From Your Pastor: John Calvin’s Pilgrim Life and Pastoral Teachings: “Calvin the Young Scholar and His ‘Sudden Conversion’”

“I offer my heart, promptly and sincerely.” – John Calvin

Theodore Beza (1519-1605), Calvin’s successor as pastor in Geneva, wrote one of the first biographies of his ministerial mentor after his death. He wrote of Calvin: “Having been a spectator of his conduct for sixteen years…I can now declare, that in him all men may see a most beautiful example of the Christian character, an example which it is as easy to slander as it is difficult to imitate.” On Calvin’s deathbed in 1564, just 26 days from the day of his death, Calvin would transparently and honestly confess to some of the church leaders of Geneva:

I have had many infirmities which you have been obliged to bear with, and what is more, all I have done has been worth nothing…I have willed what is good, that my vices have always displeased me, and that the root of the fear of God has been in my heart; and you may say that the disposition was good; and I pray you, that the evil be forgiven me, and if there was any good, that you conform yourselves to it and make it an example.

These dying words are of a repentant sinner saved by God’s good grace, that was called by God to imperfectly, but faithfully and sincerely to fulfill God’s call upon his life as pastor and leader. What a exemplary and humble legacy he leaves for all of God’s servants, to recognize the good that one has done in sincerity and fear of the Lord, but at the same time to be fully aware of the need of a Savior until we shall see Him face to face! (1 Jo. 3:1-3). Who, indeed, is sufficient for these things of ministry?! Apart from Christ we can do nothing; in Him, we can do all things! (John 15:1-5; 2 Cor. 2:16b; Phil. 4:13).

John Calvin was born as a man of the church, a covenant child reared within the medieval Roman Catholic church in France. He was a brilliant young scholar known for his “quick intelligence and excellent memory” who by God’s grace and good providence was granted the opportunity of an ideal education. In fact, throughout his young life, Calvin received the best education that one could receive in France at that time.  He studied the humanities, law, philosophy and theology, and was knowledgeable and able in all of these subjects.  He studied at the most prestigious universities in France: Orleans, Bourges, and Paris from 1528 to 1533. Calvin had the opportunity to profit intellectually from some of the most notable professors in France and Europe at that time. He studied first for the priesthood, then under the influence of his father, he was the dutiful son who studied law for a time at his father’s direction..

Yet though the young Calvin was full of knowledge, he didn’t possess that most important wisdom and knowledge: true knowledge of God and of himself revealed by the Holy Spirit in regeneration through the Holy Scriptures. Until around ca. 1533, when Calvin was in his early twenties, he was suddenly converted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and to the truths of biblical Christianity. The influence of the Reformation from Switzerland (through the influence of Ulrich Zwingli) and Germany (through the influence of Martin Luther) were taking hold in places in France and the ideas of the reformation were being discussed at the universities he had attended.

Calvin was a Christ-focused man who rarely cared to write about himself. He was truly a “know-nothing” as the Apostle Paul. He made it his aim to “know nothing” but Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:1-5). But by God’s good grace, in Calvin’s commentary on the Psalms, he did indeed write about himself and leave to posterity his conversion story concerning the sovereign goodness and mercy of the Lord in his life. He wrote:

When I was as yet a very little boy, my father had destined me for the study of theology. But afterwards, when he considered that the legal profession commonly raised those who followed it to wealth, this prospect induced him suddenly to change his purpose. Thus it came to pass, that I was withdrawn from the study of philosophy, and was put to the study of the law. To this pursuit I endeavored faithfully to apply myself, in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by the sweet guidance of his providence, at length gave a different direction to my course.

And first, since I was to obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, 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 therein, that although I did not altogether leave off my [humanist] studies, I yet pursued them with less ardour.

I was quite surprised to find that before a year had elapsed, all who had any desire after purer doctrine were continually coming to me to learn, although I myself was as yet but a mere novice and tyro [beginner]. Being of a disposition somewhat unpolished and bashful, which led me always to love the shade and retirement, I then began to seek some secluded corner where I might be withdrawn from the public view; but so far from being able to accomplish the object of my desire, all my retreats were like public schools. In short, whilst my one great object was to live in seclusion without being known, God so led me about through different turnings and changes, that he never permitted me to rest in any place, until, in spite of my natural disposition, he brought me forth to public notice (Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 1, preface, xl-xli).

John Calvin, experienced a “sudden” or unexpected conversion by the sovereign grace of God’s Spirit. Calvin’s knowledge of the gospel and the sovereignty of God in salvation was not merely a biblical-theological knowledge, it was also an experiential knowledge. Calvin had experienced God’s wonderful and powerful saving grace in Christ. Calvin said later in his life that his conversion from Roman Catholicism to the gospel of the Reformation was because “God himself produced the change.”  As Calvin understood the gospel of grace in Christ for the first time in his life, he was driven to a deeper sense of his sin and the mercies of God found in Jesus Christ.  He said: “Only one haven of salvation is left open for our souls, and that is the mercy of God in Christ. We are saved by grace- -not by our merits, not by our works.”

