Grand Rapids Calvin Conference: Session Six

Dr. Gerald Bilkes: Calvin and the Word of God

Dr. Bilkes is Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI.

Psalm 119:41-56

To further study the subject of Calvin on the Word of God:
Read Book One of the Institutes
Read Calvin’s Sermons on Psalm 119

During the last 200 years Calvin’s view of the word of God has declined. It is time to recapture it.

Three Vignettes Illumine the Importance of the Word in Calvin’s Life:

The Conversion of Calvin:within a year of his conversion people flocked to him asking him for instruction and teaching in the word of God. A testimony to how powerfully the word of God gripped him. “Grace found us when we were addicted to spiritual darkeness. The end of this addiction came when there was this entry of divine light into the soul.”

Calvin’s Work as a Preacher: “The pulpit is the throne of God and from that throne he wants to govern our souls.” The pulpit brings the sinner face to face with God’s judgment. The preacher himself must be a hearer – a student – of the word, himself listening to the word. The twofold aim of the pulpit: to change God’s enemies into children, and to bring God’s children to honor their father more and more. Calvin had a wholehearted submission to the word of God and to speak nothing else but the Word of God.

Calvin on His Death Bed: “As for my doctrine I have taught faithfully and God has given me grace to write. I have not corrupted one single passage of Scripture so far as I know.”

Calvin’s Writings Summarized Under Two Headings

How God’s Word Comes to Us:

God accomodates himself to our feeble minds by taking word pictures to communicate his grandeur

The Word of God is Speech from God: “It was the mouth of the Lord that spoke. We owe to the Scripture the same reverence we owe to God.” When you go to the word of God to to it as the very WORDS of God. Look at the Scriptures as the mouth of God, as the speech of God.”  This carries over to how Calvin viewed the pulpit. We are not hearing a mere mortal man speaking.

The School:Calvin speaks of the Scriptures as a school of the Holy Spirit – nothing is taught but what is expedient to know. Whatever is revealed in Scripture should not be hidden (ie., the doctrine of predestination). Calvin emphasizes that we should be students – scholars.

The Sun: “The word of God is like the Sun, shining in our hearts.” He speaks of this Sun as the very face of God who is Light, unapproachable. God shines his word into the dark hearts of sinners. The Sun is the grace of Christ which reveals the glory of God. 

Spectacles: Likens the word of God to an aid to our ability to see (spiritually). The work of the Spirit is such that we need an internal illumination as well as the external illumination of the Word of God. The word of God is glasses for the soul.

Strength (Sword) The word as strength works against us by nature. “The word is not just sounds – it is a living thing and full of hidden power which leaves nothing in men untouched.” The word as strength is also a sword for the believer in his daily fight against his enemies and his own evil lusts.

Safety (Shield) It gives safety and security. Christ, when tempted by the devil, uses Scripture as his shield. For this is the true way of fighting. If we wish to have the assurance of victory, we ought to have the Scripture as our shield.

Shelter/Solace“There is no other solace and no other remedy for adveristy than our reposing upon the word of God.”

SweetnessDo we go to the word of God and think of it as sweet to our taste? “God’s word is sweet to all the godly, he will convey to us by his word nothing but sweetness.” By nature we are so attached to this world’s supposed sweetness. God allures us by the sweetness of the world from the false sweetness offered by the world. This idea that the word of God is sweet has an impact on preaching. Paul expresses the delictible sweetness of the gospel – his preaching was not savorless.


Song Calvin really believed that there was no greater song than that which God lays upon our lips and on our hearts in his word. “Thy statutes have been my song.” “David drew out of the word of God as a fountain songs for his soul.” The Psalms through Calvin became the songs for a pilgrim church.

How We Should Come to the Word of God:

Reverently God’s word is so glorious, awesome and divine and we ought not treat it any differently than we treat God Himself. We tremble before God’s word. This is the mouth of God. But this does not go against love or faith. We still come boldly to God. This humble fear is conjoined with love for God and with faith.

Dependently: Holy Dependence on God to understand and believe and walk in his word, in light of the remaining darkness in us. We cannot come to understand the secrets of God by our own minds. We need the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

Ardently If there is one language along side of reverence and dependence in Calvin’s sermons on the the Psalms it is the language of desire. “We sigh and groan unto the majesty of of our God beseeching Him to instruct us.” Psalm 119:20

Calvin’s view of the Doctrine of the Word of God

Exalted: The word of God is not seen as something the merely serves us, but comes to us so that we might know God. God’s word is a sceptre whereby he makes his rule known in the world. The word of God speaks of God’s majesty and glory.

Experiential: Calvin is at pains to make and to see the word of God as relevant to whatever circumstance we are in. Whether it be in the darkness of sin or our struggle as believers in the life of faith. We need to hold Scripture high, but also recognize the way it speaks to our circumstances. Not as mere maxims for success, but first and foremost the word of God reveals God to us – an extension of his authority under which we must readily bow. If we are to be what the Reformers were and to have power in our pulpits and in our walk as believers we must recover this view of the word of God.

Expectant Read the prayers at the end of his sermons. He comes to God’s word with the expectation that God will use it, that God will bless it.