In his own day he was above all else a pastor who had a passion for the gospel of Christ. It was that gospel and that passion that ultimately moved millions. He communicated faith, hope, and confidence in God. A Roman Catholic Spanish soldier in the Netherlands observed some years after Calvin’s death that he would rather face a whole army than one Calvinist convinced he was doing the will of God. Reformed Christianity was not a mild and innocuous religion. It was moving and powerful.

This book is an introduction to the life and thought of John Calvin. It aims at communicating Calvin’s passion and faith through extensive quotations from his works so that something of the force and eloquence of his language can be experienced by the reader.5 He moved millions not through the power of his personality but through the power of his biblical ideas and words. This book focuses on the essential Calvin, a man who lived out his Christian faith as a pilgrim and a pastor.

Chapter One: Calvin in Strassburg

In July 10, 1539 John Calvin reached his thirtieth birthday. In many ways his future did not seem very promising. He had shown his intelligence and scholarship in two books he had written, but his life had been very troubled. He had fled from his native France after his conversion to the Protestant faith and had ended up in the Swiss city of Geneva. After less than two years of pastoral service there, he was exiled from Geneva along with other ministers because of their insistence on moral discipline in the church. A discouraged and embittered Calvin traveled to Strassburg, an independent, German-speaking city state in the Holy Roman Empire near the border with France. There he became the pastor of a small congregation of a few hundred French refugees. Calvin’s years in Strassburg were a relief for him as he enjoyed a less conspicuous life than he’d had in Geneva, pastoring, studying, and writing. At the age of thirty, in his second exile, his body was beginning to show its tendency for weakness and illness. (In fact he had less than twenty-five years to live.) No one could have predicted that from these modest and uncertain circumstances Calvin would rise to be one of the most influential men of his age and of the modern era.

Yet 1539 was a turning point for Calvin. In that year he completed the first of his commentaries on books of the Bible, a commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans. He also published the first major revision of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, moving it from being an introduction to basic Christianity toward being a full systematic theology. Both of these works pointed to his developing interests and insights. But a third work that he wrote that year is the most important as an introduction to the life and thought of Calvin. This work is his famous treatise known as “Reply to Sadoleto.”

Calvin’s treatise was a response to a sharp attack on the Reformation written by Jacopo Sadoleto. Sadoleto was a bishop and cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church and a distinguished scholar. After hearing of the exile of Calvin and other pastors, he wrote to the Genevans in 1538 urging them to return to the old church. While the Genevan authorities did not regard Sadoleto’s letter as a real threat to the Protestant establishment in Geneva, they did want a strong and effective response written to it. After careful consideration they finally realized that their former pastor Calvin, whom they had exiled, was the best equipped to write the answer they wanted.

Calvin must have received their request with some amusement and satisfaction. Their recognition that they needed him surely made Calvin feel vindicated. He saw the importance of the task and quickly set to work writing his “Reply to Sadoleto.” He completed the treatise in six days. Theodore Beza wrote that the work was full of “truth and eloquence.”1 More recent scholars have evaluated the treatise as one of the most powerful defenses of the Reformation ever written.