July 10 marks the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. His impact on western civilization is hard to measure. Recently I was asked to provide 3 reasons that Calvin is important today. Here is what I wrote:
1. Western civilization owes an incalculable debt to John Calvin because his exposition of Scripture’s view that all creation is the theater of God’s glory helped set a vigorous, world-changing agenda for vocation, culture-making and society. The political freedoms and other blessings that we enjoy have been granted to us by God, in large part, through the outworking of ideas that were first systematized and promoted by Calvin.
2. Calvin has left a great legacy for the church by virtue of his personal testimony of grace, humility, industry and perseverance through desperate times. It is far easier to vilify him than it is to consider his life carefully in light of his historical context. In a hard age when church and state were in complete upheaval, he maintained a steady course as a faithful pastor. Despite his preference to “die a hundred other deaths” than to give himself to pastoral ministry in Geneva, he nevertheless took up that cross and bore it well. Despite threats, opposition, sickness and mistreatment from those who should have been his supporters, he pressed on in his calling to shepherd the people of Geneva, strengthening the church through consistent preaching and teaching and leading them to send out missionaries to preach the gospel in hard places.
3. In my estimation the most significant reason that Calvin is important for us today stems from his exposition and theological writings. His commentaries are models of exegetical skill and power and set a standard for all successive Protestant commentaries. His Institutes demonstrate the inextricable relationship between doctrine and life by combining exegetical, historical, systematic and pastoral theology that is written not for the academy but for the church. Calvin’s influence is so profound in this area that a man can scarcely regard himself as educated while remaining unacquainted with his works.
With all of his flaws–and as with all sons of Adam, he had many–all Christ-followers owe a debt of gratitude to the Reformer from Geneva. His advocacy of civil punishment, even to the extent of death, for religious ideas is something that most believers, especially those of us the free church stream, abominate. Likewise, we Baptists cannot tolerate his position on paedobaptism (a position that, according to this picture and this explanation from the ruins under the present church structure, the church he served evidently did not share with him in earlier centuries). After all, the best of men are men at best. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that he was–and remains–a great gift to the church.
How will you celebrate Calvin’s birthday? In the true spirit of the Reformer from Geneva and, more importantly, in keeping with the biblical, missional gospel which he taught (see FJ 75), I am laboring with a team of 8 from Grace Baptist Church to make Christ known to an unreached people group in SE Asia. We got here today and look forward to 10 days of working with field personnel here with the IMB.
Pray that God will use us to make disciples and add to that glorious multitude of worshipers “that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” for whom our Savior shed His precious blood.