13 March 2009

The Extraordinary Life of John Calvin, Steven Lawson (PCRT 2009 Sacramento)

by Dan Phillips

This session was presented at 9:45am on Friday the 13th. (I'll let you know if hockey masks show up.)

At last, a Baptist! Lawson pastors in Alabama, and is a graduate of Texas Tech University, Dallas Theological Seminary, and Reformed Theological seminary. Dr. Lawson has authored fifteen books. Phillips introduced him heartily, and Lawson took the podium.

Lawson chuckled that Phillips' message left him really wanting to preach the Word — and now he has to do church history! But it is fitting nonetheless, because Calvin was head and shoulders a man of the Word. (And, I'd say, Lawson preached, regardless!)

It is hard to put one's arms around Calvin; it is like putting one's arms around the Pacific Ocean. So Lawson proposed to focus, in his lectures, on three categories, beginning with Calvin's extraordinary life, identifying key components and vital issues. Then we'll treat of Calvin's expository genius, and then Calvin's enduring legacy.

To overlook Calvin's influence is like hiding one's head in the sand. Calvin's influence towers over all. Schaff identifies's the Reformation as the second most important event to Christ's life itself, and at the center of the Reformation stands John Calvin, the greatest theologian since the apostles, and the greatest influence on the church since Peter and Paul. Spurgeon said that, among all those born of women, there has not arisen one greater than Calvin. Lawson defined Calvin's life under eight headings of thought.

First, Calvin was a genuine believer who'd been converted by the true Gospel. He may have encountered the Gospel as he studied Greek. Calvin very seldom talked about himself; most prominently in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms. Lawson dates his conversion at age 24, in 1533. Calvin calls it a "sudden" conversion, in which his previously Popery-enslaved and hardened mind was brought to a teachable frame, vulnerable to God's Word. So Calvin's personal seal, his logo, was a hand holding a heart, reaching up to Heaven. That was Calvin's heart towards God.

Second, a brilliant teacher. People gathered around him immediately. He studied deeply, furthering his previous preparation. Calvin was more of an introvert than Luther, calling himself "bashful" and "loving the shade and retirement," a man who wanted to seek "some secluded corner." Went to settle at Basel after being one year, and at age 25 began writing the Institutes. Spurgeon said that Calvin propounded the truth more clearly than any man who ever breathed, Schaff called him the king of commentators, and John Murray said Calvin was the exegete of the Reformation.

Third, a faithful pastor. Pastored half of his life: 27 years, serving three pastorates, of which two were in Geneva, where he arrived in 1536. Calvin hadn't even sought that position, but was spotted as the author of the Institutes. Farel pled with him to teach, which Farel knew wasn't his own strength. Farel actually brought a curse from God on Calvin, if Calvin did not agree to minister there! So first Calvin lectured, then he pastored, then he began reforming the church — and that's where he got in trouble.

Calvin"fenced the Table," and refused in 1538 to serve the Supper to certain people living in public sin and disgrace. He and Farel were banned from Geneva, and Calvin was okay with that. Now he could just study and write! Ah, but Bucer pressed him to pastor once again, threatening him with Jonah's fate if Calvin refused. He did not. His ministry there was the happiest period of his write. Wrote his first commentary, on Romans; enlarged the Institutes; married a widow.

But then Geneva wrote and begged him to return. Calvin said he'd rather die a thousand deaths than return — but they prevailed, and committed himself to the Lord, though confessing he feared Geneva more than any other place on earth. So, in 1541, he resumed his exposition in the next verse from where he'd left off previously. Calvin's first fourteen years were years of opposition! The Old Guard, the Libertines, Servetus, all opposed him. Then, in 1555, fruit began to show, and he had nine brighter years.

Fourth, a prolific author. The Institutes were published when he was 27, and they grew with revisions from 85,000 to 450.000 words. The commentaries were his largest undertaking; 45 large volumes of over 400 pages each. Got 75% of the Bible done. Sermons and letters were printed; catechisms; confession of faith; devotionals, church order - in all, his collected writings fill 59 large volumes.

Fifth, a zealous reformer. Truth had to have an impact, not remain a theory. When he returned to pastor Geneva, Calvin demanded that they correct the disorder of their lives, banish the prevalent crimes and debaucheries, and IDed the principle enemies of the Gospel to be not popes or tyrants but bad Christians! Wicked lives undo pure doctrine. That is when he listed the marks of a church as pure preaching, ordinances, and church discipline.

Sixth, a visionary educator, establishing the Geneva Academy in 1559. It had a private school and a seminary. Knew the importance of loving God with a renewed mind educated in the Word of God. Had 1200 junior students, and 300 seminarians when he died. John Knox had attended there.

Seventh, a vibrant church planter, very missions-minded. He sent out 88 missionaries from Geneva that were known, but many more not known, for their own safety. His lecture-hall became known as "Calvin's School of Death," because his students were filled with Gospel truth and felt convicted to go back to their Gospel-hating countries to preach and teach it. Back to France his students went, knowing they were going to certain death. Calvinistic teaching took root in France, and the Gospel was published increasingly, with growing fruit.

Eighth, an indomitable worker. Calvin was tireless and unwavering in his focus. Lectured three times a week in the auditorium, consulted with kings and princes by correspondence, received exiles personally and worked with them, met 1x/week with elders and another time with pastors, performed weddings and funerals; and dealt with enemies of Gospel.

He was much-abused in Geneva. Calvin was shot at, threatened, mocked, insulted publicly; once Libertines stormed into church and threatened him with drawn swords, demanding that he serve them Communion - and he refused! Had many health problems including kidney stones, gout, migraines, and many other ailments. He became such an invalid that he had to be carried to the pulpit - but nothing stopped him until death stopped him at age 54, dying in the arms of Theodore Beza. Calvin died with the Psalms on his lips: "How long, oh Lord?"

Beza knew him, and said Calvin gave an example of Christian character that was "as easy to slander as it is difficult to emulate."

Dan Phillips's signature


Herding Grasshoppers said...

Wow, Dan.

Thanks for extending the benefits of the conference to the rest of us.

You deserve an award for Flying Fingers!

Sam said...

I like the way Karl Barth puts it:

"Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately. What I receive is only a thin little stream and what I can then give out again is only a yet thinner extract of this little stream. I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin”

'Nuff said.

Daniel said...

I liked the last line the best (the quote from Beza).

Great summary man!

Leberwurst said...

That Calvin, (and by extension Calvinists) he never did anything to spread the Gospel...

Anonymous said...

I like Calvin for the most part....

The main issue I have with him, was that he made Geneva a little too theocratical.

Don't get me wrong, rule by God is good. But I think Calvin did put too many rules forward that were based more on opinion than Scripture.

Cool post though.

Stefan Ewing said...


It's paradoxical, isn't it?

If it hadn't been for the support of princes and republics—and their sometimes political aims in bucking Rome—the Reformation simply wouldn't have happened as it did.

And yet, we have ample evidence from the last 2000 years that state support of a particular church can lead to all kinds of problems, starting with Constantine, and including the Reformation itself.

Stefan Ewing said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stefan Ewing said...

While I stand by my last comment, the Q & A post makes it clear that the relationship between Calvin and Geneva was more complex than it might at first seem....

Anonymous said...

Oh, no doubt.

Like I said, I don't think Calvin was a terrible person or anything like that.

However I do think he made many mistakes.

God bless.