This message appears as a chapter in With Calvin in the Theater of God: The Glory of Christ and Everyday Life.
At twelve years of age, Kim Gwan Hae became a pilgrim. Born into an aristocratic family in South Korea in the 1930s, Kim led a privileged life — he had the best clothes, the best food, and the best education. In fact, he did not have to go to school, but the tutors came regularly to his home. And all of his extended family lived with him, as was the custom. He and his family lived in the main house, while the relatives and cousins lived within the large compound. When I recently interviewed him, I asked him what he remembered most about his childhood. His answer surprised me.
“I don’t really remember much of my home, or my clothes, or my tutors. What I remember are my mother’s cries.”
His father, out of a sense of shame for not being able to bear more children, regularly beat his mother in drunken rage. This continued for years such that his mother’s fingers became permanently mangled from trying to stop the blows.
As he got older, unable to bear it, he would rush to his mother’s room trying desperately to keep his father from beating his mother. But he only ended up getting beaten himself. This came to a climax when he turned twelve. He woke to the smell of fire burning in the home. The little house in which he and his mother now lived was on fire. He ran outside only to be confronted by his father holding the torch.
His father simply stated, “Leave now or die.”
Kim replied, “What are you talking about, Father? What are you doing? Have you gone mad?”
The extended family and the other villagers rushed to see if they could help. But as they saw Kim Gwan Hae’s father holding the torch, they could only watch, because they themselves were overcome with fear. Kim’s father was not only the police chief of the village — the largest and most intimidating man with the largest sword — but he was also the richest man and often supported the villagers with money, food, and clothes.
Kim Gwan Hae could only watch as his mother gathered whatever she could and then came to grab his hand. With tears streaming down his face, Kim was banished from his home and was now a homeless pilgrim.
In his early twenties, John Calvin became a pilgrim. Having embraced the Protestant faith, Calvin had to flee his home and country and spent the rest of his life outside his native France. It is this pilgrim perspective that helps us understand Calvin the man and his work. Who was John Calvin? What motivated him? John Calvin was a faith-possessed pilgrim with a singular passion to know God and to make him known.
In this brief introduction to the life and thought of Calvin, my goal is that you as a Christian pilgrim journeying by faith through the wilderness experiences of your life will also be able to taste and see the same grace and glory that thoroughly transformed this sixteenth-century Christian pilgrim.
TWO STOPS ON OUR JOURNEY
We will be making two stops as we journey back in time through Calvin’s life. First, we will take a look at Calvin’s education and early experiences to see how they shaped his view of and relationship to God. This stop will be called, “Knowing God: Calvin the Student and Scholar of the Word.”
Calvin was a man deeply committed to knowing God, especially as he revealed himself in his Word. He was convinced that the core of our worship of God and work for God must be based on the Word of God. As a lifelong student of Holy Scripture, Calvin committed himself to the daily and diligent study of the Word of God, and it was in this Word that he came to know the depths of his own sin and the power of Christ for his salvation and how to live as a pilgrim in this sin-cursed world.
The second stop along our journey will reveal how Calvin’s study of God’s Word formed his view of God and the ministry. This stop is entitled, “Making God Known: Calvin the Shepherd and Servant of the Church and the World.”
Calvin became a man passionately committed to making his God known through his work as a shepherd of the church and a servant of the world. The endless hours Calvin spent in his study of the Word had this clear purpose: to make God known through his life and ministry. Whether in a church of French refugees or a city council meeting before political leaders, Calvin committed himself to revealing the will of God as it applied to all areas of life.
KNOWING GOD: CALVIN THE STUDENT AND SCHOLAR OF THE WORD
John Calvin was a faith-possessed pilgrim with a singular passion to know God and to make him known. The passion and skill that Calvin was later to display in his writings and in his ministry developed over the course of his life. After a brief look at Calvin’s education and conversion, we will examine his major work, the Institutes, which provides us with the two main themes that Calvin would pursue as a student and scholar of the Word: the sufficiency of Scripture and submission to what the Scriptures principally taught.
(Biographical information on Calvin is based on the following sources: The Life of John Calvin; John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait; John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor; Calvin; John Calvin: A Biography; John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life.
Born into what we might call a middle- to upper-middle-class family, Calvin received the privilege of being educated in the medieval system of the trivium, or the three ways or three parts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. All of this was part of his father’s plan to prepare him, like his older brother Charles, for the priesthood. His father, however, soon had a change of heart and directed his son John to forgo his preparation for the priesthood and instead switch to a career in law.
“John Calvin was a faith-possessed pilgrim with a singular passion to know God and to make him known.”
As a result, Calvin dutifully studied at prestigious schools in France for four to five years. This momentary detour provided young John not only with a sharpening of his mind, but also an introduction to the Renaissance pursuit of the ancient sources of learning. God would use this training for his own glory, as we shall soon see.
