About John Calvin

Article by Dr. Sam Storms entitled 10 Things You Should K ow About the Life of John Calvin (original source here)

Everyone everywhere is talking about Martin Luther in 2017. It is, as you know, the 500th anniversary of the “launch” of the Protestant Reformation. But we would do well to give equal consideration to John Calvin. So today we look at 10 things everyone should know about his life. I will later follow up on this with 10 things we should know about his theology.

(1) Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, at Noyon in Northeastern France. Unlike Luther, Calvin was born into the professional class and received an excellent early education. His name has come to us via a process: Cauvin is French; Calvinus is the Latinized form; Calvin is the Anglicized form.

(2) At the age of 13-14 he attended the University of Paris where he came under the influence of three men: Nicolas Cop; Olivetan (both of whom had a positive impact on him with respect to his eventual break with Rome); and John Major, an anti-reformer who ironically introduced Calvin to the writings of Wycliffe, Hus, and Luther. He received his masters degree in 1528 and then studied law at the University of Orleans under pressure from his father and because of a growing discontent with the Roman Catholic Church. In 1532, at the age of twenty-two, he received his doctorate in civil law. He later studied Classics in Paris and was also well-educated in theology, ancient languages and rhetoric.

(3) Some place his conversion as late as 1534 and others as early as 1527-28. Unlike Luther, his was not a dramatic experience, but not for that reason any less revolutionary. He does describe his move from the teachings of Rome to biblical Christianity as a change “from papal superstitions to evangelical faith, from mechanical ceremonies to trust and faith, and from scholastic traditionalism to biblical simplicity” (Schaff, VIII:306).

At another point he calls it a “sudden conversion” but not in the sense of a Damascus road experience. Rather it was the climactic fall of a city by a final assault following a long siege. When “I was obstinately addicted to the superstitions of the papacy,” he writes, “God subdued and reduced my heart to docility.” Speaking of the sovereignty of God’s work, he writes: “Thou didst shine upon me with the brightness of Thy Spirit. . . . Thou didst arouse my soul.”

(4) Calvin did not at first desire a break with Rome, but envisioned a purification of the church from within. This was not to be. Calvin’s friend, Nicolas Cop, was elected Rector of the University on Oct. 10, 1533 and delivered the inaugural lecture on All Saint’s Day, Nov. 1, before a large assembly. The speech, written primarily by Calvin, was a plea for reformation and an attack on both Catholic theology and theologians. Of the latter Calvin wrote: “They teach nothing of faith, nothing of the love of God, nothing of the remission of sins, nothing of grace, nothing of justification; or if they do so, they pervert and undermine it all by their laws and sophistries. I beg you, who are here present, not to tolerate any longer these heresies and abuses.”

The reaction was violent. Cop fled to Basel. Calvin is reported to have descended from a window by means of bed-sheets and escaped from Paris disguised as a vine-dresser with a hoe upon his shoulder. His rooms were ransacked and his papers seized.

(5) Calvin was influenced by friends and colleagues to break completely with Rome, which he did in 1534. The next two years were spent as a wandering student and evangelist. He settled in Basel, hoping to spend his life in quiet study. There he began writing The Institutes under the assumed name of Marianus Lucanius (either to avoid publicity or persecution). In March of 1536 the first edition, which contained only 6 chapters (an exposition of the Decalogue, the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, with brief comments on baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the other sacraments, Christian liberty, church government, and church discipline) was ready for publication. He became famous overnight.

(6) Calvin returned to Paris in 1536 to settle some old financial matters. He decided to go from there to Strasbourg to be a scholar, but as he later explained it: “God thrust me into the game!” He was detoured during the journey to Geneva because of the war then raging between Francis I and Charles V. An old friend, du Tillet, recognized him in the hotel and immediately informed William Farel (1489-1565). When Calvin resisted Farel’s pleas to join him in the work of reformation in Geneva, the latter shouted: “Therefore, I proclaim to you in the name of Almighty God whose command you defy: Upon your work there shall rest no blessing! Therefore, let God damn your rest, let God damn your work!” As if under searing fire, Calvin’s defiance melted. And as he offered his hand to the preacher, a tear rolled over his caved-in cheek. “I obey God!” was his cry.

