Calvin and Calvinism John Calvin: Christian Reformer, Pastor and Theologian
The famous 19th century minister of the Gospel, C.H. Spurgeon, has said this of John Calvin, the Protestant Reformer of the 16th century: "Among all those who have been born of women, there is not risen a greater than John Calvin". To us today, living in an age of moral and intellectual dwarves, it is not easy to get a correct estimate of a man of Calvin's stature. The task is made more difficult by the fact that Calvin wrote or said very little about himself. This despite the fact that Calvin's works fill some 55 volumes of commentaries, lectures, apologetics and letters.
Regarding his own conversion to Christ and call to Christian ministry, all that Calvin revealed is found in his introduction to the commentary on the book of Psalms. This lack of personal reference from one who wrote volumes and did a task beyond normal human strength, is in itself significant. The 20th-century literature of all kinds, from popular novels and religious books to serious philosophy and science, is littered with personal testimonies and personal experiences. This is a hallmark of a self-absorbed, self-seeking and self-admiring human society and people. In contrast to all this, the all-encompassing passion of John Calvin was the cause and glory of the Triune God, Whom he loved and served. This is one reason that Calvin is beyond the comprehension and appreciation of both religious and secular man today. It is with this sense of our inadequacy that we look at Calvin's life and work.
Calvin was absorbed by the concerns of God's kingdom, he was utterly devoted to honouring God's revealed will in the Holy Scripture, that he had very little to say about his own concerns, experience, motivations and life. To a man who was God conscious and filled with the glory of His matchless Word, nothing else seemed to have really mattered. This in turn explains his elevated view of the Christian church: The church, to Calvin, was "the family where God dwells". It is at the very centre of God's purposes and providential rule over human history. The church is "designed to glorify His grace, to honour His Son, to maintain His cause, to execute His will. Here is His family where He is known, trusted, priced, obeyed, loved and enjoyed". Calvin's earthly duties and work centred upon the Church.
Indeed it is a low view of the Church, its nature and call which is downgrading much evangelical Christian witness today. Calvin has much to teach of God's work done in God's way. By any estimate, it is spectacular to look at what Calvin achieved, with God's help, in one lifetime. We can never begin to understand Calvin unless we appreciate his clear, biblical and energizing view of the majesty and goodness of the Triune God. It is a high view of God that made God's Word of truth ever glow and burn in the heart of this humble servant.
Highlights of Calvin's Life
John Calvin was born on the 10th of July, 1509 and died at sunset on the 27th of May 1564. His father worked in the office of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Noyon, France. Calvin was the second son in the family, and was given the best education in three French Universities: Orleans, Bourges, and Paris. He became well versed in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and law. Sometime in 1532, while studying in Paris, he experienced Christian conversion. Although by all social standards of morality, Calvin had lived an exemplary and pure life, he went through a period of deep conviction of his sinfulness in the presence of God. He could later say, in prayer "Whenever I descended into myself or raised my head to Thee, terror seized me…" After conversion, he assisted Nicolas Cop, Rector of the University of Paris, who delivered on the 1st of November 1533, an address calling for changes in the Roman Catholic church. These changes he appealed for were based on the New Testament, and it was thought that Calvin had helped him to write this address.
Persecution broke out against these men who called for Reformation in the Roman Catholic church. Many were put to death, who supported the cause of reforming the French church. Calvin had to flee for his life, and under a false name, wandered through Italy, France and Switzerland for over three years. It was during this time, at the age of 26, that he wrote the first edition of the Institutes of Christian Religion. The Institutes, which is a handbook of the Christian faith and life, the best existing summary of the Scriptures, was first written to defend godly, loyal subjects of Christ who were being hunted out of their homes, arrested and burnt to death under false charges and by painting a false picture of them. This is sadly a technique used by Christians even today to defame and to beat down those with whom they disagree. But in those days, the Roman Catholic church had full power to put these Christians to death, and a cruel one at that. Calvin's masterpiece was born out of the flames of persecution and a hunted, homeless life for Christ.
