This is not just another biography on John Calvin. There are plenty of those available from a variety of historians, some of which I have listed in the bibliography at the end. Our purposes here are more devotional in nature. The life and legacy of John Calvin affords a brilliant light in which the glory of God burns profoundly. Calvin, with all his imperfections, was a remarkable servant of God. The work God accomplished through the Reformation is deserving of both devotional tribute and personal evaluation.
The Reformation is God’s Reformation and deserves theological reflection; not just historical treatment. Our effort here is to enlarge our view of God through this history and increase our appreciation of His mighty grace toward us, as evidenced in this unique period of redemptive time. This devotional sketch, then, is a study of the Reformation to the glory of God through the life of John Calvin.
Whenever we sanction time within the church to focus our attention and interest on the likes of a mere man, we do well to check our approach. Moreover, such a concern is only amplified by the proportion of prominence that marks the individual in question. There can be little debate as to the extremely rare prominence that distinguishes the sixteenth-century reformer, John Calvin, and therefore it is all the more important for us to clearly identify our purpose in this devotional sketch of his life.
We look at the life of John Calvin to make much of Christ, not Calvin. As the Apostle wrote, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5). We rejoice in the sovereign providence of Almighty God, who rules history and raises up and refines instruments for His hands. We thank God for the power of example and inspiration through the lives of the faithful who have gone before us (cf. Heb 12:1).
There is a nuance that we should confess at the outset. When we survey choices and convictions that John Calvin demonstrated and taught, we do not say because Calvin did this or that, we should. Rather we look, search out, and perceive what most accords with Scripture and true godliness.
My prayer is that by looking at a man from history, such as Calvin, we may grow in our appreciation of the written Word of God and the power of its testimony throughout history. That we may observe how our faith, even as we have it today, is not new, but rather is timeless. That we may observe how our faith is not humanly determined; it is not a product of culture, philosophy, scholasticism, renaissance, or any other rational movement of mankind. It is not based on circumstances, superstitions, or social situations. It is not denominational nor ecclesiastical. Our faith is a living testimony to the ever-living Spirit of God who communicates Himself through His written witness. The gospel is immutable and invincible; and all who truly abide in it will persevere through the greatest of impossibilities.
So we look to the life of a mere fallen, fallible, and finite man, rejoicing in the majesty of God and thanking Him for the tangible example that Calvin can be for us. This is an opportunity for us to see God work in the face of impossibilities. We thank God for an historical figure through whom we may see the substantial impact, in very practical form, of God-centeredness.
The Legacy of Calvin
The legacy of John Calvin is not owing to novelty. Most men, for whom movements are named, are notably distinguished by some contribution of new thought or precept or philosophy. Calvin’s greatest contribution was not original to Calvin, and the celebration of that fact is itself remarkable. Faith-filled perception and faithful perseverance in the ancient revelation of God is much closer to the distinctive, non-originality of Calvin’s contribution to mankind.
Reforming Order out of Disorder
While Martin Luther was the instrument of erupting force in the Reformation, John Calvin was the instrument of order and formation.
Luther was a volcano, spewing out fiery ideas in all directions without much pattern or system. But ideas cannot live and last without a body, and the great need of the Protestant movement in the last days of Luther was for a theologian with the ability to arrange and to express the new faith within a system. That person was Calvin.… It was he who saved Protestantism by giving it a body of theology with his Institutes; and it is from this that the faith and the theology of most of the Protestant churches have sprung.1
There are three particular areas in Calvin's ministry that best represent his contribution of a high view of God. These include his view of providence, Scripture, and the ultimate aim of all things: God's glory.
1. God's Providence
Calvin served to restore the supreme authority and sovereignty of God over all things.
Before God, we are called to be stewards of His varied graces. Among God’s varied graces is providence, as manifested in what we call history. The testimonies of God’s providential grace are to be cultivated personally and communicated publicly. We who know and believe the profound providences of God are responsible to wisely invest such legacies into our generation and the generations that follow. This is a task that must be executed with the utmost conviction and care. To neglect this responsibility is neither wise nor loving.
