Humble Calvinism – Part 5

Posted: November 15, 2010 in calvinism, humility, theology

See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Now that we have looked at Calvin’s theology, and its humbling implications, we will turn to the man himself.  The high, majestic, and weighty doctrines just described – doctrines which Calvin so strongly believed and proclaimed – had a practical impact on how he lived.  The great theological truths that he preached were the same truths that he lived: as a pastor, as a husband, as a man, and as a redeemed sinner.  The free grace that God bestowed on him inevitably resulted in he himself becoming supremely gracious.

Calvin’s Life: A Pastor

Calvin was first and foremost a pastor.  Although he wrote prolifically, his primary role was not as a writer nor a scholar.  Calvin faithfully pastored Christ’s church for over 27 years, and spent most of that time with the same congregation in Geneva.[1] He was humbly dedicated to the building up of God’s people on earth, for the sake of His kingdom and His glory.  This humble dedication can be seen in a number of ways, perhaps most clearly in his willingness to submit to the difficult will of God despite his own preferences and struggles.

Calvin began his pastoral career in Geneva but was soon kicked out by the city rulers due to disputes regarding Calvin’s Articles on the Organization of the Church and its Worship in Geneva.[2] Specifically, he would not allow certain citizens to partake of the Lord’s Supper.  Although admitting that he may have been at fault in some matters, Calvin felt wronged in his dismissal by the civil authorities of Geneva.  However, a few years after his expulsion, Geneva wanted him back, recognizing its need for him and his reforms.  In a sarcastic, yet telling, portion of a letter to his close friend Peter Viret, Calvin reveals his intense feelings towards the thought of returning to Geneva:

“I read that passage of your letter, certainly not without a smile, where you show so much concern about my health, and recommend Geneva on that ground!  Why could you not have said at the cross?  For it would have been far preferable to perish once for all than to be tormented again in that place of torture.”[3]

Calvin clearly did not relish the idea of taking up the pastorate once again in the difficult and turbulent town of Geneva.  However, just over a year later in a letter to William Farel, we see Calvin’s amazing humility and submission to God despite his reluctance:

“[H]ad I the choice at my own disposal, nothing would be less agreeable to me than to follow your advice [to return to Geneva].  But when I remember that I am not my own, I offer up my heart, presented as a sacrifice to the Lord…I submit my will and my affections, subdued and held fast, to the obedience of God.”[4]

Despite the difficulties, Calvin humbly submitted to God’s will and returned to Geneva.

Calvin’s humility can also be seen in his pastoral care for his flock.  He deeply cared for the people of Geneva, and was always ready to counsel, encourage, exhort, correct, and at times, rebuke if needed.[5] Six years after his death, Nicholas des Gallars, Calvin’s personal secretary, wrote to the printer Jean Crespin these affectionate words concerning his departed mentor:

“When I look back upon his frankness and integrity, his affectionate benevolence towards me and the familiar intimacy which I enjoyed for sixteen years, I cannot but grieve for my separation from such a friend or, I would say, such a father…No words of mine can declare the fidelity and prudence with which he gave counsel, the kindness with which he received all who came to him, the clearness and promptitude with which he replied to those who asked for his opinion on the most important questions, and the ability with which he disentangled the difficulties and problems which were laid before him.  Nor can I express the gentleness with which he would console the afflicted and raise the fallen and distressed, or his courage in adversity and moderation in prosperity.”[6]

Calvin made it a point to regularly visit his parishioners when they were sick.  The black plague swept through Geneva five times during Calvin’s ministry there.  During the first outbreak in 1542, Calvin personally visited plague victims.  He only ceased going after the city authorities told him to stop for fear of his life.[7]

Calvin’s counseling was most often gracious and pastoral in nature.  It is important to note that his counseling always rested on his theology.  It was only because of who God was that Calvin could offer any hope or consolation to those who were suffering persecution, awaiting martyrdom, grieving the death of a loved one, etc.  God’s absolute sovereignty over all things, good and bad, was the foundation for Calvin’s own confidence, and the confidence that he conveyed to others.  This confidence was that all things were working together for good for God’s children.  He writes in his commentary on the Psalms, “[T]he true security for a happy life lies in being persuaded that we are under divine government.”[8] Later he writes, “[W]e will never be able to arrive at a calm state of mind until we are taught to repose with implicit confidence in the providence of God.”[9] Calvin knew this from his own personal life and experience and from the Word of God.  Thus, he insisted on this truth as the foundation for the Christian’s hope during trials.

