John Calvin

“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.”

John Calvin (1509- 1564) was no coward. He was a scholar more comfortable in a library than on a public stage. When the call came to defend the truth of God’s word, he joined the battle, fighting his personal feelings sure he was called by from God. Comfort was not the issue. Calvin knew: “...there is no one so great or mighty that he can avoid the misery that will rise up against him when he resists and strives against God. God called, John Calvin accepted the call. It would not be easy; his roots were firmly in Roman Catholicism.

Early Life

John Calvin was born in Noyon, France, in 1509, when Martin Luther was 25 years old. He studied law, theology, and the classics at the best universities in France. Raised in a devout Catholic home, he saw himself as a faithful son of the church. His father was a lawyer and the family was fairly well off. He was gifted with a brilliant mind which God would use mightily. He went to Paris at age 14 to prepare for University planning to become a priest in the Roman Catholic tradition. While still in his teens, he began the study of law at the University of Orleans. (Calvin’s Father decided he should study law rather than religion.) By 1527, he made friends influenced by Luther’s reforms, and they began to influence him. This created conflict in his mind raising questions about the faith in which he’d been raised.

Crisis of Conscience

God uses people to do his will. A chance encounter on a street with an old man and Calvin’s beloved friend and cousin, Peter Robert, created a crisis of conscience in the young John Calvin. This crisis caused him to question everything he’d been taught as a devout Catholic. The old man had grabbed him suddenly, one night on the street by his neck after dark, and asked him, “Young Man, have you heard of God’s free gift?” The Roman Catholic Church taught salvation by allegiance to the church, rites, rituals, and indulgences (payment for sin). This was a new question; it confused and startled him. One week later, as he was walking home, he saw a crowd assembled. He saw the old man, who had grabbed him on the street, being tied to a stake. He watched as the fire was lit. As he watched the flames began to rise, the old man began to sing Martin Luther’s glorious hymn, A Mighty Fortress is our God. He watched the flames take hold, the old man’s voice was silenced. He was shaken. He would never be the same.

The old man was a Huguenot: French Protestants, also called Gospellers because of their dedication to the Bible. Calvin had great disdain for the Huguenots. He thought they were damaging the church, and he supported every effort to stamp out this heretical movement. He watched as his cousin, Peter Robert, also a brilliant student, began subtlety identifying with the Gospelers. He knew Peter Robert was leaning towards heresy, and he feared having to report his cousin to the church knowing he could be burned at the stake, just like the old man had been. He questioned enforcing Catholic orthodoxy by burning people alive. He thought it was cruel and counterproductive; there should be some form of mercy for dissenters. As his concern for his cousin increased, and he continued to witnessed the stalwart faith of the gospellers, often even to death, the question the old man had asked burned into his heart and soul.


Calvin was in his early twenties working as a lawyer when he had an epiphany about his life. He wrote to a friend, “Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen, and much more at that which threatened me in view of eternal death, I, duty bound, made it my first business to betake myself to your way, condemning my past life, not without groans and tears.”

Regarding this heart change, He said,

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. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor.

He left Roman Catholicism behind vigorously embracing his new Protestant faith--the faith of his cousin, the old man, and the Huguenots he had despised. This was a terrifying prospect: Protestants were declared heretics, jailed, and often burned at the stake. Many fled Paris. In 1534, Protestants had placed placards denouncing the Catholic mass inciting the anger of King Francis I. Hundred of Protestants were imprisoned; thirty-five were burned at the stake including some of Calvin’s close friends ( E. W. Lutzer, Rescuing the Gospel). Calvin, too, would be forced to flee France.


Calvin’s friend, Nicolas Cop, was appointed as Rector at the University of Paris, and he was asked to make a speech. Unexpectedly, he defended the Reformation and the Protestant faith in his remarks. It was not well received. He was run off the stage, escaping on horseback. When people realized John Calvin wrote the speech, they came after him. Nicolas Cop escaped to Basel Switzerland, but Calvin stayed in hiding for months. Then in 1534, dressed as a peasant worker, he escaped to Basel, Switzerland.

The Institutes

Calvin was 27 when The Institutes of the Christian Religion, the work he is best known for, was published. Intended as a general primer, it became the basis for Calvinism. It lays out the five principles as a TULIP acronym.

Total depravity: all people are born sinful.

Unconditional election: God has already chosen those people who will be saved.

Limited atonement: Jesus died to atone for the sins of the elect only.

Irresistible grace: If you are among the elect, you will inevitably repent and become a Christian.

Perseverance of the saints: You can never lose your salvation.

Like Luther’s 95 theses, the Institutes spread like wildfire. Calvin dedicated it to Francis the 1st, King of France. He was trying to court a more benign attitude toward the Protestants. The work was translated into multiple languages sweeping through Europe, causing unrest in places like Geneva, Switzerland, and becoming a huge success.

