At TMC this week we’re enjoying the privilege of hearing capable theologian and church historian Stephen Nichols in chapel as we lead up to Reformation Day. One of the joys of my new position is the undeserved opportunity to spend time with visiting speakers. After chapel on Wednesday, the Student Life Directors enjoyed an informal brunch with Dr. Nichols at the Egg Plantation. I want to share about him and especially his Wednesday message because it was so refreshing to hear a proven church historian speak accurately, biblically, clearly, and movingly about a historical figure in a way that inspired me to live well in my own day. This was not just facts and dates bracketed by the years of a man’s life and death. This was a living, breathing video of one more saint who stands in the cloud of witnesses. It’s worth sharing.
With a Ph.D. from Westminster Theological Seminary and a number of church-serving books to his name, Dr. Nichols is the Research Professor of Christianity and Culture at Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School in Pennsylvania. He teaches only two classes and spends much of his time researching and writing, for which we should all be thankful. In his thirties and with three young children, he blends historical insight, theological intelligence, and relational warmth into an engaging and insightful personality. Our brunch was like hanging out with a very normal, very warm, and very bright friend.
But the real purpose of this post is to share my notes from his Wednesday message on John Calvin, whose 500th birthday we’re celebrating this year. The message was a rare combination of historical accuracy, biblical exposition, and contemporary relevance that fed my soul and inspired me to be all of who I ought to be and more than who I am.
Is This the Life You Would Choose?
- Your mother dies when you’re three years old.
- You reluctantly enter the ministry.
- You are unpaid for your first eight months.
- After two years in the ministry which you entered reluctantly, you’re voted out.
- You marry, and your son dies in infancy.
- As a result, your wife is plagued by illness, and she is bedridden for half of your marriage.
- She dies after nine years of marriage.
- At fifty, you have gout, intestinal parasites, and tuberculosis.
- You often have to be carried to the pulpit or the lectern to preach.
- You endure six weeks of intense pain before you die at fifty-five.
Would you want this marriage, this ministry, this life?
In Exodus 33:12-19, shortly after the golden calf incident where the Israelites prove their faithlessness with a blatant display of idolatry, their leader Moses appeals to God, pleading for His presence and asking that God reveal Himself personally in a special way. God answers Moses’ prayer and proclaims His glory to Moses. Yet God does not reveal Himself in the abstract. He opens wide His glory to Moses in the context of the Israelites’ outright rebellion and Moses’ demanding circumstances, and He tells Moses specific things about Himself.
- God is present.
- God knows us.
- God is omnibenevolent (a term coined by theologian Alistair McGrath expressing the “all-goodness” of God).
- God is gracious. Jonathan Edwards wrote advice to a young girl who had been recently converted. He told her, in Puritanesque fashion, to “never think that you lie low enough for [your sin],” yet to always remember that God’s love will always “infinitely overtop the highest mountains of our sins.”
- God is sovereign. He is not manipulated, tricked, duped, suckered, or bribed.
- The glory of God is ultimate.
Just as Moses learned these things about God in less than ideal situations, so did Calvin.
Calvin was born on July 10, 1509 in France. He was born into a Catholic home, as everyone was in his day. The year he was born Luther was lecturing in Wittenburg. Calvin was christened and put on the roles of the church, thereby entering a religious system with layer after layer of tradition obscuring the gospel, like scaffolding obscuring a beautiful building. At thirteen he was ready for university, so he was sent to the University of Paris. Having no desire to study theology or ministry, he chose the humanities, and did well. He progressed to his Master’s work at the University of Orleans, and having proven himself as a bright young man, he became a lecturer at the College of Royal Lecturers from 1531-34. During this time Calvin wrote his first book — a commentary on Seneca’s work on mercy. He was still unconverted.
In God’s providence, Calvin roomed with a young man named Nicholas Kopp who was converted in 1531 by reading Luther. Kopp began using their apartment to distribute Reformation ideas and literature, so Calvin was consistently breathing the air of the Reformation. He was converted in 1534, and threw himself headlong into the cause.
