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Digression: Origin of the Church’s Troubles

 
by Dr. John Calvin

 

But before I proceed any further, it is worthwhile noting what is the origin of such numerous and varied changes by which the Church of God is repeatedly disturbed and, so to speak, whirled about. Certainly an understanding of this problem is not to be sought in irrelevant or obscure conjectures since men’s constant revolts from God are what have interrupted the otherwise constant and unimpeded course of his grace. One can observe that truth from almost the very beginning of the world itself. When Moses speaks about Seth and his son Enosh, he recounts that "at that time men began to call upon the name of the Lord" (Gen. 4:26), and we understand from that that the true worship of God (which had lapsed to some extent with Cain’s accursed descendants) had been restored once again to thrive and flourish in the world. But scarcely eight generations passed before all their descendants, whom God had set apart to be his own sons, rushed into every kind of sin, so that in the flood they destroyed, along with themselves, the whole world, which they had polluted by their disgraceful conduct.

When the Church had been reduced to eight souls, it at least seemed to be so purified that that scanty seed which was left would produce from itself nothing but genuine holiness. But soon it was reduced by a quarter.20 The descendants of Japhet also disappeared a little later. Only the family of Shem was left, and not long afterwards it also became so degenerate that a large part of it was deservedly renounced by God. After the descendants of Abraham were brought out of Egypt with wonderful power and crossed the Red Sea, they proceeded toward the inheritance promised them. Who would not predict from such auspices a perpetual state of blessedness? But those very people, in whose deliverance God had given such a remarkable example of his power, knew no limit to their sin, until they were all destroyed by horrible means in the wilderness. Their children at last entered on their possession; but for almost six21 generations their land knew no stability, because they were constantly disturbing it by their treacherous fickleness. However, the Lord did quite frequently restore them to a tolerable form of life. All the same, neither the memory of their first deliverance, nor the rods so often used to punish them, nor an awareness of present punishments, nor the indulgence frequently shown them, could restrain them from throwing off God’s yoke and bringing fresh disasters on themselves.

Moses had predicted that this would happen; they would be "fat and well fed" and disobedient (Deut. 32:15). But the actual state of affairs goes far beyond that. What is the history of the Jews but a record of one rebellion after another? Therefore, if any are offended by the many different disturbances to which they see the Church exposed in this world, let them take a look in that mirror, and they will cease to be amazed that those who come and go with so much inconstancy of faith in the presence of God do not have a fixed abode on the earth. When David’s kingdom was set up, a regular plan for a sound and lasting state seemed more assured. But for three days, pestilence, that lamentable catastrophe, raged in a strange manner through the land and left little of their good fortune (II Sam. 24:13-17). Immediately after the death of Solomon the body of the people was itself split. From then on the mangled parts were continually attacking each other, and each kingdom also suffered the torment and misery of external wars. Shall we say that they were being driven by their fate? Let us rather say that they themselves urged on and hastened the punishment of God by their sins. For they appeared to be absolutely innocent when David carried out the census, because that was the personal offense of one man; yet the sacred history relates that God’s anger burned against them all (II Sam. 24:15).

At last there came that greater change, not far removed from ultimate destruction, when the whole nation was carried off into exile in Babylon. But surely if their desperate stubbornness had not driven them headlong, they would never have come to this calamity. The return after seventy years was like a second birth for them. But as soon as they were back home they forgot such a great blessing, and once again fell away into various corrupt practices. Some defiled themselves by marrying heathen (Ezra 9:lff.); others most shamefully defrauded God of tithes and first-fruits (Neh. 5:lff.);22 while the building of the temple was postponed and neglected, others were wholly taken up with furnishing palaces and incurred enormous expense (Hag. 1:2-4). Such base ingratitude went beyond the score, and all will acknowledge that it ought not to have gone unpunished. Therefore, the fact that they no longer enjoyed peaceful and favorable conditions must be put down to their own fault.

