Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa.

John Calvin’s role in the reform of Geneva was divinely ordained. Calvin himself did not seek it. In probably his most lengthy autobiographical sketch, found in the preface to his Commentary on the Book of Psalms, he pointed out that he had no intention of staying in Geneva more than a single night, let alone becoming a leading figure there.

Calvin’s plan was to go to Strasbourg. His heart was set on a sheltered life of private studies. He ended up passing through Geneva, because in God’s wonderful providence the direct road from Paris to Strasbourg was blocked, making it necessary for Calvin to take a different and much longer, circuitous route to the south. So he arrived in Geneva unannounced. But even though only 27 years of age, Calvin was a well-known scholar and teacher by this time, and someone who recognized him1 made known to Farel that the author of the Institutio was in the city.

So the Reformer and pastor Guillaume (William) Farel became the instrument of God to set Calvin on a different path. Calvin wrote that Farel

immediately strained every nerve to detain me. And after having learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies, for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquility of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken.2

A political reformation had already taken place in Geneva, in which the bishop of Savoy had been ousted, replaced by the rule of the magistrates. Following that political reform, the spiritual reformation of Geneva began to flourish, especially under the leadership of Farel and a colleague in the ministry, Pierre Viret. The council of the city suspended the Mass in 1535, and subsequently enacted several laws forbidding the practice of the Roman Catholic religion and requiring the priests to convert and to announce that the evangelical doctrine now preached in Geneva was indeed the holy doctrine of the truth. These ordinances were followed in the spring of 1536 by the exhortation to all citizens to attend to the sermons, in order to hear the true gospel. In other words, the magistrates were attempting by law to bring about a spiritual reformation. In that set

ting Farel and Viret earnestly preached.

But as would soon be seen, true spiritual reformation cannot come by the imposition of laws. As might be expected, division abounded in the city, and there were many factions that from different perspectives were strong opponents of any spiritual reformation.

True reformation is entirely spiritual, the work of God by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of men. And for such reformation God would have John Calvin play the leading role.

Calvin’s work in Geneva began in the summer of 1536. He began his work there as a teacher, a noted teacher, the author of Christianae religionis insitutio, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, published just a few months earlier.

The task of reform in Geneva was daunting. Calvin understood that such reform would involve reorganizing the church according to the Word of God, defending the autonomy of the church in relation to the civil magistrates (itself no easy task), as well as bringing change to the mind-set of the people concerning both doctrine and its effects upon morals and the Christian life.

Calvin turned to the work, recognizing only one hope for accomplishing this humanly impossible task. Such reform could come only by the power of the Word of God.

Philip Hughes tells us that it wasn’t long before Calvin was compelled “by circumstances of controversy in the city…to add to his teaching commitments the responsibility of public preaching.”3 Thus he became known as a preacher and a pastor, and endeavored with his colleagues, especially Farel and Viret, to establish the church and city upon the foundation of biblical truth.

Calvin tells us in the Preface to his commentary on the Psalms that four months had scarcely passed when Satan reared his ugly head in Geneva with intensity. There were troubles on two fronts. First, there was an Anabaptist influence in the city, which would mar the Reformation with extremism. This Anabaptist influence was rather soon turned away when Calvin and his colleagues thoroughly and publicly refuted their teachings by the Word of God. From a different front came other assaults upon Calvin and the reformers. There was “a certain wicked apostate, who being secretly supported by the influence of some of the magistrates of the city,”4 stirred up opposition toward Calvin and his fellow Reformers. It was opposition that would soon seem to have the victory, in the ouster of both Farel and Calvin from Geneva.

The expulsion of God’s servants from Geneva on April 22, 1538, not even two years after Calvin had begun his labors in the city, came from a dispute concerning the exercise of Christian discipline. Calvin saw that the biblical exercise of Christian discipline was a critical mark of the true church. He would place discipline alongside the two marks generally recognized by the churches of the Protestant Reformation — faithful preaching and the proper administration of the sacraments. At this time the exercise of discipline fell primarily to the pastors. The city council, however, insisting that discipline was theirs to exercise and knowing Calvin as the leading figure in this ecclesiastical exercise of discipline, found it presumptuous that a foreigner would take to himself and to the other pastors the right to excommunicate “respectable” Genevan citizens. On January 4, 1538, the city council decreed that the Lord’s Supper not be refused to anyone. As the dispute between the pastors and the council escalated, Calvin and Farel refused to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The council in turn ordered them to stop preaching and, when they refused, expelled them from the city. They were given three days to depart. The reform in Geneva would not come easily.

Who would not have supposed that this would have brought an end to the reformation in Geneva? But Theodore Beza, in recounting the history, writes:

On the contrary, the event showed the purpose of Divine Providence by employing the labors of his faithful servant elsewhere, to train him, by various trials, for greater achievements. Also, by overthrowing those seditious persons, through their own violence, the city of Geneva was purged of much pollution. So admirable does the Lord appear in all his works, and especially in the government of his Church!5 

Calvin breathed a sigh of relief at his expulsion. He finally was relieved of the work he never wanted anyway, and saw his opportunity to settle into a quiet life of “ivory-tower” study. His intention, however, was not God’s way. His “escape” from Geneva would be only temporary, while God continued to shape him for the continued work of reform there.

