Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 44: Hebrews, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
TO THE MOST MIGHTY AND MOST SERENE PRINCE,
by the Grace of God, the King of Poland,
Great Duke of Lithuania, Russia, Prussia,
and Lord and Heir of Muscovy, etc.
There are at this day many foolish men, who everywhere, through a vain desire for writing, engage the minds of ignorant and thoughtless readers with their trifles. And to this evil, most illustrious King, is added another indignity — that while they inscribe to kings and princes their silly things, to disguise, or at least to cover them by borrowed splendor, they not only profane sacred names, but also impart to them some measure of their own disgrace. Since the unreasonable temerity of such men makes it necessary for serious and sober writers to frame an excuse, when they publicly dedicate their labors to great men, while yet there is nothing in them but what corresponds with the greatness of those to whom they are offered, it was necessary to make this remark, lest I should seem to be of the number of those who allow themselves, through the example of others, to render public anything they please, however foolish it may be. But it has not escaped me how much it has the appearance of foolish confidence, that I, (not to speak of other things,) who am an unknown and obscure man, should not hesitate to address your royal Majesty. Let my reasons be heard, and if you, O King, approve of what I do, what others may judge will cause me no great anxiety.
First, then, though I am not forgetful of mine insignificance, nor ignorant of the reverence due to your Majesty, yet the fame of your piety, which has extended almost to all who are zealous for the sincere doctrine of Christ, is alone sufficient to remorse any fear; for I bring with me a present which that piety will not allow you to reject. Since the Epistle inscribed to the Hebrews contains a full discussion respecting the eternal divinity of Christ, his government, and only priesthood, (which are the main points of celestial wisdom,) and as these things are so explained in it, that the whole power and work of Christ are set forth in the most graphic manner, it deservedly ought to obtain in the Church the place and the honor of an invaluable treasure. By you also, who desire that the Son of God should reign alone and be glorified, I doubt not but that it will be valued.
In the interpretation which I have undertaken, I say not that I have succeeded; but I feel confident that when you have read it you will approve at least of my fidelity and diligence. And as I claim not the praise of great knowledge or of erudition, so what has been given me by the Lord for the purpose of understanding the Scripture, (since this is to glory in him,) I am not ashamed to profess; and if in this respect I have any capacity to assist the Church of God, I have endeavored to give an evident proof of it in these my labors. I therefore hope that the present (as I have said) which I offer will not only avail, O King, as an excuse to your Majesty, but also procure for me no small favor.
This may possibly be also a new encouragement to your Majesty, who is already engaged in the work of restoring the kingdom of Christ, and to many who live under your government to further the same work. Your kingdom is extensive and renowned, and abounds in many excellences; but its happiness will then only be solid, when it adopts Christ as its chief ruler and governor, so that it may be defended by his safeguard and protection; for to submit your scepter to him, is not inconsistent with that elevation in which you are placed; but it would be far more glorious than all the triumphs of the world. For since among men gratitude is deemed the proper virtue of a great and exalted mind, what in kings can be more unbecoming than to be ungrateful to the Son, by whom they have been raised to the highest degree of honor? It is, therefore, not only an honorable, but more than a royal service, which raises us to the rank of angels, when the throne of Christ is erected among us, so that his celestial voice becomes the only rule for living and dying both to the highest and to the lowest. For though at this day to obey the authority of Christ is the common profession, made almost by all, yet there are very few who render this obedience of which they boast.
