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John Calvin: An Appreciation by Erroll Hulse

Category Articles
Date August 28, 2009

During this the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin I would like to express three ways in which John Calvin is an inspiration to me.

First he is an inspiration as a pastor/preacher.

John Calvin was a pastor for 27 years. First he served at St Peter’s Church in Geneva from 1536 to 1538. There was opposition to his reforms. He was dismissed, whereupon he served a French-speaking church in Strasbourg from 1538 to 1541. He testified that to be the happiest period of his life. He was then called back to Geneva and continued to be pastor at St Peter’s Church from 1541 until his decease in 1564. Tremendous spiritual battles ensued. Then 1555 to 1564 was relatively peaceful, enabling Calvin to devote more time to missionary enterprise.

As a pastor Calvin was exemplary in personal godliness, in family life and in the ministry of prayer. His pastoral care for people is reflected in his letter writing, there being 4000 letters extant.1 Calvin stuck to his pastoral calling through trials of every kind and persevered through terrible painful physical afflictions. If he had suffered like that in the 21st Century he would have been under the supervision of at least four specialist medical consultants.

Initially Calvin preached three times each Lord’s Day, twice at St Peter’s and once in a weekly rotation of St Gervais and Rive. Daily worship was offered in all three churches. French was the language used. It is estimated that the preaching rota required that Calvin preach five sermons a week. His preaching was so well prepared that his delivery could be entirely extemporary. He had only the Bible open before him in its original languages. He knew it was necessary for preaching to be inspired, energetic, gripping and passionate. The extemporary method can be disastrous if used by preachers who are not gifted like Calvin. Even Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd-Jones used rough outlines, which is the method I am most comfortable with, but most preachers seem to prefer to carry full notes with them into the pulpit.

I have always followed Calvin’s way of sequential preaching, going through books systematically. Calvin preached 123 sermons on Genesis, 201 on Deuteronomy, 175 on Ezekiel and 47 on Daniel. He preached through Romans and John and Acts, the latter in 189 sermons.2 From these sermons came his published commentaries. He wrote full commentaries on 24 out of 39 books of the Old Testament and on all the New Testament books with the exception of 2 and 3 John and Revelation.3 His example inspired the English Puritans to follow the same method of sequential preaching, followed in turn by refinement and editing before the publication of expositions of the highest quality.

Secondly I am inspired by Calvin the theologian.

Early in his life Calvin was tutored by top scholars in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. The time of his sudden (unexpected) conversion probably took place in 1530. In March 1536, aged only 27, he published The Institutes of the Christian Religion in a 516 page pocket edition, expounding the Law, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sacraments and Christian liberty. All this was designed to edify the increasing number of Protestants in France. Later improved, enlarged editions of The Institutes were published. I prize my two volume 1,733 page edition, translated by Ford Lewis Battles and edited by John McNeil.

I especially value Calvin’s exposition of the Ten Commandments and believe that vast theological sound sense and good has been preserved through his holding to the distinctiveness of the moral, civil and ceremonial law (ibid. pages 1503ff).

Every Bible believer in the world today holds either to Calvinism or Arminianism, there being nothing in between. It was at the international Synod of Dort, 1618, that the so-called five points of Calvinism were defended against the five points of the followers of Arminius (1560-1609). Calvin died 54 years before the Synod of Dort, yet his name was given to those who followed his teaching on salvation. He was cogent on the doctrines of the bondage of the will, election, irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints, but also on common grace and human responsibility. Unlike John Owen who wrote a treatise on particular redemption,4 Calvin did not. Theologians are divided as to whether Calvin held to particular redemption, to which I devote a chapter in my book, Who Saves?.5

Thirdly I am inspired by Calvin the missionary.6

This is very important and relevant because next year the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation is to convene in Capetown, South Africa. In the publicity, missiologist Christopher Wright criticises the 16th-century Reformation because, ‘it lacked missionary awareness and energy’. This negative line follows an earlier critic, Gustav Warneck, who made the outrageous claim that, ‘We miss in the Reformers not only missionary action, but even the idea of missions.’

The reality is that Calvin’s Geneva became the hub of a vast missionary enterprise. Europe was unevangelised. Ministers trained under Martin Luther at Wittenburg and with effective preaching ministries transformed the religious landscape of Europe. For instance two brothers – Laurentius and Olaus Petri – both powerful preachers, turned Sweden from Catholicism to Lutheranism. Likewise, refugees studied and trained at Geneva and returned as missionaries/church planters – in the Acts 13-14 sense of preachers/church planters – to Italy, the Netherlands, the independent states of the Rhineland, Hungary, Poland, Germany, England and Scotland where John Knox exercised an amazingly effective ministry. The majority of foreign refugees in Geneva came, like Calvin himself, from France. Although now settled in Geneva, Calvin retained a missionary burden for his homeland. And so it was Calvin’s homeland that received a large number of trained preachers/church planters. Robert Kingdon’s research has revealed that 142 missionaries left Geneva for France in 1561 alone. More than one hundred underground churches had been planted in France by 1560 and the number increased to 2150 by 1562, and in the years that followed the number of Protestant believers rose to over two million.

Of these missionaries those who were not already accredited pastors were obliged to conform to rigorous standards set up by Calvin. The moral life of the candidate, his theological integrity, and his preaching ability were subject to careful examination. With regard to moral discipline a system was established by which the pastors were responsible to each other. There was an exacting code listing offences that were not to be tolerated in a minister. Offences involving money, dishonesty or sexual misconduct meant instant dismissal. Time and time again I have observed failure in missionary effort today because of neglect of these basic biblical standards.

