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.


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.

What is the Mission of the Local Church?

What should our local church be doing? Is it missions? How about kids’ ministry, choir, youth programs? What do the people of God do when they come together? What is the mission of the Church?

With a nail, a hammer, and a document of 95 thesis, Martin Luther turned the world upside down in 1517 seeking in part to answer the question: “What does a local church do?”. He knew that the local churches of his day exported religious vice and wickedness to the medieval world. The gospel seldom appeared in church, the clergy at all levels lacked biblical knowledge, and the sacraments were twisted into graceless works the little resembled the teachings of Scripture. Luther started out to reform the church seeking to answer the question what does the local church do.

The History

Since 325 A.D, the church has defined itself as the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church. The local church was defined as being a church that submitted to the Bishop Rome, which was made holy by Christ through salvation, that was universally recognizable, and that was founded on the teaching of the apostles which was often interpreted and expanded upon by church officials.

jj-jordan-140710-unsplash.jpgLuther and Reformers redefined these historical terms to better reflect the gospel. The Reformers claimed that the church was one under Christ. All who were saved were saved by Christ to be part of the church. They believed that church should be holy; it should be composed of those who had been redeemed by Christ and who were being sanctified. They agreed to the catholic nature of the church. But they did not believe all churches had to look the same and practice the same liturgy. Rather, they claimed the church was catholic in its timelessness. All true churches in all ages were viewed as being part of the universal church. And they believed the church was apostolic. But the Reformers believed that the apostolic nature of the church should be limited to the teaching of the apostles. Solo Scriptura, Scripture Alone.

The Reformers sought to clearly divide themselves from the Catholic Church by adding two more marks to the definition of the local church. The Reformers said the local church should rightly administer the sacraments and preach the Word.

The Answer

Now back to our question. What does the local church do?

The local church comprised of holy believers who have been united to the universal church by salvation in Christ Jesus preach the Word and administer the sacraments correctly. For a group of believers to be a church, they must preach the Word and practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

John Calvin plainly said,

Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.

What about kids’ ministry, Super Youth Sundays, the choir, missions, singing, and prayer? All of those things begin and flow from the preaching of the Word and from the sacraments. You can have church without them. But you cannot have a church apart from the preaching of the Word and apart from the Sacraments.

Paul tells Timothy:

 “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Tm 4:13-16). 

Do we want to have a healthy God glorifying church? Do we want to reach young families, encourage the old, and bless the new converts? Then, we preach the Word. Paul tells us we keep a close watch on our doctrine on the truth of the Bible and teach it to others.

What saves people? What makes our church look attractive to lost world? What breathes new life into the exhausted and crumbling congregation? It is the Word of God. The preaching of the Word of God is central to all that we do. The Holy Spirit works through his Word to redeem the lost and to sanctify the redeemed.

Christ is the Word become flesh.

John 1:1-4 states:

 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

To know Christ, to experience him, revive our hearts through his presence, we must preach the Word. As Jesus says in John 17:17, “Sanctify them in truth; your word is truth.”  The church must be dedicated to the proclamation of the Word.

How is the done? The Word is proclaimed and taught through every element of the service. Pastor Mark Dever rightly notes,

Everything teaches, whether you intend it to or not. The songs teach people doctrine and proper affections for God. Your prayers (or lack of them) teach people how to pray themselves. The kinds of prayers you pray or don’t pray) teach people about the important difference between prayers of adoration confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. The way you administer the ordinances teaches people about their meaning and even the very meaning of the Gospel. You preaching teachers people how to study and use the Bible appropriately. Everything from the call to worship to the benediction counts as teaching. Teaching is everything.

Everything the local church does begins and ends with the Word of God. Singing, prayer, and evangelism are all driven by our understanding of the Word of God. The songs that we sing reflect what we believe about the Bible. The prayers that we pray reflect our understanding of God and ourselves. Our passion and methods for reaching the lost are driven by our understanding of what the Bible says about salvation. All the other functions of the local Church can only exist if the Word is fully, accurately, and faithfully preached.  And all the other functions of the church help with the preaching and dissemination of the Word. In short, if we get Sunday morning preaching wrong, we will work in vain to fix our church. The struggling church does not have a discipleship, outreach, or kids’ ministry problem. It has gospel proclamation problem.

Martin Luther notes,

Outwardly he deals with us through the preached Word, or the gospel, and through the visible signs of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Inwardly, he deals with us through the Holy Spirit and faith. But this is always in such a way and in this order that the outward means must precede the inward means.

If a local church hopes to be filled with the Holy Spirit and wishes the world to be changed by Christ, that assembly of believers must preach the Word.

