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Learning about John Calvin

Category Articles
Date May 5, 2009

This year is the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. For some people, the very name ‘Calvin’ conjures up images of a tyrannical despot who ruled the city state of Geneva, and its church, with a rod of iron during the middle decades of the sixteenth century. For others, who know their history a little better, and who have actually taken the time to read his magnum opus, The Institutes, and his Commentaries, Calvin is a truly heroic figure, a man who helped establish the Reformation and give Protestantism a coherent theological and biblical rationale. But, sadly, to most Christians today, Calvin is a forgotten man. Few Christians, even within Reformed churches could say much, if anything at all, about the Reformation’s greatest figure (along with Luther). How utterly lamentable this is.

In this brief article, I would like to introduce you to ‘the real John Calvin’. In particular, I want to draw your attention to two features that marked his life and ministry.

In 1539, shortly after he had been exiled from Geneva (the city Council did not want Geneva’s life to be shaped by the Word of God), Calvin wrote to the men who exiled him:

Here, therefore, with the most fervent salutation written by my own hand, do I supplicate the Lord Jesus, that he may protect you in his holy fortress of defence; that he may heap on you his gifts more and more; that he may restore your Church to due order, and specially, that he may fill you with his own spirit of gentleness, so that in the true conjunction of soul we may every one bestow ourselves in the promoting of his kingdom. Your most devoted, servant, J.C.1

So much for the tyrant who brooked no opposition!

When, in the following year, Calvin’s friends urged him to return to Geneva, he gave them an ‘over my dead body’ response. In May of 1540, he wrote to Pierre Viret,

I read that passage in your letter, certainly not without a smile, where you show so much concern about my health, and recommend Geneva on that ground. Why could you not have said, the cross? For it would have been far preferable to perish once for all than to be tormented again in that place of torture. Therefore, my dear Viret, if you wish well to me, make no mention of such a proposal.2

Calvin saw himself as a ‘timid scholar’, and the thought of returning to Geneva with all its tumults was anathema to him. And yet the following year he returned. Why? He explained in a letter he wrote to his colleague William Farel in August 1541,

As to my intended course of proceeding, this is my present feeling: had I the choice at my own disposal, nothing would be less agreeable to me than to follow your advice (to return to Geneva). But when I remember that I am not my own, I offer up my heart, presented as a sacrifice to the Lord . . . Therefore I submit my will and my affections, subdued and held-fast, to the obedience of God; and whenever I am at a loss for counsel of my own, I submit myself to those by whom I hope that the Lord himself will speak to me.3

Imbedded in these words are Calvin’s personal motto: an emblem with a picture of a flaming heart held up in a hand with the inscription: ‘Cor meum tibi offero, Domine, prompte et sincere.‘ ‘My heart I offer to you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.’

This is the Calvin of history and not of legend.

Secondly, it is often forgotten that before he was anything else, Calvin considered himself a pastor. Nicolas des Gallars, one of Calvin’s colleagues in Geneva (amanuensis, editor and translator), summed up his pastoral ministry in this way:

What labours, what sleeplessness and worry he bore, with what keenness and finesse he foresaw dangers, with what zeal he guarded against them, what fidelity and understanding he showed in everything, what a kind and obliging spirit he had toward those who came to him, how quickly he answered those who asked him even the most serious questions, and with what wisdom he settled both privately and publicly the difficulties and problems which were posed for him to settle, with what sensitivity he comforted those who grieved and lifted up the broken and discouraged, how resolutely he opposed the enemies, how ardently he attacked the prideful and the obstinate, and with what grandeur of spirit he endured misfortune, with what restraint he behaved in prosperity, and finally with what dexterity and elan he discharged all the duties and responsibilities of a true and faithful servant of God.

Even allowing for the somewhat idealised portrait painted by des Gallars (Calvin for one would have taken him to task), there is no doubt that Calvin was an indefatigable pastor to Christ’s flock in Geneva. In his Commentary on Acts 20:20, he has some searching things to say about the calling of ministers:

For Christ hath not appointed pastors upon this condition, that they may only teach the Church in general in the open pulpit; but that they may take charge of every particular sheep, that they may bring back to the sheepfold those which wander and go astray, that they may strengthen those which are discouraged and weak, that they may cure the sick, that they may lift up and set on foot the feeble, (Ezek. 34:4) for common doctrine will oftentimes wax cold, unless it be holpen with private admonitions.

Calvin wrote to a friend (Heinrich Bullinger) complaining that the people of his day were admiring their ministers for the pulpit oratory and not for their pastoral visitations and labours.4

Calvin had strong views on pastors who made preaching an excuse for neglecting pastoral counselling:

Wherefore the negligence of those men is inexcusable, who, having made one sermon, as if they had done their task, live all the rest of their time idly; as if their voice were shut up within the church walls, seeing that so soon as they departed, thence they be dumb (Commentary on Acts 20:20).

If nothing else, these two features, his humble submission to God’s will, and his commitment to the pastoral care of Christ’s flock, should help us to appreciate ‘the real Calvin’. He was far from perfect, as he was the first to admit. His temper could be volcanic and it caused him great grief. But John Calvin was a spiritual colossus. He was God’s man, not only for sixteenth century Geneva, but for his church in all ages. In this year of anniversary, let me encourage you to read Calvin (he writes beautifully and simply). If you don’t know where to start, ask me and I will be delighted (really delighted!) to give you advice. Buy a good biography – again, I will point you in the right direction.

More than any other human, John Calvin has inspired and shaped my Christian life. A friend of mine was asked what had made him the Christian he is, and he replied: ‘Calvin shaped me and Owen filled me’. To a much lesser extent, I can say the same. Know your history. Know your godly heritage. Thank our merciful and gracious God for raising up men like John Calvin, born in Noyon, France, July 10, 1509.


  1. John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, Volume 4, p.149
  2. Ibid. p.187
  3. Ibid. pp.280-1
  4. Ibid. p.66

Ian Hamilton is Pastor of the Cambridge Presbyterian Church.

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