Celebrating the Legacy of John Calvin, Part 1


July 10 is the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. Lots of people are celebrating. There are new Calvin biographies. There are Calvin conferences. I’ve seen some Calvin t-shirts. Someone even sent me a Calvin bobblehead! All this after 500 years. Why? In three consecutive blogs, I’d like to try to answer that question.

John Calvin was one of the great Protestant Reformers. He lived from 1509-1564. While he was born in France, he fled to Switzerland and spent most of his mature years ministering in Geneva and Strasbourg making a defense of Reformation and Biblical truth. Let me briefly outline the legacy of John Calvin.

A Pastor Many think of Calvin, almost exclusively, as a great theologian. But above all, he was a pastor. That was his bread and butter day job. He preached five sermons (different ones) a week, for the entire course of his ministry in Geneva. He did pastoral counseling, taught Bible studies, conducted weddings and baptisms, administered the sacraments, oversaw discipleship, and cared for the sick and afflicted. Scholars are only recently discovering just how much pastoral work Calvin did. With the translation and publishing of letters to his flock, we are catching a glimpse into how he ministered to people during times of trial. In these letters, his pastoral heart comes out.

A Preacher A great deal of his pastoral work involved preaching. Calvin was at the forefront of a new movement for expository preaching in the church. He modeled this through clear exposition of the Bible in pulpit and in print. For example, He took four years to preach through Acts. He breached through Ephesians in 48 sermons. Galatians in 43. Genesis in 123, etc. To see how important his ministry was as a preacher and Bible teacher, all you need to do is line his commentaries up side by side on a shelf. His sermons take up a space about the width of the span of my arms. Whereas his famous volumes on theology, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, take up about two and a half inches.

While he was a shy, somewhat reserved person, something happened when Calvin stood up in the pulpit. He came alive by a hidden energy (of the Holy Spirit). By all accounts he was a superb preacher. Calvin scholar T.H. L. Parker, writes, “Those in Geneva who listened Sunday after Sunday, day after day, and did not shut their ears, but were instructed, admonished, exhorted, and censured, received a training in Christianity such as had been given to few congregations in Europe.”

A Reformer Calvin was also a reformer. When called to Geneva as pastor, Calvin’s goal was to consolidate the Reformation in Geneva and to make that city a “holy commonwealth” where the laws of God would become the laws of man. He was not the cold blooded tyrant ruling Geneva with an iron fist, as some have said. This does not fit the facts of history. But this is not to say that his reforms came easy. With regard to city reforms, Calvin began pushing for public schools and more democracy. He arranged for the care of the poor, the refugee and the aged. He sought to curb wife beating and drunkenness. But he also pushed for laws against swearing, gambling, fornication and dancing. As you can imagine, Calvin was often opposed. He was once fired as the pastor of Geneva. Some people threatened his life. Others sicked their dogs on him!

With regard to the church, he modified church government. There would be no popes, cardinals or bishops. Instead they would have a simple, representative form of government, with elders, deacons, pastors and teachers. For this reason Calvin’s church was called “the reformed church” and Calvin himself dubbed “the father of Presbyterianism.” In worship, Calvin brought back congregational singing into the church, instead of relying on professionals.

A Church Planter Another aspect of Calvin’s influence that scholars are just discovering is his role in planting churches. During a time when Protestants were being persecuted all over Europe, thousands fled to Geneva as a city of refuge. There, many enrolled in Calvin’s schools, and listened to his preaching. He created a school for pastors in 1557 where he trained hundreds of pastors and missionaries. When they finally went back to their home countries, they planted churches and spread reformed theology.

People forget that Calvin created an international movement. Whereas Lutheranism remained largely confined to Germany and the Scandinavian countries, Calvinism spread from Hungary and Poland in the East, to the Netherlands, Scotland and eventually New England in the West. John Knox, a Marian Exile, who later introduced the Reformation to Scotland, was so impressed with Calvin that he referred to him as “that noble servant of God,” and Geneva under Calvin as “the most perfect school of Christ that was ever in the earth since the days of the Apostles.”

In the last ten years of his life, the overriding concern of Calvin’s life was missions. This too surprises people who assume that his teaching about predestination was an inhibitor of missionary activity. Not so with Calvin. He sent missionaries to France, Scotland, the Netherlands, Hungry, Poland, Italy, England, the imperial city states of the Rhineland, and even to Brazil. They went hoping to preach the gospel and spread reformation to those countries. After they went, Calvin often corresponded with them to encourage and give advice. By 1562, scholars have discovered that Geneva and some of her sister cities had planted over 2000 churches in France alone. That would make Calvin one of the leading church planters in church history.

Keep in mind, Calvin never sought to be a pastor, preacher, reformer or church planter. He originally set out to live a quiet scholarly life. But he was pressed into service by his friends. After being dismissed from Geneva and living in Strasbourg for a while, the Geneva city leaders changed their minds and called him back. Calvin did not want to return. Who would? His friend William Farel again pressed him to reconsider. In a letter to Farel on October 24, 1540, Calvin shared his thoughts. Against his natural wishes, Calvin wrote that he would return “because I know that I am not my own master, I offer my heart as a true sacrifice to the Lord.” Calvin’s words echo the spirit of Romans 12.1, and actually became for Calvin a motto. They are depicted in an emblem with a hand holding out a heart with the words inscribed “promptly and sincerely.” The letter and the motto give us insight into his own motivations. However, inadequate he was for the job, he wanted to please his Lord.

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