Happy Birthday, John Calvin by Michael E. Wittmer
John Calvin is one of the most misunderstood men in church history. Contrary to popular opinion, John Calvin was not:
1. the dictator of Geneva. Calvin did not gain a free hand in Geneva until 1555, when his Libertine opponents miscalculated and allowed French refugees to purchase the right to vote. These refugees were sympathetic to their fellow Frenchman and they swept the Libertines from power. So Calvin only had the run of Geneva for the last nine years of his life. He never became a citizen of the city, but for most of his life was merely a registered alien.
2. the one who burned Michael Servetus at the stake. Servetus was killed in 1553, when the Libertines governed Geneva. Calvin visited Servetus in prison and pleaded with him to recant his views. When Servetus refused, Calvin agreed that he deserved to die, but recommended a less painful beheading. The Libertines, ever looking to antagonize Calvin, opted to burn him instead. It is true that Calvin thought that Servetus should die, but so did most everyone in the 16th century, including the Roman Catholics, who were furious that Servetus had escaped from their Viennese prison, thereby depriving them of the honor of killing him.
Who was John Calvin?
1. He was a scholar. From the outset of his career Calvin plotted a two-pronged plan for study. He would write commentaries on Scripture, but unlike his friend Martin Bucer, who filled his commentaries with long digressions, Calvin would place in another book—his Institutes—any topics or issues of dispute that arose from his exegesis. Calvin never wavered from this division of labor, and during the winter of 1558-1559, when he was too ill to preach and teach, he found the strength to significantly expand the Institutes into the form we have today.
2. He was a pastor. The young Calvin was challenged twice to become a pastor: in 1536 John Farel pleaded with him to remain in Geneva and help the reform there; and two years later, after he had been evicted from Geneva, Bucer invited him to pastor a French congregation in Strasbourg. Both times Calvin initially refused, and both times Farel and Bucer played their trump card, "If you don’t pastor these people, then God will curse your scholarship." Calvin was a sucker for that line, and so he became a reluctant pastor.
He put his entire heart into it, "promptly and sincerely." Calvin became a celebrated preacher whose published sermons far outnumbered his commentaries, which are much larger than his Institutes. The Institutes are what Calvin is known for, but they are a small fraction of his total output. Most of his sermons are missing, having been destroyed by a dimwitted librarian in Geneva who recycled their paper.
3. He was a champion for sovereign grace. Calvin opened the Institutes by saying that there are two things we must know in order to be wise: how great God is and how sinful we are. This impulse accounts for Calvin’s strong emphasis on divine providence and predestination. He did not intend to diminish human freedom, but to find security in this fallen world. We can live without fear if our days and our salvation have been decreed by God. We will not die before our time, and when that time comes we will curl up in the gentle and unshakeable grip of our heavenly Father.
Perhaps reflecting his pastoral heart, "Father" is Calvin’s favorite name for God. He said that we know that we possess saving faith if, knowing how great our sin and misery are, we can still lift our eyes to heaven and call God our Father. Only those with genuine faith have the guts to do that.
Read anything Calvin wrote, and the first thing you will notice is that he never shied away from a difficult question. Though some may not like all of his answers, it seems obvious to many that his message of sovereign grace is as necessary now as it was 500 years ago. May he—and we—find rest in our Father’s hands.
Michael Wittmer is professor of systematic and historical theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. He is the author of Heaven Is a Place on Earth and Don't Stop Believing. He blogs at www.michaelwittmer.net .
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