At one point Kopp and Calvin became aware of plans for their apartment to be raided by the authorities, so in the spring of 1534, Calvin went on the run for a year. In May of 1534 he went to his home church in France, crossed his name off the church role, and wrote “withdrawn.” He later reflected (in the Preface to his Psalms commentary) that this moment was like putting an exclamation point on his conversion. Like Luther, Calvin wrestled intensely with decisions like these. They both realized that according to the church’s theology, if they were wrong, they were placing themselves outside of the church, and they were damned to hell. So these were incredibly solemn decisions, not just the rash reactions of a young, idealistic radical. Despite some of these large steps in his own personal life, the Reformation never gained a foothold in Calvin’s home country.
At this point, at twenty-six years old and a believer for one year, Calvin wrote a systematic theology. This would end up serving as a kind of first edition for his Institutes. He wanted to go to Strasbourg to study under well-known scholar Martin Bucer. On the way, he spent the night in Geneva. His host, William Farel, was active in the cause of the Reformation. However, although Farel was good at stirring people up, he was not gifted to build, sustain, and shepherd a church. He observed that Calvin could do what he couldn’t, and invited him to stay in Geneva, under threat of a curse (!). Calvin reluctantly decided to stay (1536), perhaps thinking that if Farel and Geneva needed him that badly, he ought to offer his help.
For the first eight months, he received no salary, and for the first two years, the minutes of the city meetings refer to him only as “that Frenchman.” He got a terrible toothache, which was treated with bleedings, pills, and fomentation. Then the conflict began. Calvin wrote to Bucer, the man he had wanted to study under in Strasbourg, “They want a preacher, not a pastor.” He had come to see that the people of Geneva wanted to do their confessionals, take care of their venial sins, attend mass, hear an occasional homily, and go home and live however they wanted. As they say in the south, they didn’t want someone meddling. But Calvin was a pastor, not a distant orator. He was a shepherd, and he was going to care about the details of their lives — he was going to meddle.
In the spring of 1538, Calvin was kicked out of Geneva. He went to Strasbourg and met a widow named Idelette de Bure whose former Anabaptist husband Calvin had debated. They married and had a son whom they named Jacques. He didn’t live past one. Due to complications, his wife was plagued for the rest of her life, and died after nine years of marriage.
Around 1540, the Catholic church swept into Geneva with threats and authority and slander and persuasion, and no one could stand up to them intellectually. So Calvin went back in 1541, again very reluctantly. It’s interesting that while the trip from Strasbourg to Geneva took a couple weeks at most, Calvin didn’t arrive until eight months later (Nichols suggests that this may indicate how much Calvin didn’t want to go back to Geneva).
Despite his clear statements in his writings that he would’ve never chosen Geneva on his own, Calvin stayed for the rest of his life (1541-64). He wasn’t even given citizenship until the 1550’s, and it was in Geneva that he buried his wife. At one point he wrote, “I do what I can to keep myself from being overcome with grief.”
During this time his writing and his ministry were prolific. We have seven volumes of his letters along with commentaries on almost every book of the Bible. He preached an average of seven sermons each week, served on the city council, and set up orphanages and schools. Since his heart was in France, he and the church in Geneva trained up 2,000 students from Europe and sent them back fully funded by the city to set up underground churches in France. In 1555, Geneva even sent two missionaries to Brazil, which was unheard of in that day. They were killed by cannibals shortly after they arrived on shore. Calvin was not just a scholar, but a pastor and a visionary with his hand in every aspect of the Lord’s work.
In his later years he often had to be carried to the pulpit to preach, and he died in 1564 after six weeks of intense pain.
Is This the Life You Would Choose?
God is sovereign over our lives. This is often confused with fate, like the mythical sisters handling thread, one unraveling the thread and the other cutting it off at arbitrary points. But this has nothing to do with sovereignty.
God is sovereignly overseeing our lives and providentially guiding our lives, and He is good in it all. We see this so clearly in Calvin’s life. He did not reveal Himself to Calvin in the abstract, in the generalities of life. He taught Calvin about Himself and drew Calvin to Himself in the midst of uncertainty and pain and heartache and rejection. And most of all, He glorified Himself through Calvin’s life.
None of us here would ever choose Calvin’s life. But in His goodness and sovereignty, God did, and He used Calvin greatly through it. On Friday I want to talk about how your life can be relevant five hundred years from now, not because you write books or have books written about you, but because you live and die for things that will matter five hundred years from now.