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.