Any local church that does not preach the Word is not a church. Religious clothing, sacraments, stain glass windows, and the sacraments alone do not make a group of people a local church. Religious minded people can have and do all these things and never preach the gospel. They cease to be a church when they preach a different gospel proclaiming salvation through other names, deeming sins to be acceptable, and demanding good works in the place of grace. Paul writes in Galatians 1:8

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”

The one true, holy, catholic, apostolic church preaches the one true gospel.

Our Motivation: The Glory of God 

Why do we do this? Why should the church be passionate about preaching the Word?

The local church should be passionate about the Word because Christ is only present where the Word is preached. And we as the people of God can only expand the kingdom of God through the power of Christ. Moses nails this truth on its head in Exodus 33 when he says,

And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”

What makes the people of God distinct? What makes our local church distinct from every other social group? It is the presence of God via the Holy Spirit who works through the words of God as revealed in the Scriptures. The local church desperately needs God.

When the church fails to value the Word’s of God, God will not be present. And when the church ceases to experience the supernatural presence of God decay sets in. When the church cares more about tradition, cultural acceptance, and political power than about glorifying God, God will leave the church. James McDonald rightfully notes,

God will quickly withdraw His favor where sin is ignored or avoided and difficult people are coddled instead of confronted in love.

The local church should be about the preaching of the Word because she desires to experience the presence and power of God. Apart from Him, the local church can do nothing. And with Him the local church can do everything.

What does the local church do?

The local church preaches the word and rightly performs the sacraments (more on that soon!)

When Kids Don’t Like Kids’ Ministry

kidsWords can be painful. The words that solidify the rejection of your ministry can be particularly piercing. I do not enjoying hearing kids, parents, and grandparents condemning my ministry as irrelevant, dull or worst of all…. boring. My heart does not rejoice when a kid walks in our church doors and then spins around to walk out a moment later declaring that, “I don’t like your church”

But as painful as those words and sentiments can be, they are necessary consequence of the gospel. When children walk into our churches, most of them have a worship problem. I am do not mean that the like the wrong type of worship music. I am not against baby rappers or baby washboard players. They do not have a Sunday morning worship problem or a Wednesday not issue. They have a heart worship problem. The little souls that come to our churches arrive fully in love with themselves and the world. They come wanting us, our programs, and our whole church structure to make much of them.

I John 2:15 says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

This is the condition of our kids. They are unregenerate little people who worship things other than God.

Consequently, they do not want to be reminded of their sin, of their need for a savior, and of their insignificance. They want fun children’s church programs that continue on until they are finished with college. They want to be entertained with great music and pool noodles. They want to leave having been made much of. If we give them a program centered around their desires, they will thank us and praise us.

But we will have not done our kids a favor. We will have harmed them. Instead of using Sunday to help our kids grasp the majesty and wonder of God and their insignificance, we have used Sunday to feed their fleshly desires. We have used Sunday to hide them from the truth that life is all about obeying and following God.

The point of worship on Sunday is not to make much of us. We gather together to make much of God. We should not pick songs and compose messages that reflect our kids. We need to pick songs that reflect who God is and what God has said. As one theologian said,

Men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance until they have contrasted themselves against the majesty of God.”

Our goal should be to get kids to God through talking about who Jesus is. When we do so, we will not always be loved. Once a child rated our Sunday school program with the following remark, “I hate it here.” His one star review is not alone. We lost another child because a ministry across town had better snacks. And, another child will not even darken our doors because we encourage kids to attend boring big church.

At the end of the day, these kids do not have problem with our church. They have a worship problem. When they realize that the church will not funnel kindling onto their fire of their self-centered alter, they stay away. Those who worship themselves and the world cannot worship God at the same time.

How Should We Respond?

We keep preaching the gospel. We keep pointing kids to Christ. If Christ changes their hearts, those little souls will love those who make of God. They will love the things of God. And the best and only way to facilitate heart change in little sinners is to preach the gospel.

Second, we need to listen. We need to hear their story. In the story above, the little man hated Sunday school because he did not like listening to Bible stories. He disliked the very gospel that we are commanded to preach. His rejection was confirmation that his teacher was preaching truth.

Others may dislike our programs because another kid is picking on them when no one is looking. They may find our church boring because our teachers our unprepared. If these things are happening, we need to address them. We need to be certain that we have not offended them.

But if the gospel offends them, there is little we can do. Our allegiance is not to the kids that come to our church nor to their families. Our allegiance is to Christ. Our savior is a stumbling block and an unlikable conundrum to those who are perishing. Unregenerate kids our no different than unregenerate adults. They do not like the gospel.

While we should not welcome such opposition, we must realize it will come. And we must be willing to offend the sensibilities of these little souls for their eternity hangs in the balance. We must preach Jesus both in season and out of season. Are you ready?