John Calvin: Theologian and Pastor

James Edward McGoldrick

The Protestant Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther, was the most important development in church history since the apostolic age. Many people returned to biblical teachings long obscured or perverted in the Middle Ages. The foremost theologian of the Reformation was John Calvin (1509-64), whose five hundredth birthday we celebrate this year.

Calvin was born and educated in France, and he early demonstrated great intelligence and scholarly aptitude. His cousin Pierre Olivetan appears to have been a major influence persuading Calvin to embrace the Protestant faith. Calvin wrote, "God, by a sudden conversion, subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame."[1] Olivetan was an able Bible scholar who assisted in translating the Scriptures into French. Calvin later improved that translation, and it became the basis for the Genevan Bible.

By the time of his conversion, Calvin had become a proficient scholar in classical literature and law—preparation which equipped him well to become a theologian. Perhaps because he was a rather shy person, Calvin became a reformer reluctantly. He went to Geneva in 1536 and met William Farel, a dynamic preacher, but one who was inept at organizing the reformation in that city. Farel demanded that his new friend join him in the ministry and pronounced a curse on Calvin's desire to pursue a quiet life in scholarship. The intimidated Frenchman complied, but in 1538 angry civil authorities expelled both of them. He returned in 1541 with serious reservations, but remained there as chief pastor of the Reformed Church until he died.

As he expected, enemies of the Reformation in Geneva continued to harass him, and years of struggle elapsed before he could free the church from state interference. He faced resistance to the moral reforms he promoted. Along with the other Reformers, John Calvin taught salvation by sovereign electing grace. This doctrine provoked stern opposition, as when Jerome Bolsec, a former monk, complained that Calvin's teaching made God responsible for evil. Bolsec was expelled from Geneva and later returned to Catholicism. He wrote a bitter diatribe which later biographers magnified to defame Calvin.[2]

Calvin the Biblical Theologian

By the time he arrived in Geneva, Calvin had already published his great work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. In this treatise, he accomplished something Luther never attempted: a systematic, integrated explanation of the whole spectrum of Christian beliefs.[3] From a rather modest beginning, the author expanded and revised his work several times, until in 1559 the final edition appeared in four substantial volumes.[4]

A careful reading of the Institutes shows Calvin's indebtedness to Luther and their mutual reliance upon Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the greatest thinker of the ancient church. Like Augustine, Luther and Calvin contended with entrenched ideas about salvation as a cooperative endeavor in which God and man make necessary contributions. The clarion call of the Reformers was sola gratia, sola fide: salvation by grace alone, through faith alone—and, of course, in Christ alone. Luther said of justification through faith alone, "On this article rests all we teach and practice."[5] Calvin called it "the main hinge on which religion turns."[6] Without this truth, there could be no gospel. Justification to Calvin meant "remission of sins and the imputation of Christ's righteousness."[7] He considered the dispute over justification to be "the principal point of contention we have with the papists."[8] As one modern observer has remarked, "Reformation teaching on justification spoke with one voice.... On nothing were all the reformers more agreed."[9]

Calvin's doctrine of sin and salvation affirms universal human depravity and the sovereignty of divine grace. The Fall deprived sinners of genuine freedom, so their only hope for salvation lies in the unmerited favor of God. In contending with opponents of this doctrine, Calvin wrote The Bondage and Liberation of the Will in 1543, in which he praised Luther's earlier work, The Bondage of the Will (1525).[10]

As a champion of sola gratia, John Calvin wrote much about the means of grace—the Word of God and the sacraments, as well as prayer. He viewed the sacraments as signs and seals of gospel promises, visible indicators of God's favor toward his elect. In denying that baptism produces regeneration, he differed with Luther, but, like the German reformer, he urged Christians to think about their baptism often as a means to encourage their dependence upon divine love. He cited Acts 2:39 in support of infant baptism and maintained that elect children would come to Christ, and that the sacrament would avail to strengthen their faith in the Savior.[11]

In contrast to Ulrich Zwingli, the reformer of Zurich, who regarded the Lord's Supper as only a memorial of Christ's sacrifice, Calvin, like Luther, believed in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, although the nature of that presence is spiritual, not corporeal, as Luther maintained.

