John Calvin’s sermons are quite different in tone from his other writings. Few things have changed my opinion of Calvin as much as reading what he said to the congregation he preached to week in and week out. Here is are two great quotes from his sermon on Acts 3:17-19:
In fact, if we only proclaim how God shows himself to be our Father through our Lord Jesus Christ, a few will accept that, but to no avail unless we first lead them to a knowledge of their sins so they will be grieved by them. In this way, we also must be cast down in ourselves if we want our Lord to lift us up. Then we will know it is not in vain that we confess that our lives are filled with nothing less than filth and contagion. Not only must we make that kind of general confession, but each of us must also confess his particular sins before God if we are to be humbled under his strong hand. May our arrogance, our rebellion, and our wicked affections not keep us from recognizing the truth expressed here, that there is no salvation except through Jesus Christ, and for that that reason we must cling unreservedly to him.
Calvin is expressing the need for men to recognize their sins in all their ugliness before they will come to God. Notice his emphasis not just on general confession, but also on confessing “particular sins.” Many men will confess they are sinners without confessing their sins. Throughout this sermon Calvin shows great balance. Men need to see their sins clearly. But they also need to see God’s mercy in Christ clearly. To remove the first is to give a man no need to run to Christ. To remove the second is to give them nowhere to run. Here is a second quote from later in the sermon. Calvin does something he is known for. He gives his people an example of what words could be said, which also sum up his points.
So let us always acknowledge our sins so that we may be grieved by them, and then let us look to God’s mercy so that we may come to him in all humility and say, “Alas, Lord here we are on the road to hell. We are guilty and worthy of everlasting death because of the sins we have committed against your holy majesty, but you do not desire the death of sinners before they are converted and enter into life. With confidence in your great mercy we lay claim to it, asking you not to look on the enormity of our sins, but to look upon with pity, pardoning us by your freely bestowed kindness.” This is the way to preach the gospel. After people are overwhelmed by the knowledge of their sins, they must be brought to repentance and shown this is not a matter of putting on a happy face for God with the thought of deceiving him by pretense and hypocrisy, as people are accustomed to doing. That is not the way they are to come to him, but when they want to be truly repentant, they must be displeased with themselves and displeased for having offended Go. When they are thus affected, offer them God’s mercy so their sins will be forgiven, provided they return to God, as we said earlier.
It is hard to find a clearer or more affecting statement of the gospel than what is in the quotes. Calvin clearly articulates our total depravity, lack of merit, condemnation, and sinfulness alongside God’s great holiness and mercy. Notice that Calvin uses “us” and “we” a lot. He included himself among those who needed this great gospel. The gospel was not for the congregation. It was for all men, including the pastor. As I have read Calvin’s sermons I have tried to use “us” and “we” more.