A Brief Introduction to the life and Legacy of John Calvin

On November 1, 1533, theological controversy erupted once again in connection with All Saints Day. But instead of Germany, this drama occurred in Paris, France.

Sixteen years and a day earlier, the well-intentioned and at the time somewhat naïve monk, Martin Luther, had nailed his 95 Theses or questions to the door of the Wittenberg chapel. With that document, Luther had hoped to combat the idea that men and women could earn salvation through good works or even through the purchase of a piece of paper called an indulgence. Sadly for him and Christendom, the Pope rejected Luther’s calls for reform. After a meandering series of accusations, book burnings, and councils, the Catholic Church excommunicated Luther, forcing the monk to retreat into Germany for the purpose of creating a church that would once again champion the historic faith of Jesus and the apostles which declared salvation to be by grace alone through faith alone.

A Quick Biography

By 1533, Luther’s reformation had taken hold of Germany and parts of Switzerland. But little of Luther’s light had penetrated the spiritual darkness that had enveloped the nation of France. John Calvin would later note, he  grew up, “obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery.” He began college intent on becoming an officer of the Catholic Church. But as he progressed in his studies, Calvin’s father directed the young scholar away from the church and into law for to quote Calvin the profession “commonly raised those who followed it to wealth.” After turning his back on theology, Calvin somewhat ironically came into contact with the writings of Luther and other reformer’s books which had just begun to eke across the French boarder. While reading, Calvin experienced a sudden conversion which would reshape his life. Calvin wrote, “Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein.” Though he finished his legal studies and excelled at that profession, the doctrines of grace had captured his heart.

Because he maintained a stringent academic regime which began around 6AM and ended about midnight, Calvin quickly earned the reputation of being an expert in both reformed and biblical theology. When his friend Nicolas Chop decided to educate academics in Paris on the errors of works salvation in the middle of an All-Saints Day speech, he asked Calvin for help. While the extent of Calvin’s involvement in the speech remains debated by scholars, its poor reception could not be questioned. Much like Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517, Calvin’s and Chop’s calls for reform in 1533 were forcefully opposed by the Catholic Church. A few days after the speech’s conclusion, officers were sent to arrest Calvin. But he got wind of the plot and a using a blanket rope escaped out of high window. He scurried off to southern France.

A few months later on October 18, 1534, posters appeared all over France including outside the door of king Francis the 1st’s bedroom, denouncing “the horrible, great, and unbearable abuse of the papal mass.” The king was not amused and responded to the documents with swift persecution, burning 32 protestants at the stake. Grasping that France had no stomach for the Reformed faith, Calvin fled his homeland and headed to Italy, seeking to begin a private life of study and reflection. After some time, he decided to relocate to the city of Basle.

But before he could get to his destination, international politics interrupted his travels and forced him to spend an unexpected night in Geneva. What appeared to be simply another mundane night in Calvin’s life was suddenly interrupted by the arrival of the loud, headstrong, and somewhat flamboyant protestant preacher, William Farel. For the next hour or so, Farel begged the young reformer of 26 years to lead the Genevan church. Calvin politely declined, saying, “My heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies.” Farel was not to be put off. Calvin reports what happened next. “Upon this, Farel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me.” Before all was said and done, Farel would call down a curse on the young Calvin, proclaiming, “You are following only your own wishes, and I declare, in the name of God Almighty, that if you do not assist us in this work of the Lord, the Lord will punish you for seeking your own interest rather than his.” The threat struck home. Calvin said, “I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken.”

Though Farel undoubtedly overstated his case and would continue to make brash decisions such as marrying a sixteen-year-old girl in his fifties, God had ordained this expression of Farel’s audacity for the benefit of the Genevan church and for all of Christendom.

God would use Calvin’s presence in Geneva to stabilize and preserve the faith once delivered for all. While Luther deserves credit for rediscovering and popularizing the gospel, Calvin’s should be celebrated for preserving the faith that Luther unearthed from the destructive rays of societal chaos, political egotism, and doctrinal confusion. Calvin proves important to the church today because his books, sermons, and tracts have provided Christians with a great understanding of theology, preaching, and pastoral ministry.

