We may rightly regard Calvin as a hero of the faith, but he didn’t ultimately see himself that way. Humility had taught him to walk modestly before God and others—and, in the end, the freedom to lie down in a forgotten grave.
On May 27, 1564, just after eight o’clock in the evening, a nurse urgently summoned Theodore Beza (1519–1605) to Calvin’s bedside. “We found he had already died,” Calvin’s friend and fellow pastor later wrote. “On that day, then, at the same time with the setting sun, this splendid luminary was withdrawn from us.”1 Calvin was 54 years old.
Calvin’s death sent a shock wave throughout Geneva and beyond. Beza writes, “That night and the following day there was a general lamentation throughout the city . . . all lamenting the loss of one who was, under God, a common parent and comfort.” He records that two days later “the entire city” gathered at the St. Pierre Cathedral to honor their beloved pastor. Despite Calvin’s prominence, the funeral was unusually simple, “with no extraordinary pomp.”2 But Calvin’s burial was particularly unusual.
Eighteen years earlier, on February 18, 1546, fellow Reformer Martin Luther died at the age of 63. As was common practice for ministers, Luther’s remains were interred inside the church where he had faithfully served. His casket lies in Wittenberg’s Castle Church, near the pulpit, seven feet below the floor of the nave. Luther’s successor and fellow Reformer, Philip Melanchthon (1490–1560), is buried beside him.
So also William Farel (1489–1565), who first called Calvin to Geneva in 1536, is buried in the cathedral of Neuchâtel, where he spent the final years of his ministry. When Calvin’s friend and successor Theodore Beza died in 1605, he was buried next to the pulpit of St. Pierre, the Genevan church in which he and Calvin ministered together.
But Calvin’s remains lie elsewhere.
Rather than being interred in St. Pierre, Calvin’s body was carried outside the city wall to a marshy burial ground for commoners called Plainpalais. With close friends in attendance, Calvin’s body was wrapped in a simple shroud, enclosed in a rough casket, and lowered into the earth. Beza writes that Calvin’s plot was unlisted and, “as he [had] commanded, without any gravestone.”3
Why did Calvin command that he be buried, contrary to common practice, in an unmarked grave? Some speculate that he wanted to discourage religious pilgrims from visiting his resting place or to prevent accusations from the Roman church that he desired veneration as a saint.4 But the answer lies somewhere deeper — in Calvin’s understanding of Christian modesty.
Forgotten Meaning of Modesty
When we speak of modesty today, we most often mean dressing or behaving in such a way as to avoid impropriety or indecency. But modesty more generally refers to the quality of being unassuming or moderate in the estimation of oneself. For centuries, the church understood the connection. Immodest dress was not simply ostentatious or sexually suggestive; it reflected an overemphasis on appearance. As Jesus warned, outward appearance can mask impiety (Matthew 6:16) or pride (Luke 18:12).
This is why both Gentile women converts in Ephesus and the Jewish Christians addressed in Hebrews are urged to consider how their outward appearance relates to the disposition of the heart. Excessive adornment could be evidence of self-importance (1 Timothy 2:9). Acceptable worship requires a posture of reverence, not pretension (Hebrews 12:28). Thus, a modest person represents himself neither too highly nor too meanly because he understands both the dignity and the humility of being transformed by the grace of God.
Modesty, then, is simply the outward reflection of true Christian humility. It obliterates pride by embracing the reality that a Christian is both creaturely and beloved. In this light, self-importance becomes absurd. Grandiosity becomes laughable. Celebrity becomes monstrous.
We Are Not Our Own
For Calvin, the gospel radically reshapes our view of self. As those created in God’s image, provisioned by his goodness, redeemed by his mercy, transformed by his grace, and called to his mission, those who belong to Christ no longer live for themselves. “Now the great thing is this,” Calvin writes, “we are consecrated and dedicated to God in order that we may thereafter think, speak, meditate, and do, nothing except to his glory.” Calvin continues,