From the summer of 1538 to the summer of 1541, Calvin spent three blessed years in Strasbourg. God gave him time for development, and gave him further preparation for the work that yet lay before him. And though one might expect that his expulsion from Geneva would make him a bitter man, God spared him from the sin of such an attitude. Because the cause of God’s truth and the Reformation was more important than any personal suffering, Calvin continued to seek Geneva’s good even from afar. When the Cardinal Sadoleto craftily attempted to win the city back to the cause of Rome by way of a smooth letter addressed to “his most beloved Senate, Council, and people of Geneva,” Calvin responded from Strasbourg with a letter of his own, coming to the defense of the Genevan people and the cause of Christ by setting forth clearly the truth of Scripture showing the foundation of the Reformation. Calvin also continued correspondence with certain leading figures and church members in Geneva, encouraging them to patient steadfastness in the truth. But in Strasbourg Calvin was given the opportunity to develop his pastoral understanding as well as his preaching, and to discover that progress always tests patience, and there are times when progress is better made by careful and moderate dealing, and by depending on the work of the Spirit through the Word.

By 1541 a political change had again taken place in Geneva, in which the supporters of the Reformers again gained the power. The result was an urgent request for Farel, Calvin, and Viret to return to the city. Farel would not be released from the church in Neufchatel. The church in Berne expressed a willingness to let Viret go for a brief period of time to assist the church in Geneva. The Genevese pleaded with Strasbourg for Calvin’s release. In spite of the reluctance of the church in Strasbourg, as well as that of Martin Bucer, the Genevese persisted.

Calvin himself had no desire to return, and in fact looked upon such a return with terror. “Not a day passed in which I did not ten times over wish for death,” he wrote, rather than return into the gulf and whirlpool of Geneva. But recognizing that the will of God often goes contrary to our own inclinations and self-interest, and when Bucer himself became convinced that God would have Calvin go and with fervency pointed Calvin to the example of Jonah, Calvin submitted. On September 13, 1541 he returned, to labor until death.

Calvin, in recounting his labors in Geneva after 1541 wrote, “Were I to narrate the various conflicts by which the Lord has exercised me since that time, and by what trials he has proved me, it would make a long history.”6 The trials were innumerable, and would undoubtedly have taken Calvin down had he not had such a high view of the sanctity of the call to his office, and the authority of the Word of God.

All Calvin’s labors toward reform in Geneva were rooted in the Scriptures.

His first order of business was to set in order the institute of the church. Calvin demonstrated that not only the doctrines of the church, but also the form of church government, must come from Scripture. He immediately obtained the consent of the Senate in Geneva to a form of ecclesiastical polity that was derived from the Word of God, and from which neither ministers nor people should be permitted to depart.7 A regular presbytery with full ecclesiastical authority was established. Through much strife with the civil authorities, Calvin saw that the church in Geneva maintained her autonomy and particularly the important exercise of Christian discipline in distinction from any civil penalties that may come under the jurisdiction of the magistrate.

Preaching occupied the chief place in the reformation of the church in Geneva. In the Cathedral of St. Peter, where Calvin generally preached, Sunday worship services were held at daybreak, again at 9 a.m., and yet again at 3 p.m. The children were to be brought at noon for instruction. Shorter preaching services were also held on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings.

Much attention was given to teaching, also following the form of a Catechism that Calvin prepared. In addition, knowing the importance of education to the cause of the gospel, Calvin led the promotion of education with the establishment of the Academy of Geneva.

As part of the ecclesiastical ordinances, a diaconate was also established. Calvin himself was instrumental in the establishment of a hospital in Geneva.

John Calvin saw the Word of God applying to every aspect of the Christian’s life. He was convinced that the power of the gospel in the heart of God’s elect will affect their family life, their church life, the handling of their finances, as well as their place in society and any role they may play in governing. But basic to all these is a true and healthy church. It was that above all else to which Calvin gave his attention.

While the reform of Geneva could itself only be limited, the influence of that reform was widespread. The work of the Genevan Academy founded by Calvin continued to spread its influence for the cause of the Reformed faith for decades even following the death of its founder. Also the refugees who had fled to Geneva returned home carrying the Reformed faith with them. From that point of view the spiritual reform of Geneva was but a microcosm of that mighty work of God throughout the continent of Europe and beyond, as the Spirit of truth continued to guide His church — and does so even today in our own churches.

1.Ironically, the one who so identified Calvin and who therefore was indirectly responsible for the influential place Calvin received in Geneva, though not himself identified by name, is said by Calvin to have been an individual who subsequently apostatized and returned to the Papists. 

2.John Calvin, Preface to Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Baker Book House, 1979), p. xlii. 

3.Philip E. Hughes, ed., introduction to The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), p. 5.

4.Calvin, Preface, p. xliii.

5.Theodore Beza, The Life of John Calvin (reprint edition, Milwaukie, OR, Back Home Industries, 1996), p. 30.

6.Calvin, Preface, p. xliv.

7.The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, which is essentially the Church Order of Dordrecht (1618-1619), bears clear evidence of being greatly influenced by Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances.