The Heart and Mind of Godly Ministry: Learning from the Letters of Calvin and Rutherford
Since High School, when I became a believer, God has richly blessed my life with multiple mentors and heroes in the faith. Their friendship, support, challenge, and rebuke have seasoned my walk with Christ and greatly equipped my service in ministry, and I will forever be in their debt. However, in the past few months, the Lord has used two men in particular to minister to my heart and life. And these two fathers in the faith have been dead for hundreds of years.
What a gift the church has in the printed copies of the personal letters of John Calvin and Samuel Rutherford (Thank you Banner of Truth Trust!). Attending a Reformed seminary, we were naturally exposed to the great Reformer’s and Puritan’s prolific writings in exegesis, systematic and pastoral theology, as well as critical commentary. But its been just recently that I’ve come to treasure the letters and correspondence of godly and model pastors like Calvin and Rutherford, and I’d like to share two brief excerpts that provide a window looking out at the beautiful landscape of their pastoral wisdom and piety.
Philip R. Johnson notes in his contribution to the volume celebrating the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, “Calvin’s most underrated body of work was his letters— long epistles, in many cases. Most of Calvin’s letters convey the great tenderness of his pastor’s heart—especially when he wrote to admonish or correct someone in error. The tone of the letters belies the modern caricature of Calvin as a stern, fire-breathing, doctrinaire authoritarian.” I couldn’t agree more! In June of 1551, Calvin wrote to a “French Gentleman”, perhaps a member of the family of Theodore Beza as the letter was produced upon the occasion of an illness which endangered Beza’s life. The letter reveals a touching tribute to his affection as a friend and partner in ministry. He writes:
“When the messenger presented himself with your letter to Beza, I was seized with fresh alarm, and, at the same time, weighed down with a load of grief. For I was informed, the day before, that he had been seized with the plague. I was therefore not only troubled about the danger he was in, but from my very great affection for him I felt almost overpowered, as if I was already lamenting his death…”
“Indeed, I were destitute of human feeling, did I not return the affection of one who loves me with more than a brother’s love, and reveres me like a very father. But the church’s loss afflicted me more deeply, when I pictured a man, of whom I had so very high expectations, suddenly snatched away from us by death—a man whose gentle disposition, polished manners, and native candor, had endeared him to all good men. Should you ever happen to make a secret and hasty journey hither- which I am very anxious you should-you will find him far superior in those respects to anything I have stated…What should we delight in but Christ? Yet I confidently trust that the life of man will not be denied to our prayers… Adieu, distinguished Sir, and take in good part this voluntary service of mine, seeing I write with so much familiarity to one with whom I am not acquainted. May the Lord guide you by His Spirit, and shield you by His protection!” (Letters of John Calvin p.115-116)
Charles Spurgeon wrote in 1891 that “When we are dead and gone let the world know that Spurgeon held Rutherford’s Letter’s to be the nearest thing to inspiration which can be found in all the writings of mere man.” Samuel Rutherford is not as well-known outside the Reformed church as John Calvin, yet his role and contributions to the church of Jesus Christ and truth of God’s word is incredibly significant and profound. He was one of the four main commissioners from the Church of Scotland to the Westminster Assembly, and Professor/Principal of the University of St. Andrews. He died before he was to appear before Parliament in London on the charge of treason. During the English civil war, in 1650, following the defeat of the Scots by Cromwell’s army at Dunbar, Rutherford wrote to William Guthrie about depression under dark trials and the danger of compliance. He said:
“Dear brother, help me, and get me the help of their prayers who are with you in whom is my delight. You are much suspected of intended compliance; I mean, not of you only, but of all the people of God with you. It is but a poor thing the fulfilling of my joy; but let me obtest (petition) all the serious seekers of His face, His secret sealed ones, by the strongest consolations of the Spirit, by the gentleness of Jesus Christ, that Plant of Renown, by your last accounts and appearing before God, when the White Throne shall be set up, be not deceived with their fair words. Though my spirit be astonished that the cunning distinctions which are found out in the matters of the Covenant, that help may be had against these men; yet my heart trembleth to entertain the least thought of joining with those deceivers. Grace, grace be with you. Amen. Your own brother, in our common Lord and Saviour, S.R..” (Letters of Samuel Rutherford. p.653-654)
Two giants in the Reformed tradition. Two unparalleled scholars of great learning, erudition, and letters. And yet, two humble men who remind us that the glory of God, delight in Christ, and the growth of God’s people is our great aim and end in the church. Their letters divulge their longing for the power of the gospel, piety of the people of God, prayerfulness of the saints, and tender presence in the family of God. Well worth anyone’s time and study!