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The Genius of Geneva: John Calvin (1509–1564)

The Genius of Geneva

In the fall of 1539, John Calvin wrote to Sadoleto, an Italian cardinal seeking to win Geneva back to the Roman Catholic Church: “[Your] zeal for heavenly life [is] a zeal which keeps a man entirely devoted to himself, and does not, even by one expression, arouse him to sanctify the name of God.” He goes on to say that Sadoleto should “set before [man], as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God” (Selections from His Writings, 89).

This would be a fitting banner over all of Calvin’s life and work — zeal to illustrate the glory of God. The essential meaning of Calvin’s life and preaching is that he recovered and embodied a passion for the absolute reality and majesty of God.

Mastered by Majesty

Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France, when Martin Luther was 25 years old and had just begun to teach the Bible in Wittenberg. The message and spirit of the Reformation would not reach Calvin for twenty years, and in the meantime he devoted his young adult years to the study of Medieval theology, law, and the classics.

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But by 1533, something dramatic had happened in his life through the influence of Reformation teaching. Calvin recounts how he had been struggling to live out the Catholic faith with zeal when “God, by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame. . . . Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with [an] intense desire to make progress” (Selections from His Writings, 26).

Suddenly, Calvin saw and tasted in Scripture the majesty of God. And in that moment, both God and the word of God were so powerfully authenticated to his soul that he became the loving servant of God and his word the rest of his life.

Genevan Pastor

Calvin knew what sort of ministry he wanted. He wanted the enjoyment of literary ease so he could promote the Reformed faith as a scholar. But God had radically different plans.

After escaping from Paris and finally leaving France entirely, Calvin intended to go to Strasbourg for a life of peaceful literary production. But while Calvin was staying the night in Geneva, William Farel, the fiery leader of the Reformation in that city, found out he was there and sought him out. It was a meeting that changed the course of history, not just for Geneva, but for the world. Calvin remembers,

Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately learned that my heart was set upon devoting myself to private studies, . . . and finding that he gained nothing by entreaties, he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement, and the tranquillity of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken.

The course of his life was irrevocably changed. Never again would Calvin work in what he called the “tranquillity of studies.” From now on, every page of the 48 volumes of books and tracts and sermons and commentaries and letters that he wrote would be hammered out on the anvil of pastoral responsibility. For the next 28 years (apart from a two-year hiatus), Calvin gave himself to expositing the word — to displaying the majesty of God in Scripture to his Genevan flock.

Glory Recovered

The need for the Reformation was fundamentally this: Rome had “destroyed the glory of Christ in many ways” (Portrait of Calvin, 9). The reason, according to Calvin, the church was “carried about with so many strange doctrines” was “because the excellence of Christ is not perceived by us” (Portrait of Calvin, 55). In other words, the great guardian of biblical orthodoxy throughout the centuries is a passion for the glory and the excellency of God in Christ.

The issue is not, first, the well-known sticking points of the Reformation: justification, priestly abuses, transubstantiation, prayers to saints, and papal authority. Beneath all of them — at stake in them all for Calvin — was the fundamental issue of whether the glory of God was shining in its fullness, or was somehow being diminished. From the beginning of his ministry to the end of his life, his guiding star in vision was the centrality and supremacy and majesty of the glory of God.

Unlocking the Treasures of Scripture

Geerhardus Vos has argued that this focus on the glory of God is the reason the Reformed tradition succeeded more fully than the Lutheran tradition in “mastering the rich content of the Scriptures.” Both had “cast themselves on the Scriptures.” But there was a difference:

Because Reformed theology took hold of the Scriptures in their deepest root idea, it was in a position to work through them more fully from this central point and to let each part of their content come to its own. This root idea which served as the key to unlock the rich treasures of the Scriptures was the preeminence of God’s glory in the consideration of all that has been created. (Shorter Writings, 243)

The true genius of Geneva was not the mind of John Calvin, but passion for the glory of God. Every generation needs to unlock the treasures of Scripture for the peculiar perils and possibilities of its own time. Our generation no less than any. I think we will only do this well if we have been profoundly and joyfully mastered by the greatest reality the Scriptures reveal — the majesty of God’s glory.

Risk Your Kids for the Kingdom? On Taking Children to Unreached Peoples

Risk Your Kids for the Kingdom?

Should a Christian couple take their children into danger as part of their mission to take the gospel to the unreached peoples of the world? Short answer: Yes.

Why? Because the cause is worth the risk, and the children are more likely to become Christ-exalting, comfort-renouncing, misery-lessening exiles and sojourners in this way than by being protected from risk in the safety of this world.

