24 Feb 2009

One of My Dead Friends: John Calvin

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Hebrews 13:7 “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”

I like to joke that most all of my best friends are dead (the truth is they are alive and with Christ). I say that because in my life I have been extremely blessed by the writings of Godly men and theologians who have gone before me. This last Sunday during my sermon I pointed out the moral consistency of Nehemiah, how he “walked his talk” or “practiced what he preached.” Biographies enable you to see that in a person, they go a step further than just reading what somebody wrote and look into the quality and character of a person’s life.

It is very easy to just look around at what is common or accepted but when you read about someone’s life from outside of our current context and time period, you get a vision for something different and often greater. Yesterday, on my day off, I finished a biography I was reading on the life of John Calvin. Here are the things that stuck out to me and inspired me.

1. John Calvin intentionally aimed at making all of his life about the glory of God.

When he was 30 years old, my same age, he wrote what he hoped he would be able to say about his life when he died. Here is what he said, “The thing at which I chiefly aimed, and for which I most diligently labored, was, that the glory of thy goodness and justice…might shine forth conspicuous, that the virtue and blessings of they Christ…might be fully displayed.” When I read that, I wrote, “May it be so of me at the end of my life Lord.”

2. John Calvin knew he was a sinner ever in need of merciful salvation

Calvin became a Christian when he was 24 years old. He wrote about that experience saying it was, “…as if light had broken in upon me, in what sty of error I had wallowed, and how much pollution I had thereby contracted. Being exeedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen…I (gave) myself to thy (God’s) way, condemning my past life, not without groans and tears.”

A month before his death when he was 55 years old, thirty-one years later, he wrote about his sinfulness and need for Jesus. “With my whole soul I embrace the mercy which [God] has exercised towards me through Jesus Christ, atoning for my sins with the merits of his death and passion, that in this way he might satisfy for all my crimes and faults, and blot them from his remembrance…I confess I have failed innumerable times to execute my office properly, and had not He, of His boundless goodness, assisted me, all that zeal had been fleeting and vain…I trust to no other security for my salvation than this, and this only, that as God is the Father of mercy, he will show himself sucha Father to me, who acknowledge myself to be a miserable sinner.” Those last words are breathtaking to me, may I never move an inch from knowing I am a sinner in need of Jesus.

3. John Calvin loved, believed, and built his life and ministry upon the Bible as the Word of God

His conversion to Christianity began with the Bible. He had been interested in law and philosophy, but the Bible broke him. He writes about it and says, “God by a sudden conversion sudued and brought my mind to a teachable frame…I was immediately inflamed with intense desire.” Calvin explains that what happened to him was that God “lifed(ed) reverence for Scripture beyond the realm of controversy.”

Three years later he published the first volume of the Institutes of Christian Religion, which is the most influential book in Christian history other than the Bible. The core conviction which produced that book was the belief that the Bible was the Word of God and we must humbly receive its words of truth. He writes, “…illumined by power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God…we affirm with utter certainty that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men.”

As a pastor, this conviction was the driving force of his preaching. John Calvin preached exegetical expository sermons. He spent five years taking his congregation through the book of Acts…46 sermons on the Thessalonian letters, 186 sermon on the Corinthian letters, 86 sermon on the Pastoral epistles, 43 sermons on Galatians, 48 on Ephesians, 159 sermons from Job, 200 sermons from Deuteronomy, 353 from Isaiah, and 123 on Genesis. Approximately 10 sermons a week, and most of which were manuscripted. This is simply a massive amount of preaching all while writing commentaries (22 Volumes), tracts, letters, and other lectures…and all of it was exposition of Scripture. Why? He answers for us in his charge to pastors.

“Let the pastors boldly dare all things by the Word of God..Let them constrain all the power, glory, and excellence of the world to give place to and to obey the divine majesty of this Word. Let them enjoin everyone by it, from the highest to the lowest. Let them edify the body of Christ. Let them devastate Satan’s reign. Let them pasture the sheep, kill the wolves, instruct and exhort the rebellious. Let them bind and loose thunder and lighting, if necessary, but let them do all according to the word of God.” May the conviction that the Bible is the Word of God always be the source and foundation of my life and ministry.

4. John Calvin lived out what he preached and taught.

Sadly, most do not know of the things mentioned above but only know of John Calvin in relationship to the doctrine of predestination (God sovereignly controls and pre-determines all events of this world and human life, even salvation). Of those who have actually read what he writes concerning predestination, very few know how he lived out those beliefs.

John Calvin had three children of his own. All of them died shortly after they were born. His first son, Jacques lived the longest, he was two weeks old before he died. When he died, Calvin wrote a letter to his friend Viret about it. In it he says, “The Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our baby son. But He is Himself a Father and knows best what is good for his children.” This is simply astonishing. So many today want to dismiss predestination because of experiences of suffering and evil. Not Calvin. In the cup of bitterness he drank in deep the assurance that in God’s goodness he planned even that horrific experience. In the hour of my own suffering may turn from the clear teaching of Scripture concerning predestination, but may I too firmly grip the grace of knowing that nothing happens that God in his wisdom does not determine to be.


I have been blessed so much by my friend, John Calvin. He gives me a vision for a different type of life…one more committed to Christ, more sacrificial and hard working, more confident of God’s power, and more passionate to see the gospel proclaimed and received. It’s my prayer that this little reflection in a blog would inspire and impassion you as well.

- Pastor Duane

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