RPM, Volume 12, Number 13, March 28 to April 3 2010

First Sermon on the
Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ

By John Calvin

Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder. And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy. Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me. And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. — MATTHEW 26:36-39 When Scripture speaks to us of our salvation it proposes to us three aims. One is that we recognize the inestimable love God has shown toward us, so that He may be glorified by us as He deserves. Another, that we hold our sin in such detestation as is proper, and that we be sufficiently ashamed to humble ourselves before the majesty of our God. The third, that we value our salvation in such a manner that it makes us forsake the world and all that pertains to this frail life, and that we be overjoyed with that inheritance which has been acquired for us at such a price. This is what we ought to fix our attention upon and apply our minds to when it is mentioned to us how the Son of God has redeemed us from eternal death and has acquired for us the heavenly life. We ought, then, in the first place to learn to give God the praise He deserves. In fact, He was well able to rescue us from the unfathomable depths of death in another fashion, but He willed to display the treasures of His infinite goodness when He spared not His only Son. And our Lord Jesus in this matter willed to give us a sure pledge of the care which He had for us when He offered Himself voluntarily to death. For we never shall be keenly touched nor set on fire to praise our God, unless on the other hand we examine our condition, and see that we are as sunk in hell, and know what it is to have provoked the wrath of God and to have Him for a mortal enemy and a judge so terrible and appalling that it would be much better if heaven and earth and all creatures would conspire against us then to approach His majesty while it is unfavorable toward us. So it is very necessary that sinners should be broken-hearted with a feeling and an understanding of their faults, and that they should know themselves to be worse than wretched, so that they may have a horror at their condition, in order that in this way they may know how much they are indebted and obligated to God, that He has pitied them, that He sees them in despair, and that He has been kind enough to help them; not because He sees in them any dignity, but only because He looks upon their wretchedness. Now the fact is also (as we have said), forasmuch as we are surrounded by too much here below and that when God has called us to Himself we are held back by our affection and covetousness, that it is necessary to prize the heavenly life as it deserves, that we may know at how great an expense it was bought for us.

And that is why it is here narrated to us that not only our Lord Jesus Christ has been willing to suffer death and has offered Himself as a sacrifice to pacify the wrath of God His Father, but in order that He might be truly and wholly our pledge, He did not refuse to bear the agonies which are prepared for all those whose consciences rebuke them and who feel themselves guilty of eternal death and damnation before God. Let us note well, then, that the Son of God was not content merely to offer His flesh and blood and to subject them to death, but He willed in full measure to appear before the judgment seat of God His Father in the name and in the person of all sinners, being then ready to be condemned, inasmuch as He bore our burden. And we need no longer be ashamed, since the Son of God exposed Himself to such humiliation. It is not without cause that St. Paul exhorts us by his example not to be ashamed of the preaching of the Cross; however foolish it may be to some and a stumbling-block to many. For the more our Lord Jesus abased Himself the more we see that the offenses on account of which we are indebted to God could not be abolished unless He were abased to the last degree. And, in fact, we know that He has been made weak in order that we might be made strong by His virtue, and that He has been willing to bear all our sufferings, sin excepted, so that He may be ready today to help us. For if He had not felt in His person the fears, the doubts, and the torments which we endure, He would not be so inclined to be pitiful toward us as He is. It is said that a man who knows what neither hunger nor thirst is will not be moved with compassion or humanity toward those who endure them, because he has always been at his ease and has lived in his pleasures. Now it is true that God, although in His nature He endures none of our passions, does not cease to be humane toward us, because He is the fountain of all goodness and mercy. However, in order that we may be assured that our Lord Jesus knows our weaknesses in order to relieve us of them, and that we may come so much more boldly to Him and we may speak to Him more familiarly, the Apostle says that for this cause He was willing to be tempted like us.

So, then, we have to notice in the text we have read that when our Lord Jesus came into this village of Gethsemane, and even on the mountain of olives, that it was to offer Himself as a voluntary sacrifice. And in that He willed to fulfill the office and the charge which was committed to Him. For why did He assume our flesh and nature, unless to make reparation for all our rebellion by His obedience, to acquire for us full and perfect righteousness before God his Father? And still He came to present Himself for death, because we can not be reconciled nor can we pacify the wrath of God which had been provoked by sin, except by His obedience.

