Description / Transcription
It’s a joy for me, hopefully will be for you, to take this occasion on October 31 to think together about the life of John Calvin. If you’ve heard of John Calvin, and the fact that you’re here means that you probably have, if you’ve heard of John Calvin you either really, really like him, or you really, really don’t. There are few characters in church history more admired and more despised than John Calvin.
Here’s one of Calvin’s admirers from a church history book. He writes, “There are some who pour scorn on Calvin and his works, and among them are men who speak as if Calvin taught nothing but the doctrine of predestination, but it is not so. Calvin taught the whole counsel of God and even concerning predestination, none can truthfully say that what Calvin wrote and preached in any way departed from Scripture. What Scripture taught, Calvin believed. What Calvin believed, he proclaimed to all who would listen to him, and from his own day to ours, men of discernment have regarded him as perhaps the greatest of all Christian teachers since the time of the apostles.”
That would be an admirer.
From the other side. This comes from a poem by a Roman Catholic. The poem is called Visiting Geneva. It’s from First Things in 2009. Here’s just a few stanzas.
“Calvin, padlock of the Sabbath,
your followers protect you:
predestination wasn’t yours, they claim,
nor were the Elect you,
but: when you were God
sermons went on all day
without numen or presence.
Children were denied play.
I loved your moral snobbery
but the spirits you relied on,
turned atheist long ago.
Come to Italy, messer John.”
Earlier in the poem the author has this line:
“John Calvin, unforgiver,
in your Taliban hat
you pervade bare St. Peter’s
in la France protestante.”
So that would be not an admirer. It’s a bleak picture. In fact, if you were to speak to many people outside of Reformed Presbyterian Calvinist circles, if they’ve heard of John Calvin, they would much more likely agree with the poem I just read than the paragraph I read prior. Calvin, a padlock of the sabbath, sermons went on in Geneva all day, the children could not play, he in his Taliban hat with his autocratic rule.
Obviously, I am on the admiring side of things, but to claim John Calvin as a hero, or as a formative influence, does not mean we have to be blind to his faults.
There are two dangers when it comes to doing church history. One is hagiography, that is you look at people in your tradition and your heroes, those men and women, and you only present them as saints and you’re not honest about their faults and their flaws. The other danger, which is much more popular today, I call hamartiography, that’s the word for sin, meaning instead of warts and all, it’s warts and nothing else.
We’re going to try to look at Calvin with an admiring approach but yet be honest about his faults. He was a brilliant intellect, a godly man, a good pastor, a humble student of the Word, an obedient servant in the cause of the Gospel. He was also impatient, prone to anger, a man of his age with its passions and some of its blind spots.
You may notice in the bulletin I’ve entitled this talk “The Weakness of Man and the Permanence of the Word: The Life of John Calvin.” I did choose this title for a few reasons. Number one, because Calvin certainly had his share of weaknesses, physical and spiritual. He was an oak of righteousness and he was also a short-lived, fragile blade of grass, so he was a weak man.
Second reason for the title, the universe of Calvin’s thought was one where man was small and God was very big.
In our day, sometimes Calvinist doctrine, at least when it comes to soteriology, has been called by the shorthand phrase “Big God” theology, and it is. Calvin had no problem begin thought of as dust or a worm or grass because he knew that’s what man and woman, that’s what we are compared to the infinite glory of God.
And the third reason for this title comes from Isaiah chapter 40:
“A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.”
I think that could be a suitable life verse for John Calvin because whatever lasting impact he has had on the Church, and indeed on the whole world, it is owing to his commitment to understanding and explaining the Word of God.
You may have heard the famous saying from Luther, that in his typical overstatement that all he did was drink beer in Wittenberg and the Word did the rest. Well, it’s true, the work of the Reformation was the work of the Word of God, and especially so with Calvin, from sermons to lectures to letters to tracts to treatises to confessions to catechisms to his books, his entire adult life was consumed with one thing: The Word of God, how to interpret it, how to apply it, how to reform your life and society according to it. That was the foundation for everything that he did. His confidence was in the Word, and that’s why his theology and his vision of the world continues to capture minds and hearts today all of these hundreds of years later.
You can mark it very well, if you strive for relevance in your day, you may make a difference for a few years, perhaps even a generation. But if you want to leave a legacy that lasts more than a few years, anchor itself in what is eternal. You just may influence someone for another 500 years.