To Calvin, the bodily ascension of Jesus to heaven meant that his presence on earth must be spiritual, but those who receive the Supper in faith actually commune with the Savior in an inexplicable union to the nourishment of their souls.[12] Although Calvin's teaching on this subject did not satisfy Luther, the reformer of Wittenberg did not reject it acrimoniously, as he had done with the symbolism of Zwingli. When Luther read Calvin's Short Treatise on the Supper of Our Lord (1540), he rejoiced and concluded that, had the Zurichers read it earlier, disputes about the sacrament might have been avoided.[13]

Calvin the Pastoral Theologian

The major theme of Calvin's theology was always the glory of God. In his zeal to promote the divine glory, he demonstrated deep concern for human beings, God's image-bearers, whom he longed to enlist in the cause of reformation. The eternal and temporal well-being of people occupied his attention, for he understood he could do nothing for God directly, but could honor God by assisting others to know their Creator and to realize their obligations to love and obey him. As a scholar, he lectured to candidates for the ministry in Latin; but as a pastor, he preached in French to communicate with common people. To learned and unlearned parishioners alike, he proclaimed, "The whole life of Christians ought to be a sort of practice of godliness."[14] He defined godliness as a "pure zeal which loves God as a real Father and looks up to him as a real Lord; it embraces his righteousness and detests offending him more than it does dying."[15]

To encourage the piety of God's people, their pastor taught them from Scripture, for he knew spirituality requires the truth of divine revelation as the basis for personal life and its healthful development. As the Holy Spirit leads Christians to accept sound teaching, that knowledge must regulate all of life. Even in his Institutes,Calvin sought to promote sincere piety as well as sound theology, and to demonstrate the connection between them.[16]

With sympathy and compassion, Calvin sought to help believers as they struggled with temptation in their quest for spirituality, that is, for "reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces."[17] Calvin recommended regular reading of Scripture as the principal means of progressing in sanctification. As the Holy Spirit creates faith in the Word of God, piety requires believers to organize their lives around Scripture, applying its teachings in all areas of their endeavors. They must participate in public worship to hear the Word expounded, and they must reinforce that with private study and meditation on biblical teachings.

Although John Calvin was a profound thinker, he was not a detached scholar who viewed learning as an end in itself or a means to satisfy one's intellectual interests. The knowledge of God's Word empowers Christians to resist temptation and to produce the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Calvin, as a caring pastor, strove to aid the saints in dealing with the obstacles to spirituality they confronted on a daily basis. A careful reading of his devotional writings continues to be a valuable resource, since modern believers face the same difficulties as their spiritual ancestors did in the era of the Reformation.[18]

Although detractors of John Calvin have often portrayed him as a cold, uncaring, authoritarian despot, he was actually a warmhearted pastor, deeply concerned for the spiritual and material needs of others. Many passages in the Institutes offer consolation for troubled believers. Calvin's letters also reflect his loving concern, especially for Protestants persecuted for their faith. When he learned about the slaughter of Protestants in France, he wrote, "I [am] worn out with sadness and not without tears, which so burst forth ... that they interrupt my words."[19] When a leader of the Huguenots faced death by burning, Calvin advised him to prepare for a wedding feast with Jesus.[20] This pastor-theologian knew how to "weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:15), for the death of his wife and their only child taught him the meaning of personal sorrow.

To believers enduring various afflictions, the reformer of Geneva urged confidence in the sovereign providence of God, which provides opportunities to examine one's thoughts, in order to discover causes for divine chastisement. "All those who regard their troubles as necessary trials for their salvation not only rise above them but turn them into an occasion for joy."[21]

Portrayals of John Calvin as a self-absorbed "loner" are misleading, for he knew the value of friendship and cherished the fellowship of those who labored with him in the cause of reformation. When Theodore Beza, his closest associate in the ministry at Geneva, contracted bubonic plague, Calvin related that he was "weighed down with a load of grief," for he believed that Beza "loves me with more than a brother's love and reveres me as a father."[22] When the son of his friend M. de Richbourg perished in the plague, Calvin wrote to his grieving father, "I found myself so distracted and confused ... that for several days I could do nothing but cry."[23]

The Calvin of myth may appear as a man with a heart of ice and a countenance of stone, but the Calvin of history, while a brilliant intellectual, was also a sympathetic pastor and caring friend who loved God and loved others, who, in turn, loved him.

