Calvin’s Letter To Five Missionaries About To Be Martyred For The Gospel

MY VERY DEAR BRETHREN,1—Hitherto I have put off writing to you, fearing that if the letter fell into bad hands, it might give fresh occasion to the enemy to afflict you. And besides, I had been informed how that God wrought so powerfully in you by His grace, that you stood in no great need of my letters. However, we have not forgotten you, neither I nor all the brethren hereabouts, as to whatever we have been able to do for you. As soon as you were taken, we heard of it, and knew how it had come to pass. We took care that help might be sent you with all speed, and are now waiting the result. Those who have influence with the prince in whose power God has put your lives, are faithfully exerting themselves on your behalf, but we do not yet know how far they have succeeded in their suit. Meanwhile, all the children of God pray for you as they are bound to do, not only on account of the mutual compassion which ought to exist between members of the same body, but because they know well that you labour for them, in maintaining the cause of their salvation. We hope, come what may, that God of His goodness will give a happy issue to your captivity, so that we shall have reason to rejoice. You see to what He has called you; doubt not, therefore, that according as He employs you, He will give you strength to fulfil His work, for He has promised this, and we know by experience that He has never failed those who allow themselves to be governed by Him. Even now you have proof of this in yourselves, for He has shown His power, by giving you so much constancy in withstanding the first assaults. Be confident, therefore, that He will not leave the work of His hand imperfect. You know what Scripture sets before us, to encourage us to fight for the cause of the Son of God; meditate upon what you have both heard and seen formerly on this head, so as to put it in practice. For all that I could say would be of little service to you, were it not drawn from this fountain. And truly we have need of a much more firm support than that of men, to make us victorious over such strong enemies as the devil, death, and the world; but the firmness which is in Christ Jesus is sufficient for this, and all else that might shake us were we not established in Him. Knowing, then, in whom ye have believed, manifest what authority He deserves to have over you.

As I hope to write to you again, I shall not at present lengthen my letter. I shall only reply briefly to the point which brother Bernard has asked me to solve. Concerning vows, we must hold to this rule, that it is not lawful to vow to God anything but what He approves. Now the fact is, that monastic vows tend only to corrupt His service. As for the second question, we must hold that it is devilish presumption for a man to vow beyond the measure of his vocation. Now, the Scripture declares, both in the nineteenth of St. Matthew and in the seventh of the First to the Corinthians, that the gift of continence is a special grace. It follows, then, that those who put themselves in the position and under the necessity of renouncing marriage for the whole of their life, cannot be acquitted of rashness, and that by so doing they tempt God. The question might very easily be spun out to a greater length, by stating that we ought to consider, first, who HE is to whom we vow; secondly, the nature of that vow; and thirdly, the party making the vow. For God is too great a Master for us to trifle with, and man is bound to consider his own capabilities; for to present a sacrifice without obedience, is nothing but thorough pollution. However, this one point may suffice you to prove to them that the gift of continence is a special gift, and in such-wise special, that for the most part it is only for a season. So that he who possessed it for thirty years, like Isaac, may not do so for the remainder of his life. Hence you may conclude, that the monks, in binding themselves never to marry, attempt without faith to promise what is not given to them. As for their poverty, it is quite the reverse of that which our Lord enjoined upon his followers.

Concerning the nature of a glorified body, true it is, that the qualities thereof are changed, but not entirely. For we must distinguish between the qualities which proceed from the corruption of sin, and those which belong to and are inseparable from the nature of the body. St. Paul, in the third chapter of the Epistle to the Philippians, says that our vile or weak body shall be made like to the glorious body of Christ. By this humble expression or Tapinosis, he points out which of the qualities that we at present bear about with us in our bodies are to be changed; those, namely, which are of the corruptible and fading nature of this world. And on this subject St. Augustine says, in the Epistle to Dardanus, which in number is the 57th, “He shall come again in the same form and substance of the flesh, to which certainly he gave immortality; he hath not taken away the nature. In this form he must not be supposed to be everywhere diffused.” This argument he follows out at greater length, showing that the body of Christ is contained within its own dimensions. And in fact our glorified bodies will not be ubiquitous, although they will have that likeness of which St. Paul speaks. As for the passage of the Apocalypse, the words are these in the fifth chapter: “And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing,and honour, and glory, and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.” Now you see that it is a childish cavil to apply this to souls in purgatory; for St. John, by the figure which is called Prosopopœia, rather conveys that even the fishes blessed God. And in regard to the passages of the Doctors, refer your people to the 27th Epistle of St. Augustine, To Boniface, where he states, towards the end, that the sacraments have a certain similitude of those things which they represent. From whence it comes to pass, that after some fashion the sacrament of the body of Christ may be the body of Christ. Item, that which he treats of in the third book, Of Christian Doctrine, where he says, among other things in the fifth chapter, “Such is the completely miserable bondage of the soul in conceiving of the signs in place of the things signified, and never lifting up the eye of the understanding above the corporeal creature to breathe eternal light.” Item, in the ninth chapter.—“The believer knows by experience, and understands [agnoscit] to what the mystery of baptism, and the celebration of the body and blood of the Lord, may be referred, so that the soul can offer religious worship, not in the bondage of the flesh, but rather in the liberty of the spirit. So to follow the literal sense, and in suchwise to conceive of the signs instead of the things sealed or signified by them, is a slavish weakness; that mere symbols should be so unprofitably interpreted, is the result of vague error.” I do not heap up quotations, because these will be quite enough for your purpose. In conclusion, I beseech our good Lord that He would be pleased to make you feel in every way the worth of His protection of His own, to fill you with His Holy Spirit, who gives you prudence and virtue, and brings you peace, joy, and contentment; and may the name of our Lord Jesus be glorified by you to the edification of His Church!

FROM GENEVA, this 10th of June 1552.

—John Calvin (1552), Letters of John Calvin, trans. Jules Bonnet, 4 vols (repr. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 2.335–38.

1. In the month of April 1552, five young Frenchmen, instructed at the school of theology of Lausanne, and devoted to the functions of the ministry, made arrangements for returning to their own country. These were Martial Alba of Montauban, Peter Ecrivain of Gascony, Charles Favre of Blanzac in Angoumois, Peter Navihères of Limousin, and Bernard Seguin of La Reole. After having spent some days at Geneva, they set out for Lyons, and met on the way at the Bourg de Colonges, nigh to L’Ecluse, a stranger, who offered himself as their fellow-traveller. They consented without harbouring any suspicion. Arrived at Lyons, they parted with their travelling companion, who pressed them to visit him at his dwelling of Ainay. They went thither without any distrust, were arrested and led away to the prisons of that jurisdiction. Such was the origin of a long and doleful process, which held the Churches of France and Switzerland for a long time in suspense, and during which, the bloodthirsty cruelty of the judges was only equalled by the constancy of the victims. On the first rumour of the arrest of the five students, the Church of Geneva took the matter up, and lavished upon the captives, by the voice of Calvin, the most lively testimonies of their sympathy.

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  1. Godfrey did a session on this at Point Loma about 10 years ago at a Ligonier Conference…pure gold

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