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John Calvin Ė Living for the Glory of God

A brief Biography


Have you ever had the experience of having to do something you really didnít want to do, and then finding out that you did it very well? That sort of experience sort of describes the life of a great man in the history of Christianity named John Calvin.

Calvin was born in France in the year 1509. He was the second son in a family with five brothers. His father was a notary, and worked for a bishop in France, helping out with a variety of legal matters. While he was quite young, through the influence of his father, John Calvin started receiving a kind of subsidy from the Roman Catholic Church. It was regarded as sort of a scholarship, and John Calvin began his education. He eventually went to the famous University of Paris, and was studying to become a priest. But his father had a falling out with the bishop who employed him, and told his son that he should turn to the study of law. So Calvin left the University of Paris and began to study law at Orleans.

During his studies at Paris, John Calvin came across the writings and ideas of Martin Luther. Some people think that it was his cousin who introduced him to the ideas of the Reformation. Protestantism was gathering momentum all over Europe, and Calvin had to carefully consider their call to put the Scriptures first and to reform the church. By the year 1533, Calvin himself was caught up in the movement. We arenít really sure when Calvin had a salvation experience, but perhaps it was in 1533. He wrote about his experience that year: "God subdued and brought my heart to surrender. It was more hardened against such matters than was to be expected in such a young man." Calvin knew that if he was going to follow God in the integrity of his heart, he would have to break with the Roman Catholic Church. And that is exactly what he did.

On November first of that year he gave a speech attacking the church and demanding a reform like Martin Luther had initiated in Germany. Perhaps he thought that once the people heard him explain the truth of Protestantism, they would be ready to make some changes in the Roman Catholic Church.

It didnít turn out that way. The result of Calvinís pro-Protestant speech was an explosion of anti-Protestant sentiment, forcing him to flee Paris for his own safety. He spent the next few years traveling from place to place. For a while, he lived as an exile in Basle, Switzerland. During his time there, he started writing a book titled The Institution of the Christian Religion. Calvin addressed the book to Francis the First, who was the ruler of France at the time. Calvin wanted Francis to understand the ideas of Protestantism, so he tried to explain things as clearly as possible. The book he wrote would eventually become Calvinís lasting legacy to the church. Calvinís Institutes went through many different editions and revisions, but it remains today one of the most impressive efforts of any man to sit down and explain Christian doctrine in an orderly fashion. And to think that he originally wrote it when he was only 26 years old! John Calvin was certainly not only a brilliant man, but a man called by God for a specific purpose.

During these years, Calvin had the opportunity to do what he really wanted to do in life: study and learn about God and His holy word. In many ways, John Calvin was sort of a "bookworm," or kind of a nerd. He had a quiet, timid nature, and really didnít like to argue or get into disputes. In this regard, Calvin was almost the complete opposite of Martin Luther. Luther was a man who loved to publicly battle, but Calvin wanted the life of a quiet scholar.

During his travels, Calvin was on his way somewhere when he happened to spend one night in the Swiss city of Geneva. That single day spent in Geneva would change his entire life -- and influence the Church to this very day. During his day in Geneva, Calvin met with a man named Farel. Farel had been working hard to establish the cause of Protestantism in the city of Geneva, and he wanted Calvin to stay and help him. Calvin had no intention of doing so. He was just spending the night in Geneva. But Farel demanded, and even told Calvin that God was going to curse him if he didnít help the cause in Geneva! Reluctantly, Calvin agreed to help Farel.

But their efforts in the city of Geneva did not last very long. Through the city government, they tried to establish civil and church laws that would reform the practice and doctrine of the church. But they met with tremendous opposition, and they were soon forced out of the city. Farel went one way, and Calvin headed for the city of Strausbourg. For three years, he lived in the city and ministered to the Protestant refugees who had to flee France for fear of their lives. These were happy times for Calvin, because he found a lot of time to write and study. He married a woman named Idelette during these years, and even fathered a son, who tragically died while just a baby.

But in the year 1541, pro-Protestant forces gained control of the city government in Geneva. They invited Calvin and Farel to come back, and lead the city spiritually. Calvin accepted their invitation, and returned to Geneva.

Once there, he started to work immediately. More than anything else, John Calvin wanted to make the city of Geneva a truly Christian city -- one that would be an example for other cities of the world to follow. His task would not be easy. Geneva had a long-standing reputation as a city of immorality. In trying to accomplish a change in morals, Calvin worked a closely as he could with the city government to establish laws that tried to promote Christian behavior.

While Calvin never held an official governmental office in Geneva, he was beyond doubt the dominant personality in the city. And he ruled with strictness. Sin was punished, and sometimes punished severely in Geneva. Because of his passion to establish a holy city, many people have thought of John Calvin as a dour, mean-spirited man who enjoyed nothing more than ordering other people around. That really was not the case at all. He was a man who could laugh and feel, and who could empathize with the pain of others. But he did believe with all his heart that God wanted him to make Geneva a Christian city, and he pursued this goal with incredible intensity.

Because of his efforts, Geneva gained a widespread reputation throughout Europe. Persecuted Protestants flocked to the city from all over the continent, and they often returned to their own lands as missionaries. In Geneva, they had seen a city that was doing its very best to be a godly city, and they caught the fire for changing the world for Jesus Christ there.

Perhaps John Calvin is most known for his theology. I suppose most of you have heard of Calvinism, which is the system of Christian doctrine taught by Calvin and his followers. Let me briefly summarize a few points of Calvinist doctrine. First of all, Calvin believed that men are completely unable to save themselves with their own works. Secondly, Calvin taught that salvation is a matter of Godís choosing those who will be saved, and that God chooses without any consideration of a manís good works. Also, Calvin believed that if someone was chosen of God, there was no way they could ever reject Christ or fail to endure to the end of their Christian life. Finally, he taught that Jesus only died for the people who God chose. This is called the doctrine of limited atonement, because it says that the atonement was limited to the chosen ones of God. This is one of the more controversial doctrines of Calvinism.

John Calvin remains an extremely controversial figure in the history of Christianity. Some people revere him as a great scholar, and Christian leader -- a man who established a glorious Christian society that influenced the whole world. Other people characterize him as a doctrinally extreme man, who was a religious tyrant. I am inclined to believe that John Calvin would be a bit surprised by either estimation. During his life, he had plenty of supporters and detractors. But John Calvin remained a humble man, more concerned about pleasing God than playing to the crowd.

Perhaps it is good to end with some of the very last words of John Calvin, uttered during his final illness, in the year 1564: "I have lived amidst extraordinary struggles here; I have been saluted in mockery at night, before my door, by fifty or sixty shots from guns. Think how that would terrify a poor timid scholar such as I am . . . While I am nothing, yet I know that I have prevented many problems that would otherwise have occurred in Geneva . . . God has given me the power to write, but I have written nothing in hatred . . . but always I have faithfully attempted what I believed to be for the glory of God."

Living for the glory of God - thatís a noble goal for any Christian.