John Calvin was born in Noyon, France, July 10, 1509. Although Calvin is often considered the most influential reformer, the main reformation battles were already won by his time. While Calvin was still learning to read, Luther was giving his evangelical lectures on Psalms, Romans, and Galatians at Wittenberg. Most Christians know only know two things about Calvin: He believed in predestination, and he sent Servetus to the stake. However, Calvin’s greatest achievement was to take the classic insights of the reformation, sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), and sola scriptura (Scripture alone) and give them clear, systematic exposition, which no other reformer had done to the extent that he did. From Geneva, Calvin’s bold protestant vision spread westward.
While attending the University of Paris (where protestant views were being shared), Calvin experienced a significant religious conviction that transformed his life. A friend of Calvin, Nicholas Cop delivered an address on All Saints Day, 1533 that had enough evangelical content to shock the defenders of Catholic orthodoxy. Apparently, Calvin had a hand in writing the sermon and both men were forced to flee Paris to avoid arrest. Sometime during this period Calvin experience a conversion to Christ. Afterwards he was fully committed to a ministry of proclaiming the Word of God and purifying the life of the church. He describes his conversion as the result of God’s initiative, “God turned my heart.”
Unlike Luther and Zwingli, Calvin was shy by nature and desired to live out his Christian calling in scholarly seclusion. However, anti-protestant forces led to Calvin and others fleeing to the reformed city of Basel where Calvin would take on a more visible and prominent role. Calvin would eventually make his way to Geneva at the invitation of the reformer leader, William Farel. Calvin found a great response to the Gospel in Geneva but eventually parted ways for a time leaving for Strassbourg where he married, became a pastor and a lecturer in theology. Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541 and remained there until his death in 1564.
It was while in Basel in 1536 that Calvin’s great Institutes began, first, as a small booklet and eventually becoming “a huge tome and treasury of Protestant dogmatics in the definitive edition of 1559.” Among the teachings included in the Institutes, are an exposition of the Ten Commandments, teachings concerning faith, a commentary on the Apostle’s Creed, a chapter on prayer, a chapter on the sacraments by which Calvin meant baptism and the Lord’s Supper, a chapter on what he called “the five false sacraments,” and a chapter with three themes: Christian liberty, church polity, and civil government. The Institutes of Christian Religion which set forth the Protestant teaching in a clear and systematic way was an immense success and is still in print today. In 1539 Calvin also wrote his Commentary on Romans, what he considered the most important book in the Bible. Calvin eventually produced commentaries on all of the New Testament books except 2 and 3 John and Revelation. His commentaries on the Old Testament fill forty-five volumes. Calvin’s general practice was to preach continuously through books of the Bible.
Calvin was a prolific writer, but he was also a church statesman and pastor. He believed that every human being was essentially religious by nature; however, humans were estranged from God as if “utterly lost in a maze.” Because of this condition, people manufacture one false god after another. Man in his fallen condition, through human reason is never able to get out of the “labyrinth,” a favorite image of Calvin to describe human estrangement from God. On this basis, salvation must be initiated by God, He makes Himself known through Scripture. Another favored metaphor of Calvin was that of Scripture as a set of “spectacles” for the bleary-eyed. This image highlights the central function of Scripture which is for our instruction, to enable us to see what otherwise would be indiscernible.
Though Calvin was committed to organizing and developing the church in Geneva, he expended much energy on social issues. Much of his time was spent with the Geneva city council and politicians where he advocated a partnership of church and state. He believed that both were for the good of the people. Like Zwingli, Calvin believed the state should enforce the laws of God upon the people. Calvin’s philosophy of preaching and ministry was simple: The Word of God is to be the foundation and guide for not only church life but all of life, including family life, economics, politics, and all aspects of human relations. At times, Calvin could be harsh and demanding. Late in his life, in October, 1553, he along with others condemned Spanish theologian, Michael Servetus to death in Geneva for espousing heretical anti-trinitarian views.
As a call to worship in the Geneva Church, Psalm 124:8 became the oft-quoted verse and may serve perhaps as a summary of Calvin’s life and faith. “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” Although flawed as all of us are, Calvin sought to both glorify God and edify his people, always calling the sheep of the flock to put their trust in the Lord!
Sources: Theology of the Reformers, Timothy George; A Treasury of Great Preaching,
Clyde E. Fant, Jr. & William M. Pinson, Jr.