* This is sermon 19 in the recently reprinted volume of sermons by John Calvin entitled, Sermons on the Deity of Christ. The book is reviewed elsewhere in this issue. I have broken up the lengthy paragraphs, shortened the sermon, and added the title. The sermon is published here with permission from Old Paths Publications.
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved by God among you through works of power, through marvels, and through signs, which God did in the midst of you, as also you know; Him (I say) being delivered through the definite counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by the hands of wicked men and have crucified and slain Him, Whom God has raised up, having loosened the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it.
After St. Peter declared in hissermon that the promise contained in the prophecy of Joel had been fulfilled, in that the Holy Spirit was given to him and to his companions, as a testimony and as a pledge that God wished to communicate the Holy Spirit to His Church and to each believer, and that, however, great troubles must come, and that the faith of Christians must be proved; after all these things, I say, he calls the attention of the Jews to Jesus Christ. For since the Holy Spirit was given, they had to recognize the coming of Jesus Christ; because it said that this promise of Joel should be fulfilled only in the last time. So then, when we see the Holy Spirit thus poured out, it is a certain mark that God has sent Jesus Christ in order to accomplish the salvation of men.
Now it is a beautiful manner of teaching and a very suitable order which we must especially note: namely, inasmuch as gifts which God gives us through His Holy Spirit are just so many means of leading and conducting us to Jesus Christ, in order to learn from Him all wisdom; for He is the fountain from which we must draw everything. In fact, firstly, since He was from all eternity the Word of God, He is the life and light of men, and because He has received all the gifts of the Holy Spirit in perfection, since He was made man, it is of His fullness that we shall receive grace for grace. It is, then, by Him that we shall find grace before God, for if we wish to address ourselves to His majesty without availing ourselves of this means, we shall not be able to have access to Him. We must, then, come straight to Jesus Christ, since we know that He received in such perfection the gifts of the Holy Spirit, that through Him we shall all be able to be partakers of them. Thus St. Peter here uses a good reason to admonish the Jews that the Redeemer has come: namely, inasmuch as the Holy Spirit is poured out, we are in the last time.
Then he adds: “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth , a man approved by God among you through works of power, through miracles, and through signs, which God did through Him in the midst of you, as you also know; Him, I say, being delivered through the definite counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by the hands of wicked men, and have crucified and slain Him. It is He through Whom God has given Himself entirely to you, and nevertheless you have put Him to death. Yet you must know that it is He Who had been promised to you in the Law. He has come to be your Saviour, and you can recognize Him in that He has not remained in death, for God has rendered Him victorious over it, and He surmounted it.” That is what St. Peter alleges in the first place to the Jews, to lead them to the knowledge of Jesus Christ. And we must note that he is not here still treating only of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For, first of all, the Jews had to know that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. And that is what St. Peter wished to prove by what he here proposes.
There are two things that we ought to know about Jesus Christ. The first is that we must believe that He is the Messiah, that is, the Anointed of the Lord promised in the Law, and of Whom the Prophets have written, and that it is He Who has endured death for our redemption, and that nevertheless He was not held by it, but that He was risen in glory, triumphing over all His enemies. So much for the first point.
Then for the second, when we know that Jesus Christ has died for us, we must know Who He is and what benefit we are to receive from Him.
There are two things which we must note well: for if we had now to teach a Jew, we would have to begin by this to instruct him in Christianity, by showing him that Jesus Christ, Who was born of the Virgin Mary, Whom those who took rank over Him delivered to death, is He Whom God has promised to them, and the way in which He has assigned to them the time He had to come into the world. Then how He bore witness to Him, that He was His Son, that He approved Him through signs and miracles which He did in the midst of them, and likewise that after He ascended into heaven He sent His Holy Spirit, following what had been predicted of Him. That, I say, is what we must tell a Jew to cause Him to know Jesus Christ.
Then we would have to make him understand that, when it is spoken in Scripture of the reign of the Messiah, it is a spiritual reign, in order that he may not be mistaken by thinking that He is an earthly king, as all the Jews imagine. That is what has made them deny Jesus Christ, inasmuch as they have not seen Him ruling over the people as they considered that He ought to do.
Now toward the Papists we do not have to insist upon the first point, but only upon the second. For they will confess with us that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and He Who was promised in the Law, that He was put to death and that He was raised from the dead. There is where we agree without difficulty. But they must be taught why He came, for they do not recognize Him at all for what He is. We know that we must believe that in Jesus Christ alone and through the merit of His death and passion, we have salvation. The Papists on the contrary attribute it to their works and merits, and to their foolish inventions, and it seems to them that through this means they can be sanctified. They seek, then, in their works that which cannot be found except in Jesus Christ. That is how it would not be at all necessary to teach the Papists anything touching the person of Jesus Christ, but only to show them what His power is, why He came, and what profit we can receive from it.
