At Work and Worship in the Theater of God

Calvin the Man, and Why I Care

Desiring God 2009 National Conference

These are notes from the session, not a manuscript.

I'd like to begin by reading a passage of Scripture that I'd like to believe was Calvin's favorite. As I've been reading Calvin getting ready for this talk, a common theme kept coming up over and over again: John 17:3. "Now this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." Let's pray.

At 12 years of age, Kim Guan He became a pilgrim. Born into an aristocratic family in the 1930's, Kim led a privileged life. He and his family lived in the main house and his extended family lived in the compound. When I asked him what he remembered about his childhood, he said the only thing he remembered were his mother's cries. His father regularly beat her because of her inability to bear more children. Kim would rush to his mother's room to keep her from being beat, but he would get beat himself. When he was 12, he woke up to his house being on fire. He ran outside and found his father holding the torch. His father said, "Leave now or die." "What are you doing, Father? Have you gone mad?"

The extended family wanted to help but couldn't do anything. Kim could only watch as his mother grabbed whatever she could and grab his hand. Kim was banished from his home and became a homeless pilgrim.

John Calvin likewise was a pilgrim. He was a Christian. I think this is the best way to get a handle on Calvin's life.

Calvin was a faith-possessed pilgrim with a singular passion to know God and to make him known. Through this brief introduction to Calvin, my prayer is that you as a Christian pilgrim would also be able to taste and see the same grace and glory that thoroughly transformed this 16th century Christian pilgrim.

We'll be making two stops throughout Calvin's life: 1) Knowing God (Calvin the Student and Scholar of the Word). Calvin was convinced that the core of our worship for God and work of God must be based on the Word of God. It was in the 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: 2) Making God Known (Calvin the Shepherd and Servant of the Church and the World). All the hours Calvin spent in his study of the Word were for one purpose: to make God known through his life and ministry.

First stop. Calvin was born into a middle-class family. He father wanted him to study law. He went to different schools for four or five years. The switch in schools provided for John the sharpening of his mind as well as the Renaissance pursuit of ancient sources. John published his first work, a commentary on Seneca, at 23 years of age.

As the story continues, Calvin didn't remain a student of the classics. Something happened that transformed his life: he came face to face with the Lord of glory. He would never be the same again.

Calvin doesn't talk a lot about his conversion in his writings. He was all about someone else's glory, not his own. From what we do know, sometime in his 20's he came into contact with the writings of people like Luther and started to study the Scriptures. He came face to face with the depth of his sin and the wrath of God. Then he discovered the gospel and the grace of Jesus. A student and scholar of the classics became a student and scholar of the Word of God.

Calvin's prime motive from that time on came to be "zeal to illustrate the glory of God."

While we don't have many details regarding his conversion, we do know that it came rather suddenly. Calvin became gripped with the power of the gospel as it was presented in the context of a church that needed reform. His conversion began a period of fleeing religious persecution in France. In his 20's Calvin became a pilgrim on the run.

Calvin's conversion marked the writing of his first major Christian book: The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Though Calvin wanted to spend his life shut away in his study, he knew that it was one thing to know God and another thing to make him known. The Institutes was an introduction to the Christian faith and was an outline to what Calvin himself saw as important: the sufficiency of Scripture and submission to those Scriptures.

Calvin wrote the Institutes when he was 26. Why did he write it? When he finished his book he wrote a dedicatory letter to the King of France, King Francis I.

Calvin wanted to argue that the Bible and the Bible alone was the foundation for all he believed to be true. He believed that every Christian must look to the Bible for all that they need for life and godliness. All thoughts of the mind and all words of the mouth must be conformed to the Bible.

The truth of Scripture was something his Roman Catholic detractors agreed with. How did Calvin differ from them? Two areas: sufficiency and perspicuity. Calvin argued that the bible alone is sufficient for my life and for my future life. Perspicuity: is the Bible clear in itself or do we need others to make it understandable to us? The Roman Catholic opponents that Calvin argued against believed the Bible was insufficient and unclear. They argued that the clergy needed to interpret the Scriptures for their people.

The idea that the Scripture alone was the only source of truth was the principle element of his reform. Why is this so important? I'm sure all of us would agree with that statement viscerally. For Calvin, nothing was more important than getting this right. As heirs of the Reformation, do our churches today have the same confidence in the truthfulness and the authority of the Word of God? How important is the Word of God in our lives? In many of our churches the Bible has been functionally rejected in place of what we could gain from some sort of rational exercise or some sort of emotional experience. Our minds and our experience thus become the final judge of what is true and right.

Another scholar has said, "The worship of the church has become a feel-good experience rather than the meeting of 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, moral exercises in self-help."

For Calvin, we needed a return to the faithfulness of the Scriptures. His first element for his program of reform was the sufficiency and clarity of the Scriptures to govern our lives.

There was a second element for his program of reform: what did the Scriptures principally teach? "The most important thing that God teaches us in his Word [is] that man should be concerned with himself and his salvation." Was that Calvin or Sadoleto? It was Sadoleto. He had written an essay to the church in Geneva, conveniently, after Calvin had left. One of his main contentions was that the Scriptures principally teach what man should be concerned with. Calvin disagreed with him. He said, "Sadoleto, you're looking at it all wrong. You're starting here on earth. Your theology is all man-centered."

Calvin said that what the Scriptures principally teach is that God alone deserves glory. At the end of the day, what's most important is that God is glorified, not only in his creation but also in his plan of redemption. Calvin said that we lift up the glory of God preeminently in his breathtaking work of taking sinners like me and making us his children.

Calvin was confronting the Roman Catholic church that was robbing the glory of God for itself. Calvin was consumed by a passion for the glory of God. He believed, "Once a Christian saw the glory of God as central, then a proper discussion of salvation could follow."

