Calvin: “The Counselor to the Afflicted”
Since this year is the 500th birthday anniversary of the great Geneva Reformer, John Calvin, I decided to post this chapter about his work as a pastor-counselor. Because of all the misguided hearsay that he was “the tyrant of Geneva” (see “Was Geneva a Theocracy” by Michael Horton), most will be surprised that Calvin was foremost a pastor who wrote over 1,200 letters of counsel to the afflicted, sorrowful and persecuted.
Below is a chapter (reprinted by permission) from John Calvin, A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine & Doxology, edited by Burk Parsons and published in 2008 by Reformation Trust, a division of Ligonier Ministries in Orlando, Florida.
THE COUNSELOR TO THE AFFLICTED
W. ROBERT GODFREY
Now, where solace is promised in affliction, especially where the deliverance of the church is described, the banner of trust and hope in Christ himself is prefigured. â€” JOHN CALVIN
To the extent that people remember John Calvin today, he is thought of first as a great theologian and second as a great biblical scholar. When most people think of him, â€œcounselorâ€ is probably not a role that comes readily to mind.
Calvin certainly deserves recognition for his theological and exegetical work. But Calvin saw himself preeminently as a pastor, and all his efforts ultimately served the needs of pastoral ministry. And as a pastor, he often offered advice and counsel to those who had spiritual, emotional, or physical needs. Those who knew him well counted him a faithful and helpful pastor and friend in their various circumstances of life.
In many ways, Calvin’s counsel rested on his doctrine of providence. The profound nature of his understanding of God’s providence was the foundation of the character of his counsel to troubled Christians.
Calvin presents a systematic exposition of his doctrine of providence in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, especially in book 1, chapters 16 and 17. But his presentation of the doctrine also unfolds in his study of the book of Psalms. There he addresses the subject of providence just as thoroughly and perhaps somewhat more personally and experientially. The psalms were very important to Calvin in his own life, and he returned to them again and again in his ministry.
In 1557, Calvin published his large commentary on the book of Psalms. In the English translation, this commentary runs to five substantial volumes. This commentary reflects a life lived with the Psalter. He loved the psalms: he knew them, studied them, wrote on them, preached them, and sang them.
Calvin believed that the value of the Psalter was not just for himself but for all Christians because the psalms teach all to know and honor God: â€œThere is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more power- fully stirred up to the performance of this religious exercise.â€ In other words, the Psalter shows how Christians are to offer praise and prayer to God amid all the various circumstances of life. He was drawn to the book of Psalms, as he makes clear in his preface to the commentary, because of his strong identification with the emotions David expressed in these poems. Calvin saw the book as â€œan anatomy of all the parts of the soul, for,â€ he writes, â€œthere is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.â€
For Calvin, the Psalter in particular teaches the vital lesson that the Christian will suffer for his Lord in this life: â€œThey will principally teach and train us to bear the cross.â€ But in our sufferings, the psalms also provide encouragement, teaching â€œtrue believers with their whole hearts confidently to look to him for help in all their necessities.â€
FIVE THEMES ABOUT PROVIDENCE
In the course of his commentary, Calvin gave strong expression to various aspects of his doctrine of providence. Five themes about providence recur in his exposition of the book of Psalms. First, he recognizes God’s power as the active governor of the world:
He gives us to understand by this word, that heaven is not a palace in which God remains idle and indulges in pleasures, as the Epicureans dream, but a royal court, from which he exercises his government over all parts of the world. If he has erected his throne, therefore, in the sanctuary of heaven, in order to govern the universe, it follows that he in no wise neglects the affairs of earth, but governs them with the highest reason and wisdom.
Second, he declares that this active power should lead all creatures to honor God as God: â€œAs God by his providence preserves the world, the power of his government is alike extended to all, so that he ought to be worshipped by all.â€
Third, he teaches that in His governance of the world God always acts as the loving Father of His people:
By the face of God, must be meant the fatherly care and providence which he extends to his people. So numerous are the dangers which surround us, that we could not stand a single moment, if his eye did not watch over our preservation. But the true security for a happy life lies in being persuaded that we are under divine government.
This fatherly care of God does not mean that His people will not suffer:
We are here warned that the guardianship of God does not secure us from being sometimes exercised with the cross and afflictions, and that therefore the faithful ought not to promise themselves a delicate and easy life in this world, it being enough for them not to be abandoned of God when they stand in need of his help. Their heavenly Father, it is true, loves them most tenderly, but he will have them awakened by the cross, lest they should give themselves too much to the pleasures of the flesh. If, therefore, we embrace this doctrine, although we may happen to be oppressed by the tyranny of the wicked, we will wait patiently till God either break their sceptre, or shake it out of their hands.
