John Calvin is known as a theologian and influential leader of the Reformation. However, he is seldom described as a passionate preacher who used poetic language to implore others to faith in Christ.
After joining the Reformation movement in Switzerland, Calvin was asked by his cousin, Robert Pierre Olivétan, to write prefaces to the French Bible that he was translating.
Calvin wrote a preface to the New Testament in French. This preface begins with a theologically profound overview of the Scriptures which focuses on Jesus Christ as the focal point of Scripture. Calvin then exhorts the French-speaking laity to read, study, and learn from the Scriptures. He encourages his readers to embrace the truths of Scripture with a pastor’s heart.
Below are a few excerpts of Calvin’s poetic praise of Christ as our Savior and Redeemer, whose death accomplished more than we could ever comprehend.
Note how Calvin uses repeated contrasts to explain what Christ has done, first with nine phrases with contrasting verbs such as “humbled” and “exalt” and “sold” and “buy” and then with 27 pairs with contrasts such as “hardened” and “softened” and “vengeance” and “avenged.”
These excerpts are some of the most moving praise offered by Calvin in his preface.
To capture the beauty of these passages, I have compared earlier English translations with the original French text to produce an updated and engaging translation in modern English.
…every good thing we could think of or long for is to be found in this unique Jesus Christ.
He humbled himself to exalt us,
made himself a servant to set us free,
became poor to enrich us,
was sold to buy us back,
became a captive to free us,
was condemned to absolve us,
was cursed to bless us,
was sacrificed for our sins to claim our righteousness, and
was marred to make us fair.
He died to give us life such that by his death
our hardened hearts were softened,
our awaiting wrath was appeased,
our darkness was turned to light,
our fear was reassured,
our despised state was despised,
our debt was cancelled,
our labor was lightened,
our sadness was turned to joy,
our misfortune was turned to fortune,
our difficulty was eased,
our disorder was brought into order,
our division was turned to unity,
our shame was turned to admiration,
our rebellion was suppressed,
our intimidator could no longer intimidate,
ambushes set for us were uncovered,
assaults against us were assailed,
forces coming against us were forced back,
the combat around us was combatted,
the war waged against us was warred against,
vengeance planned against us was avenged,
the torment we deserved became his torment,
our damnation was damned,
our abyss sank into its own abyss,
our hell halted,
our death made to die, and
our mortality became immortal.
In short, his mercy has swallowed up all our misery, and his kindness all our misfortune.
It appears that John Calvin’s exhortations and words of praise were well appreciated. Later revisions of the French Bible included Calvin’s preface, even expanding on it.
Calvin’s preface even appears in the English New Testament published by the English exiles who fled to Geneva because of Queen Mary. In the 1557 Geneva New Testament, an English translation of the preface appears at the beginning of the work. It is entitled “The Epistle Declaring that Christ is the end of the Law” and is attributed to Calvin.
Regardless of how widely Calvin’s words were published, may we add our own praise with hearts overflowing to the One who has accomplished more for us than we could ever express in words!