All Calvin’s students had to be fully proficient in Latin, Hebrew and Greek, in order to be thoroughly proficient in line-by-line exegesis of the Scriptures. They were required to be trained in Church History and Systematic Theology. Character training was paramount. These pastors had to face the reality of martyrdom. Only when Calvin judged a man to possess the necessary fibre and stamina would he be sent into France to preach and plant churches.

John Calvin is the father of Presbyterianism and his missionary zeal has been repeated many times in Presbyterian denominations. One example is the missionary outreach from the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, extending to many tribes across southern Africa, by missionaries who had been converted in a powerful revival in the prisoner-of-war camps in Bermuda and Sri Lanka during the Boer War (1899-1902). Another example is South Korea, the home of the largest and most numerous Presbyterian bodies. Only the USA exceeds South Korea in the number of serving missionaries in the world today.

Leading missiologist David Bosch states: ‘It is absurd to summon the Reformers before the tribunal of the modern missionary movement and find them guilty for not having subscribed to a definition of mission which did not even exist in their time’.7 John Calvin accepted the principle of Corpus Christianum: the whole of society is nominally ‘Christian’, cemented together by infant baptism, that is all without exception. Roman Catholic baptism was recognised. Evangelisation or mission was to preach for conversion and gather believers into churches and then employ various disciplines to maintain consistent church membership. The difference between the way the apostles practised entrance into the Christian Church by believers’ baptism versus Corpus Christianum will doubtless be re-appraised in the future especially since Western Europe is increasingly no longer even nominally ‘Christian’ but secular.

Fleeing for his life from Paris Calvin lived briefly in Poitiers in 1535-1536. In Poitiers he engaged in secret evangelism in homes and held secret services in a cave just outside the city. That missionary mindset never left him and it is significant that the first named Genevan missionary, Jacques L’Anglois was sent to Poitiers.

As pastor/preacher, theologian and missionary, the influence of John Calvin continues world-wide today.


  1. See John Calvin: Tracts and Letters (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009).
  2. The following volumes of Calvin’s sermons are available from the Trust (as of August 2009):-

    Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11 (2009)
    Translated by Rob Roy McGregor
    888 pages, clothbound
    £20.00, $39.00
    ISBN 978 1 84871 038 2

    Sermons on 2 Samuel (1992)
    Translated by Douglas Kelly
    696 pages, clothbound
    £18.00, $47.00
    ISBN 978 0 85151 578 6

    Sermons on the Beatitudes (2006)
    Translated by Robert White
    128 pages, clothbound
    £9.00, $20.00
    ISBN 978 0 85151 934 0

    Songs of the Nativity: Selected Sermons on Luke 1 & 2 (2008)
    Translated by Robert White
    280 pages, clothbound
    £15.00, $24.00
    ISBN 978 1 84871 010 8

    Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 1-7 (2008)
    Translated by Rob Roy McGregor
    688 pages, clothbound
    £18.00, $36.00
    ISBN 978 0 85151 968 5

    Sermons on Galatians (1997)
    Translated by Kathy Childress
    688 pages, clothbound
    £18.00, $47.00
    ISBN 978 0 85151 699 8

    Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians (1973)
    From the 16th century translation by Arthur Golding, revised by Leslie Rawlinson and S M Houghton
    728 pages, clothbound
    £18.00, $36.00
    ISBN 978 0 85151 170 2

  3. The following volumes of Calvin’s commentaries are available from the Trust in the Geneva Series (as of August 2009):-

    Genesis (1965)
    From the Calvin Translation Society edition of 1847
    1088 pages, clothbound
    £20.00, $39.75
    ISBN 978 0 85151 093 4

    Jeremiah & Lamentations, 5 Volumes (1989)
    From the Calvin Translation Society edition of 1855
    Clothbound, £58.00, $90.00
    ISBN 978 0 85151 552 6

    Daniel (1966)
    From the Calvin Translation Society edition of 1852-3
    808 pages, clothbound, £17.00, $35.75
    ISBN 978 0 85151 092 7

    Also, new in 2009, an abridgement by David C. Searle of Calvin’s Commentary on the Psalms:-

    Commentary on the Psalms (2009)
    684 pages, clothbound
    £18.00, $32.00
    ISBN 978 1 84871 031 3

  4. John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Banner of Truth, 1959). J. I. Packer’s introduction is brilliant.
  5. Erroll Hulse, Who Saves, God or Me?, 144 pages, paperback (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2009).
  6. In 1992 Jean-Marc Berthoud at the annual Westminster Conference in London made a major impact in our thinking about John Calvin as a missionary when he presented the results of his research in a paper with the title ‘John Calvin and the Spread of the Gospel in France.’ The Westminster Conference papers are published and are available from John Harris, 8 Back Knowl Road, Mirfield, WF14 9SA, UK. More recently, Calvin as Missionary was advanced further by Dr Jonathan Bayes in a paper read at our monthly Yorkshire Reformed Ministers’ Fraternal. This is to be published in full in Reformation Today, Issue 231. In addition to probing the mind of Calvin on mission, Dr Bayes describes the work into France and in addition provides a detailed description of Calvin’s attempt to establish a missionary base in Brazil.
  7. David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, 587 pages, Number 16 in the American Society of Missiology Series (Maryknoll New York: Orbis Books, 1991), p.244.

Notes 1 – 3 added.

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