New Horizons

The Reformation on Suffering: Affliction for Christ’s Sake

Brian De Jong

Vicious violence marked the brief reign of King Frances II of France. His ascension to the throne in July 1559 inaugurated eighteen months of excruciating pain for French Protestants. One historian of that era described the atrocities as follows: “There was nothing but arrestations and imprisonments, pillage of houses, outlawries, and massacres of the servants of God.”

The intense suffering of the Huguenots for the gospel moved John Calvin to send a letter of comfort and encouragement to his French brethren. In that communiqué, Calvin reflected on the place of suffering in the life of the believer. He wrote, “Persecutions are the true combats of Christians to try the constancy and firmness of their faith.”

This was not the only instance of the persecution of Protestants during the Reformation. Suffering became commonplace for those who left the relative safety of Roman Catholicism. From that experience of affliction arose a ripening understanding of this difficult reality. Simply put, suffering forces reflection, and reflection in turn equips the believer to endure future persecution.

Over time, the Reformers developed a mature perspective on suffering. Four related components of the Reformation contributed to this deepening understanding:

There are many varieties of suffering that are experienced by the human race generally. Injury, sickness, and death show the physical effects of the fall. Relational misery is another result of sin, as men are alienated and estranged from one another. And there has never yet been a shortage of suffering brought about by wars and rumors of wars, as governments vex the citizenry. Often economic hardship follows in the wake of such warfare. This is not to mention the innumerable cases of affliction brought on by sinful choices, which then lead to necessary consequences and, sometimes, divine chastisements. But the Reformers focused on spiritual suffering, even more than on the generic difficulties of life: pain and distress experienced for the sake of the gospel.

The Reformers themselves were no strangers to affliction; they encountered all of the varieties of suffering to one degree or another. Luther, Calvin, Knox, and their followers continually lived in the crucible of suffering. From their acute personal trials arose sanctified meditation on the nature, purposes, and ends of suffering. God used their pain to help them think through a topic that we instinctively avoid.

In the midst of their many trials, the Reformers maintained the practice of carefully expounding the Scriptures. Their dedication to the Word of God led them to ponder such books as Job, Jeremiah, and James. Commenting on James 1:3, Calvin says,

We certainly dread diseases, and want, and exile, and prison, and reproach, and death, because we regard them as evils; but when we understand that they are turned through God’s kindness unto helps and aids to our salvation, it is ingratitude to murmur, and not willingly to submit to be thus paternally dealt with.

Because the Reformers were diligent students of the Scriptures, they regularly encountered the recurring theme of suffering in the Bible.

The study of Scripture produced a Christ-centered theology in the Reformers. In their devotion to the person and work of our Savior, they rightly emphasized his cross. He was the Suffering Servant prophesied by Isaiah—the man of sorrows. Reflecting on the words of Isaiah 53:5, “by his wounds we are healed,” Calvin writes:

Here the Prophet draws a contrast between us and Christ; for in us nothing can be found but destruction and death; in Christ alone is life and salvation, he alone brought medicine to us, and even procures health by his weakness, and life by his death; for he alone hath pacified the Father, he alone hath reconciled us to him.… Let everyone, therefore, draw consolation from this passage, and let him apply the blessed result of this doctrine to his own use; for these words are spoken to all in general, and to individuals in particular.

It is not surprising, therefore, to learn that the Reformers viewed the Christian life as one of bearing one’s cross. In his Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life (excerpted from his Institutes of the Christian Religion), Calvin argues:

It is fitting for the faithful Christian to rise to a still higher level where Christ calls every disciple to ‘take up his cross.’ For all whom the Lord has chosen and received into the society of his saints ought to prepare themselves for a life that is hard, difficult, laborious and full of countless griefs.

Luther shared this perspective, as Carl Trueman has demonstrated (see New Horizons, October 2005). After showing how Luther used his “theology of the cross” to reformulate various theological points, as well as Christian ethics and living, Trueman summarizes Luther’s outlook in this way: “The cross is paradigmatic for how God will deal with believers who are united to Christ by faith. In short, great blessing will come through great suffering.”

Thus these four factors worked together to produce a full-orbed view of persecution and suffering. But what exactly was this perspective? In his letter to the Huguenots in 1559, Calvin recounted God’s various purposes in assigning affliction to his people. Through suffering, God refines us like gold in the furnace, he said. Trials curb our love for this world, correct evil tendencies in us, restrain our native pride, and cultivate Christlike humility. Then Calvin pointed his readers to what he considered God’s greatest purpose in these dark providences: “Above all by suffering he wishes us to be conformed to the image of his Son, as it is fitting that there should be conformity between the head and the members.” Being united to Christ by faith, we share in his sufferings as well as in his glory. We are conformed to him in his death and in his resurrection. We are inducted into the fellowship of his sufferings, and like our Savior, we attain glory only through the cross.

In comments on Philippians 3:10, Calvin can say,

Christ crucified is set before us, that we may follow him through tribulations and distresses; and hence the resurrection of the dead is expressly made mention of, that we may know that we must die before we live. This is a continued subject of meditation to believers so long as they sojourn in this world. This, however, is a choice consolation, that in all our miseries we are partakers of Christ’s Cross, if we are his members; so that through afflictions the way is opened up for us to everlasting blessedness.

Persecution in America?

Orthodox Presbyterian history has included its own episodes of suffering for Christ’s sake. In the early days, buildings were confiscated, courageous leaders were unjustly disciplined by the old denomination, our missionaries were frequently harassed, and even prominent newspapers heaped scorn upon the us. No, we are not strangers to suffering!

The horizon ahead of us may seem dark and ominous. As Western culture is increasingly secularized, tolerance of a vocal Christian minority may quickly evaporate. Some cultural elites menace Christians who have the audacity to object to the moral revolution happening all around.

Only God knows whether the future holds persecution for the American church. If this is what he has ordained, then let us remember the heritage of the Reformation. In the writings of the Reformers—and especially in John Calvin—we have a treasury of wisdom for coping with suffering.

As we stand for the gospel in our day—and stand, we must—we should not be surprised to find that the saying is true: “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). But even as we share in his sufferings, we also anticipate sharing in his glory. And for that reason we can say with Paul, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).

The author is the pastor of Grace OPC in Sheboygan, Wis. New Horizons, August 2017.

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