Renaissance learning captivated young John as a student of the classics. He especially admired the top scholars of the day known for their incisive commentaries on ancient sources. One such man was the great Renaissance scholar Erasmus. Calvin desired to follow in the footsteps of Erasmus by becoming a student of the ancient classics.
Calvin’s first published book was a commentary on De Clementia by the ancient Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca. Published when John was only twenty-three years old, it showed great promise and revealed Calvin to be a careful and insightful interpreter. Again, God was clearly preparing him for the great commentaries he would later write.
As the story goes, Calvin did not remain a student and scholar of the classics. Something happened that utterly transformed his life, vision, and calling. Simply put, it was his conversion. He would come face-to-face with the Lord of glory, and he would never be the same again.
While we don’t know the exact date, it was during this season of university studies that Calvin came into a vastly new understanding of Christianity. Unfortunately, there is not much information regarding his own journey from being a loyal son of the established church to eventually becoming a rootless pilgrim of the Protestant movement.
What we do know is that his conversion is the key event that moved him from just being a student and scholar of the classics to being a student and scholar of the Word. Now the prime motive of Calvin’s existence came to be “zeal to show forth the glory of God” (John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, A Reformation Debate, [Harper, 1966], 58).
It appears that his conversion happened quite suddenly, surprising Calvin himself. He came to recognize the seriousness of his sin and the need to look outside himself for a solution. (Selderhuis, Calvin, 19–20). The solution came with help from the writings of the early Reformers like Luther, who many of Calvin’s friends already were reading and studying.
Here he came face- to-face with the depth of his own sin, the terrifying judgment of God, and the fact that the Roman Catholic Church did not have an adequate solution. So sometime during his twenties, Calvin became gripped by the power of the gospel as it was presented within the context of a church in dire need of reform.
His conversion also signaled a new period in his life — a period marked by fleeing the religious persecution of his native France. Unable to stay safely in France, Calvin became a fugitive on the run, seeking a better home. His pilgrim life had begun.
Institutes of the Christian Religion
Calvin’s conversion also marked another significant event in his life: the writing of his first major Christian book, Institutes of the Christian Religion. It was time to use all the training as a student and scholar to know God and to make him known.
Though he wanted to spend the rest of his life as a student and scholar of the classics, to sit and read for long hours studying, analyzing, and writing, Calvin knew that it was one thing to know God more and quite another thing to make him known, especially as he became increasingly aware of the necessity for the reform of the church. With the Institutes, Calvin would transition from being a student-scholar of the world of the classics to a student-scholar of the Word of God.
First written in 1536, Institutes was his introduction to the Christian faith. In fact, this first major Christian publication not only reveals what was central to his life and ministry but also provides an outline of the major themes that Calvin would spend his life developing — key themes like the sufficiency of Scripture and the submission to the Scriptures, especially in the areas of salvation and worship.
The book was relatively short, consisting of only six chapters. But it reveals the heart of what Calvin thought was vital not only to the cause of the Reformation but more importantly for the way it prepared disciples for Christ and his church. Chapter 1 described the law and the gospel, that is, the knowledge of sin and salvation. Chapter 2 was about faith, specifically how one is justified by faith alone. Chapter 3 covered prayer and the importance of communion with God.
Chapters 4 and 5 dealt with true and false sacraments, that only the Lord’s Supper and baptism were valid sacraments instituted by Christ. Lastly, chapter 6 outlined how the Christian is free in matters of religion from all human innovations since he is bound only to Scripture. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536, [Eerdmans, 1986]).
Calvin would go on to revise and expand his Institutes, but this first attempt made it abundantly clear what Calvin considered of primary importance not only for true religion but also for the reformation of false religion. “Calvin made it clear that Christ, faith, justification, the sacraments, and the Scriptures stood at the heart of his understanding of Christianity” (Godfrey, John Calvin, 31).
Why did he write the Institutes? The dedicatory letter to King Francis I of France gives us a clue. In it he appealed to the king not to listen to the lies of his enemies but to see the real purpose behind the vision for reform. Calvin was distressed because his enemies were charging that the Protestants were revolutionaries trying to overthrow the peace. These lies, according to Calvin, had caused the persecution of many of his fellow Protestants. So in order to protect Protestants, and also to present what he considered true religion, Calvin wrote the Institutes.
So, as a student and scholar of the Word of God, Calvin emphasized two main themes: the sufficiency of Scripture alone for faith and life as well as submission to what the Scriptures taught.