Now this obedience cannot be rendered, except the whole of religion be formed according to the infallible rule of his holy truth. But on this point strange conflicts arise, while men, not only inflated with pride, but also bewitched by monstrous madness, pay less regard to the unchangeable oracles of our heavenly Master than to their own vain fictions; for whatever pretenses they may set up, who oppose us and strive to assist the Roman Antichrist, the very fountain of all the contentions, by which the Church for these thirty years has been so sorely disturbed, will be found to be, that they who seek to be deemed first among Christ’s disciples, cannot bear to submit to his truth. Ambition as well as audacity has so far prevailed, that the truth of God lies buried under innumerable lies, that all his institutions are polluted by the basest corruptions; his worship is in every part vitiated, the doctrine of faith is wholly subverted, the sacraments are adulterated, the government of the Church is turned into barbarous tyranny, the abominable sale of sacred things has been set up, the power of Christ has been abused for the purpose of sustaining the tyranny of the ungodly, and in the place of Christianity is substituted a dreadful profanation, full of the grossest mummeries of every kind. When for these so many and so atrocious evils we bring this one remedy — to hear the Son of God speaking from heaven, we are instantly opposed by these Atlases, not those who support the Church on their shoulders, but who elevate on high by vain boastings of empty titles an idol devised and formed by themselves. They also adduce this as a pretext for their fierce recriminations, that we by our appeals disturb the peace of the Church. When we come to know things aright, we see that these subtle artifices devise for themselves a Church wholly different from that of Christ! And what else is this but a wicked and sacrilegious attempt to separate the body from its head? It hence appears how frivolous is the boasting of many as to Christianity; for the greatest part suffer themselves to be governed by nothing less than by the pure teaching of the Gospel.
But what you acknowledge, O King, that in order that Christ may take an entire possession of his own kingdom, it is necessary to clear away all superstitions, is a proof of singular wisdom; and to undertake and attempt what you judge to be thus necessary, is an evidence of rare virtue. That you are indeed like another Hezekiah or Josiah, destined by God to restore shortly to the kingdom of Poland a purer teaching of that gospel, which has been throughout the world vitiated by the craft of Satan and perfidy of men, there are many things which give almost a certain hope to all good men. For, to omit other superior qualities, which even foreigners proclaim and men of your own kingdom observe with great advantage, there has ever appeared in you a wonderful concern for religion, and religion itself appears eminent in you in the present day. But the chief thing is, that Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, has so irradiated your mind with the light of his Gospel, that you understand that the true way of governing the Church is no other than what is to be derived from him, and that you at the same time know the difference between that genuine form of religion which he has instituted, and that fictions and degenerate form which was afterwards introduced; for you wholly understand that God’s worship has been corrupted and deformed, as innumerable superstitions have crept in, that the grace of Christ has been unworthily involved in great darkness, that the virtue of his death has been annihilated, that he himself has been almost lacerated and torn in pieces, that assurance of salvation has been plucked up by the roots, that consciences have been miserably and even horribly vexed and tormented, that wretched men have been led away from the sincere and right worship of God into various and perplexed labyrinths, that the Church has been cruelly and tyrannically oppressed; and, in short, that no real Christianity has been left.
It is not to be believed, O most noble King, that you have been in vain endowed by God with this knowledge; doubtless he has chosen you as his minister for some great purposes. And it has hitherto happened through God’s wonderful Providence that no innocent blood has been shed in the renowned kingdom of Poland — no, not a drop, which by calling for vengeance might retard so great a benefit. It was through the clemency and gentleness of King Sigismund, of happy memory, the father of your Majesty, that this did not take place; for, while the contagion of cruelty was spreading through the whole of the Christian world, he kept his hands pure. But now your Majesty and some of the most eminent of your princes not only receive Christ willingly when offered to them, but anxiously desire him. I also see John a Lasco, born of a noble family, carrying the torch to other nations.
