Today I’m continuing a short series on the Reformers. The aim of the series is to point out why we love and respect these men, but at the same time, we should not hold them up to an unhealthy level of adoration and appreciation. The Reformers accomplished many things for the glory of God, but like us all, they were born with feet of clay.
John Calvin stands as a giant of church history. His name stands as the headline for a system of theology—Calvinism, although he never invented it or organized any system under his personal name. He was a prolific author, a noted theologian with a brilliant mind, a fearless leader, and a powerful expositor of God’s Word. Steven Lawson has stated that if Martin Luther was the hammer of the Reformation, John Calvin was the pen.  Although many people have hailed John Calvin as a hero of church history, some have, to the same degree, sought to vilify him as a monster. Many people who write blog posts about Calvin or form negative positions about the man have never read one paragraph from his Institutes, one sentence from his commentaries, or read one of his many sermons. They simply believe lies about John Calvin, a man who was used by God in the days of the great Reformation. While Calvin was certainly no monster, he was also not a superhero. Calvin was a real man who did many great things, but he should not be worshipped because he had feet of imperfect clay.
John Calvin was born on July 10th, 1509, in Noyon, France. Martin Luther was 25 years old at the time of Calvin’s birth. When he was 14, Calvin’s father sent him to study theology at the University of Paris. He would later leave to study law for a period of about three years. He mastered Greek and completed his study of law. After the death of his father at the age of 21, Calvin started feeling the need to turn back to his pursuits in theology. Over the next couple of years, Calvin would be born again. From this point forward, Calvin’s heart would be devoted to the study of God’s Word and through this one man, the world would be impacted with the gospel.
Calvin and his Preaching
Calvin’s resume is quite impressive. He stood in great opposition to the Roman Catholic Church and the perversion of God’s grace. Calvin was many things, but at the heart of his ministry, he was a preacher. Calvin labored tirelessly for 12-18 hours per day in God’s Word. He would preach nearly ten sermons every two weeks and all of it was exposition—nothing superficial and topical. Consider his preaching ministry:
- He began his series through Acts in 1549. He completed it in 1554.
- He preached 46 sermons through 1 and 2 Thessalonians.
- 1 and 2 Corinthians – 186 sermons.
- He preached 86 sermons through the pastoral epistles.
- His series through Galatians was 43 sermons.
- He preached 48 sermons through Ephesians.
- 159 sermons through Job. Many modern preachers haven’t preached one sermon from a text in Job.
- His series through Deuteronomy was 200 sermons long.
- He labored through Isaiah in 353 sermons.
- His series through Genesis was 123 sermons in length.
We get a glimpse into his commitment to expository preaching as he finished his sermon on Easter in 1538 and was banished by the City Council from his pulpit. He would not return for more than three years. On the first Sunday back in the pulpit, he picked up in the very next verse. He was making a clear statement. He wasn’t finished. His work was not complete.
Calvin and his Writing
Before being thrust into the pulpit, Calvin planned to fan the flame of the Reformation through the power of the pen. He felt that he was most suited for writing. After being converted at the age of 24, he would take up a pen and write his famous Institutes at the age of 25. One year after it was completed, in March of 1536, the first edition of the Institutes were published. Over the next twenty three years, the Institutes would go through five substantial revisions and enlargements until it was finally complete in 1559.
Calvin would write a substantial commentary on almost every book in the New Testament and many from the Old Testament. Calvin covered 75% of the Bible in his commentaries. He was a prolific author who wrote many tracts, treatises, confessions, and contributed to the study notes of the 1560 Geneva Bible that was brought to America on the Mayflower.
Calvin and his Zeal for Missions
As Calvin’s preaching thundered from his pulpit in Geneva, he was preparing men to go plant churches in France, and at times, die for their faith in Christ. He organized, trained, developed, and sent out hundreds of these zealous hearted missionaries who proclaimed the good news of the gospel. These missionaries stood upon the firm foundation of a robust sovereign grace.