This, then, is why the Son of God came boldly to the place where He knew that Judas would find Him. And thus we know that it was necessary, since our father Adam by his rebellion had ruined us all, that the Son of God, who has sovereign control over all creatures, should subject Himself and assume the condition of a servant, as also He is called both a Servant of God and of all His own. And that is also why St. Paul, showing that we must have some support to call upon Him in full confidence that we shall be heard as His children, says that by the obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ we are recognized to be righteous. For it is as a mantle to cover all our sins and offenses, so that the thing which could prevent us from obtaining grace is not taken into account before God. But on the other hand we see that the price of our redemption has been very dear, when our Lord Jesus Christ is in such agony that He undergoes the terrors of death, indeed, until sweat as drops of blood by which He is, as it were, beside Himself praying if it be possible that He might escape such a distress. When we see that, it is enough to bring us to a knowledge of our sins. There is no possibility of lulling us to sleep here by flattery when we see that the Son of God is plunged into such an extremity that it seems that He is at the depth of the abyss. If that had happened only to a righteous man, we might be touched, of course, because it was necessary that a poor innocent endured for our ransom that which happened to the Son of God. But here is He Who is the fountain of life Who subjects Himself to death. Here is He Who sustains all the world by His power Who is made weak to this degree. Here is He Who rescues the creatures from all fear Who has to undergo such a horror. When, then, that is declared to us, we would be more than stupid, if each one of us would not meditate on that, and, being disgusted by his faults and iniquities, would not be ashamed before God, gasping and groaning, and if even by this means we were not led to God with a true repentance.

Now it is impossible that men become rightly converted to God unless they are condemned in themselves and they have conceded both the terror and the agony of the malediction which is prepared for them unless they are restored to grace with God. But again, to better understand the whole it is said that our Lord Jesus took only three of His disciples and left the company at quite a distance, and again those three He did not take all the way with Him, but He prayed to God His Father in secret. When we see that, we must notice that our Lord Jesus had no companion when He offered Himself as a sacrifice for us, but He alone completed and accomplished that which was required for our salvation. And even that is again better indicated to us, when the disciples sleep, and cannot even be awakened, although they had already been warned so many times that the hour was approaching in which our Lord Jesus would have to suffer for the redemption of mankind, and that He had exhorted them for three or four hours, never ceasing to declare to them that His death was approaching. However true all that may be, they do not cease to sleep. In this it is shown to us as in a vivid picture that it was most necessary that the Son of God bear all our burdens, for He could not expect anything else. And that is in order that our attention may be fixed so as not to wander in thought, as we see the poor unbelievers who cannot fix their attention upon our Lord Jesus Christ but who imagine that they must have patrons and advocates as if there were many redeemers. And we see even the blasphemies which are the rule in this wicked papacy, that the merits of the saints are to help the death and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, in order that by this means we may be freed and acquitted before God. Even if there had been, say they, general remission as far as the guilt of original sin as well as of actual sins is concerned; still there must be an admixture and the blood of Jesus Christ is not enough unless it is supplemented by the blood of the martyrs, and we must have our refuge in them in order to have God's favor. When the devil has thus broken loose we ought all the more to be watched that we hold fast to our Lord Jesus Christ, knowing that in Him alone we must find the full perfection of salvation. And that is why it is said notably by the Prophet Isaiah that God marveled, seeing that there was no help anywhere else.

Now it is true that God well knew that He alone had to perfect our salvation, but it is in order that we may be ashamed and that we may not be hypocrites as if we have brought anything to help in the remission of our sins and to make God receive us in His grace and love, so that we do not run from one side to the other to find mediators. So that any such idea may be banished, it is said that God has used His own arm, and that He has completed all by His righteousness, and He has found no one to help Him. Now that is declared to us with extreme clearness when it is said that three of the disciples, those who were the flower of all, were sleeping there as poor beasts and that there was nothing else than brutal stupidity in them, that which is a monstrosity against nature to see that they slept at such a fatal moment. Then in order that our confidence be turned away from all creatures and that it be entirely shut up to our Lord Jesus Christ, therefore it is said that He advanced to the combat. Besides in addressing God His Father He well shows us the remedy for our relief from all our agonies, to soften our sorrows, and even to raise us above them, even though we were, as it were, sunk under them. For if we are troubled and in agony we know that God is not called in vain the Father of Consolation. If, then, we are separated from Him, where shall we find strength unless in Him? We see, however, that He has not willed to spare Himself when we needed Him. So it is the Son of God Who leads us by His example to the true refuge when we are in sorrow and agony.