Indeed, after Christ, the source of peace and every blessing, became known to the world, men would really have found out how assured and well-founded is the happiness of his eternal Kingdom, if they had allowed him to remain in their midst. But never has the world been shaken by more violent storms of wars, never has it been submerged by the filthy waters of misfortunes so varied and so deep. The cause does not lie hidden in such obscurity that it cannot easily be found out by investigation. Christ was born; everywhere there was peace and great tranquility. About forty years later his gospel was being spread through many different parts of the world. After it had thundered far and wide, like a sudden turn of fortune’s wheel, turbulent conditions existed everywhere. What was the reason for such a change except that, after his gospel had been despised and rejected, God was punishing such great ingratitude, and it was all the more obvious because he did it so quickly? Therefore, when infamous men were putting the blame for any disasters that arose in those days on the name of Christ, it was an easy matter for the pious teachers of the Church to put an end to their calumnies, worthless as they were.23

What then? Since kings and nations rejected the peace God offered them, was it not just that they should fight among themselves, so as to perish from the wounds they inflicted on each other? And can those who refuse to submit themselves to God retain any sort of order in their way of life? I am not so much referring to avowed enemies—those stubborn in their resistance to the sound teaching of piety—but to those who actually gave their allegiance to Christ, when I say that many of them gave to Christ a kiss that was cold and contemptuous, while others gave him one that was treacherous and insincere. Those who are offended by examples of God’s severity in this connection might be just as eager to find fault with him for doing nothing! But unless we are reluctant to open our eyes we shall see24 that in the case of all those to whom God has ever revealed himself, it was only their own fault that when they placed their happiness in their own safety it was25 short-lived and slight; and we shall also see that they had nobody to blame but themselves for their own wretchedness.

We know that Jerusalem was the source from which salvation streamed right to the farthest corners of the earth. In all their predictions the prophets used to promise complete restoration to her with the coming of Christ.26 But it fell out far differently. For she came to retain not even a pale shadow of her former greatness, and soon afterwards she not only lost what was left to her but she was utterly destroyed and reduced to an empty wasteland. Why does nobody take pains to inquire into the reason for such an unnatural catastrophe, except that the desperate disobedience of the people proclaims in no uncertain voice that it was the cause? Never was Rome afflicted within a short space of time by such severe disasters, as after the gospel had reached it. How did it come about that, in the very city where for so long the unbridled passion of the common people was rampant, where nefarious factions and, finally, cruel tyrants held sway, the Kingdom of Christ could not have a secure throne? It is surely that when God brought forward the gospel, the ultimate cure for so many deadly diseases, they rejected it in their pride, and like men devoted to destruction they continued to rush from bad to worse.

The same thing can also be observed in our own time. A few years after the remarkable beginnings of the reborn Church had appeared, we then saw them collapse back into ruins. But before the Lord inflicted this punishment upon us, we saw many filthy profanations of the gospel on all sides, so that we are to wonder, not so much that this sudden overthrow of events took place, but at his great patience in putting up with the prodigious enormities of our time. When so many thousands renounced the Pope and eagerly—so it seemed—came over to the side of the gospel, I may tell you how few there were who repented of their erroneous ways. On the contrary, did not the majority make it clear that, having shaken off the yoke of superstitious practices, they had more freedom to abandon themselves to licentiousness of every kind? Therefore, although they acknowledged that the teaching of the gospel is the truth, how few submitted to its discipline! What else were they doing but, so to speak, treading under their feet the incalculable treasure of the gospel? And indeed the harshness of the punishment that followed such impious contempt ought to remind us of its value rather than produce absurd ideas in our minds about accidental disturbances of the Church. Yes, and when our ingratitude is so great, it is a wonder that anything still remains of the work which God began.


NOTES

  1. Gen. 9:25, the curse on Ham. [tr.]
  2. "1550 has, wrongly, six hundred." [B-N]
  3. So B-N but rather Neh 10:32-39; 13:10-14. [tr.]
  4. References are given in B-N to Tertullian, Apology. 40 ff.; Augustine, De civitate Dei, I, i, 7.
  5. "1550 lacks perspiciemus, added here." [B-N]
  6. "1550 reads, wrongly, constitueret; amended here to consisteret.’ [B-N]
  7. Isa. 60, 62; Jer. 33:16f.; Ezek. 43-47; Mic. 4; 7:7-11; Zeph. (Latin "Zed") 3:16-20; Zech. 6:9-15; 8; 9:9f.; 14:12-21.

This article is taken from Concerning Scandals by John Calvin, Translated by John W. Fraser and published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1978, pp. 31-36.



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