“The Teaching Apostle”
When I consider that I am not in my own power, I offer my heart a slain victim for a sacrifice to the Lord. . . . I yield my soul chained and bound unto obedience to God.1
John Calvin took the biblical truths that Wycliffe, Hus, and Luther had brought to light and created a worldwide movement. He did more to institutionalize the revolutionary doctrines of the reformation than any other reformer before him. John Calvin reorganized organized religion into what became known to the modern world as Protestantism. He brought opposing forces within the fledging movement to common ground providing the leadership and foresight that the “new church” needed to evolve. And due to Calvin’s persistent quest for unity, collaboration, and accountability, the reformation grew in strength and became a powerful voice for truth that could not be quenched.
Calvin was a brilliant intellectual and theologian. He applied himself from a young age to his studies and advanced quickly through the ranks of academia. He studied philosophy, law, and religion and purposed to spend his life studying and writing. But the demand for his intellectual ability, insight into Scripture, and skill at debate propelled him into the forefront of the reform campaign. With the same resolve and vigor he applied to academics, he became a forerunner of organization development strategy applying a flair for operations and human resources management. And he did it all in the face of constant and severe opposition.
John Calvin wasted no time walking in his calling, even if he didn’t understand it. He was born and raised in an influential town just north of Paris. Although he wasn’t born into a wealthy family, they were well off and respected. John grew up around the upper crust and became comfortable with those of influence and position. He had the advantages of private tutors and preparatory schools. He was only fourteen years old when he attended the most prestigious university in the known world, the University of Paris, and excelled at everything he set his mind to. John quickly earned the favor of his professors, who became his mentors and lifelong friends.
In 1528, at just eighteen years of age, he earned his Masters of Arts degree. He was on a direct path for the priesthood when is father urged him to change direction and pursue law. Bound by duty to obey, he entered law school where he became known as a “rising legal scholar.”2 At the same time, he continued to pursue his passion for languages, literature, and culture developing an appreciation of the Renaissance and evangelical faith. During this time period, intellectualism was at its peak and the arts and sciences were exploding.
After completing his doctorate in 1532, he wrote his first book entitled A Commentary on Seneca’s “Of Clemency.” Calvin loved politics and was fascinated by a philosopher named Seneca and his premise regarding the authority of kings—Calvin agreed they have a high authority by divine right but condemned the pride, sin, and self-deceived rationalization that led kings to pursue inhumane acts. He self-published the book which failed miserably, but it did provide the foundation for his political policies when he established himself as a leader of the reformation.
On the Fence of Reform
It is believed that in the years prior to 1533, John experienced an inner conversion that was the result of a revelation of the Protestant salvation by faith, although he remained a Catholic. It wasn’t until he attended the acceptance speech of a good friend who had just been named Dean of the University of Paris that his allegiance was made clearer. This was during a time of severe persecution in Paris and tensions were high. In the aftermath of this speech in which his close friend openly proclaimed reformist views—the friend was forced to flee Paris, and Calvin, being closely associated with him, was not far behind.
Calvin went into hiding during the winter of 1533-1534 and struggled within himself for many months. In the spring, he returned to Paris to seek out the famed Bible scholar Lefevre d’Etaples who was approaching one hundred years old. The meeting took place on April 6, 1534, and from that point on, Calvin had no hesitation about where his duty lay. One month later, instead of arriving as planned to be ordained into the priesthood, he returned to the Catholic Church to turn in his ministerial papers severing his ties with Catholicism forever.
Being Counted Among the Heretics
Only three weeks after he broke ties with the Catholic Church in his hometown, John’s brother, Charles, was arrested for heresy, and John was arrested for not reporting him. After two short period of imprisonment, John was told to leave town. He moved from place to place, but still gathered a following of those who wanted to sit and learn from him. These were the first “Calvinists.”