By all means, go and dream big dreams and try to find a cure for cancer or go and be President, write a best-selling novel, but remember: Your glory will not last, my glory will not last. Your great accomplishments will fall away, likely in this lifetime, yours and mine, almost certainly within a generation.
As sobering as it is, it will only take two or three generations. You might think, “Well, my kids will remember me and my grandkids.” But great-grandkids? How much do you remember about your great-grandparents? A few things here and there. And if you go one more generation, great-great-grandparents, it’s only in stories that have been passed down.
And so it is even for those who come directly from us. For most of us, what we do will be quickly forgotten. Dead grass, faded flowers.
But here’s what stands forever: The Word of God.
John Calvin was a man, in imperfect, sinful man, but a man that God used because he put his confidence in the Word of God, and so his influence continues to resonate today.
Well, who was this man? Most of our time her is going to be in biography, and then we’ll circle back around to this theme, the weakness of man and the permanence of the Word.
John Calvin was born with the French name Jehan Cauvin, in Noyon, France on July 10, 1509. His father, Gerard, was a secretary to the local bishop, a member of the rising middle class. His mother died when he was only 4 or 5. His father quickly remarried. His early childhood was fairly unremarkable. In fact, it’s one of the things that’s different about our age. We, and I’m not saying one is better or worse, there’s probably some truth somewhere halfway between, but we tend to read a whole lot into someone’s childhood experiences in forming them and shaping them and explaining who they are and all their family systems, and that’s a relatively recent phenomenon, whereas Calvin and his immediate biographers spent very little time thinking about childhood, it was just something that you did when you weren’t an adult, and children were more seen than heard. So we can find some happy medium between that, but we don’t know very much about Calvin’s upbringing.
He would have gone to Mass. He would have been physically disciplined. He would have made pilgrimages with his family, saw relics, celebrated feasts. He would have lived his life as a typical medieval Christian.
At the age of 12, Calvin received a minor office in the Church. This was not unusual. He worked for the bishop and this provided him with connection and some money that he could go off to school. University education was a couple centuries old by then and you often went off in your early teens.
Sometimes we hear so and so went off to university at 13 or 14 and we think they must have been a child prodigy, but that’s when they went off for university education.
And he went to the University of Paris where he studied to enter the priesthood. In Paris, he was so strict and severe that some of the other students nicknamed him “the accusative case.” That’s a real, real nerd joke there, but “the accusative case,” which is something you learned about in grammar and learning a language.
He loves his books. He was never one prone to extravagance or wildness.
His father fell afoul of the local church back home and so Calvin’s finances dried up. He was urged to pursue law instead and around 1528 he began studying law at Orleans in Bourges.
Somewhere in this time period, we don’t know exactly when, but in his early 20s most likely, Calvin experienced a conversion to the faith of the Reformation. We have the most autobiographical information about Calvin in his preface to his commentary on the Psalms. He loved the Psalms. He often saw himself and his life of suffering and hardship and persecution in the life of the Psalms, and so in a rare moment of autobiography, he writes: “By a sudden conversion I was subdued and God brought my mind to a teachable frame.”
In 1532, his first book was published, a commentary on Seneca’s Book on Clemency, so not exactly a best-seller. It was a good book for a young scholar to write, it was the sort of thing that you did, writing on some ancient philosopher, his view on clemency, but if that’s all that Calvin had done, no one would be talking about him today. He would have been a nice scholar in his day, but no one would have heard him all these years later.
In 1533, in Paris, his friend, a man name Nicolas Cop, gave a very pro-Lutheran address. Now remember, there’s not Lutherans and Reformed, pro-Lutheran meant that the views of Luther, his cataclysmic incendiary views, and his friend Nicolas Cop gave a very pro-Lutheran address. That was considered scandalous. Remember, at this time theology, politics, international relations, all of this is tied up in the theology that is coming out of certain Lutheran centers.
And when his friend, Nicolas Cop, gives this address, Calvin is implicated. In fact, some scholars today think that Calvin actually wrote the address. So Calvin is in trouble and he flees for fear of his life and he is on the run, hiding out until 1534. There is something called the Affair of the Placards, a placard meaning a sign that you hold up. There were signs, these placards, were held up in French towns attacking the Mass, so it was a coordinated effort to attack the Catholic service, the Mass.