St. Peter here needed to declare both of these articles: for the Jews did not know that Jesus Christ was the Messiah sent by God, and still less the power which was in Him, and why He had come. Therefore he shows them that He appeared as Son of God among them in that He was raised from the dead and that by this resurrection they could know that He was such; because He was delivered from death and was victorious over it, and therefore we must seek in Him life and salvation. That is what St. Peter wishes to show in the first place; then he will show what fruit we have of His resurrection, and that will be declared afterwards in its place.
Now, since we know the intention of St. Peter, and what order he follows in his sermon, let us follow it, and let us learn to know that as soon as God has done us some good, it is inasmuch as we are members of Jesus Christ, and not that He is moved to do it through our works, nor for anything we can present to Him. Therefore, let us wander no longer in our imaginations, to persuade ourselves of this or that, but let us come straight to the knowledge of our sins to take no pleasure in them; as we see that St. Peter leads the Jews to this when he treats of the death of Jesus Christ.
He accuses them in the first place, saying, “You have murdered Him.” It is clearly seen that this is not to flatter them. In fact, St. Peter had to put that before them to prick them at the heart, and to wound them to the quick; as we shall see later that they had such compunction and bitterness of heart, that they were converted through it. By this means he had to catch the attention of the men to humble them and to lead them to the knowledge of their faults. For if one preaches to them always pleasant and delightful things, he will only make them gab about it, and they will wish to be companions of God, and to enjoy Him like a mortal man.
We see what happened to the Samaritan woman when she speaks to Jesus Christ and He offers her living water, of which if she drinks she will never thirst, she makes fun of Him like the harlot that she is; but after He leads her to the knowledge of her sin, telling her to go and get her husband, and He declares to her all her iniquity, she speaks more humbly than she did at the beginning. When He put before her simply the gifts of God, she made fun of Him: “And whence the container to draw water, seeing that the well is so deep?” But when He said to her, “You are an impure woman, you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband,” then she recognized her sin and calls Jesus Christ a holy Prophet.
So then, until men are terrified by their sins, they will never give place to the Word of God. That is why St. Peter accuses the Jews of having crucified and slain Jesus Christ; not that he takes pleasure in casting upon them this reproach, but it is in order that they should know that their condemnation was at hand for their sins; and on the other hand the absolution for these through Jesus Christ if they will recognize Him and address themselves to Him.
Now the ministers of the Word of God have here a norm: namely, that they ought to touch men to the quick, and show them their sins, in order that they may know that God is their Judge Who will not leave the obstinacy of sin unpunished; and by this means they will be drawn to Him in repentance, which they would not do at all unless they had been reprimanded and treated rudely. Therefore we must allow God to rule over us and to condemn us, in order to be absolved by Him.
There are many who would surely wish that the Gospel might be preached, provided that it might draw them to their profit and fleshly desire, and that it might be for them a cover for their villainies. Now it is not to this end that we must preach; for our Lord Jesus Christ says that, when the Holy Spirit will come, He will rebuke the world of sin; He will be seated as a Judge on His throne and He will judge the world. So then, we shall not be able to treat faithfully the Gospel so that the world may not be led into this condemnation, unless each one knows what he is in order to rebuke himself.
Therefore, may those who flatter themselves, groan; may those who are satisfied with themselves, be frightened; and may those who are persuaded that they are righteous in themselves, look at themselves more closely, in order that all may be led to this knowledge of sins by which we shall be led to repentance and consequently to the grace of God.
That is why St. Peter reprehends so rudely the Jews, saying that they have crucified and slain Jesus Christ. Then he adds, “Being delivered through the definite counsel and foreknowledge of God.” As if he had said, “Although He has been delivered by the hand of wicked men and you have put Him to death, yet that was not done without the will of God.” Now it is not without cause that Peter adds this word, “Through the counsel and foreknowledge of God.” For the Jews could at least reply, “If it is thus that Jesus Christ of Whom you speak to us is the Messiah, why has He suffered to be thus tormented and put to death?” And it is a very difficult thing to persuade them of, as we still see today that they mock and say, “If Jesus were the Son of God, why did He endure this opprobrium of the cross?” So wicked men disgorge this blasphemy because the cross is an object which seems to them to take away from the majesty of the Son of God. Yet St. Peter anticipates such fancies, which could hinder the Jews from giving credence to his teaching. And he says that not any of this has been done through chance (as they might have supposed) but through the will of God. Now when we shall fully consider the power of God, we shall escape all such fancies. We know that God is not at all disproved by sense and by reason, and that all that which He did was proper for the salvation of men.