Calvin’s counseling often took the form of letters to various people, “kings and commoners alike.”[10] According to Tait,

“The familiarity and affection which characterizes so many of the letters sprang from [Calvin’s] keen awareness of the value of the individual soul in the sight of God.”[11]

Calvin’s compassion for those in distress, regardless of the nature of their trial, is genuine and moving.[12] Yet again, this pastoral love and affection is illustrated in a letter from Louis de Marsac, a fellow believer in prison facing  martyrdom, to Calvin:

Sir and brother…I cannot express to you the great comfort I have received…from the letter which you have sent to my brother Denis Peloquin, who found means to deliver it to one of our brethren who was in a vaulted cell above me, and read it to me aloud, as I could not read it myself, being unable to see anything in my dungeon.  I entreat of you, therefore, to persevere in helping us with similar consolation, for it invites us to weep and to pray.[13]

In a lighter example, when sending a letter to Viret by way of two students, Calvin noticed that the second student was somewhat jealous that he had not been given the privilege and honor of carrying the letter.  So, Calvin sat down and penned a second, fake letter to Viret, in which he asked his friend to pretend that it also contained important information.[14] Examples similar to this abound and powerfully illustrate Calvin’s warm and gracious pastoral heart toward those under his guidance.  Very few of his letters would support the common mischaracterization of Calvin that he was a cold, austere, and harsh man.

Part 6

[1] Harry Reeder in John Calvin: A Heart for Doctrine, Devotion, and Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons, 57.
[2] For a detailed account of the circumstances that led to Calvin’s dismissal, see T.H.L. Parker’s chapter entitled “Genevan Trials”, John Calvin, 73-90.  It is important that Parker notes that Calvin’s strong stances on ecclesiastical polity were not simply for the sake of maintaining his own authority in Geneva.  Rather, “the polity concerned the exercise of his pastoral ministry for the glory of God and the upbuilding of the church,” (80-81).
[3] Letters of John Calvin, 63.
[4] Ibid., 66.
[5] See Sinclair Ferguson’s chapter in  John Calvin: A Heart for Doctrine, Devotion, and Doxology, p. 36-38.  Ferguson lists four ways in which Calvin’s “personal gentleness and tenderness” can be seen: 1. his restraint towards those who opposed him, 2. his empathy for those who suffered, 3. his respect for others, 4. his gracious attitude towards others (37).
[6] Quoted in Ian M. Tait’s article “Calvin’s Ministry of Encouragement”, Presbyterion 11 no 1 Spr 1985, 43.
[7] Harry Reeder,  John Calvin: A Heart for Doctrine, Devotion, and Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons, 65.  Reeder notes that many pastors died because of these visits.  The civil authorities in Geneva recognized Calvin’s importance and refused to let him go.  From this point on, Calvin assumed the role of directing the other pastors in their ministry to the sick.
[8] Quoted in John Calvin: A Heart for Doctrine, Devotion, and Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons, 85.
[9] Ibid., 86.
[10] Ian M. Tait, “Calvin’s Ministry of Encouragement”, Presbyterion 11 no 1 Spr 1985, 64.  Tait notes some examples of who Calvin’s recipients were: “to John Cavent and a hundred others on their respective bereavements, to a young pastor contemplating marriage, to a woman brutally treated by her unconverted husband, to [John] Knox concerning children in the church, to a widow in her perplexity and loneliness, or to a king concerning his unusual responsibilities.”
[11] Ibid., 63.
[12] Ibid., 66-67.
[13] Ibid., 63.
[14] T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin, 172.


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