In July 1536, three months after the publication of the Institutes, Calvin was passing through Geneva to a quiet retreat in Strasbourg. In Geneva he was persuaded by a leading Reformer called William Farel, to stay in Geneva and to help the newly formed Protestant Reformed church. Unwillingly Calvin stayed. Geneva proved to be his life-time calling.
His ministry in Switzerland, as a foreigner, had its many trials. After two years, powerful people in the city council who found the discipline Calvin imposed on the church too uncomfortable to their immoral lifestyle, had Calvin and Farel ejected from the city of Geneva. This was on the 23rd of April 1535. He went to Strasbourg and was pressed by the Reformer Martin Bucer to take up pastorate of the French congregation there, and to lecture at the Academy. The years he spent in Strasbourg were probably the most happiest years in Calvin's life. It was there that he married Idelette von Bure, a widow, and wrote his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans.
The Council in Geneva, in the meantime, realized what a loss it was not to have Calvin at the helm of the Church, and having voted against the libertines who continued to trouble Calvin all his life, they appealed for Calvin to return. After rejecting two appeals, but persuaded by Farel, he eventually returned to Geneva with many fears and anxiety. He seemed to have dreaded Geneva than any other place on earth, but knew that God had wanted him there. From his return in September 1541 followed twenty three years of fruitful and fervent and courageous labour for the cause of the Lord Jesus Christ. His labours for God's cause were constantly dogged by trials and hardship. The Libertines threatened him with violence and death. Expulsion from the city was a constant possibility. Physically as years went by, Calvin became weak and prone to a variety of physical illnesses. Whereas Luther's face became full, rounded and cheerful with the years, Calvin's face became thinner, careworn and flint-like. But Calvin, unlike Luther, by his ceaseless efforts for God's kingdom, in burning himself to the grave, also established the biblical, Protestant Reformed tradition which has stood the test of time. This tradition also became Trans-national. He was never parochial; his vision for the church of Christ went over the seas to distant lands. But he never neglected his local charge at Geneva. He prepared a Catechism, a Confession, Articles of Faith and an order of discipline. He finally persuaded the magistrates and councillors to establish an Academy, which later became the University of Geneva. He laboured with pen and voice for the propagation of the Christian faith, and in the end knew that his time for departure was at hand. He prayed: "Lord, if it please Thee, let me soon be with Thee".
Calvin on Calvin
On rare and few occasions Calvin opened the window into the influences which God used to bring him to Christian conversion and ministry, as well as on his earthly pilgrimage and service to Christ. The following are the important extracts from his introduction to Psalms, letter to Farel and his last will:
When I was as yet a little boy, my father had destined me for the study of theology. But afterwards, when he considered that the legal profession commonly raised those who followed in wealth, this prospect induced him suddenly to change his purpose. Thus it came to pass that I was suddenly withdrawn from the study of philosophy, and was put to study of the law. To this pursuit I endeavoured faithfully to apply myself, in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by secret guidance of his providence, at length gave different direction to my course. And first, since I was too obstinately addicted to the superstition of papacy to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more burdened in such matters than might have been expected from at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was suddenly inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that though I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardour. I was quite surprised to find that before a year had elapsed, all who had a desire after a purer doctrine were continually coming to me to learn, although I myself was yet a mere novice and tyro.
While I lay hidden in Basel and known only to a few people, many faithful and holy persons were burned alive in France; and the report of these burnings have reached foreign nations. They excited strongest disapprobation among a great apart of the Germans, whose indignation was kindled. In order to allay this indignation certain wicked and lying pamphlets were circulated that they might proceed to the utmost extremity in murdering the poor saints without exciting compassion towards them in the breasts of any, it appeared to me that unless I opposed them to the utmost of my ability, my silence could not be vindicated from the charge of cowardice and treachery.