Within a year after Calvin’s conversion, though Calvin desired the quiet of a study for theological reading and writing, through the sovereign will of God, Calvin was thrust into the theological spotlight, and became the leading and most influential pastor, teacher and theologian of the Reformation. The influential person that God used as a means to direct Calvin to become an important reformer in Geneva was Pastor William (Guillaume) Farel (1489-1565). Farel had been a faithful and influential pastor, and an important early Reformer in Geneva, as well as a popular and fiery preacher as Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli before him, but he could not have done the work of John Calvin. The Psalmist writes:

“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them” (ESV Psalm 139:13-16).

Before the foundation of the world God had ordained John Calvin to become an important reformer of His beloved Church. John Calvin (or Jean Cauvin) was born on July 10th, 1509, twenty-five years after Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli in Noyon, France, an old cathedral city in the northern province of Picardy.  John Calvin was twenty-five years younger than Luther. When Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door at the Castle Church at Wittenburg, Calvin was a young French boy of 8 years of age. Though God used many men like William Farel in Geneva and Luther in Germany, Calvin was exceptionally and uniquely gifted by God to be a profoundly biblical-theological thinker and organizer who became God’s theological architect of the Reformation that would influence the church in Geneva, throughout Europe, and eventually the world

A significant event happened for Calvin that is similar to Luther’s nailing of his Ninety-Five Theses at Wittenberg.  On October 10th, 1533, a friend of Calvin’s, a man named Nicolas Cop had been elected rector of the University of Paris.  As was the common practice, Cop was called to delivery the inauguration sermon on All Saints Day, November 1st.  The sermon was from the Gospel of Matthew 5:3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and most scholars believe Calvin had a hand in writing this sermon for his friend. What was memorable about this sermon, other than it was perhaps one of the first sermons John Calvin penned, was that it specifically aimed critically at the abuses of Medieval Roman Catholicism and the unbiblical doctrines taught by the Romish Scholastic Theologians who taught at the university.  In the sermon, Calvin had written, and Cop read for all to hear: “They [the Scholastic teachers] teach nothing of faith, nothing of the love of God, nothing of the remission of sins, nothing of grace, nothing of justification; or if they do so, they pervert and undermine it all by their laws and sophistries. I beg you, who are present, not to tolerate nay longer these heresies and abuses”– -and the war upon Roman Catholicism was declared. Note the primary concerns of the reformers then, and still today in this brief quotation: The importance of faith alone receiving by grace alone the love of God through the justifying grace of Christ’s work for sinners, to bring about repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

After he became a convinced and convicted reformer of Christ’s Church, Calvin became an exile from his home in France because of the persecutions occurring there, and thus experienced the first challenges of what it meant to be a persecuted Christian pilgrim for the Gospel, bearing his cross in daily service to his Lord. During these years 1533-1536, as a young convert to the Reformation, Calvin wandered as a faithful evangelist of the biblical gospel of Christ, and officially renounced his devotedness to the Roman Church. Calvin was becoming a renowned and respected evangelist-preacher in Southern France, Switzerland, and Italy.

In 1536, John Calvin would be elected pastor and teacher of theology at Geneva by the elders and the council and with the consent of the whole people. And the world would never be the same by God’s good grace and providence. It was during this time, he desired to write the first edition of a handbook on Christianity to defend the true reformed faith, to humbly plead on behalf of the persecuted Christians in France, and to especially help Christians who had come to understand the true gospel so that they could read, interpret, and understand their bibles. This book became a runaway bestseller and publishing sensation immediately, and made Calvin a famous pastor and theologian. This book was entitled simply ‘The Institutes in the Christian Religion”.

Let us pray with Calvin:

“Grant, Almighty God, that since it is the principal part of our happiness that in our pilgrimage through this world there is open to us a familiar access to you by faith, O grant that we may be able to come with a pure heart into your presence. And when our lips are polluted, O purify us by your Spirit, so that we may not only pray to you with the mouth but also prove that we do this sincerely, without any dissimulations, and that we earnestly seek to spend our whole life in glorifying your name; until being at length gathered into your celestial kingdom, we may be truly and really united to you, and be made partakers of that glory, which has been brought forth for us by the blood of your only begotten Son. Amen.”


To be continued…


Next Study: Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion


[i] Bibliography/For Further Reading

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541, Calvin’s Own Essentials Edition).

__________ Edited by John T. McNeill. Institutes of the Christian Religion (2 Volumes)

Calhoun, David B. Knowing God and Ourselves: Reading Calvin’s Institutes Devotionally.

Godfrey, W. Robert. John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor.

Gordon, Bruce. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Biography.

_________. Calvin.

Hall, David W. and Lillback, Peter A. A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis (Calvin 500 Series).

Lane, Anthony N. S. A Reader’s Guide to Calvin’s Institutes.

Lawson, Steven J. The Expository Genius of John Calvin

McKee, Elsie Anne, ed. John Calvin: Writings on Pastoral Piety (Classics of Western Spirituality).

Parker, T. H. L. Calvin: An Introduction to His Thought

Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, Vol. VIII: The Swiss Reformation

Selderhuis, Herman J. John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life.

________. The Calvin Handbook.

________. Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms.

Wendel, Francois. Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought