Book Review: Sermons on Galatians
John Calvin, Sermons on Galatians
Old Paths Publications, New Jersey, USA, 1995
Hardback, xxx + 923pp.
John Calvin, the French Reformer,
preached these 43 sermons in Geneva between November 1557 and May 1558.
Paul’s epistle to the Galatians is polemical, dealing with the heresy of
justification by faith and works, which the Judaizers had introduced into
the churches that Paul had planted. Calvin rightly applies the teachings
of the book of Galatians to his own situation: the papists are
Judaizers. The arguments Calvin uses have lost none of their relevance. In
our day, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is being attacked,
denied and compromised, even by "Protestant" theologians.
Calvin’s preaching was clear, simple,
direct and above all biblical. It was directed to young and old, rich and
poor, simple and educated alike. His practice was simply to expound
verse-by-verse and chapter-by-chapter what the Word says—a radical
approach and a complete break with the practice of Rome where the people
were amused with "images and puppets" but not taught! In many
"Protestant" churches, this salutary practice of expository preaching has
been abandoned. Thus many professing Christians are ignorant, untaught and
a prey to every false teacher. Calvin took the preaching of the Word so
seriously that he says to his congregation, "it were much better that
we were drowned a hundred times, than that ever we should go up into the
pulpit if we should not utter God’s word faithfully" (sermon 27).
Calvin exalts the glory of God in Christ Jesus. He uses the Word to humble
the pride of man. There is no flattery in Calvin: "it is certain that a
man does always seek his own death, when he would have men to soothe him"
(sermon 4). Calvin uses lively language, which makes for interesting
reading. Examples of this are his vivid descriptions of the self-righteous
who "swell like Toads with the poison of pride" (sermon 37); his
designation of people who teach Perfectionism as "harebrains"
(sermon 2) and "Mastiff dogs" (sermon 35). He calls the gospel of
grace and works "a bastard gospel" (sermon 10) and "a half-assed
gospel" (sermon 8). These epithets are not gratuitous rudeness, as the
politically correct suggest; Calvin is serious. Calvin loved the truth of
Christ; he loved the church; and he used such language to warn and exhort,
just as Paul himself did (see, for example, his use of the word "dog" in
Philippians 3:1). It is for the lack of such warnings from the pulpit
today that many walk blindly into sin and are ensnared by false doctrine,
"a deadly poison" (sermon 4).
themes of these sermons are the depravity of man (words such as "filthiness
and dung," "uncleanness," "loathsome," "cursedness,"
"wretched worms of the earth" abound to describe man’s works); the
greatness of Christ’s righteousness and the efficacy of His atonement ("If
heaven and earth were turned upside down, it were not so great a
confusion, as to imagine that the Son of God has suffered in vain"
[sermon 13]) and the errors of Romanism. In this regard, it may be
surprising to some that Calvin’s main controversy with Rome was not
purgatory, or the Mass, or the authority of the Pope, but freewill. He
calls the advocates of freewill "besotted, yea even with too gross
ignorance" because they believed that God’s grace "flies in the air
like a Tennis ball and it is in [their] power and freewill to reach out
[their] hand to catch it and apply it to [their] use" (sermon 9). In
sermon 29 Calvin asks, "Whereabouts is our greatest strife nowadays but
for freewill, for merits, for satisfactions, and for such other things?"
He also addresses a host of other issues, including the role of the law,
Christian charity, the meaning of the sacraments, church discipline and
This book is
divided into manageable chapters (remember, the people of Geneva listened
to these chapters preached "live"), and there is a comprehensive index.
The lay-out is attractive and the print large. The book may appear long at
923 pages but I do not believe this is a disadvantage. If you are still put off by the length, you might be
interested to learn that Old Paths have also published other, shorter
books of Calvin’s sermons, namely, on Psalm 119, Election and
Reprobation (Jacob and Esau), Melchizedek and Abraham and
The Deity of Christ. Some of these are available from the CPRC bookstore
(£16.50 inc. P&P). I look forward to reading these too.