I’m dipping into three commentaries on the Gospel of John: Calvin’s (1553, THL Parker translation 1958), Carson’s (1996), and Kostenberger’s (2004). The Reformer’s writing, published some 500 years ago, continues to shed light and move the heart.
– In Calvin’s dedication to the senate of Geneva, he thanks the Lord for the hospitality the Genevan authorities has shown to refugees and Christians who needed to flee the wrath of Rome.
– He compares 16th century Rome to Babel and the Anti-Christ.
– Calvin encourages the Genevan senate to trust in Christ’s protection of their city because they have defended “two impregnable bastions”: the cultivation of pure religion and protected the Church.
– The minister of Geneva believes that “genuine purity of doctrine, sound religion, the simple worship of God and the right administration of the Sacraments” have been restored the Church “as they were delivered by Christ.” Nevertheless, he admits that the flourishing of godly life among the Genevans has been a struggle. The people found it difficult to the discipline and yoke of Christ, having been exposed for a long time to Romish filth and license before the Reformation and Renewal came.
– Calvin and the other Genevan pastors were criticized as overly strict. The pastoral leader believes that they had been strict only as their ministerial duty demanded, which is “faithfully to care for the salvation” of God’s people.
– The pastoral office, in Calvin’s estimate, is great and excellent. It requires careful diligence among those who occupy it.
After the dedicatory page, we see Calvin discuss the “theme” of Gospel. His opening words are worth quoting in full:
In Scripture [the Gospel] signifies [preeminently] the glad and joyful message of the grace revealed to us in Christ, to teach us to despise the world and its transient riches and pleasures, and to desire with all our heart and to embrace this incomparable blessing when it is offered to us. The immoderate delight of irreligious men in the empty enjoyments of the world, who are not at all, or little, touched by a feeling for spiritual blessings, is innate in nearly all of us. Therefore, to correct this fault, God specially calls by the name Gospel the message which He commands to be proclaimed about Christ. For in this way He tells us that nowhere else can true and substantial happiness be obtained and that in Him we have in perfection all the parts of a blessed life.
How does the Reformer view the relation of Gospel, Law and Prophets? First, he does not seem to prevent others from calling “Gospel” (as an extension) “all the free promises of God scattered” throughout the Old Covenant Scriptures. He wrote:
And it cannot be denied that whenever God declares that He will be propitious to men and forgive their sins, He sets forth Christ at the same time, whose property it is to shed abroad the rays of joy whenever He shines. I admit therefore that the fathers partook of the same Gospel as ourselves, so far as the faith of free salvation is concerned.
However, the Reformation leader advises that we follow the lead of the Spirit in connecting the word Gospel to the coming of Christ. Hence Calvin’s definition in the quotation above: The Gospel is a “solemn proclamation of the grace revealed in Christ.” He adds, “the Gospel is called the power unto salvation to everyone that believes; because in it God manifests His righteousness. It is also called an embassy, by which He reconciles man to Himself. Moreover, as Christ is the pledge of the divine mercy and fatherly love toward us, so He is properly the subject of the Gospel.”
Focusing now on the four Gospels, Calvin teaches the following:
– For the purpose of salvation, we need both the narration of Christ’s historical life and its interpretation as given in the Scriptures
– All four Gospels certainly teach that Christ came into the world to “perform all the duties of a Mediator” – that is, to “bring salvation, to atone for the sins of the world by the sacrifice of His death.”
– John’s Gospel is a like a key to understanding the other Gospels because it bears more conspicuously the purpose, power and fruit of Christ’s coming. “When we want to read in Matthew and the rest that Christ was given to us of the Father,” writes Calvin, “we should learn first from John to what end He was manifested.”