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REFORMATION CELEBRATION: Calvin as Pastor and Evangelist Print E-mail

I.  Introduction:

 This year at our Reformation Celebration we looked at the life and contribution of John Calvin.  As we have said before, the Protestant Reformation did not happen overnight.  It was not as if Luther nailed his 95 Theses and the rest is history.  No, it took time.  In one sense, the Reformation took place in waves: German Reformation, Swiss Reformation, and English Reformation.  Obviously, Luther was the central leader in the German Reformation.  At the beginning of the Swiss Reformation, Ulrich Zwingli led the way.  Yet, when Zwingli died in battle in 1531, a new leader was needed.  And this is where John Calvin comes onto the scene. 

Calvin first came to recognition through the publication of The Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536.  This work would expand over the years and have a profound impact on the Reformation as a whole.  It is through this work and his other writings that Calvin became known as one of the major theologians (if not the theologian) of the Reformation.  Yet, instead of considering Calvin the theologian tonight (which I in no way want to minimize), I want to consider some other, maybe, less known titles for Calvin, namely Calvin the pastor and Calvin the evangelist.  Many view Calvin as a tyrannical dictator who ruled over Geneva with an iron fist or a theological snob who only wrote books about election and predestination.  Yet, neither of those characters is accurate in my opinion.  Granted, I disagree with Calvin on a number of issues: baptism, Church government, the relationship between the Church and the State. His belief on this last point (Church and State) led him to actions that I believe were wrong and sinful (supporting the execution of Michael Servetus).  But I do think we can learn from him and seek to imitate his faith as the author of Hebrews calls us to do (see Hebrews 13:7).  So tonight, let me turn our attention to consider Calvin as pastor and evangelist.

II.  Calvin as Pastor:

 William Farel was able to convince Calvin to stay in Geneva and fight for the cause of Reformation in that city.  Calvin immediately began to preach and teach in the city.  He would preach every day and then twice on Sundays.  At the same time, he was continuing to fight for reform in the city.  He believed that the Church had the right to excommunicate those who were members and claimed to follow Christ but lived in sin.  Many of the leaders in the city did not agree with this, seeing it as harsh and unnecessary.  Eventually the issue came to a head and Calvin was exiled from the city.  He and Farel fled to Strasbourg where he had intended to go in the first place.  It seemed that he would be able to follow his original plan after all.

 Yet, once he was in Strasbourg, Martin Bucer, the leading Reformer in the city, persuaded Calvin to pastor a group of French exiles who had been forced to leave their homes by the Catholic leaders in France.  Calvin agreed and for the next three years spent his time teaching and preaching to his fellow Frenchmen.  He translated some psalms into French and encouraged congregational singing (as we heard at our Reformation Celebration).  Many of those that I read on Calvin said that this time in Strasbourg was probably the happiest in his life.  Yet, after three years, he was invited back to Geneva, and he returned to his pastorate there to continue the work that he had started.

 His life as a pastor gives us a different picture of Calvin.  Eckman describes him: “He loved life.  He loved to play games and frequently visited the homes of his followers.  He also spent many hours giving premarital counseling in his church.”   Can you imagine getting your premarital counseling from Calvin?  Again, it seems that he truly cared for the people of Geneva.  He was not just their preacher, he was their pastor.  He had left a good life in Strasbourg to return to the difficulties that he had faced in the city.  And make no mistake about it, this was a difficult move for Calvin.  He writes in his Introduction to his Psalms commentary that he returned with “grief, tears, great anxiety and distress.”  So, why did he return?  He writes: “The welfare of this church, it is true, lay so near my heart, that for its sake I would not have hesitated to lay down my life.”   Of course, I should note that this is not Calvin just using hyperbole.  People fighting for reform were dying all over the place and things were not settled in Geneva.  Yet, Calvin felt called to give his life in service to the Church in that city.  He longed and labored to pastor faithfully.  Surely we can learn from his faith in this regard.

III.  Calvin as evangelist:

 Even though Calvin spent the majority of his life ministering in Geneva, his teaching and influence would reach far beyond that city’s walls.  This is primarily due to the fact that he was able to start a Christian academy in Geneva that would train numerous pastors.  Likewise, we have already mentioned his labor among the French exiles in Strasbourg.  Calvin taught and trained these men in the Protestant faith and sent them out to labor among the nations.  One of the most notable examples is John Knox.  Knox was forced to flee England in 1553 and was taught by Calvin in Geneva for several years.  He returned to his homeland of Scotland in 1559 and was the leading Reformer for years in that country.  Of course, in one sense, this whole course of events was simply brought about by Providence.  Yet, it is amazing to see how Calvin’s influence for mission was spread throughout Europe and would eventually find its way to America via the Puritans.  Calvin did recognize the value in training and sending missionaries out to other countries.  He therefore influenced the forming of The Venerable Company of Pastors (which consisted of the presbytery in Geneva), which sought to train missionaries and send them to Italy, Germany, Scotland, England, and France.  There is even record that they attempted to send some missionaries to South America as well.

IV.  Conclusion:

 These are not ideas that we normally attach to Calvin.  Yet, hopefully it helps learn more about the life of this Reformer.  I must make it clear again that I do not support everything that he did and taught.  I disagree with his handling of heretics.  But I do believe that we can learn from those who have gone before us.  I want to learn from their errors as well as imitate their faith.  I pray that the Lord would give us all a heart for the Church that would be willing to lay down our lives for one another.  Likewise, I pray that God would cause us to be more serious and committed to the task of training and sending out missionaries.  May we be faithful in these areas of service for our own good and for the sake of God’s great glory.  Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Thursday, 12 November 2009 )

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