I recently asked a small group what they knew about John Calvin. A young man piped up: “We don’t like him.” It is unfortunate that some hold a dismissive and bitter attitude towards Calvin. Arminius dissented from Calvin’s theology at key points, but he celebrated Calvin’s commentaries and maintained a charitable attitude. John Wesley repudiated some of Calvin’s theology, but he recognized his contributions to Christian thought. Wesley famously wrote, “I think on justification just as I have done any time these seven and twenty years, and just as Mr. Calvin does. In this respect I do not differ from him a hair’s breadth.”
Without compromising our doctrines or distinctives, we can learn much from Calvin and his role in Reformation history. By many accounts, Calvin was an extraordinary brother in the Lord.
The Early Years: Discovering The Faith of the Reformation
On July 10, 1509, Jean (John) Calvin was born in Roman Catholic France to a staunch Catholic family. His father was a secretary for the local bishop and wanted John to be a priest. John was sent to Paris to study to enter the priesthood but, due to a lack of finances, was urged to pursue law instead. Although Calvin disliked law, he excelled in all of his studies, including Latin and philosophy, because of his sharp mind and sober, studious personality.
It was at university in Paris that John was first exposed to reform-minded people. The teachings of Luther were trickling throughout the educated world and Calvin, a disciplined scholar, was curious about theology and eager to learn more. Convinced by the evangelical faith, he risked his life and future to consort with objectors to the Catholic church. Calvin was forced to flee Paris. Several of his friends were later executed.
At some point during this period, likely in 1532 or 1533, Calvin was converted. He describes the experience in the foreword to his commentary on the Psalms: “God subdued my heart to docility, which had become hardened against the truth of the gospel.” The doctrine of justification by faith preached by Martin Luther had reached a young man in Catholic France.
1533-1535: Making His Mark as a Reformer
At odds with the Catholic church, Calvin went into hiding. For the next three years, he lived outside of France under various names. He continued studying, writing, and teaching. While staying in Basel, Switzerland, a German-speaking Reformation town, Calvin wrote the first edition of his most important work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. He was 27 years old.
Referring to The Institutes, Calvin commented, “I labored at the task especially for our Frenchmen, for I saw that many were hungering and thirsting after Christ and yet that only a few had any real knowledge of him.” “If you want to change the world,” Martin Luther once said, “pick up your pen and write” — this was certainly true of Calvin.
The Institutes was written as an introduction for those interested in the evangelical faith; it aimed to outline “the whole sum of godliness and whatever it is necessary to know about saving doctrine.” This seminal work sold out in nine months and put Calvin on the map. Calvin’s work resonated with Reformation supporters all over the world, including a man named William Farel in the town of Geneva, Switzerland.
1536-38: Fleeing France, Finding Geneva
Having cut his ties with Catholicism, Calvin decided to leave France permanently. He set out for Strasbourg, Germany where he could work in peace and obscurity as a scholar. Due to a military roadblock, Calvin was forced to make an unscheduled stop in Geneva. He never expected this one-night detour to be the beginning of a long and difficult relationship with the city in Switzerland.
William Farel, the man leading the Reformation in Geneva, was desperate for assistance. He heard that Calvin had stopped in town and threatened the wrath of God upon Calvin if he did not stay. Farel promised that God would curse Calvin’s quiet, scholarly life if he ignored the need for a pastor in Geneva. Calvin later reflected, “I felt as if God from heaven had laid his mighty hand upon me to stop me in my course—and I was so terror stricken that I did not continue my journey.” After 18 miserable months he and Farel were forced out of the city due to opposition from civilian mobs and the Council of Geneva. Calvin went on to Strasbourg as he had originally intended.
The next few years were some of the happiest of Calvin’s life. He put the burdensome months at Geneva behind him, was married to a faithful woman, and carried out a fulfilling ministry. He had no intentions of ever going back.
1541-1564: The Return to Geneva
In 1541, the Council of Geneva asked Calvin to return. In one letter, Calvin said that he would rather die once on a cross than again suffer daily in Geneva. Reflecting on his first two years there, Calvin wrote: “This I can truly testify, that not a day passed in which I did not long for death ten times over…There is no place under heaven that I am more afraid of.”
But when I remember that I am not my own, I offer up my heart and present it as a sacrifice to the Lord.
Despite all of this, Calvin felt God calling him. He wrote, “But when I remember that I am not my own, I offer up my heart and present it as a sacrifice to the Lord.” Submissive to the will of the Lord, Calvin retuned to pastor there until his death on May 27, 1564.