The year is 1509. Luther is lecturing at the University of Erfurt. Zwingli is pastoring in Glarus. Tyndale is excelling at Oxford. England’s King Henry VII is dying, with his 18 year old son nearing the throne. Julius II, the “warrior pope,” is on the papal throne.
July 10, 1509 — John Calvin is born in Noyon, France. It was a farm village approximately 60 miles north of Paris. His mother died when he was a small boy. He served in two posts in while he was only eleven years old. He was destined to become a priest.
August, 1523 — Calvin attends the University of Paris. Here, his experience would bring out his brilliance. While at the university, he adopted strict personal habits, like eating little, sleeping less, and studying long. He graduated in 1528.
Fall, 1528 — Calvin attends the University of Orleans. His father fell out of the graces of the church, so instead of having his son pursue a life among the clergy, he sent Calvin away to study law. Later Calvin tells us:
When I was as yet a very little boy, my father had destined me for the study of theology. But afterwards, when he considered that the legal profession commonly raised those who followed it to wealth, this prospect induced him suddenly to change his purpose. Thus it came to pass, that I was withdrawn from the study of philosophy, and was put to the study of law. To this pursuit I endeavoured faithfully to apply myself, in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by the secret guidance of his providence, at length gave a different direction to my course. And first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardour.
May, 1531 — Calvin’s father dies; he is only age 21. The next year, he graduates as a doctor of law and publishes his first book, A Commentary on Seneca.
November 1, 1533 — A friend of Calvin’s, Nicholas Cop, gave an address at the University of Paris that the French authorities would not tolerate. Calvin escaped severe consequences with him.
From 1534 to 1536, Calvin went into exile. He went to Basel, which was then in Germany, because King Francis I was martyring all who aligned to the Reformation, calling such believers "the cursed Lutheran sect."
October 18, 1534 — In the early morning hours at Notre Dame hundreds of French men who embraced the Reformation were arrested and 35 of them were burned at the stake. This was called the “Affair of the Placards” as it was linked to their posting of placards protesting against the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church and of Scriptural truth being taught by Reformers.
March, 1536 — At age 26, while in exile, Calvin publishes his first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Summer, 1536 — Calvin, utilizing a temporary amnesty in France, returns to tie-up loose ends and collect his brother, Antoine, and his half-sister, Marie, urging them to come with him. They were all on their way to Strasbourg.
Calvin saw all of these events, including their grave difficulties, through the lens of God’s providence. His excelling view of God colored and redefined every obstacle and turn along the way of life’s journey. He lived with an abiding sense of God’s sovereign direction for His glory and the good of mankind.
A most remarkable providence is demonstrated in his journey to Strasbourg. Calvin was seeking refuge—peace and opportunity to write. But Providence had other plans. Calvin himself explains:
Until at length William Farel detained me at Geneva, not so much by counsel and exhortation, as by a dreadful imprecation, which I felt to be as if God had from heaven laid his mighty hand upon me to arrest me. As the most direct road to Strasburg, to which I then intended to retire, was shut up by the wars, I had resolved to pass quickly by Geneva, without staying longer than a single night in that city.
William Farel was a man who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the Gospel. Calvin simply wanted to study and write; he was quite the introvert, a quiet scholar at heart. Geneva had sided with the Reformation only one month prior. Even though the city council’s decision may have been more political than spiritual in motivation, the larger truth is that God was in control and this was His plan. Calvin was a man who accepted even the hard and painful interruptions and redirections of life as a providence from God, being both for God’s glory and man’s joy.
2. God's Word
All those who wish to profit from the Scriptures must first accept this as a settled principle, that the Law and the prophets are not teachings handed on at the pleasure of men or produced by men's minds as their source, but are dictated by the Holy Spirit. … We owe to the Scripture the same reverence as we owe to God, since it has its only source in Him and has nothing of human origin mixed with it.