In response to this, the state struck back and they began persecuting these nascent Protestants. Some of Calvin’s friends, in fact, were executed. Calvin was forced to go into exile to the city of Basel, which was a Swiss town, German-speaking. It was a Reformation town. What happened is you would have various towns, it wasn’t quite the system of nation-states we have today, and these various towns would declare for or against the Reformation, and if your prince or your magistrates declared, your whole town was for a Reformation. This was before the days of toleration, religious freedom, so you were either for the medieval Catholic church and that system which had continued, or you were for the Reformation. He fled to Basel, a Reformation town.
And there he completes the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536. He’s 27 years old. You’ve maybe seen the books before, they’re this thick. Well, the book that he wrote when he was 27 makes us feel a little a little bit better was not nearly so long. The first edition had only six chapters, one on the law, that is the 10 commandments, a chapter on the Apostles’ Creed, a chapter on the Lord’s Prayer, two chapters on the sacraments, and a chapter on Christian freedom. It was meant to be short summary of this theology coming out of the Reformation, and his book was a surprise success. It sold out in nine months, which probably at that time meant thousands, we’re not talking tens and hundreds and millions of copies, but it was a success.
As I mentioned this morning, Calvin finds himself in France and deciding now from Basel to France to settle in Strasbourg, but because of military exercises, the road is closed and Calvin has to find another way, and so he stops, one of these great moments in providential history, in Geneva.
Geneva had recently decided for the Reformation. The decision was more political than spiritual for the town. When you hear, oh, it’s a Reformation city, you should not think, well, all the townspeople were committed Protestants, won over to the Reformation. No, they weren’t. But the leaders had decided, “We’re going to be a Protestant city,” and they needed help in bringing the rest of the population along.
Enter the picture this fiery man, Guilhenm, or William Farel. He was leading the Reformation in Geneva, and when he was told that the author of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, this best-selling little book, that the author, Calvin himself, was in Geneva, Farel knew he had to see him.
Go back to Calvin’s preface to the Psalms years later. He writes about this encounter with Farel. Calvin admitted that he was by nature “unpolished and bashful,” which led him to prefer “shade and retirement.” In other words, Calvin wanted a quiet place to pursue his scholarship. Nothing wrong with doing that, but it’s often in history not what God has in store, and certainly not for Calvin.
William Farel would have nothing of it. He would not hear Calvin’s plans to go to Strasbourg and live a life of quiet scholarship.
Here’s what Calvin writes years later: “I had resolved to continue in the same privacy and obscurity until at length William Farel detained me at Geneva. Not so much by counsel and exhortation, as by a dreadful imprecation, which I felt to be as if God from heaven laid His mighty hand upon me to arrest 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, in finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceed to utter an imprecation,” that means a curse, to utter a curse “that God would curse my retirement and the tranquility of my studies which I sought if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance when the necessity was so urgent.”
In other words, Farel says, “We need you here, the work needs you.” Calvin says, “No, no, I’m heading to Strasbourg. It’s a quiet life. I’m going to be a scholar. I don’t want to be in the limelight. I’m shy, I’m bashful. This is not for me.” And getting nowhere with his please, finally Farel pronounces upon him, “A curse upon you. May God smite you in the quiet of your studies.” And so he relents.
And Calvin takes up the work in Geneva from 1536 to 1538. His efforts were very much not appreciated. He was French. To oppose him became an act of patriotism. He was an outsider. He had no real political power. It’s not that he was made into some chief magistrate in town or the mayor or the governor. He reintroduced church discipline. He could be impatient, irritable, faults that he bemoaned throughout his life. And they just plain didn’t like his changes.
Yeah, you have this new people, they’ve just decided as a city for the Reformation, these people don’t know a whole lot about it. They need great Reformation. What counsel might you give to a young pastor? Well, just move slowly, just wait, just sort of earn their trust. Well, whether that would have been good advice or not, it’s not the way that Calvin operated. He went in, “You brought me in here for Reformation, let’s get the Reformation under way.” It was a rocky two years. The people disliked him intensely. Mobs rioted outside his house. They threatened to throw him into the river. The people named their dogs Calvin, and this was not like, “Oh, we named him Calvin and Piper and Edwards.” No, it wasn’t that. It was mangy mutts running around they named Calvin. They opposed him at every turn.