As these men were convinced of God’s sovereignty in salvation, such knowledge became the fuel in the furnace of their hearts as they went out to plant churches and preach the gospel. By 1562, Calvin (with the aid of other surrounding cities) had planted over 2,000 churches in France. Some of the missionaries who were sent out from Calvin’s church died as martyrs. Edward Panosian writes the following:
From that city [Geneva], hundreds of missionaries, evangelists, and pastors traveled to all corners of the continent preaching the gospel. Their efforts, sometimes sealed with a martyr’s blood but always crowned with success, thrilled Calvin. 
Harry R. Leader points out that “Calvin’s beloved France, through his ministry, was invaded by more than thirteen hundred Geneva-trained missionaries.”  The point is clear, John Calvin, the very man who is often accused of being lifeless and cold in the area of missions, had a burning heart for souls to be saved by Jesus Christ and trained thousands of missionaries and sent them out from Geneva.
Calvin and his Feet of Clay
John Calvin is often misunderstood and misrepresented. He has been accused of being the “cruel and unopposed dictator of Geneva.”  He is often accused of being a murderer who burned people at the stake for disagreeing with him. Not only is that a misrepresentation of John Calvin, it’s a historical inaccuracy and intellectual dishonesty. Michael Servetus was a Spanish theologian and physician who lived from 1511-1553. He had developed a doctrinal heresy and proved to be a false disciple. In short, Servetus was a heretic who was disrupting the Reformation.
Although Servetus was burned at the stake, it was not based on Calvin’s will alone. He had been arrested in Geneva as he was on the run as a criminal, Calvin did consent to his death, but the context of Geneva was one where the church and the state were interwoven during the sixteenth century. To call Calvin a murderer for the fact that a criminal received the death penalty is a gross error and historical falsehood.
Calvin’s Imperfect Tongue: Although John Calvin is free from murder in the case of Servetus, he did at times have a tongue that was sharp. He referred to Menno Simons by stating, “Nothing could be prouder, nothing more impudent than this donkey.”  Calvin is quoted as stating some things about the Jews that are not exactly pleasant to say the least. What can we learn here? We can learn that Calvin was not perfect. Calvin was a man with imperfect flesh, imperfect tongue, and as we shall see in his theology—an imperfect theology.
Calvin’s Imperfect Theology of Baptism: From a Baptist perspective, I would argue that Calvin’s theology of baptism was not pristine. Although he practiced the mode of pedobaptism (the sprinkling of infants), he once stated, “The word baptize means to immerse. It is certain that immersion was the practice of the early church.”  As we know, just as all Presbyterians, Calvin was saying something far different in infant baptism than the Roman Catholic Church, it seems inconsistent to believe the early church practiced immersion in baptism while actively committed to pedobaptism.
Calvin’s Imperfect Theology of the Lord’s Supper: Although the Reformed position views the Lord’s Supper as more than an “imagination” or “reflection” — Calvin seemed to press the issue too far at times in his opposition to Zwingli which positioned him far too close to Lutheran theology (consubstantiation). John Calvin writes:
We must confess, then, that if the representation which God gives us in the Supper is true, the internal substance of the sacrament is conjoined with the visible signs; and as the bread is distributed to us by the hand, so the body of Christ is communicated to us in order that we may be made partakers of it. 
At one point, Calvin asserted that when we receive the bread and wine, “let us no less surely trust that the body itself is also given to us.”  For Calvin, the signs and the things signified must be distinguished without true separation. Although Calvin rejected the false doctrine of transubstantiation, he did see the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper in a different manner and for a different purpose. In order to reach his position, he entered the theological debate of his day by embracing the locality of Jesus during the Lord’s Supper under specific language. The Roman Catholic Church speaks of the real presence, but for Calvin, Christ’s human body is locally present in heaven, but it does not have to descend to the alter of the Lord’s Supper table in order for believers to partake of it. This is based on his understanding of how the Holy Spirit is involved in the worship of Christ at the Lord’s Supper. Calvin stated:
But we must establish such a presence of Christ in the Supper as may neither fasten him to the element of bread, nor enclose him in bread, nor circumscribe him in any way (all which things, it is clear, detract from his heavenly glory). 