(7) Upon arriving in Geneva, he began to lecture on the Pauline epistles, wrote a constitution for the church, introduced congregational psalm singing, wrote a confession of faith, a children’s catechism, and insisted on the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper (but eventually had to settle for monthly). Trouble erupted when he and Farel sought to administer both church and civil discipline. The two were literally kicked out of town in April of 1538. Calvin was determined to return to Basel and resume his studies, but Martin Bucer (who was won to the Reformation while listening to Luther at the Leipzig debate) persuaded him to go to Strasbourg where he remained from 1538-1541.

(8) Calvin often said he didn’t care what a wife looked like as long as she was of a Christian spirit and could interact with him intellectually. In another place he wrote:

“I am none of those insane lovers who embrace also the vices of those they are in love with, when they are smitten at first sight with a fine figure. This only is the beauty which attracts me: if she is chaste, if not too nice or fastidious, if economical, if patient, if there is hope that she will be interested about my health.”

He finally married Idelette de Bure in 1540 who brought two children with her from a previous marriage (her first husband was an Anabaptist whom Calvin had led to the Lord). She died in 1549. They had three children, all of whom died in infancy.

(9) Once again under pressure from Farel, Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541 and ministered there until his death in 1564. Upon his return, Calvin was given a free hand. He drafted a document containing rules for ecclesiastical operations called Church Order. This attempt to enforce discipline would again threaten his position in the city. He faced opposition from numerous fronts.

The so-called Patriots or Children of Geneva belonged to the oldest and most influential families of Geneva. They resented Calvin’s efforts at moral reform and viewed them as encroachments on personal freedom (Calvin resisted such practices as dancing and late-night carousing). They disliked the fact that Calvin was a foreigner (he did not become a citizen until 1559) and resented the refugees of religious persecution that flocked to him for shelter.

The Libertines lobbied for the very vices Calvin resisted. Being somewhat gnostic, they appealed to the freedom of the spirit as an excuse for indulging the flesh. Calvin described them as “the most execrable and pernicious sect the world has ever known.” The libertines boasted in their license. For them, the “communion of saints” meant the common possession of all goods, even other men’s wives. They engaged in adultery and widespread sexual immorality while claiming the right to sit at the Lord’s Table.

(10) Calvin’s physical afflictions read like a medical journal. He suffered from painful stomach cramps, intestinal influenza, and recurring migraine headaches. He was subject to a persistent onslaught of fevers that would often lay him up for weeks at a time. He experienced problems with his trachea, in addition to pleurisy, gout, and colic. He suffered from hemorrhoids that were often aggravated by an internal abscess that would not heal. He had severe arthritis and acute pain in his knees, calves, and feet. Other maladies included nephritis (acute, chronic inflammation of the kidney caused by infection), gallstones, and kidney stones. He once passed a kidney stone so large that it tore the urinary canal and led to excessive bleeding.

Due to his rigorous preaching schedule (he preached twice on Sunday and every day of the week, every other week) he would often strain his voice so severely that he experienced violent fits of coughing. On one occasion he broke a blood-vessel in his lungs and hemorrhaged. When he reached the age of 51 it was discovered that he was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, which ultimately proved fatal. Much of his study and writing was done while bed-ridden. In the final few years of his life he had to be carried to work.

