The Preached Gospel As A Tool Of Reform – Why John Calvin Is Smiling

Oklahoma judge Mike Norman customized a rehabilitation sentence for Tyler Alred in the wake of his DUI manslaughter charge in 2011. Judge Norman required Aldred to complete his high school degree and his associates degree from a welding school, two steps that were an understandable part of a reform effort. However, Judge Norman also insisted that Mr. Alred attend church worship services for 10 years.  Furthermore, in a unique turn of providence, both Alred’s attorney and the DUI victim’s family agreed to the terms of the sentence.

Not surprisingly, several watchdog groups are concerned with the precedent of the ruling, including the ACLU. Curiously, the Rev. Bruce Prescott of the Oklahoma chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State is also worried about this ruling. Prescott told reporters, “Religion is not a tool of the state, and it’s certainly not for the state to use as a tool of rehabilitation.”

Prescott’s quote makes for an interesting comparison point in the history of the Protestant Reformation. Head back to the 1540s when John Calvin was leading the Reformation in Geneva. Calvin and his elders would routinely use Christianity  as a tool of the state to bring about reform and rehabilitation.  The Consistory (Calvin’s Elders/ City Council) would inquire about church attendance whenever a case of church discipline arose. In Calvin’s estimation, there was an inversely proportional relationship between listening to sermons and anti-social behavior. Thus, the more sermons one listened to, the less likely it was that they would commit crimes or domestic abuses.

University of Wisconsin historian Robert Kingdon provides a helpful translation of the consistory minutes (The official minutes of the Elders/ City Council meetings). These minutes provide an insightful and reality-show-esque look into this kind of church and civic leadership.  One example from Kingdon’s book concerns a baker named Aymoz Foural who was posting some disruptive and potentially libelous signs outside of his bakery shoppe. Aymoz and his wife were summoned to give account to the city Elders and only Aymoz showed up. Here are the notes from the meeting (Kingdon, p. 35.):

Asked about the frequenting of sermons. Answers that he goes when he can, and Monsieur Calvin preached Sunday morning. And said his Pater and creed fairly well (IE: he knows his theology and doctrine).

Said that his wife was ill (Which was a lie).

Afterwards said that he should not be summoned more than others and that he had done more and that he wants to know what is wanted from his wife.

The Consistory orders that he bring his wife at once, and he was admonished to go to sermons and not tell lies any more.

John Calvin’s recommendation for pathological liars? The same as his recommendation for adulterers, lazy pastors, greedy persons, and neglectful parents: Go listen to the preached sermon.

Why was it that John Calvin was so emphatic about the preached sermon? Calvin believed that the preaching event was the most transformative function of pastoral ministry.  He believed that those who yielded to the preached Gospel would be nudged towards a God-centeredness that would ultimately result in the transformed, moral, spiritual Christian life.

Nathan Bingham of Ligoner Ministries puts it this way:

All of Calvin’s sermons were God-centered throughout, but his closing appeals were especially heartfelt and passionate. He simply could not step down from his pulpit without lifting up the Lord and urging his listeners to yield to His absolute supremacy. … As he concluded, Calvin regularly exhorted his congregation: ‘Let us fall before the majesty of our great God.’ Whatever his text, these fervent words called for the unconditional submission of his listeners.

It is easy to see why Calvin wanted his people to listen to sermons.  People who were impacted by the worship of God would ultimately be better fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, citizens, pastors, and church members.  And the net result would be that Geneva would be a healthier and more productive city.

I sense that this is the same guiding logic behind Judge Norman’s decision.

About Doug Hankins

Although not a Christian in his youth, Doug came to believe in Jesus during his teenage years. When not playing sports or pastoring Doug is probably spending time with his wife, reading a good book, or drinking some hot tea. Doug's first book Dawson Trotman: In His Own Words is available wherever books are sold. You can follow Doug on twitter.
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