This was the consideration that induced me to publish my Institutes of Christian Religion. My objects were first, to prove that these reports were false, and calumnious, and thus to vindicate my brethren, whose death was precious in the sight of the Lord. And next, that as the same cruelties might very soon after be exercised against many unhappy persons. It was published with the design that men might know what was the faith held by those whom I saw basely and wickedly defamed. Wherever else I had gone I have taken care to conceal that I was the author of that performance.
I had resolved to continue in the same privacy and obscurity, until William Farel detained me in Geneva, not so much by counsel and exhortation, as by a dreadful imprecation, which I felt to be as if God had from heaven laid his mighty hand upon me to arrest me. After having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies he 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 was so urgent.
Although Geneva was a troublesome province to me, the thought of deserting it never entered my mind. For I considered myself placed in the position by God, a sentry, at his post from which it would be impiety on my part were I to move a single step. Yet I think you would hardly believe me were I to relate for you even a small part of those annoyances, nay miseries, which we had to endure for a whole year. This can truly testify that not a day passed in which I did not long for death ten times over. But as for leaving that Church to remove elsewhere such a thought never came into my mind.
I thank God that He has not only had mercy on this poor creature, having delivered me from the abyss of idolatry, but that he has brought me into the clear light of His gospel, and made me a partaker of the doctrine of salvation, of which I was altogether unworthy; yea, that His mercy and goodness have borne so tenderly with my numerous sins and offences, for which I deserve to be cast from Him and destroyed.
In Calvin and Calvinism, these dual strands are always found. Man is always seen as humbled in his sin. God is always lifted up in His purity, power and graciousness.
Calvin as a Pastor
Although Calvin was called to play a manifold role in the life of Geneva and the Protestant Reformed cause in the universal Church, his first loyalty was always to the congregation he pastored in Geneva and to churches in need of support and counsel. In France alone, about 2000 churches were planted from 1559 to 1564, which looked to Calvin for leadership. He never was formally ordained in the church, but his call to ministry was unquestionably recognized by the Genevan church and the wider church in Europe. His convictions regarding the pastor and the church are found in the second volume of the Christian Institutes.
Since he saw the church deformed by the Roman Catholic popery, and the pure Gospel of Christ hidden under all kinds of superstition, he labored to build the church on the simplicity of the Scriptures. To him, the heart of the believer, the life of the congregation and the worship form of the Church should all demonstrate Christ and His Word.
In pastoral oversight one must always remember that what ultimately matters is the individual and his or her stand before God. Each responsible for his or her stand before God. In the preaching of the Word of God, God speaks to the heart of the individuals gathered there. And it is for each to respond in faith and obedience to God's word. No other technique, psychological pressure or ritual must be used to bend or dull the human conscience and mind. The true pastor has two aims: to call the sheep of Christ and to frighten away the destroying wolves. So we see the double edged work of proclamation and defense of the truth of God. Preaching to Calvin, who expounded daily from the pulpit the Scriptures book by book (a custom which even great Calvinistic preachers like C.H. Spurgeon had not followed), was always a pastoral event. The minister should not bring his pet topics, verses or controversies to the pulpit, but he is there to feed the flock of Christ with the wholesome meat of God's whole counsel.
Calvin's style of preaching was always homely, and he also visited homes to catechize and inquire after the spiritual well being of the people. It is indeed a contrast to today's megatrends in which the pastor is hardly seen outside a formal setting, and his home address is unknown. Whatever others may think, we do not regard our office as bound within so narrow limits that when the sermon is delivered we may rest as if our task was done. They whose blood will be required of us if lost through our slothfulness, are to be cared for much more clearly and vigilantly. Assurance of salvation and God's favor for the individual is something Calvin always aimed at. Assurance must come through true repentance of sin and of complete confidence in the atoning, propitiating blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, the second Person in the Trinity. Calvin was unstinting in presenting Christ as the Mediator, as one Who is truly, eternally God, Who became Man to reconcile us to God. The doctrine of the Trinity itself takes a strong pastoral tone with Calvin as he rigorously but warmly applies the doctrine to the sinner who must look away from himself, and look up to God for mercy and grace. Calvin also demonstrated a whole wealth of personal sympathy and sorrow for those in sickness, under persecution or trials and even for those who had opposed the faith. His letters were, for instance, precious balms to those waiting death for their loyalty to Christ. Even with Servetus, who was condemned to death for heresy by the Geneva council, Calvin not only tried to get the severity of the punishment reduced, but also visited Servetus in prison on several occasions to personally bring to him the call and counsel of the gracious Gospel of Christ.