One of Calvin's responses to Sadoleto is particularly revealing. He wrote that "we are born first of all for God and not for ourselves." Calvin believed God's glory was most tangibly seen in the work of salvation. He argued that a correct understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith alone was central. He argued that for God to be glorified in the saving work of his children, two things need to happen. First, a sinner must come to see his utter helplessness and utter hopelessness and the coming judgment. Second, the knowledge of God's way of salvation.

Calvin told Sadoleto that faith was the only instrument by which one receives salvation. He demonstrated that the result of faith was great peace and assurance for the Christian.

God's glory, seen in the salvation of hopeless sinners, through the work of Jesus on the cross, received through faith alone, was the ultimate revelation of God himself giving himself glory. God's glory fueled Calvin's passion, it motivated Calvin's pen, and it gave Calvin peace.

Calvin's first exile from France to Geneva came to an end by an exile to Straussburg at 28 years old. He had become a pilgrim again. Calvin continued to trust in his God. He continued to look above by faith for his encouragement.

Kim Guan He became a believer when he was 13 years old and he was banished by his mother. When I interviewed him, he said that he knew that God would never leave him or forsake him. He eventually led his mother to Christ through his faithful, humble, diligent commitment to the Lord and to his cause.

This leads us to the second stop on our journey. Calvin desired to make God known as a shepherd and student of the church and the world. As I stated earlier, Calvin was a faith-possessed pilgrim with a singular passion to know God and make him known. Calvin did this primarily through his pastoral ministry. During Calvin's time in Geneva he ministered to a community of Protestant French refugees. These refugees didn't know how difficult life would be. So Calvin, a pilgrim, became a shepherd to fellow pilgrims.

There were two main foundational themes to Calvin's ministry. First, the doctrine of providence and the importance of providence for the Christian life. Second, his theology of worship.

What drove Calvin as a shepherd? He was not unaccustomed to suffering himself and he himself had to make sense out of why bad things happen to good people. He had profound teaching on the doctrine of providence. Fleeing persecution at 25 years old he wanted to be a scholar, but he learned that God had other plans. However, William Farrell got a hold of him. He told Calvin to stay and to help him pastor. He stayed, and though his first stage of ministry was short, he ended up being in Geneva for a total of over two decades.

Calvin believed that the doctrine of providence was a very practical reality that every Christian needed to know and embrace. God's care was powerful, purposeful, and personal. Calvin knew that God was intimately involved in the affairs of his creation. Calvin also knew that God had a purpose for the universe. After creation and the fall comes the work of redemption. And there will come a day when all your tears will be wiped away. When you realize that God is purposeful, then no matter what happens in your life you can persevere.

Calvin encouraged Christian pilgrims who struggled to turn to their sovereign Father and cry out to him in faith.

When my two daughters were younger, often they would fight. I would have to punish them. In my home the way we would punish them was with a Korean shoe horn. It was actually quite effective. One of the first things I would do was tell my daughter to go get the shoe horn. She would begin to cry and I would tell her that I needed to punish her as a loving Father. She got the shoe horn and brought it to me. It had her lay down and she looked up at me and cried, "Daddy, do you love me?" When I thought about it, that question made sense. How often in life do we feel that we are being spanked by the Lord. How often do we cry out, "Daddy, do you love me? Because I can't understand why this is happening to me if you love me." When we cry out to God like this, Calvin said that God would reassure you about his care for you. He told them to remember that God loves them and that he has a purpose for their lives, even in their current circumstances.

Why do I care about Calvin? Because he helps me see that when we cry out to God in faith, not only will God's glory shine forth but we will experience his care for us.

In the most bitter afflictions, Calvin wrote that the Christian could turn to God in prayer. God is powerful, personal, and purposeful. So pray pilgrim. Pray.

Calvin said there was another way to receive blessing from God: go to church. It is in the church where the primary means of grace is given to you. God meets with his people in worship primarily in two ways: through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments.

I think our church is losing the essence of biblical Christianity. Calvin didn't want to create Calvinists. He wanted to produce biblical Christians. And as he sought to do this, he said that the means of grace are the most important things that the church is to do.

Calvin's health was never that great. He identified with people who suffered. At 31 Calvin married the love of his life. Less than nine years later she died.

Calvin was physically tormented. He was emotionally grieving. He lost his wife and his only child. He had friends who were dying because of the gospel that he preached.

I'd like to end by telling you the finishing story of Kim Guan He. We left him at 13 years old having just become a Christian. Kim studied diligently and eventually got accepted to the most prestigious university in Korea. Since he only had a 50% scholarship he knew he couldn't pay his way through. So he decided to visit his father, thinking he would be proud of his acceptance. He asked if his father could help with his tuition. No response. His father just turned to his assistant and said, "Tell this young man to leave. I have no son." Stunned, Kim left.

I asked, "Were you angry?" Kim turned and thought for a moment. He said, "Of course I was angry. Of course I was sad. Of course I was bitter. But what could I do?" He was hurt, but he said later that it was his faith in God that kept him going. Over the course of his life he tried to visit his father. One day his cousin called and said his father was dying and asked if he could come and pay his last respects. Kim made the trip and said 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 that 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. He loved me so much that he sacrificed his only son as a sacrifice for me. If you believe in him, Father, you can have eternal life. You never gave me anything in this life, Father. But this is what I want to give you: the opportunity to believe in Jesus." It was only through the gospel that Kim could say that to his father.

Kim Guan He would eventually immigrate to the U.S. where he would try to give a better life to his son. A life not filled with exile. He wanted to introduce his son to another man named Jesus.

Kim Guan He is my father. Let's pray.

is president of The Gospel Coalition. He also serves as associate pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in Escondido, California, and as visiting professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California.