Sermons on Job: A Review

Sermons on Job by John Calvin. Translated by Rob Roy McGregor. 3 vols. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2022. 2,067 pp. $95.00.

John Calvin is best known for his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Indeed, it may be the most influential systematic theology ever written. But Calvin devoted his life to preaching, and we cannot fully appreciate his doctrine apart from reading his sermons. At the end of his life, Calvin said, “I have endeavoured, according to the measure of grace [God] has given me, to teach his word in purity, both in my sermons and writings.”[1] It was in the pulpit that Calvin most vigorously applied the truth of the Holy Scriptures to spiritual experience and practical action.

Calvin’s wedding of doctrine and application is nowhere more evident than in his Sermons on Job. Calvin originally preached the sermons in French in 1554 and early 1555. They were transcribed by Denis Raguenier, a stenographer hired by the deacons of the Genevan church. The French sermons were published in 1563, with a second edition in 1569. Calvin’s exposition of Job found a good reception among international Reformed readers. Arthur Golding translated them into English in 1574.[2] Four more English editions followed in the next decade. A German translation followed (1587–1588) as well as a Latin one (1593). A third French edition appeared in 1611.[3]

With the rising tide of the Enlightenment, however, Calvin’s sermons and other writings were increasingly neglected. Remarkably, many volumes of Calvin’s sermons were lost in the nineteenth century when the Genevan library sold them by the pound—a sign of how far the city had departed from the theology of the Reformer. Thankfully, the French sermons on Job were preserved.[4] But with no new English editions, the sermons were inaccessible to most English readers through much of the modern era. A book of selected sermons from this set, translated by Leroy Nixon, was published in 1952.[5] The Banner of Truth Trust reprinted the 1574 English edition in 1993.[6] However, Rob Roy McGregor translated all the sermons from French into modern English for the first time, and Banner of Truth published the translation in three attractive, hardcover volumes in 2022. McGregor is an experienced Calvin translator, having already rendered into English Calvin’s sermons on Genesis 1–20 and Acts 1–7.

“Calvin’s burden in these messages was not to explain and defend the doctrine of divine sovereignty. Rather, he labored to call people to recognize God’s hand in their daily lives, to find forgiveness for their sins so that they can be confident that He is not against them…”

The book of Job depicts the collision of trust in the Almighty and the suffering of inexplicable tragedies. As one would expect, Calvin strongly affirmed the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. For example, he said regarding Job 12:14–16, “When we see things confused in this world, we must attribute nothing to chance, but we must know it is God who is in control and is guiding everything” (2:575). But Calvin’s burden in these messages was not to explain and defend the doctrine of divine sovereignty. Rather, he labored to call people to recognize God’s hand in their daily lives, to find forgiveness for their sins so that they can be confident that He is not against them, and to submit humbly to His providence even when they do not understand His purposes, confessing that He is good and wise in all He does.

Calvin realized that it is one thing to understand doctrine in the head but quite another to exercise faith experientially in the heart. Even the godly can fail in this. When the Scriptures tell us that Job wanted to take God to court, Calvin said, “He was so distressed by his anguish that he did not know what he was saying. Now if a man…given to us as an example of patience was angered to such an extent, how will we react?” (1:453). The solution, Calvin said, is for suffering sinners to look to Christ as the Mediator. Then, they will be enabled by grace to pray, “Lord, we come to you not to plead our case or to presume anything about ourselves or our persons, but because you are gracious to us and desire to receive us in the name of your Son Jesus Christ…. It pleases you to let us feel your infinite goodness, which you made known in your only Son our Savior Jesus Christ when you gave him over to death for us” (1:456).

Therefore, Calvin’s Sermons on Job could be considered a practical, expository treatise on divine providence. Calvin exhorted believers to exercise faith while in distress. He said, “The way our faith is demonstrated…is that in the midst of our adversities, we can contemplate God’s gracious promises” (3:590). This was not mere theory for Calvin, but a principle tested by fire. As Derek Thomas notes in his introduction to the book, the Genevan Reformer could sympathize with Job. Calvin suffered heated criticism from opponents both within and without Geneva. He also had excruciating medical problems (xviii–xx). But he endured.