Calvin the Theologian

Calvin wrote and wrote. Through his hundreds of books, he gifted the church a library of accessible volumes that have helped Christians understand the important doctrines of the faith.  By hand and sometimes by dictation, Calvin created commentaries on most of the New Testament. He died before he could get to 2 and 3 John and Revelation. He also published a catechism, sermons, and most famously his Institutes of Christian Religion. Though few have read this book that rivals the size of the Old Testament in its entirety, the volume continues to inform Christian thought for Calvin methodically discussed a host of Christian doctrines. He touched upon everything from the Lord’s Supper to Guardian Angels, to natural revelation to prayer. Perhaps most famously, he solidified the protestant church’s understanding of the fallenness of man, the saving power of Grace, and the providence of God.

After reading the Scriptures, Calvin concluded that men and women entered the world broken by original sin. When Adam sinned both he and all his descendants became sinners. Calvin writes, “the whole man is overwhelmed – as by a deluge – from head to foot, so that no part is immune from sin and all that proceeds from him is to be imputed as sin (ICR, 2.1.9).” Because men and women were chained to sin, they could not choose anything good. By necessity, evil people with corrupt wills would want and would choose evil. Calvin writes, “The mind of man has been so completely estranged from God’s righteousness that it conceives, desires, and undertakes, only that which is impious, perverted, foul, impure, and infamous.” As Augustine and Luther, Calvin denied that men and women had the willful freedom to choose good. Sin served like a weighted anchor upon the soul directing people towards evil. According to Calvin, people legitimately choose to do evil apart from coercion as it was all they would ever want to choose.

When God saved a sinner, he accomplished the feat through the gracious opening of the sinner’s eyes to the realities of sin and to the glories of Christ. Once aware of the truth of the gospel, men and women can do nothing but believe. It is the necessary response to the saving power of God. Just as a woman with a foreclosure notice on her front door will undoubtedly cash a check for a billion dollars, the enlighten soul willingly repents and believes when exposed to the saving grace of Jesus. In other words, people do not so much choose God as God chooses them. Calvin writes, “For no man makes himself a sheep but is made one by heavenly grace.” In other words, men and women repent and believe according to God’s grace, his irresistible grace. Calvin concludes, “To sum up: by free adoption God makes those whom he wills to be his sons; the intrinsic cause of this is himself, for he is content with his own secret good pleasure.”

This doctrine has left Calvin open to the charge of hyper-Calvinism or fatalism, a type of let go and let God mentality. Proponents of this thinking say that since God has already determined the future, they do not have to evangelize, love others, or do anything to advance the gospel. God is going to save whom he is going to save. Though some churches have taught hyper-Calvinism, Calvin did not teach this doctrine.

He believed God’s providential plans occurred through our willing hearts. In other words, God does all that he desires and so do we. When God ordains events, he does so in ways consistent with our wills. While God ordained that Joseph would be sold into slavery so that he could ultimately save his family, God did not make Joseph’s brothers go against their natural desires to toss Joseph into a pit. God worked through their evil wills to accomplish his divine plan which was good.

The doctrine of providence should not lead people to fatalistic despair or laziness. Human actions were and are still meaningful. Providence does not erase human responsibility. Rather it should fill our hearts with hope. After noting that you or I could die from a host of causes ranging from a snakebite, to a fall, to an animal attack,  to a hail storm, to a falling shingle, or to a mugging, Calvin writes of the Christian, “it comforts him to know that he has been received into God’s safekeeping and entrusted to the care of his angels, and that neither water, nor fire, nor iron can harm him except in so far as it pleases God as governor to give them occasion.” If God reigns, we have no reason to fear for God does good for us.  

