“We never truly glory in him until we have utterly discarded our own glory,” John Calvin wrote and genuinely lived by those words. He was a man of discipline in his ministry work unto the Lord and, therefore, he has left for the church an abundance of deep theological doctrine recorded through his writings, preaching, and teaching. His influence extended over nations and continents and is still making an impact in the lives of people around the world to this day.
Childhood and Education
John Calvin was born in Noyon - Picardy,France on July 10, 1509. His mother was devoted to the Roman Catholic Church while his father worked as the secretary to the bishop and as procurator of the cathedral chapter. Calvin left home at 12 years old to study in Paris with the ambition of becoming a priest. By 1526 Martin Luther’s influence was arriving in France and Calvin’s father felt the need for a transfer into the study of law and away from theology. Calvin spent time in Orléans and Bourges where he learned Greek, taught at an Augustinian convent, and preached at a local church. Upon learning of his father’s death when he was 21, he returned to Paris to continue the development of his literary skills. His focus was on preparing for a quiet life spent studying and writing in the academic world. He launched his writing in 1532 with, a commentary, De Clementia, on the Stoic philosopher Seneca.
Calvin gives no date for his conversion, but he does refer to it in his Commentary on the Psalms as “sudden”. His reformed convictions were known publically by 1533. While at the University of Paris, Calvin became friends with Nicholas Cop, Rector of the school, who also was aligning himself with Reformed Theology. Cop took an opportunity behind the pulpit to persuade the school to follow Luther’s reforms and to make small reformations from within. This was a bold move that was not welcomed and cost Cop his job. When the authorities sought him out for arrest, he had already fled the city. Calvin also left because he was associated with Cob. After disguising himself and taking on a new name, Calvin then spent time in Southern France and Orléans.
Calvin did not leave France until after the affair of the Placards and the ensuing arrest of all the Lutherans who were apprehended by the Kings order. After arriving in Basel, Switzerland with other French exiles, Calvin took on yet another name. This time he chose the name Martianus Lucianus. Here Calvin’s writing became the forefront of his ministry with the first publication of the Institutes (see “Writings”). After a quick trip back to Paris to wrap up his life there and gather his brother and sister, Calvin intended to move to Strasbourg. However, that was not the Lord’s plan.
The road to Strasbourg was blocked because of a war between the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor. Calvin was forced to detour for a night in Geneva, Switzerland. The main leader of the Reformation in Geneva, Guillaume Farel, took this as his opportunity to convince Calvin to stay. Calvin agreed after being convicted by Farel that God would curse him if he left. He started his ministry there by gathering people for singing, expository preaching and communion.
The city council was not happy with the reforms that he was proposing. The magistrates (members of the city council) believed that Calvin was venturing too far away from Catholicism and therefore they ran for office specifically against him. After denying the whole church communion because of their support of the magistrates, Calvin and Farel were exiled and went to work with Martin Bucer in Strasbourg. In Strasbourg Calvin preached at a large French church, taught at a ministry school, married a widow of an Anabaptist, and adopted her children.
Under a new city council Calvin hesitantly returned to Geneva where he received a warm welcome and started to preach from the next verse in the Bible where he had stopped three years earlier. He was able to put into affect his Ecclesiastical Ordinances, was appointed to civil reform and he preached many times a week. He taught through books of the Old Testament on weekdays and the New Testament on weekends. Although, over time he had much more freedom to reform, opposition came again through a group called the Libertines.
Calvin confronted more opposition from a Spanish physician, Michael Servetus, that rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and was convicted of heresy. He wrote letters to Calvin and Calvin responded with a warning to not come to Geneva, but he came anyway and was convicted to death by the civil court. Calvin pleaded with him in prison begging him to repent and Calvin fought for beheading instead of burning because it was faster and less painful. Servetus was burned at the stake in 1553 an incident that continues to negatively effect Calvin’s reputation even though other reformers, such as Bucer, Melanchthon, and the court approved the death as well.
After the end of more opposition - including the defeat of the Libertines and disputes between the church and state over authority - Calvin was ready to use his time to start a school to train up men for ministry. He had been planning and raising money for an academy for a long time, but it was not until 1555 that it came to fruition. Theodore Beza was the Rector and taught theology alongside Calvin. The school was a wonderful success with almost every nation in Europe represented among the 900 plus students in the first year. The success of the school is reflected in Calvin being called the founder of the free school system because all students were tuition-free.
His work in the academy was met with continual health issues. In February of 1564 Calvin gave his last sermon and last lecture and in the following months prepared a will, told his friends goodbye and died on May 27.
