In the last two thousand years of the church, there have been leaders who have had a great influence on the shape of our faith and the course of the church. We think of names like Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, John Wycliff, Saint Francis, and Martin Luther. Standing among these giants is the French Reformer John Calvin. Historian Philip Schaff wrote that Calvin must be reckoned as one of the greatest and best of men whom God raised up in the history of Christianity. In just a few days, we will celebrate the 500th birthday of John Calvin. Calvin’s leadership has been felt not only in the church at large, but also in the life and theology of Santa Barbara Community Church. It is important that we remember our roots. To that end, we are considering his influence in two Community News articles, the first of which occurred in the June issue.
Did you know that the teachings of John Calvin are experiencing a renaissance in the evangelical world today? In a recent Time Magazine article (March, 2009), what has been dubbed the New Calvinism was listed as one of the current ideas that is changing our world. Managing editor of Christianity Today, Ted Olsen, is quoted reflecting on this resurgent Calvinism. Speaking of Calvin, he says, Everyone knows where the energy and passion are in the Evangelical world. Collin Hansen is the author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. Describing what it means to be young, restless and reformed, Hansen says, A lot of young people grew up in a culture of brokenness, divorce, drugs, or sexual temptation…they have plenty of friends: what they need is God. Calvin would be pleased. His entire life was dedicated to pointing people to God.
Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, in the little town of Picardy, just outside of Paris. Shy, quiet and scholarly, he intended to be a Catholic priest and began to study theology at the age of 14. Five years later, his father persuaded him to study law. While studying at several universities, Calvin quickly became an avid reader of Greek and Latin classics. His conversion in 1533 would forever change the course of his life. Breaking from the Catholic Church, Calvin left France and moved to Switzerland as an exile.
By age 27, Calvin had, remarkably, already produced one of the most influential theological books ever written, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. This book, a clear defense of Reformation teachings, was to go through five enlargements until, in 1559, it reached the form in which we read it today. The immense popularity of the Instituteswas due in large part to its clear and systematic explanation of Protestant beliefs. The Institutes covered all the bases.
When people hear the name John Calvin, they often quickly associate it with the term predestination. When Calvin began to examine the question of salvation and regeneration he asked, how are we saved? His study of the Scripture lead him to believe that salvation was only possible through the grace of God and that even before the creation of the world, God chose some people to be saved. This understanding of predestination was the bone on which many would choke. Ironically, predestination is not a particularly Calvinist idea. Luther and most of the Reformers believed in this doctrine. But it was Calvin, the great theologian of the sovereignty of God, who was to state it so forcefully and clearly that the term has forever been identified with his name. Calvin’s constant theme was: if you are saved, it is because of God’s grace and not your own doing.
In last month’s Community News article about Calvin, we learned of his vision for the glory of God and the joy that God’s glory produces in the life of a disciple. How, though, could the Christian know of God’s sovereignty and greatness? Calvin’s answer was an unassailable confidence in the Scriptures to reveal to us the majesty of God. To that end, this pastor and theologian was dedicated to the preaching and teaching of the Bible. Let’s consider Calvin the preacher.
In 1536, France granted temporary amnesty to those who had fled from religious persecution. Calvin returned, put his business affairs in order and never returned again to his homeland. Intending to travel to Strasbourg, he stopped in Geneva to spend the night before continuing his journey. William Farel, the charismatic leader of the Reformation in that city, found Calvin that evening. In a remarkable exchange, he convinced Calvin to stay in Geneva as a pastor and teacher. Aside from a three–year break, he spent the rest of his life in Geneva. His life, and ours, were changed forever.
Calvin was a tireless preacher of the Word. For almost twenty–five years of pastoral ministry, he steadily preached through book after book of the Bible. Often preaching two different sermons on a Sunday, and others at various times throughout the week, he averaged 250 sermons a year. His goal was the systematic opening up of the Bible for the people he shepherded. His series on the book of Acts began in August of 1549 and ended in March of 1554! To give you a feel for his preaching, consider this sermon summary: Thessalonians–46 sermons, Corinthians–186, pastoral letters–86, Galatians–43, Ephesians–48, Job–159, Deuteronomy–353, Isaiah–123, and the list goes on. Even on special days, such as Christmas and Easter, he rarely changed his selection of texts on which to preach, preferring to continue his steady and systematic teaching.
Due to the politics of Geneva, Calvin was banned from the city by the City Council. He was gone for three years. After being begged to return, he reentered Geneva in September, 1541. On his first Sunday back, he picked up his exposition in the very next verse where he had left off three years earlier!
Calvin’s steady confidence in teaching and preaching the Scriptures was based on his trust that the words of the Bible were, in fact, the Word of God. He believed that the consistent teaching of the Scriptures would force his congregation to deal with all that God wanted to say, and not what the preacher might want to say. He put it this way, When we enter the pulpit, it is not so that we may bring our own dreams and fancies with us.
The driving passion of this pastor and teacher was that his congregation would see the sovereignty, greatness and majesty of God. The best way for this to take place was in a careful, consistent opening up of the Word of God. It is through the teaching and preaching of the Word that the glory of God is seen. This is why SBCC is committed to the regular teaching of the Bible on Sundays and small group study and discussion in our homegroups. We are a church that wants to know God, and there is no better way to do that than by spending time in thorough reflection of what God has said.
SBCC is seeking to be a God-centered church. We desire to be a church that strives first and foremost to know and worship our great God. We stand humbly in the Reformed tradition of John Calvin and say thank you to him for his courage and example to us as a church. To God be the glory!