A letter from John Calvin to the brothers in France

Part of the Reformation monument in Geneva: four Reformers

There was much persecution during the time of the great Reformation. It greatly affected John Calvin; it caused him to study the Bible on this matter and write many letters to comfort fellow sufferers. This letter is an example.

Geneva, June 1559

Dearly beloved and honored brothers,

You are all suffering persecution; like a storm it is suddenly blowing with such power that its effects are felt everywhere.  We do not know about your personal situations, so we thought it best to write a general letter to encourage you in the name of God. Although Satan causes great trouble, not to give up brothers; do not withdraw from the battle. Withdrawing will rob you of the fruit of the victory which has been promised and confirmed to you. It is most certain that if God did not give freedom to Satan and his agents, they could not attack you.

Confessing your faith

When your enemies make plans to ruin you it is because God has given them permission to test your faith.  Although Satan has many ways to trouble you, God will come to your aid when He has glorified His name by your faithfulness. While God tests you, all you need to do is prepare yourselves for the confession of the faith. This is what God requires, as a sacrifice which is well-pleasing to him, even though the unbelievers despise and scoff at our simple faith.

It may be necessary that you should be give up everything, even your life, to seal and confirm the confession of your faith. In this way God wants you to take courage to overcome all the temptations which might turn you away from making your confession. It is reasonable that we submit ourselves to be governed by the hand of our good Father, even though His hand may seem to us heavy and without feeling. If God was to forget us we might feel very anxious. But God takes us under his protection and sometimes wants to test us in all the ways He allows. We must therefore calm our feelings, and not think that our situation is strange.

The example of Peter

I know very well what terrors you will experience. [Calvin experienced many terrors himself]. I know you are sensitive; you greatly abhor your hardship. However, be assured that God will be victorious. The apostle Peter died in a way he did not choose. He did not follow his natural feelings, he did not resist, so that he could be led by God’s good pleasure, that is, with a willing heart.

Therefore, follow Peter’s example. Be courageous in your fight against your weaknesses so that you will remain victorious over Satan and all your enemies. Yes, their rage and cruelty against the poor church are great; their threats are terrible. They are so well prepared that we think everything will be ruined. But this is not so; our persecutions are not as serious as those which our fathers in earlier generations suffered. Sure, the devil and his followers are just as hard and cruel as before; they want to do evil. But God knows our weaknesses and therefore keeps them in chains, like wild beasts. It is certain that if God had not protected us, if He had not intervened with his hand, we would have been destroyed a thousand times. If he did not continually and secretly watch over us, we will soon be swallowed up.

We know by experience that God has pity and compassion on us. We are secure, therefore we can be calm under His protection, trusting that he will show how beloved our lives are to him.

Focus on eternal life

Meanwhile we must not think about our own lives when we are called to use them in his service and when we continue to confess His Holy Word. By these ways He wants His glory to shine forth through us. Jesus Christ, our Master, assures us that we shall patiently preserve our souls, because he will be the faithful guardian of them. (Luke 21:19). Furthermore, if we lose our frail and perishable earthly life, we shall receive it back in far better condition when we receive heavenly glory.

The Holy Scripture calls us pilgrims in this world.  You must meditate on this important lesson. It teaches us that nothing should turn us away from eternal life and our everlasting inheritance. We must be confident about this. But we cannot be confident unless we are prepared to leave this earthly life when it pleases God to call us away.

We will not mention all the Bible’s encouragements which will strengthen your patience because we will never be finished; Scripture is filled with them.

If we are to be resurrected to be with Jesus Christ, our Master, and share in the rest which He has promised, we must also be partakers of His suffering and death (1 Peter 4:13), and be conformed to his image. We shall not try to figure out what God’s plan is for each one of us in terms of suffering.

We should all accept this doctrine: just as Jesus entered into his glory by many afflictions, so we are bound to follow the same way. At this time it is sufficient to fix in our minds that all the oppressions experienced by the church are to test the faith of God’s elect people, in a manner and time pleasing to God.

Suffering brings fruit

Jesus Christ shed his own blood to confirm the truth of the gospel of our salvation.  It is therefore only right that we make him our example. We are assured that whatever our enemies do against us shall all be changed to benefit our salvation. Be greatly encouraged; when the evil ones have become tired all their cruelty, every drop of blood will be fruitful by increasing the number of the believers.

