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John_Calvin_2The title is all the introduction you need. Here we go. The 15 points are mine. All quotations are from Bruce Gordon's Calvin.

1. If you want to make an difference 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. 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).

4. 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).

5. If you want to affect 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).

6. 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).

7. 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 favor 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).

8. 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).

9. 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).

10. 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).

11. 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).

12. 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).

13. 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).

14. 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).

15. Pray that your fruitfulness outlives you in expressions 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).


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11 thoughts on “15 Lessons from Calvin’s Biography”

  1. neville briggs says:

    What a wonderful man, I suppose the people that he punished, imprisoned, hung and burnt might not think the same.

  2. John says:

    Neville – I would encourage you to re-watch Kevin’s address last night from TGC once it comes available for download. Have a good day.

  3. Pete says:

    Neville – I’d also encourage you to watch this video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmFxUMrrEEM

  4. Curt Day says:

    Kevin,
    Isn’t there more than one negative example Calvin set from which we can learn? It seems that #14 is the only one you listed?

  5. neville briggs says:

    Pete. I listened to the presentation by Dr Reeves. It was mainly about the politics of Calvin and Servetus. Nothing in it revealed Calvin as a humble servant of the Gospel of peace, nothing in the historic record of Calvin’s career shows him to be doing God’s will on earth as it is in Heaven.
    Even in the article above by KDY, point 3 shows that Calvin held a very shallow and unbiblical view of “friendship” , how could that accord with the self sacrificing love spoken by John. Point 6, depicts Calvin as always having the last word and always claiming to be right, this stance seems completely at odds with what Paul wrote about in 1 Corinthians ch 13.

    Jesus declared before Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world, not of the world of empire and power but of love and truth. It is well documented historically that Calvin’s kingdom was of the world of power and empire.

    The article above looks to me to be a depiction of Calvin as a self centred controller. I wonder if it is possible to give an overview of Calvin’s theology and practice of love. How did Calvin obey Jesus command to deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Jesus in meekness and childlike trust.

  6. We can spend our lives looking for a perfect Christian leader – a perfect theologian. We will never find it. To appreciate the Reformers, one has to accept that there is a certain amount of bad with every one of them. It does not negate the good things that they wrote and accomplished. They need to be viewed as full people and certainly critiqued where they went wrong. The Catholic fears at the time that the Reformers were treated as super saints are probably right on the money for us today. (Though Catholics do the same thing with their own saints, and more so!) This longing for a perfect theologian is a longing for the perfection of God. So let’s take a clear view of Calvin: he had strengths and he had flaws. We can’t expect a blog article to perfectly articulate all of them. I’d like to think that if anyone ever wrote a biography of my life, they would focus more on what I did best and less on my worst moments, although those are all a part of me.

  7. Eric F says:

    Amy, the point is not whether Calvin is perfect. The point is that when one accepts Jesus as Lord they become a changed person and seek change from the Lord. In the book of James the Lord calls a teacher who does not behave in a gentle way, a person who is teaching evil and demonic things.
    [Jas 3:13, 15 NASB] 13 Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. … 15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic.

    Paul constantly insists upon gentleness and weakness being important in his own life to validate his teaching.

    [2Co 11:20-21 NASB] 20 For you tolerate it if anyone enslaves you, anyone devours you, anyone takes advantage of you, anyone exalts himself, anyone hits you in the face. 21 To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison. But in whatever respect anyone else is bold–I speak in foolishness–I am just as bold myself.

    [1Co 2:3 NASB] 3 I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling,

    The scripture teaches that if a man is not gentle then he is not learning the lesson of the gospel (he should be learning a satisfied and peaceful life from God). If he has not learned the lesson then he has nothing to teach, even if his words are eloquent, accurate or perfectly “doctrinal”. Therefore, we are to turn our ears off to such men no matter what is leaving their mouth. Our only judgement can be “does that man demonstrate the life of God that I am after.”

    So no not looking for perfection, but looking for a person who is humbling themselves and seeking to be changed. What reason does anyone have to listen to Calvin? Has he demonstrated a fear of God via a humble submitted life? Isn’t that the fruit that is produced in the life of a God-fearing person?

    So if a man after being saved has continued to be an aggressive oppressor, his message has no validation.

  8. Dean says:

    I can learn from Moses, I can learn from Samson, I can learn from King David & I can learn from Luther & Calvin. We all have our failings & some do have great failings, monstrous unforgivable failings…almost, except for the Christ who will judge all of the living and the dead.
    (I dont know why but the bar says 7 comments but only 4 show, this happens a lot on this blog for me)

  9. neville briggs says:

    Dean. If you right click on the view comments bar ,then down the list that appears, click on refresh, you should then be able to view all the latest comments.

  10. Picture of Historical Record re Geneva and John Calvin….. John Calvin’s secret police was forged under the name of The Consistory. Every home was compulsorily examined and searched. The City was divided into districts and committees of the Consistory were empowered to search and interrogate all residents without previous notice. Attendance at public worship was commanded and watchmen were directed to see that people went to church. The one thing that Calvin did not endorse was religious liberty.
    From 1541 to 1546, John Calvin caused 58 people to be executed and seventy six were exiled. His victims ranged in age from 16 to 80. The most common capital offense was the opposition to infant baptism. . In Calvin’s time it was punished either by drowning, a drawn out and slow burning at the stake, or beheading. All this was done in public, with city residents compelled to watch the butchery. The executions were spaced out so as to exert a continuing policy of fear and terror. Others were killed for advocating local church autonomy; opposing the tie-in of church and state: and preaching that Christ died for all sinners (unlimited atonement). Press censorship continued in Geneva until the eighteenth century
    If all true not someone I would want to follow. If this is wrong information please check out the historical record and let me know.

  11. Peter Barnes says:

    I think you need to do a bit more research, Graeme.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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