Much has been written about the life of John Calvin, especially in the last year or two with the celebration of the Genevan reformer’s 500th birthday. This article is not intended to be an exhaustive examination of his entire life. There is already a wealth of material which does that. I would suggest that the interested young reader pick up Thea Van Halsema’s easily accessible book, This Was John Calvin, or reread Prof. H. Hanko’s Portrait of Faithful Saints on Calvin. The focus of this article is the astounding work of God in John Calvin when he was just a young man. Like his spiritual brothers Timothy and Athanasius, Calvin was used by God to perform astounding works at a very young age.
Calvin was born in the town of Noyon in northern France on July 10, 1509. (Martin Luther was already a young man of twenty-five at the time.) Calvin’s mother died when he was just a young boy. His father Gerard, legal and financial advisor to the Catholic clergy in Noyon, later remarried. Thanks to his father’s many connections, young John spent quite a bit of time with the sons of rich families in the area. Together they received the finest of educations. With these bourgeoisie boys, Calvin left Noyon and went to study in Paris sometime between the years 1521 and 1523. Calvin would have only been between the ages of twelve and fourteen at the time.
Calvin initial desire was to study to be a priest in the Catholic Church. Holding a church office could be a very lucrative position in those days. His father, the church lawyer and accountant, could attest to that. But it was his father who told John to abandon the idea of studying for church office. Maybe Gerard saw the corruption and deceit that festered among the Catholic clergy. Or maybe he felt that his son could make more money as a lawyer. Either way, Calvin was soon on his way to a degree in law.
However, like most typical college students, Calvin’s “major” changed once again. This time it was back to theology and the pursuit of church office. Calvin’s father had died in 1531, so Calvin was no longer obligated to study law. He could freely pursue his first love: theology.
In 1531, Calvin was only twenty-two years old. The Protestant Reformation, at fourteen years of age, was even younger. Calvin no doubt knew about the Reformation and had heard the name Luther kicked around, but he had always seen himself as a loyal member of the Roman Catholic Church. But God changed all this. Listen to Calvin:
To this pursuit [the study of law—JDE] I endeavoured faithfully to apply myself, in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by the secret guidance of his providence, at length gave different direction to my course. And first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life.
God so worked in the heart of Calvin, that he forsook the cold, poisonous errors of Rome and grasped the heart-warming doctrines of the Reformation.
Calvin’s new faith was not popular in his native France, a fact which he soon came to realize. Under the threat of persecution, Calvin was forced to flee France in 1533. He traveled throughout Europe for the next few years, studying and growing in his knowledge of the Word of God.
But Calvin was not just studying. He was writing too, writing what would become one of the greatest works of all time, a work that would shape the Reformed faith: the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin wrote this statement of the true Christian faith in order to persuade the ungodly rulers of France to call a halt to the persecution. He wanted to make it clear to them that those whom they were persecuting and driving out of the country were not a political threat. He wanted to set forth in clear language what these Reformed men and women truly believed.
The first edition of the Institutes appeared in 1536, but Calvin probably had it finished already in 1535. Do the math a minute: 1535–1509. Calvin wrote this bold, clear explanation of the truth when he was only twenty-six years old! Twenty-six! What makes this even more astounding, if that is possible, is the fact that Calvin had only been converted to the Reformed faith a few years before.
Was Calvin too young? Was he too inexperienced for such a task? From an earthly point of view it certainly seems like it. Of all people, a twenty-something-year-old man does not seem very qualified to write such a confession. Add to that the fact that he was only recently converted and it all seems quite preposterous. But Calvin was not too young, nor was he too inexperienced. God guided and directed the course of his entire life, thus preparing him to do this work when he was still just a young man.
After the publication of the immensely popular Institutes, Calvin became fairly well-known throughout Europe. This notoriety was at complete odds with Calvin’s personality. By nature he was an introvert, a thinker, a scholar. He preferred the quiet study of the ivory tower as opposed to the glare of the limelight. He did not want to take up a public position of leadership against Rome. He hoped to remain hidden in the shadows.
This was not, however, God’s plan for John Calvin. God had ordained him to be a mighty leader, and he used a fiery man by the name of William Farel to impress this upon young John. During 1536, Calvin ended up, in the good providence of God, spending the night in the city of Geneva, Switzerland. After a night’s rest he intended to leave this city far behind. But Farel, well aware of Calvin’s great abilities and his presence in the city, paid him a visit during the night. He asked Calvin to stay and help him reform Geneva. Calvin politely declined. Farel insisted. Calvin refused. Unwavering, Farel “strained every nerve to detain me” and “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.” Calvin finally gave in and submitted to the request of Farel. He came to realize that God had much work for him to do on behalf of the church.
After a few months of teaching in Geneva, young Calvin was ordained into the ministry there. He worked tirelessly alongside Farel trying to reform the Genevans in both doctrine and in life. Although the city had rejected Rome and declared herself for the Reformation, the people were not receptive to the reforms of Calvin and Farel. Tensions between the citizens and the pastors soon boiled over, and the two men were forced to leave Geneva. That was in April of 1538. Calvin was only twenty-eight.
We highlight the rest of Calvin’s life only briefly. From Geneva Calvin eventually settled in the German city of Strasburg. He lived and labored there in peace for three years. There he met and married a God-fearing woman named Idelette de Bure. Those three years were the happiest times of Calvin’s life. But God still had work for him to do in the city of Geneva. With a heavy heart, Calvin left Strasburg in 1541 and headed back to the pulpit in Geneva. He spent the rest of his life there preaching and teaching and reforming the church until his death on May 27, 1564.
John Calvin was a great man, a great man used by God to lead his beloved sheep out of the ravaging mouths of wolves and prepared by him for this work at a young age. Calvin was young. He was inexperienced. He was naturally bashful and repulsed by the spotlight. To all appearances, he was not cut out for this line of work. But in the eyes of God, Calvin was perfectly prepared for reformation. Sure, Calvin was young when he first took up his labors as a reformer. But, by God’s grace, that did not hinder him. Calvin came to realize this later in life. Commenting on I Timothy 4:12 (“Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers…”), Calvin wrote these words: “Hence we learn that Timothy was still young, though he held a place of distinguished excellence among many pastors; and that it is a grievous mistake to estimate by the number of years how much is due to a person.” That was true of Timothy. It was true of Calvin, too. And it is true of us young people as well.
Believe it, young people!