But let us notice also the form of prayer which He uses: "Father, if it be possible let this chalice be removed from me," or this drink, for it is a figure of speech whether He speaks of a goblet or of a glass or of a cup, all the more so because Scripture calls afflictions bitter drinks in order that we may know that nothing happens by chance, but that God as a father of a family distributes to each one of his children his portion, or as a master to his servants, thus God shows that it is from Him and from His hand that they are beaten and afflicted, and also when we receive good things that they proceed from His unmerited loving-kindness and He gives us as much as He wants to give us. Now according to this way of proceeding our Lord Jesus says that death is for Him such a bitter drink that He would prefer that it were taken away from Him, that is, "if it were possible." It is true that one could raise here many questions, for it would seem that for an instant Jesus Christ forgot our salvation or, still worse, that fleeing from the struggle He willed to leave us in a lost estate on account of the terror which He felt.

Now that would not agree with what we have said. And even the love which He has shown us would be much obscured. But we do not have to enter upon any dispute so subtle, because we know that suffering sometimes so ravishes the spirit of a man that he does not think of anything; but he is so weighed down by present suffering that he lets it get him down and has no regard for the means of restoring himself. When, then, we are thus temporarily out of ourselves that does not mean that everything else is entirely blotted out from our hearts and that we have no affection. As for example, he who will think on some affliction of the Church, especially a particular affliction, will pray to God as if the rest of the world were to him as nothing. Now is that to say that he has grown inhuman and that he is not concerned for his brothers who also have need that he should pray for them? Not at all, but it is that this feeling drives him with such a vehemence that everything else is cut off from him for a time. Moses prays to be removed from the book of life. If we would want to split hairs about it we would say that Moses blasphemed against God in speaking as if He were variable. For those whom God has elected to eternal life can never perish. So it seems that Moses fights here against God and that he wants to make Him like us whose counsel and talk often changes. And then what honor does he to God when he knows that he is of the number of His elect, and he knows that God had marked him from his infancy to be committed to a charge so excellent as being a leader of his people and yet he asks to be, as it were, rejected and exterminated by God? And what would that lead to? One could, then, do much arguing. But the solution is easy in that Moses, having such an ardent zeal for the salvation of the people, seeing also the horrible threat that God had pronounced with His mouth, forgets himself for a little time and for a minute, and only asks that he may help his people. To this state of mind our Lord Jesus had been brought. For if it had been necessary for Him to suffer a hundred deaths, even a million, it is certain that He would have been prepared previously. But so He has willed not so much for Himself as for us to bear the agonies which plunge Him even to that point, as we see. So much for point one.

Now for the second. If anyone asks how Jesus Christ, Who is entirely righteous, Who has been the Lamb without blemish, and Who has been even the rule and the mirror of all righteousness, holiness, and perfection, has a will contradictory to that of God; the answer to that is that God has in Himself all perfection of uprightness, while the angels, however much they conform to the will of God and are entirely obedient to Him, nevertheless have a separate will. For inasmuch as they are creatures, they can have affections which do not belong by rights to God. As for us who are surrounded by this mass of sin, we are so burdened that we are far removed from the will of God, for in all our appetites there is some excess, there is even rebellion manifest oftentimes. But if we consider man in his integrity, that is to say without this corruption of sin, again it is certain that he will have his affections far removed from God, and yet they will not on that account be vicious. As when Adam was not yet perverted and he persisted in the estate and condition in which he had been created, it happened that he was both hot and cold and that he had to endure both anxieties and fears and like things.

