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John Calvin and Reformation Day

A Reformation Day Evening Sermon, 2005


Last Reformation Sunday, we learned about the Roman Catholic monk that God saved, then used to start one of the greatest events in church history since the days of the Apostles - the Protestant Reformation!  That monk's name was Martin Luther. A lawyer, who in his early twenties superstitiously devoted his life to the priesthood, Luther would later find his soul arrested by the words of Romans 1:16-17:

"For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith."

After years of penances, hail Mary's, self-denials, confessions upon confessions and a deep hatred for the God who required so much and never seemed pleased - the Holy Spirit graciously opened Luther's eyes to justification by faith. 

From that moment on, the Word of God became more and more powerful in his life and the fiery and fearless monk began to speak out against all the heresies and abuses of Rome.  Kidnapped, exiled, brought before Diets and Tribunals, condemned as a heretic, sentenced to death, in a constant fight against the Pope - Luther's life was anything but slow, steady and serene. 

How unlike the second generation Reformer Jean Calvin!


The Early Years

Calvin was born on July 10, 1509 in the small French town of Noyon.  His family was well-connected in the Roman Catholic Church and this led to Calvin's procurement of two salaried church positions that enabled him to attend an excellent course of schooling in Paris.  Calvin was no academic slouch and showed early on his strong thinking abilities.

Calvin was 6 years old when Luther nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door.  But Luther's actions were so ground-breaking, that even a boy in France knew of him.  Calvin could later write of his reading the works of Luther, Huss and Wycliffe, but to no avail.  His own words were: "I was stubbornly tied to the superstitions of the papacy."

Like all of us before our conversion, Calvin was influenced more by the spirit of the age than the Spirit of God, thus he happily studied under some of the great French Humanist lawyers and teachers of the day.  But also, like many of us, the Lord seems to have been at work in Calvin's life, for he sensed the emptiness of humanism.


His Conversion

When exactly Calvin was converted is difficult to ascertain.  His break from Rome was consistent with his personality - methodical and deliberate, but not fantastic!  Whereas Luther would debate anyone and publish scathing tracts and pamphlets, Calvin felt called to a ministry of careful writing "to help clarify the faith of the church in those confused times."  In 1534 (at 25 years of age), he returned to Noyon, resigned his ecclesiastical posts and sometime in the next year made it plain that he was a Protestant.  Although we don't know precisely when this "coming out" took place, Calvin's hand was forced when Francis I began to persecute the Protestants within France.  Calvin decided it was time to move and he set his sights on Basel in Switzerland - a Protestant city.


The Politics of the Day

Now, it is important to note that politics and government were very different in Calvin's day than in our own.  First off, the city-state was near its zenith.  By this I mean that real political power was in the hands of the city officials, not some federal or monarchial power.  Of course, if you were a King or a Pope, you didn't really like this arrangement and so there were wars and battles and dealings taking place all the time as this power struggle sorted itself out. 

The second thing to notice was a very wrong (in my opinion) view of the relationship between the church and the state.  To be a member of the church was to be a member of the state.  To deny the church was to deny the state.  That meant if you didn't like being a Protestant in a Protestant city-state, you were viewed not just as a person with a different religion, but as a traitor to the state!  This political setting would in many ways come back to haunt Calvin...


Calvin in Basel

While in Basel, the young Calvin wrote his first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion (or as it is often called, The Institutes).   Calvin wisely observed that most of what the Reformers had written and were writing was on flashpoint issues with Rome or the Anabaptists.  He saw that there was much more to the faith than just these disagreements and so he decided to fill in the gaps. 

This first edition of the Institutes was written in Latin, pocket-sized (for easy smuggling) and only 6 chapters long.  In comparison, the final edition was made up of four books and 80 chapters!  The reasons for this are many. 

The first edition of the Institutes enjoyed immediate success. Because it was written in Latin, it could be read in many different countries around the world.  And the readers quickly recognized Calvin's unique ability to handle the text of the Word of God and state what it said clearly and concisely.


The Commentaries

It has often been remarked that Calvin's greatest gift to the church was his commentaries on all the books of the Bible except Revelation (on purpose since he thought it too difficult to interpret decisively...hmmm, could it be he was on to something there!).  These commentaries are still in print today and are an excellent tool for the expositor.  Calvin dealt with the text, that was his strength.  And using his excellent memory and reasoning, he was able to explain Scripture using Scripture.  It was really from these works that each new edition of the Institutes flowed.  As Calvin grew in his knowledge of the Word, it informed his worldview and, if you like, his systemized theology. 

In other words, his understanding of a doctrine like the Trinity increased as he worked his way through the books of the Bible.  As that understanding grew, it would add to what he could write on the Trinity as he explained it in the Institutes.  In my mind, this is the way all good theologizing should take place!  Calvin was not just some philosophical intellect reasoning his way by pure logic to personal conclusions about God and his world.  He was first and foremost a student of the Holy Bible, and that Scripture was determinative to his thinking.


