Prof. Gritters is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.
Ephesians 4:11, 12
Great gift to the church of Jesus Christ God gave in John Calvin. Great example for pastors is this unusual man, fit by providence to serve God’s church at such a time. Great inspiration for all God’s people, young people too, is Calvin, whose dedication and patient love for his fellow saints will move to tears. Truly, God gave him, pastor and teacher, for the perfecting of saints, the work of the ministry, the building up of the body of Christ.
Calvin was born in 1509, the fourth child of a church lawyer and his wife, in Noyon, France, a walled city of about 10,000. Such were the times in the sixteenth century that the likelihood of surviving childhood was not good. Calvin already had two older brothers who had died in infancy. When he was only three, Calvin’s mother passed away; and he was raised by a stepmother with his older brother, Charles, younger brother, Antoine, and two stepsisters.
His early education was the finest, manipulated as it was by his lawyer-father, financed by wages for church positions that he had obtained for Calvin, but which required no work. Then, at age fourteen, Calvin had opportunity to study with his friends, sons of a local bishop, in Paris under world-renowned scholars. He never returned to stay in Noyon, the city of his birth.
Originally, his father destined Calvin for theology and the priesthood. When his father saw that wealth was more likely in the practice of law, he directed his son in that way. Unconverted, according to his own confession, Calvin did not object. But he studied. It was only later that Calvin returned to the study of theology.
The Reformation was barely a few years old when Calvin was a boy. Zwingli was writing and preaching the truth. Erasmus had translated the New Testament. Ministers whose names are unknown to us were preaching the reformed faith from the Scriptures. By this preaching, the Lord was changing hearts. Pope and bishops were angry at the changes. Nations were warring. Because church and state were so closely connected, the church was at the center. In the midst of this turmoil, God was preparing the young man Calvin to be a tireless scholar, an eloquent preacher, a brilliant theologian, a passionate warrior for the faith, and a humble pastor.
First, God would convert him. “By a sudden conversion, God subdued my heart,” he confessed in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms. From then on, his passion was boundless for the cause of Jesus Christ. Till his death, this great gift of God to us served as an example for pastors today.
Are there young men reading this? Be encouraged, brethren, by the great joy this man found in suffering for the church of Christ as a pastor, and let these lessons from his life teach us about what it means to be a good pastor. Butrather than learn of Calvin from a chronological study of his life, let’s see five areas of Calvin’s ministry that illustrate for us what kind of man, pastor and teacher, God made him to be.
Willing, in the Day of God’s Power
Like other pastors in God’s church, Calvin was called to work where he had not chosen. Calvin had been committed to a quiet life of private study. But God dragged him, Jonah-like, to the center of the Reformation battle and the life of the church in a hostile city. Thrust into a position he did not seek, did not want, indeed, ran from, he found himself as a pastor in Geneva, Switzerland.
In 1536 (Calvin was 27 years old), when he was traveling back from his birth-place, where he had gone to settle the family estate after his father’s death, war forced him to take a long detour that led him to the beautiful Swiss town of Geneva. Here, he would lodge for the night and be off in the morning to return to Strasbourg to write and study in peace. But God would have nothing of this. Pastors Farel and Viret, by whom God began reform in Geneva, looked him up and so pressed him to stay and help them in the work that he at last could not decline their “call.” So began a life-time of self-denying but massively rewarding labor in the public pastorate among Christ’s sheep.
After two years of “exile” (another long story you ought to read about in a good biography of Calvin), when Calvin was asked to return to Geneva, he wrote to his colleague Farel, “when I consider that I am not in my own power, I offer my heart a slain victim for a sacrifice to the Lord. I yield my soul chained and bound unto obedience to God….” To colleague Viret, about the same call: “There is no place under heaven of which I can have a greater dread.” The decision was not pleasant, but God’s will was clear. He went back to Geneva. “I shall follow wherever God leads, who knows best why He has laid this necessity upon me.”
Does a young man today run from the pastorate, try to ignore the thoughts God plants, even feel terrified at the possibility of the work of the ministry? So did John Calvin. Remember, though, these two truths: You cannot run from the Lord forever; and He will make you willing and joyful (see Ps. 110) in the day He stops you from running.
Capable, with the Spirit’s gifts
The man God mastered to be the theologian and organizer of the Reformation, to carry through what Luther began, was a bright and capable young man. Natural gifts that the Lord gave him were developed by a disciplined effort throughout his youth, so that his mind matured to be penetrating and his capacity for learning and memorizing became remarkable.
He learned the languages. Rising early each day to study, to his native French he added Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and learned them so that he was fluent in them. His grammar was impeccable. Logic and law were in his repertoire. Philosophy and history became familiar friends. Then, because God gave him rare memory and mind, he not only could recall most of what he read, but could grasp the big picture of God’s revelation in Scripture and the history of the church in the world. He had natural gifts, indeed; but gifts that were developed through arduous work—the kind of work that should be required in today’s good, Christian school.
The church needs scholars. Yes, the Lord does use men with few gifts. Most pastors have received from their Maker only a modest portion. Nor will the Lord of the church likely give us very many Calvins again. But God’s church needs capable men to step forward to do the kind of work that Calvin engaged in. What kind of influence would he have had, had he not known history, and been unfamiliar with the church fathers and councils? Who would have listened to a Calvin who used sloppy grammar? What bishops and other enemies of the faith would have been silenced in a debate by a man whose mind was weak and whose logic was unclear? The church needs scholars. The people of God must pray for them. Perhaps they ought to press, as did Farel and Viret, the young men who are pious and gifted, to consider the ministry.
