.’[16]

…If God has shed forth his grace so that He has gathered to himself a church, we must to the uttermost of our power seek to join with those whom God calls together with us, so that he who goes ahead may reach out his hand to another and say, ‘Let us go together and encourage each other…so that we may all be drawn to God.’ (Eph 3:20-4:2)[17]

Be who you are!

…let us note that faith means such a reformation in ourselves that our life is totally changed…For we may prate about the gospel at great length, and we may be wonderfully clear-headed, but that will be worth nothing until…we lead a new life. (Eph 4:17-19)[18]

God employs sweetness and graciousness, as if He should say, ‘My children…seeing that I have redeemed you with the blood of my Son, and given you my Spirit who dwells in you…will you…instead of being my temples become sties for swine, and allow your affections to be like dirt and dung which defile you? (Eph 5:3-5)[19]

Praying in the Spirit

…we must take advantage of God’s Word…by seeking in him that which He assures us we shall find there. And so the prayers that we offer, are, as it were, keys by which to come to the treasures that God reserves for us and which He will not keep from us…[and] open the way to them by praying. (Eph 6:18-19)[20]

It is necessary for our prayers not only to be made with our mouth, but also to come from the bottom of our heart…And we do not have that by our own power, it is necessary for the Holy Spirit to work in us…that we may pray to him as we ought, while He also accepts our prayers, acknowledging in them the signs of his Holy Spirit.[21]

A Reading and Hearing Plan

Receiving God’s word can become a less passive experience when we read the Bible out loud, or hear it read to us. The same is true when reading books of sermons. Calvin’s sermons on Ephesians are best appreciated in this way. Each sermon covers three to five verses, and takes about 30 minutes to read aloud at a steady pace. Here is one way that we can make good use of this resource.

  • Ask God to work by his Spirit to enable you to receive his word in faith.
  • Read the book of Ephesians aloud in one sitting.
  • Then on one day give 30 minutes to reading a short section of Ephesians, noting your reflections. Turn the main point of the passage into a prayer for yourself and others.
  • The following day read the same passage again and one of Calvin’s sermons aloud.
  • Pray again.

In this way Calvin becomes another teacher, mentor and conversation partner that God can use to encourage, challenge and train us in our life with Christ and in our ministry to others.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching…Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. (Ephesians 4:14, 15)


[1] Ibid, p.220, 221.

[2] Calvin’s motto was, ‘Cor meum tibi offero, Domine, prompte et sincere.’ ‘My heart I offer to you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.’

[3] From sermon 56 on Deuteronomy, quoted in Calvin, Ephesians, Pub. Intro, p. xii.

[4] Calvin often paid tribute to a preacher from a much earlier time: John Chrysostom ‘the golden mouthed’ (349-407). Calvin learnt well from his commitment to letting the Bible speak on its own terms, and to the simplest and clearest meaning of the text.

[5] E.g. The late great Leon Morris (1914-2006); a strong exponent of this preaching style, often cited Calvin in the footnotes to his commentaries. Morris was committed to faithful, clear and succinct biblical exposition: one reason why, like Calvin, his commentaries continue to have lasting value.

[6] Peter Adam, ‘Preaching of a lively kind’ – Calvin’s engaged expository preaching.’ In ed. Mark. D. Thompson, Engaging with Calvin- Aspects of the Reformer’s legacy for today, (England: Apollo/IVP, 2009), p. 14.

[7] Ibid, 21 from Calvin’s sermons on Deuteronomy.

[8] Ibid, 24 quote from Calvin’s sermons on Timothy & Titus.

[9] Ibid, 24 quote from Calvin’s sermons on Timothy & Titus.

[10] Calvin, Ephesians, pp.403-404.

[11] Ibid, p.20.

[12] Ibid, p.17.

[13] Ibid, p.47.

[14] Ibid, p.74.

[15] Ibid, p. 100.

[16] Ibid, p. 314.

[17] Ibid, p.315.

[18] Ibid, p.409.

[19] Ibid, p.499.

[20] Ibid, p.678.

[21] Ibid, p.679.

Share
LOAD MORE
Loading