His friends and physicians insisted he ease off the pace of ministry. “What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when he comes?” He preached his last sermon on February 6, 1564. He had to be carried to and from the pulpit. He dictated his will on April 25th. It read, in part, as follows:

“In the name of God, I, John Calvin, servant of the Word of God in the church of Geneva, weakened by many illnesses . . . thank God that He has shown not only his mercy toward me, His poor creature, and . . . has suffered me in all sins and weaknesses, but what is more, that He has made me a partaker of His grace to serve Him through my work, . . . I confess to live and die in this faith which He has given me, inasmuch as I have no other hope or refuge than His predestination upon which my entire salvation is grounded. I embrace the grace which He has offered me in our Lord Jesus Christ and accept the merits of His suffering and dying that through them all my sins are buried.”

Calvin’s coat of arms, a hand holding a heart, is testimony to his compassionate and self-sacrificial spirit. It is encircled by his motto: Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. Freely translated it means: “My heart for Thy cause I offer Thee, Lord, promptly and sincerely.”

Calvin’s View on the Atonement

What did John Calvin believe concerning limited Atonement? Many say that Calvin did not. Dr. Nicole addresses this question with great care.

This topic has received considerable attention in the recent past, perhaps in view of R. T. Kendall’s very controversial book Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649.1 An effort is made here to summarize the debate and to provide a brief evaluation.
It is often stated—and with considerable propriety—that Calvin did not write an explicit treatment concerning the extent of the atonement, in fact did not deal with this precise issue in the terms to which Reformed theology has been accustomed. It must be owned, of course, that the question had received some attention before Calvin. Notably Gottschalk in the ninth century had given express support to definite atonement2 and the scholastics had discussed the topic and advanced a partial resolution in asserting that Christ’s death was “sufficient for all men and efficient for the elect.” 3 Calvin alludes to and endorses this distinction but views it as insufficient for a proper analysis of 1 John 2:2. 4 Nevertheless a full discussion of the scope of the atonement is not found in Calvin’s writings, and the assessment of his position in this area has been varied.

Certain other Reformed theologians, contemporaries of Calvin or flourishing in the late sixteenth or the beginning of the seventeenth century, expressed a clear endorsement of definite atonement: e.g. Peter Martyr, H. Zanchius, T. Beza, J. Piscator, W. Ames, R. Abbot. 5 As far as we know, they did not assert that they were conscious of differing with Calvin on this score, nor did Calvin take issue in writing with any of those who formulated the view during his life-time.

One of the earliest writers to claim that Calvin espoused universal atonement was Moyse Amyraut (1596–1664) who in his Eschantillon de la doctrine de Calvin touchant la predestination6 quoted certain passages from Calvin’s commentaries in support of his own position on universal atonement. Amyraut’s friend and supporter Jean Daillé (1594–1670) later published some 43 pages of excerpts from Calvin’s works which he deemed in line with universal grace. 7 A number of these excerpts relate to the design of the atonement, but it is really amazing to observe how most of these quotations are lacking in cogency with respect to the precise status questionis. Some, indeed, appear actually counterproductive, especially if replaced in their original context. 8 Amyraut’s opponents, notably Pierre DuMoulin (1568–1658), 9 André Rivet (1573–1651), 10 and Frederic Spanheim (1600–1649) 11 did not fail to respond with explanations of Calvin’s texts which showed them to be compatible with particularism. Furthermore they quoted other texts of Calvin, especially from his Traité de la predestination,12 in which the design of the atonement and God’s elective purpose are seen as inextricably related. Continue reading

Calvin on the Sacraments

calvin-john7Article by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson (original source John Calvin seems to be at his most feisty when he writes on the sacraments. Against those who complain that infant baptism is a travesty of the Gospel, in the Institutes he stoutly insists, “these darts are aimed more at God than at us!” But a little reflection reveals he is also at his most thoughtful, and his analysis of sacramental signs can strengthen credobaptists as well as paedobaptists.

If repentance and faith are in view in baptism, how can infant baptism be biblical? Calvin responds: the same was true of circumcision (hence references to Jer. 4:4; 9:25; Deut. 10:16; 30:6), yet infants were circumcised.

