God is Light: An Exegetical Paper on I John 1 – 2:2


The First Epistle of John is a beautiful book of the Bible filled with sobering admonitions (addressed to both Christians and non-Christians) and amazing comfort that causes the true Christian to rejoice in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. This book of the Bible is very important for Christians today to study deeply as it addresses numerous issues that still plague the church today, such as the authority of the Holy Scriptures, the assurance of salvation, perfectionism, the deity of Jesus Christ, and the importance and role of good works in the Christian life. This paper, in offering an interpretation of the first section of I John, I John 1:1 – 2:2, will examine these issues.

Historical Background to I John

The historical background of this letter is quite complex and there are varying opinions among scholars regarding the nature of it. Indeed, as Brooke writes,

The exact nature of the false teaching which is denounced in these Epistles has been much disputed, and is still a matter of controversy. The opponents have been held to be Jews, or Judaizing Christians, or Gnostics, Judaizing or heathen, or some particular sect of Gnostics, Basilides, Saturninus, Velentinus or Cerinthus.[1]

There is no easy answer to the question as to why this letter was written in its historical time and it is not made any easier by the fact that the Apostle John[2] does not directly address his audience by name. This is one reason why so much division exists regarding the historical nature of this letter. That being said it is generally believed that John is writing to address the antichristian teachings of various gnostic groups with the purpose to bring about, “the edification of his ‘children’ in the true faith and life of Christians.”[3]

It is Brooke’s contention that this letter is not primarily polemical.[4] This is in stark contrast to Lenski who argues that the “letter is plainly polemical.”[5] However, the author of this paper sides with Brooke on this issue for the following reasons. The letter is written to whom John refers to as his children (Τεκνία). This is a term of affectionate endearment[6] used seven times throughout I John (I John 2:1, 12, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21) and thus John expresses in this term that he is writing to those whom he very really cares about. So this letter is first and foremost a pastoral epistle addressed to these little children. Further, this epistle is written with a pastoral concern in mind. John writes with the purpose that these little children may know that they have eternal life and that they may believe on the name of the Son of God (I John 5:13). It does indeed address various heresies from antichristian groups at the time, but those heresies appear to be addressed in a very implicit manner, compared to the very explicit manner in which the Apostle Paul addresses heresies in his letters (e.g. Galatians).

Therefore, this paper, in examining I John 1 – 2:2 will be primarily viewing it as a pastoral epistle with direct application to the lives of a congregation.

I John 1:1 – 4: The Introduction to the Epistle and the Authority of the Apostle

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.[7]


The apostle John begins his first epistle with these crucial words. Here the audience not only has a statement regarding the deity of Jesus Christ (and subsequently His authority), but it also has a statement regarding the authority of the apostle John. John appeals to his authority just as Paul, James, and Peter do in their epistles, yet he does it in his own distinct style.

Before the issue of authority is discussed in greater depth it must be established what John is referring to when he speaks of “that which.” “That which” (and also the word “which” used throughout the verse) is simply a translation of the article ὃὅς. It is evident from the context that this article refers to Jesus Christ. Yet, questions arise when it is considered that the article is obviously a neuter pronoun and not masculine. Lenski probably has the best explanation for this usage of the neuter pronoun. He states that

The neuter conveys more than the masculine would, namely in addition to the person all that this person was and is and ever will be for us. Throughout these neuter relative clauses speak of the person plus the grace, the power, the salvation, etc., that are conveyed to us by this person. Jesus Christ cannot be separated from what he was and is for us.[8]

That being said regarding the use of the article, it is now necessary to resume the discussion on authority. These verses reveal that John’s authority, just like the other apostles’ authority, comes from the divine authority of Jesus Christ. The authority of Jesus Christ is ultimately found in His divinity and thus John references it throughout this introduction. For example, when John uses the phrase “That which was from the beginning” he is not only referring to the opening section of his Gospel account (John 1:1 where he demonstrates the divinity of the Word)[9], but also, in some sense to the opening of the Book of Genesis.[10] This is significant because John wants his readers to recall not only the creation of the world (and the Word’s divine work there, as told in John 1:1 – 3), but also the history of redemption found in his gospel account wherein it is revealed that the Word became flesh (John 1:14).

John’s reference to Jesus Christ in the statement “that which was from the beginning” is a reference to Christ’s eternal nature. This reference to Christ’s eternality is further strengthened in the next verse when the “Word of life” is mentioned in connection with the promise of eternal life in verse two. The “Word of Life” or the “Logos of Life”[11] is a clear reference back to the first chapter of John’s Gospel account where Jesus Christ is repeatedly referred to as the Word. As with the Gospel of John (John 5:24) it is found here (as well) that it is the “Word of Life” who grants eternal life and it is logically only possible for someone that is eternal to grant something that is eternal.

Further, the eternal nature of Jesus Christ is brought out by the fact that the Word of Life was with the Father. Every single Jew would have understood that the Father (the first person in the Trinity) was eternal. So when John states that Jesus Christ was with the Father he wants the connection to be made that Christ, just like the Father, is also eternal. This mode of speaking is found throughout the Gospel of John where oftentimes just the fact that Jesus says He and His Father are one, or He is in the Father is enough for the Jews to accuse Him of blasphemy (Cf. John 8:16, 19, 58; 10:30 – 31, 38 – 39). So thus this statement that the Word was with the Father (the associative use of πρός[12] in I John 1:2) is a strong statement that this Word is eternal and thus is equal to God. If this Word is equal to God, then it must also be God. Therefore, John’s authority is first founded upon the fact that he is speaking about God; he is speaking about the eternal God: the God who created the heavens and the earth. This ought to make John’s readers sit up and pay attention to what he is saying.

But then comes the striking point. This Word was not only with the Father, but the “life was manifested . . . and was manifested unto us” (I John 1:2). This manifestation occurred at the incarnation and throughout Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry. Jesus Christ came down to earth and manifested Himself to mankind. So John is not simply speaking about an impersonal God who dwells in the heavens, but he is speaking about a God who revealed Himself to humanity. He is speaking about the Word that became flesh (John 1:14).

This manifestation is where John really establishes his authority to speak concerning the things of God. His authority is found in the fact that he has had personal contact with very God. Thus John throughout the introduction uses the phrases: “we have heard”, “we have seen with our eyes”, “we have looked at”, and “touched with our hands.” These verbs of action deal with activities of the senses: hearing, seeing, looking at, and touching. This requires that the person actually doing these activities have the direct object near them. So John in mentioning these activities (and mentioning them more than once: he states that “we have seen and heard” twice) is appealing to his authority of actually personally knowing and seeing Christ. He was an eyewitness of the actions and persons of Jesus Christ. Therefore, he must be giving a reliable witness and testimony of the things that he is saying in his epistle.

Nor is John’s use of the verb “looked upon” a mere restatement of that “which we have seen” using a different verb. The verb used here for “looked upon” (θεάομαι) conveys the idea of not only a beholding with the eyes, but also an understanding of that beholding. As Brooke writes, “If βλέπειν is to ‘look,’ and ὁρᾶν to “see,” θεᾶσθαι is to ‘behold,’ intelligently, so as to grasp the meaning and significance of that which comes within our vision.”[13] So John not only saw Jesus Christ, but understood who he was seeing. He grasped the significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ.