Fortuitous Detour

In 1536, he traveled to Strasbourg stopping at Geneva along the way. Guillaume (William) Farel, the leader of Reformation in Geneva, found out Calvin was in town and visited him. After strongly stating his case, he begged Calvin to help stop a false doctrine infecting the city. A group called the Libertines citing justification-by-faith-alone-without-morality created a red light district in Geneva. They were visiting brothels, drunk, and immoral, yet they continued to claim the gospel.

Farel pleaded, he begged, he cajoled Calvin to stay in Geneva and help him fight this aberration. Calvin would not be moved. He cited his youth, inexperience, and temperament---but Farel was not convinced. Calvin insisted nothing could convince him to stay. Later, explaining Farel’s response to his weak exclamations to be left alone with his books and pen, Calvin related,

When he realized that I was determined to study in privacy in some obscure place and saw that he gained nothing by entreaty, he descended to cursing and said that God would surely curse my peace if I held back from giving help at a time of such great need. Terrified by his words, and conscious of my own timidity and cowardice, I gave up my journey and attempted to apply whatever gift I had in defense of my faith.

Calvin gave up his plan, to write in an obscure garret in Strasburg, and stayed in Geneva to help William Farel fight. God would powerfully use Calvin to defend the Reformation.


John Calvin and William Farel traveled to Lausanne together. The Lausanne Disputation was a public debate of Reformation and Roman Catholic representatives and scholars. The goal: deciding whether Zurich would adopt the Reformation or stay with Roman Catholicism. Representatives and scholars from both sides presented the debate, and hour after hour the debate went on. As it unfolded, it was clear the reformers were outgunned. The Catholics were superior debaters using history and tradition to support their views. With frustrations high, and when it seemed all was lost for the Reformers, John Calvin, the quiet studious scholar, finally spoke. He addressed the Catholic scholars for an hour, with no notes. He spoke of the Reformation church fathers, quoted major sections of scripture, and completely silenced the crowd. They were in awe.

After Calvin sat down, John Tandy, a Franciscan Catholic scholar and an enemy of the Reformation movement stood up making a short speech saying, “based on what I have just heard, I confess I have sinned. I have sinned against the Spirit and rebelled against the truth.” He went on to ask forgiveness, saying he would renounce his role as a Friar and that from now on he would follow Christ and his pure teaching alone. Calvin’s deep knowledge and dedication to the study of the scriptures was the turning point at the Lausanne Disputation. But change does not come easy. Especially, when every citizen of Geneva is required to adopt Reformation theology or keep silent.


Calvin spent two miserable years in Geneva describing his time there as, “if anything could be hell on earth…”. The City Fathers and the Libertines hated Calvin. He was painted as a sanctimonious Legalist, looking for sinful people, and a hyper moralist. He was made the brunt of jokes and even had chamber pots thrown on him. Calvin wanted a city run by the reformed clergy, but the Libertines did not want to be forced to attend church or have their morals scrutinized. In 1538, the Libertines ran Farel and Calvin out of town. It was the best day of Calvin’s life. He had stayed out of duty, now he was free to go to Strasbourg.      

Later years              

He spent three happy years in Strasbourg. He preached at St. Nicolaus Church. He wrote his 2nd edition of the Institutes, and married Idalette DeBurr, a widow with 2 sons, though he never planned to marry. He was content to preach and write. But, when he was asked to return to Geneva, because they needed good leadership, he obeyed the call reluctantly, saying, “Rather would I submit to death a hundred times than to that cross, on which one had to perish daily a thousand times over”. He returned to Geneva to the work God had called him to do. Much opposition, resistance, and difficulty remained in Geneva, and the work was discouraging and exhausting. In the last nine years of his life, he finally won support from the City Fathers. Now, the churches began to grow, the Geneva Bible was published, and the hard ground Calvin had planted, tilled, and watered with great struggle, determination, and obedience began to flourish.

Through thirty long years of struggle, Calvin followed God's call to advance the Reformation.

He toiled for it to the utmost limit of his strength, fought for it with a courage that never quailed, suffered for it with a fortitude that never wavered, and was ready at any moment to die for it. He literally poured every drop of his life into it, unhesitatingly, unsparingly. History will be searched in vain to find a man who gave himself to one definite purpose with more unalterable persistence, and with more lavish serf-abandon than Calvin gave himself to the Reformation of the 16th century" (R. C. Reed, Calvin Memorial Addresses, p. 34.)


Calvin died in 1564, at fifty-five years old. Theodore Beza, his close friend, and successor describes his death as having come quietly as sleep and then adds: “Thus withdrew into heaven, at the same time with the setting sun, that most brilliant luminary, which was the lamp of the Church. On the following night and day there was intense grief and lamentation in the whole city; for the Republic had lost its wisest citizen, the Church its faithful shepherd, and the Academy an incomparable teacher.