The medieval church was steeped in suspicion, false teaching and wrong doctrine. Many people had a false assurance of salvation, a wrong notion of the church and a totally distorted view of the gospel. The dominant false teaching was Roman Catholicism. The Roman Catholic Church taught a salvation by works. As long as you said the right prayers, attended the right services (like the Mass) and said your confession to the priest, you were right with God. Into that dark world God shone his light and raised up men and women who would read the Bible and be gripped with its message. John Calvin was one of these men. He was born in France in 1509, the same year that Henry VIII was crowned King of England. Calvin was raised in a Roman Catholic home. Father sent him to the University of Paris to study Romish theology. While in France Calvin seems to have come across some of Martin Luther’s writings.
Listen to what Calvin wrote about his conversion:
“Because I was so obstinately addicted to the superstitions of the papacy it was very hard to draw me from that deep slough. But by a sudden conversion He [God] subdued and reduced my heart to docility, which, for my age, was over-much hardened in such matters.”
Later he also wrote (most probably referring to himself):
“I heard that whatever human minds of themselves conceive concerning Thy Majesty, the worship of Thy Deity, and the mysteries of Thy Religion, was vanity. I heard that their introduction into the church instead of Thy Word and doctrines sprung from the human brain, was sacrilegious presumption. When I turned towards men, I saw very different principles prevailing. Those who were regarded as the leaders of faith neither understood Thy Word, nor greatly cared for it…They had fabricated for themselves many useless frivolities , as a means of procuring thy favour, and on there they so plumed themselves that, in comparison with them, they almost condemned the standard of True Righteousness…That I might perceive these things, Thou, O Lord, didst shine upon me with the brightness of Thy Spirit; that I might comprehend how impious and noxious they were, Thou didst bear before me the torch of Thy Word; that I might abominate them as they deserved, Thou didst stimulate my soul.”
God had soundly converted John Calvin by his Word and his Spirit. Calvin saw the truth of gospel and the harmfulness of man-made religion and spent the rest of his life as a pastor, preacher and theologian – teaching, preaching and writing about the Supremacy of God.
What lessons can we learn from the life of John Calvin?
1. The Supremacy of God in All Things
This was the fundamental issue for John Calvin. God is God. He will always be God. No one or no thing can stop him from being God. He reigns. He rules. He is in control of everything, all the time. He is God. God’s Supremacy is demonstrated when he calls lost sinners, like ourselves, to perceive the Glory of Christ.
Calvin believed that the Roman Catholic Church, as John Piper has written, destroyed the majesty of God and the Glory of Christ “by adoring the Blessed virgin when Christ alone should be adored; by offering the continual sacrifice in the mass, when the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is the once for all, sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world; by calling the saints to intercede, when Jesus Christ is the only mediator; and by elevating church tradition to the level of Scripture.”
If Calvin were alive today he would no doubt say the same for our current Christ-defacing “whatever-goes-spirituality”. Calvin lived, breathed and enjoyed the Supremacy of God in all things. When his first son died two weeks after birth, Calvin wrote, “The Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our baby son. But He is Himself a Father and knows best what is good for his children.”
2. The Supremacy of God’s Word above All Things
Calvin recognised that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is the voice of God. God speaks and the best he and we can do is listen. This realisation has a profound effect on Calvin’s theology. He now started believing and preaching the profound doctrines of Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and the Perseverance of the Saints because, not because he wanted to be controversial, but because that Bible told him so.
Not only did he hold to those doctrines, but he devoted his life to expository preaching. Calvin preached through the Bible book by book, verse by verse. He spent six years preaching through Acts. He preached 46 sermons on Thessalonians, 159 sermons on Job, 353 sermons on Isaiah and many, many more! Calvin was so committed to expository preaching that, after being banished from Geneva in 1538, when he returned over 3 years later, he picked up his exposition from the next verse!
3. Faithfulness in the midst of difficulty
Calvin did not have an easy life. In fact he originally craved a relaxed, easy, hassle-free life in a quiet country house in order to study in peace. One person who helped Calvin to change his mind was William Farel. Calvin stayed one night in Geneva, where William Farel was a Reformation leader. Farel heard Calvin was in town and when he discovered that Calvin wanted to move somewhere quiet and tranquil to study, Farel rebuked Calvin for taking the easy way out. Farel threatened him with God’s judgment if he didn’t stay and work in Geneva for the sake of the gospel.
Calvin stayed. He worked as a Pastor in Geneva and so he wrote his books and preached his sermons in the midst of much pastoral care, church controversies, difficult people and opposing antagonists. Never would his life be hassle-free or quiet! And thank God for that, because his writings are filled with the wisdom and insight of a man who knows hardship and struggle and difficulty.
Calvin also suffered from continuous ill-health. He struggled to sleep, was often debilitated by kidney stones that passed without any sedatives, experienced bouts of gout and colic and the excruciating pain of haemorrhoids. Yet, in the midst of this he remained faithful in preaching, teaching, bible study, prayer, writing, visiting the sick and lecturing. He died peacefully at age 1564 in bed in Geneva. Listen to what he wrote in his last will and testament:
“I have endeavoured, both in sermon and also in my writings and commentaries, to preach the Word of God purely and chastely, and faithfully to interpret His sacred scriptures”
Williston Walker, one of Calvin’s biographers wrote, “He sacrificed ease, scholarly honours, and personal inclination to what he deemed was the voice of God. He put God first.”
John Calvin was a man who was enthralled by the Supremacy of God. May that be true for us.