That being said regarding John’s appeal to authority in these first four verses, it is now fitting to understand John’s use of differing tenses in his verbs of action. He has two perfects (ἀκηκόαμεν, ἑωράκαμεν) and two aorists (ἐθεασάμεθα, ἐψηλάφησαν). The perfect tense always has the idea that an action is completed, but even though it is completed it has a continuous effect throughout history. Thus, the fact that John had both seen and heard that which he is talking about has a continuous effect on his present audience, but also on his audience throughout history[14]. The aorists convey that these are actual historical facts that occurred in the past. This gives much weight to the fact that this truly did happen; John truly looked upon and touched Jesus Christ[15].

This appeal to authority had important implications for the early Christian church, but it also has important implications for the church today. Amidst all the attacks that secular humanism continually hurls against the church, the Christian can stand upon the correct conviction that the Bible is the very Word of God. It was written by men who received their authority and testimony from God Himself. It must then be believed and anything that contradicts the Word of God is in error.

Reasons for Writing this Epistle[16]

The reasons for the writing of this letter are clearly revealed in the opening first four verses of the epistle. John writes these words to them so that “you also may have fellowship with us” and “that your joy may be full.”[17] John wrote these words so that his audience may come to a knowledge of what true Christianity is in contrast to what the antichristian groups during his time were saying.

Doctrinal Statement

This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.

Thus, John proceeds in the following verses to tell them what Christianity truly is. He does this not only from a doctrinal perspective but also from a practical and experiential perspective. Indeed, John begins his next section with a great doctrinal statement. Prior to making this statement, he again directly appeals to the authority of Jesus Christ by stating, “this is the message which we have heard of him” (I John 1:5). In doing this, he wants to be sure his readers sit up and pay attention to what he is about to say for it is crucially important. The doctrinal statement is this: that “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” The importance of this doctrinal statement should not be overlooked. It is the basis for all that John says next and is the basis for his whole argument regarding the life and practice of a Christian. It is also the basis for the necessity of the death and substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ (the events that make the life and practice of a Christian even possible). That God is light, means that He is perfectly holy, righteous, and just (as will be unpacked further below). God must, therefore, punish the sins of mankind, either personally through the eternal judgment of hell, or substitutionally through a legal representative (Jesus Christ).

John’s divinely inspired statement that God is light tells the reader several things. The first thing is that light is the complete and utter absence of darkness. Light not only dispels darkness, but light is the complete opposite of darkness. Thus, light is a great picture of the perfection that God has. That God is light means that He is absolutely perfect: He is holy and He is righteous. As Lenski states, “Context tells the reader that this light refers to moral perfection: it is the opposite of darkness. Verse 6 and 8 speak of truth as opposed to the lie. God is faithful and righteous. Light is holiness and righteousness ‘”in the absolute sense.’”[18] The fact that John employs a double negative when he states that “in him is no darkness at all” greatly reinforces his point (καὶ σκοτία ἐν αὐτῷ οὐκ ἔστιν οὐδεμία[19]). The double negative in Greek does not cancel out the negation as it does in English, but rather adds great weight and seriousness to the negation.[20] Darkness (a picture of sin and depravity) then is completely removed from God; it is an impossibility for a God who is light to have even the minutest speck of darkness.

The only way it is possible to have fellowship with this God of light and perfection (as John and the others do: I John 1:3) is to walk in the light and not to walk in the darkness. To continually walk (notice the present tense of περιπατῶμεν and thus its continuous aspect) in darkness and sin is to remove oneself from fellowship with God; continual walking in sin is to never be in a state of fellowship with God at all. This tells the reader immediately that a certain holiness and righteousness of life is required in the life of a Christian. The Christian, as one who has been saved and brought into fellowship with a holy and perfect God, should not continually walk in sin. His life should not be defined by sin, but should be defined with a deep personal and pious relationship with God. His life should be that of David, who had a heart that was after the Lord’s heart (Acts 13:22).

John is very clear here. He boldly states that those who say they have fellowship with God (those who say they are Christians) and yet have a pattern of life that is marked by sin and depravity are liars. They simply do not speak the truth. This is a sobering admonition to many in the church today. Millions of people say in the Western world that they are Christians and that they are saved. Yet John states that if their pattern of living does not match their confession that then they are liars. But it is not simply a matter of not doing the truth (as the King James Version puts it). Really the idea is that of the NASB: those that “do not practice the truth.”[21] The use of the present with the verb ποιέω lends the idea of something that is continually done: a practice or character of living. So then they are continually not practicing the doctrine and the truth of the Word of Life.

So then if there is a man who says he is a Christian and yet has a life continually marked by sexual sins, he should question whether or not he has a true faith. If a man has a life marked by continual idolatry in the obsession of computer games or television (such that he needs to spend hours per day behind screen and can talk of nothing else) his Christianity should be questioned. If a Christian has little to no prayer life or devotional life, his Christianity should also be questioned, as that is an indication of a great lack of fellowship with God. In contrast to these examples, the true Christian is to have a life that is in fellowship with God and that fellowship with God involves adherence to the moral law of God. To continually live a life that does not seek to follow after the law of God is to live a life that is not in communion with God, for God can have no fellowship with darkness or sin because He is light.

Walk in the Light

Thus the apostle John states that, “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin”[22] (I John 1:7). This walking in the light is the positive part of the calling of the Christian. The Christian is not only to flee sin and darkness, but the Christian is also to live a pattern of life that is in the light.

Surprisingly the latter part of this verse almost seems to be a contradiction of what was just said regarding walking in darkness and sin. After all, if the believer is not to walk in darkness, how can he have sin and need cleansing? Yet here John says that the blood of Jesus Christ is necessary to cleanse the believer from sin. This verse demonstrates that John is not teaching perfectionism: John is not teaching that a believer must be perfect or that it is even possible to be completely perfect in this life.

The key to unlocking the meaning behind John’s words here is in the aspect of the Greek verbs. In these verses (as has been already pointed out once already) John uses the present tense which has the aspect of a continual action. John is talking about living lives that are either continually marked by sin or continually marked by walking in the light. If it was the case that the believer was expected to live a completely perfect life, he would be so quickly tempted to throw up his hands in despair, for the more one grasps the holiness of God, the more one sees his own sins and failings. As John Calvin quite comfortingly remarks,

It may, however, be asked, “Who among men can so exhibit the light of God in his life, as that this likeness which John requires should exist; for it would be thus necessary, that he should be wholly pure and free from darkness?” To this I answer, that expressions of this kind are accommodated to the capacities of men: he is therefore said to be like God, who aspires to his likeness, however distant from it he may as yet be. The example ought not to be otherwise applied than according to this passage. He walks in darkness who is not ruled by the fear of God, and who does not, with a pure conscience, devote himself wholly to God, and seek to promote his glory. Then, on the other hand, he who in sincerity of heart spends his life, yea, every part of it, in the fear and service of God, and faithfully worships him, walks in the light, for he keeps the right way, though he may in many things offend and sigh under the burden of the flesh. Then, integrity of conscience is alone that which distinguishes light from darkness.[23]

Thus, to walk in the light is not to live a completely perfect life devoid of all sin (that is impossible in a fallen and depraved world). Rather to walk in the light is to live a life that continually seeks to give honour and glory to God.  It is to live a life that is marked by a certain continual holiness of life. In that walking in the light there will be falling into sin and there will be transgressions of the moral law that the believer will commit (often to his great shame and sorrow). Yet the believer, when he has fallen in sin, will not continue to desire to live in that sin. He will zealously hate and spurn that sin and he will earnestly seek forgiveness in the blood of Jesus Christ. This is a key doctrine of Christianity and key to understanding the word of John. The believer’s fellowship with God is not founded in his own perfection and good works (and John certainly does not teach this). The only way that fellowship is possible with God is through the blood of Jesus Christ. It was only through the incarnation of the Word into Flesh (John 1:14; 1 John 1:2) and the sacrifice of that Word for the sins of the believer that fellowship is made possible with God. Without that sacrifice communion with God would be impossible because sin and depravity would cover that person. If this kind of fellowship were at all possible, then God would be having fellowship with darkness (which is an inconceivability). Thus it is absolutely necessary for the sacrifice and the blood of Christ to cover over all the sins of a believer, in order for him to have fellowship with God.

