Of all the great Protestant reformers, John Calvin is considered to be second in importance only to Martin Luther. However, when considering only the impact of his theology there is no reformer that compares with Calvin.
John Calvin was the theologian of the Protestant Reformation. God used Calvin to restore great truths which had been squashed by the Catholic church during the Dark Ages. His teachings (especially on predestination) were revolutionary in the 16th century and are still very controversial today. He also crystallized many of the Biblical doctrines that fellow Protestant reformers like John Wycliffe, John Huss and Martin Luther had initially preached.
John Calvin was born in Noyon, France on July 10, 1509. Calvin was a brilliant student even at a very young age. At the age of only fourteen, he entered University of Paris, then the most prestigious university in Europe. He excelled in his studies and by the age of eighteen, he had earned his Master of Arts degree.
At this point his father persuaded him to take up the study of law (like Martin Luther). However, at the age of only 21, Calvin began to be drawn to the study of God’s word. The study of law and its prosperous career path no longer held a great appeal to him. Although he finished out his doctoral program, his passion was already developing for the Scriptures.
Calvin began to understand that many of the teachings of the Catholic church did not harmonize with the scriptures. He joined those that were calling for reforms and renewal in the church. This eventually led to persecution and Calvin was forced to flee France after his close friend openly proclaimed Reformation teachings during his acceptance speech as Dean of the University of Paris.
Calvin found refuge in Switzerland along with many other exiled reformers of his day. It was in Basel that Calvin published his initial version of Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536. The initial version contained only six chapters, but would eventually grow to eighty chapters.
The Institutes of Christian Religion was distributed in France and Calvin even sent a copy to King Francis I. The book gained wide acclaim among Protestant circles, although few knew who the author was. It was destined to become a classic among Christian literature.
As Calvin was travelling through Switzerland he made an overnight stop in the city of Geneva. The city of Geneva and Calvin were destined to become synonymous, but Calvin only intended to spend the night in the city. However, a Protestant evangelist named William Farel persuaded him to stay there and help him establish the truth in Geneva. At first Calvin adamantly refused. He was not seeking and most definitely did not want a leadership role within the Protestant movement. Calvin wanted only to find quiet solitude where he could continue his writings. Farel finally pointed his finger at Calvin and rebuked him saying, “If you refuse to devote yourself with us to the work . . . God will condemn you.” Calvin stayed in Geneva.
Calvin poured all of his energies into not only studying the Word of God, but establishing a reformation society in the city of Geneva. Like the early church in the book of Acts, Calvin turned the world of the citizens of Geneva upside down. He condemned not only the false purity of the Roman Catholic church, but also the sinful living of the immoral sinners. He taught the common people on their level, so they could develop an understanding of God’s word. Calvin was very strict in only allowing those that were living according to the Word of God to participate in communion. Those that failed to live up to the Bible’s standard were excommunicated.
Not everyone appreciated the changes that Calvin was bringing to the city. In 1538, Calvin and Farel were expelled from Geneva after Calvin called the city government a “council of the devil” during one of his fiery sermons. Calvin was told that everyone had to be able to participate in communion regardless their lifestyle or he would have to leave. Calvin left rather than compromise, no doubt discouraged that his labor had yielded so little.
Back in Basel, Calvin was overcome by depression and thought of being rejected. He felt his ministry was a failure and vowed to never again to pastor a church. Although shortly thereafter while visiting the city of Strasbourg, Calvin was approached by a fellow reformer named Martin Bucer. Bucer wanted Calvin to move to Strasbourg to pastor a church of Protestant refugees from France. Calvin refused. Bucer then reproved Calvin, “God will know how to find the rebellious servant, as He found Jonah.” Once again Calvin answered the call of God for his life and moved to Strasbourg to pastor this church.
At this time Strasbourg was a hub of Reformation activity. Calvin worked hand-in-hand with fellow reformers in the city for three years. It was during this time that Calvin’s notoriety began to grow near and wide. Even the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V invited Calvin to speak on several occasions.
After Calvin had left Geneva, the Catholic Church sprung into action to try to reclaim the city for the papacy. An infamous letter was written by Cardinal Sadolet to the city council posing the question, “be more expedient for your salvation to believe and follow what the Catholic Church has approved with general consent for more than fifteen hundred years, or innovations introduced within these twenty-five years by crafty men.”
The councilmen of Geneva had no idea how to respond to Cardinal Sadolet and turned to John Calvin to pen a response. Calvin immediately brushed aside any hesitations he had about helping those who had rejected him just a few years earlier and boldly picked up the banner of the Protestant Reformation once again. His response is one of the most famous of the writings of the Reformation and is simply titled A Reply to Cardinal Sadolet. Calvin expertly refuted Sadolet’s claims.
“We deny not that those over whom you preside are churches of Christ, but we maintain that the Roman pontiff, with his whole herd of pseudo-bishops, who have seized upon the pastor’s office, are ravening wolves, whose only study has hitherto been to scatter and trample upon the kingdom of Christ, filling it with ruin and devastation. Nor are we the first to make the complaint.”
Cardinal Sadolet never answered Calvin’s response and from that point on Geneva was staunchly Protestant.
Shortly thereafter, Calvin was invited to return to Geneva. Calvin once again opposed the call to leadership, but finally agreed to go for a few months. However, Calvin was destined to spend to remainder of his life in the city of Geneva.
When Calvin returned to Geneva, neither he nor the citizens of that fair city were the same as they had been just a few short years earlier. They now welcomed Calvin with open arms and a willing heart to accept the teachings of God’s word. For Calvin’s part, he had gained in both maturity and humility during his years of exile. He set about immediately organizing not only the city of Geneva, but the Protestant faith.
It was here that Calvin was used by God to promote the theology of the Protestant Reformation. That included restoring the truths of predestination and election as the apostle Paul had taught them. These truths would become so closely associated with Calvin than for centuries later they would be referred to as Calvinism.
Calvin and Martin Luther initially held a high degree of respect for one another. However, the two great reformers eventually separated over a doctrinal issue regarding the interpretation of the eucharist.
John Calvin died on May 27, 1564 of natural causes. His followers were determined to prevent a cult worship of Calvin to develop similar to the veneration of the saints that was taking place within the Catholic church. As a result, Calvin was buried in an unmarked grave and to this day no one knows the exact location of Calvin’s grave.
- A man will be justified by faith when, excluded from righteousness of works, he by faith lays hold of the righteousness of Christ, and clothed in it, appears in the sight of God not as a sinner, but as righteous.
- God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation.
- I consider looseness with words no less of a defect than looseness of the bowels.
- It behooves us to accomplish what God requires of us, even when we are in the greatest despair respecting the results.
- No man is excluded from calling upon God, the gate of salvation is set open unto all men: neither is there any other thing which keepeth us back from entering in, save only our own unbelief.
- Our prayer must not be self-centered. It must arise not only because we feel our own need as a burden we must lay upon God, but also because we are so bound up in love for our fellow men that we feel their need as acutely as our own. To make intercession for men is the most powerful and practical way in which we can express our love for them.
- There is no knowing that does not begin with knowing God.
- We should ask God to increase our hope when it is small, awaken it when it is dormant, confirm it when it is wavering, strengthen it when it is weak, and raise it up when it is overthrown.
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