“No man ever had a profounder sense of God than he; no man ever more unreservedly surrendered himself to the Divine direction.” --BB Warfield
I have been influenced more by Calvin than any other theologian and his influence has not simply been a matter of knowledge, he has drawn me to worship and glorify God in my daily life. My hope is he will do the same for you, he will take your heart and set it on fire for God’s glory.
A Biographical Sketch
Sometime between 1532 and the end of 1533 Calvin became a Christian. His friend Nicholas Cop gave a rather Protestant fueled address at the University of Paris and was chastised by parliament for being Lutheran-like in his speech. This led to an attack on other Lutheran minded people, of which Calvin was one. He was forced to flee France. He intended to go to Strasbourg, Germany and retire to a life of writing and teaching; God had other plans. Troop movements prevented Calvin from traveling directly to Strasbourg; he was forced to detour through Geneva, Switzerland. In Geneva William Farel, the fiery leader of the Reformation movement there, chastised Calvin for hoping to attend a life of writing and leisure:
[Farel] proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement…if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken.” (Piper, Legacy of Sovereign Joy, 129)Calvin, by God’s sovereign plan, with the help of troop movements blocking Calvin’s path, became minister of St. Pierre’s in Geneva.
However Calvin did not attend to all the desires of city council and they booted him out of town in 1538. He finally made it to Strasbourg where he spent three years teaching New Tesament and writing. He met his wife Idelette de Bure here and married her in August of 1540. During Calvin’s leave, the city council realized their mistake and begged Calvin back. He returned on September 13, 1541 and his first Sunday back preached on the next verse of the series on Acts that he left off with when he was kicked out of Geneva. He remained there as a minister until his death in 1564.
Because Calvin is so well known, we will look at three things we can learn and imitate of him in our faith, two of which are commonly known, and one which is more obscure.
Soli Deo Gloria
Calvin’s faith led him to focus primarily on the supremacy of God’s glory. If we imitate nothing else in Calvin’s faith than this, we are on solid ground. This truly is the foundation of Reformed Theology. John Piper speaks about Calvin in this manner, “The fundamental issue for John Calvin, from the beginning to the end of his life, was the issue of the centrality and supremacy and majesty of the glory of God” (Piper 119). Indeed one can scarcely read anything written by Calvin and not see that God’s glory was his chief end in what he said, how he ministered, and how he lived his private life. Calvin claims that it is his highest goal by his own writing:
“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” (Dillenberger, John Calvin: Selections from His Writings, 110).We learn from Calvin what our proper aim is: the glory of God! In the 1600’s the Westminster Assembly ratified this as true according to question and answer one, “What is our chief purpose in life?...To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Calvin’s faith leads the way for us who live in the 21st century. In remembering him as a leader of the faith we are drawn to imitate his sheer delight and devotion to glorifying God in all that he did. May we seek in our days to glorify the Creator and not the creature (Rom. 1:24-25) in our studies in school, in our relationships at work, in our mutual worship together as a family, and above all as witnesses and ambassadors on Jesus’ behalf to the world.
Scripture As Spectacles
Second to Calvin’s devotion to God’s glory is his devotion to the Scripture’s. Calvin famously describes the Scriptures “spectacles” whereby they help us “[gather] up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds…[and] clearly shows us the true God” (Institutes I.VI.I). Therefore as a child of God he was vehemently focused on the importance of the living word of God. He shined as a preacher, as an expositor of God’s Word to his congregation day in and day out. His life was “a ministry of unrelenting exposition of the Word of God. [His] constancy had a focus, the exposition of the Word of God” (Piper, Legacy of Sovereign Joy, 137). Few examples of the faith had as high a view of Scripture as Calvin. He magnifies it’s importance in this manner:
“Now, in order that true religion may shine upon us, we ought to hold that it must take its beginning from heavenly doctrine and that no one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture. Hence, there also emerges the beginning of true understanding when we reverently embrace what it pleases God there to witness of himself.” (Institutes I.VI.II)We learn then very clearly from our great father in the faith that Scripture is of utmost importance to our lives. For scripture acts as the equilibrium of the Christian; it directs our steps, one foot in front of the other, without falling over, towards a true knowledge of God and therefore of ourselves. To learn and imitate Calvin’s faith leads us to be pupils of the Scriptures.
A Godward Happiness
The glory of God and the primacy of Scripture are commonly known about Calvin, but this third point is more obscure to his theological children. Calvin was a man who was exceedingly happy in God alone. We often think in the church that happiness is a secondary issue that is set aside for God’s glory. But Calvin understood that giving glory to God was precisely what we were created to do, and to do that meant that we were to truly be happy, what God longs for us. And so our service of God rests in our happiness towards Him. Calvin puts it like this:
“For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him—they will never yield him willing service. Nay, unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him.” (Institutes I.II.I)We learn from Calvin that we are to be happy people. We learn from Calvin’s faith that our happiness is only truly happiness when it rests in God and how he has designed us to be happy, in the presence of his glory. As imitators of his faith then we ought to endeavor to find God as our supreme treasure and delight, the person who brings a smile to our faces and one in which we long to live for because he alone is our happiness. Pray that we might learn from the faith of John Calvin, that God would draw us nearer to Himself through the great leader he has given to us as an example of faith.
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There is much written on John Calvin. For an introduction I would recommend Steven Lawson's The Expository Genius of John Calvin, Burk Parson's John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, or Piper's chapter on Calvin in The Legacy of Sovereign Joy. For something a bit more meatier I would look at THL Parker's classic biography, John Calvin, or I would go straight to Calvin's Institutes, they are a wonderfully accessible read.
**Next Week: Remembering Your Leader Jonathan Edwards
JT Holderman is Assistant Pastor of Bellevue Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Gap, PA.