The fact that the word blood is used here in relationship to the death of Christ especially denotes the idea and the necessity of a sacrifice. As Marshall states,

“Blood” is a symbolical way of speaking of the death of Jesus. In the Old Testament the ‘blood’ was the result of the death of the sacrificial victim, and its application to the person offering the sacrifice indicated that the effects of the sacrifice applied to him. The effect of the death of Jesus was to purify us from sin. To say that the blood of Jesus purifies us is to say that our sin is removed and forgiven; its defiling effects no longer condemn us in the sight of God. Although as Christians who walk in the light we may be conscious of sin, yet this does not prevent our fellowship with God, for God himself removes our sin.[24]

Further, the fact that the life of a believer is not a life of perfection is brought out by the verb cleanses (καθαρίζει) in I John 1:7. This is not a one-time cleansing: it is not something that happened in the past. Rather, the verb cleanses is in the present tense, denoting the necessity of continual, and even, daily cleansing. As John Calvin writes, “by new sins we continually separate ourselves, as far as we can, from the grace of God. Thus it is, that all the saints have need of the daily forgiveness of sins; for this alone keeps us in the family of God.”[25] This continual seeking of the forgiveness of sins is part of what it means to walk in the light.

This seeking of forgiveness through the penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ is crucial to understanding the words of John here. Confessing and seeking forgiveness from God is an important part of walking in the light and of the Christian life. Not to seek forgiveness from God is not to walk in the light for it means that the person is denies having sin in his life. John proceeds to address this very thing in the last three verses of this chapter.

The Importance of Realizing and Confessing Sins in the Life of a Christian

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.

The apostle John continues his epistle by addressing several doctrinal errors regarding sin. He states in I John 1:8 that, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”[26] The reader may notice that in the English this is quite similar to I John 1:10: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”[27] Yet, these two verses contain two separate ideas and this is especially brought out in the Greek. When verse eight speaks about sin it uses a noun and a verb to convey the thought: ἁμαρτίαν οὐκ ἔχομεν. This particular construction conveys the idea of a denial of a sinful nature or disposition. It is a denial that the speaker even has a sinful nature. As Smalley writes, “To ‘have sin’ is the equivalent of possessing a sinful character or disposition.”[28] Brooke also argues that “’sin’ is the principle of which sinful acts are the several manifestations. So long as a Christian commits sins, sin is an active power working in him.”[29]

These words from John have great application for Christianity today. So often it is heard from a person (who may also confess to be a Christian) that they are going to heaven because they are good and do good works. They are going to heaven because they are not that bad: they are not, after all, serial killers. By saying this they are doing exactly what the apostle John condemns in verse 8. They are saying that they are generally good people and that they do not have a sinful disposition. Thus they confess that they do not have a sinful nature. In saying this, they are manifesting that the truth is not in them. The people who confess this are denying the necessity that Jesus Christ had to die for their sins, because they do not have a sinful disposition and they are pretty good people. These people must be reminded that they are sinful and totally depraved. They must be boldly preached against, so that they are brought to realize their sins. Christians themselves must also not fall into the trap of thinking that they are generally good people and thus they are saved because they are good people. Christians must be reminded continually of their sin and their sinful nature, so that they remember that Jesus Christ died for their sins. In doing so, all glory must go to Jesus Christ for the entire work of salvation is His. He is the one who saves believers through His passion and death.

Thus, not only does verse 8 directly attack the notion that good works save a person and the whole notion of perfectionism, but it is also emphatically points to the necessity of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. That is why verse 9 is so fitting right after verse 8. In verse 9 the reader is reminded that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”[30] The believer must continually confess his sins (notice the present tense once again and also remember what was said regarding verse 7) because he sins on a daily basis.  In that continual confession of sin, the believer is truly forgiven because Christ is faithful and just. The believer should take comfort in this and not doubt his forgiveness. God is faithful and does not change.

That Christ is able to forgive the sinner and remains faithful and just in doing so is a striking statement. It is a statement that is perhaps lost on the ears of the modern man who has lost the concept of justice. It must be remembered that Christ is holy and righteous (as the Greek in verse 9 indicates: he is δίκαιος). Being righteous, He cannot simply let sin slide; He cannot simply just forgive sin. That would be unjust and thus also sinful. This goes back to the fact that He is a God of light. The only reason that Christ is able to remain just in the forgiving of sin is if a sacrifice has been made for sin. Since Christ made that sacrifice when He died on the cross, He is able to remain just (or righteous) in the forgiveness of that sin.

The remarkable thing is that He not only forgives the believer from his sins, but He also cleanses us from all unrighteousness. This cleansing, as Calvin argues, is a different cleansing from that of verse 7. There the idea was of justification through the blood of Christ. Here the idea seems to be more related to sanctification. As Calvin states,

The verb, to cleanse, seems to be taken in another sense than before; for he had said, that we are cleansed by the blood of Christ, because through him sins are not imputed; but now, having spoken of pardon, he also adds, that God cleanses us from iniquity: so that this second clause is different from the preceding. Thus he intimates that a twofold fruit comes to us from confession,—that God being reconciled by the sacrifice of Christ, forgives us,—and that he renews and reforms us.[31]

That is the amazing thing about the sacrifice of God. It is not only one that enables the believer to be forgiven, but it is also one that enable the believer to seek after God. It is a sacrifice that grants that the believer becomes more and more cleansed so that he can live a life in greater accordance to the law of God. This is a wonderful blessing of salvation.

So while verse 8 speaks to those who deny having a sinful nature, verse 10 speaks to those who deny committing any sin. In this one sees a move from the greater to the lesser. Not only must one not deny not having a sinful nature, but one also must not deny having sinned (i.e. doing the actual act of sinning). It is significant, as Lenski points out, that this is expressed in the perfect tense (ἡμαρτήκαμεν). He states that the perfect tense here “looks back over the past life that continued up to the present moments.”[32] Thus, what John is stating here is that one must not deny sinning in the past. For if one has a sinful nature, one will be committing sins throughout his life, including in his past.

