Today marks the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. John Calvin is often referred to as the theologian of the Reformation. It is true that he seemed to put into written form the key doctrines (sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, and soli deo gloria) of the Reformation more than anyone. His Institutes is widely regarded as one of the most important theological works in church history.
What many don’t know is that Calvin averaged some 5 sermons a week during his ministry. He was a faithful (and sometimes reluctant) pastor / preacher. He emphasized the sovereignty of God over all things, and proclaimed the gospel until his death in 1564.
Many people have formed opinions without ever reading a word about Calvin. They have decided what they believe about his teachings (even what he taught) by only listening to others who have disagreed.
As well, others have just associated with his theology without learning it for themselves. In fact, Calvin would certainly have never referred to himself as a “Calvinist.” He was simply wanting the church to return to Scripture and sound orthodoxy.
One thing is sure, Calvin leaves few with a neutral opinion. Here is a brief video of Sam Storms (pastor in OK City – and relative of a UBC attender) on why Calvin is controversial:
I agree with Sam, especially on the last point. One of the most intense confrontations I’ve ever had in serving the Church happened about 10 years ago. I was teaching a youth retreat and there was a college student who was an intern there to help. This student was not a member of my church, and during a training session getting ready for the weekend, he lashed out at another college intern about his views on Calvinism and her opposing views to Calvinism. I don’t even know how it came up, I just overheard part of the conversation before she stormed out of the room in tears. I immediately went out of the room to comfort her and all she could say was, “I’ll never believe such terrible things about God!” All I could say was not to let someone’s arrogant perspective keep her from even some of the truths that might be associate with Calvinism, but would benefit her greatly. My next move was toward the male intern. I have never rebuked someone as sternly as I did that young man. I don’t remember him crying, but I know that he was humiliated to the extent that the doctrines he held to, that should promote the deepest level of humility, brought his behavior more in line.
Read this from The Institutes (2.17.3):
That Christ, by his obedience, truly purchased and merited grace for us with the Father, is accurately inferred from several passages of Scripture. I take it for granted, that if Christ satisfied for our sins, if he paid the penalty due by us, if he appeased God by his obedience; in fine, if he suffered the just for the unjust, salvation was obtained for us by his righteousness; which is just equivalent to meriting. Now, Paul’s testimony is, that we were reconciled, and received reconciliation through his death, (Rom. 5:11). But there is no room for reconciliation unless where offence has preceded. The meaning, therefore, is, that God, to whom we were hateful through sin, was appeased by the death of his Son, and made propitious to us. And the antithesis which immediately follows is carefully to be observed, “As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous,” (Rom. 5:19). For the meaning is — As by the sin of Adam we were alienated from God and doomed to destruction, so by the obedience of Christ we are restored to his favour as if we were righteous. The future tense of the verb does not exclude present righteousness, as is apparent from the context. For he had previously said, “the free gift is of many offences unto justification.”
I was one of those guys who, years ago, knew I believed in God’s providence in all things, but would not have claimed Calvin as a friend…until I read him. While I do not care for the label “Calvinist” in many circles, I certainly would fall more into that category than others in opposition. Once I read Calvin, I realized that I had more to learn from him than avoid. Through that process I came to hold to Christ being the supreme ruler of the universe and my soul, both with the same end — His magnificent glory!
Now, we have to be careful with any person that we follow as a teacher of the Scriptures (alive or dead). We must make certain that we find our focus in the Christ they point us to! We cannot emphasize a system of thought over the Scriptures themselves. So, be driven to the Scripture. If you wonder whether or not you would like Calvin, read The Institutes…then test him by the Scriptures.
As a Southern Baptist pastor, I know that we have much to be grateful for as a denomination for the work of the Reformers including John Calvin. Without God’s gracious work through their faithful service we probably wouldn’t have such powerful articles like the following out of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 (and our statement of faith):
God’s Purpose of Grace
Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.
All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.
So, like him or not, be thankful that men like John Calvin were preserved by God to help defend orthodoxy against heretics that claimed the name of The Church so that we may continue to see the Gospel intact. May we not fear the opinions of men as we hold to the doctrines of grace as they promote the Gospel of God in the face of Christ!
Soli Deo Gloria!