Many people in history have made a very big impact on their culture, times, and/or religion. One that stands out is John Calvin. He had a really huge influence during his time—the early-to-middle sixteenth century. Calvin devoted almost his whole life to promoting Protestantism, and he made a big difference that is still seen today in Christianity.
Calvin was born in France in July of 1509 and belonged in a set of five brothers. He was baptized to the parish of Sainte-Godeberte, where his parents were parishioners (Walker 26). Calvin, as a boy, was very liberally educated since his parents were as well. When he was eleven, his father arranged for John to be in charge of a chaplaincy attached to the altar in the cathedral in Noyons, the city of his birth. In his twelfth year, Calvin was aided by a succession of small ecclesiastical benefices without duties attached. These were the only things that Calvin did in accordance with the Roman Catholic Church, and it was very short, because John’s father sent him to the University of Paris at the age of fourteen (29-30).
His father’s intention to send him to Paris was for John to specialize in the study of Theology, because he was remarkably religious, and was also a strict censor of everything vicious in his companions. But his father also wanted John to study law, because his father viewed law as “the surest way to wealth and honors” (44). Also, his father had gotten involved in a dispute with the cathedral chapter where he was employed. But, otherwise, Calvin followed his father’s “wishes” and studied law at the division of the University of Orleans. Looking to new possibilities, he also learned the Greek language. When his father died in 1531, there was no pressure to make a choice. He received a master of arts in Theology in Paris and completed the doctorate in Law, but after his father’s death, John came back to Paris and devoted himself enthusiastically to the language and literature courses of the newly appointed royal lecturers.
In his second stay in Paris, he published his first book, “Commentary on Seneca’s Treatise on Clemency,” in April of 1532. While studying here, he came across the writings of Martin Luther. Calvin began getting involved in the movement, and in 1533, he had his “salvation experience.” He wrote about it later and stated, “God subdued and brought my heart to surrender. It was more hardened against such matters than was to be expected in such a young man.” Calvin knew that to fulfill his place with God, he would have to turn away from the Roman Catholic Church. He exactly did that.
His first attempt to move from the Roman Catholic Church was November 2, 1533, when he gave a speech attacking the church demanding reform. He figured that if he spoke to the people and educated them on Protestantism, then they would be ready to make changes in the Roman Catholic Church. Unfortunately, it did not turn out the way he thought it would be. Instead of resulting in reform, the results were anti-Protestant protests all over Paris, forcing him to flee for safety. Two years later, while roaming over Europe and landing in Basle, Switzerland, Calvin published the first edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion. This eventually helped set John as a leader in the French Protestant Reformation (128).
After this, he went to Geneva and worked with the reform of the Genevan Church (182). John went through many ups and downs during his stay in Geneva, and he fought through many personal and political conflicts. For example, a certain conflict was when he refused to distribute the elements for communion on Easter Sunday in 1538 while preaching at Saint-Pierre. For this action, he was ordered to depart from Geneva (213).
Set out from Geneva, Calvin moved to Strasbourg at the urging of Martin Bucer (217). Here, he published a revised and longer version of the Institutes and a commentary on the book of Romans. The new version proved how intellectual mature he was, and thus showed that he attained full status as a theologian. During this time, he married Idelette de Bure, and the couple had one child that died in infancy (228-230). Calvin was constantly urged to return to Geneva to try to revive the reform there. After much uncertainty, he left Strasbourg by himself in September of 1541 (262).
Upon his return to Geneva, he was invited back to help turn the city around spiritually. He evolved into a very influential resident and was considered the chief religious leader and the foremost interpreter of the “Word of God.” He never held a public office in Geneva, but he ruled with strictness, and sin was punished. He played a strong part in the decision-making that occurred in Geneva (278). He had laws passed to promote Christian behavior. Struggling with his reform attempts, on the side, his wife died in 1549. Calvin continued doing commentaries on the Bible and published discussions on 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, James, Jude, Acts, and many others between 1546-1553 (324).
The end of the Perrinist reign in Geneva in 1555 removed the remaining opposition to Calvin’s leadership in the city (355). Calvin attempted to make lives better for Genevan residents, but his sole purpose and interest was on the spiritual side of things. Calvin continued his commentaries on the Bible from 1555-1556, and in 1559, he completed the perfected edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin’s health declined throughout the early 1560’s, and he gave his last sermon on February 6, 1564. John Calvin died on May 27, 1564, and was buried in a common cemetery, in an unmarked grave, as he requested (434).
Many events helped Calvin achieve the great status that he deserved, but without the really remarkable ones that he achieved, little understanding would occur about the great man. His noted achievements in his theological values, also known as Calvinism, show that he brought new insight to the church. By looking at Five Points introduced by Larry Nixon, we can see Calvin’s final conclusions through intense Bible study.
The first point of Calvinism is Total Heredity Depravity. This teaches that all children are born into the world bearing the guilt of the sin of Adam. If an infant were to die, it would be condemned to hell. This doctrine is the source of the unscriptural practice of infant baptism. This is also the belief that “evil pervades every faculty of his soul and every sphere in life. He is unable to do a single thing that is good.” Scripture fully supports this belief. Genesis 6:5 says that “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” This explains how our desires became evil, and how wickedness penetrates our deepest breaks. In our heart is evil, and this was what Calvin wanted to show.
