The Humility of Calvin: An Encouragement to "Calvinists"

It may not come as a surprise to those who adhere to Calvin's theology of salvation; the all-to-familiar notion that Calvinistic Christians tend to be arrogant and antagonistic. It was in the Fall of 2010 when I was first exposed to Calvin’s soteriology (the doctrine of salvation); more specifically I was introduced to Calvin’s view of God’s sovereignty in salvation. At first, I was opposed to such views, but as I continued to study, I became overwhelmingly persuaded that Calvin’s theology of salvation was nothing more than the Apostle Paul’s theology of salvation, which was therefore Jesus' theology of salvation. As I grew more attracted to this theology, I began reading blogs, forums, articles, etc. and that is when I noticed the continuous complaint that Calvinists are haughty and prideful. Unfortunately, I am afraid that this critique is altogether too close to reality. After studying John Calvin’s life apart from his theology I realized that there was a great irony in contemporary Calvinistic boasting. Although John Calvin most certainly held unswervingly to the "doctrines of grace" (a.k.a. the five points of Calvinism) and the sovereignty of God in all things, the irony is that he did it with much meekness, mildness, and humility.  Today, "Calvinists" must acknowledge the sovereignty of God in the fact that they were led to and believe in such a God-honoring, Christ-exalting, Spirit-adoring doctrine. This truth ought to make us among the most humble of all people. I believe a few details from Calvin’s life will encourage us so called “Calvinists” to humble ourselves before our great God and to offer Him thanks and praise for raising up godly men to trumpet the truths of Scripture throughout the ages.

John Calvin or Jean Cauvin was born in 1509 in the city of Noyon, France. He was in the process of transitioning from clerical studies to law when he was swiftly converted to Christ in his early twenties. By the grace of God and through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, Calvin’s interests and desires shifted rather quickly from studying law to studying the bible and theology. Soon, it became evident that Calvin had a brilliant mind and a special giftedness in studying and understanding the things of God. France was not the most peaceful or protected place for a rising protestant leader; therefore, Calvin moved to Basel, Switzerland, which provided him a secure, protestant-friendly, surrounding to continue studying. Interestingly, it was in Basel, Switzerland where Calvin planned on living a life of solitude while quietly studying, writing, and reflecting on the Word of God, but the Lord had other plans.

While in Basel, Calvin penned his first edition of his most famous work The Institutes. Originally, only 6 chapters covering the fundamentals of the protestant faith, The Institutes were addressed to the King of France with a 20-page introduction humbly pleading for the acceptance of French Protestants; unfortunately it is highly unlikely that King Francis I ever read this introduction. It is in Calvin’s introduction to the king that one can begin to clearly see his zeal for the King of kings combined with his humble introverted personality.

In 1536, Calvin decided to move to Strasbourg, Germany to continue his discreet life of study. On the way to Germany, his route was halted by an on-going war and he was forced to stay in Geneva, Switzerland.  Calvin’s plan was to stay in Geneva for one night and leave the following morning on a new route to Strasbourg, but that night he would have a divine appointment with William Farel.  William Farel was a reformer in his own right and he was everything that Calvin was not. Farel was fiery and Calvin was tranquil. Farel was loud and Calvin was quiet. Farel was public and Calvin was private. Calvin, who acknowledged himself as bashful, unpolished, and desirous of seclusion from the public eye, had no intention of ever becoming a pastor or a public figure, but that night would shape Calvin’s life in a way he never could have imagined. Space and time limit the details that will be shared here in regard to Calvin’s ministry in Geneva, but on that night Farel managed to convince, or manipulate, Calvin into staying at Geneva in order to help reform the city. Eventually, due in part to Calvin’s insistence of holy living, Geneva got tired of Calvin and Farel’s procedures  and they were exiled from the city in 1538. At that time Calvin finally reached Strasbourg where he met his wife and enjoyed some of the best years of his life, but his time was short in this city of Southern Germany. The city of Geneva found itself in awfully bad shape after Calvin’s departure and in 1541 Calvin reluctantly returned to Geneva at the request of Geneva’s city council. It was in this Swiss city that Calvin would minister for the rest of his life. It was not until the second half of Calvin’s years in Geneva that God graciously began showing Calvin the fruits of his labor. Many visitors to Geneva thought that there was not a better city, socially speaking, in all of Europe due to the reform and high-standards of living that Calvin promoted. Protestantism flourished under Calvin’s oversight in Geneva and Geneva became the model city for many protestant reformers across Europe. By February of 1564, after seeing all that the Lord had done in Geneva, John Calvin became severely ill.  

As Calvin was increasingly ill it became certain to him that it was the will of God for his life to soon come to an end. He preached his last sermon in February of 1564, in April of that same year he released a statement thanking God for allowing him to preach the gospel, stating that he longed to be with the Lord, and asserting that he was certain of the gracious gospel of Christ. On May 27, 1564 Calvin died with his successor, Theodore Beza, at his side. One of the most remarkable displays of Calvin’s humility is the way in which he wished to be buried. Calvin demanded that he be buried in an unmarked tomb without song or celebration. His reasoning behind this appropriate burial was simply to insure that the honoring of a man would not overshadow the glory of God. The whereabouts of his tomb are still unknown to this day.

What are we to take away from this brief look at a few details from John Calvin’s life? First, it is good for us to recognize that John Calvin was a man first and foremost marked by the gospel of Jesus Christ. When we read Calvin we undoubtedly see that he was a man overwhelmed by the gospel of Jesus Christ and the glory of God. In the months before his death, Calvin’s repeated refrain was that he was but a mere man and that God alone was worthy of all the honor and glory. May we take a cue from John Calvin and be overwhelmed by the gospel of Christ to the core of our being rather than simply being overly eager to utter the five points of Calvinism at the beginning of every spiritual conversation we have.

Second, it is necessary for us to acknowledge the longevity, patience, and perseverance of the ministry of John Calvin. I must be clear here, I am an absolute proponent of holding to and teaching each and every doctrine that the Bible presents, but we must also understand that as we share biblical doctrine and sound theology it is not necessarily going to convert or change everyone’s view overnight, or perhaps ever. Calvin was tenacious and unswerving in his theology and doctrine, but Geneva took many years to become the model protestant city that it became. It takes a humble man to spend 25 years committed to a gospel cause in one city when at times it seemed that there would never be a change for the positive. May we share sound doctrine and biblical knowledge with great patience and perseverance while relying on the Holy Spirit to do the internal work just as we see in the ministry of John Calvin.

Lastly, it is beneficial for us to remember where we came from before God so graciously revealed truth to us. One of the encouraging things that Calvin points to is the fact that it was God who pulled him out of the mire and led him to the truth. As we share the gospel and get into theological discussions it is important for us to be prayerful for ourselves and for those we are speaking with. God is able and He is at work to fulfill his good, pleasing and perfect will; we should take great rest in that! We can see the fingerprints of God in the life of John Calvin and we should be humbled by the fact that He intervenes in the lives of his children. May we be humble yet firm, gentle yet strong, and patient yet urgent as we share truth that honors, glorifies, and exalts our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Soli Deo Gloria!