14 July 2009

John Calvin, the Reformer (1509-1564)

I offer mine heart to Thee, promptly and sincerely.”

Theodore Beza said there is no man in the history of mankind who had done more good for the Christian faith.  William Cunningham called him the greatest Reformer.  A preeminent theologian, a renowned Bible teacher and commentator, a statesman, a leader of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, a loving pastor, a loving husband – John Calvin was all these and more.

July 2009 marks the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth. Is Calvinism still relevant today? Be it in the area of doctrine, worship, sacraments, governance, occupation, or family life, there is not one aspect of our Christian life that has not been touched by Calvin’s reforms.  In fact, his influence extended beyond the Christian world – in university education, local government and legal protection of women.

John Calvin the Man

Born July 10, 1509 in France, John Calvin was groomed for the clergy.  His father was a financial administrator in the Catholic Church.  When Calvin was 11, his father got him a chaplaincy that paid for his education.  Calvin was brilliant, diligent and excelled in his studies. He began theology studies at 14 years old at the University of Paris and graduated with a Master of Arts degree at 17.  His father then had a conflict with the church, and directed Calvin to read law instead.  Calvin also learnt Greek, analytical thinking and persuasive argument, earning a nickname of “the accusative case.”  But Calvin was then still very much a Catholic in heart and practice, until …

A Sudden Conversion. Calvin described, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame.”  Two persons were instrumental to his conversion. His cousin, Olivetan, showed him the errors of Rome and encouraged him to search the Scriptures. Calvin obstinately rejected Olivetan’s views.  Then Calvin saw a young Christian burnt publicly for his protestant faith, and went away deeply impressed by that man’s faith, courage and peace despite tremendous suffering and terrors of death.  Calvin realized that his Romish rites did not give him assurance of salvation, nor the peace of that martyr.  Calvin then began searching the Scriptures.  As he did so, he learnt that his self-righteous works were as filthy rags before God. For the first time in his life, he recognized himself as a vile sinner who deserved condemnation and the wrath of God.  In Isaiah 53:5 he read that the Saviour’s death on the Cross had washed him from all sins; by His stripes he was healed. Those life-giving words struck Calvin like an arrow from heaven – Jesus’ sacrifice had appeased God’s wrath, His blood had put away my impurities, His cross had borne my curse, His death had atoned for me.  Sinking in his mire of sin, hopeless, damned for hell, Calvin finally acknowledged that he has no other hope than to flee to Jesus’ finished work of salvation.  Jesus had paid it all!  Salvation is found not in a priest, ceremony, or man’s good works, but in Christ alone and His finished work of redemption at Calvary.  That day, Calvin passed from death to life.  The self-righteous Romanist became a Sinner saved by grace.

A Harrowing Escape. His faith in Christ was soon put to the test.  In 1533, Calvin wrote his friend’s speech at the University of Paris, advocating church reform.  As expected, the authorities sought to arrest them.  Calvin escaped through the window, but eventually, was caught and suffered a short imprisonment. After release, he rested in the home of Louis du Tillet, in whose library, Calvin studied the church fathers’ writings, and became a self-taught theologian.

Writing the Institutes. Calvin moved to Switzerland, while receiving news that Christians are still persecuted and burnt alive in France.  That moved him to write to the King of France to stop the persecution.  That letter later became the first edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Calvin was 27 years old when it was first published – a small pocket-sized book meant for secret circulation within France.  Calvin expanded it continually to four books in its last French edition.

To Geneva. Being reserved and timid, Calvin planned a move to Strasbourg for quiet studies and writing.  On the way there, he made a one-night stop over at Geneva.  He was met by William Farel there who tried to enlist his help. When Farel learnt that Calvin was adamant on studies, he said God would curse his studies, if he should refuse to help at such a critical moment.  Thus rebuked, Calvin remained in Geneva.

Controversy in Geneva. Calvin was appointed pastor and professor of Scripture.  Together with Farel, they began reforming the Geneva church, writing a confession of faith to bring ten thousand citizens into obedience of Scriptures.  It was too much reform too soon.  In 1538 when they tried to bar the Libertines who were living in open sin from partaking the Lord’s Supper, the City Council controlled by the Libertines responded by banishing both of them. 

Happy in Strasbourg. Through such an unusual turn of events, Calvin got to study and write in Strasbourg. From 1538 to 1541, he published a second edition of the Institutes, wrote his first commentary, taught in seminary and pastored five hundred refugees.  

Marriage. Calvin married Idelette, an Anabaptist widow, and enjoyed a short period of marital bliss.  Idelette lost a daughter at birth, and also a son of two weeks.  Calvin was heart-broken but drew comfort from God: “The Lord has certainly inflicted a bitter wound in the death of our infant son. But He is Himself a father and knows what is good for His children.”  When Idelette died, Calvin did not remarry but devoted himself to the ministry: “I do what I can to keep myself from being overwhelmed by grief.” 

Recalled to Geneva. In 1541, the Geneva City Council, which became dominated by Protestants, requested Calvin to return.  He did, and for the next 23 years in Geneva, led the Reformation.