Provide for Their Greatest Good

When Paul said that “anyone [who] does not provide for . . . his household has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8), he was talking about world-idolizing slackers, not self-denying emissaries of Christ. But even that observation is not the main point.

The question raised by this text, and many others, is this: What is the greatest good you can do for your children? What does a real, countercultural, Christian ambassador and exile from heaven think when he is told, “Provide for your household”? Provide what? Culture-conforming comforts and security? Really?

I don’t think so. He is thinking, How can I breed a radical, risk-taking envoy of King Jesus? How can I raise a dolphin cutting through schools of sharks, rather than a bloated jellyfish floating with the plankton into the mouth of the whale called the world? How can I raise offspring who hear Jesus say, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58) and respond, “Let’s go”?

“Discipline of the Lord”

By all means, provide for your household. But what are we to provide? Paul says, “The discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Where might they taste the Lord’s discipline? Why should we think only in terms of spankings, time-outs, and family devotions? Why not the challenges and hardships implied in Hebrews 12:3–11?

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (Hebrews 12:3–4)

Not yet! “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons” (Hebrews 12:7).

Train Up a Child

Or when you think about “providing for your household,” what about providing practice in self-denial and risk? After all, doesn’t Proverbs say, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6)? Perhaps we lose too many of our children because they weren’t trained as soldiers. Maybe we trained them in comfort and security, and now they won’t leave it.

Or what about providing for the young ones the way Deuteronomy 11:19 says? Teach them the wartime manual of life when you are walking among the hostile hearers, and when you lie down under the mosquito nets, and when you rise in the 95-degree heat. Come, my precious children, learn from mommy and daddy what it means to live with joy in the service of the King.

No matter how many Western, comfort-assuming, security-demanding, risk-avoiding Christians think otherwise, the truth is that there are worse risks for our children than death. This is simple Bible-reality. Not easy. Just simple. It is not complex or hard to grasp. There are things vastly worse than death. Wasting your life is worse than losing it.

Great Struggles Produce Great Citizens

One of the great ironies of history is that sometimes non-Christians see more clearly than Christians that the aims of family life are greater than safety. John Adams, who would become the second President of the United States, was sent as a Commissioner to France in 1778. His 10-year-old son, John Quincy (who would become the sixth President), went with him. Abigail, John Quincy’s mother, was totally behind this venture.

Here is David McCullough’s description of the mind-set behind this way of parenting. The boy would be away from his mother and his home for most of the next seven years. McCullough describes what this meant:

The boy was being taken across the North Atlantic in the midst of winter, in the midst of war. Just outside Boston Harbor, British ships were waiting to capture somebody like John Adams and take him to London, where most likely he would be hanged as a traitor. But the boy went, too, his mother knowing that she probably wouldn’t see him for a year or more, maybe never.

Why? Because she and his father wanted John Quincy to be in association with Franklin and the great political philosophers of France, to learn to speak French, to travel in Europe, to be able to soak it all up. And they risked his life for that — for his education. . . .

It was a horrendous voyage. Everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. And when the boy came back, he said he didn’t ever want to go across the Atlantic again as long as he lived. And then his father was called back, and his mother said you’re going back. And here is what she wrote to him. And please keep in mind this is being written to an 11-year-old boy and listen to how different it is from how we talk to our children in our time. It’s as if she were addressing a grown-up. She’s talking to someone they want to bring along quickly because there’s work to do and survival is essential:

These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.

Well, of course he went, and the history of our country is different because of it. John Quincy Adams, in my view, was the most superbly educated and maybe the most brilliant human being who ever occupied the executive office. (American Spirit, 115–116)

“They risked his life for that — for his education.” To be with Franklin. To be with the French philosophers. To be at the heart of the great doings of the day! Because, in their mind, that is what life is for. A life not given to great things is not worth living. So, risk your life — and the life of your children — to be part of greatness.

Made for More

But ours is not the same calling. Ours is infinitely greater. We are not about establishing a mere country — like America. We are about serving the King who is over all countries. We are not about building a temporary, fallible, historical nation, but an eternal people — “a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession” (1 Peter 2:9). We are not about rescuing people from earthly tyranny, but from totalitarian oppression and suffering in hell forever. We are not about maximal education in the ways of this world, but maximum insight and involvement into the saving paths and power of God. Our aim for our children is not historical influence, but eternal impact.

If John and Abigail Adams thought that their comparatively small aims for their children were worth the risk of death, are not our aims worth just as much risk?

But we have more reason to risk. We have a promise: If God is for us, no one can be successfully against us (Romans 8:31). If they take our lives, our spouses, and our children, they cannot succeed. In all these things, we are more than conquerors. How better can we show our children this truth than to take them with us to the nations?

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