by Johnathan Arnold
We tend to project some contemporary Calvinistic trends onto their namesake rather than giving honest treatment to Calvin’s life and writings. Wesley would have had none of this. “Sinning in word, thought, and deed every day” and “once-saved-always-saved” are oversimplifications of his views. Without in any way 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
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
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
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
“But when I remember that I am not my own, I offer up my heart and present it as a sacrifice to the Lord.”
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 the Life of John Calvin
2. 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.”
3. 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.
4. 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.
Quotes from Calvin that Wesleyans Echo
2. 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.”
3. 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.”
4. 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.”
Carter, Joe. “9 Things You Should Know about John Calvin.” The Gospel Coalition.
DeYoung, Kevin. “All Men Are Like Grass: The Life of John Calvin.” The Gospel Coalition.
Hamilton, Ian. “John Calvin’s Conversion.” Ligonier Ministries.
“John Calvin: Father of the Reformation Faith.” Christianity Today.
Maag, Karin. “John Calvin: The Man Behind the Name.” Calvin College.
Parker, T. H. L. “The Life and Times of John Calvin.” Christian History Institute.
Piper, John. “The Divine Majesty of the Word: John Calvin: The Man and His Preaching.” Desiring God.
Sanders, Fred. “Our Whole Salvation & All Its Parts: Calvin on Union With Christ.” The Scriptorium Daily.