Looking back at those two years, those first two years at Geneva, Calvin said, “This I can truly testify, that not a day passed in which I did not long for death ten times over.” And he said about Geneva, “There is no place under heaven that I am more afraid of. I would submit to death a hundred times rather than to that cross which I had to die daily a thousand deaths.” He didn’t like it there. First he compared it to death ten times, then a hundred times, then a thousand times.
In 1538 he was kicked out of Geneva and Calvin was not disappointed. From 1538 to 1541 Calvin then ministered in Strasbourg. Ah, remember, that’s where he wanted to go in the first place. He wanted to go to Strasbourg. He wanted to go and have a quiet life and he wanted to study and write and do what he could. He wasn’t wanting to live some fancy life. He wanted to make a difference for the cause of the Gospel, but he wanted to do it that was in a way fitting his own personality, and what he thought were his own gifts.
And these three years in Strasbourg were probably the happiest of his life. He pastored a church there. He developed close friendships. He had a particularly close relationship, probably as a son to a father, with the Reformer Martin Bucer. Calvin worked on a French liturgy, French psalms, French hymns. He wrote commentaries. He completed another edition of the Institutes. It was a very fruitful time.
He also got married. Here he is, writing to William Farel, about what he wants in a wife: “Always keep in mind what I seek to find in her, for I am not one of those insane lovers who embrace even the vices of those they are in love with when they are smitten at first sight with a fine figure. The only beauty which allures me is this, that she be chaste, not too nice or fastidious, economical, patient, and likely to take care of my health.” Make a wonderful card: Your figure’s not very fine, I’m not in love your faults, you’re not too nice, but you’re economical, patient, and you’ll take care of me.
He married the widow Idelette de Bure, who had two children of her own, and with Calvin they had one child, a premature baby who died in infancy, so there are no earthly heirs of John Calvin.
Idelette died in the ninth year of their marriage, and as much as we might want to tease Calvin for writing such an unromantic letter to William Farel about what he was looking for in his wife, they did have a very dear, sweet relationship, and he wrote this after her death: “Truly mine is no common source of grief. I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life, of one who had it been so ordained would have willingly shared not only my poverty but even my death. During her lifetime she was the faithful helper of my ministry. From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance. She was never troublesome to me throughout the whole course of her illness, but was more anxious about her children than about herself.”
No doubt many of us husbands could say something similar about our wives, always more anxious about their children than even about themselves.
So he deeply loved Idelette, whom he calls here the best companion of his life and was grieved deeply when their marriage did not even make it a decade.
He’s called back after three blissful years in Strasbourg to Geneva. He did love the people. He wrote a letter when he was in Strasbourg to Cardinal Sadoleto, who was trying to win the people back to Roman Catholicism, and he wrote a reply because he so deeply cared and wanted to protect the flock that was in Geneva, even though he had been kicked out of there. He did care for them, but he was not eager to return. He says, “I read that passage of your letter,” this I believe is to Farel, “I read that passage of your letter, certainly not without a smile, where you show so much concern for my health and recommend Geneva on that ground. Why could you not have said the cross, for would it have been far preferable to perish once for all than to be tormented again in that place of torture?” Ha ha ha, William, very funny. Come to Geneva. Beautiful this time of year. Good for my health. I’d rather go to the cross.
But once again, he heeds the call. This is in a letter October 24,1540: “Had I the choice at my own disposal, nothing would be less agreeable to me than to follow your advice. But when I remember,” and here perhaps you have the echoes of what will come later in the Heidelberg Catechism, so influenced by Calvin, he writes, “But when I remember that I am not my own, I offer up my heart and present it as a sacrifice to the Lord.”
He left Geneva after Easter Sunday in 1538 and famously when he returned to the pulpit in 1541, without any additional comment, no sort of personal reflection of where he had been, nice to be back, I can’t believe you kicked me out, without any fanfare, without any personal announcements, he simply opened to the following passage in the text where he left off three years ago. That’s what his life was about. You want me back; I’m back. Please turn in your Bibles to the next passage.
What can we say about Calvin in Geneva? He was not a dictator. His power was influence, influence through his preaching, his writing, his mind, his diligence, his follow-through, his organization, and his work as a pastor.
Calvin demonstrates the power, and let this be a lesson especially to, well, for all of us, but I think especially if you’re younger, we need to learn this lesson, Calvin demonstrates the neglected virtue of sheer endurance. Just keep working. Keep your hand to the plow.