But this verse also carries with it a great warning. To state that “we have not sinned” is to declare God to be a liar. That is blasphemy against God, for it declares that God has sin: that God tells falsehoods. Smalley unpacks everything that is going on in this statement when he states,

The claim to be without sin suggests falsehood on God’s part; it ‘makes him out to be a liar.’ The universality of human sin is a common biblical doctrine (cf. Ps 14:3; Isa 53:6; John 2:24-25; Rom 3:22-24); and so also is the theme of the mercy of God, who forgives the sinner (Jer 31:24; Eph 4:32; among the Johannine writings the actual verb ἀφιεναι, ‘to forgive,’ occurs only in this letter). Thus, to deny the fact of sin in one’s own life is to deny the holy and forgiving nature of God; it is to impute falsehood to him, and to challenge his own verdict on man’s guilt as a sinner.[33]

The fact that in saying such a thing, a person blasphemes God, is a sharp admonition for Christians today to remember. Christians ought to be reminded that a rejection of part of the word of God (that the sacrifice of Christ is not necessary to forgive sins, because there are no sins to be forgiven) is a rejection of the whole word of God. As Lenski writes,

The whole Word of God declares that we are sinners. It says so in a large number of places. From beginning to end it deals with us as with sinners. Its history, its law, its gospel present sinner, sinner: lost sinners, ransomed sinners, saved sinners, damned sinners, glorified sinners.[34]

I John 2:1 – 2: Neither Perfectionism nor Antinomianism

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.

The purpose of John, as has already been brought out several times in this paper, is not to teach perfectionism, nor is it to teach antinomianism. This is especially brought out in I John 2:1 – 2 which states, “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”[35]

John’s purpose in writing this is so that his audience does not sin. John has consistently talked about free forgiveness through the blood of Christ in this chapter, yet he does not want his audience to be given occasion to sin. Sinning is not something to be taken lightly, just because there is free forgiveness. He does not want them to think that they can sin so that grace may all the more abound (it is the same sort of argument as Romans 6:1). He wants them to pursue holiness and righteousness diligently and thus he reminds them that God is light and that they, as believers, must walk in the light.

The same holds true for Christians today. Christians so often forget the preciousness of blood of Christ and thus take sin much too lightly. Christians today need to be reminded of the holiness of God, so that once again they can understand the seriousness of sin. This is one reason why preaching and understanding the Old Testament is so crucial. The Old Testament portrays the justice and holiness of God in a very visible manner through the history of the Israelites.

That being said John, with great pastoral care, offers a great comfort to the Christian. John recognizes that the life of the believer is constantly filled with struggles against sin. These struggles often cause the believer to greatly despair as he recognizes more and more what a sinful creature he is. As the weight of his sin crushes him down, he starts to question his own faith. He sees the absolute holiness and perfection of God and sees his own weak attempts to be holy and righteous. So John adds the beautiful words, “And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”[36] This causes the struggling believer to look to Jesus Christ as His saviour. It causes him to recognize that even in all his sin, he has a faithful and loving advocate (literally a Paraclete in the Greek: παράκλητον) before the Father: His Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. The idea of a Paraclete is one who is called alongside in order to help the other.[37] This is a marvellous comfort to the Christian who earnestly desires to live a holy life, but daily struggles against his own sinful flesh.

The fact that the Jesus Christ is given the qualifications of being both just and a propitiation for the believer is significant in this context. It is also quite significant that John states that Christ is both just and a propitiation. John Calvin unpacks the significance of this when he states,

It is necessary for him to be both, that he might sustain the office and person of an Advocate; for who that is a sinner could reconcile God to us? For we are excluded from access to him, because no one is pure and free from sin. Hence no one is fit to be a high priest, except he is innocent and separated, from sinners, as it is also declared in Heb. 7:26. Propitiation is added, because no one is fit to be a high priest without a sacrifice. Hence, under the Law, no priest entered the sanctuary without blood; and a sacrifice, as a usual seal, was wont, according to God’s appointment, to accompany prayers.[38]

There is great controversy in the church regarding the last clause of verse 2. Many argue that this verse teaches a universal atonement in opposition to a particular atonement. The interpretation of this clause that best fits with the immediate context (and also the whole of Scripture) is that in this clause John is saying that Christ died for the sins of all the elect children of God. It must be remembered that John is speaking to “my little children” here. He is not speaking to everyone. Rather, he is specifically addressing the church. This is explained further by Arthur Pink who writes,

It will thus be seen that the apostle John is here writing to and about the saints of God. His immediate purpose was two-fold: first, to communicate a message that would keep God’s children from sinning; second, to supply comfort and assurance to those who might sin, and, in consequence, be cast down and fearful that the issue would prove fatal.[39]

Pink continues by explaining that the term propitiation can only apply to the elect. Christ can only be a propitiation to those who believe in Jesus Christ. Therefore, Christ cannot be a propitiation for the sins of the entire world. He states,

If other passages in the New Testament which speak of “propitiation,” be compared with I John 2:2, it will be found that it is strictly limited in its scope. For example, in Rom. 3:25 we read that God set forth Christ “a propitiation through faith in His blood.” If Christ is a propitiation “through faith”, then He is not a propitiation” to those who have no faith! Again, in Heb. 2:17 we read, “To make propitiation for the sins of the people”.[40]

Thus, this passage is not speaking of a universal atonement, but a particular atonement of the elect.[41]


Therefore, in conclusion, the book of I John is an extremely applicable book for Christians to study today. Christians should prayerfully and studiously study this book in order that they may apply its truths to their lives so that they may be drawn closer to God and may have assurance of their salvation. In doing so, they must remember that God is light as John states in verse 5. It is His brilliant perfection that required a sacrifice to be made for their sins and it is His holiness that urges them on to walk in the light. For if they do not walk in the light, fellowship with the holy God is impossible. Further, the Christian must remember that God is a merciful God and He is faithful to forgive sin. It is this faithfulness that grants the Christian comfort for he knows that his sins will be forgiven for “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”[42


Blomberg, Craig and Markley, Jennifer. A Handbook of New Testament Exegesis. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010

Brooke, A. E. The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments: The Johannine Epistles. Edinburgh, Scotland: Morrison and Gibb Ltd, 1964

Calvin, John and Owen, John. Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010

Gingrich, F. Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Chicago, Illinois, The University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Guthrie, William. The Christian’s Great Interest. Aylesburg, Great Britain: Hazell Watson & Viney Ltd, 1969

Haas, C., De Jonge, M., and Swellengrebel, J. L. Helps for Translators: A Translator’s Handbook on the Letters of John. New York, New York: United Bible Societies, 1972

Hendriksen, William. New Testament Commentary John. Southhampton, Great Britain: The Camelot Press Ltd, 1987

Jamieson, Robert, Fausset, A. R., and Brown, David. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, Volume. 2. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997

Lenski, R. C. H. The Interpretation of The Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1963

Marshall, Howard, I. The Epistle of John. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978

New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995

Pink, Arthur. The Sovereignty of God. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989

Robinson, Maurice. Elzevir Textus Receptus (1624): With Morphology. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2002

Smalley, Stephen S. Word Biblical Commentary: Volume 51: 1, 2, 3, John. Waco, Texas: Words Books, 1984

The Holy Bible: King James Version, Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996

Westcott, B. F. The Epistles of St. John: The Greek Text, with Notes and Addenda. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979


[1] A. E. Brooke, The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments: The Johannine Epistles. (Edinburgh, Scotland: Morrison and Gibb Ltd, 1964), xxxviii

[2] While the author of this paper recognizes that John’s authorship has been questioned by various scholars in regard to this epistle, it is his personal conviction that John did truly write this book. However, it is not the purpose of this paper to spend time determining the authorship of this book and thus this author will pass by the subject without further comment.