In total, Calvin preached over 2,000 sermons in Geneva. In addition to his many other pastoral labors, he wrote incessantly, publishing treatises and commentaries on almost every book of the Bible. In 1559, Calvin’s final edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion was published. Originally six chapters, it was now nearly 80 chapters in four books.
Despite excruciating pain from bladder stones, gout, lung hemorrhages, and migraines, Calvin labored rigorously to the very end. One year after Calvin’s death, a biographer wrote “…he forced himself to go out sometimes…chiefly to lecture and even to preach, having himself carried to church in a chair…he continued to do all he could of his public office, always dragging his poor body along…” T. H. L. Parker writes, “he drove his body beyond its limits…To those who would urge him to rest, he had the wondering question, ‘What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when he comes?’”
Lessons From His Life
Think little of yourself and much of God. Calvin was consumed by a deep sense of fragility in the presence of an infinitely big God. He was painfully aware of his own weaknesses, especially of his impatience and anger. At the end of his life, he wrote to the ministers at Geneva:
I have had many infirmities which you have been obliged to bear with, and what is more, all I have done has been worth nothing…But certainly I can say this that I have willed what is good, that my vices have always displeased me, and that the root of the fear of God has been in my heart…I pray you, that the evil be forgiven me, and if there was any good, that you conform yourselves to it and make it an example.
Live for the glory of God. For Calvin, “we are consecrated and dedicated to God in order that we may thereafter think, speak, meditate, and do, nothing except to his glory.” Anticipating the day when he would stand before God, he said: “The thing [O God] at which I chiefly aimed, and for which I most diligently labored, was, that the glory of thy goodness and justice…might shine forth conspicuous, that the virtue and blessings of thy Christ…might be fully displayed.”
Guard the sacred. When several unworthy individuals approached the communion table, Calvin flung himself upon the sacrament and said “these hands you may crush, these arms you may lop off, my life you may take, my blood is yours, you may shed it, but you shall never force me to give holy things to the profane and dishonor the table of my God.”
Moreover, Calvin was serious about church discipline, something that is unheard of today despite its Biblical moorings. While he may have been too severe at times, he regularly admonished people for offenses like violating the Sabbath.
Preach the Word. When Calvin returned the second time to Geneva in 1541, he entered the same pulpit that he had left in 1538. Without a word of greeting, he turned to the Bible text where he had left off three years earlier. Calvin did not jump from topic-to-topic, text to text. He approached whole books or sections of books of the Bible, passage-by-passage, in their context. He did not use clever, alliterated outlines. He rigorously studied the Word and did his best to share exactly what it meant. Nothing more, nothing less. He preached 200 sermons on Deuteronomy and 342 sermons on Isaiah alone.
Without a word of greeting, he turned to the Bible text where he had left off three years earlier.
In Calvin on the Christian Life, Michael Horton writes that Calvin’s “real genius is to be found in his remarkable ability to synthesize the best thought of the whole Christian tradition and sift it with rigorous exegetical skill and evangelical instincts. His rhetorical rule was ‘brevity and simplicity.’”
Quotes from Calvin that Wesleyans Echo
The sum of the Christian life: the denial of ourselves… We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal.
On heart religion: “The gospel is not a doctrine of the tongue, but of life. It cannot be grasped by reason and memory only, but it is fully understood when it possesses the whole soul and penetrates to the inner recesses of the heart.”
On repentance: “It is the true turning of our life to God, a turning that arises from a pure and earnest fear of Him; and it consists in the mortification of our flesh and of the old man, and in the vivification of the Spirit.”
On consecration: “But when I remember that I am not my own, I offer up my heart and present it as a sacrifice to the Lord.”
The sum of the Christian life is the denial of ourselves. We are not our own.
On Christ as the whole of salvation:
We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is “of him.” If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects that he might learn to feel our pain. If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given to him to judge. In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
- Joe Carter, “9 Things You Should Know about John Calvin,” The Gospel Coalition.
- Kevin DeYoung, “All Men Are Like Grass: The Life of John Calvin,” The Gospel Coalition.
- Ian Hamilton, “John Calvin’s Conversion,” Ligonier Ministries.
- “John Calvin: Father of the Reformation Faith,” Christianity Today.
- Karin Maag, “John Calvin: The Man Behind the Name,” Calvin College.
- T. H. L. Parker, “The Life and Times of John Calvin,” Christian History Institute.
- John Piper, “The Divine Majesty of the Word: John Calvin: The Man and His Preaching,” Desiring God.
- Fred Sanders, “Our Whole Salvation & All Its Parts: Calvin on Union With Christ,” The Scriptorium Daily.