Fourth, Calvin affirms that confidence in providence causes Christians to grow in faith in Christ and confidence in living for Him:
Besides, the joy here mentioned arises from this, that there is nothing more calculated to increase our faith, than the knowledge of the providence of God; because without it, we would be harassed with doubts and fears, being uncertain whether or not the world was governed by chance. For this reason, it follows that those who aim at the subversion of this doctrine, depriving the children of God of true comfort, and vexing their minds by unsettling their faith, forge for themselves a hell upon earth. For what can be more awfully tormenting than to be constantly racked with doubt and anxiety? And we will never be able to arrive at a calm state of mind until we are taught to repose with implicit confidence in the providence of God.
Fifth, Calvin teaches that knowing that God directs all things leads His people to more frequent and heartfelt prayer:
Were they to reflect on the judgments of God, they would at once perceive that there was nothing like chance or fortune in the government of the world. Moreover, until men are persuaded that all
their troubles come upon them by the appointment of God, it will never come into their minds to supplicate him for deliverance.
In his preface to his commentary on the book of Psalms, Calvin made a most remarkable statement about providence that went to the very heart and soul of the religion he embraced and counseled others to embrace. He writes that knowing the Psalter teaches Christians to suffer for God so that â€œwe renounce the guidance of our own affections, and submit ourselves entirely to God, leaving him to govern us, and to dispose our life according to his will, so that the afflictions which are the bitterest and most severe to our nature, become sweet to us, because they proceed from him.â€
The bitterest afflictions of this life are sweet when Christians know that they come from God, serve His purposes, and ultimately contribute to their good. Calvin had a truly astounding daily confidence in God and His ways, and he encouraged the same confidence in his followers.
COMFORT FOR A GRIEVING FATHER
For the historian, the record of Calvin’s actual counsel is limited. The character of his commentaries and his sermons certainly points to his pastoral concern, but the conversations he must have had with those in need are not preserved for us. His letters are the best source we have for the counsel Calvin offered.
Calvin carried on a very extensive correspondence throughout his ministry, writing to people and churches he knew and even to those he did not know. He answered theological questions, offered advice to troubled churches, encouraged pastors and friends, and wrote letters of consolation to those in distress. Those letters, numbering more than twelve hundred, preserved a clear picture of the character and extent of the counsel that Calvin gave to those in need. The many letters of counsel that Calvin wrote were applications of his doctrine of providence to the various circumstances and struggles of life.
While he wrote on many matters, two examples can give a sense of his advice and help. The first is a letter of consolation to a father on the death of his son. In April 1541, Calvin wrote a long letter of condolence to Monsieur de Richebourg on the death of his son Louis. Louis had been a student whom Calvin had known well in Strasbourg. Calvin begins the letter expressing his intense grief and showing that faith in God does not mean a fatalistic or unemotional response to the sadness of life:
When I first received the intelligence of the death . . . of your son Louis, I was so utterly overpowered that for many days I was fit for nothing but to grieve; and albeit I was somehow upheld before the Lord by those aids wherewith he sustains our souls in affliction, among men, however, I was almost a nonentity.
He then speaks of finding comfort, writing, â€œMy heart was refreshed in prayer and private meditations, which are suggested by His word.â€ Calvin records his reactions to the death and the source of his com- fort to encourage de Richebourg: â€œI desire to communicate to you the remedies I took advantage of, and those which were of greatest benefit.â€ In particular, Calvin reminds the grieving father of the biblical truth of God’s fatherly providence, â€œthat determinate counsel, whereby he not only foresees, decrees, and executes nothing but what is just and upright in itself, but also nothing but what is good and wholesome for us.â€ Calvin then applies that doctrine to de Richebourg’s loss:
Nevertheless, the faithful have a sufficient alleviation of their sorrows in the special providence of God, and the all-sufficiency of his provision, whatsoever may happen. For there is nothing which is more dispiriting to us than while we vex and annoy ourselves with this sort of questionâ€”Why is it not otherwise with us? … It is God, therefore, who has sought back from you your son, whom he had committed to you to be educated, on the condition, that
he might always be his own. And, therefore, he took him away, because it was both of advantage to him to leave this world, and by this bereavement to humble you, or to make trial of your patience. If you do not understand the advantage of this, without delay, first of all, setting aside every other object of consideration, ask of God that he may show you. Should it be his will to exercise you still farther, by concealing it from you, submit to that will, that you may become wiser than the weakness of your own understanding can ever attain to.
Calvin encourages the father with assurance about the piety of Louis: â€œThat, however, which we rate most highly in him was, that he had drunk so largely into the principles of piety, that he had not merely correct and true understanding of religion, but had also been faithfully imbued with the unfeigned fear and reverence of God.â€ In light of that piety, Calvin assures the grieving father of the promise of heaven for his son: â€œNor can you consider yourself to have lost him, whom you will recover in the blessed resurrection in the kingdom of God.â€
Calvin concludes his consolation by reflecting on the reality and legitimacy of human emotions, but also on the need to control them:
Neither do I insist upon your laying aside all grief. Nor, in the school of Christ, do we learn any such philosophy as requires us to put off that common humanity with which God has endowed us, that, being men, we should be turned to stones. These considerations reach only so far as this, that you do set bounds, and, as it were, temper even your most reasonable sadness; that, having shed those tears which were due to nature and fatherly affection, you by no means give way to senseless wailing. Nor do I by any means interfere because I am distrustful of your prudence, firmness, or high-mindedness; but only lest I might here be wanting and come short in my duty to you.