How then can either sign be applicable to infants who have neither repented nor believed? Calvin’s central emphasis here is simple, but vital. Continue reading

Calvin’s Legacy Today

From the Ligonier website:

“On July 8th, we were joined by Dr. Ligon Duncan, chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, president of Westminster Seminary California, and Dr. Stephen Nichols, president of Reformation Bible College. As we discussed the life and legacy of John Calvin and the ongoing necessity of reforming the church, Dr. Godfrey participated in this special event live from Geneva.”

You can watch the Google Hangout below:

Reforming the Church

Calvin05John Calvin on the Necessity for Reforming the Church – by Robert Godfrey (original source a request came to John Calvin to write on the character of and need for reform in the Church. The circumstances were quite different from those that inspired other writings of Calvin, and enable us to see other dimensions of his defense of the Reformation. The Emperor Charles V was calling the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire to meet in the city of Speyer in 1544. Martin Bucer, the great reformer of Strassburg, appealed to Calvin to draft a statement of the doctrines of and necessity for the Reformation. The result was remarkable. Theodore Beza, Calvin’s friend and successor in Geneva, called “The Necessity for Reforming the Church” the most powerful work of his time.

Calvin organizes the work into three large sections. The first section is devoted to the evils in the church that required reformation. The second details the particular remedies to those evils adopted by the reformers. The third shows why reform could not be delayed, but rather how the situation demanded “instant amendment.”

In each of these three sections Calvin focuses on four topics, which he calls the soul and body of the church. The soul of the church is worship and salvation. The body is sacraments and church government. The great cause of reform for Calvin centers in these topics. The evils, remedies and necessity for prompt action all relate to worship, salvation, sacraments and church government.

The great cause of reform for Calvin centers in these topics. The importance of these topics for Calvin is highlighted when we remember that he was not responding to attacks in these four areas, but chose them himself as the most important aspects of the Reformation. Proper worship is Calvin’s first concern.


Calvin stresses the importance of worship because human beings so easily worship according to their own wisdom rather than God’s. He insists that worship must be regulated by the Word of God alone: “I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honour of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, ‘Obedience is better than sacrifice.’” This conviction is one of the reasons that reform was required: “. . . since . . . God in many passages forbids any new worship unsanctioned by his Word; since he declares that he is grievously offended with the presumption which invents such worship, and threatens it with severe punishment, it is clear that the reformation which we have introduced was demanded by a strong necessity.” By the standard of God’s Word Calvin concludes of the Roman Catholic Church that “the whole form of divine worship in general use in the present day is nothing but mere corruption.” Continue reading

John Calvin’s Four Rules of Prayer

prayer89An excerpt from Joel Beeke’s contribution in John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology.

For John Calvin, prayer cannot be accomplished without discipline. He writes, “Unless we fix certain hours in the day for prayer, it easily slips from our memory.” He goes on to prescribe several rules to guide believers in offering effectual, fervent prayer.

1. The first rule is a heartfelt sense of reverence.

In prayer, we must be “disposed in mind and heart as befits those who enter conversation with God.” Our prayers should arise from “the bottom of our heart.” Calvin calls for a disciplined mind and heart, asserting that “the only persons who duly and properly gird themselves to pray are those who are so moved by God’s majesty that, freed from earthly cares and affections, they come to it.”

2. The second rule is a heartfelt sense of need and repentance.

We must “pray from a sincere sense of want and with penitence,” maintaining “the disposition of a beggar.” Calvin does not mean that believers should pray for every whim that arises in their hearts, but that they must pray penitently in accord with God’s will, keeping His glory in focus, yearning for every request “with sincere affection of heart, and at the same time desiring to obtain it from him.”

3. The third rule is a heartfelt sense of humility and trust in God.

True prayer requires that “we yield all confidence in ourselves and humbly plead for pardon,” trusting in God’s mercy alone for blessings both spiritual and temporal, always remembering that the smallest drop of faith is more powerful than unbelief. Any other approach to God will only promote pride, which will be lethal: “If we claim for ourselves anything, even the least bit,” we will be in grave danger of destroying ourselves in God’s presence.