Now I’ll come back later and he did it to a fault, but he shows us the virtue of endurance. All that he did, he worked to reform worship, he introduced new music, hymns, new liturgy. He preached often in addition to very long consistory meetings like our session and visiting and pastoral care. This was his preaching regimen. From 1949 [sic] on the preached twice on Sunday, every weekday on alternate weeks, so that he preached in the neighborhood of ten sermons every two weeks.
Remember, people are not in small group Bible studies, the literacy rate is much lower. Likely he was not preparing 20 hours for these messages, he couldn’t humanly do that, but he was able to preach from Greek or Hebrew and all of the studies and all the writing that he was done some ten times in the span of two weeks he would be teaching or preaching. He preached from his Hebrew and his Greek, often without notes for over an hour, often with little preparation. He preached 89 sermons on Acts, 65 on the Gospels, 123 on Genesis, we won’t get there, I don’t think, 107 on 1 Samuel, 87 on 2 Samuel, 174 sermons on Ezekiel.
I wonder, if you add it up, all the churches in this country, have there been 174 sermons on Ezekiel?
159 sermons on Job, 200 sermons on Deuteronomy, 342 sermons on Isaiah.
And preaching was not like this. You’re all sitting very calmly, quietly, in a well-lit amplified space. It’s an ideal setting as your sitting and you’re all well-rehearsed to do this and come and sit and he’s going to talk for 45 minutes and we’re going to listen. Preaching was often akin to a tavern scene, barking dogs, crying babies, conversation, constant movement, even fist fights at times. That’s what happens when they say everyone has to go to church.
He reformed worship. He reformed discipline. He reintroduced church discipline. Sometimes he could be volatile, but he was often very gentle. And usually these disciplinary measures resulted in reconciliation and repentance. Sometimes they were over marital conflicts or abuse, often over sexual immorality, disrespect to authority. Calvin introduced in the city and in the surrounding parishes an elaborate and exhaustive system of church discipline.
I shared just a few of the metrics with our officers earlier this week, but over the course of the 16th century, and Calvin wasn’t at the helm for all of this, but it was most active when Calvin was at the helm, they brought for discipline close to 9000 people, and Geneva probably had about 10,000 people in the town. Now, that’s 9000 over the course of many decades, so they didn’t come all every year, but in the course of any given year, certainly you would have known, and you would have had a very good chance of being called before the consistory. Not necessarily that you were under discipline, but to give your counsel or to give your testimony for some other disciplinary matter.
And lest we think that this was just a crude, rude, backwards way of doing things, actually it was about 2 to 1 the number of men that were disciplined versus the number of women. In fact, one man as he was being disciplined said at one time that Geneva was a great protector of women in town, and he felt like it was unfair to the men. So they took seriously to try to be objective, and often they did so in taking the sides of women in various domestic disputes.
Calvin believed with all of his might in protecting the table. Once when some, as he called them troublers in Israel, tried to come to the table, Calvin famously flung his arms around the sacrament as if to protect them from the sacrilege and said, “These hands you may crush, these arms you may lop off, my life you may take, my blood is yours, you may shed it, but you shall never force me to give holy things to the profane and to dishonor the table of my God.”
Now these were not persons who he just wondered if maybe they had something off. These were people, libertines, deliberately coming in to cause a ruckus and Calvin said, “over my dead body.” Calvin’s critics often point to his work at reforming church discipline, they paint him as petty, authoritarian, concerned with trivialities, legalistic obedience, and while it’s true from our vantage point some of the disciplinary offenses would seem very slight to us, not attending church, dancing, other things that would perhaps seem deserving of a measure of grace, and yet if we’re fair, the things that we don’t consider to be sins, Calvin would likely find shocking.
The work of the consistory was made up of 12 elders, pastors, and the city magistrates. So it was a joint effort with city officials and with church officials. The town of Geneva was governed by The Two Hundred, it was called, and then a smaller council of 60 and then a smaller, executive committee called The Little Council. After much back and forth, it was decided that the consistory had authority over matters of church discipline. Usually 5 to 7% of the adult population was called to the consistory for some case or some hearing each year. In the first two years of activity, the consistory summoned almost 850 persons out of a population of a little more than 10,000.