[3] Ibid, xxviii

[4] Ibid, xxix – xxx

[5] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of The Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude. (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1963), 364

[6] Brooke, The Johannine Epistles, 23

[7] The Holy Bible: King James Version, Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 1 Jn 1:1–5.

[8] Lenski, The Interpretation, 370 – 371

[9] It is believed by many scholars that John wrote his gospel account many years before he wrote his first epistle, Brooke, The Johannine Epistles, xxvi – xxvii

[10] Ibid, 2

[11] As Lenski puts it, The Interpretation, 376

[12] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996), 380

[13] Brooke, The Johannine Epistles, 4

[14] Lenski, The Interpretation, 374

[15] Ibid, 374

[16] Since this was already dealt with above in some depth, not much will be stated regarding the reasons for writing the epistle.

[17] Although the author of this paper recognizes that there is a variant reading for this phrase, the author believes that this is the better reading as it fits better with the context. Further, Westcott argues that it is impossible to come to a decisive conclusion regarding the correct reading. He states, “The later MSS. and the Latin and Syriac verss. are divided. The confusion of ἡμ. and ὑμ. in the best authorities is so constant that a positive decision on the reading here is impossible. B. F. Westcott, The Epistles of St. John: The Greek Text, with Notes and Addenda. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 13

[18] Lenski, The Interpretation, 385

[19] Maurice Robinson, Elzevir Textus Receptus (1624): With Morphology (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2002), 1 Jn 1:5.

[20] Lenski, The Interpretation, 384

[21] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Jn 1:6.

[22] King James Version, 1 Jn 1:7.

[23] John Calvin and John Owen, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 164–165.

[24] Howard, I. Marshall, The Epistle of John. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 112

[25] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, 165.

[26] King James Version, 1 Jn 1:8.

[27] Ibid, 1 Jn 1:10.

[28] Stephen S. Smalley, Word Biblical Commentary: Volume 51: 1, 2, 3, John. (Waco, Texas: Words Books, 1984), 29

[29] Brooke, The Johannine Epistles, 17

[30] King James Version, 1 Jn 1:9.

[31] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, 168

[32] Lenski, The Interpretation, 395

[33] Smalley, Word Biblical Commentary, 33

[34] Lenski, The Interpretation, 395

[35] King James Version, 1 Jn 2:1–2

[36] King James Version, 1 Jn 2:1–2.

[37] Marshall, The Epistle of John, 116

[38] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, 171

[39] Arthur Pink, The Sovereignty of God, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989), 257

[40] Ibid 257 – 258

[41] This paper does not have the time to enter into a full discussion of John’s meaning here. Readers are encouraged to see Pink’s brief explanation of the term in Appendix IV of The Sovereignty of God, 257 – 261

[42] King James Version, 1 Jn 2:1 – 2

Were Protestant Native Conversions Bona Fide?

Just read a very interesting article by historian James Axtell in his book After Columbus. The article seeks to address the question: “Were Indian Conversions Bona Fide?”

Often the claim is made that Christian missionary attempts in North America were all about numbers, economics, land, and politics, not about the sincere, godly desire to spread wondrous news of the gospel to the lost. As Axtell remarks:

  • “The Puritans, those favorite whipping boys of the enlightened, predictably fare the worst, particularly “Apostle” John Eliot of Massachusetts. According to Francis Jennings and Neal Salisbury, Eliot’s goals were so tainted by a barely hidden political agenda and his methods so “repressive” that his religious results must be drastically discounted. Only after the Massachusetts Bay Colony had been founded for sixteen years did Eliot decide to get into what Jennings calls the “missionary racket,” largely for the annuity offered by an English noblewoman to encourage American missions. He used an Indian “slave” (a war captive) as a language teacher, and in 1646 talked the colonial “oligarchy” into outlawing the practice of native religion under pain of death and into setting aside some land, purloined from the Indians, as bribes to converts seeking “secure habitation” in the chaos of the Puritan land-grab. These reservations or “praying towns” became the major Puritan institution of “cold war” against the natives.When surrounding tribes would not voluntarily submit to English dominion, Eliot sent faithful warriors from these towns, armed with guns and ammunition purchased with missionary funds, to “compel them to come in.” Moreover, in his published reports abroad, Eliot cooked his results and inflated his own role in converting native New England. Although Eliot claimed that some 1100 Indians had been “subjected to the gospel” by 1674, Jennings could find only seventy-four in full church communion and another forty-five who had been baptized, a total of 119 or just over 10 percent of those claimed for Christ’s battalions. Richard Bourne of Plymouth and especially the Thomas Mayhews, Junior and Senior, of Martha’s Vineyard “outperformed Eliot in almost every re-spect,” largely because of Eliot’s “authoritarian and repressive” methods and corrupting political ends.”

johneliotHowever, Axtell demonstrates quite effectively that these claims are simply not true. John Eliot and the New England puritans were extremely strict about who was considered a Christian and who could even become a member in a church. The amount of time and difficulty it took to become a member in a church, illustrates that the missionaries were not simply out there for numbers, economics, or politics. Rather, it illustrates a sincere interest on the part of the missionary to seek a true conversion and Biblical understanding of Christianity. Also, on the part of the native, it illustrates a sincerity of heart to the doctrines and practices of Christianity. The dedication that the natives had to learning the Scriptures and protestant theology shows a deep valuing of the gospel. The latter part of this long paragraph is especially illustrative of this.

Axtell demonstrates all this when he states:

  • “Puritan missionaries put their candidates to an equally hard test [contrasting the puritans to the Jesuit
    First Bible printed in New World, 1663 in the Massachusett language

    First Bible printed in New World, 1663 in the Massachusett language

    missionaries in New Frace]. Eliot’s flagship church at Natick was not formally gathered until nine years after the town was established and Eliot began to preach and catechize there regularly. In 1652, the second year of his ministry there, Eliot asked his most promising neophytes to make “preparatory confessions” to him, which he then read to the elders of neighboring English churches. A month or two later, the candidates made full “public confessions” before a panel of visiting clergymen.The following year Eliot and Thomas Mayhew published both sets of confessions in London in order to gather the opinion of English clergymen on the sincerity and suitability of the Indians as potential Christians. In 1654, after assurance from England had arrived, eight natives were given a final grilling before Eliot’s Roxbury congregation. Although their answers to 101 questions on Scripture, Protestant belief, and the conversion experience were entirely satisfactory, Eliot weighed their knowledge and behavior for another six years before allowing them to subscribe to a covenant of faith and to become a true church. The informed specificity and emotional depth of these early confessions simply cannot sustain Salisbury’s suspicions about their quality in comparison with those by colonial candidates.They are not only as probing of the inner “morphology of conversion” as English confessions, but they contain distinctively Indian elements that should allay fears that the minister was merely dictating, or that the Indians were merely parroting, a standard form of confession. As to the natives ‘knowledge of Scripture and Puritan theology, the better place to look is not in the confessions but in the searching questions the Indians asked during instruction or following sermons. Many of the questions drove right to the heart of Christianity’s historical and philosophical contradictions, pushing the missionaries to the walls of their knowledge. The Indians’ ready “faculty to frame hard and difficult questions” demonstrated their grasp of the intricacies of Christian theology and European arts and sciences. When they plunged into queries about biblical history, death, and the problem of evil, the missionaries often must have wished that they were dealing with English parishioners who took more for granted.”