4. The final rule is to have a heartfelt sense of confident hope.

The confidence that our prayers will be answered does not arise from ourselves, but through the Holy Spirit working in us. In believers’ lives, faith and hope conquer fear so that we are able to “ask in faith, nothing wavering” (James 1:6, KJV). This means that true prayer is confident of success, owing to Christ and the covenant, “for the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ seals the pact which God has concluded with us.” Believers thus approach God boldly and cheerfully because such “confidence is necessary in true invocation… which becomes the key that opens to us the gate of the kingdom of heaven.”

Overwhelming? Unattainable?

These rules may seem overwhelming—even unattainable—in the face of a holy, omniscient God. Calvin acknowledges that our prayers are fraught with weakness and failure. “No one has ever carried this out with the uprightness that was due,” he writes. But God tolerates “even our stammering and pardons our ignorance,” allowing us to gain familiarity with Him in prayer, though it be in “a babbling manner.” In short, we will never feel like worthy petitioners. Our checkered prayer life is often attacked by doubts, but such struggles show us our ongoing need for prayer itself as a “lifting up of the spirit” and continually drive us to Jesus Christ, who alone will “change the throne of dreadful glory into the throne of grace.” Calvin concludes that “Christ is the only way, and the one access, by which it is granted us to come to God.”

Word and Spirit in Conversion

Calvin05John Hendryx writes, “The following is an expression of the extraordinarily balanced understanding of John Calvin with regards to the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing persons to faith through the preaching of the gospel. Commenting on Acts, it shows the outworking of God’s plan through the agency of men in casting forth the seed of the gospel, which, the Bible testifies, can only be responded to when germinated (so to speak) by the Holy Spirit. The Scripture testifies that the word alone is not enough to enter and change the heart of natural man (who is hostile to God’s word) but that the heart must be opened and the mind illumined by the concurrent work of the Spirit. An biblical example of this can be found in 1 Thes 1:4, 5. “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…””

The Necessity of Word & Spirit in Conversion by John Calvin

“One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” Acts 16:14-15

Now when in fact only one hears attentively and effectively, could it not have appeared that the way was blocked for Christ to make an entry? But afterwards from that frail shoot a famous church sprang up, whose praises Paul sings in splendid terms. Yet it is possible that Lydia had some companions, of whom no mention is made, because she herself far surpassed them. Yet Luke does not attribute the cause for this one woman having shown herself docile, to the fact that she was sharperwitted than the others, or that she had some preparation by herself, but says that the Lord opened her heart, so that she gave heed to Paul’s words. He had just praised her piety; and yet he shows that she could not understand the teaching of the Gospel without the illumination of the Spirit. Accordingly we see that not only faith, but also all understanding of spiritual things, is a special gift of God, and that ministers do not accomplish anything by speaking, unless the inward calling of God is added at the same time.

By the word heart Scripture sometimes means the mind, as when Moses says (Deut. 29:4), ‘until now the Lord has not given you a heart to understand.’ So also in this verse Luke means not only that Lydia was moved by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to embrace the Gospel with a feeling of the heart, but that her mind was illuminated to understand. We may learn from this that such is the dullness, such the blindness of men, that in hearing they do not hear, or seeing they do not see, until God forms new ears and new eyes for them.

But we must note the expression that the heart of Lydia was opened so that she paid attention to the external voice of a teacher. For as preaching on its own is nothing else but a dead letter, so, on the other hand, we must beware lest a false imagination, or the semblance of secret illumination, leads us away from the Word upon which faith depends, and on which it rests. For in order to increase the grace of the Spirit, many invent for themselves vague inspirations so that no use is left for the external Word. But the Scripture does not allow such a separation to be made, for it unites the ministry of men with the secret inspiration of the Spirit. If the mind of Lydia had not been opened, the preaching of Paul would have been mere words; yet God inspires her not only with the mere revelations but with reverence for His Word, so that the voice of a man, which otherwise would have vanished into thin air, penetrates a mind that has received the gift of heavenly light.