Some of the examples of disciplinary offenses: Wild living, sabbath violations, blaspheming, gambling, dancing, failure to come to church, papist superstitions, going to Mass, family conflicts, business disputes, insulting French immigrants, umm, complaining about Calvin, marital conflict, adultery. In particular, they often had to determine the validity of promised marriages, and this became an increasing problem in the centuries to follow in Scotland and many other places. They had these clandestine marriages. Two people would run off and they would make private vows to each other so then they could have sex and the Church was often having to decide what do we do with these so-called marriages?
Calvin argued for mutual consent in the marriage contract and against children being forced into unions by their parents, so he was a bit ahead of his time in that.
Calvin’s work was, of course, not just to preach but he aimed to reform the entire society and culture according to the Word of God. Now, that’s not exactly what they wanted from him, but that’s what Farel wanted. He drew up something called the “Ecclesiastical Ordinances.”
Calvin was a master organizer and administrator. It’s probably true that if you just wanted to go on a road trip, you want to go with Luther. If you want someone to plan the trip, you want Calvin.
And he gives a lesson for us. If you want to do good in your church, in your city, in your school, in your business, prepare to work hard, work long, work consistently.
One of Calvin’s most recent biographers Bruce Gordon says, “And here was a formula that would serve Calvin throughout his time in Geneva, extremely hard work on his part combined with the disorganization and failings of his opponents.”
I daresay that’s a recipe that will serve many of you well in life. You work harder and trust that your opponents won’t. ___, Bucer, Bollinger, we have to remember they all inherited a monastic regimen that involved early morning worship, reading, writing by candlelight late into the evening. They were men of extraordinary discipline and single-mindedness and they didn’t have smartphones.
His reforms faced constant opposition. Many people hated Calvin. Wouldn’t you? If your family members had been disciplined, you had been brought, and especially if you’re not even a born-again Christian. Who is this man? Many thought his reforms too stringent.
There was a rival party, Libertines, so-called because they insisted on greater liberty to do what they wanted, and they got control of the Little Council and they took delight in rousing Calvin’s temper. In a letter he wrote: It is very difficult for me not to boil over when someone gets impassioned, yet so far no one has ever heard me shouting, but I lack the chief thing of all, and that is being trained by these scourges of the Lord in true humility and therefore it is all the more necessary that I should be tamed by the free rebukes of my brethren. True strength is knowing your own weakness.
Calvin had weaknesses, but you can at least say this, that he understood what they were. It’s one thing if you have weaknesses and you’re aware of them and you plead with the Lord, “I messed up again, would You help me?” It’s another to be the sort of person everyone else knows your weakness except for you.
Again, Calvin’s biographer says, “However, one of his greatest strengths in his later career was an acute awareness that despite remarkable confidence in his calling and intellect, he remained dangerously prone to moments of poor judgment on account of his anger. That was surely his besting sin and he understood it.”
Calvin did much good in the city. He established a vibrant diaconate for the aid of the poor, the administration of a public hospital. Again, remember that there is no separation between church and state, there’s no welfare state, it’s up to the Church. The deacons in Geneva did anything and everything, purchasing clothing, purchasing firewood, providing medical care, attending to births, guarding sick children. They were the safety net.
Calvin started schools. He was a champion of education.
Sometimes Calvin, or Calvinism, is chided for lack of attention to evangelism and missions, but remember evangelism at this point meant reformation of the Church, recovery of the Gospel, giving to people all across western Europe an opportunity to hear the Gospel that they probably hadn’t heard clearly before. That was evangelism.
And he did have a passion for missions. In 1555 or 1556 he sent two ministers from Geneva on a missionary expedition to Brazil. They were going to set up a colony that would adhere to the Reformed religion. Unfortunately, the leader of the mission defected back to the Catholic faith, killed several members of the team, and forced the others back home. It’s one of the great “what ifs,” what if that missionary enterprise had been successful?
Before we draw this to some conclusions, I have to say something about the most infamous event in Calvin’s life, and that is the affair, the incident, the ordeal with Michael Servetus. Who was this man, Servetus? He was a Spaniard. He had some success as a physician and a medical scholar, and he wrote heretical books on the trinity. In the mid-1530s, Calvin agreed to meet up with him. Actually, Calvin did so at the risk of his own life, to meet up with a known heretic, but he said he wanted to “gain him for the Lord.” Servetus stood him up.
