Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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Book Review: Sermons on Galatians


John Calvin, Sermons on Galatians
Old Paths Publications, New Jersey, USA, 1995
Hardback, xxx + 923pp.
ISBN 0-9632557-8-9

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).

The main 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 worship.

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.

Martyn McGeown