The Move to Geneva

Not long after the first edition, Calvin determined to move to Strasbourg, a steady, safe and secure Protestant city.  Military efforts at the time made the trip from Basel to Strasbourg a tricky trip and he was forced to take the long road there, through Geneva.  Ah, providence!

Geneva was a city in a bit of turmoil - not Calvin's style!  Reformers from Bern had come to Geneva to evangelize and seen some success.  The political leaders of the city were fed up with Rome and ready to find a way to break from the Mother Church.  This led to them declaring themselves to be a Protestant city, even though most of the leaders and residents were not Protestant, nor had they a full understanding of what that meant!  William Farel, the leader of the Bern missionaries, now found himself "at the helm of the religious life of the city and sorely lacking in personnel!" 

When Calvin arrived in Geneva for a "one night stay" word leaked to Farel that the author of the Institutes was in town.  Farel immediately arranged a meeting and begged Calvin to stay and help lead the work - but Calvin wanted nothing to do with it.  The city was in confusion, loyalties were not trustworthy, massive political change was in order, and the local church was in disarray.  Calvin wanted to study and write and this was not, in his estimation, the proper setting for such a ministry.

Farel continued to plead with Calvin but to no avail.  Finally, he left Calvin with this famous threat:

"May God condemn your repose, and the calm you seek for study, if before such a great need you withdraw and refuse your succor and help!"

Calvin was cut to the quick!  He wrote, "These words shocked and broke me and I desisted from the journey I had begun."  History would never be the same.


Calvin in Geneva - Round One

After agreeing to be a help to Farel and the reformers of Geneva, Calvin soon became the leader of the movement.  His natural gifts, spiritual insights, training as a lawyer and zeal for Truth all led to a recognition of his leadership abilities.  Farel was glad to have Calvin in charge and would remain a faithful co-laborer until his death.

Not long after settling into Geneva, though, Calvin found himself in conflict with the city leaders.  He felt it was both right and necessary for the church to excommunicate unrepentant members.  Now remember, this meant you got the boot not just from attending church services, but form the city itself!  The half-in, half-out city council did not like this idea at all, and the conflict between the two parties eventually led to Calvin being banned from the city!  Not a good start!  But, the Lord has His ways.


The Strasbourg Interruption

Calvin saw this ban as a ticket to the Strasbourg he always wanted to live in.  Off he went with Farel to the city of his dreams!  From 1538 to 1541, Calvin wrote, assisted Martin Bucer in leading the church, translated Psalms and hymns into French, published his second edition of the Institutes and met Idlette de Bure - a woman with whom he was happily married until her untimely death in 1549.


Calvin in Geneva - Final Round and Servetus

Soon, political circumstances changed in Geneva and Calvin returned to pastor the little flock he had left behind.  Now things were different.  Calvin was in political power and for most of the rest of his life was the informal leader of the city.  This led to the most controversial event in his amazing life.

In 1553, when Calvin was 44 years old, his life became forever associated with one Michael Servetus.  Servetus was a Spanish physician who had written on religious topics.  One of his tracts condemned the Trinity, another condemned the mixing together of religion and politics.  This did not make Servetus, who gave no real evidence of being genuinely born-again, a popular guy.  The Catholics had caught, tried and sentenced him to death during the French Inquisition - but Servetus escaped and fled to, you guessed it - Geneva.

Right away there were those who wished to provide amnesty for Servetus, claiming that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend!"  In other words, anyone condemned by Rome ought to be embraced by Geneva.  As nice as that sounded, the problem was that Servetus was just as much a heretic to Protestants as he was to Catholics!  What was to be done?

Servetus was tried in Geneva and convicted of heresy.  Calvin himself went to Servetus privately and urged him to repent after the verdict had been declared, but Servetus remained obstinate in his disbelief.  Now the problem - Calvin, along with the other leaders of the city, ordered his execution.  Servetus was burned at the stake.

There was no small controversy surrounding this event in Calvin's day - as there is no small controversy surrounding it today!  Some have written off Calvin entirely because of the Servetus affair.  What are we to make of it?

First, we must recall the strange political climate of the day and the mix of the church and state.  We cannot interpret Calvin's actions as if they took place in Canada in 2005.  Second, we must remember that Calvin's motive was to protect Truth.  Although motive never excuses wrong-doing, it may help to understand why something took place.  Third, we need to remind ourselves that no life and no man are perfect.  This is not to lessen the severity of the Servetus murder, but it is to warn us about "casting stones."  We have the benefit of looking back on this event over 450 years after it occurred... Calvin had to live life forwards and do what he thought best at the time.  Most of us could list many things we would do differently now, even 4 years after the fact!  Fourth, we must remember that the Roman Catholics were killing hundreds of people a year for so-called heresy!  This is one isolated event in the life of Calvin, not his hobby!  Finally, we cannot throw out all the good accomplished by the Lord through Calvin on the basis of this one regrettable incident.