Calvin The Preacher

Though Calvin loved theology, he did not think it the discipline of scholars. He wanted it to reside in the hearts of everyday people. To accomplish this goal, Calvin preached, a lot. During his life, John Calvin preached more than 2000 sermons, devoting 65 sermons to the gospels, 159 sermons to Job, and 200 sermons to Deuteronomy. When Calvin returned to Geneva after having been exiled because he got mad at the City Council and locked them out of the church on Easter Sunday, Calvin returned to the Psalm that he was preaching when he had left the city, picking up at the very verse he had left off years before. Geneva contained three churches and the pastoral staff consisting of four additional preachers and three associates that worked along-side of Calvin. The men would preach at least twenty sermons a week in the various churches. Calvin preached twice on Sunday and then every weekday on alternating weeks. His Sunday sermons featured expositions from the New Testament or the Psalms. On weekdays, he would preach through the Old Testament.

Calvin valued expository preaching because he believed it to be the method by which God saved and sanctified the lost. He said, “Faith needs the Word as much as fruit needs the living root of the tree.” The preaching of the Word also sustained Christians after conversion. Calvin wrote, “The…Word is the basis whereby faith is supported and sustained…take away the Word and no faith will remain.” Calvin firmly believed the success of the church and the success of all the Reformation reforms would rise and fall with the preaching of the word. If a local church lost the citadel of biblical preaching every other ministry would fall in short order. To remain, a church must preach the word.

Understanding the importance of preaching, Calvin reserved the pulpit for qualified men. To get a church in Geneva or one of its country parishes, a man had to possess a godly character, knowledge of the Scriptures, and be a competent speaker. Calvin concluded, “There are two things required [of us preachers], first that we provide a good explanation to the faithful of that which is required of salvation, and then we add as much vehemence as appropriate, so that the doctrine touches and enlivens the hearts.” The sermon was supposed to be the means whereby the fallen heart connected with the Holy Spirit. This experience in-turn would result in spiritual transformation. It was the means by which pastors moved people to obey Christ through the power of the Spirit.  

Calvin passed on the core tenants of the Reformation through expository preaching. He taught scores of succeeding generations of Christians the means and methods of faithful, gospel exposition.

Calvin the Counselor

Lastly, Calvin gave the church a legacy of pastoral care that demanded that those who studied theology and preached the sermons regularly step out of the pulpit and into the lives of their congregation. To help the people of Geneva live out what they heard preached, Calvin ordered his fellow pastors to join him in spending time in the homes of their congregation. He wrote, “It is not enough for a pastor in God’s church to preach and to cast his words into the air, he must practice private admonitions.” Calvin and his fellow pastors visited every church member at least four times during the year to discuss theology, to pray for them, and to verify their church attendance.

If the visits revealed sin’s in the church members life, the pastors would call their counselee to repentance. For example when Calvin discovered through the visitation process that the sailor Jacque Verna was soliciting his daughter-in-law for unwholesome favors, he ordered him to stop and when he learned a mother was beating and burning her step-daughter he reported her to the local magistrates. Calvin and his fellow pastor also provided for the poor, counseled with those in jail, and care for the sick. If someone was bedridden for three days, a pastor would visit them to, “console them according to the Word of God.” When the plague hit Geneva in between 1542-44, the pastor’s struggled in assessing the situation. But before the plague left, two of Geneva’s pastors would die from the plague after catching germs from the sick people they had visited. According to Calvin, the faithful pastor was to know the scriptures well, was to love the pulpit, and was to invest in the lives of his congregation.

Conclusion

Calvin’s theological legacy is both complex and rich. Regardless of whether you agree with his conclusions, modern church members should appreciate Calvin’s faithfulness. Through his theological writings, his preaching, and his pastoral counsel, he provided future generations of Christians with the tools they needed to both understand and pass on the fundamentals of the Christian faith to future generations. The Faith once delivered for all that Luther discovered and popularized, Calvin institutionalized. When he died on May 27, 1564, he left behind a legacy of faithfulness worthy of our remembrance.

