This is not an article about Calvinism. This is about John Calvin himself.
The influence of the 16th century French Protestant reformer, theologian and pastor is remarkable. People often admire his many accomplishments but dismiss him as a boring, cold, hard man who sucked the joy out of the city of Geneva, the city where he had immense influence. But of course, I disagree with those, and there are reasons why I, a 21st century British Iranian Christian woman, find John Calvin to be admirable and inspiring.
He was bold
Calvin wrote The Institutes of the Christian Religion at a dangerous time. If declared a heretic, his life would have been at risk. In Institutes, he heavily criticised the Roman Catholic Church and it is apparent in his writings that he cared little for the traditions of churches or men.
Calvin was interested in solid biblical doctrine and faithful commitment to the scripture. He was a faithful preacher. You could have persecuted him, called him judgemental, cold, mean, arrogant or whatnot but you weren’t going to shut him up. He preached Christ. He once said:
A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.
He valued obedience to God
Calvin’s desire to be obedient to the will of God regardless of how he personally felt is quite simply, beautiful. When going to Strasbourg, he was forced to go to Geneva due to a local war. He intended to stay for a single night only, as a pit-stop. William Farel, who was a pastor of a reformed church at the time, plead with Calvin to stay in Geneva and assist him. Farel and Calvin were later banished from Geneva but political unrest caused the council to invite Calvin back. He wrote to Farel that he didn’t wish to return but nevertheless, he wished to be obedient to God:
But because I know that I am not my own master, I offer my heart as a true sacrifice to the Lord.
Calvin could have chosen his own comfort but he knew where he was needed and he knew that God is God.
He was a very afflicted yet strong man
Calvin’s sufferings were many, from ongoing ill health, to tragedies such as the death of his children during infancy, to social and political pressure. In all his troubles, he did not grow lazy. He relied on the grace of God to complete his work and to be productive in God’s kingdom. He was eager to be fruitful. What inspires me most is his faith in the sovereignty of God. Calvin well understood that although he might not understand, God has decreed for him to suffer for some time. Calvin knew this was ultimately for his good (see: Romans 8:28 & Genesis 50:20) and said:
Thou, O Lord, thou bruises me, it is enough for me to know it is thy hand.
The fact that God is sovereign comforted John Calvin in his times of trouble.
He had a heart for people
Calvin’s critics love to blacken his name by blaming him for the death of Michael Servetus, who was burned at the stake following Geneva’s city council’s declaration that Servetus was a heretic.
The context of the event is that Servetus had denied the trinity, a capital offence in 16th century Europe and he was already condemned to death before he got to Geneva. Prior to this, he had initiated and exchanged correspondence with Calvin regarding biblical doctrines. Servetus was fleeing to Italy but for some reason headed to Geneva. In Geneva, the city council, after a trial, found Servetus guilty and sentenced him to be burned at the stake. Calvin spent time with Servetus in prison, praying with and for him, hoping he would see the light of the gospel and recant his statements but this was to no avail. In a letter, Calvin wrote:
I reminded him gently how I had risked my life more than sixteen years before to gain him for our saviour. I would faithfully do my best to reconcile him to all good servants of God.
It’s good to remember that Calvin was also a pastor. He cared for the souls of others. Like any good pastor, he extended himself and put aside his own comfort in order to spread the gospel.
John Calvin’s accomplishments were extraordinary but what I admire most of all is his zeal for the glory of God.