There is also the resurrection which we must diligently consider. For although the death of Jesus Christ could scandalize us, if we considered it all alone, because of the cruelty and shame of it, also we see in the resurrection a glory and an admirable power of God, which ought to turn us away from all the troubles and fancies which could scandalize us. It is not, then, without cause that St. Peter declares that what Jesus Christ endured was through the providence of God. Jesus Christ had to be the sacrifice offered to God His Father to blot out the sins of the world.
When, then, we see such a purpose to the counsel of God, that we may know that all He does is for our benefit, we ought no longer to inquire why Jesus Christ suffered, because in that we see the infinite goodness of God, we see His love which appeared to us (as St. Paul says) in that He spared not His own Son, but has delivered Him to death for us. We see on the other hand the obedience which Jesus Christ renders to God His Father. Yet let us not be so presumptuous as to enter into these foolish cogitations by saying, “Why has God done this or that?” We know that all that He has ordained is founded upon this fatherly love which He bore toward us. So then, in contemplating this, we see why Jesus Christ suffered. And that is the reason for which St. Peter said that God had determined this in His immutable counsel.
Besides, this was not just left to be done through the hands of wicked men. By which we see that the wicked may well be able to injure the good, but they will execute nothing unless God permits it. And even we have not any better mirror of all that than in the person of Jesus Christ. For we must know that all that He endured was predicted by the Prophets. It is said that He was put on the cross even as it was predicted. There are the brigands of Rome who crucify Him (that is, the officers who had been commissioned for the execution); it was thus prophesied. They give Him to drink a beverage very hard and bitter, they divide His clothing, and all that just as it was written. Briefly, nothing is done except what God had ordained. By this we see that wicked men can do nothing, except insofar as God unleashes the bridle upon them; as it is seen that these wicked men do not pass the limits which God has given them.
Now what is said of Jesus Christ, we must also properly apply to our use. For He Himself testified that little sparrows will not fall without His ordaining it. If, then, the providence of God is such that it extends to these little beastlets, it follows that nothing will happen unless God has ordained it. Then He adds that the hairs of our heads are numbered. By which He indicates the care which He has for us, and since we are members of Jesus Christ and we are near enough to touch Him, He wishes that we may know that He holds us for His children. For although this world may be, as it were, the house of God, and though He may be to it the Father of a family, yet He has His Church by special recommendation, and for her He has a special regard.
So then, we see how we must think of the providence of God: namely, that St. Peter did not wish at all to put forward fantastic things and then to seek a thousand subtleties which do not serve for any edification. He did not wish to proceed in such a way, but He shows that God has so well proved our salvation, that we must not seek other means than Him Whom He has given us. Then he wishes to indicate that we are in such wise in the hand of God and in His refuge, that one can do nothing against us except what He has determined. Otherwise what would our lot be? If we were led through chance (as fanatics consider) our condition would be more wretched than that of brute beasts. But when we know that God governs everything, it ought to be a great comfort to us, and we can well lean upon it. We see, then, that it is a very necessary virtue that we know the providence of God. Therefore we must consider that just as Jesus suffered nothing without Divine permission, so all that will happen to us comes from God. That is what we must note from this passage.
We must still further parse the word “Counsel.” It is true that some will speak well of the providence of God, but they will have only a foolish notion of it; for they think that He is resting high in the sky, and yet He leaves chance or nature to rule here below. On the contrary it is here declared to us that God ordains everything and disposes of things just as it pleases Him. It is true that this is unfamiliar to us and we cannot comprehend it, but we must be content to know that He is the Governor of it, and we must not do at all like some dreamers who say, “And God knows what will happen, and we do not know how to put it in order; of what use to us, then, is His counsel and advice?” That, then, is the reason that such fanatics wish to give to their dreams, which are such great arrogancies that God will not leave them unpunished. For although God does not call us by His strict counsel, to declare to us His will, and what He has deliberated to do, yet we must know that we are governed by His hand, and that the wicked will be able to do nothing against us, except insofar as God unleashes the bridle on them.