In short, Calvin firmly rejected the Roman Catholic’s position of Jesus’ actual bodily presence in an ongoing atoning sacrifice. Calvin explain that the Lord “has given us a table at which to feast, not an altar on which a victim is to be offered; He has not consecrated priests to make sacrifice, but servants to distribute the sacred feast.”  Calvin wanted to protect the Lord’s Supper, and that’s why he defended the Lord’s Supper from vile men who sought to defile the Lord’s Table.
A controversy had arisen among Calvin and the Council of the city who overturned a ruling of the church to prevent a man from observing the Lord’s Supper. He was known to be living in open sexual sin (known as the Libertines), and this grieved Calvin’s heart. He protested the Council’s decision, but went on to preach on the Lord’s Day. When the sermon was finished and following a time of prayer, he descended from his lofty pulpit to the Lord’s table. The man who was under discipline was in the church on that particular day with his friends.
After Calvin fenced the table, a sudden rush came from the trouble makers toward the Lord’s table. They insisted that they would partake of the Lord’s Supper. Calvin protested as he flung himself around the vessels containing the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Calvin’s voice echoed through the congregation, “These hands you may crush, these arms you may lop off, my life you may take, my blood is yours, you may shed it; but you shall never force me to give holy things to the profaned, and dishonor the table of my God.”  According to Theodore Beza, Calvin’s first biographer, after this protest by Calvin, “the sacred ordinance was celebrated with a profound silence, and under solemn awe in all present, as if the Deity Himself had been visible among them.” 
At one point, we question Calvin on the Lord’s Supper and at other points we applaud him. No matter what you think of John Calvin the preacher, the disciple of missionaries, the pastor, or the theologian—it must be noted that he was a giant of his day and for that very reason, he has not been lost in the pages of history. We still have Calvin with us today, and it’s not because of some evil that he did, as some seem to purport. It’s because of his gifts given to him by the Holy Spirit and how he used them for the glory of God. John Calvin was a real man, a real sinner, and he certainly held to positions that were, at times inconsistent, and imperfect.
When we examine Calvin’s life, we find chinks in his armor, but he should not be vilified. On the flip side of the equation, Calvin should not be worshipped. He should be respected and appreciated, but as Calvin would direct us, our worship should be directed toward God. Charles Spurgeon, a man of great respect once said the following about John Calvin:
Among all those who have been born of women, there has not risen a greater than John Calvin; no age, before him ever produced his equal, and no age afterwards has seen his rival. In theology, he stands alone, shining like a bright fixed star, while other leaders and teachers can only circle round him, at a great distance — as comets go streaming through space — with nothing like his glory or his permanence…the longer I live the clearer does it appear that John Calvin’s system is the nearest to perfection.
- Steven Lawson, John Knox, (Scotland, U.K.: Christian Focus Publications, 2017), 15.
- Edward Panosian, “John Calvin: The Theologian” in Faith of Our Fathers, ed. James Cardinal Gibbons, (New York: Aeterna Press, 2015), 109.
- Harry R. Leader, “The Churchman of the Reformation” in John Calvin: A Heart for Doctrine and Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons, (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust, 2008), 68.
- From ‘John Calvin’ in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by FL Cross and EA Livingstone, (OUP: New York, 1974, 2nd ed.), 223.
- Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII, p. 594ff. Schaff cites The Secret of the Strength by Peter Hoover, p. 63; Calvin, IV, 176; HRE XII, 592.
- See “Is Infant Baptist Biblical?” sermon, by: John MacArthur,
- John Calvin, Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper, 17.
- John Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.10.
- Ibid., 4.18.12.
- Ibid., 4.17.19.
- David Mathis, “The Fateful Years: Life of Calvin, Part 8” – DesiringGod.org
- John Piper, John Calvin and his Passion for the Majesty of God, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), 43.