SOLA SCRIPTURA: SCRIPTURE ALONE
What were the key elements of his program of reform? First and foremost, Calvin argued that the Bible, and the Bible alone, was the ultimate foundation for all he believed to be true. He writes, “The Word of God, therefore, is the object and target of faith at which one ought to aim” (Calvin, Institutes, 1536, [John Knox, 1975], 58).
All Christians then must look to the Bible for all that they need for life and godliness. “We ought surely to seek from Scripture a rule for thinking and speaking. To this yardstick all thoughts of the mind and all words of the mouth must be conformed” (Ibid., 62).
But the idea of the Bible’s truthfulness was not enough. Calvin and the other Reformers were well aware that those in the Roman Church agreed with them formally on this point.
Where they differed was in the areas of sufficiency and clarity. First, Calvin argued that the Bible in and of itself was sufficient as an authority for the church. Why? Because the Church of Rome contended that the Bible was not sufficient for all that the Christian needed for salvation and sanctification. Thus the church councils and customs were needed to establish true religion. On the contrary, Calvin argued that custom and tradition, though helpful, were not necessary to establish the authority of the truths of Scripture. The Bible was sufficient.
Second, Calvin spoke about the clarity of Scripture — that the Bible was clear as an authority. Rome insisted that the Bible was not only insufficient as an authority but also unclear to the masses. Therefore the church was needed to provide the correct meanings and interpretations. Against this, Calvin stated that the Bible was clear in and of itself to provide the necessary truths that God intended for us to know.
So, for Calvin, as with his fellow Reformers, the idea of Scripture alone as the source of religious truth was a principal element of his final vision for reform. Why is this important?
As heirs of the Reformation, do our churches today have the same confidence in the truthfulness and authority of God’s Word? How important is the Word of God for our lives? In many of our churches, the Bible has been functionally rejected in favor of the certainty we hope to gain through rationalism on one side or emotionalism on the other. Our minds or our experiences become the final judge of what is true and right.
Do we have the same confidence in the Bible as our Reformed ancestors?
Furthermore, do we believe, live, and worship as if the Bible is sufficient? That is, do we take seriously what the Bible has said about what pleases God in our worship, for example? Many seem to think that the Bible is not necessary for things like this. Calvin scholar Robert Godfrey laments,
The worship of the church has become a feel-good experience, rather than a meeting with the holy God of the universe. Exciting music has become the new sacrament mediating the presence of God and his grace. Sermons have become pop psychology, moralistic exercises in self-help. (W. Robert Godfrey, “Calvin and the Need for Reformation” [unpublished manuscript, 2009], 12)
We need to hear Calvin’s voice once again calling us back to the Scriptures as our only ultimate source of truth and life. In the dedication to his commentary on the general Epistles, Calvin wrote to King Edward of England, “Indeed, if there has ever been a time when the truth of God needed to be freely and boldly maintained, it has never been more necessary than in the present day, as all can see” (Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: Commentary on First Peter, [Eerdmans, 1989], 219). For Calvin, this required a return to the Scriptures:
In case the faithful are carried about by every wind of imposture, in case they should be exposed to the crafty scoffing of the ungodly, let them be taught by the sure experience of faith, and know that nothing is more firm or certain than the teaching of Scripture, and on that support let them confidently rest. (Ibid., 225)
So the first element for his program of reform was the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture to govern our faith and lives.
SOLI DEO GLORIA: THE GLORY OF GOD ALONE
The second element for his program of reform was that which the Scriptures principally taught, namely, that God alone must receive glory as the Savior of his people and the Lord of his church (Godfrey, “Calvin and the Need,” 6).
Confronting a Roman Catholic Church that was pilfering the glory of God, Calvin wrote, “A very great question is at stake: how God’s glory may be kept safe on earth, how God’s truth may retain its place of honor, how Christ’s kingdom may be kept in good repair among us” (Calvin, “Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France,” Institutes of the Christian Religion, [Westminster, 1960], 11).
Calvin was consumed by a passion for the glory of God. He believed that “once a Christian saw the glory of God as central, then a proper discussion of salvation could follow” (Godfrey, John Calvin, 16). This sentiment came out most clearly in his important work Reply to Sadoleto. Written in 1539, this essay was a response to a pointed attack against the Reformation by the Roman Catholic bishop Jacopo Sadoleto.
Sadoleto had written the city and church leaders in Geneva urging them to return to the Roman Church. He timed it strategically following the exile from Geneva of Calvin and his fellow reformer William Farel. Not knowing how to respond to Sadoleto, the city leaders contacted Calvin, now stationed in Strasbourg, and requested he respond on their behalf.
One of Calvin’s first responses to Sadoleto is especially revealing. Early in his letter, Sadoleto insinuated that Calvin and the other Genevan reformers were motivated by a desire for fame and money. To this, Calvin vehemently responded by saying that what motivated him, above all else, was a concern for the glory of God (Ibid).
