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October-November 2023

Forging Ahead


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PRIMARY SOURCE: Hired! Fired! Rehired!


“Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season…” (2 Timothy 4:2).

Forty-seven-year-old William Farel looked across at 27-year-old John Calvin, who was passing through Geneva, and his heart leapt. Only months before, Reformation winds had toppled longstanding Catholic structures. The city was now Protestant. Farel, according to Calvin, “burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel” and “strained every nerve to detain me.”

The young man, however, had his own plans. He had just published “a summary of the principle truths of the Christian religion,” which would become arguably the most influential theology book ever written. Such literary work was precisely what Calvin desired. Bashful by nature, he loved the “shade,” not the spotlight. He sought “some secluded corner” where he might “be withdrawn from the public view.”

When fiery Farel realized he was getting nowhere, “he proceeded,” as Calvin put it, “to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquility of the studies which I sought.” Under this passionate threat, the young theologian acquiesced and soon donned a black preaching gown.

With church and state conjoined, Calvin attempted to reform the whole of Genevan society. His agenda impacted about everything. Businesses had to close for church, which eventually met daily at dawn and at later hours, and attendance, to at least some services, was required. The city outlawed dancing. Preachers involved themselves in family squabbles.

Calvin preached through books of the Bible from beginning to end. In time, he delivered 189 sermons on Acts, 174 on Ezekiel, 342 on Isaiah, 159 on Job. He encouraged: “Though the devil on the one hand ceases not to seek to prey upon us and unbelievers bark like mastiff dogs. …let us hold it as a certainty that we shall never cease to have peace toward our God.” He also warned, “The mind of man has been so completely estranged from God’s righteousness that it conceives, desires, and undertakes, only that which is impious, perverted, foul, impure, and infamous. The heart is so steeped in the poison of sin, that it can breathe out nothing but a loathsome stench.”

In 1538, after two years of pastoring, tensions reached a fever pitch, and he and Farel were sent packing.Relocating to Strasbourg, Calvin was again recruited to preach, and his former post faded into a bad memory. But things quickly unraveled in Geneva, and, amazingly, they asked Calvin to return. He confided to a friend that should he return, he would be “completely swallowed up. …Rather would I submit to a hundred other deaths than to that cross on which one must perish daily a thousand times.” In another letter he wrote, “Whenever I call to mind the wretchedness of my life there, how can it not be but that my very soul must shudder at any proposal for my return?”

Shuddering or not, Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541. He mounted the pulpit from which he had been banished three years earlier, opened his Bible, and said in essence: “I believe we left off in verse eight.”

About the Columnist: Paul V. Harrison has pastored Madison FWB Church in Madison, Alabama since 2015. Previously, he pastored Cross Timbers FWB church in Nashville, Tennessee, for 22 years. He was an adjunct professor at Welch College for 17 years, teaching church history and Greek. Paul is the creator of Classic Sermon Index, a subscription-based online index of over 66,000 sermons, with clients including Harvard, Baylor, and Vanderbilt, among others:


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