First, a couple of Calvinist jokes:
Q. How can you tell if you’re on a Calvinist train?
A. They’re all Calvinist trains. You go only where they want you to go.
Q. What do Calvinists say when they’ve fallen downstairs?
A. Thank goodness that’s over with.
Q. How many Calvinists does it take to change a light bulb?
A. Well, is the light bulb meant to be changed? Maybe this light bulb was never intended to change. Maybe this light bulb is meant to stay dark.
These and perhaps a thousand other Calvinist jokes abound. And, dear Calvinist brothers and sisters, they are a little bit funny; you, too, may laugh to the glory of God. But surely these parodies of the thinking of one of the giants in the history of the Christian thought miss the point. Calvin is best known for his teaching on predestination, but his heart beat for the supremacy and beauty of God.
John Calvin was born just outside of Paris on July 10, 1509, which means he turns 500 next month. But as old as he is, his life and work are as fresh today as they were a half of a millennium past. Calvin was a pastor, theologian, city-planner, correspondent, statesman, preacher, and Bible scholar. But, to use a tired cliché, John Calvin was all this and more. At the heart of all that he did and all that he was, Calvin was passionate for the glory of God. Calvin lived, ate, drank, and breathed the majesty and magnificence of God.
When Calvin was born, Martin Luther was thirty-seven years old, and the Protestant Reformation was beginning to take hold in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was in the air, and Europe was in turmoil. As a young boy Calvin trained to be a priest, but the momentum of the Reformation changed his plans, and he studied to be a lawyer instead. Somewhere in his teen years, he experienced—in his own words—a sudden conversion, and soon enough he became the leader of the French Reformation.
This pastor-theologian was studious, introverted, fervent, and peculiar. Calvin spent most of his life in Geneva being a pastor to his church and involving himself in the tumultuous politics of the time. He often preached two different sermons on Sunday and several other times during the week: he averaged 250 different sermons a year.
Calvin had the temperament and mind of a scholar, and he left behind a massive body of work that lifts the reader’s heart to heaven. By the time of his death in 1564, he had written a commentary on every book of the Bible except Revelation. (He is reputed to have said that he didn’t understand John’s vision, but I’ve never seen a reference to the quotation.) His magnum opus, titled The Institutes of the Christian Religion, is a 1,500-page explanation of the Christian faith from the perspective of the Reformation. In the Institutes, Calvin expounds upon the role of Scripture in the life of a believer, how we can know God, how we receive God’s grace, the sovereignty of God, the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and baptism, and more. The title may sound a bit dry, but I have found the two-volume work to be among the most devotional literature I have ever read. A few pages of Calvin coupled with a few chapters of my Bible and a good cup of coffee—that’s one of my favorite ways to begin my day.
When he was thirty years old, John Calvin planned out what he wanted to say when he gave an account of his life to God himself:
The thing at which I chiefly aimed, and for which I most diligently labored, was, that the glory of thy goodness and justice . . . might shine forth conspicuous, that the virtue and blessings of thy Christ . . . might be fully displayed.
Calvin died twenty-four years later with his passions intact.
He wrote this in his last will and testament:
I have written nothing out of hatred to anyone, but I have always faithfully propounded what I esteemed to be for the glory of God.
John Calvin lived modestly and simply. He was extremely reserved and claimed to have a disposition somewhat unpolished and bashful, which let me always to love the shade and retirement. He might have remained single had his friends not urged him to marry in order to promote a Protestant view of marriage and family. Calvin told a friend what he wanted in a wife: The only beauty which allures me is this—that she be chaste, not too nice or fastidious, economical, patient, likely to take care of my health. He married Idelette de Bure, a widow in his congregation, and enjoyed a happy marriage for nine years until his wife died.
What was the genius of John Calvin? What fueled his fire? What drove him to make his important contribution to the church of the sixteenth century? When all is said, John Calvin’s vision of God’s glory and the joy that God’s glory produces in the life of a disciple propelled him forward. One of my favorite quotations from Calvin, from the Institutes, is revealing and instructive:
I call piety that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him—they will never yield him willing service. Nay, unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him.
Calvin knew that he owed everything to God, and he found God’s glory everywhere he looked:
Wherever you cast your eyes there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory. You cannot in one glance survey this most vast and beautiful system of the universe, in its wide expanse, without being completely overwhelmed by the boundless force of its brightness.
So, happy birthday, John Calvin! Thank you for your life and your work. You have lifted and illumined our vision of God. Your writings have helped us see what we should have been seeing all along. Indeed, you’ve shown us God in such a way that we are, indeed, overwhelmed by the boundless force of His brightness. Happy Birthday!
Taking the Next Step
Would you like a little more John Calvin? Consider these options:
The Legacy of Sovereign Joy, by John Piper, has a chapter entitled “The Divine Majesty of the Word, John Calvin: The Man and His Preaching.” This book is available for free online at www.DesiringGod.org.
John Calvin and His Passion for the Majesty of God, by John Piper, is a short book that introduces the reader to Calvin’s devotion to and love for God. It makes for a great introduction to our five-hundred-year-old friend.
John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, edited by Burk Parsons, is a great collection of short and very readable essays on the life and work of John Calvin.
The Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin, is his masterpiece. Several abridgments are reasonably priced. Try one. Read it slowly, don’t worry about finishing it, and let Calvin lift your heart to heaven.
For those who want to take the plunge and buy the whole banana, get the volumes edited by John T. McNeill and translated by Ford Lewis Battles (The Library of Christian Classics, Westminster John Knox Press).
For the most part, these are worth their weight in gold. Calvin had a very good gift for writing clearly and passionately. Try one as a companion to your Bible reading.