Sadoleto also had written that the Christian must first be concerned for his own salvation. Calvin, however, maintained that the Christian must first be focused on God and his glory. Calvin wrote,
It is not very sound theology to confine a man’s thoughts so much to himself, and not to set before him, as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to show forth the glory of God. For we are born first of all for God, and not for ourselves (Calvin and Sadoleto, Debate, 58).
Calvin argued that the Scriptures principally teach that God alone deserves glory — not only in creation, but especially in his work of redemption. Calvin said that God is glorified preeminently in his breath-taking work of taking unworthy sinners and making them his children through the sacrificial work of his Son.
Calvin believed that God’s glory was most tangibly seen in the work of salvation. More specifically, Calvin articulated that a correct understanding of the doctrine of justification was fundamental. Calvin himself had struggled with the consuming question of how to be right with God. In his Reply to Sadoleto, Calvin presents his view of the doctrine of justification by faith alone in several steps. To Calvin, there are two steps in justification — two steps for a sinner to become right before a holy God.
First, the sinner comes to recognize his own predicament. Through self-examination, a sinner sees his utter helplessness and hopelessness and the severe judgment required for his sin. This idea of serious soul-searching was central to his theology. Here Calvin not only reiterates a major teaching of the Bible, but also confesses his own personal experience.
Throughout the Reply to Sadoleto, as well as in his Institutes, we find expressions of the very personal struggles with sin and the terrible judgment that awaited him apart from Christ (for an example, see Institutes, 1.1.1). Calvin knew that seeing oneself in a desperate condition before God was the first step to a sound theology and religious experience (Godfrey, John Calvin, 18).
The second step, after this awareness of hopelessness, is the knowledge of God’s way of salvation. He writes, “Then we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete” (Debate, 66). For Calvin, the Bible taught the unmistakable truth that Jesus was the Savior who through his sacrificial death fully bore all the sins of his people on the cross, and through his vindicating resurrection credited the saving benefits of his work to them.
How did the sinner receive these promises? Calvin told Sadoleto that faith was the sole instrument by which the sinner received salvation. He stated, “Paul, whenever he attributes to [faith] the power to justifying, restricts it to a gratuitous promise of the divine favor, and keeps it far removed from all respects to works” (Ibid., 67). Faith alone was the instrument to receive salvation.
What was the result? Calvin demonstrated that the result of faith that rests completely on the justifying work of Christ is great peace and assurance for the Christian (Godfrey, John Calvin, 19). In his response to Sadoleto, you can sense the relief and joy in Calvin’s words as one whose own burdened conscience found confidence and assurance through faith in Christ.
It is important to note how Calvin finishes his Reply to Sadoleto where his response began — with the final authority of Scripture alone. As in his Institutes, Calvin argued that the Christian can only find certain authority in the Scriptures. The Bible alone was the heart and life of the Christian community. In fact, Calvin maintained that the church was to honor the Word of God above itself:
Ours [is] the obedience which, while it disposes us to listen to our elders and superiors, tests all obedience by the Word of God; in fine, ours [is] the Church whose supreme care it is humbly and religiously to venerate the Word of God, and submit to its authority. (Debate, 75)
For Calvin, then, the Holy Spirit taught the truth of justification through the Scriptures in the church.
“We are born first of all for God, and not for ourselves.” –John Calvin
In sum, Calvin’s Reply to Sadoleto revealed the second key element to his program of reform, namely, that God’s glory, seen in the salvation of otherwise hopeless sinners, through the work of Jesus culminating at the cross, received by faith alone, was the ultimate goal. God’s glory fueled Calvin’s passion. God’s glory motivated Calvin’s pen. God’s glory brought Calvin peace.
And this peace, Calvin knew, could only be known through the Bible. The old church had seriously distorted this truth and was thus in need of thorough reform. One scholar puts it this way: “Theologically the certain church of the Middle Ages was replaced by the certain Scripture of the Reformation” (Godfrey, John Calvin, 22).
Calvin’s Reply to Sadoleto was an important piece of work that solidified the Reformation cause in Geneva. But it was written when Calvin was in Strasbourg. Less than two years after Calvin stayed in Geneva to work with Farel, the city council banished Calvin, Farel, and one other minister from the city over some disagreements over who had the ultimate authority in disciplining church members, especially as it related to who could, or, more importantly, could not, participate in the Lord’s Supper. (See the following for more information regarding this incident: Godfrey, John Calvin, 39–42; Selderhuis, John Calvin, 75–84; Gordon, Calvin, 78–81).
So Calvin’s first exile — from France to Geneva — came to an end with another exile, this time from Geneva. He was twenty-eight years old and probably felt like a failure. After less than twenty-one months, he was rejected as a pastor. His pilgrim life continued. Martin Bucer, the leading Reformer in Strasbourg, invited him to come and help him.