Axtell, James. 1988. After Columbus : Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed January 20, 2017).

Book Review: Calvin’s Preaching

T.H.L Parker, Calvin’s Preaching

(Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992). 149 pp.


John Calvin is a very misunderstood historical character. Those who hate him often caricature him to be a kill-joy, stern, serious, holier-than-thou, heretic-killer, and determinist academic. Thomas Henry Louis Parker, in his book Calvin’s Preaching, is not primarily interested in proving or dispelling these ideas concerning Calvin’s character. Rather, Parker is most interested in examining and describing Calvin’s preaching and his preaching style. Yet, in doing so, he presents a picture of John Calvin, that would seem to be quite the reverse of the common caricature of Calvin. So this post will examine and review Parker’s book, Calvin’s Preaching, looking at a subject that is not often considered: John Calvin’s preaching.

The Summary:

Calvin’s Preaching is arranged into five main sections, each section containing two or three chapters. These five sections are: (1) The Theological Impulsion, (2) The Word in Action, (3), An Account of Calvin’s Preaching, (4) From Exegesis to Application, (5) Form and Style.

The Theological Impulsion is divided into three chapters with the first chapter being “The Divine Message.” In this chapter, Parker argues that Calvin’s impulsion to preach was not primarily to refute the error of the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, his desire to preach sprain from the fact that he believed what he preached (1) and he believed that as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit in his heart (2).  He firmly believed that the Bible was the word of God and thus it held absolute authority for the ordering of life. As a result of this, Calvin’s preaching was expository.

The argument of the second chapter deals with “The Pastoral Impulsion”. In this chapter, Parker deals with Calvin’s view of preaching. It is important to note that Calvin had a rather high view of preaching. He quotes one of Calvin’s sermons saying,

“When I [i.e. Calvin] expound  Holy Scripture, I must always make this my rule: That hose who hear me may receive profit from the teaching I put forward and be edified unto salvation. If I have not that affection, if I do not procure the edification of those who hear me, I am a sacrilege, profaning God’s Word.” (12 – 13)

This, in consequence, means that Calvin believed the congregation had a heavy responsibility as well as the preacher. Thus, “Those who read Holy Scripture or who come to the sermon to hear it, if they are looking for some silly speculations, if they are coming here as a pastime, they are guilty of profaning such a holy thing” (12).

So this high view of preaching is partly what drove Calvin to preach, but there is a highly pastoral element to his desire to preach: the edification of the congregation. Calvin believed that there were four things in preaching that accomplished this: teaching, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (12 – 16).

Calvin believed that it was the preacher’s primary task to expound the Scripture and this is the argument of chapter three: “Scripture and Sermon.” In this respect, Calvin differed from both Hocker and Bullinger. These two men believed that the bare reading of the Holy Scripture was the proper way to deliver the Word of God (18 – 20). They argued that there is a fundamental difference between the preaching of the Apostles (which was expository) and the preaching that occurs in the post-apostolic age (18).



The pulpit Calvin preached from in St. Pierre, Geneva 

However, Calvin shared a similar view with Luther regarding preaching. Calvin believed it was the preacher’s duty to declare what the Word of God said, expound what the Word of God said, and expound only what the Word of God said (23). Anything that was not what the Word of God was not preaching. In this way, Calvin maintained the special place of the Bible and its authority, but also maintained the importance of exposition and application of Scripture. As Parker states, “This is not to elevate preaching to an equality with Scripture. Scripture is definitive and sovereign; preaching must be derivative and subordinate. Obviously, Scripture does not have to conform to preaching; preaching must conform to Scripture” (23). Hence, Calvin states,


For what ought sermons and all teaching to be but exposition of what is contained there? It is certain that if we add anything to it, however little, it is only a corruption. Our Lord has delivered to us a perfect teaching in the Law, in the Prophets, and in the Gospel. And what, then, is it that is preached to us now? It is not that anything new is brought, but it is a more ample declaration to confirm us the more in God’s teaching. (24)

Thus, God works through the preacher to the conversion of sinners.

Parker argues in “The Preacher” that Calvin believed that preaching was essentially teaching (35). Yet it is a special type of teaching: one that is handed down from Jesus Christ, who is The Teacher (36). There are four fundamental qualifications that Calvin believed a preacher must have: humility proceeding from faith, submission to his own preaching, courage to proclaim the truth, and authority that belongs to the message and not to the preacher (39 – 40). Calvin very strongly believed that Christ was present in the preaching in a spiritual manner, just as He is present in the sacraments spiritually.


St. Pierre, Geneva

The next chapter, “The Congregation”, deals with what Calvin thought the duty of the congregation was to the preaching. Calvin argued that the congregation is not merely passive in receiving the preaching, but rather they have a duty to be very actively engaged in the preaching. Parker writes, “Calvin certainly expected the congregation to be active in the business of the Church’s preaching. For preaching is a corporate action of the whole Church; it is a specific act of the worshipping Church” (48). Yet, this responsibility is in no way accomplished by the congregation’s own willpower. Rather “It is by God’s Spirit that the congregation desire(s) to hear God’s Word preached to them, that they recognize it as God’s Word and distinguish it from all other words, and that they believe and become ‘doers’ of the Word” (51).

The third larger section in Calvin’s Preaching deals with “An Account of Calvin’s Preaching.” It deals more with the history of Calvin’s preaching, rather than the theology of Calvin’s preaching. Due to the constraints of this review, this section will not really be touched on, suffice to say a couple things. The first is the sheer number of times that Calvin would preach in a week. He would at times preach at least once a day as happened in 1549 (62). The other issue of importance is the fact that Geneva hired a professional stenographer to write down Calvin’s sermons as he preached them (65). This was done with the intent for them to be eventually published and it demonstrates to the historian that these sermons were highly valued by Geneva.

In the section “From Exegesis to Application”, Parker gets to a really important issue with Calvin’s preaching, as he describes how Calvin actually did his preaching. The first chapter is entitled “The Expository Method” as this is the method that Calvin used to preach. Calvin’s own manner of expository preaching is to preach through books from either the Old Testament or the New Testament verse by verse (80). In this manner, he followed the pattern of some of the early Church Fathers such as Anselm, Chrysostom, and Augustine (80).

Calvin would preach directly out of either the Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek New Testament, translating as he went along (81). He would also preach without the use of notes, though he considered sermon preparation of great importance (81). He remarks,

if I should climb up into the pulpit without having deigned to look at a book and frivolously imagine ‘Ah well! When I get there God will give me enough to talk about,’ and I do not condescend to read, or to think about what I ought to declare, and I come here without carefully pondering how I must apply the Holy Scripture to the edification of the people – well, then I should be a cock-sure charlatan and God would put me to confusion in my audaciousness. (81)

Parker proceeds to examine Calvin’s sermon structure and he does this by looking at a multitude of sermons from Deuteronomy, Ephesians, Job, 2 Timothy, and Micah. In brief, these are the discoveries: Calvin would start off preaching on a book, by having a sermon that explained the argument of the entire book (84). In the following sermons, he would proceed to explain the text in the simple terms so that everybody could understand and benefit from the preaching (86). He would never give the original word in the Greek or Hebrew, but would simply explain the meaning of the word (86). Thus, here one no longer sees the highly academic Calvin, but the pastoral Calvin. Calvin would then proceed to explain the sentence or clause, with the primary interest of discovering how profitable it was for the congregation to know this. Lastly, Calvin would seek to make application of the text for the lives of the hearers. This application would be direct and immediate.