Several years later, Servetus took up a correspondence with Calvin, asks him a series of theological questions. Calvin responded by sending him The Institutes, hey, I’ve written a book. Servetus returned The Institutes, marked up with his own corrections. Servetus was not welcome in Geneva and actually he was not welcome anywhere in Europe. It wasn’t just Calvin that had a beef with Servetus. He was a known trinitarian heretic, condemned by the Catholic Church.
In 1553 he escaped an Inquisition prison and quite out of his way he decided to show up in Geneva. Some people think he quite possibly was crazy on some level. He showed up in St. Pierre, St. Peter’s, when Calvin was preaching. He’s not supposed to be in the city, he’s a wanted heretic across Europe, and he shows up there when Calvin’s preaching. Calvin has him arrested.
Some of the Libertines object, a few others object because they’re a bit confused. Wait a minute, the Catholics don’t like him so he must be on our side. No, that doesn’t always work that way.
But almost all of Switzerland concurs with Calvin: Servetus should be killed. That’s what you did with heretics in the 16th century. Calvin argued for beheading, thinking that it would be more humane, but the council instead voted for burning, and Servetus was burned alive. For many, this is the symbol, Michael Servetus, burned at the stake in Calvin’s Geneva. The symbol of a rigid, unfeeling, authoritarian Calvinism.
And we can say from our vantage point that that was a mistake, and we can be glad that theological errors are not treated with capital punishment. But we also have to be realistic that very few people would have shared our sentiment in Calvin’s day. It was not a controversial matter for most.
Calvin wrote more in his lifetime than most ten people will read. His collection of commentaries include Old Testament minus the historical books and some of the wisdom books, and a commentary on the entire New Testament minus 2 and 3 John and Revelation, which Calvin admitted at one point he wasn’t sure he understood.
And years ago in my last church when I was preaching on Revelation, my mom said to me, sent me an e-mail or phone call, “Are you sure? Calvin didn’t even write a commentary on that one. You should be careful.”
He wrote small tracts and pamphlets, liturgies and catechisms. Most of you are familiar with the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, but did you know that this was Calvin’s Geneva Catechism? Here’s how it began. It sounds familiar: What is the chief end of human life? To know God by whom men were created. What reason have for saying so? Because He created us and placed us in the world to be glorified in us, and it is indeed right that our life of which Himself is the beginning should be devoted to His glory. What is the highest good of man? The very same thing.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism put in more succinct, memorable language what Calvin had already written in the Geneva Catechism.
Without a doubt, Calvin’s most famous work is the Institutes of the Christian Religion. As I said, it began in 1536 with six chapters and went through a number of revisions and supplementary additions and swelled to 80 chapters in four books by the final edition in 1559, and today the standard edition has two volumes and runs to close to 1500 pages.
You may think of it as a systematic theology, and in a way it is, but really it’s a devotional work. I don’t have time to read you from some of the best passages, but just one or two.
Here’s what Calvin writes about the life of the Christian man in the Institutes: “Being a Christian is not a doctrine of the tongue but of life. It is not apprehended by the understanding and memory alone as other disciplines are, but it is received only when it possesses the whole soul and finds a seat and resting place in the inmost affection of the heart.”
Here’s Calvin writing on the sum of the Christian life, which he described as denial of ourselves: “We are not our own. Let not our reason nor our will sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own. Let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own. Insofar as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.”
And then he writes on the centrality of Christ for the Christian life: “Our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is of Him. If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in His anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in His dominion. If purity, in His conception. If gentleness, it appears in His birth. If we seek redemption, it lies in His passion. If acquittal, in His condemnation. If remission of the curse, in His cross. If satisfaction, in His sacrifice. If purification, in His blood. If reconciliation, in His descent into hell. If mortification of the flesh, in His tomb. If we see newness of life, we find it in His resurrection. If immortality, in the same. If inheritance of the heavenly kingdom, it His entrance into heaven. If protection, we find it in His security. If abundant supply of all blessings, in His kingdom. If untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given Him to judge. In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in Him, let us drink our fill from this fountain and from no other.”
He was a remarkable writer.
Calvin was sickly throughout his life. He didn’t eat well. He didn’t sleep enough. He didn’t exercise. He had no children or grandchildren, which may have been, certainly was a reason for he could be so devoted to his work, but it also meant he had no distractions, no hobbies. He literally worked himself to death.