He invited Calvin to come pastor a small French refugee community in this German-speaking town. Not knowing what the future held, Calvin the faith-possessed pilgrim continued to trust in his God. Perhaps he was thinking about this time in his life when he wrote, “Whatever kind of tribulation presses upon us, we must ever look to this end: to accustom ourselves to contempt for the present life and to be aroused thereby to meditate upon the future life” (Calvin, Institutes , 712). He continued to look above, by faith, for his encouragement and hope.
After being rejected by his father at the age of twelve, Kim Gwan Hae and his mother left for Seoul to start a new life — which was extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a single mom at that time. With the help of her siblings, Kim’s mother found a place to stay and started to earn a living selling fish.
One year later, in a youth meeting at his friend’s church, Kim Gwan Hae was introduced to the gospel of Jesus, and there he committed himself to the Savior. He was so excited about his faith he could not wait to come home and tell his Buddhist mother. Upon telling her, however, Kim was promptly told that if he ever stepped foot in a church again, he would not be welcomed back home.
On the following Wednesday evening, he went with his friends to church to attend a Bible study. Upon returning, Kim discovered that the front door was locked. Knock, knock. No answer. Bang, bang! No response. Finally after several minutes, he heard his mother’s voice on the other side of the door.
“I told you if you went to church this would no longer be your home.” She would not tolerate his desire to be a follower of Christ. Young Kim Gwan Hae had now been banished by both father and mother.
When I asked him how he felt at that time about his new commitment to Christ and the problems it would create, he simply responded that though he did not know much about the Bible, he knew two things: first, that no matter how great a sinner he was, God forgave him in Christ, and second, that no matter what happened in life, God would always be with him. Banished by father and mother, he was a pilgrim displaying faith and hope in God who promised him he would never leave him nor forsake him.
Later in life, he would lead his mother to Christ. He knew in his heart that the only way his mother would come to faith would be for him to demonstrate the grace of God in his words and actions. Allowed to return home shortly after this incident, he began to pray diligently for his mother and also that he would wisely show grace in his words and actions.
Even in the midst of these challenges, Kim Gwan Hae, like Calvin, continued to put his hope in God. Knowing the grace of God in Christ motivated this young Korean to keep looking in faith to the God who had saved him from his sin, for he was a faith-possessed pilgrim who continued to trust and obey.
This leads us to the second stop on our journey. Calvin not only desired to know God more as a student and scholar of the Word of God, but he desired to make him known as a shepherd and servant of the church and world.
MAKING GOD KNOWN: CALVIN THE SHEPHERD AND SERVANT OF THE CHURCH AND WORLD
As stated earlier, John Calvin was a faith-possessed pilgrim with a singular passion to know God and to make him known. He was keenly aware that one of his main callings in life was to make God known as a shepherd and servant of God. This he did primarily through his pastoral ministry. The bulk of Calvin’s pastoral ministry took place in the city of Geneva. During his time in Geneva, Calvin ministered to a community of French Protestant refugees who had fled religious persecution. As one author describes it,
Calvin’s Geneva was comprised of an immigrant population significantly larger than the size of its citizenship. And don’t forget, Calvin himself was one — an immigrant who, like the others, wasn’t able to vote on civic issues because he was not a native citizen, until near the end of his life. Refugees and immigrants, displaced business people and peasants, royalty and clergy, all of them came to Calvin’s Geneva in search of a new life and new possibility. Like us, what they discovered was that new life had to be newly “made-up” in a great experiment: there was no template, no easy answer. (Serene Jones, “Calvin and the Continuing Protestant Story,” Modern Reformation [June/July 2009], 19)
These immigrants — like many immigrants of our day — were trying to restart their lives in the midst of many hardships and challenges. So Calvin, a faith-possessed pilgrim himself, became a shepherd to these fellow pilgrims.
“God’s glory motivated Calvin’s pen.”
So while he was a pilgrim with a passion for the glory of God, it is important to remember that he used all his gifts, skills, and experiences as a shepherd and servant, ministering what he believed these fellow pilgrims needed. With a foundation in the Word of God, Calvin pastored his flock with great care and compassion through his theology and life, his sermons and letters.
There were two main foundational themes to Calvin’s ministry: first, the doctrine of providence and its importance for the Christian life, and second, his theology of worship.
What drove Calvin as a shepherd? What fueled his ministry? It is important to remember that Calvin, like all of us, struggled with life. He was not unaccustomed to suffering. And it is in this context that he contributed such profound teaching on the doctrine of providence.