The next chapter is entitled “The Message of Scripture” and deals with common themes in Calvin’s preaching. Parker brings out that in Calvin’s expository preaching, there is both unity and also variety (93). Since it is expository preaching the content of the message often changes because of the different circumstances of the text, however, the core foundation of that text: the Gospel, never changes (98 – 100). But also Parker observes that “Everything said about God is positive. About man the only negative statements are of his ‘poverty and wretchedness’ and the prohibitions of idolatry. Even these are, so to say, stepping stones, the first to riches, the second to the knowledge of the true God” (96 – 97).

In his preaching Calvin was very interested in ensuring that the congregation benefited from his preaching. Parker demonstrates this in the chapter “The Stimuli of Exhortations.” He shows that Calvin applies the substance of the text to the congregation for their edification (114). Calvin remarks,

It is not enough to preach what is good and useful. For if men were well-disposed and received what God set before them, and were so teachable that they could put their minds and hearts into line with it, to subject themselves to what is good, it would be enough to have said, ‘This is what God declares to us’. But since men are malicious, are ungrateful, are perverse, ask only for lies in place of the truth, readily go astray, and after they have known God turn again and distance themselves from him – for this reason it is necessary, say St. Paul, ‘for us to be held as it were forcibly in obedience to his Word. (114 – 115)

In contrast to the caricatured understanding of Calvin, he was not a harsh preacher, but rather simply gives gentle instruction. Parker comments, “There is no threshing himself into a fever of impatience or frustration, no holier-than-thou rebuking of the people, no begging them in terms of hyperbole to give some physical sign that the message has been accepted” (119).

The Last Section of this book deals with “Form and Style” and is divided into two chapters: “The Pattern of the Sermons” and the “Familiar Style.” In these chapters Parker deals with a number of important issues including pointing out that Calvin’s method of speaking was not the rhetorical style of the great speakers of the Classical Age. Rather, Calvin’s method is the Scholastic Style and in this Calvin followed the example of Bullinger, Melanchthon, and Bucer (132). Finally, Calvin, in his preaching desired to make the Scripture familiar to the people. He wanted to make the Scriptures primarily personal to his congregation and in this Calvin demonstrates a very homely style of preaching (139).

The Review:

Parker, in his book Calvin’s Preaching, does a very good job in presenting an overview and introduction into the preaching of the Reformer John Calvin. His comments on Calvin are balanced and fair and so he presents a fairly non-biased description of Calvin’s preaching. However, he never really touches on the overall importance of all this research into Calvin’s preaching. He never posits to the reader, why such a discussion is necessary. He never discusses Calvin’s influence on the preaching in the Reformed Churches from the 1500s to the present. Discussion on these topics would lend some needed flow, purpose, and greater interest into studying Calvin’s preaching.

Calvin’s Preaching appears to be exceptionally well researched with the use of a lot of primary sources and examinations of Calvin’s own sermons, preaching schedules, and consistory meeting minutes. In Parker’s use of these materials he lets Calvin speak for himself and does not interpose his own commentary on Calvin’s sermons, suffice to explain them. In this way, he again allows for a non-biased presentation of Calvin’s beliefs. This allows for a clear understanding of Calvin’s position and also opens up the way for good discussion around Calvin’s preaching, as it presents the basic facts regarding Calvin’s preaching. However, the reader cannot help but wonder if some commentary on the importance of Calvin’s position on preaching for the church during the Reformation, after the Reformation or even the relevancy of Calvin’s preaching to twenty-first century preaching, would add to the benefit of reading this book. For example, to help the reader understand Calvin’s position on preaching better, it would have been helpful to understand something of the type of preaching that existed in the Roman Catholic Church during the time of the Reformation. It may have been helpful for Parker to compare Calvin’s preaching to Savonarola’s preaching in Venice.

That being said, it was demonstrated quite well that Calvin’s position on preaching was nothing surprisingly new. Calvin was very much in the line of numerous of the Church Fathers when it came to the manner and philosophy of his preaching. Indeed, as was pointed out above, Calvin continued in the tradition of men like Anselm, Augustine, and Chrysostom. But here, Parker just speaks to the preaching of men some 1000 years before Calvin, and nothing really is said of contemporary Roman Catholic preachers.

In addition, to the person who is familiar with the history of John Calvin and the Reformed faith, Parker does not present anything that is particularly surprising about Calvin’s preaching. The average Reformed believer would certainly understand that the preaching of John Calvin is expository. However, Parker does do a good job in presenting that Calvin was not this fiery preacher calling down hell-fire on everybody left, right, and center. Parker shows that Calvin, in his preaching, was not really a holier-than-thou preacher: he was not the joyless tyrant of Geneva that he is often made out to be.

It is surprising that Parker never even touches on Calvin’s view of predestination in the preaching and perhaps this is to be lamented in this book. This doctrine, which Calvin is often remembered for and is often (perhaps incorrectly) considered to be the foundation of his theology, is not touched upon. Considering the discussions that have been happening in the Reformed Church world in this age, one would think this would be a very important part of the discussion regarding Calvin’s preaching. So the reader is left with the question: what was Calvin’s view on the place of the doctrine of double predestination in the preaching?

That being said about the lack of comment on Calvin’s view on predestination, Parker does do a good job in demonstrating Calvin’s views on God’s sovereignty in the preaching (that it is God who works through the preaching of his tool, the preacher, to the conversion of sinners by the work of the Holy Spirit) and his view on the supreme authority of the Scripture. By spending the first chapter dealing with Calvin’s view on the Holy Scripture, Parker paves the way for why Calvin’s preaching is expository and in doing so, demonstrates one of the key doctrines of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura.

Thus, in conclusion, Calvin’s Preaching is a good introduction for somebody who is not very familiar with John Calvin and is interested in getting a good brief overview of various characteristics of his preaching style. Parker presents the subject material in a clear, and well-researched style. The book perhaps lacks a depth that would add it greater interest, but nonetheless is a fair and unbiased description of Calvin’s preaching.

Martin Luther’s “On the Freedom of a Christian”

Luther as an Augustinian Monk

Luther as an Augustinian Monk

The treatise, On the Freedom of a Christian[1] written by Martin Luther is a very profound and, at the time of its publication, a very radical document on what it means to be a Christian. It was penned in roughly twelve days[2] in October of 1520 and published in the same year. This was the third of a group of treatises which Luther wrote in 1520 and which have collectively come to be known as The Reformation Writings.[3] Prior to this Luther had written, The Address to the German Nobility and The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. While The Babylonian Captivity of the Church was published in Latin and meant primarily for theologians and scholars,[4] On the Freedom of a Christian was published in both Latin and German[5] and meant to be read by the common German people. That Luther was specifically interested in the common German people reading it, is brought out by the fact that the German translation was made free “for the benefit of the people.”[6] This treatise is extremely important for understanding Reformation theology and history and therefore it will be examined in this paper. In doing so, it will explore numerous questions that deal with it primarily as a historical source from the time of the Reformation.

