The Origin of Calvinism
Of course, like every other man besides Jesus Christ, John Calvin was imperfect. His renown is not owing to infallibility, but to his relentless allegiance to the Scriptures as the Word of God in a day when the Bible had been almost swallowed up by church tradition.
He was born in July, 1509, in Noyon, France, and was educated at the best universities in Law and Theology and Classics. At the age of 21 he was dramatically converted from tradition-centered Catholicism to radical, biblical, evangelical faith in Christ and his Word. He said,
God, by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor. (John Dillenberger, John Calvin, Selections from His Writings, Scholars Press, 1975, p. 26)
There is a reason why Calvin moved away from his classical studies to a life devoted to the Word of God. Something dramatic happened in his perception of Reality as he read the Scriptures for himself. He heard in them the voice of God and saw the majesty of God.
Now this power which is peculiar to Scripture is clear from the fact that, of human writings, however artfully polished, there is none capable of affecting us at all comparably. Read Demosthenes or Cicero; read Plato, Aristotle, and others of that tribe. They will, I admit, allure you, delight you, move you, enrapture you in wonderful measure. But betake yourself from them to this sacred reading. Then, in spite of yourself, so deeply will it affect you, so penetrate your heart, so fix itself in your very marrow, that, compared with its deep impressions, such vigor as the orators and philosophers have will nearly vanish. Consequently, it is easy to see that the Sacred Scriptures, which so far surpass all gifts and graces of human endeavor, breathe something divine. (Institutes, I, viii, 1)
After this discovery, Calvin was utterly bound to the Word of God. He was a preacher in Geneva for 25 years, until he died at the age of 54 in May, 1564. His custom was to preach twice every Sunday and once every day of alternate weeks; that is, he preached, on average, 10 times every two weeks. His method was to take a few verses and explain and apply them for the people’s faith and life. He worked his way through book after book. For examples, he preached 189 sermons on the book of Acts, 271 on Jeremiah, 200 on Deuteronomy, 343 on Isaiah, 110 on First Corinthians. Once he was exiled from Geneva for about two years, and on returning he stepped into his pulpit at St. Peter’s and began with the text where he had left off.
This incredible devotion to the exposition of the Word of God year after year is owing to his profound conviction that the Bible is the very Word of God. He said,
The law and the prophecies are not teaching delivered by the will of men, but dictated by the Holy Ghost…We owe the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God, because it has proceeded from Him alone, and has nothing of man mixed with it. (Quoted by J. I. Packer, “Calvin the Theologian,” in John Calvin: A Collection of Essays, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966, p. 162)
What Calvin saw in the Bible, above all things, was the majesty of God. He said that through the Scriptures “in a way that surpasses human judgment, we are made absolutely certain, just as if we beheld there the majesty of God Himself” (Institutes, I, vii, 5). The Bible, for Calvin, was above all a witness of God to the majesty of God. This led inevitably to what is the heart of Calvinism. Benjamin Warfield put it like this:
The Calvinist is the [person] who sees God behind all phenomena, and in all that occurs recognizes the hand of God…'who makes the attitude of the soul to God in prayer the permanent attitude…' and who casts himself on the grace of God alone, excluding every trace of dependence on self from the whole work of salvation. (Calvin and Augustine, Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1971, p. 492)
That is what I want to be: one who excludes every trace of dependence on self from the whole work of my salvation. In that way I will enjoy the peace that rests in God alone, and God will get all the glory as the one from whom and through whom and to whom are all things, and the message of this church will resound for the nations.