Fleeing the persecution in Paris, Calvin decided that Strasbourg would be the best place to start his life as a quiet scholar. But God had other plans. Forced to stay one night in Geneva, Calvin encountered the fiery reformer of the city, William Farel, who was so convinced that Calvin needed to stay and join his work, that he pronounced a curse on Calvin should he not stay.
It is here that Calvin took as his personal motto, “My heart I offer to thee, O Lord, promptly and sincerely” and began his pastoral ministry. Though he was exiled from Geneva for a short period near the beginning of his ministry (as we have seen), he faithfully labored in this city for many years.
Much of his training, correcting, rebuking, and comforting of God’s people rested in large part on his understanding of providence, that is, God’s providential care for his children. Godfrey states, “For Calvin the truth of providence is not simply an abstract or speculative idea about the sovereignty of God but a very practical reality that every Christian needs to understand and embrace” (Godfrey, John Calvin, 140).
As one who encountered serious suffering himself, Calvin knew that the pilgrims in Geneva had suffered much. In a section entitled, “Without certainty about God’s providence life would be unbearable,” Calvin wrote the following about this present evil age and its challenges:
Innumerable are the evils that beset human life; innumerable, too, the deaths that threaten it. We need not go beyond ourselves: since our body is the receptacle of a thousand diseases . . . a man cannot go about unburdened by many forms of his own destruction, and without drawing out a life enveloped, as it were, with death. (Calvin, Institutes , 223)
Without a clear understanding and hope in God’s powerful, personal, and purposeful care over our lives, life and death can only be pointless.
Powerful, Personal, Purposeful
Calvin knew from Scripture that God is all-powerful and sovereign. Calvin writes, “[T]ruly God claims, and would have us grant him, omnipotence — not the empty, idle, and almost unconscious sort that the Sophists imagine, but a watchful, effective, active sort, engaged in ceaseless activity” (Ibid., 200). Calvin argued that nothing happens by chance. All that occurs in our lives and our world is always under the watchful eye and care of our heavenly Father who created and upholds everything by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3).
God is also personal. Early in his exposition of providence Calvin uses biblical saints as examples and asks rhetorically, “Whence, I pray you, do they have this never-failing assurance but from knowing that, when the world appears to be aimlessly tumbled about, the Lord is everywhere at work, and from trusting that his work will be for their welfare?” (Ibid., 224).
God controls all things personally and actively. He is not some sort of deistic deity, who in creating the world as a clock winds it up and just lets it run its course without his personal and active involvement. This personal character of his providence ultimately comes to fruition in the life, death, and resurrection of the God-man, Jesus. God personally enters time, space, and history to redeem lost sinners for his own glory.
Lastly, God is purposeful in his providence. Calvin knew from Scripture that God created this world and is personally involved with it for his own glory and for our good. There was a purpose to creation. Though God created the world for good, mankind fell into sin and received death as a just judgment of this rebellion against his Creator.
But God did not leave mankind to this fate. He sent Jesus, his only Son, to live the perfect life that mankind could not live, die sacrificially as a substitute, and be raised to new life as the beginning of a new humanity. From creation and fall to redemption and consummation, God is purposeful in his providential care over his children who put their trust in Christ alone.
Calvin summarizes his thoughts this way: “Gratitude of mind for the favorable outcomes of things, patience in adversity, and also incredible freedom from worry about the future all necessarily follow upon this knowledge” (Ibid., 219). We can live with deep assurance because our sovereign God is our Father, who for the sake of Christ directs all things for our good. Is this not a comforting teaching?
It means that not a hair can fall from your head, or a tear from your eye, without your heavenly Father knowing it. Knowing that God is powerful, personal, and purposeful in his care provides much comfort and courage when life is difficult. As pilgrims following a providential God, we can persevere.
Calvin encouraged Christian pilgrims to turn to their providential Father and cry out to him in faith-filled prayer. He wrote that when we cry out to God in prayer, God reassures us about his care. He told fellow pilgrims in Christ to remember that God loves them dearly and has purpose for their lives, even (and especially!) in the midst of their challenging circumstances. Calvin devoted pages upon pages to prayer, from his commentary on the Psalms to a large section in his Institutes. In fact, his chapter on prayer is longer than his section on predestination.
Calvin believed that the Scriptures, especially the Psalms, teach us to combine prayer with our meditations on the promises and providences of God. Calvin therefore linked the doctrine of providence to prayer, stating that prayer was the way to keep trusting in God even in the most bitter afflictions — be it physical or spiritual. Godfrey writes, “The bitterest afflictions of this life can be sweet when Christians know that they come from God, serve his purposes, and ultimately contribute to their good” (Godfrey, John Calvin, 146).
