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17 Lessons Learned from John Calvin's Biography

  • Kevin DeYoung The Gospel Coalition
  • 2011 4 Apr
  • COMMENTS
17 Lessons Learned from John Calvin's Biography

The article's title is all the introduction you really need. Here we go. All quotations are from Bruce Gordon’s Calvin...

1. If you want to make an impact beyond your little lifespan, teach people the Bible. “What made Calvin Calvin, and not another sixteenth-century writer was his brilliance as a thinker and writer, and, above all, his ability to interpret the Bible” (viii).

2. The big public personalities are often privately awkward. “In the public arena Calvin walked and spoke with stunning confidence. In private he was, by his own admission, shy and awkward” (x).

3. We read too much causality into our childhoods. “With his contemporaries, and much in contrast to our age, Calvin did not consider his childhood as psychologically formative: it was a brief and brutal preparation for adulthood associated primarily with ignorance, volatility and waywardness” (2).

4. The best friendships are forged in fire. “All his life Calvin would define friendship in terms of a commitment to a common cause; it was within that framework that he was able to express fraternity and intimacy” (29).

5. True strength is knowing your weakness. “However, one of his greatest strengths in his later career was an acute awareness that despite remarkable confidence in his calling and intellect he remained dangerously prone to moments of poor judgment on account of anger” (91).

6. If you want to impact your city, be prepared to work hard and consistently. “And here was a formula that would serve Calvin well throughout his time in the city: extremely hard work on his part combined with the disorganization and failings of his opponents” (133).

7. Beware the temptation to want to be proved right in everything. “From the pulpit, before the Consistory and Council, and from the printing press, issued forth a single-minded determination to have the last word and to be proved right. This was not simply for the sake of ego: he was absolutely certain that he was right” (145).

8. Some contextualization is appropriate. “Like Luther with his first translation of the Bible into German, he understood that the Reformation stood or fell on the ability of the reformers to speak to the people in their own language” (148).

9. Not every kind of accommodation is sinful people pleasing. Calvin wrote to the obstinate and fiery William Farel: “We only earnestly desire that insofar as your duty permits you will accommodate yourself more to the people. There are, as you know, two kinds of popularity: the one, when we seek favour from motives of ambition and the desire of pleasing; the other, when, by fairness and moderation, we gain their esteem so as to make them teachable by us” (151).

10. The Church needs good deacons. “The deacons of the Genevan church did just about anything and everything. They purchased clothing and firewood, provided medical care, and not infrequently were present at births. They arranged guardians for the children of the sick. Essentially, they attempted to meet any need. Their task was thankless” (201).

11. Endurance is a neglected virtue. “If one were to admire Calvin for nothing else, his ability to sustain the relentless onslaught of the 1550s is astonishing” (233).

12. Preaching has always been difficult. “Far from the solemn quiet of modern churches, preaching in the sixteenth century was somewhat akin to speaking in a tavern. Preachers had to compete with barking dogs, crying babies, general chatter and constant movements, even fist-fights. They required presence to command respect and their most important tool was their voice” (291).

13. Some traditions must change. “He argued for the freedom of the marriage contract and mutual consent of man and woman, a fundamental point he continually defended in his sermons. Consensual engagements were essential; children were not to be forced into unions by their parents” (295).

14. Every hero (except for Jesus) is a divided hero. “This was Calvin’s divided self: the confidence in his calling as a prophet and apostle set against his ever present sense of unworthiness and dissatisfaction. . . .It was his acute sensitivity to the gap between what was and what should be that distressed him” (334-35).

15. Biography is particularly strategic and can be used to build up the church or lead it astray. “Calvin’s friends had good reason for proceeding to publish [a biography] with haste. There were others who wanted to tell a very different story. Calvin’s nemesis Jerome Bolsec lived to have the last word, and penned two accounts ten years after the reformer’s death. Like many Catholics, he feared that the Protestant reformers were being accorded the status of saints, and he sought to destroy the reputation of Calvin and Geneva. In this, as Irena Backus has shown, he was extraordinarily successful” (338).

16. Work hard, but don’t neglect the body. “Calvin’s punishing routine and recurring illnesses aged him and put him in an early grave” (339).

17. Pray that your fruitfulness outlives you in expression of gratitude you will not see. “For a man who lived his life in exile, the most fitting memorial came from a land he never saw. In 1583 Geneva was under military threat from the Duke of Savoy, and Beza sent a delegation to England to seek financial assistance. Despite Elizabeth’s frostiness towards Calvin, the collection raised was extraordinarily generous, reflecting the gratitude of a nation for a city and a man that had once offered refuge and Christian teaching” (340).

Kevin DeYoung is Senior Pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. He is married to Trisha with four young children.

This article originally appeared on Kevin DeYoung's blog, "DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed," at The Gospel Coalition website. Used with permission.

Publication date: April 4, 2011