In 1534, John Calvin embraced the Reformation and fled France in response to rising persecution. He sought refuge in Basel, Switzerland, arriving in January 1535.
While in hiding, Calvin met other French reformers and learned that his cousin, Pierre Robert Olivétan, was producing a French translation of the Bible for the Protestants. Calvin was asked to write a preface to this translation. He wrote a preface in Latin to the entire work and then a second preface in French for the New Testament.
In this post, I would like to focus on the French preface and specifically on the importance that John Calvin placed on understanding Jesus Christ. It is apparent that Calvin felt that the key to understanding the New Testament and deriving the greatest benefit from reading it rested in grasping that Jesus Christ is our Mediator, Savior, and life.
Jesus Christ Our Mediator
Calvin begins his preface to the New Testament by taking his readers back to creation and the Garden of Eden. He reminds them that God created mankind, yet Adam and Eve disobeyed and lost all that God had given them.
God was displeased with the first couple but showed them mercy and grace. God placed witnesses to his glory in creation that drew Adam and Eve and their descendants to seek him.
Calvin notes that God desired to show his goodness and kindness more fully, and so he revealed himself to Abraham and established a covenant with the people of Israel. Nonetheless, the disobedience of Israel revealed the need for a new covenant and a new mediator. Calvin concludes that only Jesus Christ could be such a mediator.
Calvin then explains that from the beginning God had promised a deliverer who would undo the work of Satan. He makes clear that Christ the mediator was not a response to Israel’s failure and, in a way, a change in God’s plan. Jesus was not an alternate plan. Rather, Calvin demonstrates that God’s plan from the beginning has been to provide a deliverer.
Calvin begins with the promise to Eve of one who will crush the head of Satan. He notes the promise to Abraham that all the nations would be blessed through his seed. He also surveys the prophecies of a coming Messiah found in the prophets.
Calvin then explains to the reader that at the perfect time, established by God, Jesus Christ came as the fulfillment of the promised mediator and Messiah, to redeem and save us.
Calvin finally draws the reader’s attention to the book in their hands. He states that the New Testament clearly sets forth all these truths about Jesus Christ. He is the mediator of the New Testament, which is new and eternal, ratified and confirmed by Jesus’ death.
Calvin then turns from Jesus Christ as mediator to Jesus Christ as Savior.
Jesus Christ our Savior
Calvin then focuses the reader’s attention on Jesus Christ, our only Savior. Calvin notes how the events of Jesus’ life illustrate that he was the promised Messiah and Savior. Furthermore, the testimony offered by the angels at his birth, John the Baptist, and the apostles all confirm him as the promised Savior.
Calvin takes a step back and notes that everything in heaven and on earth witnesses to Jesus Christ as God, Lord, Master, and Savior, who the Father sent to us to accomplish the salvation of humanity.
Calvin draws the reader’s attention back to the New Testament before them. He encourages them by adding that all these truths about Jesus our Savior are “announced, manifested, written, and signed” in the New Testament.
Calvin reminds the reader that Jesus Christ has made us his heirs and declared to us his will, and, consequently, we are all called to this inheritance. We are all called to Christ “without respect for persons.” He then exhorts them to not dishonor or conceal this new covenant.
Then the young reformer explains that without this redemptive relationship to God through Christ, we could not know God, what he commands, or what the Gospel is. Furthermore, without the Gospel of Jesus Christ, “everything is useless and vain.”
Calvin sets out a series of concise yet profound statements about the Gospel, culminating in a blessing on those who hear and keep the Gospel and a curse on those who reject it.
After carefully and systematically teaching through the Scriptures and laying out how Jesus is our mediator and Savior, he focuses on Christ and our life in him.
Jesus Christ Our Life
Calvin leads the reader methodically through the Scriptures, establishing the case that Jesus is their mediator and their Savior who puts them right with God.
Calvin writes with great enthusiasm and confidence in Jesus as his Savior who has given him life. In response to all that Christ has done for him, Calvin encourages the readers to redirect their thoughts, actions, and entire life toward Christ. He writes that in Christ they will find salvation and life.
Calvin expands on what Christ accomplished by his death by unpacking all the blessings that believers have as they live for him. He boldly claims that they have everything good that they could imagine or long for in this life through Jesus Christ. And so they no longer live for themselves but for Christ.
Having fled the persecution in France, Calvin was very aware of the dangers of following Jesus Christ. He encourages his readers by stating that Christ works in and through trials and suffering for our good and his glory. He writes: “In short, if we have Jesus Christ with us, we will not encounter anything so cursed that he will not turn it into a blessing, nothing so desecrated that he will not make it holy, and nothing so evil that he will not make it good.”
Calvin then presses again the value of knowing Christ and the great spiritual riches that believers have through Him, including eternal life. Our life is in Christ, and so we are content in all things and comforted in all tribulations.
After praising Christ and the blessedness of our life in Him, Calvin ends with a cautionary note. He reminds the reader not to seek other wisdom or mix anything else with the Gospel, adding that those who teach one syllable beyond what is in the Scriptures are cursed before God.
As John Calvin considered what to write for readers of the French New Testament, he settled on Jesus Christ. For Calvin, the Scriptures are about Christ, and Christ is what we need most from the Scriptures.
May we have a renewed appreciation of Christ as our Mediator, Savior, and life.
As Calvin penned, “We owe our redemption, peace, righteousness, sanctification, salvation, and life to him.”