Piercing the heart

Calvin’s warm heart is on full display in his preaching.

-Peter Moore-

Over the years, portraits of John Calvin have often been painted in strange hues. Because of the intellectual rigour of Calvin’s Institutes, its author has often been caricatured as a cold hearted dogmatist. But Calvin had a warm heart for human cares, and this is on full display in his preaching.

In this short article I want to explore some of the emotional power of Calvin’s five sermons on the Beatitudes, using the 2006 Banner of Truth edition, wonderfully translated by Sydney’s Robert White. There are four lessons we could all absorb.

Lesson 1: Tell people that their emotions are a healthy part of life.

Again and again in the sermons, Calvin affirms the reality and value of emotions in Christian men and women. In sermon two, Calvin teaches his congregation that emotions are a proper part of our human experience: “If we are poor in spirit, we cannot avoid weeping; we cannot be other than distressed. We are not, after all, without feelings, like those madmen [the Stoic philosophers] I mentioned earlier, who expect us to remain as immovable as an anvil or a rock! Such a thing goes against our nature” (Beatitudes, p.28).

Far from being unnecessary or avoidable, feelings are designed by God to help us.

Calvin exhorts his congregation that the Stoic vision of a human being who is not made miserable by affliction is a “mere fantasy, pure folly on their part”.

Far from being unnecessary or avoidable, feelings are designed by God to help us. “We have instead to feel our miseries, which are meant to press us to the point where we bend and break…”

Lesson 2: Talk about the emotions that are part of motivating a godly life.

Calvin frequently talks about the emotions that are involved in godly living. He was a caring pastor who vehemently rejects the apatheia (dispassion) of the Stoics, and seems to have believed that emotions involve value judgments. If we think rightly we will likely feel rightly. Conversely, to think wrongly is to feel wrongly.

Indeed, judging from these sermons, there is a complex dynamic in Calvin’s understanding of emotion that sees understanding leading to emotional responses which in turn lead to choices.


In sermon four, as Calvin approaches the end of his speech, he preaches to inspire his congregation to the right choice: that they might speak the truth. To produce this choice, he knows he must nourish right emotion, from the root of right thought. In successive sentences he expresses this logical progression first backwards, then forwards.

“Since, as well as peace-makers (right choice), we need to be both upright and fervent in heart (right emotion), we must value God’s truth above all else (right thought). The word perfectly proclaimed by Jesus Christ should be so familiar to us (right thought) that we do not fear (right emotion) to offend the whole world (right choice).”

Tackling this issue in a negative form, Calvin then immediately discusses the wrong emotional life that follows from wrong thinking, and which leads to wrong choice. “Now in this respect we are so cold…(wrong emotion). Why, you ask, is that? Because we do not understand how much God loves integrity and justice. And second, because we fail to see how precious His truth is to him. (wrong thought). Contempt for God’s Word and for what it can do for us makes us forsake justice and integrity, however much we might claim to respect them…(wrong choice).”

Or in this sentence the three stages are even more clearly expressed: “If we thought carefully about these things (right thought), we would be moved to show pity [right emotion] every time we saw our neighbour suffering want or affliction (right choice).”

When we preach a truth, we need to think about what it would feel like to accept it. On the other hand, what would it feel like to reject this truth? If we can point these possible emotional responses out as we preach, then on Calvin’s model, godly choices are more likely to follow.

Lesson 3: Work hard at describing emotions.

In his five sermons (which I suppose took a little less than five hours to deliver), Calvin refers to emotions hundreds of times –well over 400 times, and probably about 500 to 600 times. I added up 365 different ways of talking about emotions in just five sermons! That comes to more than one different way of referring to emotion every 30 seconds or so.

Calvin learned classical rhetorical theory as a young man, and he uses it extensively in his preaching.

So Calvin talks about emotions a lot, and he paints a picture of a lot of different emotional states. In all this, Calvin makes clear that the heart and all its affects (French courage – fortitude, spirit, valour, boldness, passion) are to be given to God, and not divided between God and the world’s charms! Calvin then, deals with all emotions on an equal basis. He preaches for a wholehearted offering of them all to God.

Lesson 4 – Use helpful techniques to engage emotion.

Calvin learned classical rhetorical theory as a young man, and he uses it extensively in his preaching. I will make mention of five techniques in particular, all of which can engage emotion.

First, questions. In sermon four Calvin uses a strong series of questions to warm his congregation’s hearts. “In order to impress His teaching on us, our Lord declares that those who bring about peace will be called children of God. Could anything be better than for God to acknowledge and recognise us as His children, and for us to call upon Him as Father? Imagine our situation if that were not so. If God were to reject us, what would we have left? Even if we had all we wanted in this world, would not everything be cursed and spoiled for us, if God were against us? For we can have no true taste of prosperity or blessing unless we experience God’s favour and fatherly love towards us. That then, is what we must truly aim at – knowing God as Father and having the privilege of calling ourselves His children”.

Second, metaphors. In sermon two, he says: “We have seen that we are to be meek, as men living among wild beasts whose teeth are sharp and whose claws are ready to tear, rend, and destroy us, we must press on in patience and sincerity.”

Calvin’s favourite and most powerful technique is probably dialogue.

Third, illustrations. What about this illustration combined with a brief bit of  dialogue? “The point he goes on to make…. is that the promise has been given to us, and that if our salvation lies in hope, it must at present remain hidden. We do not hope for something we can see. No-one would say, ‘I hope that supper will soon be ready’, when the table is actually set and the food placed on it. We hope instead for something of which we are still not sure.”

Fourth, dialogues. Calvin’s favourite and most powerful technique is probably dialogue. Try this moving appeal from Jesus in direct speech: “Our Lord in this passage associates weeping and poverty in spirit. It is as if he were saying, ‘When I tell you that nothing will take away your blessedness, however oppressed and afflicted you are, I do not mean that you should dumbly resist regardless of feelings, or that you should be like senseless blocks of wood. No! You will weep, you will experience want, dishonour, illness and other kinds of affliction in this world. These things you will suffer; they will wound you to the very core and make you weep. But nothing will take your blessedness from you. Why? Because my last word to you is [this]: wait for the consolation from on high’.”

Fifth, crying out in emotion. Calvin often engages in an emotional outburst. He says things like “Alas. If God does not take pity on us, we are finished.” And a little later, “Woe to us, if we are poor, hungry, and persecuted”.

May these examples inform our minds and warm our hearts.

Peter Moore preaches most Sundays at Sutherland Presbyterian Church, and teaches three days a week with The Timothy Partnership. 

First Published Spring 2013 Edition

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