A Preacher & Teacher. Upon return, Calvin hit Geneva preaching.  Reassuming his pulpit precisely where he left off three years earlier – in the very next verse of the last sermon – Calvin continued his verse-by-verse Bible exposition.  Geneva became a gospel beacon to refugees from all over Europe.  Among these was the Scot, John Knox, who said Calvin’s Geneva church was the most perfect school of Christ.  He and Calvin collaborated to compile the marginal notes in the Geneva Study Bible (1559).

A Pastor. Other than Sunday services, Calvin conducted daily service every alternate week.  He taught theology three hours per week, visited the sick, penned letters to persecuted Christians abroad, dictated Bible commentaries, and refuted the enemies of the gospel.

Heart Devotion. Calvin believed that the preacher’s heart must be devoted to godliness as his success depended on the depth of his holiness. “Because I know that I am not my own master, I offer my heart as a true sacrifice to the Lord.” This became his personal motto and emblem: “My heart I give to Thee, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.”

Faithful to the End. On April 25, 1564, Calvin dictated his last will: “In the name of God, I, John Calvin,…  embrace the grace which He has offered me in our Lord Jesus Christ and accept the merits of His suffering and dying, that through them all my sins are buried; and I humbly beg Him to wash me and cleanse me with the blood of our great Redeemer, … so that I, when I shall appear before His face, may bear His likeness.” 

Calvin the Reformer.  Calvin’s main contribution to the Christian faith is his reforms. He stressed the need to return to biblical doctrine and practice regarding the way of salvation, the proper means of worship, the correct administration of the sacraments, and the government of the church.

Reformed Doctrine. In order to understand Calvin’s system of doctrine, you must read his Institutes. Calvinism is not merely the “five points” or TULIP, which stands for Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverence of saints.  TULIP was coined by the Synod of Dort in 1618 as a summary of Calvin’s doctrine of salvation to rebut James Arminius’ heresy.  Neither is Calvinism merely the five solas – which was the battle-cry of the Protestant Reformation.  Calvinism is a re-statement of what the apostles Paul, James, Peter, John etc, taught: that God saves sinners, and salvation is all by God’s grace through faith in Christ alone.  Contrast this with the Romish dogma that man can merit salvation by good works plus God’s grace.  Calvin proved from Scripture that we are saved by grace (Eph 2:8-9), justified by faith (Rom 1:17) in Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the Cross, and on His merits and righteousness alone.  If our salvation is dependent on man’s good works, then it is no more by the grace of God.

Christian Living to the Glory of God. Calvin’s starting point is the sovereignty of God.  A Christian lives daily in the presence of God for His glory, whether he is physically inside or outside the church building.  Calvin locked the church doors in between worship services to counter Romish superstitions that God hears only prayers uttered in church.  Indeed, Christian living extends beyond hearing sermons and beyond church walls.  Christians are to shine the gospel light daily in their homes, the marketplace and the world. All aspects of living are for Christ.  God’s sovereignty is balanced with man’s responsibility.  Even in the workplace, a Christian does his best to the glory of God.

Reformed Church. Calvin’s true church possesses three marks: preaching, the sacraments, and church discipline. Pulpit preaching is essential to Christian growth and a vibrant church.  He adopted the grammatico-historical literary approach by interpreting a Scripture passage in its historical and cultural contexts, with due regard to grammar, word meanings, and genre.  As for the sacraments, Christ appointed only two, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Calvin enforced church discipline on members who lived in open sin.

Reformed Worship. The Roman church worship emphasized formal rites and veneration of images of saints, apostles and Mary, food abstinences, and vigils.  Calvin taught that biblical worship ascribes to God glory, adoration, and reverence through prayer, praise and thanksgiving rendered in a known tongue, in spirit, in truth (Jn 4:23) and from the heart.  God prohibits all worship through images or a mediator other than Christ (1 Tim 2:5).

Evangelism & Missions. Calvin was zealous in missions and evangelism. He taught students who returned to plant thousands of churches in France, Hungary, Holland, England and even as far as Brazil. Knox became the leader of the Scottish Reformation. While Calvin trained missionaries, Geneva funded mission work.  Calvin’s doctrines of predestination, election and particular redemption do not stifle evangelism.

Contribution to Society. In 1559, Calvin founded Geneva’s Academy.  Laws were enacted to outlaw wife abuse, and protect the financial estate of wives and widows.

Conclusion. Calvinist doctrine is still relevant today in the daily life of a Christian. Calvinism combined clear-headed faith and warm-hearted spirituality to produce vibrant living in the home, the church and the marketplace to the glory of God.  “For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things: to Whom be glory for ever. Amen” (Rom 11:36).  That is what Scripture, Calvinism and life itself are all about.


John Calvin, (1) Institutes of the Christian Religion (2) Commentaries (3) Necessity of Reforming the Church (1543).

Joel R. Beeke, Living for God’s Glory – Introduction to Calvinism, 2008.

Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2007.

Stephen J. Nichols, Pages from Church History, 2006.

Steven J. Lawson, Expository Genius of John Calvin, 2007.


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