This August, during our summer holiday in Europe, my family and I enjoyed a day out in Geneva. It was instructive.
In the morning, we visited St Peter’s Church, where John Calvin preached regularly during his years there as pastor. In the afternoon, we went on a tour of the United Nations offices, located towards the northern end of the city.
It struck me later that there are some interesting comparisons between the two visits.
Better to talk than fight
Take the UN first. The architecture is very grand – matching the budget (one billion dollars per year) and the aims of the organisation.
We were confidently told that the UN existed to uphold human rights, resolve conflicts between states, help refugees, promote the health and education of children, and generally facilitate international co-operation across a whole variety of activities.
We heard of the different agencies and institutions that have been set up to work towards these commendable goals. We saw the enormous meeting rooms and extensive facilities that are available for these purposes.
It all seemed – and no doubt is – very worthy. Without question much good is done through these means. After all, it is better that nations talk, even if to little purpose, than fight.
The root of the problem
Compare this with Calvin’s work, nearly five hundred years earlier. He had no well-staffed offices, no large budget to fund his work. His church, though not particularly small, is dwarfed by the UN buildings.
His main tool was not international diplomacy – he had no power to mount peace-keeping exercises or co-ordinate international crisis containment. What did he do?
He preached. He preached ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’. He preached the whole counsel of God, from the Word of God, in the power of the Spirit of God.
But isn’t that puny and insignificant, compared with the might and grandeur of the UN? It may appear so, but the interesting point is this. It is Calvin, not the UN, who really got to the root of the problems of the human race.
And it is Calvin (and others like him) who present a real solution to those problems, rather than the UN.
Great themes, good news
All the intractable problems that the UN tries to deal with – war and its dreadful effects, disease, poverty, injustice – have their root, ultimately, in sin – in mankind’s insistence on doing things its way instead of God’s.
They stem from our refusal to bow the knee to Jesus Christ and acknowledge him to be the Lord of all creation.
And this is precisely the issue that Calvin addressed so faithfully and so effectively, as he studied and proclaimed the teaching of the Bible.
He brought the Word of God to bear on the sinful hearts of men and women. As they heard him, sadly, some were hardened further in their sinfulness. But many were delivered from the guilt and power of their sin.
They became new men and women as they received with faith the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ – forgiveness of sins, freedom from slavery to sin, cleansing of the conscience, reconciliation with God, eternal life.
These are the great themes that the world needs to hear again, loud and clear. No doubt the UN is doing a good and necessary work. But it cannot reach the root of the problems it is trying to address.
Only the gospel of Jesus Christ does that.