First Press: November-January

an early modern sketch of John Calvin

November-January First Press Issue

John Calvin (Part 1)

By Rev. Dr. Johanna McCune Wagner, with Lisa Justice

This is the first installment in a series Pastor Johanna is planning on one of her favorite theologians—John Calvin, the founder of Presbyterianism. Stay tuned to explore Calvin’s instruction manual on the fundamentals of the faith— Institutes of the Christian Religion.

As a strong proponent of predestination, John Calvin has earned a rather harsh reputation. But his Institutes of the Christian Religion, intended as a guide for ministers to help them serve their congregations, begins with a beautiful definition of “pure and genuine religion.” For Calvin, pure and genuine religion is “confidence in God coupled with” what he describes as a “serious fear” that incorporates elements of “willing reverence” and what modern Presbyterians might describe as orderly worship. In order to be both pure and genuine, religion cannot be the product of coercion or a fear of punishment.

Calvin describes persons who exhibit pure and genuine religion, who truly knows God, this way:

  • They perceive how God governs all things.
  • They confide in God as guardian and protector.
  • They cast themselves entirely upon God’s faithfulness.
  • They perceive God to be the source of every blessing.
  • If they are in any strait or feel any want, they instantly
    recur to God’s protection and trust to God’s aid.
  • They are persuaded that God is good and merciful.
  • They recline upon God with sure confidence.
  • They do not doubt that in divine clemency a remedy will be provided for every time of need.
  • Acknowledging God as Father and Lord, they consider themselves bound to have respect for God’s authority in all things, to reverence God’s majesty, aim at the advancement of God’s glory, and obey God’s commands. … Nevertheless, they are not so terrified by the apprehension of judgment as to wish they could withdraw themselves, even if the means of escape lay before them …

These believers do not fear a wrathful, judgmental God eager to mete out punishment for sin. They are confident in the provision and protection of a loving Father.

In contrast, some modern clergy embrace what they consider to be the value of fear. In the 2001 documentary Hell House, filmmaker George Ratliff records a youth minister’s speech to volunteers helping host a Haunted House designed to scare visitors away from perceived sinful activity such as drug use and extramarital sex. The youth minister declares “fear is a good thing.”

Calvin would not agree with this statement – at least not in the context in which it was made – a church’s attempt to evangelize people by depicting various “sinners” being hauled off to hell. For Calvin, the truly religious person is not restrained from sin by fear of punishment. Instead Calvin would say that the truly faithful person doesn’t need the idea of hell at all. “Loving and revering God as father, honoring and obeying God as master.  Although there were no hell, she or he would revolt at the idea of offending God.” May we be inspired to trust the goodness and parental love of God.  I encourage you to take a moment to thank God for the witness of Calvin, an anxious, irascible, and often quite ill man, who nevertheless believed ardently in God’s goodness and loving fatherhood.