Part 1 of a 4 part series. View series intro and index.
On July 10 we will celebrate the 500th birthday of John Calvin (1509-1564). Many people have written that Calvin was a cold, mean, miserable man who believed in a God who wanted to burn people like a child burned ants with a magnifying glass in the summer. The worst way to learn about Calvin is to read what other people have written about Calvin. The best way is to read the words of Calvin himself.
Calvin was a very quiet, humble, introverted, and timid man. He struggled with bouts of depression and anxiety, most likely because of the spiritual condition of his native France, the persecution he endured in Geneva, and the inadequacy of his own talents. Nevertheless, he was committed to his Lord and the work which he was entrusted with.
He preached over two thousand sermons, and gave thousands more extemporaneous lectures during the week. He spoke directly from the Greek and Hebrew because his French translation of the Bible was not true to the original text. His true passion, however, was writing. Calvin wanted to keep his ministry free from other pursuits. He even wanted his authorship of his classic Institutes to remain anonymous. In his preface to his commentary on Psalms, we read some Calvin’s only autobiographical writings. There he wrote, “Wherever else I have gone, I have taken care to conceal that I was the author of that performance; and I had resolved to continue in the same privacy and obscurity.”
His attempts at anonymity failed when a man named William Farel prophetically called Calvin back to Geneva to help reform the church. Calvin writes, “[Farel] 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 seamed so urgent.” Calvin said he was so “stricken with terror” at Farel’s words that he decided to return to Geneva at once.
A significant part of Calvin’s global ministry were his frequent correspondences with kings, queens, and magistrates across Europe. He wrote many letters to Charles V, Pope Paul III, Queen Elizabeth I, and others. His heart was to dialogue with them about the Reformed faith in an effort to lead them to Jesus.
Calvin also ran a happy home, nevertheless, it did not come without suffering. He lost his son Jacques in 1542 due to a premature birth, and his wife Idellete died in 1549. Of his wife, he said, “I have been bereaved of the best friend of my life, of one who, if it has been so ordained, would willingly have shared not only my poverty but also my death. During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry. From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance.”
During this week, we will look at Calvin’s views on evangelism, mercy, and joy. The preconceived notions of Calvin’s beliefs in these areas, perhaps more than others, have put him in a negative light. Lord willing, we will see a vastly different Calvin than what the average Christian has been shown.