The second point of Calvinism is Unconditional Election, which teaches that people have nothing to say as to whether or not they are among the “elect.” This is the teaching of predestination, where only certain people are “saved” and others are “lost.” It is not biased by what one does; only being chosen is they way to be saved. This is seen in Philippians 2:13, which says, “…for it is God who works in you to will and act according to his good purpose.” Therefore, Calvin believed that God chooses us, and we don’t choose Him.
The third point of Calvinism is Limited Atonement, which teaches that there is a fixed, limited number of people who will be saved, and that nobody else will be accepted by God when this number is complete. This is one of Calvin’s most controversial doctrines in Calvinism. The debate on limited atonement deals with the question of who Christ actually died for. Calvin answered this by saying that Christ died for the believer, or those who He had already elected. This is biblically illustrated in John 10, where Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” It does not say for all sheep, implying that there is only a selected few. Thus, Calvin believed that Christ died for the predestined only, and not for all mankind.
The fourth point of Calvinism is Irresistible Grace, which says that any person who is among the “elect” will have no choice as to becoming a servant of God. This shows that the Holy Spirit will directly operate on the “elect,” and they will be unable to resist the Spirit’s work in their lives. When God sends the Holy Spirit to an “elect” to save from evil desires, that person will be changed like it or not. In John 6:37, Jesus says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me,” thus showing that if a person is predestined, he will be saved. If God chooses someone, and He is ruling, then it can be said that he will save us and not leave the work uncompleted. Thus, Calvin believed that the Holy Spirit only “operates” on the predestined.
The fifth and final point of Calvinism is Perseverance of the Saints, which teaches that a person who has once received salvation can never be lost. This says that Christians are protected by God, and they can never be away from God’s grace—also known as “once saved, always saved.” Proof of this is that “God is unchanging” in Hebrews 13:8, which says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today…” thus showing that if he chooses to save someone, then he will save him/her and not change His mind letting him/her perish. Also John states:
“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no
one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has
given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch
This shows that once God saves someone, He won’t let go.
One of his other views was his view on baptism. Calvin described baptism as “a sign of initiation, by which we are admitted into the society of the Church, in order that, being incorporated into Christ, we may be numbered among the children of God” (Calvin 583). Along with being reckoned among God’s children, Calvin thought the purity offered in baptism washed away all of our defilement (Battles2 359-60), and we are “purified for the whole of life” (Calvin 585). Calvin also explained that it is not true that people will be deprived of the grace of regeneration if they are never baptized. For this reason, he was opposed to “emergency” baptism before death by an individual, because Christ only commanded those who were apostles to baptize (Battles2 365).
Calvin disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church, which said that baptism restores one to the purity of Adam before the fall by releasing one from original sin (Battles1 108). Calvin acknowledged this by saying that by baptism, “God promises remission of sins, and will certainly fulfill the promises to all believers” (Calvin 596). Calvin thought the manner in which someone is baptized is irrelevant—“whether the person who is baptized by wholly immersed, and whether thrice or once, or water be only poured or sprinkled upon him is of no importance” (596). Calvin also regarded the worthiness of the minister proceeding with the baptism is unimportant because “they did not baptize us into the fellowship of their own ignorance or sacrilege, but into the faith of Jesus Christ” (595).
Another view of Calvin concerned the Lord’s Supper. He described it as “a spiritual banquet, in which Christ testifies himself to be the bread of life, to feed our souls for a true and blessed immortality” (641). He contended that Communion “affords us a testimony that we are incorporated into one body with Christ” (642) and into eternal life and deliverance from our sins (Battles2 375). Calvin and a guy named Zwingli argued against a real presence in the Lord’s Supper (Battles1 109). According to Calvin, “the signs are bread and wine, which represent to us the invisible nourishment which we receive from the body and blood of Christ” (Calvin 641). To Calvin, the bread and wine feed us physically so the flesh and blood of Christ can feed our souls (Battles2 378). While writing why he doubted a physical presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, Calvin stated, “Christ’s body is finite” and “the Lord by his Spirit gives us the privilege of being united with himself in body, soul, and spirit” (Calvin 653). As with baptism, Calvin believed there was an inseparable connection between the sacrament of the blood of Christ and the preaching of the Word (Wallace 206).
Calvin did not think the manner of the distribution of the Lord’s Supper was very important. Whether the bread is received in the hands or divided among a group; whether the cup is handed to the next person or the deacon; whether the bread is leavened or unleavened; whether the wine is white or red—these could be decided by the church and no harm would be done (Keesecker 104). Calvin disagreed with Zwingli, who wanted to reduce the Lord’s Supper (Battles1 109). Calvin pushed to have the Eucharist celebrated weekly, but this did not work because the people of Geneva were more conservative than Calvin had estimated (White 65).
John Calvin was truly a great man, who made a lasting impact on church society. Through his writings, speeches, and Calvinism, he reached his goal in life, which was to learn about God and His Holy Word. His devotion to the promoting of Protestantism, succeeding Martin Luther, made such a difference his teachings are still seen today in Christianity.
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