the legacy of John Calvin

On the Anniversary of John Calvin’s Death, Let’s Look at His Legacy

Undoubtedly, the man John Calvin was used by God to impact the world for the return to biblical truth during the Reformation. He impacted his society in a number of ways, but Calvin was first and foremost a pastor, not an author, professor, or theologian. Dr. Steven Lawson wrote, “For Calvin, preaching was job number one.” In honor of the 451st anniversary of Calvin’s death, here’s a brief biographical sketch of one of God’s most influential instruments in church history.

Calvin’s Early Life

Jean Cauvin on July 10, 1509 in Noyon, France. There is little known about his childhood. As a staunch Roman Catholic, Calvin’s father, Gerard Calvin, intended his three sons to go into the priesthood. About 1521, he attended the University of Paris where he studied logic, grammar, and the French and Latin languages. These studies would have prepared him for a theological education.

At the age of 19, Calvin graduated with his master’s degree. Shortly after, Calvin’s father had a falling-out with the Bishop of Noyon and redirected his brilliant son’s path from the priesthood. Calvin was instructed to begin legal studies at University of Orléans. He also attended the University of Bourges where he learned Greek and other skills that would equip him for the ministry of the Word. Knowledge and understanding of civil law was yet another tool Calvin had available to use when God called him to the pastorate.

With the death of Gerard in 1531, Calvin was free to pursue what he desired, which was classic literature. Through all of his secular education, Calvin was highly educated in grammar, languages, and exegesis. He used his extraordinary gifts and talents while expositing the biblical text and by writing commentaries on the entire Bible except for Song of Solomon and Revelation.

Calvin’s Conversion

While in Bourges, Calvin was converted. He explains a conversion experience similar to Saul of Tarsus. This conversion is believed to have taken place somewhere between 1529 and 1530. Calvin wrote,

. . .when, lo, a very different form of doctrine started up, not one which led us away from the Christian profession, but one which brought it back to its fountain . . . to its original purity. Offended by the novelty, I lent an unwilling ear, and at first, I confess, strenuously and passionately resisted . . . to confess that I had all my life long been in ignorance and error. . . . I at length perceived, as if light had broken in upon me, [a very key phrase, in view of what we will see] in what a sty of error I had wallowed, and how much pollution and impurity I had thereby contracted. Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen . . . as in duty bound, [I] made it my first business to betake myself to thy way [O God], condemning my past life, not without groans and tears. God, by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame … Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with [an] intense desire to make progress.

The Reformation sparked by Martin Luther had a significant impact on him. In November 1533, Nicolas Cop, rector of the University of Paris and friend of Calvin, preached at the opening address of the winter term at the university. The message was a plea for reformation on the basis of the New Testament. Calvin was believed to have collaborated with Cop on the address. Calvin was forced to leave Paris.

No one knows exactly the circumstances that led to Calvin’s conversion from a staunch Roman Catholic to a born again Christian on a mission to dig deep into the gold mine of the Word of God.

Calvin’s Ministry

Just one year after his conversion, Calvin began writing what many people know as the Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Institutes contain what many today believe to be one of the most paramount writings of the Reformation. It consists of four books of clearly described theologies and doctrines of the Christian faith.

From 1536 to 1559, the Institutes would be revamped a total of five times.

Calvin emphasized the authority of Scripture and how it is the only source of absolute religious truth. Calvin writes, “The Word of God, therefore, is the object and target of faith at which one ought to aim.”[1] Calvin wrote the Institutes not to gain popularity for his writing but to defend the faith for the believers who were being harshly persecuted by the Catholic Church.

In Basel, Switzerland, a Protestant stronghold, Calvin penned his Institutes. It was published when he was just 26 years old!

In 1536, Calvin decided to move to Strasbourg, Germany to further his studies as a quiet scholar. Due to a war between Francis I and Charles the V, he was forced to take a detour though Geneva, where he only intended to stay one night.

As he entered the city, he was recognized as the author of the Institutes. Geneva had separated from the RCC and was a Reformation city, but was without a gifted teacher who could teach them the reformed doctrine. He was strongly encouraged by Pastor William Farel to begin pastoring a church in Geneva. Calvin wrote,

Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me. And after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquility of the studies which I sought, 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; but sensible of my natural bashfulness and timidity, I would not bring myself under obligation to discharge any particular office.[2]

After this meeting, he answered God’s call to the pastoral ministry. He had plenty of work to do in the newly reformed town of Geneva. They were starved for a qualified shepherd, and God providentially brought Calvin to them. He was now expected to put his gifts, education, and works into action as a pastor.

As a pastor, Calvin called for the Christians in Geneva to live according to the faith, free from sin. He held them accountable by enforcing church discipline. Sadly, not long after Calvin became pastor of Saint Pierre Cathedral, he was dismissed for not allowing members who were living in open sin to partake of the Lord’s Supper.[3]

After just 21 months, Calvin and Farel were forcibly removed from their ministries just for taking a stand on biblical truth. While exiled in Strasbourg, Calvin wrote and he pastored another congregation at the insistence of Martin Bucer — a group of nearly 500 Protestant refugees from France. He wrote commentaries on Romans, revised the Institutes, and A Reply to Sadoleto—a defense of the glory of God in the gospel of grace.[4]

A few years later, Geneva’s spiritual and political situation had deteriorated and found itself begging their pastor to return. On September 13, 1541, as soon as he arrived, he reentered the pulpit at full force picking up right where he left off.  News of Calvin’s expositional preaching of God’s Word spread like wild fire. Protestants from other nations were flocking to Geneva to escape persecution and martyrdom.

His powerful preaching and exegetical teaching of Scripture became a guide post for starving Christians. In Geneva, Calvin would preach over 2,000 sermons. He stayed there for the remainder of his life.

Even though being a pastor was Calvin’s number one priority, he still saw the necessity of biblical scholarship and ministerial training. In 1560, the Geneva Bible was released— the first Bible which included theological notes in the margin. In 1559, Calvin established the Geneva Academy—a a private school for elementary instruction and public school offering more advanced studies in biblical languages and theology to train ministers, lawyers, and doctors.

Calvin’s commitment to train men in the Scriptures had a far-reaching impact that would later be seen in the fruit of men like Scottish Reformer, John Knox. By 1560, more than 100 underground churches were planted by men sent out by Calvin in France. Geneva-trained men planted churches in Italy, Hungary, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, England, Scotland, and the Rhineland—even Brazil.[5]

His Legacy

On February 6, 1564, Calvin preached his last sermon due to a terminal illness. The man John Calvin was used by God in a mighty way to impact the world for the return of biblical truth. Profound writings, expository preaching, and Christian character were displayed in the spiritual life of John Calvin. Throughout his ministry, Calvin faced more adversity than normal.

Besides suffering the death of his son and wife, he endured many physical trials as well. Nevertheless, he boldly and bravely stood firm against unrepentant sinners and heretics in the church. Calvin went to glory on May 27, 1564 at age 54.

His last words were, “How long, O Lord?” (from Psalm 79:5, 89:46). Though he was a sinful man and sometimes erred like the rest of us, he deserves to be remembered and esteemed as one of the mightiest heroes of biblical Christianity. He exemplified the Word of God and preached it until his dying breath. The zeal and passion for sola scriptura Calvin exhibited has had a lasting impact on Protestantism forever, and you and I have benefited immensely from his ministry.

So, how should you respond to this brief biography? Take a minute to thank God today for raising up John Calvin to be a model for pastors and laymen in every generation. We need more men like him this very hour. Pray for more Calvins too. Post Tenebras Lux!

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536, trans. F.L. Battles (Atlanta: John Knox, 1975), 58.

[2] Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, preface.

[3] Steven J. Lawson, The Expository Genius of John Calvin (Lake Mary: Reformation Trust, 2007), 12.

[4] Steven J. Lawson, The Pillars of Grace: A Long Line of Godly Men, vol. 2, (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2011), 507.

[5] Lawson, The Pillars of Grace, 509.

The Glory of God changes everything


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