Faithful to the End

For the next 11 years, Calvin pastored, wrote, published, taught and established his life-long dream - the Genevan Academy.  Under the direction of Theodore Beza, men began to be trained for the ministry and the youth of Geneva were trained in the "reformed" or "Calvinistic" way. 

New editions of the Institutes appeared in both Latin and French with the last two appearing in 1559 and 1560.  These are regarded as the definitive text of the Institutes and are what is published today in many different languages all over the world.  The Institutes are also available online for free. 

Through the publishing of the Institutes and the training of pastors, Calvin's influence was soon felt all over Protestantism.  After a very full and devoted life, Calvin put his affairs in order and went to be with Lord on May 27, 1564.  He was 55 years old.


Life After Calvin

Luther, Calvin and Zwingli never really worked out a way to overcome division between their respective groups.  Martin Bucer went a long way to bridging the gap while the reformers were all living, getting documents of agreement signed by most of the principle parties.  Although they agreed on so much and held a mutual respect for one another, the issue of the Lord's Supper was a stumbling block to true fellowship.  This division only increased after the death of each man, as their disciples often went further than their mentors!  Soon the followers of Calvin and Zwingli were referred to as being "Reformed" and the followers of Luther as being "Lutheran" - distinctions that remain with us today.


What Do We Learn from Calvin's Life?

  1. God will choose to use us as He sees fit.  Calvin loved peace and peacefulness!  But the Lord had other plans for Him.  It seems to me that this often the way He works, choosing to use us in fields for which we never dreamed we were fit.  We can take comfort though, that the Lord is the One who has gifted us and in His wisdom He will use that gifting just as He determines. 
  2. No life is perfect.  Every great man has followers who portray him as near-perfect.  Calvin was no exception and many have venerated the Reformer in a manner he would find repulsive.  The result of this kind of idolization is often a pendulum swing in the other direction toward demonization!  Certainly this has been the case with Calvin and the Servetus murder.  But, as I said earlier, we need to take a look at the man's whole life and benefit from it where we can.  To write someone off because of one event is bad history and bad practice.  Hopefully nobody will do the same to us!
  3. One of the greatest lessons from the life of Calvin is his firm commitment to Scripture.  The addition of new material was not the only reason for re-publishing the Institutes so many times.  There were also corrections to be made.  We need this kind of honest humility in our own day.  Most of us can recount things we used to believe that we cringe about now!  Why is that?  Probably because we have been reading our Bibles for a while now and as we do our understanding of God and the Universe bends toward the Truth.  We can follow Calvin's example and spend our lives growing in our knowledge of God.  One of the major faults of the church of our day is a Sunday School knowledge of God - if we think we have "arrived" in our grasp of the deity we are fools.  There is always more to know of the Infinite!
  4. Calvin had a brilliant mind - and men with brilliant minds face a strong temptation to delight in their minds more than the Word.  This must be resisted at all cost!  We need brilliant men who will submit to God's Word and do what it says.  This ought to be a rebuke and encouragement to those of you who have some smarts.  Are you using what God has given you to grow deep in His Word?  There is a certain humility necessary for this, but it is crucial!  We can thank God that there are more and more men of stunning intellect who are submitting their minds to revealed Truth.  But men and women of extraordinary intelligence would do well to ask themselves if they are relying more on their reasonings than revelation?
  5. Some of us are prone to battles - we will fight anyone who asks!  The church needs some godly fighters to defend the faith, but those who find themselves in constant conflict ought to remember that they must also learn  to preach the whole counsel of God!  If Luther erred, it might have been in this area (so easy for us to look back and critique!).  But one lack in Luther's teaching could have been a balanced look at all of Scripture.  Calvin provided a balance within the Reformation and helped define what it is to be Protestant.
  6. Calvin was 55 when he died - and yet he did so much in what is truly a short life!  Many great men and women did much for God in a short span of time, they seemed to have had an urgency about their whole lives that resulted in a massive output.  I would challenge you to look at your own life and ask what have I done in 55 years? Or, what does the current trajectory of my life indicate I will do in 55 years?  The fact is, most of us could do much more for the Kingdom if we but tried and set our minds to it.  Calvin's short life serves as a wake up call from our slumber and sloppiness.
  7. We must continue to invest in the seminary.  Thankfully, much of Calvin's influence was transferred from generation to generation because of the Genevan Academy.  Men learned the value of handling accurately the Word of Truth and this standard was kept for generations.  Churches need to think past their current condition and remember that the church is always one generation away from extinction.  One of the primary ways to protect against this is to have training centres where Scripture is held in high regard.

Calvin was not a perfect man, but he was used mightily by the Perfect God.  May He have grace to use all of us, just as He sees fit, to His ultimate glory! 

Soli Deo Gloria


Works Referenced

Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1985).