Lloyd-Jones, Cultural Problems, and the Power of the Gospel

The following article was published on the Credo Magazine Blog. If you have not visited the Credo website or listened to their podcast, I encourage you explore both!

The explosion of the German V1 rocket shook the spine of the historic Westminster Chapel, jolting the congregation to its feet. Seconds earlier, the rumble of the rocket’s engine had forced the pastor, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, to pause his prayer. But as the plaster dust from the ceiling settled on top of his pulpit and black robe, Lloyd-Jones returned to his conversation with God.

At its conclusion, he allowed Mrs. Marsh to dust off both his robe and the pulpit. He also encouraged those perturbed by the blast to sit underneath the gallery for protection. He then proceeded on with the service with no more regard for the rockets. This brief picture of the Doctor’s preaching ministry encapsulated the Welsh Pastor’s understanding of how ministers should relate to the world of politics and culture. Lloyd-Jones believed God had commissioned pastors within the context of the local church to preach the gospel. It alone could cure sin and deliver men and women from the fear of death.

The Difference Between Sin and Sins

Throughout his career, Lloyd-Jones faced calls to address the political and social concerns of his day which encompassed everything from birth control to nuclear warfare. Though he carried around many firm political opinions within the folds of his black suits, he resolutely refused to share his political perspective on Sunday because he thought the fundamental problem facing humanity was ‘sin’ and not ‘sins.’

Though he carried around many firm political opinions, he resolutely refused to share his political perspective on Sunday because he thought the fundamental problem facing humanity was ‘sin’ and not ‘sins.’

The Doctor understood the term “sin” to encompass the effects of the fall, men and women’s separation from God and the ensuing pollution of their souls. Though restrained somewhat by God’s common grace, unredeemed men and women walked about the world in spiritual ignorance, lacking the ability to understand God and to do good. Because of the fall, men and women committed ‘sins,’ particular expressions of evil in time and space.

In the Doctor’s mind, political and social institutions such as the U.N, the English Parliament, and the trade unions dealt with sins as they sought to end wars, pass just laws, and advocate for fair wages. Though such endeavors were not inherently bad and deserved the support of individual Christians, the Doctor believed they would always prove inadequate. They treated only the symptoms of the sin and not sin itself. Despite the efforts of the philosophers and the politicians, sin remained fully entrenched in the human heart, pumping out sins that would continue to wreck both the individual and the institutions he or she occupied. To make matters worse, the Devil also avidly stirred humans towards sins and blinded them to truth. Humanity faced a spiritual pandemic it could not cure.

The Doctor concluded, “If any man could have saved us, the incarnation would not have taken place.”

Sin’s Antidote: The Gospel of Jesus

To save the world from sins, pastors had to move past sins and deal with the root problem, sin. Thankfully, God had designed the Church to proclaim the gospel specifically for this purpose. The Doctor noted:

That is the business of the gospel, not to be spending its time in treating the symptoms but to tell the world about the one and only remedy that can cure the disease which is the cause of all our local and particular problems.

When men and women responded to the good news of salvation, they gained liberation from sin and could overcome the sins in their hearts through the power of the gospel. The Doctor regularly witnessed transformation as he preached the Word. Drunks abandoned their liquor bottles, young widows found comfort in the midst of tears, and discouraged pastors found the hope needed to reascend their pulpit stairs. Lloyd-Jones believed such responses were normal because every human event from the death of Winston Churchill to the Cold War could be explained through the Bible’s redemptive narrative that chronicled the creation, fall, redemption, and new creation of humanity. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the “unique message of the Church,” transformed the human heart which could in-turn transform political and social institutions.

To change the world, pastors did not have to march in protests or speak at political rallies. In fact, the Doctor disliked the “pastor politician.” Lloyd-Jones believed the pastor politician’s constant denunciation of communism and other groups resulted in the “shutting of the evangelistic door upon that section.” Rather to improve the world, pastors needed only to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and the apostles and preach the gospel. The Word of God changed lives.