Calvin had many external influences because he lived during a time of constant war, illness and death. He experienced hardship and physical pain first hand, but continually desired that God be glorified above all. Both his parents died while he was young, his wife and three of his children died, the King of France was killing anyone that was sympathetic to Lutheran theology, and the Plague killed millions of people. His entire ministry took place outside of his homeland because of the persecution of Protestants in France. He was very passionate about bringing the Gospel to his people even though he served in his adoptive home. He never returned home to France and his last years of life were endured with constant pain.
Other reformers and theologians such as Martin Luther, Erasmus and Augustine influenced Calvin. His work in the New Testament can be directly related to Erasmus and his humanistic schooling. His knowledge of the original language, the principle of interpretation of obscurity based on that which is clear, historical interpretation and the authority of the Holy Spirit through the Word; all can be attributed to the influence of Erasmus. Calvin acknowledged Augustinian influence throughout his writing and credits him for accurate Biblical interpretation.
Calvin’s life brought glory to God through his dedication to writing. The amount of work and time he gave to complete the quantity of qualitative writing is almost impossible to imagine alongside his preaching and teaching schedule. His collection of fifty-nine volumes of works titled Corpus Reformatorum includes commentaries and sermons that he preached. The commentaries consist of thirty-eight books of the Old Testament and fifteen books of the New Testament. The only books not covered in his New Testament commentaries are II John, III John and Revelation. The book of Romans was his first commentary. The volume on Exodus-Deuteronomy as well as the volume on the Gospels exemplifies Calvin’s work of not only quantity, but also quality. He was able to clearly organize and harmonize the narratives of Moses and the narratives of the life of Jesus.
Calvin also wrote and edited the Institutes of Christian Religion and wrote letters and tracts. He produced the Institutes initially in 1536, but expanded five times until the completion in 1559. He wrote this work to bring awareness of those being persecuted and killed for their faith in France by the king. The Institutes are the doctrines of the Reformation explained and expanded with great attention to the Spirit throughout the Scriptures. He interpreted the Bible literally by seeking the original meaning not the allegorical meaning. He addresses each doctrine through the Scripture expanded and The Spirit of God within Calvin is exemplified through his large amount of letters that he wrote to other pastors.
Central to John Calvin’s theology is his Doctrine of Providence. He believed that God is sovereign over all creation in a way that he is actually controlling all aspects, big and small, positive and negative, of all time. God is completely involved in every detail across all nations and throughout all past, present and future. “Calvin clearly taught that in order for man to be saved, the Holy Spirit had to work efficaciously and irresistibly to bring him from a state of spiritual death to spiritual life.”
Another significant doctrine was his accommodation and illumination of Scripture. Calvin believed that God reveals himself to us through the Bible, which is true and inspired. However, being all knowing, God knew they we would not be able to understand the depth of God so he accommodates Himself to persons in his Word. The Holy Spirit is the one that illuminates the Word to us and helps us to apply it to our lives. Calvin said, “without the illumination of the Spirit the word has no effect…”
Similar to Augustine, Calvin’s theology of sin and grace is confirmed in his belief of double predestination and effectual calling. In book three of the Institutes Calvin defines the doctrine of predestination in Chapter 21 entitled Eternal Election. He said that Scripture explains that the eternal unchangeable God by his pleasure determined whom to save and whom to “doom to destruction”. Only by the free mercy of God are the elect called and justified. The elect are effectually saved by God without doing anything by themselves to earn their election.
Calvin said, “It is plain how greatly ignorance of this principle detracts from the glory of God, and impairs true humility.” Again he is concerned about the glory of God. He laid out the Old Testament Israelite nationalism as evidence for God’s salvation of only the elect. Then, he went on to emphasized the individualist election in the New Testament by quoted Paul from Romans 11:6. He was committed to a Biblical understanding of predestination.
Calvin’s belief of penal substitution had not been argued prior to his engagement. Penal substitution is the fact that Jesus paid the sin debt that we owe and absorbed the wrath of God that we deserve. On the cross Jesus subjected himself to the wrath of God that we deserve for our sin so that we might be receive the blessing of salvation. Calvin references Isaiah 53:5, 10; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13; and 1 Peter 2:24. Christ’s righteousness has been credited to us though we are sinners and unrighteous. Then, Calvin proceeds to his belief of imputation, which he explains is what God does when he sees us as righteous through Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit is the subject of more of Calvin’s writings than any other. He believed that the Spirit was actively working in the believer to increase holiness and thus making him progressively more sanctified. He writes four sections in chapter one of book three on the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is at work bringing the believer the joys of knowing Christ and the delight of many blessings. The ministry of the Spirit is defined by Calvin through 1 Pet. 1:2 and 1 Cor. 6:11 as a seal of cleansing and purifying for salvation. The Spirit continues to make us like Christ in our sanctification because he is “the seed and root of heavenly life in us”.