Therefore let us hear no more of the fanatics who make the excuse of the Spirit to reject external teaching. For we must preserve the balance which Luke established here, that we obtain nothing from the hearing of the Word alone, without the grace of the Spirit, and that the Spirit is conferred on us not that He may produce contempt of the Word, but rather to instill confidence in it in our minds and write it on our hearts.

1 From Calvin, John. The Acts of the Apostles. 2 vols. Trans. by John W. Fraser and W.J.G. McDonald. Ed. by David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965.

The Evangelistic Heart of John Calvin

Calvin05This article was first published in the Reformed Quarterly Magazine Fall 2001.

Calvin the Evangelist. Original source here:

There are many popular misconceptions about John Calvin. Who is the true Calvin behind the image?

Will Durant, nurse the famous author of the eleven-volume series on the History of Western Civilization, said of Calvin: “We shall always find it hard to love the man, John Calvin, who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.” Even the defrocked TV evangelist, Jimmy Swaggart, has something to say about Calvin. “Calvin,” said Swaggart,” has caused untold millions of souls to be damned.” Such judgments, besides being uncharitable, fail to get at the real John Calvin – a man with a strong evangelical heart.

One of the most pervasive criticisms of Calvin is that he had no interest in missions. The well-known Protestant missiologist, Gustav Warneck, portrayed the Reformers, including Calvin, as missiologically challenged merely because they believed in predestination. “We miss in the Reformers, not only missionary action, but even the idea of missions… because fundamental theological views hindered them from giving their activity and even their thoughts a missionary direction.”

But history tells another story.

The city of Geneva, long associated with Calvin, was also an important refugee center in the Reformer’s day. Throughout sixteenth century Europe, persecuted Protestants fled their homelands, many of whom found their way to Geneva. In the 1550s, the population of Geneva literally doubled.

One of those refugees who came to Geneva was the Englishman John Bale, who wrote: “Geneva seems to me to be the wonderful miracle of the whole world. For so many from all countries come here, as it were, to a sanctuary. Is it not wonderful that Spaniards, Italians, Scots, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, disagreeing in manners, speech, and apparel, should live so lovingly and friendly, and dwell together like a … Christian congregation?”

Since Geneva was French-speaking, the vast majority of refugees came from France. As they sat under Calvin’s teaching in the Cathedral of St. Pierre, the French refugees’ hearts stirred for their homeland. Many of them felt compelled to return to France with the Protestant gospel.

Calvin, however, did not want to send uneducated missionaries back to the dangers of Catholic France. He believed that a good missionary had to be a good theologian first. And so he inspired and educated them. He trained them theologically, tested their preaching ability, and carefully scrutinized their moral character. Calvin and the Genevan Consistory sent properly trained missionaries back to France to share the Gospel.

Calvin did not just educate them and send men back to France. These missionaries did not just become photographic memories on Calvin’s refrigerator door. On the contrary; Calvin remained intimately involved in all that they were doing.

The Genevan archives hold hundreds of letters containing Calvin’s pastoral and practical advice on establishing underground churches. He did not just send missionaries; he invested himself in long-term relationships with them.

Concrete information exists from the year 1555 onwards. The data indicate that by 1555, there were five underground Protestant churches in France. By 1559, the number of these Protestant churches jumped to more than one hundred. And scholars estimate that by 1562 there were more than 2,150 churches established in France with approximately three-million Protestant souls in attendance.

This can only be described as an explosion of missionary activity; detonated in large part by the Genevan Consistory and other Swiss Protestant cities. Far from being disinterested in missions, history shows that Calvin was enraptured by it. Continue reading