Born in France in 1509, John Calvin was a reformer of the generation after Martin Luther. Little is known about the circumstances surrounding Calvin’s departure from the Catholic Church and how exactly he became a Protestant. Scholar Justo González suggests that perhaps Calvin’s break from the Catholic Church came about as a result of his study of Scripture and the influence of intellectuals around him.
But in 1535, Calvin left France as King Francis I became hostile toward Protestants. Calvin went to the city of Basel in Switzerland. Trained as a lawyer, Calvin was incredibly articulate in explaining the faith and producing systematic arguments.Calvin wanted to focus his time and efforts as a scholar. While in Basel, Calvin wrote the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Arguably his most famous work, the Institutes were “the clearest, most logical, and most readable exposition of Protestant doctrine that the Reformation age produced, and it gave its youthful author European fame overnight.” Throughout his life, Calvin wrote several more editions. In the Institutes Calvin wrote about key doctrines of the Christian faith including knowledge of God, sin, and the church.
In 1536, while traveling to relocate in Strasbourg, Calvin was forced to alter his travel plans and spend the night in Geneva.Geneva had recently become Protestant but had very little structure or support in the midst of this transition. The city found itself in the middle of a tumultuous time. When Geneva’s Protestant leader, William Farel, found out that Calvin was in town, he immediately tried to convince him to stay and help lead the reform e orts in the city. Calvin refused and insisted on following his plans to go to Strasbourg and continue in his ambition of studying and writing there. Farel responded to Calvin’s refusal by declaring: “May God condemn your repose, and the calm you seek for study, if before such a great need you withdraw, and refuse your succor (or assistance) and help.” Farel’s words deeply affected Calvin. Calvin later said, “These words shocked and broke me, and I desisted from the journey I had begun.”
Calvin would spend nearly the rest of his life in Geneva. Calvin worked to enforce strict moral standards in the city. Not surprisingly, Calvin’s policies were not loved by all. He had a tenuous relationship with government leaders, particularly over the question of excommunication; Calvin desired for church leaders to have the right to cut someone o from the church as well as from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper if they would not turn from their sins.Eventually, Calvin was forced to leave the city in 1538. Yet, a few years later, the new government asked Calvin to return. He continued many of his reform e orts, but not without ongoing opposition from government leaders. Calvin’s lasting legacy, although certainly not without blemish, centers on his articulation of reformed theology. Central to this theological perspective are the beliefs in the sovereignty of God, salvation by grace alone, and the supremacy of the Word of God. Reformed churches today include Presbyterians and the Reformed Church of America, as well as some
Throughout Calvin’s story, we see the idea of a “change of plans.” Calvin initially thought he would study law. Then he later thought he would spend his days as a scholar. In the end, he emerged as one of the most influential leaders in the Protestant Reformation. Calvin thought he would live in Strasbourg, but then the Lord unexpectedly altered the course of Calvin’s life by redirecting him to Geneva.