“Without certainty about God’s providence life would be unbearable.” –John Calvin
As a faith-possessed pilgrim, Calvin had a singular passion to know God and to make him known. One way he did that was to pastor his flock of pilgrims with the comforting doctrine of providence and the prayers that emerge from hearts full of faith and trust in their sovereign God.
Calvin was well acquainted with suffering. In 1540, at the age of thirty- one, Calvin married Idelette de Bure, a widow with two children who had joined the Reformed church in Strasbourg that Calvin pastored. Calvin had provided pastoral care to her first husband during his life- ending illness. Less than nine years later, she died. Her health had not been strong, especially after giving birth to Calvin’s only child, a son who died only days after birth. They had no other children, though Idelette had several miscarriages. His wife’s death struck Calvin deeply. He wrote to a friend,
Although the death of my wife has been exceedingly painful to me, yet I subdue my grief as well as I can. . . . I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life, who, if our lot had been harsher, would have been not only the willing sharer of exile and poverty but even of death. (Calvin, Selected Works, vol. 5 [Baker, 1983], 216)
But even in this deep sorrow, he was able to look above.
May [Jesus] support me also under this heavy affliction, which would certainly have overcome me, had not he, who raises up the prostrate, strengthens the weak, and refreshes the weary, stretched forth his hand from heaven to me (Ibid., 219).
Calvin’s own health was never strong. He had regular bouts of malaria-like fever, tuberculosis, ulcerated veins, kidney stones, and hemorrhoids. He identified with the people of God who wrestled with the same problems he did — both physically and spiritually. He poignantly writes about suffering in his commentary on Hebrews 11:1:
Eternal life is promised to us, but it is promised to the dead; we are told of the resurrection of the blessed, but meantime we are involved in corruption; we are declared to be just, and sin dwells within us; we hear that we are blessed, but meantime we are overwhelmed by untold miseries; we are promised an abundance of good things, but we are often hungry and thirsty; God proclaims that He will come to us immediately, but seems deaf to our cries. . . . Faith is therefore rightly called the substance of things which are still the objects of hope. (Calvin, Commentary on Hebrews [Eerdmans, 1974], 157–58)
These words are not just theological statements. They reflected his faith. The struggles of life tested his faith. But at the heart of his faith was the confidence that for the sake of Jesus, God was his loving heavenly Father. So he labored tirelessly pastoring, writing, visiting as only a pilgrim with a singular passion to know God and to make him known could.
We have letters that he wrote to many undergoing suffering — to the sick and grieving as well as to the persecuted. His letters in particular reveal the heart of a pastor that both ached for his brothers and sisters suffering persecution and burned with a passion for God’s glory to be manifested through these providential events. And many of the refugees that he pastored and trained in Geneva would not only become missionaries but martyrs.
His letters sought to build up the faith of those who were experiencing persecution. A key theme that comes up over and over in these letters is where Calvin believed the Christian finds his ultimate source of strength: the grace of God.
But this grace, Calvin said, was received through specific means. Repeatedly in his letters (as well as his other works), Calvin reminded those experiencing persecution and suffering to obtain the grace of God that they needed to endure through prayer and the Scriptures. For through the Scriptures one receives the comfort and encouragement found only in the promises of God.
This leads us to the second great element to his ministry as a shepherd and servant of God’s people and world: his thoughts on worship.
One of the greatest contributions that Calvin made not only in the church in Geneva but to countless other Christians who are heirs to the Reformation is his teaching on worship. Calvin sought to know God and to make him known, and he was convinced that the old church had lost its way regarding worship. Godfrey writes, “He recognized that for most Christians, their experience of God and their knowledge of truth came primarily from worship on Sunday. He wanted to ensure that worship was conducted according to the Word of God” (Godfrey, John Calvin, 69).
Why was worship so important to him? For Calvin, corporate worship was the key meeting place of God and his people. This is why in one of his essays entitled “On the Necessity of Reforming the Church,” Calvin placed proper worship ahead of the doctrine of salvation on his list of the two most important elements of biblical Christianity.
Calvin approached worship like he approached all things. He would ask, What does the Bible say? He held to the principle that the Scriptures must guide public worship so that only what is explicitly commanded in the Bible may be an element of worship. Calvin knew that the human tendency is to think that sincerity and fervor can substitute for truth and faithfulness. He rejected this notion outright.
Further, he was cautious about worship because he knew the heart of man. One of the most profound effects of the fall for Calvin was that men become idolaters. Even among Christians, the temptation to substitute the living God with idols — whatever they may be — remains strong. Therefore, we need to be that much more vigilant in ordering our worship according to the Word of God alone.
Calvin was convinced that through this kind of Scripture-led worship, we receive grace. He argued that the primary means that God uses to bless us is found in the audible Word of God and the visible word of God — the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is through these preeminent instruments that God chooses to bless and nurture his children. Regarding ministers who spoke for God as they preached, he wrote, “He proves our obedience by a very good test when we hear his ministers speaking just as if he himself spoke” (Calvin, Institutes , 1018).
