Fear or Faith? John Calvin on Psalm 27:3


After Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, John Calvin’s Commentaries were probably my most thumbed through books while I prepared for preaching over the years.  I gave mine away to a younger pastor friend when I retired, but was pleased to be able to find them on-line, albeit in an old English translation that is perhaps not the best.

Though Calvin is much maligned as a general grump and meanie in modern popular culture, his sermons and commentaries on scripture, quite to the contrary, are more often than not, full of faith, hope, and love.  Here is an excerpt (verse 3) from his commentary on Psalm 27, which is the appointed psalm in the New Revised Common Lectionary for this upcoming Second Sunday in Lent:

Though armies should encamp. He infers from his former experience, as I have already mentioned, that whatever adversity may befall him, he ought to hope well, and to have no misgivings about the divine protection, which had been so effectually vouchsafed to him in his former need. He had asserted this, indeed, in the first verse, but now, upon farther proof of it, he repeats it.  But when he declares, “My heart shall not fear,” this does not imply that he would be entirely devoid of fear, — for that would have been more worthy of the name of insensibility than of virtue; but lest his heart should faint under the terrors which he had to encounter, he opposed to them the shield of faith. Some transfer the word translated in this to the following verse, meaning that he was confident that he would dwell in God’s house; but I am of opinion that it belongs rather to the preceding doctrine. For then does faith bring forth its fruit in due season, when we remain firm and fearless in the midst of dangers. David, therefore, intimates, that when the trial comes, his faith will prove invincible, because it relies on the power of God.” (John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume 8, Part 1, translated by John King)

Good stuff, don’t you think? It still speaks today to our fears.  I especially like: “Under the terms, camps and armies, he includes whatever is most formidable in the world.” So though the names and faces of the powerful people who hold the world in thrall will change, the truth remains: “Although all men should conspire for my destruction, I will disregard their violence, because the power of God, which I know is on my side, is far above theirs.”

The Good News here is that the principalities and powers of this age, and any age, are ultimately subordinate to the power of God, though as the rest of the Psalm amply shows, they manage through their subordinates (in this case “the army encamped about him”) to give the Psalmist (let us call him David, as Calvin does) and mutatis mudandis, us, plenty about which to be afraid in the short run.

This faith in the power of God, as he writes, is not the complete absence of fear, as in a more Eastern religious calm through meditation and detachment.  No the fears are quite real.  So I particularly love this: “But when he (David) declares, “My heart shall not fear,‘ this does not imply that he would be entirely devoid of fear, — for that would have been more worthy of the name of insensibility than of virtue.”  Am I wrong to detect some dry humor there?  Calvin humor, who knew?

So faith always lives in the midst of our fears, but it is that same faith that knows “when the trial comes, our faith will prove invincible, because it relies on the power of God.”

More Ruminations on Luke 13:31-35 for the Second Sunday in Lent


A friend of mine said today that the preaching resource he is looking at has at its theme for this Sunday, “sacrifice,” and then it admonishes us to have Jesus be our model of sacrifice.  He said he was suspicious of this, and I think he is quite right to be suspicious of sacrifice (at least ours) in this passage.

Because Jesus’ vocation is utterly unique. Yes, it will end in an atoning sacrifice that is nothing less than an obedient and holy act of the Triune God, but that is his calling and can’t be ours in quite the same way.  So no matter how important our own sacrifices are for Christian faith (and they are), they must not obscure for us the critical fact that Jesus is not merely the apotheosis of human sacrifice, rather he is “doing a new thing.”  And he knows this must take place in Jerusalem, as the final culmination of the ancient promises, about which we get a glimpse with Abram in the OT lesson in Genesis 15: 1-18.

And, contrary to some commentators, I don’t see the Pharisees as particularly Jesus’ friends here. I see their warning more like, “Galilee is Herod’s turf, he’s the big kahuna around here, so you’d better lay low, or bad things will happen to you.”

So Jesus goes on the lam in the countryside to carry out his ministry until it is his time to go to Jerusalem, not because he is afraid of Herod, but because he doesn’t want his plans thwarted before they are completed.

And the obvious foreshadowing of the Palm Sunday triumphal entry this early in Lent should keep our eyes fixed on the larger narrative, which is that Jesus will indeed in his own good time travel to Jerusalem, and he will die an atoning sacrificial death, that among other things, will replace the sacrifices of the temple, which is in part why it must take place here.

So Jesus isn’t afraid, but disciples ancient and modern are fearful for him, even those of us who know how the story turns out.

Psalm 27 asks, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”  It is a good question.  And then the Psalmist proceeds to list quite a few things to fear. And there are always quite a few things to fear in our world.  Faith always takes place among those fears, and, as in Psalm 27, it is often hard to know whether faith or fear will get the upper hand, the final word.

So we are all fearful disciples, and one of the things we are fearful of is the full import of Jesus’ vocation and death and its implications.  Yet in Psalm 27 the Psalmist finishes with hope that he will live to see the promise fulfilled.  And more and more, as I get older, I think our faith is properly understood best eschatologically or it risks dissolving into moralism.  We don’t get to see it all.  We see“ through a glass darkly.”

Yet though we must wait to see the promises fulfilled “in the land of the living,” we do see enough in Jesus Christ to proceed in faith, which in many ways, is the opposite of our myriad fears.

(Photo by R.L. Floyd.  Snowfall at Dawn.  This morning)