Five hundred years have elapsed since the birth of John Calvin, but his influence remains strong and continues to summon Christians to God-centeredness in principle and practice. Always aware of his own sinfulness and failures, Calvin understood clearly the meaning of salvation sola gratia, an indispensable truth if people are to enjoy the proper knowledge of God and of themselves. As they experience the saving grace of Christ, they must desire the divine glory in all areas of life, submitting to the authority of God's written Word. Calvin provided the appropriate prayer for such transformed souls in the statement that became his motto: "My heart I offer to thee, O Lord, promptly and sincerely."


[1] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 1:xl.

[2] Helpful accounts of Calvin's struggles in Geneva appear in Albert Hyma, Christianity and Politics (Lippincott, 1938); J. Marcellus Kik, Church and State: The Story of Two Kingdoms (Nelson, 1963); Phillip C. Holtrop, The Bolsec Controversy (Edwin Mellen, 1963).

[3] The first edition of Calvin's work is available in Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. and trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Eerdmans, 1975).

[4] Two excellent abridgments of Calvin's work are A New Compend of Calvin's Institutes, ed. H. T. Kerr (Westminster/John Knox, 1989), and Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne (Baker, 1987).

[5] Martin Luther, "The Smalkald Articles," in The Book of Concord, ed. T. G. Tappert et al. (Fortress, 1959), 292.

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Westminster, 1960), 3.11.1.

[7] Ibid., 3.11.2.

[8] Ibid., 3.19.11, n. 14.

[9] M. Eugene Osterhaven, The Faith of the Church (Eerdmans, 1982), 166.

[10] John Calvin, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will (Baker, 1996).

[11] Calvin, Institutes, 2.3.5 and 4.15-16.

[12] Ibid., 4.17.32-33.

[13] Calvin's treatise is in Calvin's Selected Works: Tracts and Letters (reprint, Baker, 1983), 2:163-98. See B. A. Gerrish, The Old Protestantism and the New (T. & T. Clark, 1982), 287, n. 53.

[14] Calvin, Institutes, 3.19.2.

[15] John Calvin, Truth for All Time: A Brief Outline of the Christian Faith (Banner of Truth, 1998), 3. This summary of the first edition of the Institutes is a fine place to begin a study of Calvin.

[16] See Paul Chung, Spirituality and Social Ethics in John Calvin (University Press of America, 2000), 8.

[17] John Calvin, The Christian Life (Harper & Row, 1984), ix.

[18] See John Calvin, The Golden Booklet of the Christian Life (reprint, Baker, 2004) and John Calvin, Grace and Its Fruits: Selections from John Calvin on the Pastoral Epistles (Evangelical Press, 2000).

[19] Calvin, Calvin's Selected Works, vol. 4, letter of May 4, 1545.

[20] Richard Stauffer, The Humanness of John Calvin (reprint, Solid Ground Christian Books, 2009), 90. This is an excellent account of Calvin as a tenderhearted pastor.

[21] John Calvin, Suffering—Understanding the Love of God (Evangelical Press, 2005), 30.

[22] Calvin, Calvin's Selected Works, vol. 5, letter of June 30, 1551.

[23] Quoted by Stauffer, Humanness of Calvin, 88.

The author teaches church history at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The second edition of his book, Luther's Scottish Connection, was recently published by Solid Ground Christian Books. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2009.

New Horizons: October 2009

John Calvin: Theologian and Pastor

Also in this issue

Calvin, American Calvinism, and the OPC

Nuggets in a Golden Booklet

Senioritis at Rutherford College

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