Retrieving John Calvin on Job

In his introduction to the new translation of John Calvin’s Sermons on Job (Banner of Truth Trust, 2022), Dr. Derek Thomas (author of Calvin’s Teaching on Job: Proclaiming the Incomprehensible God) points out that the then contemporary interest in Calvin’s work on Job was such that two French editions were published, both coinciding with the Civil Wars of Religion in France (1562-1598). There followed translations into German, Latin, and English. Three further editions of the English version appeared subsequently, making the Job sermons more popular than the Reformer’s Institutes of the Christian Religion! Latterly, however, Calvin’s work on Job has become a neglected part of his corpus, with no modern translations of his sermons available. Now, for the first time, Calvin’s 159 sermons on this enigmatic work of wisdom literature are available in modern English for the first time in a new edition published by Banner of Truth.

Dr. Thomas surmises that a study of Job’s trials must have seemed appropriate in the midst of the civil upheavals of the Wars of Religion. Calvin had access to earlier expositions on Job but does not seem to have been influenced by them. He “did not believe that the book of Job contained solutions to the great moral dilemmas of the universe,” but, considering the book as “a lengthy discourse about God… he sought to turn the congregation in Geneva, and his own soul, to the reality of God’s sovereignty and power in the contingencies of a seemingly disordered life. According to Calvin’s Institutes, ‘in The Book of Job is set forth a declaration of such sublimity as to humble our minds.’” Calvin, as Dr. Thomas points out, compares his role as a preacher expounding the Book of Job to medical doctors who “need to be sensitive to the radically different treatments that various diseases require. Likewise, ministers of the gospel need to be aware that trials that befall a Christian require different diagnosis and treatment.”

Dr. Thomas also extends a challenge to those who read these sermons:

“It is not only the content of the sermons that astonishes us today; it is the fact that they were weekday sermons, each one averaging just under an hour’s exposition of Scripture. It is hard to imagine such a thing in our own time. We live in an indifferent age, barely able to cope with one sermon a week. When we pray for revival (and surely we do!), what do we expect by way of an answer? For, should the sovereign Lord grant our request, our appetite for Scripture would change, our thirst for the Word of God would grow. It is earnestly to be hoped that, after reading these sermons, we shall be challenged to pray in such a manner that we might desire such a change to be wrought in us.”

If there is any truth most evident in John Calvin’s preaching on Job — my observation is not unique — it is that theology devoid of a personal living-out and application of God’s Word amounts to only a take-it-or-leave-it philosophy which regards God as little more than a basic premise. In such a philosophy, turns of phrase such as “grow in grace,” “be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect,” “die to self,” and “love one another,” do little more, I suspect, than passively challenge and temporarily prick consciences with easily evaded guilt and end there. Those who live by such a philosophy, however well they do so, will never comprehend that Spirit-inspired righteous deeds performed in real time are the productive efforts that contribute to Christ’s eternal glory, which is the singular work of the Holy Spirit himself, the perfecting of the Body of Christ, the Church Triumphant, as portrayed in the image of the Bride of Christ, whose “fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints” (Rev. 19:8 NASB).

Participation in that perfection through faith — that working of the Holy Spirit within the believer — is the recurrent emphasis of Calvin’s proclamations in the Job sermons, where the emphasis is indispensable. In these sermons, Calvin is preparing and encouraging the people to resist the explicit work of Satan to disrupt and destroy all the Church’s efforts to glorify Christ through her resolute obedience, by means of natural, political, and social disturbances and personal hardships and sufferings.

In order to participate in that single work of the Holy Spirit in perfecting the Bride of Christ, the New Jerusalem, believers must, Calvin insists, be aware of the majesty of God. Otherwise, what are they to magnify and to glorify and how are they to achieve that end? How else are they going to rejoice in him and prepare to enjoy him forever in the joy of which he alone is the content and source?

In the fifty-six sermons of the first of these three volumes, the word majesty occurs ninety-seven times, but the concept is foundational throughout. What, then, constitutes God’s majesty? The short answer, of course, is God himself! A longer answer is “whatever God is, wills, and does in accord with his character,” that is, those things the very angels marvel at and desire to look into (1 Pet 1:12), those things which constitute his glory, those attributes, in their totality, known and unknown, which identify and characterize him. Calvin repeatedly reminds his hearers that the aspiration of believers is both to fear (for the sake of discipline) and to love (for the sake of emulation) God’s revealed majesty by living out, with the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, his character and actions as demonstrated in the Lord Jesus. By contrast, the grave sin of believers, then, is to know that revelation and not respond by obediently, insistently, and persistently living in accordance with it. That failure Calvin calls ingratitude and declares it worthy of condemnation.

Here the obvious may need to be pointed out to some. From John Calvin’s perspective, worship is not limited to the sanctuary or the assembly or the Regulative Principle or standing or sitting or public participation. While preaching the Word and hearing the Word are in themselves acts of worship, the ultimate worship required of the faithful emanates from the heart and pervades their lives at every moment.

Th updated translation of Calvin’s Sermons on Job makes all 159 of Calvin’s sermons available once again in English. It is placed in the hands of the reader with the prayer that the Holy Spirit will use it as he continues to make his servant John Calvin fruitful in the advancement of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in yet another time of strife and civil upheaval.

Sermons on Job by John Calvin (Banner of Truth 2022) is available to pre-order now.

Professor Rob Roy McGregor is Professor Emeritus of French and Latin at Clemson University. He is the translator of Calvin’s Sermons on Job, as well as five other volumes of Calvin’s sermons. He has also pubished work on Jehan Froissart, Albert Camus, Voltaire, Charles Baudelaire, and Jean Genet, as well as (along with Dr. Donald Fairbairn of Gordon-Conwell Seminary) the Latin correspondence of the sixth century North African bishop Fulgentius of Ruspe. He is currently enjoying his retirement in North Carolina.


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