Published on May 4, 2020 by Benjamin J. Montoya

Banner of Truth, 2018 | 240 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

By Andre A. Gazal


When one thinks of the permanent written record of a Christian’s testimony of God’s transformative grace, Augustine’s Confessions immediately come to mind. Yet, even a perusal of Christian spirituality throughout the centuries will reveal such documented declarations of providential superintendence in the lives of believers comprise an enduring genre in Christian literature. Composed by Christians of every era and station, these testimonies confirm the reality of the Christian life as one lived amid the convoluted, existential, complex of joys and triumphs as well as sorrows and failures while sovereignly preserved by the gracious God who faithfully completes that good work that he began. Such testimonies have, and continue to encourage other Christians experiencing similar vicissitudes, providing another channel for the communion of the saints.

David Calhoun’s anthology of testimonies from the Reformation and Post-Reformation eras, In Their Own Words: The Testimonies of Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and John Bunyan, does much to bring the modern Christian reader into the intensely personal spiritual lives of these principal thinkers and writers. In so doing, Calhoun shows that the pivotal theological and literary contributions of Luther, Calvin, Knox, and Bunyan did not issue from abstract theories formulated in ivory towers divorced from the realities of their respective contexts, but rather were forged in the throes of daily experience in their world by means of prayer (oratio), meditation (meditatio), and temptation (tentatio).

Calhoun culls the written testimonies of each of the figures covered in this volume from specific works of theirs containing autobiographical information. Moreover, he situates their respective testimonies within very clear and lucid narratives, which provide meaningful interpretations of their words. Calhoun’s selections show each of these figures at all stages of spiritual life from joyous adulation at God’s goodness to abject desperation under the weight of their own vulnerabilities as they anxiously implore God’s grace and mercy.

The first testimony which the reader encounters is that of Martin Luther. While the events surrounding the life of the Wittenberg reformer are generally known, this section provides Luther’s own assessment of those episodes in light of his own understanding of God’s active work of reformation in which he chose him as an instrument. Often, especially towards the end of his life, Luther expressed this thought with a candor that simultaneously voiced attendant weariness:

Long enough now have I played this game against the pope and the devil, and the Lord has wonderfully protected and comforted me. Why shouldn’t I now bear with equanimity what he does with me according to his will? In any case our death is nothing compared with the death of the Son of God. Besides, so very many saintly men have been buried before us whose company we are not worthy of; if we desire to be with them, as we really do desire, it’s necessary that we die. We ought to reach out for this with an eager spirit because our Lord is the Lord of life who holds us in his hand (51-52).

Calhoun assembles the material regarding Calvin’s testimony in relation to his turbulent work in Geneva. Illustrative of the reformer’s trying experiences in Geneva is this forthright assessment of the city’s reception of his ministry even twenty years after he return: “I am a stranger in this city” (94). On another occasion he remarked in a letter to William Farel: “I begin to learn again what it means to Geneva! I am in the midst to thorns” (94). Nevertheless, as his difficulties increased, Calvin became increasingly convinced that God called him to Geneva as averred in what he thought would be his last sermon in 1553: “As for me, while God keeps me here, since he has given me constancy and I have taken it from him, I will use whatever happens, and will govern myself only by the rules of my master, which are clear and obvious to me” (95).

Very significantly, the editor includes material that reveals Calvin’s own personal struggle with sin, particularly that of anger: “I have sinned grievously in not having been able to keep within bounds: I poured out bitterness on all sides. When I returned home, I was suddenly completely overwhelmed. I could find no comfort, and only sighed and cried” (99–100). He furthermore admitted to his rather foul temper when confronted by a friend about it: “I take it kindly of you to exhort me to moderation. I am perfectly aware that my temper is naturally inclined to violence” (100).

However, this same material shows Calvin pastorally and empathetically using his problems with anger to minister to a colleague beset by the same sin: “These counsels are given you by a man, who … is conscious of possessing a more vehement temper than he could wish” (100). Despite his own flaws, Calvin trusted God’s grace to preserve him in his life and service: “I trust that God out of his infinite goodness will permit me to persevere with unwavering patience in the path of his holy calling” (103).

Calhoun next takes the reader across the English Channel to participate vicariously in the lives of John Knox and John Bunyan. Incorporating material primarily from Knox’s semi-autobiographical History of the Reformation in Scotland, and his letters, the editor presents the reader with a multi-faceted figure—the fiery preacher of reform who personally confronted Mary, Queen of Scots, and the pastor who sympathetically counsels a distressed Christian as indicated in his correspondence with his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Aske Bowes in which he also disclosed his own vulnerabilities:

The office of the faith is to keep promises. God promises remission of sins to all that confess the same. I confess my sins for I see the filthiness of them, and how justly God could condemn me for my iniquities. I sob and lament that I cannot be quit and rid of sin. I desire to live a more perfect life. These are the infallible signs that God has remitted sin (124).

John Bunyan’s testimony runs through his copious works. Calhoun assembles significant portions from these writings to the portray the gradual, but definite transformation of a dissolute tinker from Bedford into a relentless preacher of the gospel of grace. Bunyan’s written accounts truly illustrate his own life as the Christian making his convoluted, but steady progress to the Celestial City, the subject of his most famous allegory.

Bunyan’s unwavering devotion to his vocation as a preacher of the gospel despite his imprisonment for pursuing without approval from the Church of England is eloquently, but bluntly expressed in the tinker’s response to the Justice of the Peace presiding over his case: “Sir, the law has provided two ways of obeying. The one to do that which I, in my conscience, do believe that I am bound to do, actively, and where I cannot obey actively, there am I willing to lie down, and to suffer what they shall do to me” (207).

In Their Own Words indeed provides an accessible gateway into the spiritual lives of those whom God sovereignly used to shape the faith of the Reformation. Moreover, it helps contemporary Christians see that these supposed “giants of the faith” constantly prostrated themselves before the God of grace amid intense spiritual struggles that in many ways differ from their own. This helpful anthology of testimonies could serve well as primary source material for courses in church history and biblical spirituality as well as an aid to personal devotions and small group Bible studies. Reading this work affords one the opportunity to be discipled by those having trod the pilgrim way before us.


Andre A. Gazal
Montana Bible College

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Banner of Truth, 2018 | 240 pages

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