Calvin did believe in Covenantal Paedobaptism, the regulative principle of worship, the centrality of preaching, and the spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Although he did not complete a decisive theology on the extent of the atonement, he acknowledged that the Bible contains language that would constitute both the limited and general view of the atonement of Christ. His followers would debate this subject after his death.
Calvin wanted the glory of God to be enjoyed by people in Geneva as well as around the world. He trained and sent out missionaries and welcomed persecuted believers that he would then train and send back out. Calvin’s students planted churches in France, Scotland, England, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, Germany and Brazil. The churches planted underground in his homeland of France numbered more than three million members.
Through Calvin’s academy in Geneva he provided education to the pastors and missionaries before they were sent out. The school would prepare them to plant and pastor churches with a solid biblical foundation. This alone impacted generations across the world. However, Calvin also impacted others by his intense letter writing. He wrote to contemporaries, other reformers, pastors, government leaders and friends. He would encourage them with Scripture as well as deepen their relationship by telling about his own joys and struggles.
Calvin also contributed a wealth of biblical theology to not only the reformed churches, but to all protestant churches. Doctrines still relied upon and used to define how someone interprets the Bible. Thankfully for the church today the church deacons in Geneva hired a man, initially Denis Raguenier, to record everything Calvin said from 1549 until his death. These serve as a representation of preaching during the Reformation and provide a wealth of theological truth.
Legacy to the Church
After Calvin’s death his successor, Theodore Beza, continued the work in Geneva for 40 years. Beza took Calvin’s earlier teaching and put them into a systematic order through writing and added his own doctrine. Later reformers used Calvin’s doctrine as their basis to develop their own theology. The modern five points of Calvinism were not the work of John Calvin himself, but were developed from a meeting of his disciples in 1618-1619 called the Synod of Dordt. The summary of the Dutch Canon of Dordt in English is easily remembered by an acrostic TULIP signifying: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible grace and Preservation of the saints. The five points of Calvinism give a good starting point, but to really know and learn from Calvin, his Commentaries and Institutes should be studied.
John Calvin still plays an active role in the church today through his writing. All theologians today should consider the works of Calvin and learn from his commitment to the careful study of God’s Word. He was humble, hard working, and reflected the glory of God in all aspects of his life. Although he never desired the role of church reformer he joyfully fulfilled the plan God set for him. The providential hand of God was at work through Calvin and he was obedient to the Holy Spirit. He lived a life of worship that brought glory to God.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997.Geisler, Norman L. Systematic Theology, Volume One: Introduction, Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2002.
Calvin, John and James Anderson. Commentary on the Book of Psalms. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.
Calvin, John and John Owen. Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.
Cross, F. L. and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. rev. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Haroutunian, Joseph and Louise Pettibone Smith. Calvin: Commentaries. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958.
Adams, Jay E., Eric J. Alexander, Thabiti Anyabwili, Thomas K. Aschol, Joel R. Beeke, Jerry Bridges, Sinclair B. Ferguson, W. Robert Godfrey, D.G. Hart, Michael Horton, Phillip R. Johnson, Steven J. Lawson, John McArthur, Keith A. Mathison, Burk Parsons, Richard D. Phillips, Harry L. Reeder, Philip Graham Ryken, Derek W.H.Thomas John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine & Doxology. Reformation Trust: Orlando, 2008.
Piper, John. John Calvin and His Passion for the Majesty of God. Crossway: Wheaton, 2009.
Schaff, Philip and David Schley Schaff. History of the Christian Church. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910.
1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997), 3.13.2.
 John Piper, John Calvin and the Majesty of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), 21.
 John Calvin and James Anderson, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), xi.
 Derek W. H. Thomas, John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine & Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons (Reformation Trust: Orlando, 2008), 22.
 John Piper, John Calvin and His Passion for the Majesty of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), 56.
 Philip Schaff and David Schley, History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 804-805.
 Schaff, 820.
 Joseph Haroutunian and Louise Pettibone Smith, Calvin: Commentaries (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), 19.
 Haroutunian and Smith, 16.
 Piper, 55-56.
 Keith A. Mathison, John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine & Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons (Reformation Trust: Orlando, 2008), 174.
 Calvin, Institutes, 3.2.33.
 Ibid, 3.21.7.
 Ibid, 3.21.1.
 Calvin, Institutes, 2.16.6.
 Ibid, 3.1.1-3.1.2
 Harry L. Reeder, John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion Doctrine & Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons (Reformation Trust: Orlando, 2008), 68.
 Thomas, 27.