At the same time, the radical Protestants in Paris were launching a massive campaign against the Catholic Church which became known as the Affair of the Placards—this name was given because of the placards that were posted everywhere denouncing the practices of the Catholic Church. King Francis I was so outraged that he countered with the brutal burning of six Protestants and twenty-four more over the next six months.
Calvin was forced to leave France for neighboring Switzerland where he and many other reformers found safe refuge. He ended up settling high in the Alps in Basel. Here he hoped to withdraw from public notice and give himself to writing. He completed the 520-page first edition of the famous Institutes of Christian Religion in August of 1535. What began as six chapters would evolve into eighty chapters before it was finished.
In 1536, the first edition was published in Basel and sent directly to King Francis I with a letter exposing his murderous spirit and exonerating the martyrs. No one in Basel knew Calvin was the author because few knew he was there. He had been living under the assumed name of Martianus Lucanius.3 Soon the book was being widely distributed and Calvin rose high in the ranks of influential reformers.
Destined for Geneva
Calvin made his way to Strasbourg in search of renewed anonymity and solitude. He again planned to settle down and continue writing. As he made his way there, he was forced to make a detour and spend the night in Geneva. Only planning to remain one night before heading on to Strasbourg, Calvin was caught off guard when his presence there was made known to a fiery evangelist named Farel.
This young man had taken the city for the Gospel and desperately needed help in organizing a long-term work to establish the Protestant believers there. His intention was to form a church and a school, but although he was a persuasive teacher, he lacked the organizational and administrative skills necessary. He hoped to convince Calvin to join him in leading the movement to make Geneva a Protestant stronghold.
Calvin bluntly refused the invitation. He did not feel compelled to step into such a public role and oversee the logistics of organizing an unprecedented Protestant church and school. His objective was to continue his writing in solitude. Farel was bold and tenacious as he unrelentingly plied Calvin to consider this work. He finally pointed his finger at Calvin and rebuked him sternly thundering, “If you refuse to devote yourself with us to the work . . . God will condemn you.”4 By September 1st, Calvin was in Geneva ready to begin work.
The Geneva’s First Pastor
Geneva was unusual in that its citizens had voted to “live by the Gospel” to the extent that the political powers supported complete reformation of the religious and moral life of the community. While Farel, the zealous preacher, would stir up the waters and draw a harvest of souls, it was Calvin, who wove the net in which to bring them safely home. The same diligence he gave to his studies and writing, now Calvin poured into building the new church and establishing an enlightened society. He flooded every area of the community with his insight and wisdom about theology, philosophy, government, languages, pedagogy, and debate. No area that he had studied over the years went untapped.
Calvin literally turned the community upside down. Where the people were accustomed to serving the Church, the church under Calvin’s direction was developed to serve the people. Where there were loose morals, he brought in knowledge of the Scriptures so that common people could grasp the deep truths that would equip them to overcome sin. He created a confession of faith that was to be proclaimed by all who wished to be citizens stating that the Word of God was the ultimate authority; that natural man had no good in him; and that salvation, righteousness, and regeneration were in Jesus Christ alone.5
Musical praise in the local language was introduced to the people so that they could worship freely from their hearts. Before then, all songs during Mass were sung in Latin and few understood. Calvin planned an educational program that everyone was required to attend followed by a rule of excommunication for those who failed to live by God’s standards. They refused to allow people who did not live up to those standards to take Communion. Struggles ensued over the strictness imposed on the city’s inhabits and a power struggle between the church leaders and government officials began to intensify.
Finally, in January of 1538, the political powers were forced to forbid Farel and Calvin from preaching because Calvin called them “a council of the devil” in one of his sermons, and the two were ordered to allow everyone to take Communion. Calvin and Farel continued to preach and turn away immoral people from the Communion table. A mob erupted outside the church threatening to kill both of them. By April, the government ordered them to leave the city. After appealing to the councils of Bern and Zurich to intervene on their behalf, Calvin and Farel were forced to give up their vision for Geneva. Or so they thought.
