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Hearts on Fire for God

2 Kings 23: 1-3 & 2 Corinthians 5: 16- 6:2

Reformation Sunday/ 26th October 2003

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

This morning we opened worship with Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) stirring hymn and we will close with one attributed to John Calvin (1509-1564).[1]  Martin’s we know very well; John’s we know less so.  When we think of the church reform movement of the sixteenth century, we think first and foremost of Martin Luther.  It was on the 31st October 1517, when Luther nailed his 95-theses on the door of Wittenburg Castle, protesting the Roman church’s sale of indulgences, the proceeds of which went to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. That’s why we celebrate the Reformation on the Sunday just before the 31st October. 

But the reform movement didn’t actually begin on that day.  It’s just a convenient date historians use.  The seeds were sown in the Renaissance, one hundred years earlier when a passion for scholarship was combined with a desire to unearth the past long buried in the Middle Age, aided by an emerging of humanism that gloried in the wonder and beauty of humanity and stressed the power, authority and goodness of human intelligence.  Luther and Calvin were both children of their age – bright, shining, brilliant children of their age.  The age of Renaissance – meaning “rebirth” – led the way to the age of reform.[2]  Luther pushed the reform further along.  And Calvin went even further.  Luther was smart, but we know that Calvin was even smarter. Luther was no theological slouch, of course.  But Calvin was one of the most brilliant, biblical theologians and leaders the church of Jesus Christ has ever produced.  The intellectual force of Calvin’s theological insights rocked the sixteenth century and sent shock waves rumbling through every segment of society for the next four hundred years, starting in Basel and Geneva and then reverberating through France, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, Hungary, Spain (did you know that Spain almost became Protestant?), England, Scotland and eventually to the shores of America.[3]

As Presbyterians, we are heirs of Calvin, whose vision of the church and the gospel we continue to uphold and preserve, to teach and to preach.  Yet, we are a little nervous claiming Calvin for ourselves.  I think this is due, in part, to the fact that we associate him only with the doctrine of predestination, which is very troubling for many of us.  Even non-Presbyterians, even non-Christians know this about Calvin.  I’ve had complete strangers say to me, with disdain and disbelief, “Oh, you’re a Presbyterian?  You’re the ones who believe in predestination.”  As if to say, “I’ve read about your kind in history books, but I never met actually met one.  You people still exist?”  Predestination or the doctrine of election is part of Calvin’s theology because he got it from scripture.[4]  But there’s a whole more to Calvin than predestination.  In fact, it takes up very little in his overall output – and believe me, he wrote a lot!  Nevertheless, Presbyterians have mixed feelings about this man whom we think was so cerebral, unemotional, cold, distant, aloof, harsh, rigid, reserve, uncompromising, and tyrannical.

We do know that he was not a well man, physically.  In his thirties, he became a chronic sufferer from asthma, indigestion, headache, and catarrh (which I had when I lived in Scotland, a kind of sinus infection -- it wasn’t fun).  About six years before he died he had a long illness of quartan fever (a form of malaria) and never recovered full strength.  He suffered with arthritis, ulcerous hemorrhoids, and pleurisy leading to malignant tuberculosis.[5]  So cut the man some slack!  Wouldn’t you be difficult to be around suffering from all of these ailments?

But what was underneath all of this was an extremely generous heart.  Behind his stirring theological vision of the Christian life was a heart that had been subdued and softened by the grace of Jesus Christ.  Calvin was born in northern France and was a deeply committed Christian.  His father wanted him to study theology at the Sorbonne in Paris, but he refused.  He studied law at the Sorbonne, instead.  But he saw what was going on around him.  People were being burned at the stake in Paris for subscribing to what they called then, “Lutheranism,” for turning to the New Testament and discovering the gospel for oneself, for criticizing the practices of the Roman Church, for preaching and teaching the evangelical thrust of the New Testament that faith through grace and not human works achieves salvation.  

Calvin then had a conversion experience that turned his life upside down and inside out.  We don’t know much about it, because he didn’t leave a detailed account.  He was, as he put it, “stubbornly addicted to the superstitions of the Papacy,” until God “subdued my heart (too hardened for my age), to docility.  Thus, having acquired some taste of true piety, I burned with such great zeal to go forward . . .,” forward into a new doctrine, new ways of understanding who God is and who Jesus Christ is.  God softened his heart to be open to a new teaching – new for him, but ageless – that God’s grace through Christ is the source of our reconciliation with God.  “God subdued my stubborn heart,” Calvin said.[6]  And then set his heart on fire with extraordinary zeal.  Calvin became a new man, born-again and born into a new life of service and passion.  You see, “His conversion was not merely [intellectual] enlightenment: it was [an] unreserved, wholehearted commitment to the living God . . .”[7]

This commitment was wonderfully expressed in Calvin’s personal seal or graphic image – a flaming heart on the palm of an extended open hand.  His heart is set on fire and given over to God in gratitude for saving his life.  God had rescued him from the depths of despair and offered him grace.  As one historian put it, “Calvin remained a man astonished by the mercy of God” – mercy wholly undeserved and beyond his earning.[8]

Calvin’s seal bore the Latin motto, Prompte et sincere in opere Domini.  “Promptly and sincerely in the work of the Lord.”  This is how he lived, in gratitude, with passion, with zeal for the gospel.  He put his passion into the reform of the church and the reform of society.  This is why we who are heirs of Calvin are technically considered the Reformed church (as opposed to the Lutherans or Episcopalians).  We are Reformed Christians, part of a tradition that continually seeks the reform of the church and the world – this is what is means to be Presbyterians.  One of our mottoes is this: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.  “The church Reformed and always reforming,” according to the Word of God, led by the Holy Spirit.[9]  Today, there are more than 75 million Reformed Christians in more than 107 countries, which include the 3.2 million members of the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.).[10]

Knowing the past is helpful.  Knowing where you stand in the present is more important.  Knowing where you’re going (and who is leading you there) is more important still.  Calvin, Luther, Knox, and all the others inspire us.  But what about us?   What’s the temperature of your heart? Is the zeal for reform within you?  If you had to come up with a seal that represents your faith today, what would it look like?  And what would be your motto?


[1] Hymns:  “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” based on Psalm 46, with hymn, text and tune written by Luther in 1529.  “I Seek Thee Who My True Redeemer  Art,” first appeared in the French Psalter published in Stasburg (1545) which was compiled under Calvin’s leadership.  Some scholars deny Calvin’s authorship.

[2] For a good history of the period see Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550:  An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1980).

[3] On Spain and the reformation see Jacques Delpech, The Oppression of Protestants in Spain, foreword by John A. Macky (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955).

[4]See Matthew 24:24; Mark 13;27; Romans 8:33, 8:29-30; Romans 9:11, 11:28; 2 Timothy 2:10;  Titus 1:1; 2 Peter 1:10

[5] John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism (London:  Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 226.

[6] McNeill, pp. 107-108

[7] McNeill, p. 116.

[8] McNeill, p. 116.

[9] Book of Order, G-2.0200

[10] Statistics according to the World Alliance of Reformed Church, based in Geneva, Switzlerland.  For more information see www.warc.org.