That is how it was with our Lord Jesus Christ. We know that in all His feelings He had neither spot nor blemish, that in everything He was ruled by obedience to God, but still He was not prevented (because He had taken our nature) from being exposed both to fear, and to that horror of which it is now spoken, and to anxieties, and to like things. We are not able to perceive that in ourselves, as in troubled water one can distinguish nothing. So, the human affections make us drift from one side to the other to give us such emotions that we need to be restrained by God. But such as men have, being descended from Adam, are as a mire where there is a more and more mixed up infection of the kind that we cannot contemplate what this passion of our Lord Jesus Christ must have been, if we judge it by our own persons. For even if we have a good aim and an affection is upright in itself and approved by God, still we always lack something. Is it not a good and holy thing when a father loves his children? And right there we sin again. For there is never rule or moderation such as is required. For whatever virtues there are in us God shows us vices in them in order that all pride be more abased and that we have all the more occasion to bow our heads, even to be confounded with shame, seeing that even the good is corrupted by the sin which dwells in us and of which we are filled to excess.

Besides, as far as our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned (as I have already said) we ought not to be surprised if He had (insofar as He was man) a will different from that of God His Father, but on that account we must not judge that here was any vice or transgression in Him. And even (as we have already noted) in that let us see the inestimable love He bore toward us when death was to Him so dreadful and, nevertheless, He submitted to it of His own good pleasure. And even if He had not had any repugnance toward it, and even if without reluctance He tasted that cup, without feeling any bitterness in it, what kind of a redemption would that have been? It would seem as if it had only been a play, but when it happened that our Lord Jesus Christ endured such agonies it is a sign that He loved us to such a degree that He forgot even Himself and suffered that all the storm fell on His head in order that we might be delivered from the wrath of God.

Now it still remains to note that when the Son of God agonized in such a way it was not because He had to leave the world. For if it had only been the separation of body and soul, with the torments which He had to endure in His body, that would not have borne Him down to such a degree. But we must observe the quality of His death and even trace its origin. For death is not only to dissolve man, but to make him feel the curse of God. Beyond the fact that God takes us out of this world and that we are as annihilated with respect to this life, death is to us an entrance, as it were, into the abyss of hell. We would be alienated from God and devoid of all hope of salvation when death is spoken of to us unless we have this remedy — that our Lord Jesus Christ endured it for our sakes in order that now the wound which was there shall not be fatal. For without Him we would be so frightened by death that there would no longer be hope of salvation for us, but now its sting is broken. Even the poison is so cleansed that death in humiliating us serves us today like medicine and is no longer fatal now that Jesus Christ swallowed all the poison that was in it.

This, then, is what we must bear in mind, that the Son of God in crying out "Father, if it be possible, let this drink be removed from me" considers not only what He had to suffer in His body, nor the disgrace of men, nor leaving the earth (for that was easy enough for Him), but He considers that He is before God and before His judicial throne to answer for all our sins, to see there all the curses of God which are ready to fall upon us. For even if there be only a single sinner, what would the wrath of God be? When it is said that God is against us, that He wants to display His power to destroy us, alas! where are we then? Now it was necessary for Jesus Christ to fight not only against such a terror but against all the cruelties one could inflict. When, then, we see that God summons all those who have deserved eternal damnation and who are guilty of sin and that He is there to pronounce sentence such as they have deserved, who would not conceive in full measure all the deaths, doubts and terrors which could be in each one? And what a depth will there be in that! Now it was necessary that our Lord Jesus Christ by Himself without aid sustained such a burden. So then, let us judge the sorrow of the Son of God by its true cause. Let us now return to what we have already discussed — that in one respect we may realize how costly our salvation was to Him and how precious our souls were to Him when He was willing to go to such an extremity for our sakes, and knowing what we deserved let us look at what would have been our condition — if we had not been rescued by Him. And yet let us rejoice that death has no more power over us that could hurt us. It is true that always we naturally fear death and we run away from it, but that is in order to make us think of this inestimable benefit which has been acquired for us by the death of the Son of God. This is in order to make us always consider what death is in itself, how it involves the wrath of God, and it is, as it were, the pit of hell. Besides, when we have to fight against such fear may we know that our Lord Jesus Christ has so provided for all those fears that in the midst of death we can come before God with uplifted heads.

