John Calvin: A Model for Ministers

Typically when someone hears the name John Calvin, one of the first things that comes to mind is those doctrines which are commonly called “Calvinism,” or his well-known “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” However, one must wonder, if after hearing the name John Calvin, do people ever think “an example for ministers to follow.” The question is this: did he, in fact, leave behind a pattern in his life and labors for us to imitate? In this piece, I propose to argue that he did, and intend to prove this assertion based upon two fundamental facts that spring from his manner of life and from his method of preaching.

Calvin’s Manner of Life

If indeed John Calvin is a good example for ministers, then it makes sense that there should be something of that example manifested in the way he lived. Knowing that all preachers of the Word of God are called to be good examples in all that they do (Phil 4:9; 1 Thes 1:7; 2 Thes 3:9; 1 Tim 4:12; 1 Pet 5:3), we ask, did John Calvin in fact live a life worthy of imitation? Here we will begin with a brief biographical overview of his life and then it will conclude by highlighting some particular characteristics from him that are most worthy of our emulation.

John Calvin was born in 1509, on July 10, at Noyon, in Picardy, France, to Gerard and Joanne Calvin. His father was a prominent lawyer and an administrator for a local Catholic cathedral. His mother Joanne was a godly woman who had five children, the second child being John. John grew up in the church and it was his father’s desire that John would one day become a priest. John’s father also wanted his son to have a good education and he was able to secure money from his place of employment to pay for that education.

Concerning Calvin’s early years of schooling, Dr. William Downing says,

Calvin had the advantages of a good education and grew up in the circle of educated and prominent families because of his father’s position. Although he was a plebeian (ordinary; one who was considered to be of lower class), his boyhood friends, associates and fellow-students were of the aristocracy. He enjoyed the advantages of tutors and proved to be a brilliant student, with an insatiable appetite for learning.”[1]

Dr. Downing goes on to tell us that, at fourteen, Calvin,

was sent to the University of Paris to enter the service of Rome as a priest…

As a university student, it is said that he demonstrated a maturity beyond his years. In the providence of God, he had able teachers who marked his life with discipline and intellectual development. In 1528 he graduated with the degree Master of Arts. He was eighteen years of age.”[2]

In about 1528, Calvin relocated to Orleans to study law. W. S. Reid remarks,

Although he commenced training for the priesthood at the University of Paris, his father, because of controversy with the bishop and clergy of Noyon cathedral, now decided that his son should become a lawyer, and sent him to Orleans where he studied under Pierre de Etoile. Later he studied at Bourges under the humanist lawyer Andrea Alciati. It was probably here while in Bourges that he became a Protestant.[3]

Regarding his own conversion, Calvin wrote in the preface of his commentary on the Psalms,

God drew me from obscure and lowly beginnings and conferred on me that most honourable office of herald and minister of the gospel. My father had intended me for theology from my early childhood. But when he reflected that the career of law proved everywhere very lucrative for its practitioners, the prospect suddenly made him change his mind. And so it happened that I was called away from the study of philosophy and set to learning law: although, out of obedience to my father’s wishes, I tried my best to work hard, yet God at last turned my course in another direction by the secret rein of his providence. What happened first was that by an unexpected conversion he tamed to teachableness a mind too stubborn for its years—for I was so strongly devoted to the superstition of the papacy that nothing less could draw me from such depths of mire. And so this mere taste of true godliness that I received set me on fire with such a desire to progress that I pursued the rest of my studies more coolly, although I did not give them up altogether. Before a year had slipped by anybody who longed for a purer doctrine kept on coming to learn from me, still a beginner, a raw recruit.”[4]

In about 1536 Calvin, having separated from the Roman Catholic Church, decided to go to Strasbourg, Germany to live the life of a quiet scholar. However, because fighting had broken out between France and the Roman Empire, Calvin had to make a detour through Geneva, Switzerland (a city that had been won over to Protestantism a month or so earlier under the leadership of William Farel). Although Calvin had only planned to stay there one night, this city, in the providence of God, was where he would remain for the next twenty-three years preaching and teaching the Holy Scriptures until his death on May 27, 1564. On April 25, 1564, about a month before his passing, he made up his will, which reads in part as follows:

I, John Calvin, servant of the word of God in the church of Geneva, weakened by many illnesses . . . thank God that he has not only shown mercy to me, his poor creature . . . and suffered me in all sins and weaknesses, but what is more than that, he has made me a partaker of his grace to serve him through my work . . . I confess to live and die in this faith which he has given me, inasmuch as I have no other hope or refuge than his predestination upon which my entire salvation is grounded. I embrace the grace which he has offered me in our Lord Jesus Christ, and accept the merits of his suffering and dying that through him all my sins are buried; and I humbly beg him to wash me and cleanse me with the blood of our great redeemer, as it was shed for all poor sinners, so that I, when I appear before his face, may bear his likeness.[5]

This concludes the survey of Calvin’s life.[6]

There are three notable characteristics exemplified by him that we will consider in following posts.[7]

Rob Ventura is one of the pastors of Grace Community Baptist Church of North Providence, Rhode Island and holds a Master of Divinity degree from Reformed Baptist Seminary. He is an author and blogger for Reformation 21 and has co-authored two books on Reformation Heritage Books A Portrait of Paul and Spiritual Warfare.

[1] W. R. Downing, Lectures on Calvinism and Arminianism, (Morgan Hill: PIRS Publications, 2000), p. 11.

[3] W. S. Reid, “John Calvin,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), pp. 185-186.

[4] T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 200.

[5] W. R. Downing, Lectures on Calvinism and Arminianism (Morgan Hill: PIRS Publications, 2000), p. 13.

[6] In this brief survey, I have purposefully left out such notable events in Calvin’s life as his friendship with Nicholas Cop; his first encounter with William Farel; Calvin and Farel’s expulsion from Geneva (1538), Calvin’s ministry at Strasbourg to French Protestant refugees (1538-1541), Calvin’s wife, Idelette de Buren and their children; Calvin’s rebuttal to Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto; Calvin and Farel’s return to Geneva (1541), and the circumstances surrounding the death of Michael Servetus (1553).

[7] No doubt many more things would be worthy of our imitation concerning Calvin’s manner of life, such as his piety, his training of men for the ministry, and his missionary endeavors etc.