Calvin said that the Bible was the "school of the Holy Spirit." He insisted that the Bible is the Word of God revealed in human language. To use Calvin's exact words, the Word of God has "flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men." His view of Scripture was that it was an accommodation of God for human understanding. He said things like:
- “Let us beware lest our words and thoughts go beyond what the Word of God tells us.”
- “Wherever we find the Word of God surely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there, it is not to be doubted, is a church of God.”
April, 1538 — Calvin was banished from Geneva because he would not stand for corruptions within the church and abuses of the Lord’s Supper.
My heart trembled within me. I prayed to God with sighs and tears that He would give to me, a sorrowing sinner, the gift of His grace, create within me a clean heart, and graciously through the merits of the crimson blood of Christ forgive my unclean walk and frivolous easy life and bestow upon me wisdom, Spirit, courage, and a manly spirit so that I might preach His exalted and adorable name and holy Word in purity, and make known His truth to His glory.
He would return a few years later by request from Geneva.
God’s Word is mainly about the majesty of God and the glory of God. Calvin saw two principal means of communicating this glory. First, he was an ardent advocate of restoring preaching to its central place in the worship of the gathered church. Second, he made catechism a basic part of discipleship of all believers. He said: “What is the principal end of human life? Because He has created us and put us on earth to be glorified in us. And it is surely right that we dedicate our lives to His glory, since He is the beginning of it.”
3. God's Glory
If we must identify the key contribution of John Calvin, it would have to be his relentless ordering of all things in service to the glory of God. The one thing that most defined and governed Calvin’s theology was God-centeredness. All things were created and exist and find their end for the praise of God’s glory.
The one thing that most defined and governed John Calvin is God-centeredness, presented in his affectionate obsession with God in His glory. A passion for the glory of God derives from a large view of the God of glory. This best describes Calvin’s perspective. Concerning this, B.B. Warfield said, “No man ever had a profounder view of God, than did Calvin.” T. H. L. Parker writes, “[Calvin’s] theology was fundamentally so old-fashioned that it seemed a novelty.”
The glory of God was the champion of change in Calvin’s ministry. It proved to be the one aim that outstripped all others in the Reformation.
In his response to Sadolet, Calvin said, "[Your] zeal for heavenly life [is] a zeal which keeps a man entirely devoted to himself, and does not, even by one expression, arouse him to sanctify the name of God."
Calvin’s chief aim in the Reformation is captured in his statement: “set before [man], as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God." Again, in addressing his motives for reform in the church, he says to Sadolet, “You … touch upon justification by faith, the first and keenest subject of controversy between us. … Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished.” In this argument, Calvin reveals that justification by faith alone actually serves a higher end, namely “the glory of Christ.” Calvin didn’t start with justification, he started with man’s motives and insisted that the glory of God must be the highest end.
He lamented that Rome had "destroyed the glory of Christ in many ways — by calling upon the saints to intercede, when Jesus Christ is the one mediator between God and man; by adoring the Blessed Virgin, when Christ alone shall be adored; by offering a continual sacrifice in the Mass, when the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross is complete and sufficient"
The summary of Calvin’s ministry is well summarized by his own words from 1564, “I have written nothing out of hatred to anyone, but I have always faithfully propounded what I esteemed to be for the glory of God.”
Calvin’s major contributions include:
- A high view of God (soli Deo gloria)
- A high view of God’s sovereignty and providence
- A high view of Holy Scripture (sola scriptura)
- Biblical exegesis and expository preaching
- A critical view of man’s nature (sola gratia)
- Emphasis on Christ’s penal substitution (solus Christus)
- Emphasis on the Gospel in all ministry
- Pastoral ministry and compassionate care for God’s people
- Pastoral training
- Systematic Theology
- Church polity
- Civil relations to the church
- Democratic republic government
- Social welfare
- Public education
- Economy and commerce (work ethic)
1. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Puritans (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996), 222.