A Word of Caution

Despite the efforts of the philosophers and the politicians, sin remained fully entrenched in the human heart, pumping out sins that would continue to wreck both the individual and the institutions he or she occupied.

But even at this juncture, the Doctor’s optimism remained muted. Though he believed in, advocated for, and dreamed of revival, the Welsh pastor did not believe any pastor, denomination, or revivalist could usher in an era of perfect social harmony or world peace. Lloyd-Jones believed humanity would devolve until Christ returned. He wrote, “The Apocalypse alone can cure the world’s ills.” For this reason, even the inspiring movements of faith that came out of the First and Second Great Awakenings proved fleeting. The local church could not Christianize the world. The recreation of the world was the special purview of Jesus.

Until Christ returned to judge the living and the dead, the world would continue to know of divorce, wars, and every other social ill. Christians could expect to be marginalized and to experience persecution. But even in this world of gloom, Christians did not have to fear their neighbors, society, political institutions, or anything else under heaven. Their salvation and eternal destiny remained secure. The Doctor said,

Let your hurricanes come one after the other, and all together it will make no difference. Let men set off all their bombs in the whole universe at the same time, this inheritance remains solid, durable, everlasting, eternal.

Though tomorrow might fail the Christian, eternity would far surpass the believer’s expectations.

Conclusion

Prudence demands that historians, pastors, and the average reader should not attempt to insert Lloyd-Jones into twenty-first century discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement, the Coronavirus pandemic, or the storming of the U.S. Capital by rioters. We have no special insights into what the Doctor would have thought about such things.

But of this we can be sure. The man who preached Christ while bombs fell out of the sky would never abandon the gospel and devote his pulpit to the advancement of social causes. The Scriptures spoke to the needs of every age. As the Doctor noted, the gospel, “alone deals with our fundamental need.” Jesus saves.

Finding Clarity in Confusion: Understanding Lloyd-Jones’s 1966 Address

The following was published at Credo Magazine which is an excellent theological resource for scholar, pastors, and lay readers! I highly encourage you to visit their sight.

Confusion hung over the crowd of the Second National Assembly of Evangelicals like a cloud of secondhand smoke. Moments earlier, the famed pastor D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones had appealed for the creation of a new evangelical association. He believed an evangelical exodus from mainline denominations would facilitate “a mighty revival and re-awakening.” As he brought his appeal to an end, everyone seemed to know what was expected of him or her. The evangelical leader John Stott shared this impression believing his audience would “go home and write their letter of resignation that very night.” Fearing that this assembly which had been formed to further ecumenicism was about to condemn ecumenicism, Stott broke professional protocol and proclaimed, “I believe history is against what Dr. Lloyd-Jones has said…Scripture is against him, the remnant was within the church not outside of it. I hope no one will act precipitately.”

The battle had been engaged. Yet few in attendance could clearly articulate why these two leaders of British evangelicalism had exchanged blows. Both seemingly advocated for the gospel, the supremacy of the Scriptures, and unity. Yet they had both just thrown verbal punches at one another. The crowd was confused. Historians and theologians are still confused about what happened.

Much of the confusion over what had transpired on October 18, 1966 centered upon the content of Lloyd-Jones’s now famous speech “Evangelical Unity: An Appeal.” Stott and the evangelical press of the day believed that the Doctor’s speech “should be interpreted as calling for evangelicals to leave mixed denominations.” They believed Lloyd-Jones was schismatic, working against the unifying influences that had risen to prominence in British evangelicalism during the 1960s.

By contrast, the supporters of the Doctor believed Lloyd-Jones had offered a positive appeal that had little to do with the creation of a new denomination. His grandson and historian, Christopher Catherwood, concluded, “The doctor was arguing for unity, not for division or schism.” The debate over whether or not Lloyd-Jones was a unifier or schismatic still smolders in more than one evangelical fire pit and will not be put out anytime soon.