To start with, On the Freedom of a Christian has some interesting contextual history. Part of its history is that it was prefaced with a conciliatory letter to Pope Leo X. This letter was the product of Luther meeting up with Cardinal and Saxon nobleman[7] Charles von Miltitz on October 12, 1520.[8] Miltitz urged Luther to write a letter “disclaiming any intent to attack him [i.e. the pope] personally, and presenting temperately the case for reform.”[9] This meeting was probably urged on by the fact that the Pope Leo X had issued the bull of excommunication, the Exurge Domine, against Luther on June 15, 1520. So Luther wrote the letter in Latin for the express purpose of “presentation to the pope.”[10]

It is important to state (in order that one not get the wrong impression regarding the character of this letter) that this was by no means a letter of apology to the pope for any of Luther’s past actions. It was rather almost a letter of “paternal counsel to the forty-five-year-old heir of St. Peter and the Medici.”[11] Luther pities the pope stating that he is “a lamb in the midst of wolves, like Daniel in the midst of lions, and with Ezekiel, you dwell with scorpions.”[12]

Luther states over and over again in this letter, that he is not attacking Leo per se, but rather attacking the doctrine and the corrupt men of Rome. For example, he states, “I am so far from having felt any rage against your person, that I even hoped to gain favor with you, and to aid in your welfare, by striking actively and vigorously at that your prison, nay, your hell.”[13] Continuing with that, he seems almost to describe Leo as a victim of all the corruption of Rome, “For since I know that your Blessedness is driven and tossed by the waves at Rome, while the depths of the sea press on you with infinite perils, and that you are laboring under such a condition of misery that you need even the least help from any the least brother.”[14]

While Luther states all these kind words to the pope, it must be realized that Luther, even in addressing the pope in such gentle and kind terms, was disrespecting the authority of the pope. It would have virtually been unheard of for a lowly monk and Doctor of Theology to address the pope in such terms. As Atkinson writes, “he [i.e. Luther] addressed him as an equal and pitied him as a poor Daniel in a den of lions. He made the devastating remark that the Pope was called the vicar of Christ for a vicar was there because someone else was absent, and it was Christ who was absent from Rome.”[15] That being the case, unfortunately nobody knows what the pope actually thought of the letter or the book as nothing was ever recorded in that regard. Although, quite clearly the “the letter accompanying it destroyed all prospects of reconciliation.”[16]

This brings up the interesting question: why would Luther include On the Freedom of a Christian with such a letter? It would appear that Luther, in doing so, was making a defense of his faith. He was ensuring that nobody would be able to accuse him of wrong doing and heretical ideas.

freedom-of-a-christianSo how does Luther argue his theological position regarding Christianity? WeThe actual treatise On the Freedom of a Christian deals with a seeming paradox. Luther states it this way: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[17] He argues this proposition solely on the basis of Scripture. He makes no reference to church councils or decrees at all. One of the very likely reasons for this is that since this treatise was also written for the common German people, heavy theological language and the arguments of councils are left out. As MacKinnon states “the language is that of religion rather than theology.” Luther is then, most likely realizing the importance of writing a treatise in the terminology of the common people and one that is free from theological councils and disputations. Without all these complications it can be a treatise from which the laity can benefit. However, going back to the content of the treatise, Luther defends his paradox on the basis of several arguments. His chief argument is that man is justified by faith alone. He states that no outward thing or work has any effect on a Christian’s justification: “It does not help the soul if the body is adorned with the sacred robes of priests or dwells in sacred places or is occupied with sacred duties or prays, fasts, abstains from certain kinds of food, or does any work that can be done by the body and in the body.”

However, going back to the content of the treatise, Luther defends his paradox on the basis of several arguments. His chief argument is that man is justified by faith alone. He states that no outward thing or work has any effect on a Christian’s justification: “It does not help the soul if the body is adorned with the sacred robes of priests or dwells in sacred places or is occupied with sacred duties or prays, fasts, abstains from certain kinds of food, or does any work that can be done by the body and in the body.”[18] He goes on to state that there is only one thing that is necessary for the Christian life and that is the gospel of Christ:

One thing, and only one thing is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ.[19]

That Luther needs to state this and make arguments defending it gives the reader a glimpse into the fact that society at the time did not take justification by faith alone for granted. Rather, the whole of religious and Christian society was steeped in a justification by works. Therefore, that Luther argues for justification by faith demonstrates that he was breaking in a radical way with Roman Catholic theology.

After he makes an argument for the justification of the believer by faith alone through Christ alone, Luther goes on to contend that Christ, as the believer’s highpriest, imparts two things to the Christian. The first thing is that He grants all Christians kingship: He makes lords of all. By this, he does not mean that all Christians are given a corporeal power.[20] Rather, he means that “every Christian is by faith so exalted above all things without exception, so that nothing can do him any harm. . . . The power of which we speak is spiritual . . . . I need nothing except faith exercising the power and dominion of its own liberty.”[21]

The second thing Christ grants the Christian is that he makes them priests forever. By this he means that “we [i.e. Christians] are worthy to appear before God to pray for others and to teach one another divine things.”[22] In doing this, Luther removes the difference between clergy and laity. As MacKinnon writes, “he . . . rejects the distinction between clergy and laity and insists anew that the only distinction is that of specific function and of the ministry of the Word for the promotion of faith.”[23] In doing this Luther, is removing the hierarchical nature of the church. He is establishing a type of equality between the laity and clergy in this treatise.

Therefore, in conclusion, this treatise on the theology of Martin Luther, is an integral one to the history of the Reformation. It states clearly and logically the key Reformation ideas of justification by faith alone and the priesthood and kingship of all believers. This has had a profound effect on Christianity to this day as the division it created in Christian theology still exists. If one may use the term, it is a revolutionary document.


Atkinson, James. Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism. Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1981

Smith, Preserved. The Life and Letters of Martin Luther. New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1968

MacKinnon, James. Luther and the Reformation. New York: Russell and Russel Inc., 1962

Durant, Will. The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300 – 1564. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985

Luther, Martin. “Dedicatory Letter of Martin Luther to Pope Leo X” on Fordham University: The Jesuit University of New York http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/luther-freedomchristian.asp (Accessed February 4, 2016)

Luther, Martin. Christian Liberty. Edited by Harold J. Grimm. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957


[1] Also referred to as Christian Liberty, Concerning Christian Liberty and The Liberty of a Christian Man

[2] James Atkinson, Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism. (Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1981), 192

[3] Ibid, 187

[4] Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of M

artin Luther. (New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1968), 88

[5] Ibid, 93

[6] James MacKinnon, Luther and the Reformation. (New York: Russell and Russel Inc., 1962), 263

[7] Atkinson, Martin Luther, 174

[8] MacKinnon, Luther, 263

[9] Will Durant, The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300 – 1564. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), 355

[10] MacKinnon, Luther, 263

[11] Durant, The Reformation, 355

[12] Martin Luther, “Dedicatory Letter of Martin Luther to Pope Leo X” on Fordham University: The Jesuit University of New York (http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/luther-freedomchristian.asp) Accessed February 4, 2016

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Atkinson, Martin Luther,  193

[16] Ibid

[17] Martin Luther, Christian Liberty ed. by Harold J. Grimm (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), 7

[18] Ibid, 8

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid, 17

[21] Ibid, 17 – 18

[22] Ibid, 18

[23] MacKinnon, Luther, 266