Book Review: Faith Unfeigned by John Calvin
John Calvin, Faith Unfeigned: Four Sermons concerning Matters Most Useful for the Present Time with A Brief Exposition of Psalm 87, trans. Robert White (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2010)
The 500th birthday of John Calvin (AD 1509-1564) has passed. Recently, the Banner of Truth Trust has re-published a new translation of a work by John Calvin comprising four of his sermons reworked for publication, an exposition of Psalm 87, and three letters from John Calvin on the necessity of an open and sincere profession of faith (p. ix). This theme of an unfeigned faith, its honest confession evident through practice, is one that permeates all of the texts in this re-published work.
The main thrust of the four sermons is to encourage believers to stand for their faith and practice it despite severe persecution. Believers of Christ at the time of the Reformation, especially those in France (the Huguenots), were severely persecuted and burned at the stake for their faith in Christ. In Roman Catholic France, believers were hated for being “heretics” and daring to question the authority and faith of the Papacy, with such hatred boiling over into massacres and military conflicts with believers. There was no such thing as religious tolerance in those days, and the pressure to conceal or even reject the Christian faith for the Huguenots was very strong. Many believers therefore tried to conceal their faith so as not to attract persecution upon their persons.
It is to this situation to which Calvin spoke. The four sermons preached are meant to call Christians to stand for their faith in practice and not to conceal it for fear of persecution. Calvin called people who hid their faith “Nicodemites,” as they resembled Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night (John 3:1-2) and did not practice faith in Jesus openly. The first sermon, entitled “On Fleeing Outward Idolatry,” based upon Psalm 16:4, shows Calvin speaking against those who follow the Roman Catholic ceremonies outwardly since they have opined in their hearts that as long as they worship God in spirit, what they do in their bodies is not important since they do not mean their outward actions. Calvin replied to this by saying that “to commit, even in pretence [sic], an outward act which is contrary to the true worship of God is, in fact, a form of idolatry” (p. 9). Calvin refuted other excuses they had and called upon them to examine themselves and to live for God’s glory.
The second sermon, “On Suffering Persecution for Christ’s Sake,” based on Hebrews 13:13, continues in the same theme. From Hebrews 13:13, Calvin exhorts his fellow Christians to join Christ outside the camp in standing up as believers in this world. After all, we “should recognize how precious in God’s sight is the confession of our faith” (p. 33). Calvin spoke of the benefits of following Christ and threats of judgment if we fall away (p. 39), exhorting us to follow the example of the martyrs, noting that justice will be meted out on the persecutors of the church at the end.
The third sermon, “On Valuing Membership In God’s Church And the Freedom to Worship Him,” based upon Psalm 27:4, seeks to show forth the joy and desire we should have for Christ’s church, as David desires the one thing of living in God’s house. Believers are therefore to yearn to join Christ’s church which is a “priceless gift and privilege” (p. 53) and to treasure our freedom to worship Him.
The fourth sermon, entitled “On Striving to Serve God Purely in a Christian Church,” based upon Psalm 27:8, shows Calvin dealing with the issue of finding a true church to join especially if there are no churches nearby and thus a move to another city or another country may be necessary. The problem with finding imperfect churches is also discussed (pp. 82-83), with Calvin saying that an imperfect church is better than no church at all although he acknowledges the trials of seeing God disgraced in such a church.
Calvin’s exposition of Psalm 87 is included after the sermons as it deals with the triumph of the church in her Gospel mission in the midst of suffering so that we can be encouraged. This exposition was attached to Calvin’s first letter to King Edward VII calling on him to be an example to his people as a Christian king in “ordering and maintaining the kingdom of Jesus Christ in England” (p. 110). Calvin’s second letter to an unidentified friend deals with the issue of taking part in the rites of and fellowship with Rome, to which Calvin strongly objected. Calvin’s third letter to Nicholas Duchemin, future assistant to the bishop of Le Mans, is his more detailed apologetic for shunning the rituals of Rome, especially the Mass, and to preserve the purity of the Christian religion. To this end, Calvin went into some detail on the Lord’s Supper and contrasted it with the Roman Mass, which is a perversion of the former.
This book with translated sermons and letters from John Calvin is an excellent message for our times. Calvin wrote about the necessity of having a faith which is true and which manifests itself in our practice, thus linking creeds and deeds together. While Christians today may not suffer the same severity of persecution the Huguenots during the Reformation suffered, godly Christians will suffer some form of persecution regardless of where we are and which time period we are in (2 Tim. 3:12). Christianity is a religion of the cross and suffering, not a religion of ease and plenty. Forged in the fires of persecution, Calvin’s sermons and letters speak to us today of living the Christian life amidst our trials and tribulations. We may not face death for our faith, but we will face ridicule and possible loss of social standing for standing up for Christ.
One significant positive of the sermons and letters is the way Calvin “engages with the varied needs of his audience” (p. xii) and offers encouragement to the weak and faint-hearted (p. 24). Calvin’s pastoral tone throughout the sermons and letters is clearly evident, and while it is true that Calvin does not face the same challenges we face, just as he did not face the same challenges the Huguenots faced, he draws from God’s Word how Scripture speaks to us into our situations, thus making the message in these texts pertinent to us.
In conclusion, this book containing sermons and letters from John Calvin is highly recommended reading. We must learn and be reminded to have an honest faith before God, living for Him despite whatever sufferings we may be facing or have to face in the future.
Reviewed by Daniel H. Chew, MDiv Candidate