And this is a necessary balance to what I said earlier about the power of hard work and endurance. Again, Bruce Gordon writes: “Calvin’s punishing routine and recurring illnesses aged him and put him in an early grave.”
Of course they didn’t have the same medical attention we have today. He suffered from arthritis, nephritis, kidney stones, hemorrhoids, ulcers, pain in his legs, coughing up phlegm and blood. He wrote how God kept all of his faculties intact to allow him to feel pain right up to the end. He knew he was used by God. He didn’t have a false humility, but he also knew his faults.
At the end of his life, he wrote to the political leaders in Geneva, and he said, “It is true he,” meaning himself, “does not deny that God has made use of him as an instrument of the little he has done, and if he said otherwise he should be a hypocrite.”
That’s remarkable. Let that be a good example for us. Sometimes we like to feign this humility, oh, I don’t do anything, nothing I do… Calvin said, yeah, I would be lying, certainly God has used me to do something.
He goes on: “He begs again, however, to be excused for having done so little in proportion to what he was bound to do. He feels persuaded that the monsignors have borne with his natural disposition too vehement by far and with which he is offended, and with his other vices as God also has been.”
He wrote later to the ministers, shortly before his death, and said “I’ve had many infirmities which you have been obliged to bear, and what is more all I have done has been worth nothing. But I can say this, I have willed what is good, my vices have always displeased me, and the root of the fear of God has been in my heart. And you may say that my disposition was good and I pray you that the evil be forgiven me and if there is any good you conform yourselves to it. As to my doctrine, I have taught faithfully and God has given me grace to write what I have written as faithfully as it was in my power. I have not falsified a single passage of the Scriptures nor given it a wrong interpretation to the best of my knowledge, and though I might have introduced subtle senses had I studied subtlety, I cast that temptation under my feet and have always aimed at simplicity. I have written nothing out of hatred to anyone but I have always faithfully propounded what I esteemed to be for the glory of God.”
In other words, I did my absolute best to teach God’s Word faithfully.
On May 27, 1564 John Calvin died just shy of his 55th birthday. He passed away, entered his eternal rest. He was buried in a common cemetery and in an unmarked grave so that no one would be tempted to idolize him in his death.
We all want significance. We want affirmation. We want to leave a legacy. I do. I want my life to count for something. So do you. Some seek significance in work, performance, possessions, many in family. We all have a God-given sense, however, that for all of our bravado and all of our pride, we’re still grass. We want to bloom, but we know deep down the bloom doesn’t last very long. We pour our lives into degrees and professional advancement or into ministry or business or houses or kids, all the while we know deep down we have this fleeting sense that life is very fleeting, and we want to desperately take hold of something that is eternal.
That’s the paradox of permanence. The only way our lives will touch what is eternal is to admit that our lives are incredibly temporal.
John Oswalt in his commentary on Isaiah said, “If I insist I am permanent, then I become nothing. If I admit that God alone is permanent, then He breathes His permanence on me.”
I believe that’s the lesson of John Calvin’s life. If you want to transcend your own existence, we must let go of our vanity, our supposed successes, and grab hold of the Word of God.
Isaiah 66:2: “This is the one I esteem, he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at My Word.”
The truly significant people in God’s eyes are those who know that left to themselves they are nothing and God’s Word is everything. Fads, fashions will rise and fall, but the Word, the Word will keep on accomplishing its purposes. People will be reading Calvin’s commentaries for the next millennia because they’re in the Word, they’re about the Word, long after all the Tik Toks are gone, people will still be learning and growing from the Word. The Word will outlast us all. Let our reading, our memorizing, our catechizing be so saturated with the Word, let our songs, our ministries, our missions submit to the Word. May all of our theological questions, all of our relational problems, all of our family issues look back to the Word.
Calvin’s life is a picture of the weakness of man and the permanence of the Word. A voice says cry out and I said what shall I cry? All men are like grass and all their glory like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers. The flowers fall. But the Word of our God stands forever.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we give thanks for Your servants who have come and gone, from whom we still learn and grow. We do not excuse their faults, but we learn from their virtues and their accomplishments, and we learn most of all from their example in following You. Just as Paul said all those years ago, follow me as I follow Christ. So help us to learn, help us to grow, help us to be men, women, children, who grasp on to that which is eternal. Let us be people of the Book. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.