It is true that we have to humble ourselves before all things, as we have already said, that it is very necessary in order that we should hate our sins and be displeased with ourselves that we be touched by the judgment of God to be frightened by it. But still we must raise our heads when God calls us to Himself. And this is also the courage which is given to all believers! So we see that St. Paul says, Jesus Christ has prepared a crown for all those who wait for His coming. If, then, we no longer have hope of life in coming before the heavenly Judge, it is certain that we shall be rejected by Him and that He will not know us, even that He will disown us, however much profession of Christianity we may make.

Now we cannot really wait for our Lord Jesus Christ unless we have understood and are persuaded that He has so fought against the terrors of death that nevertheless we are freed from them and that the victory has been gained for us. And even if we have to fight to make us feel our infirmity, to make us seek refuge in God, always to bring us to a true confession of our sins, so that God Himself alone be righteous, it is nevertheless true that we are assured that Jesus Christ has so fought that He has won the victory not for Himself but for us and we must not doubt that by means of Him we can now surmount all anxieties, all fears, all dismays, and that we can invoke God, being assured that always He has His arms extended to receive us to Himself.

This, then, is what we must consider: that we may know that it is not a speculative teaching that our Lord Jesus endured the horrible terrors of death, forasmuch as He felt that He was there before our Judge and He was our Pledge, so that today we can by virtue of His fight win over all our infirmity and persist constantly in calling upon the Name of God, not doubting a single moment that He hears us, and that His goodness is always ready to receive us to Himself and that by this means we shall go through both life and death, through water and fire, and we shall feel that it is not in vain that our Lord Jesus fought to win such a victory for all those who have come to Him by faith. This is, then, in a word, what we have to keep in mind.

Now, however, we see how we must fight against our affections, and unless we do it is impossible for us to move a finger by which we do not in full measure provoke the wrath of God. For behold our Lord Jesus Christ Who is pure and entire, as we have already declared. If one asks what His will was, it is true it was weak as the will of a man, but it was not vicious as the will of those who are corrupted in Adam, for there was not a single spot of sin in Him. Behold, then, a man Who is exempt from every vice. But, however that may be, it is still necessary that He efface Himself and that He exert Himself to the limit and that He finally renounce Himself, and that He put all that underfoot, to yield obedience to God His Father. Let us look now at what shall become of us. What are our affections? What of our thoughts? All those are enemies that battle against God, as says; St. Paul. Here God pronounces that we are altogether perverse and that all that man can imagine is but falsehood and vanity. Even from our infancy we show that we are steeped in the complete infection of sin. Little children coming into the world, though the malice does not appear, do not always fail to be little serpents full of poison, malice and disdain. In this we truly realize what is in our nature even from the beginning. And when we have become of age, what of us then? We are (as I have said) so evil that we do not know how to conceive a single thought which is not at the same time rebellion against God, so that we do not know whether to apply ourselves to this or to that, since we are always led astray from the true norm, even if we do not come to a clash with God in a provocative way. What a fight, then, is necessary to draw us back to the good! When we see that our Lord Jesus, in Whom there was nothing but integrity and uprightness, had to be subject to God His Father, even to renouncing Himself, is it not important that we should give ourselves entirely to it?

So then, let us learn to fight more valiantly. But seeing that we are not able and that rather all our powers and faculties tend to evil and that we have not a single particle of good in our nature and that there is such a weakness that we would be conquered a hundred times each minute, we come to Him Who was made weak that we might be filled with His power, as St. Paul says. Next, so it is, then, that our Lord Jesus Christ has thus renounced Himself, that we might learn, if we wish to be His disciples, to do likewise. Seeing that we are not able of ourselves to succeed in it but that we always tend to go the wrong way, let us pray to Him that by virtue of His Holy Spirit He may rule in us to make us strong. As it is said, He suffered in the weakness of His flesh, but by virtue of His Spirit He was raised from the dead in order that we may be made partakers of the fight which He sustained and that we may realize the effect and the excellence of His power in us. This, then, in summary, is what we have to remember when it is said that Christ resigned all His will in order to submit fully to God His Father.