Though many scholars huddle about the fires that seek to illuminate the Doctor’s intentions, little effort has been devoted to understanding why Lloyd-Jones’s speech proved confusing. While scholars have credited Stott, the evangelical press, and Lloyd-Jones with igniting the fire of controversy, they have not examined why Lloyd-Jones’s 1966 address was so ready for the kindling.

Why the Confusion?

Lloyd-Jones’s address lacked clarity in part because it lacked Scripture. Though Lloyd-Jones believed evangelicalism had reached a “most critical moment” in 1966, he approached this monumental time with only a partially open Bible. He referenced the Word of God twice during his speech, mentioning Acts 2:42 and the “First Epistle to the Corinthians.” He spent more time discussing the Reformation than exegeting the Word of God. Consequently, J.I. Packer would conclude the Doctor had contended for a kind of Puritanism. Other listeners believed the Doctor had been consumed with denominational concerns. Catherwood wrote his grandfather had placed “his emphasis on structure rather than doctrine.” The Doctor had been misunderstood because he stood upon logic and church history instead of the Scriptures. Because of this mistake, he suffered the loss of both friends and influence.

The Lessons of Failure

Pastors, theologians, and lay leaders should take note of Lloyd-Jones’s failure. The man who had devoted his life to glorifying God through sermons designed “to make doctrine real to the heart and therefore permanently life-changing” had stepped out from underneath the shadow of the Scriptures. Without the Word of God, the Doctor’s logic and knowledge of church history proved to be as vibrant as a water-soaked piece of charcoal.

If Christians wonder into ecclesial, social, or political spheres without the Scriptures, they too risk being misunderstood by their listeners. Such presentations may win some adherents in the moment, but they will not advance the gospel, strengthen the Church, or edify local congregations. Lloyd-Jones correctly noted, “You cannot build up a church on apologetics, still less on polemics. The preacher is called primarily to preach the positive Truth.” The Christian’s ability to influence others rests upon his or her ability to exegete and teach the gospel. The Christian has no other power. The people of God must ground their arguments in the Word if they hope to influence hearts.

Lloyd-Jones: A Man of the Scriptures

In many respects, Lloyd-Jones would recover from the wounds of the 1966 controversy because he never wandered far from the Scriptures. Over the course of his life, he lived by the maxim, “Any doctrine that we claim to believe from the Bible must always clearly be found in the Bible.” Three years after the controversy of 1966, the Welsh pastor delivered perhaps his most famous lectures in Philadelphia. These addresses would later be edited and published under the title, Preaching and Preachers. His influence did not stop with this volume. Crossway and Banner of Truth continue to release new editions of his sermons and lectures which cover everything from Romans to the Psalms to the theology of parenting. He was a profoundly biblical man. As his daughter Elizabeth Catherwood noted, “He read his Bible regularly. He knew it and loved it. At the very end, when he couldn’t speak, he would point to verses out of it.” The Doctor remains a fixture upon the evangelical mantel because he loved the Word.

Lloyd-Jones, the Scriptures and 1966

Even his 1966 address had been sparked by his earlier exegetical work. Many of the arguments the Doctor put forward in 1966 had appeared in a booklet he wrote in 1962. In those pages, Lloyd-Jones built his understanding of ecumenicism upon his exegesis of John 17 and Ephesians 4. The booklet restated the conclusions of numerous exegetical sermons he had preached at Westminster Chapel in the 1940s and 1950s. Though Lloyd-Jones shared only his logical conclusions in 1966, they were conclusions that had been extracted from the Scriptures. He had not abandoned his principles. Rather, he had forgotten to fully share them. This oversight doomed the Doctor’s address.

The Scriptures clarify and empower our thoughts; our thoughts do not clarify and empower the Scriptures. Regardless of the Christian’s training, intellect, and persuasiveness, nothing can compensate for the absence of the plain and powerful words of the Scriptures. As Lloyd-Jones said in 1969, “What matters is not the man or his ideas: it should always be this Word, for it alone is the sources of the preacher’s authority.” May God keep us grounded in this Word.