The presumption of Eckius is by no means to be endured, who dedicated to King Sigismund, the father of your Majesty, his book on The Sacrifice of the Mass; for he thus, as far as he could, affixed a base blot to your illustrious kingdom! At the same time, it was nothing strange in that Silenus, who, being the prince of drunkards, was wont to vomit at the altar as well as at the dunghill. Now, by dedicating this my labor to your Majesty, I shall at least effect this, that I shall wash away from the name of Poland the base filth of Eckius, so that it may not stick where it has been so unworthily fixed. And by doing so I shall not, as it seems to me, attain a small object; and no book of Scripture could hardly be chosen so suitable for such a purpose. For here our Apostle shows in an especial manner, that the sacrifice which Eckius advocates is manifestly inconsistent with the priesthood of Christ. There is here, indeed, no mention of the mass, which Satan had not then vomited out of hell. But by bidding the Church to be satisfied with the one only true sacrifice which Christ offered on the cross, that all rites of sacrificing might cease forever, he doubtless closes the door against all their new glosses. The Apostle cries aloud that Christ was sacrificed on the cross once for all, while Eckius feigns that this sacrifice is daily renewed! The Apostle declares that the only Son of God was the fit priest to offer himself to the Father, and hence he was constituted by an oath; but Eckius denies that he alone is the priest, and transfers that function to hired sacrificers! At the same time, I am not ignorant of the evasions by which they elude these and similar arguments; but there is no fear that he will deceive any but those who are blind or who shun the light. He was at the same time so inebriated with Thrasonic haughtiness that he labored more in insolent boasting than in subtle demonstration. That I may not, however, seem to triumph over a dead dog, I will add nothing more at present than that my Commentary may serve to wipe off the filthy stain which that unprincipled and Scottish man attempted to fix on the name of Poland; and there is no fear that they who will read will be taken by his baits.
Moreover, as I wish not in offering this my labor to your Majesty, only to show privately a regard for you, O King, but especially to make it known to the whole world, it remains now for me humbly to implore your Majesty not to repudiate what I do. If indeed a stimulus be thereby given to encourage your pious endeavors, I shall think it an ample remuneration. Undertake, then, I pray, O magnanimous King, under the auspicious banner of Christ, a work so worthy of your royal elevation, as well as of your heroic virtue, so that the eternal truth of God, by which his own glory and the salvation of men are promoted, may, wherever thy kingdom spreads, recover its own authority, which has been taken away by the fraudulent dealings of Antichrist. It is truly an arduous work, and of such magnitude as is sufficient to fill even the wisest with solicitude and fear.
But first, there is no danger which we ought not cheerfully to undergo, no difficulty which we ought not resolutely to undertake, no conflicts in which we ought not boldly to engage, in a cause so necessary. Secondly, as it is the peculiar work of God, we ought not in this case to regard so much the extent of human powers as the glory due to his power; so that, relying on that not only to help us, but also to guide us, we may venture on things far beyond our own strength; for the work of restoring and establishing the church is not without reason everywhere assigned in Scripture to God. Besides, the work itself is altogether divine; and as soon as any beginning is made, whatever arts of injury Satan possesses, he employs them all either to stop or to delay a further progress. And we know that the prince of this world has innumerable agents who are ever ready to oppose the kingdom of Christ. Some are instigated by ambition, others by gain. These contests try us in some degree in our humble condition; but your majesty will have, no doubt, to experience far greater difficulties. Therefore, all those who undertake to promote the doctrine of salvation and the wellbeing of the Church must be armed with invincible firmness. But as this business is above our strength, aid from heaven will be granted to us.
It is in the meantime our duty to have all these promises which everywhere occur in Scripture inscribed on our hearts. The Lord who has himself as it were by his own hand laid the foundations of the Church, will not suffer it to remain in a decayed state, for he is represented as solicitous to restore it and to repair its ruins; for, by speaking thus, he in effect promises that he will never fail us when engaged in this work. As he would not have us to sit down as idle spectators of his power, so the presence of his aid in sustaining the hands which labor, clearly proves that he himself is the chief architect. What, therefore, he so often repeats and inculcates, and not without reason, is, that we are not to grow weary, however often we may have to contend with enemies, who continually break forth into hostility; for they are, as we have said, almost infinite in number, and in kinds various. But this one thing is abundantly sufficient, that we have such an invincible Leader, that the more he is assailed the greater will be the victories and triumphs gained by his power.
Farewell, invincible King. May the Lord Jesus rule you by the spirit of wisdom, sustain you by the spirit of valor, bestow on you all kinds of blessings, long preserve your Majesty in health and prosperity, and protect your kingdom. Amen.
Geneva, May 23, 1549