This is the third sermon of four in a sermon series for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. To begin at the beginning, please click here.
Throughout this month we’ve been talking about the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. He was not the first person to ever talk about reforming the church, but his posting came at just the right moment, and they were like a spark that lit a powder keg.
Luther is a huge figure in the story of the Protestant Reformation, and so we’ve spent the last two weeks talking about him. Today though, for the third sermon, we’re going to switch gears and talk about another early reformer named John Calvin, and how he launched a movement from which our very own church is descended.
Today’s Scripture comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. You’ve probably heard the words before, especially this verse: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Nothing can separate us from God’s love. I wanted to start with that today because that was what John Calvin truly believed. I also wanted to start with that, because John Calvin gets a bad rap. That’s especially true if all we remember about him is what we learned in our high school history classes about the movement he started, which is often called Calvinism.
First, who was John Calvin. Calvin was born in France, to a father who worked for the Catholic church. He was born in 1509 which means he is about a generation younger than Luther. He was only 8 when Luther posted those 95 Theses on the church door. Calvin grew up with the expectation that he would be a priest, but when he got to university, his father decided he should be a lawyer instead.
That means that, like Luther, Calvin was a law student when he started to have his spiritual transformation. Anything to avoid taking the bar, I guess.
Calvin did become a lawyer, but he kept thinking and writing about faith and the church. And he soon broke completely with the Catholic church. When his mentor, Nicholas Cop, who was also a reformer, delivered a speech that was deemed heretical, he had to flee from France. Calvin, who was a known friend, had to go into hiding and then flee too. The two ended up in Switzerland.
This is where Calvin really began his reform work. He wrote a book called The Institutes of the Christian Religion that continues to be read today. Later, in Geneva, Calvin ends up becoming a pastor to the reforming church there. In Geneva, Calvin sought to influence both church and state, and he was sometimes a divisive figure. But it’s something that he taught as a pastor that I want to bring up here, because you probably have heard of it, and if you have you probably don’t like it very much.
Calvin believed in predestination. How many of you remember reading about that in school and thinking it was an absolutely horrible idea? I did too. The way it was taught to me in school was that God decided before we were even born what we were going to do, and whether we were going to go to heaven and hell. A person could live a good and holy life, I was taught, and still be damned. I thought this was horrific.
In seminary, though, I learned what Calvin had really meant. Like Luther, Calvin was pastoring people who had been deeply traumatized by the idea that they had to work, or buy, their way into heaven. They were anxious and fearful. And so Calvin began to teach something in line with the Bible passage we read today: if God loves you, nothing you do can separate you from the love of God. In other words, there is nothing you can do to lose your salvation if God has already decided to save you. There is nothing so bad that you can do that can cause you to go to hell.
Predestination is not the same thing as God deciding your every movement. We are not pawns on a chess board whose moves are planned our in advance. Instead, predestination was meant to be an assurance to an anxious people that they could stop being afraid. To be fair, Calvin didn’t believe everyone was going to go to heaven, but he did believe that if you were asking whether or not you would, that was a good sign that you were. It sounds terrible in our present-day context, but we have to understand that it was absolutely liberating in Calvin’s time.
The good news that came out of that was about grace. John Calvin, like Luther, taught that we were saved by grace alone. There was nothing so good that we could do to work our way to salvation, and there was nothing so bad we could do to work our way out.
Where I agree with Calvin is that I believe we receive God’s grace. We don’t receive it because we deserve it, because that’s not grace. We receive it because God loves us so much that God could never abandon us. Where I disagree with Calvin, and where many Reformed Christians disagree with him, is the idea that only some people receive God’s grace. I believe we all do. To put it another way, as many others have said before me, if there is a hell, I believe that God’s love means that it is empty. I believe that because I believe that grace is real.
And so the question that remained for people of faith was this: How do you respond to the grace that you have been given?
The churches that John Calvin inspired are often called “Reformed churches”. This is different from other churches of the Reformation, like the Lutheran church. Reformed churches believe that the grace of God, and our response to God’s grace, is central to what it means to be a Christian.
And so with that in mind, think about the grace you have received in your own life. Looking back, where do you see God’s love active in your life? Is there a time when you have felt God’s hand supporting you, and lifting you up? Was there ever a time when your heart was opened to a new idea that changed everything? Were you ever so broken that you didn’t know how to go on, but somehow you were able to rise again?
That’s grace. That’s God acting in this world to lift us up. And for Calvin that same grace extended beyond this world. Calvin believed God’s grace was so strong that “nothing, not even death” could ever separate us from God’s love.
This is the kind of grace that we sing about when we sing “Amazing Grace”. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come. ’Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” There’s a reason this is such a powerful song for so many. When you’ve truly experienced grace, you are moved by lines like that in a profound way because you know that it is true.
John Calvin would begin his services with the same Psalm that we began with today, Psalm 124. “If God had not been on our side,” he would preach, “the flood would have swept us away.” We would be destroyed. But God’s grace was there for Calvin, and just as surely, it is there for us.
And so, how do we respond. Calvin believed that the only proper response to the grace of God was this: gratitude. If we know that we are loved by God, and that we have received God’s grace, what can we ever hope to do, but to say “thank you”. No other response is enough.
And so how do we say “thank you”? That’s where our own daily lives matter. We say thank you to God by how we live. We live our lives out as a thank you to God. We do the right thing, and we participate in good works, not to help ourselves, but to say thank you. We take care of our neighbors, and our world, and we work for peace and justice because we are loved by a God who wants these things for all of us.
When we live our lives in this way, as lives of gratitude and thanksgiving, everything changes. Our outlook on the world changes. Our concern changes. Our hope changes as well. We become more attuned to God’s will, and less focused on ourselves. We become joyful participants in the world, eager to say “thank you” to God with all that we do. We become God’s hands here on earth, and in every action, we praise God.
This is what John Calvin taught us: that love does not let us go. Nearly 500 years later we, his spiritual descendants, carry on. The church we are in today might not be that recognizable to him, but my hope is that the grace we know, and our response to it, might be.
Next week I’ll be talking about how we get from John Calvin to a 21st century church in Exeter, New Hampshire, and what it means that the church is still reforming, all these centuries later. For now, though, remember this: Nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God. God’s grace will never leave us, and God’s love will never let us go.