Perhaps you are not immediately convinced that the faithfulness of suffering believers brings fruit.  Let this not stop you from doing your duty. Your life or death, as determined by God, will bring many benefits for the wellbeing of His church. He knows very well how to bring these benefits in his own time and way.

The more wicked people strive to remove the memory of God’s name from the earth, the more effective will our blood cause that memory to flourish more and more. And assuredly we can see in our time that God intends to exalt His name and spread the reign of Jesus Christ. Let us accept the current darkness, waiting until God produces His light to rejoice us, even though His light is always present in the midst of our hardship. We seek for it in His Word where it is offered to us and where it never ceases to shine.

Cloud of witnesses

In your great troubles turn your eyes to God’s Word. Rejoice that he considers you worthy to suffer affliction for His Word rather than as punishment for your sins. We all deserve this punishment. Instead, He supports us by His grace. God promises to comfort poor sinners who patiently accept His correction. Be confident that the help and comfort of his Holy Spirit will support you. When you trust Him you will accept the situation in which God has placed you.

Do not listen to influential people who try to mislead you, corrupting the brothers and sisters and causing them to backslide rather than making progress in faith. Furthermore do not look at others and say, like Peter, and this man, what about him? [In other words, that man is not persecuted, so why am I?] But let everyone accept as he is called, because each must give an account for himself to God. Instead, look at the unshakable courage of so many martyrs who are an example for us, and be encouraged to join that good company.  For this reason the apostle compares them to an immense and thick cloud of witnesses, as if he said their numbers are so vast as to blind our eyes (Hebrews 12:1).

Leaders and persecution

Some believers are placed in higher positions [in the church] than others. Let them understand that they must lead, and never try to escape persecution. Similarly, people who are noble and rich must not think they are privileged, but let them acknowledge that God has chosen them to be more highly glorified in them. When you live with this simple principle, seeking God to be compassionate, you will feel more relief than trying to escape by clever ways.

We do not say that, with your eyes open, or without wisdom, you should expose yourselves to the jaws of the wolf. But do not withdraw from the church, the flock of our Lord Jesus Christ in order to avoid the cross.  Be more afraid of scattering the believers than any kind of death. Otherwise, what excuse will you plead when our Lord Jesus Christ, his Father, and all the angels will accuse you, that having made a profession of confessing God in life and in death, you have betrayed the faith? You have separated yourselves from the abuse and pollutions of Roman Catholic idolatry. [You are no longer members of this corrupt church. therefore it persecutes you, and causes the government to do so.] What a shame it will be, therefore, if we rejoin it [to avoid persecution].  We would become doubly abominable in the sight of God.

True blessedness

In short, true blessedness is being a disciple of our Lord Jesus, knowing that He will deny and denounce all who do not confess him before unbelievers.  Therefore strengthen your hearts to endure reproaches and persecutions.

If you desire to have God for your stronghold, sanctify Him, by despising the threats of the unbelievers, as the apostle Peter says: “do not be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled” (1 Peter 3:14). Be assured too that the pride and rage of these lions and dragons will only increase the wrath of God, and hasten the execution of His vengeance.

Finally, do not be too troubled that men treat you cruelly. Remember: your names are written in the Book of Life. God approves of you, not only as his servants, but also as his children and heirs of his glory, members of his only Son Jesus Christ, and companions of angels. Nevertheless let it be enough for you to oppose their fury with prayers and tears.  God will not permit your tears to fall to the ground, but will preserve them in His bottles [Psalm 56:8].

Conclusion

We have briefly mentioned what should be your conduct during this fiery trial. The main point is that each of you should attentively and regularly read the Word of God. Take good note of and remember the exhortations given to you by the mouth of God; serve him with all perseverance, do not become tired of it, no matter what happens.

I am motivated by good-will, care and compassion for you. I am also convinced that the dangers which hang over our own heads [here in Geneva] affect and stir you up to pray that God will protect us.

We seriously pray that God, in his infinite goodness, will make you feel that He is the protector both of the body and the soul. We pray that he will govern and support you by his Holy Spirit. We ask that He will triumph through you, by scattering all the counsels, enterprises, and strength of his enemies.

[Letter 539. Source: Fr. Histoire des Martyrs, Lib. 7, page 462.]

The text of the above letter has been redacted and some information, in square brackets, has been added for easier reading.

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