In 1535, John Calvin arrived in Basel, Switzerland, having fled his homeland because of rising persecution.
While in Basel, Calvin wrote two theological works, one in French and the second in Latin. The first work was a preface to the New Testament in French. This preface was appreciated at the time but has been largely forgotten, overshadowed by his second work.
Calvin also wrote and submitted to the publishers a second theological work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. When this book finally emerged from the printer’s presses, it had a significant impact on the Reformation and continues to be an influential theological work to this very day.
Why read John Calvin’s first theological work, a mere preface to the French New Testament? Here are five reasons.
By the way, this work is often referred to simply as a preface. Calvin began the work with the words, “To all who love Christ and His gospel, greetings.” So, I use those opening words for the title to my new translation of the work.
1. Meet a Young John Calvin
When you read Calvin’s preface, you meet a young John Calvin. He was 25 years old at the time. He was hiding in Basel, Switzerland, trying to contact the reformers in that city while evading agents who might abduct him.
After arriving in the city, he started writing in support of the Reformation. He wrote the preface first and then gave his attention to the Institutes of the Christian Religion, a much longer work which he may have started before even arriving in Basel. He would eventually complete this theological masterpiece and entrust it to the publishers before leaving the city for Ferrara, Italy.
You will be struck by Calvin’s youthful enthusiasm in this preface. His enthusiasm is tempered only by an earnestness and focus on the importance of the gospel. He desired to point those who had never held a Bible or known the grace of Jesus Christ to his own beloved Savior.
He was especially concerned with strengthening those who were experiencing trials and persecution because of their newfound love of Christ and the gospel.
2. Be Encouraged to Suffer for Christ
Another reason to read this work is that you will be encouraged by Calvin’s exhortations to those who were suffering for their faith.
Calvin had himself escaped arrest and suffered hardships and robbery, arriving in Basel with little to his name. Yet he was not focused on his own struggles but instead wrote to encourage those suffering in France.
He wrote in his preface, “We must accept being despised, mocked, humiliated and rejected by others, because we then have the promise of being honored, prized, glorified and exalted at the judgment of God.”
He also wrote, “Let us not become discouraged when we see all the earthly powers and forces against us, because the Lord’s promises cannot fail.”
Calvin’s exhortations to his fellow believers are just as strengthening for us today. He reminds us of the greatness of God the Father and the example Jesus Christ, encourages us to find our strength in them, and even draws our attention to the final hope of heaven.
3. Marvel at Christ’s Place in the Scriptures
Calvin was tasked with writing a preface to the New Testament in the French Bible. Calvin didn’t follow the usual practices in writing a preface such as giving a brief summary of the New Testament books or explaining to the reader how to study the New Testament.
Calvin begins his preface to the New Testament with the events in Genesis 3, expounding on the significance of the fall of Adam and Eve. He then proceeds to explain how Christ would come as a Savoir and Mediator of a new covenant.
He also reviews various prophetic passages that point forward to Christ and then directs the readers to various events in Christ’s life that affirm His deity.
Calvin understood that the readers of this Bible would not have a clear grasp of how the book in their hands relates to Jesus Christ. Even more importantly, they may not even realize that they need to embrace Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Reading Calvin’s preface will give you a new appreciation for the place of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures.
4. Join in Praising Christ
If you think that John Calvin writes cold, dense, lifeless theology, then you need to read his preface.
Calvin is overflowing in praise of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer, whose death accomplished more than we could ever comprehend.
In one poetic section, Calvin used repeated contrasts to explain what Christ has done for us. He wrote ten phrases, beginning with “He humbled Himself to exalt us, made Himself a servant to set us free, became poor to enrich us, …”
Yet these ten accomplishments of Jesus Christ were not enough. Calvin then sets out 27 things that Christ did on our behalf, each expressed with contrasting pairs such as “hardened” and “softened” and “vengeance” and “avenged”.
He begins this section by writing, “By His death our hardened hearts were softened, our awaiting wrath was appeased, our darkness was turned to light, …”
These passages are some of the most moving in his preface. We should read and meditate on Calvin’s summary of all that Christ has done. We would then have our hearts primed to praise our Lord and Savior as a young John Calvin did.
5. Appreciate the Bible in Your Own Language
The final section of the preface focuses on the topic of the French Bible.
Calvin exhorts everyone to read it and hold fast to what it teaches. He also asks the civil authorities not to hinder its publication. Finally, he urges the religious authorities to allow their sheep to have access to their proper spiritual food.
It is good for us to be taken back to a time when few had access to a Bible in their own language. With so many Bibles in English, we forget the sacrificial labor that brought us to our present abundance.
Even worse, we might assume that everyone has a Bible in their own language at their fingertips. On that topic, please read my open letter on behalf of those without a Bible in their own language, click here. And to learn about the 5 leading factors that have contributed to so many not having the Bible in their own language, click here.
Like this young reformer, we should support the ongoing efforts to strengthen the church around the world through the translated Word.
In Conclusion: Listen and Learn
Calvin starts the third and final section of the preface with an exhortation to listen and learn.
He asks, “Where is your hope to be found, if you regard this Holy Gospel with contempt and scorn the thought of listening to it, looking at it, reading it and holding it tight?”
May John Calvin’s love for Christ stir up your own love as you ponder more deeply the greatness of His work on our behalf. May his exhortations to endure draw us closer to our Savior who suffered so much for us and ultimately for the glory of His Father.
And may your reading of his preface encourage you to hold more tightly to our Holy Gospel.