Young men, even if no one presses you, God calls you to use your gifts for His cause. Are you seeking first the kingdom? Perhaps in the ministry of the gospel?
Apt to teach
The exceptional gift that Jesus Christ gave to Calvin was an aptitude to teach the people. Reading his writing, one immediately senses his unique ability to make clear what is difficult. To this aptitude Christ added a heartfelt desire. The Lord gave Calvin a heart to teach the people. A first-rate theologian, Calvin was interested in the common folk learning the truth and seeing the light. So his first main work, his (relatively brief) 1536 edition of the Institutes (see Rev. Kleyn’s article in this issue) was an attempt to reach the common member of the church.
Calvin’s heart yearned to free the people from the bondage of their ignorance, to deliver them from the soul-terrorizing errors of Rome. For this, his instruction was antithetical, exposing in Luther-like fashion the folly of sacramentalism and the dead-end errors of works-righteousness. When he taught, the people heard from Scripture the truth of God’s law, the believer’s liberty, the Christian life, worship and images, prophecy and escha-tology, and the magistrates. They learned what it meant to be a joyful and obedient believer in God’s wide world.
If the church today will prosper, will help the people of God to live in this late and evil day, she must have pastors who are teachers, who ask the question, as one pastor I know always asked himself as he took his walks, “How can I make this clear to the people of God?” She must train men who yearn with the heart of Calvin (Christ’s own heart in him!) for a people who know the truth.
Humility and modesty
Gifts without wisdom are worthless. Ability in a proud man is dangerous. The church has found too often, to her great sorrow, that if the Lord does not mix in wisdom and humility, modesty and selflessness, a man with few gifts is far preferable than the man who towers with ability but is arrogant.
The man God gave to the church from 1509 to 1564 was blessed with a sincere, selfless desire to serve Jesus Christ. Without pretense, desiring nothing more than the honor of his master, John Calvin humbly served his Savior.
Part of humility is a willingness to confess one’s faults. Although Calvin struggled with acknowledging weaknesses like anyone else, the Lord gave him that gift as well. More than once he apologized to the city council (church and city government were tightly bound together in those days) for his quick temper and what he considered unrighteous anger. Also, when he and Farel were riding out of Geneva, expelled from their pastorates because pastors and city council could not agree, Calvin wanted to discuss the possibility that they had been less than wise in exerting the pressures for change. It is doubtful that their expulsion came because of lack of judgment; but the desire to examine himself and be open to the prospect is commendable.
The Reformer had no interest in money and possessions, another necessary quality in pastors. His humility showed itself in a complete lack of desire for material things. Content with the barest necessities, Calvin would reject raises, return salary, refuse gifts, and often use part of his meager salary for the French refugees in Geneva. Once, when the other ministers asked Calvin to seek a raise for them, Calvin suggested to the city council that they lower his salary and give the difference to the other, poorer pastors.
The reputation of the Reformer as completely disinterested in money reached the pope. When Calvin died, Pope Pius IV said, “The strength of the heretic came from the fact that money was nothing to him.” Cardinal Sadoleto, one of Calvin’s chief antagonists, visited Geneva incognito to see the famous Protestant. When he knocked on Calvin’s modest apartment door, he was astounded that Calvin himself answered the door, and not one of his servants who he assumed would have been scurrying about doing his master’s bidding. The most famous man in Protestantism lived in a little house, answering his own door.
Let every aspirant to the ministry pray for such a spirit! And may God give the church such pastors!
Steadfast under pressures
Probably the most wonderful grace given to Calvin was the grace of endurance in severest trials. What an example of a man of God who sacrificed himself for the church of Christ. No fool who sought a martyr’s death, Calvin fled threats more than once, biding his time until he could return and be useful for God’s kingdom. Yet the Reformer was willing to endure all things for Christ’s sake.
He was literally chased from his own pulpit, threatened with swords on the streets, and driven from Geneva. Guns were fired outside his bedroom window. Calvin faced opposition from the very council who called him, had his friends punished for protecting him. His dear friend and colleague, the blind pastor Claudet, was poisoned for standing for the truth. Evil rumors were spread thick and far about him. For the sake of the ministry, he risked his own life visiting the sick; he ministered to many at his own expense. Only one of his physical ailments would have driven most pastors to a bed of rest; Calvin endured, without complaint, a dozen. His own testimony was that he went twenty years without letup from headaches. He suffered arthritis, gout, malaria, and finally five years of tuberculosis. One story has a doctor recommending Calvin gallop hard on a horse to dislodge his kidney stones—but his hemorrhoids were so severe he could not bear to ride.
Yet he continued to labor, untiringly, for the cause of the One who delivered him from so great a death, and would yet deliver him. When friends begged him to rest, recover, he responded, “What, would you want the Lord to find me idle when He comes?”
None of this troubled the man of God, whose love for Christ and vision of His reward spurred him on to unceasing labor for the cause of God, “Who drew me out of the abyss … to the light of the gospel, Who so far extended His mercy towards me as to use me and my work to announce the truth of His gospel. He will show Himself the Father of so miserable a sinner.”
Lord of Thy beloved church, make us and fit us to be such servants of Thine! Raise up men for us with such hearts, offered promptly and sincerely to Thee.
After his 55-year young colleague Calvin passed away, Farel, now in his 70s, said to the group of friends gathered at the deathbed, “Oh, how happily he has run a noble race. Let us run like him, according to the measure of grace given us.”