John Calvin: Call the Church to Fast, Pray, and Confess

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“Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” Esther 4:16

“When pestilence begins to stalk abroad, or famine or war, or when any other disaster seems to impend over a province and people, then also it is the duty of pastors to exhort the Church to fasting, that she may suppliantly deprecate the Lord’s anger. For when He makes danger appear, He declares that He is prepared and in a manner armed for vengeance.

In like manner, therefore, as persons accused were anciently wont, in order to excite the commiseration of the judge, to humble themselves suppliantly with long beard, dishevelled hair, and coarse garments, so when we are charged before the divine tribunal, to deprecate his severity in humble raiment is equally for his glory and the public edification, and useful and salutary to ourselves. And that this was common among the Israelites we may infer from the words of Joel. For when he says,

Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. (Joel 2:15)

he speaks as of things received by common custom. A little before he had said that the people were to be tried for their wickedness, and that the day of judgment was at hand, and he had summoned them as criminals to plead their cause: then he exclaims that they should hasten to sackcloth and ashes, to weeping and fasting; that is, humble themselves before God with external manifestations.

The sackcloth and ashes, indeed, were perhaps more suitable for those times, but the assembly, and weeping and fasting, and the like, undoubtedly belong, in an equal degree, to our age, whenever the condition of our affairs so requires. For seeing it is a holy exercise both for men to humble themselves, and confess their humility, why should we in similar necessity use this less than did those of old? We read not only that the Israelitish Church, formed and constituted by the word of God, fasted in token of sadness, but the Ninevites also, whose only teaching had been the preaching of Jonah.

The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” Jonah 3:5-9

John Calvin (1509-1564) in The Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.12.17 (Grand Rapids: CCEL) 758-759.

Calvin was impacted by the plague his entire life. Scholars note that it was probably the cause of his mother’s death at 3 years old, and what likely motivated him to leave Noyon for Paris to study at 14. His hometown had been hit. His actions, however, do not reflect fear or selfishness, but appropriate care and concern.

We can trace that Calvin had no fear of the disease throughout his life but exercised both compassion (my word for the year) and care. He visited the sick in many instances. He also established a hospital in Geneva and appointed deacons to care for the sick in isolation (see The Ecclesiastical Ordinances, 4th Order).

While the practical approaches Calvin took toward the plague match the care people are taking in modern times, we must not overlook the spiritual counsel of Calvin as the plague afflicted people throughout his life. Whenever the plague raged, he called the pastors to tell the churches to fast, to pray, and to confess. He wanted them to call to God for helpin humility.

As I read from the Scriptures he referenced from Esther, then Joel, and then Jonah, I was touched deeply.

In Esther we learn that when crisis impacts everyone, the right response is to call for a fast. From Joel we learn to engage in this practice together. Perhaps “the sacred assembly” can take place with appropriate social distancing. And from Jonah we learn that, interestingly, both the people and the animals fasted. I find that especially fascinating because coronaviruses normally impact animals, and this one is afflicting people too.

Why fast, pray, and confess?

I can speak to this. They are the spiritual priorities that God has led me to have the staff, board, and regional facilitators of Global Trust Partners to call people to practice all over the world. Again, why?

They are the three practices that God’s prophets called God’s people to practice to humble themselves and ask for divine help. They are the only path of deliverance from the financial corruption that has ravaged churches and ministries worldwide. And, related to COVID-19, they mark the way to find physical relief during a plague.

The crisis we face is beyond our pay grade. We need God’s help. Not as a last resort but as a first priority, let us get our focus off ourselves (like God said to Jonah) and call the Church to fast, pray, and confess, asking God for mercy for people who need to repent and for safety for the animals too (as God loves animals).

But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” Jonah 4:10:11