This letter shows Calvin the young pastor seeking to be comprehensive in his grief counseling. It is full of thoughtful direction and encouragement.
ENCOURAGEMENT TO A PERSECUTED SAINT
The second example of Calvin’s counsel is drawn from several letters he wrote to a man facing persecution. Mathieu Dimonet, a Reformed Christian from Lyon, was arrested on Jan. 9, 1553, and martyred on July 15 of that year. Shortly after his arrest, Calvin wrote to encourage him. Calvin comments that Dimonet had not long been Reformed, but that God had â€œbestowed such strength and steadfastnessâ€ on him that many had remarked on his devotion to Christ. Calvin acknowledges the difficulty of Dimonet’s plight: â€œI feel indeed by the sympathy I have for you (as I ought) that Satan ceases not to give you new alarms; but you must have recourse to him who has made so good a beginning, praying to him to complete his own work.â€ Calvin then assures him of Godâ€™s care for His own people:
You need not be daunted, seeing that God has promised to equip his own according as they are assaulted by Satan. Only commit yourself to him, distrusting all in yourself, and hope that he only will suffice to sustain you. Further, you have to take heed chiefly to two things: first, what the side is you defend, and next, what crown is promised to those who continue steadfast in the Gospel.
Calvin writes that Dimonet’s future is uncertain, but that even if he faces death, God’s love and provision are certain:
We do not know as yet what he has determined to do concerning you, but there is nothing better for you than to sacrifice your life to him, being ready to part with it whenever he wills, and yet hoping that he will preserve it, in so far as he knows it to be profitable for
your salvation. And although this be difficult to the flesh, yet it is the true happiness of his faithful ones; and you must pray that it may please this gracious God so to imprint it upon your heart that it may never be effaced therefrom. For our part, we also shall pray that he would make you feel his power, and vouchsafe you the full assurance that you are under his keeping; that he bridles the rage of your enemies, and in every way manifests himself as your God and Father.
On July 7, 1553, Calvin wrote again to Dimonet and others imprisoned with him in Lyon to assure them that God had promised them strength for what they must endure. Calvin writes, â€œBe then assured, that God who manifests himself in time of need, and perfects his strength in our weakness, will not leave you unprovided with that which will power- fully magnify his name.â€
Calvin acknowledges that according to human reasoning their suffering is wrong, but he urges them to be confident in God and his purposes:
It is strange, indeed, to human reason, that the children of God should be so surfeited with afflictions, while the wicked disport themselves in delights; but even more so, that the slaves of Satan should tread us under foot, as we say, and triumph over us. However, we have wherewith to comfort ourselves in all our miseries, looking for that happy issue which is promised to us, that he will not only deliver us by his angels, but will himself wipe away the tears from our eyes. And thus we have good right to despise the pride of these poor blinded men, who to their own ruin lift up their rage against heaven; and although we are not at present in your condition, yet we do not on that account leave off fighting together with you by prayer, by anxiety and tender compassion, as fellow-members, seeing that it has pleased our heavenly Father, of his infinite goodness, to unite us into one body, under his Son, our head. Whereupon
I shall beseech him, that he would vouchsafe you this grace, that being stayed upon him, you may in nowise waver, but rather grow in strength; that he would keep you under his protection, and give you such assurance of it that you may be able to despise all that is of the world.
These two examples are only a brief sample of Calvin’s work of counseling as a faithful pastor. He sought always to minister the truth and comfort of God’s Word to the children of God. His counsel had both a tough realism and a sensitive compassion to it. He faced the miseries and struggles of this life straightforwardly, and he pointed Christians to God’s fatherly care both in this life and in the life to come. Above all, he encouraged Christians to look to Christ as the one who deserves the Father’s love, and he assured them that while weeping may last for the night, joy comes in the morning.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Library of Christian Classics, XX-XXI (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 2.6.3.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845; repr. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 1:xxxviii-xxxix.
 Ibid., l:xxxvii.
 Ibid., l:xxxix.
 Ibid., 1:549.
 Ibid., 1:401.
 Ibid., 2:416.
 Ibid., 5:92.
 Ibid., 4:265.
 Ibid., 4:252.
 Ibid., l:xxxix.
 John Calvin, Selected Works of John Calvin, ed. by H. Beveridge and J. Bonnet (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 4:246.
 Ibid., 4:247.
 Ibid., 4:248.
 Ibid., 4:249.
 Ibid., 4:250.
 Ibid., 4:251.
 Ibid., 4:253.
 Ibid., 5:384.
 Ibid., 5:385.
 Ibid., 5:386.
 Ibid., 5:412.
 Ibid., 5:413.
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