The Persistent Call
Farel and Calvin had become close friends and resettled near to one another back in quieter Basel. Calvin fell into a depression overcome by a sense of failure, bitter over how he had been treated, and now without ministry direction, felt empty and useless. It was a difficult time of readjustment during which Calvin sold books for income. Farel was invited to another city to help with ministry there, when Calvin refused to go, Farel left alone.
Feeling alienated and betrayed, he took a break from his surroundings in July and visited the city of Strasbourg. There he was introduced to a well-respected reformer by the name of Martin Bucer who invited him to move to Strasbourg to pastor a five hundred-member French refugee church. The French refugees felt alienated in the German-speaking city, and this seemed the perfect match for the French-born Calvin.
Again he refused, never intending to pastor again. When Calvin returned to Basel, the invitation was renewed and Bucer gave the same warning that Farel had given Calvin in Geneva, “God will know how to find the rebellious servant, as He found Jonah.”6 This struck at Calvin’s heart and once again, by the first September, Calvin had resettled in Strasbourg ready to fulfill his duties as one of its leading pastors.
Days of Hope and Renewal
Strasbourg was a pleasant change to Geneva. The city had adopted evangelical worship fourteen years earlier and there was no council to negotiate with. Bucer and others had done an excellent job of organizing the churches with well-rounded programs. It was a flourishing center of reformation and it seemed Calvin and the French church were a perfect match. For the next three years Calvin thrived in this environment, healing from the disappointment of Geneva and maturing as a pastor.
He applied for citizenship after only a few short months and embraced the work of the leading reformers there. He became close friends with a man named John Sturm, who Bucer had installed as the rector of the Old Strasbourg convent with the mission of turning it into a Bible school. With Calvin’s help, the school became one of the most renowned and successful ministry training schools of the reformation. His involvement in establishing this school would serve as a pattern for something he would pioneer later, something that would reach to every corner of the known world.
Calvin’s influence began to spread during this time of training and maturing. He was constantly called out to lecture and speak at conferences in surrounding cities and nations. He became increasingly popular with Charles V, the current Holy Roman Emperor, who sponsored a series of conferences to which he always invited Calvin to speak. During his three years in Strasbourg, Calvin authored four books and a very famous letter that rescued the destiny of Geneva.
Geneva Beckons Again
In 1539, after Farel and Calvin had been banished from Geneva, the Catholic Church renewed hope of turning the city back to her former allegiance, Rome. A new Roman cardinal was installed in northern Italy who hoped to persuade Geneva to return to her Catholic heritage. He wrote a letter to the Council in Geneva inviting the government to realign itself to the Catholic Church while offering it political autonomy.
The eloquent letter was written in Latin and cast shadows of suspicion. It pressured Geneva by asking if it “be more expedient for your salvation to believe and follow what the Catholic Church has approved with general consent for more than fifteen hundred years, or innovations introduced within these twenty-five years by crafty men.”7 The Council promised to send a response but felt unqualified to answer in a clear and sufficient manner.
Their only hope was to send the letter to John Calvin and pray he would forgive them and respond on their behalf. Calvin didn’t give a second thought to clearing his schedule in order to write a thorough and articulate response. In six days he composed his masterpiece, which became so famous it was given a title, Reply to Cardinal Sadolet, and still circulates today. Calvin addressed every point with passionate precision. He stated that the Gospel was the scepter by which the Father ruled the kingdom—not a Latinized liturgy or the tyranny of a papacy.8 “You either labour under a delusion as to the term Church, or . . . knowingly and willingly give it a gloss.”9
Neither did Cardinal Sadolet ever reply to Geneva’s expansive response written by John Calvin, but the Catholic Church never bothered Geneva again.
The Dawn of a New Day of Ministry
Calvin found himself in the market for a wife and married Idelette Stordeur, a widow with two children. She had lost her husband to the plague, who had been a fellow pastor in Geneva and close friend of Calvin’s. A year after they were married, Calvin received an invitation from Geneva to return and resume his pastoral duties there. This took Calvin by surprise and he had no desire to leave his utopian Strasbourg. He refused, as he had before to even consider the invitation. It took Bucer to convince him of returning—if only for a season—to help the willing leaders of Geneva reorganize their church.