Yet He does not cease, therefore, to have an order in nature; and that is not to say that, as for us, we must not make use of His counsel. For God has declared to us that He wishes that we should live by the bread which He gives us to eat, and that we should be cured of illness by medicine. It would then, be too great a presumption, if we wished to reject the means which God gives us to remedy our infirmities. And he who thinks he will get ahead by means of such presumption—it will be to his ruin and confounding. For when we say that the providence of God proved all things, it is not, therefore, that we must reject the means which He gives us.
This is what we must note touching what can be alleged from this passage; not at all that we should go speculate and invent a thousand sophisticated questions like the Papists know how to put forward; but in all humility let us consider that not only did God foresee things, but He disposes of them according to His will. Therefore let us learn to commend ourselves to Him when we shall endure great assaults of Satan and of the world, of which he is called the prince. And when it seems to us that the wicked ought to crush us, let us withdraw under the wings of our God, in order that He may give us wherewith to resist, and that being armed by His power we may be able to repulse all temptations which could happen to us. For when all the devils and all the wicked will have raised themselves against us, He will surely know how to bridle them and hold them tightly, provided that we have recourse to Him, putting ourselves in His safeguard. That is how we must contemplate the providence of God by faith, and not according to our senses.
Now, concerning our having said that the wicked will execute nothing except what God has ordained, many would be able to reply, “Why? If that is so, we would have to say that God is the cause of evil, and that the wicked should be excused.” Now to answer we must know in the first place what the will of God is, and even how He declares it to us in His Law. We know that He prohibits us from stealing. If I, then, go steal, for example, do I do His will? Certainly when the wicked are given to doing evil, it is not doing the will of God at all; for they well know that God reproves all that. When, then, they do evil, there is a resistance to the will of God. By which it follows that God does not wish at all that they do evil, but He permits them to do it, and they are not at all excused thereby, inasmuch as they do it against His commandment.
We must not say that God is the cause of evil, for He does not commit the vices that we commit. As also we see that He checks the devil by punishing those who are deserving of it. The devil commits evil and has no other regard but to do evil, and yet God does not let him serve any other different purpose. God will permit a thief or a brigand to rob a good man of something, even though he will be faithful and living well. Why so? To prove the patience of the latter, and in order that it may be known.
We see what Job said in all his persecutions, “God had given it to me, God has taken it away from me, His name be blessed.” And always he was pillaged by brigands. How does he understand that, then? Does Job accuse God of robbery? No. We must not understand it thus; for we know that the brigands are wicked men, and they come not only against the will of God, and in the intention of doing evil; but he looks higher, that this is not done without the providence of God. So then, Job does not attribute the evil deed to God, but he knows the condition of the men. He sees that the Chaldeans and the Sabeans are as it were, the scourges of God. They pillage him, they rob him, they kill his servants, they lead away his beasts; briefly, they completely impoverish him, and nevertheless he always praises God, knowing well that this would not be done without His ordaining it. Thus we must do; for if the wicked persecute us, we must not regard them alone, but our faith must fly higher: namely, to know that the providence of God is over them. That is how we must judge the matter, and not enter into frivolous speculations about it.
Now we see that Jesus Christ was surely crucified by wicked men, and yet it was not done at all without God’s having ordained it. But God surely used it for another purpose. The wicked men wished to destroy Jesus Christ, and God wished that His blood and His death should be a perpetual sacrifice, and that our redemption should be fulfilled and accomplished. So then, when we contemplate that, we have occasion to glorify God, and he who will come to a contrary conclusion is rebuked in his own conscience.
Now St. Peter says that Jesus was raised from the dead, to show that we must always join the resurrection of Jesus Christ with His death. For if we contemplate Him only in His death we shall see Him there entirely full of shame and opprobrium, and disfigured like a leper; but when we come to the resurrection, we see how He was exalted by the hand of God, Who has given Him all power in heaven and on earth. So then, as soon as we have said, “Jesus Christ has died,” let us know also that He is raised. He is dead according to the weakness of the flesh, but in that He is raised, He appeared Son of God. That is what St. Peter wished to indicate by saying, “Whom God raised up, having loosened the pains of death.”
Now in that he says the pains of death, he does not intend the pains of physical death which Jesus Christ suffered; but the horrible anguishes in which He was, because He had to be our Pledge, and to bear the pain of all or sins. So then, He endured not only in the body, but also in the Spirit; yet it was not to be conquered by it.
But we shall not be able now to deduce what is needful to declare the meaning of the pains of death; therefore we shall reserve it for another time.
Following this holy teaching let us bow in humble reverence.