Now, however, we have always to remember that the Son of God does not here propose Himself to be only an example and a mirror, but He wishes to show us how dearly our salvation has cost Him. For the devil, wishing to obscure the infinite grace of God which was shown us in our redemption, has said that Jesus Christ was only, as it were, model of every virtue. Behold how the whining pretenders in all the Papal See prattle. Not only do they not know how to deduce what obedience is, nor what self-renunciation is, but they say, what the Gospel-writer recites of Jesus Christ is in order that we may follow Him and that we may be conformed to Him. Now that is, to be sure, something, but it is not all nor even the principal thing. For an angel could well have been sent that we might have followed him, but when Jesus Christ was the Redeemer of the world He submitted and was subject of His own free will to that condition so miserable, as we see here. We must always recognize that we find nothing in us which can give hope of salvation. And therefore we must seek in Him what we lack. For we never can obtain the grace of God nor approach Him unless we come to Jesus Christ as poor beggars, which thing cannot be done until we have recognized our poverty and our indigence, in brief, that we lack everything.

This, then, is what we have to bear in mind in order that, after having heard that all the perfection of our life is to render us obedient to God and then to renounce our affections and thoughts and our whole nature to conform to Him, also after having heard that we must ask God for what we do not possess, we may know that our Lord Jesus Christ is given to us not only as an example, but He has fully declared to us that if we are separated from Him our life will necessarily be cursed and when in death we see the depth of misery that we shall see the pit of the wrath of God ready to swallow us up and that we be not seized with a single terror, but with a million, and that all creatures shall cry out vengeance against us. So we must feel all that, then, in order to recognize our sins and to groan and to be confounded in ourselves, and to have a desire and to have the courage to come to God with a true humility and repentance and that we should appreciate the goodness and mercy of our God according as it is seen here and that we should have mouths opened to give Him a sacrifice of praise, and that we should be turned away from the wiles of Satan, who has his nets spread out to retain us in the world, and that we leave also our conveniences and our comforts in order to aspire to this inheritance which was bought for us at such a price.

And since next Lord's Day we are to receive the Holy Supper and because God, after having opened to us the Kingdom of heaven, presents there to us a spiritual banquet that we may be even more touched by this teaching: In fact when we eat and drink daily for our restrengthening God declares sufficiently to us that He is our Father and that He cares for these earthly and frail bodies, so that we cannot eat a piece of bread without having the testimony that God cares for us, but in the Lord's Supper there is a special reason. For God does not fill our stomachs there, but He transports us to the Kingdom of heaven. He sets before us our Lord Jesus His Son for meat and drink. Jesus Christ is not satisfied only to receive us at His table, but He wishes to be in every respect our Food. He makes us feel by the effect that His body is truly meat to us and His blood drink. When, then, we see that our Lord Jesus so gently invites us to Him, must we not be the worst of villains if we are not drawn away from that which turns us away from Him? And even though we were coming with dragging foot, let us not fail to be grieved for our vices in order to draw near to Him and compel ourselves as far as it shall be possible for us to be detached from this world and to aspire to the Kingdom of heaven.

So then, let each one observe what benefit the Holy Supper ought to confer on us. For we see that our Lord Jesus calls us to it to be partakers of His death and passion that we should enjoy the benefit He acquired, for us and by this means we should be fully assured that God declares that we are His children and that we can claim Him openly as our Father. Let us bring a true faith knowing why our Lord Jesus was sent to us by God His Father, what His office is, and how He is still today our Mediator as He always was. Beyond that, let us try to be so united to Him, that it may be not only for each one of us that such a thing may be said, but for all in general. Let us have mutual concord and brotherhood together, since He has sustained and borne the condemnation which was pronounced by God His Father upon us all. So let us aim at that, and let each one come here not only for himself (as I have said), but let him try to draw his companions to it, and let us so urge one another on to walk steadfastly, noticing always that our life is as a road which must be followed to the end, and that we must not grow weary in the middle of the journey, but let us profit so much day by day, and let us take trouble to approach those who are out of the road; let this be all our joy, our life, our glory and contentment, and let us so help one another until God has fully gathered us to Himself.

Now let us bow in humble reverence before the majesty of our God.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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