With the only comfort being the hope of soon returning to Strasbourg, Calvin agreed to go to Geneva for a brief period to set the church in order. He planned on staying for only a few months but spent the next twenty-three years establishing churches, schools, and ministry training centers until his death in 1564.
Geneva welcomed him with open arms and spared no expense in honoring him and making he and his family comfortable. Calvin had learned much and matured a great deal during his three years in Strasbourg. He was seasoned in the art of organization and diplomacy, and using the Scripture as his pattern, he began restructuring the church. He outlined four orders of the ministry—pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons. These four areas covered all of church life including worship, education, soundness, and moral purity, as well as the works of love and mercy.
This pattern of organization provided the foundation of how Protestant churches have been structured since. What became known as Calvinism has influenced thousands of Christian thinkers throughout modern Christian history including Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, William Carey, and David Brainerd.
Opposition and Sorrow
Though Calvin’s years in Geneva were successful as a pastor and reformer, his personal life suffered great sorrow. During their first summer in Geneva, Idelette gave birth prematurely to a son who died two weeks later. Three years later a daughter died at birth and in 1547, another child was delivered prematurely and died. Idelette never recovered from the last premature delivery and contracted tuberculosis. She died in quietly in 1549, leaving her two surviving children in the care of Calvin.
During this time, Calvin also suffered from severe health problems. Yet he continued to grow the work and movement and became an international leader and respected mentor to future heroes of the reformation such as John Knox. As Calvin’s fame and success increased, so did his opposition. This time, opposition came in the form of a reformist group called the Libertines who openly challenged the strict holiness doctrine of Calvin. Their leader, Michael Servetus, denounced Calvin’s teachings and taught that the Trinity was foolishness. The Libertines believed that Jesus was not God in the flesh but became a Son of God after He triumphed over temptation.
Calvin had Servetus arrested and tried for heresy. As a result, Servetus was condemned to be burned at the stake. Although Calvin pleaded for a change of sentence, the courts denied his request and on October 27, 1553, Servetus, escorted by Farel to the stake, was burned for heresy. Calvin was blamed and became the subject of increasing controversy and criticism. They charged Calvin with being a tormentor of religious freedom, who stooped to the ranks of the Roman Catholic persecutors in the Inquisition.10
Increasing health challenges plagued Calvin. In addition to acute stomach problems, he suffered from migraines and his lungs were constantly inflamed and hemorrhaging. Arthritis had settled in his knees and he had a continuing problem with kidney stones. Nevertheless, Calvin never missed a day he was scheduled to preach, even if he had to be carried to the pulpit in a chair. When his physician denied him the privilege of leaving his bedroom, an audience would pack into his bedroom and listen to him teach for hours. On other occasions, when he couldn’t move from his bed, he would dictate letters.
He gave his last sermon in the cathedral on February 6, 1564, and attended his last Mass on Easter Sunday of that year. When April came, Calvin bid farewell to the council and ministers in a letter recounting his goals, struggles, and faults. He also had letters written to his closest friends, calling Farel his best one.11 By May, his health was depleted and he was in and out of a coma, encouraging those who attended him to trust in the Lord at every opportunity. On May 27, 1564, at the age of fifty-four, Calvin departed this life.
Today in Geneva, there stands a monument upon which the names are engraved of four great men who changed the world as we know it: John Calvin, Guillaume Farel, Theodore Beza, and John Knox.
- John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1954): 159.
- Ibid., 102.
- Liardon, God’s Generals II, 214.
- McNeill, The History and Character, 136.
- Liardon, 220.
- McNeill, 144.
- Dr. William Lindner, John Calvin (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1998): 44-45
- Liardon, 227.
- John Dillenberger, John Calvin: Selections from His Writings (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1971): 82.
- Liardon, 244.
- Ibid, 246.