To Calvin the Christian pastor must be a theologian-pastor. This is one of the main messages of the Institutes. B.B. Warfield has pointed out: It was Calvin's Institutes which, with its clear, positive exposition of the Evangelical faith on the infragable authority of the Scriptures, gave stability to wavering minds and confidence to sinking hearts, and placed upon the lips of all a brilliant apology in the face of the calumnies of the enemies of the Reformation. After three and a half centuries it retains its unquestioned pre-eminence as the greatest and most influential of all dogmatic treatises. In an age when evangelicalism has become confused by Barthiasnism, the Charismatic movement and the evangelical-Roman Catholic ecumenism, it is well worth encouraging each evangelical Protestant minister to read through Calvin's Institutes at least once through. We find that even the grand doctrine of Predestination is clearly set forth, not to satisfy some academic, intellectual curiosity, but to bring comfort to the troubled conscience of the humble, God-fearing Christian by cutting the root of the doctrine of works, and to rebuke the proud and self-righteous man. The life and work of John Calvin are best epitomized by what he himself had written about man's highest calling: The proclaiming of God's glory on the earth ... the very end of our existence.
The Five Points of Calvinism
Heresy and apostasy have often helped the Christian Church to sharpen its understanding of the cardinal truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Holy Scripture. Indeed many portions of the Scripture, the Book of Hosea and the Letter to the Galatians for instance, were written in such a context. Through the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century God brought back into the Church some of the most central, glorious and saving truths of the Holy Scripture. But Jacobus (James) Arminius of Holland quietly advocated teachings which were contrary to truths of the Scripture which the Protestant Reformers had restored to the Church. In many ways Arminius was a pleasant man who did not enjoy controversy. He also acknowledged that the Protestant Reformer John Calvin was the most able and exact expositor of the Scriptures that the Church has seen so far. But nice men can be very wrong too. Arminius without intention or malice sowed seeds of error which would in the following generations rob God of His glory in saving hell-deserving sinners, and in turn rob the Church of the power and presence of God.
Arminius taught that although God had made available salvation in Christ Jesus, He had left it to the sinner to accept or reject this salvation. Hence, according to Arminius, Christ's sacrifice may be made vain and empty by the power man has to choose or to reject the available offer of salvation. The Protestant Reformers had taught, their teachings being condensed and summarized in Calvin's Institutes of Christian Religion, that God's sovereign will and action are the sole foundations of man's salvation; those whom God had graciously elected in Christ before the foundation of the world will be saved by God Himself. The act of faith and choice of man are also included in the benefits of grace that Christ purchased on the cross of Calvary. Salvation in its entirety is of God. If a man is lost, his final damnation is altogether of man's own choosing and responsibility. But if a man is saved, his salvation is all of God's choosing and action. This is what the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century maintained, but which Arminius and his followers, down to the present century, deny.
When Arminius died in 1609 his disciples aggressively promoted five statements which they drew up to deny the teachings of the Protestant Reformers on the origin and nature of salvation. They advocated the teachings of Arminius. To defend the truth of the Gospel, Protestant Reformed ministers of the second generation put forward the five points of Calvinism to counteract, correct and to deny the errors advocated in the five points of Arminianism. In 1619, several ministers of the Gospel from Holland, Belgium, Scotland, England, Germany and Switzerland met in Dordrecht for seven months. After 154 meetings, they formulated the five points of Calvinism to counter the errors which were being promoted by the followers of Arminius.
