Portraits of Faith - John Calvin

Mike Fisk / January 2024

If you’ve ever walked into my office, seen the myriad of portraits of old dead white guys, and wondered why the heck I would fill my office with so many stern looking dudes, wonder no more! Today, we kick off a twelve-part series exploring the lives and ministry of my own personal heroes of the faith. In these articles, we will explore the lives and ministries of twelve key figures in church history who show us what it means to live a life devoted to Christ and his mission–lives devoted to being disciples who make disciples.

Today, we kick off this series by diving into the life of a man whose legacy significantly shapes my faith journey: John Calvin.

Calvin’s Life and Legacy

John Calvin was born in 1509 in Noyon, France. He didn't grow up as a little boy dreaming of being a Protestant Reformer (like so many of us do…). Instead, he was trained for a career in the Catholic Church, to be a priest. But as fate (or providence) would have it, Calvin converted to Protestantism, and with his father's encouragement, Calvin left his position as a chaplain in the Catholic Church, and pursued a career in law.

After his conversion to Protestantism, John Calvin's life was filled with unexpected twists and turns. He left France in the middle of intense religious turmoil in hopes of finding a nice, quiet scholarly life in Strasbourg. But, as providence would have it, yet again, Calvin was unexpectedly steered towards Geneva, Switzerland.

When Calvin arrived, Geneva was an absolute mess. The city was overwhelmed with religious and political chaos. Calvin, who planned on staying for just one night, was persuaded (more like forced) by local reformer William Farel to stay and help reform the city's church. Calvin was strongly resistant to Farel’s proposition, until Farel said to him, “May God curse you and your studies if you do not join me here in the work He has called you to!” Calvin finally agreed to stay (probably more out of fear than desire), beginning a transformative time for Calvin and Geneva.

Pastor, Teacher, Reformer

Often, when people think of Calvin, they have an image of a scholar hidden behind a pile of books. And yes, it’s true that he was a brilliant theologian, but what many don’t know about Calvin was that he deeply loved his congregation. He didn’t just write a ton of theological works; he deeply invested himself in the spiritual lives of his congregation.

His sermons were not dry, boring theological lectures. They were engaging, filled with practical application. Calvin was warm, compassionate, caring, and even funny. In fact, according to some accounts, he was light-hearted, often sharing witty anecdotes and jokes with the people he knew. Theodore Beza (another reformer, and close friend of Calvin’s) talked about Calvin’s ability to bring levity to a tense situation though self-depreciation or a light-hearted wise-crack.

Calvin was also no stranger to pain. He was married to Idellette de Bure, a widow he met while away in Strasburg. The two of them grew to love and respect one another, but sadly, their time together was short and filled with intense pain and sorrow. They lost all of their children in infancy, and even Idellette herself passed just nine years after the two wed. Calvin may have looked like a hard man, but he was a man who felt deep love, deep sorrow, and though it all endured through faith in the middle of all these challenges. God used all these experiences to help Calvin care for those that were placed in his care.

Calvin’s commitment to teaching and shepherding his congregation was unlike anything we see in our world today. He tirelessly preached and lectured, often daily, and he had an incredible knack of explaining complex theological concepts in relatable terms. A great example of this is his magnum opus, "Institutes of the Christian Religion." The Institutes is still considered one of the most important books in Church history. It’s a very comprehensive guide that was designed to help the lay churchgoer understand Christian doctrine and teach them how to live a godly life. It's like the ultimate spiritual survival guide, minus the tips on building a fire in the rain.

But Calvin's influence didn't stop at the church doors. He played a pivotal role in shaping Geneva’s government, and established a model of church-state relations that would influence Protestantism for centuries. His goal was to bring about a Kingdom culture into every aspect of life here on earth. Ambitious, and admirable!

Why John Calvin?

So, why do I admire this 16th-century French guy? It's not just his theological chops or his impressive beard (though that helps). I have long admired him because of his unwavering commitment to his beliefs and convictions, as well as his relentless dedication to ministry. Calvin stood firm in his convictions, even when it wasn’t trendy (or safe) to do so. He poured every ounce of his life into his work, not for fame or accolades, but out of a genuine desire to serve God and his people–out of a deep love for Christ, and his Church.

Calvin was a pastor, yes, but he saw his job as a calling to be a shepherd to his flock and a teacher who brought the Bible to life. Everything that he wrote, from The Institutes, to his famous commentaries, even the letters that were later published, were all done out of a deep love for those God loved, and they were intended to help ordinary people, like you and me, understand and apply God's Word.

Learning from Calvin

Calvin’s life reflects to us what true discipleship is. Calvin shows us that discipleship is about learning (we get that part), but Calvin also exemplifies that discipleship is about being transformed and helping others transform. He showed that to be a disciple, we need to surrender our hearts and minds, and our whole lives to Christ. His dedication reminds us that every aspect of our lives should be dedicated towards glorifying God and helping others do the same.

Calvin for Us

So, what should we take away from Calvin’s life and ministry? Be bold in your faith, dive deep into God's Word, defend it, live it, teach it, and help others grasp its life-changing power. Lean into our faithful and loving Father in the midst of hardship, and let Him shape you into the image of Christ so that we can display the same love and grace that Christ has shown us.

Let’s not just admire the legacy of Calvin, or hold him up as an idol, but instead, let’s be active in continuing it. Be a disciple who makes disciples, grounded in Scripture, and joyfully committed to Christ’s calling.

Rockford Reformed Church
4890 11 Mile Road, Rockford, MI 49341

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