These are important truths in a day and age when many churches are losing the essence of biblical Christianity. Calvin emphatically did not aim to create “Calvinists.” He gave his all to produce biblical Christians. And as he sought to do this, he saw the means of grace at the heart of what the church is to do.
Geneva was filled with gospel-starved refugees and pilgrims yearning to hear the grace of God in the Word of God faithfully preached. Week in and week out, Calvin delivered the Word of God faithfully, expounding the sacred text, giving life-giving water to thirsty souls. But ultimately for Calvin, worship was not a means to an end. Worship was not a means to evangelize or entertain or even educate. Worship was an end in itself. In worship, God meets with his people to bless them.
One of the greatest contributions Calvin made was his teaching on worship.
Calvin was a pilgrim who knew that God was providentially working all things out according to his good and perfect will, so he faithfully continued to pray for grace and to worship God in spirit and in truth.
BURIED IN AN UNMARKED GRAVE
Calvin died peacefully and quietly on May 27, 1564. He was buried in an unmarked grave at a secret location in Geneva. This was his wish — that no one knows where he was buried. He rejected the superstitious veneration of the dead and did not want Christians to make pilgrimages to his grave. Perhaps what he wrote in his Institutes serves as a fitting epitaph:
[W]e may patiently pass through this life with its misery, hunger, cold, contempt, reproaches, and other troubles — content with this one thing: that our King will never leave us destitute, but will provide for our needs until, our warfare ended, we are called to triumph. (Ibid., 499)
Calvin was a faith-possessed pilgrim who had a singular passion to know God (as presented in the Word) and make him known (throughout the world). Calvin was a Christian pilgrim, journeying by faith through the ups and downs of life, with this firm conviction: that by faith in Christ alone he belonged to God, and nothing in this world could ever change that.
Kim Gwan Hae was also a pilgrim who learned about God’s sovereign control, providential care, and the experience of grace. Knowing that the only way he could help his mother financially was to get into a good college and then get a good job, Kim studied diligently throughout his junior and senior high school years. He took the national college placement exam, and based on his scores, he received entrance to the most prestigious university in Korea, Seoul National University.
He only received from the University, however, a 50 percent tuition scholarship. Even with the help of his family and friends, he could not afford attending there. So he decided to visit his father — for surely his father would be extremely proud that his first son had received entrance to Seoul National University. He took the train to find his father, and upon seeing him, Kim proudly showed his father the letter of acceptance.
“I came to tell you that your first son got into the most prestigious college in Korea. I hope that brings honor to you and to our family. Since the time I left here six years ago, I have never asked you for anything. I’ve come today to ask for your help with my tuition.”
Kim Gwan Hae waited with anticipation, but almost immediately his father turned to an assistant standing next to him and said, “Tell this young man to leave; I have no son.” And so again young Kim Gwan Hae left his father’s home stunned, wounded, and empty.
I immediately asked, “Weren’t you angry?” Kim turned away and thought pensively.
“Of course I was angry,” he said. “Of course I was sad. Of course I was bitter. But what could I do?” He was deeply hurt, but he said that his faith in God’s providence kept him going.
Kim Gwan Hae eventually finished college at another university that offered him a full-tuition scholarship. He then emigrated to the United States to attend a graduate school and receive a master’s degree in electrical engineering.
Some years later when he received a call from a cousin notifying him that his father was dying, Kim made the trip to see his father one last time. Upon entering his father’s bedroom, Kim Gwan Hae spoke tenderly to his father:
“Father, I want you to know why I came today. It’s because I’m a changed man. I can honestly say that I love you and I forgive you. I can say that because, even though I didn’t have a father, another Father came for me and gave me hope.
“The Bible teaches us that the heavenly Father loved me so much that he sent his only begotten Son Jesus to die on the cross as a sacrifice for my sins. And if you place your trust in him, you too can have your sins forgiven and receive eternal life.
“You never gave me anything in this life, Father. But this is what I want to give you: the opportunity to know this Jesus and put your faith in him.”
How could Kim Gwan Hae speak like this? What possessed him? What could so transform this man to love and forgive? Only the grace and glory of God. The grace and glory of God in Jesus had transformed him into a faith-possessed pilgrim with a singular passion of knowing God and making him known — even to those who rejected him. Kim Gwan Hae not only understood God’s sovereignty and providence, but he lived it.
Kim eventually would get married and raise a family in the United States, promising himself to give his son a better life, a life of grace, faith, and hope — a life that included the greatest gift of all, the gift of Jesus. How do I know this? Kim Gwan Hae is my father.