Calvinism and Arminianism
We noted above that the Calvinist-Arminian controversy had its origin in the five points which the followers of Arminius put forward to refute some of the central, biblical teachings of the Protestant Reformers. Therefore it may be best to outline the five points the Reformed ministers put forward in the context of the teachings first put forward by the Arminians. In the following section we shall see the biblical warrant for the five points of Calvinism.
Arminianism: Man is able to please and to win God's approbation, although partially depraved. Although man is affected by the fall of Adam into sin, he still has the ability to do good and to choose to accept Christ. Faith is a gift man gives to God, in that it is man by his own choice who decides to place his confidence upon God in Christ.
Calvinism: Total Depravity of Man in his natural, fallen state. Man is born into the original sin of Adam, and is absolutely unable to do any good for his salvation or to believe the Gospel of Christ. Although man is not as bad as he would be without the common grace of God, the heart of man is totally depraved, he is dead in his sins, his will is enslaved to sin and Satan. Man in his natural, fallen state is unable to give God anything that pleases God, since man's will, his heart and his deeds are all tainted and corrupted by sin.
Arminianism: Those whom God foresaw will accept the Gospel, these God predestined to salvation. God foreknew who will believe the Gospel, and thus chose them unto salvation. Those who wished to be saved by their own free will were those whom God elected to save.
Calvinism: Unconditional election by God of totally undeserving sinners. Before the very foundation of the world was laid, God according to His sovereign will, elected some, certain number of hell deserving men - who were sin enslaved and altogether at enmity with him - for salvation in Christ. The basis of God's predestinating, electing mercy in Christ had nothing to do with anything he foresaw as good or promising in the sinner, but its sole origin and basis is His love.
Arminianism: Christ died for all men, and every man. Christ died for the sins of every single person born into this world. But only those who believe Him will be saved. In other words, Christ's death never really removed anybody's sins, but in dying for everybody's sins He made God's forgiveness available to everybody. To make the ineffective death of Christ effective, the man must decide to accept Christ. There are others who say, such division between effective and ineffective death is nonsense, Christ died effectively for everybody, so in the end somehow, those who believe as well as those who don't believe in Christ will all be saved. The latter group is called universalist Arminians.
Calvinism: Limited or Particular Atonement. Christ died effectively, a perfect sacrifice, only for those whom God graciously elected to salvation. Through His death and resurrection, He accomplished everlasting, perfect and complete salvation for the elect of God. By dying for particular sinners, chosen and predestined to life by God, Christ purchased for them once and for all, eternally, irrevocably all the blessings of salvation, including the forgiveness of sins and faith in Him. Faith is not a gift that man gives to God. It is a benefit purchased by the death of the Lord Jesus Christ and is a gift of God to the sinner.
Arminianism: It is up to man to decide to give in or to resist the work of the Holy Spirit. Only those who believe are regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Until the sinner decides to believe, the Holy Spirit cannot give life. Man can resist and defeat the call and work of the Holy Spirit.
Calvinism: Irresistible or Infallible Grace. Whomsoever God the Father elected, for them God the Son died on the cross, and these God the Holy Spirit shall infallibly, irresistibly, unfailingly bring to faith in the Son. The Holy Spirit of God does this by regeneration, giving them a new heart and new life, and by sweetly but surely, inclining their wills to obey the call and command of the Gospel. Thus by the sovereign, and yet gracious work of the Holy Spirit of God, those predestined in love, are infallibly brought to believe in Christ the Son and to live a holy life with joy, consent and glad obedience.
Arminianism: Those who believe and become Christians can loose their faith and salvation later in life. Those who believe and receive salvation, through disobedience and carelessness can loose their salvation.
Calvinism: Perseverance or Preservation of the saints. Those whom God in His love redeemed by the Lord Jesus Christ, and were made alive by God the Holy Spirit, are saved eternally. They will never fall away from the saving and keeping power of God. God Who sovereignly saved undeserving, helpless sinners, shall forever protect as His holy people, and provide for them in His everlasting, holy and sovereign love.