Few individuals from the history of the church are at the same time as lauded and as hated as the figure whose life and work are the subject of today’s study. Mention the name John Calvin, and you may hear many people praise his contributions to theology and culture. If you are in a large mixed audience, however, you will more likely hear many condemn him as a mean-spirited tyrant. And that is only because almost no significant figure from church history has been so misrepresented and subjected to outright slander. Caricatures of Calvin as dour and cruel bear no resemblance to the historical reality of the man and his work.
Born in 1509, Calvin was the son of a man who worked for the cathedral church in Noyon, France. He began his studies for the priesthood when he was fourteen, attending the University of Paris. However, Calvin soon changed his course of study to law after his father had a falling out with church authorities. We do not know much more about Calvin’s early life besides these facts, for Calvin wrote very little about himself and his biography. It is clear, however, that sometime during the years 1528–32, Calvin was converted to Christ and to the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation. In fact, he ended up leaving the university because the authorities discovered that he had a hand in writing a sermon that advocated Reformation theology over against the prevailing medieval Roman Catholic theology at the university.
Calvin fled to Switzerland and spent time studying Hebrew and the works of Augustine. Eventually, the leaders of Geneva convinced him to settle there and to help bring the Reformation to bear on the entire city. Except for a brief exile when the city leaders turned against him for a short time, Calvin remained in the city for the rest of his life, preaching the Word of God and helping the authorities bring reform to Geneva. Calvin felt more at home as a scholar than as an administrator, though his leadership was widely respected, as was his kindness. Today, we benefit from his commentaries on nearly the entire Bible and the letters and sermons he left behind. Pride of place goes to his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which may be the finest systematic theology ever written.
Calvin’s motto was, “I offer my heart to thee, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.” The Reformer well understood that in gratitude for our salvation, we should offer all that we are to our Creator. He died in 1564, having lived his life as an offering to the Lord.