The issue for Calvin was not, ﬁrst, the well-known sticking points of the Reformation: justiﬁcation, priestly abuses, transubstantiation, prayers to saints, and papal authority. All those would come in for discussion. But beneath all of them, the fundamental issue for Calvin, from the beginning to the end of his life, was the issue of the centrality and supremacy and majesty of the glory of God.
In 1538, the Italian Cardinal Sadolet wrote to the leaders of Geneva trying to win them back to the Roman Catholic Church after they had turned to the Reformed teachings. John Calvin’s response to Sadolet uncovers the root of Calvin’s quarrel with Rome that would determine his whole life.
Here’s what Calvin wrote to the cardinal: “[Your] zeal for heavenly life [is] a zeal which keeps a man entirely devoted to himself, and does not, even by one expression, arouse him to sanctify the name of God” (John Calvin: Selections from His Writings, 89). The issue for Calvin was not, ﬁrst, the well-known sticking points of the Reformation: justiﬁcation, priestly abuses, transubstantiation, prayers to saints, and papal authority. All those would come in for discussion. But beneath all of them, the fundamental issue for Calvin, from the beginning to the end of his life, was the issue of the centrality and supremacy and majesty of the glory of God.
Calvin goes on and says to Sadolet that what he should do — and what Calvin aims to do with all his life — is “set before [man], as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God” (Selections, 89). This would be a ﬁtting banner over all of John Calvin’s life and work — zeal to illustrate the glory of God. The essential meaning of Calvin’s life and preaching is that he recovered and embodied a passion for the absolute reality and majesty of God.
Captive to Glory
What happened to John Calvin to make him a man so mastered by the majesty of God? And what kind of ministry did this produce in his life?
He was born July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France, when Martin Luther was 25 years old and had just begun to teach the Bible in Wittenberg. When he was 14, his father sent him to study theology at the University of Paris, which at that time was untouched by the Reformation and steeped in Medieval theology. But ﬁve years later (when Calvin was 19), his father ran afoul of the church and told his son to leave theology and study law, which he did for the next three years at Orleans and Bourges.
His father died in May of 1531, when Calvin was 21. Calvin felt free then to turn from law to his ﬁrst love, which had become the classics. He published his first book, a commentary on Seneca, in 1532, at the age of 23. But sometime during these years he was coming into contact with the message and the spirit of the Reformation, and by 1533 something dramatic had happened in his life.
Calvin recounts, seven years later, how his conversion came about. He describes how he had been struggling to live out the Catholic faith with zeal when
I at length perceived, as if light had broken in upon me, in what a sty of error I had wallowed, and how much pollution and impurity I had thereby contracted. Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen . . . as in duty bound, [I] made it my ﬁrst business to betake myself to thy way [O God], condemning my past life, not without groans and tears.
God, by a sudden conversion, subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame. . . . Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inﬂamed with [an] intense desire to make progress. (Selections, 26)
What was the foundation of Calvin’s faith that yielded a life devoted utterly to displaying the glory and majesty of God? The answer seems to be that Calvin suddenly, as he says, saw and tasted in Scripture the majesty of God. And in that moment, both God and the word of God were so powerfully and unquestionably authenticated to his soul that he became the loving servant of God and his word the rest of his life. Henceforth he would be a man utterly devoted to displaying the majesty of God by the exposition of the word of God.
Compelled to Geneva
What form would that ministry take? Calvin knew what he wanted. He wanted the enjoyment of literary ease so he could promote the Reformed faith as a literary scholar. That is what he thought he was cut out for by nature. But God had radically different plans.
In 1536, Calvin left France, taking his brother Antoine and sister Marie with him. He intended to go to Strasbourg and devote himself to a life of peaceful literary production. But one night, as Calvin stayed in Geneva, William Farel, the ﬁery leader of the Reformation in that city, found out he was there and sought him out. It was a meeting that changed the course of history, not just for Geneva, but for the world. Calvin tells us what happened in his preface to his commentary on Psalms:
Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies, for which I wished to keep myself free from other pursuits, and ﬁnding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquillity of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken. (Selections, 28)