How did Job, Calvin, and others like them persevere? A core lesson about perseverance that we learn from the book of Job, Calvin indicates, is having the humility to acknowledge God’s incomprehensibility. To bow before the infinite depth of God’s wisdom in providence is the “unifying tenet” that “forms the basis for understanding the Book of Job,” Thomas explains in his own book on Calvin’s treatment of Job.[7] Calvin’s aim is not to promote agnosticism, as if God were completely unknowable, but reverence, because God is knowable only insofar as He chooses to reveal Himself. Calvin reminds us that we must always view God in the “mirror” He provides—His Word—for it is “intolerable arrogance” for us to demand to look God straight in the face, so to speak, as if we could probe the depths of divine wisdom. Calvin writes, “We must be sober-minded, realising the small capacity of our minds and the infinite expanse of God’s majesty” (3:365). That is eminently biblical advice (Isa. 55:8–9; Rom. 11:33–34).

“Calvin’s aim is not to promote agnosticism, as if God were completely unknowable, but reverence, because God is knowable only insofar as He chooses to reveal Himself.”

Being full of practical applications that are still relevant today, which flow out of sound exegetical exposition and hermeneutical principles, Calvin’s Sermons on Job are to be highly recommended. Nearly every page contains applications that seem remarkably relevant for living the Christian life today. In fact, Calvin at times seems to almost rush through his exegesis in order to hurry on to his applications which often begin with phrases such as: “Now let us learn from this…” or simply “Let us….” For the student of Reformed experiential and practical theology, the sermons are the fruit of years of reflection on God’s sovereignty by a great teacher who dwelt almost constantly in the crucible of affliction. For the minister preparing to preach from the book of Job, they are a light to guide him in doctrine and application. For the Christian, they are spiritual armor to equip the godly to persevere in faith, entrusting themselves to a gracious Savior while they walk through the valley of the shadow of death. 

Someone may ask, “Why should I purchase this set of books when I can get the 1574 English edition online for free?” In reply, while we are grateful for internet resources, we note that the modern translation delivers us from having to decipher obscure statements such as “albeit that we be fayne to be intermedled with them.”[8] There are also the difficulties of sixteenth-century spelling and orthography. For example, consider the following excerpt from the 1574 edition: “Doe we know him? That muſt be in ſuch wyſe as he hath vttered himselfe: that is to wit, that he is our maker, our maynteyner, and one that hath ſhewed such fatherly goodneſſe towards vs, that we of dutie ought to be as children towards him, if wee will not bee vtterly vnthankfull.”[9] While this is not incomprehensible, especially for readers with some experience with early modern books, McGregor’s translation is much more easily understood: “Do we know him? We must know him as he is, namely, as our Creator and the one who sustains us and shows us such fatherly kindness that we must indeed live as his children—unless we want to be unduly ungrateful to him” (1:11).

We owe Rob Roy McGregor a great debt for his fresh rendering of Calvin’s sermons into English. His translation flows in such a way that one can imagine Calvin speaking these words today, and it is a precious gift to the church to be able to hear Calvin’s voice in modern English. The Reformer’s aim was always to engender in people a knowledge of God that moves them to offer their hearts to the Lord, willingly and sincerely, in love and reverence to His holy name. May God be pleased to use this fresh translation to do precisely that.[10]

Joel R. Beeke is President of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.                                                                

[1] John Calvin, “Last Will and Testament,” in Letters of John Calvin, ed. Jules Bonnet, trans. Marcus Robert Gilchrist, 4 vols. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858), 4:366.

[2] Sermons of Master John Calvin, upon the Booke of Job, trans. Arthur Golding (London: Henrie Binneman, for Lucas Harison and George Bishop, 1574). This is a large folio of more than 750 pages.

[3] Derek Thomas, Calvin’s Teaching on Job: Proclaiming the Incomprehensible God (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2004), 33.

[4] “Two thousand three hundred sermons were thus preserved until the nineteenth century. They filled some forty-four volumes, carefully bound. But through the criminal ignorance of librarians, they were sold for the weight of the paper. Most fortunately, it was possible to salvage some. At the present time we possess about fifteen hundred of them.” Bernard Cottret, Calvin: A Biography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 289.

[5] John Calvin, Sermons from Job, trans. Leroy Nixon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952).

[6] John Calvin, Sermons on Job (1574; facsimile repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1993).

[7] Thomas, Calvin’s Teaching on Job, 169.

[8] Sermons of Master John Calvin, upon the Booke of Job, 5. McGregor translates, “Even though we are obliged to live in the midst of it,” that is, in this corrupt world. Sermons on Job, 1:13.

[9] Sermons of Master John Calvin, upon the Booke of Job, 4.

[10] Thanks to Paul M. Smalley for his research work on this review.


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