With this reprint in modern English of Calvin’s sermons on Melchizedek and Abraham, Old Paths adds to its growing library of published sermons, long out-of-print, by the Reformer.
The book consists of sermons by Calvin on passages in Genesis 14, 15, 21, and Genesis 22. Calvin preached the sermons in French during the years 1559-1561 as part of his series on Genesis. The particular sermons collected in this book were published in English in 1592. They were never again reprinted and, therefore, have been virtually unavailable for the past 400 years.
Although the title refers to the three sermons on the meeting of Melchizedek and Abraham, the book actually includes much more. There are four sermons on the important passage concerning Abraham’s justification in Genesis 15. There are also three sermons on Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22, the first of which begins with comment on the last verses of Genesis 21.
In his foreword, Richard A. Muller notes that these excerpts from Calvin’s Genesis series were originally chosen for publication in English
because of their theological and religious interest, namely, the doctrines of faith, justification, godly obedience, and predestination. Indeed, these sermons, given that they were written after virtually all of the commentaries that deal with these particular themes and also after the completion of the final edition of the Institutes, represent Calvin’s final published thoughts on these major doctrinal issues of the Reformation (pp. XIV, XV).
As it did with its previous books of Calvin’s sermons, Old Paths modernizes the spelling and explains—in brackets—the unfamiliar words. Still, there is the occasional strange word and phrase left unexplained, e.g., “advichilate” (p. 57), “nifles” (p. 147), and “retcheth him up to divers pins” (p. 221). At least one word was misunderstood by the editor. “Weather,” undoubtedly, is an old variant of “wether” (p. 247).
Calvin’s language in preaching was vivid. Describing Abraham as he assembled his little band to pursue the four kings that had captured Lot, Calvin spoke of a “silly old man” deciding to lead an army. In another context, Calvin acknowledged that the “jolly rabble of Monks, Friars, and their like … have a certain glorious glittering show of righteousness.”
The plain, vigorous exposition of the Word of God set forth and defended the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith to the saints. Outstanding is the explanation of justification by faith in connection with Genesis 15:6. In justification, the guilty sinner is accounted righteous; he is not made righteous. The role of faith is not that it is the “substance” or “matter” of the sinner’s righteousness; only Christ’s obedience for him is the substance of his righteousness. But faith is the instrument, or means, to receive Christ’s righteousness to one’s own account.
Of great significance in these sermons also is Calvin’s emphasis that confidence of one’s own salvation is an integral element of true faith. Assurance for Calvin is of the essence of faith. “Belief” is not only that we assent to the Word as true. It is also that we do not “doubt but that he [God] will be our Father and Savior, and so thereupon may be bold to call upon him, and hold ourselves for his children, and fly unto him for succor and aid.” Whatever lacks this assurance is nothing but a “fantastical opinion … conceived in [the] brain” (pp. 98, 99). For Calvin, “faith … importeth a certainty” (p. 145). In this doctrine of faith, Reformed Christianity differs radically from Rome, which denies assurance and settles for “probability” of salvation. This, says Calvin, is “utterly to overthrow the whole foundation of Christianity” (p. 146).
The notion that there is a kind of genuine faith that lacks assurance and that this miserable and God-dishonoring state of spiritual affairs may very well predominate in a true church is utterly foreign to Calvin, as it is to the gospel.
This is the reading—devotional, instructive, edifying—for Reformed Christians.
Muller’s recommendation is well put:
The reissuing of the sermons on the history of Melchizedek and Abraham, particularly when taken together with the sermons on election and reprobation, provides entry into the mind of Calvin at a significant juncture and on a series of highly important topics for Reformed or “Calvinistic” Protestants. This is, as already noted, the preaching of the mature Calvin. It is also his preaching on a set of topics—faith, justification, obedience, Christ, and predestination—that belongs to the very heart of the Reformed faith. These sermons also offer a preeminent example of Calvin’s manner of addressing the Old Testament both as history and as the living Word of God to the church in all ages. May Calvin’s fundamental intention to edify the people of God in a lively and penetrating discourse continue to have fruit in our times (p. XXV).