A theologian, an accomplished author, pastor, linguist, churchman and mentor are some of the descriptions ascribed to John Calvin. Dunn (1981) in his new compact edition says: “Since the days of the apostles there have been few names that have occupied a more prominent place on the page of ecclesiastical history than that of John Calvin”. While this is so, John Calvin’s name provokes either admiration or abhorrence. There has been, and still is, a deep-seated dislike for Calvin even by those who have never read his works. Today, centuries after his death, he is still accused of pride, tyranny, intolerance, persecution, and ruining the lives of the citizens of Geneva—especially, Michael Servetus.

Birth Parentage and Early Life 

John Calvin was born on 10th July, 1509, in Noyon, a small city in the northern French province of Picardy. He was the second child to Gerard Chauvin and Jeanne Le Franc, a middle-class family. His father was a lawyer who held both ecclesiastical and civil offices. Young Calvin’s home, like almost every other home in France, was Roman Catholic. His father sent him to the University of Paris to study theology at the age of 14. It was during this time at the university that Calvin came into contact with the teachings of Humanism which were increasingly becoming contra to the old scholastic teachings of the Roman Catholic Church at that time. Calvin did not only become attracted to these new teachings, but also became sympathetic to a movement led by Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples (1455-1536) that was seeking to reform the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1528, at the age of 19, Calvin completed his Master’s degree in Theology. His father, having fallen out of favour with the Church of Rome, instructed his son to leave Paris and go to the University of Orleans in order to study law instead of theology. So for the next 3 years, Calvin studied at Orleans, Bourges and Paris, earning his doctorate in law and his license to practise as a lawyer. However, his father died in 1531, and that left Calvin free to pursue the passion of his life at that time. So he decided to move back to Paris and pursue the life of a scholar, immersing himself in the study of the Classics. In 1532, he published his first book, a Commentary on Seneca, at the age of twenty-one (Piper, 1997).

His Conversion

While Calvin studied law at Orleans, Pierre Robert, his cousin, had embraced the doctrines of the Reformation. He influenced Calvin to start reading the Bible, and it was not long before he began to abhor many of the superstitions and rites of the Roman Catholic Church. The time and circumstance of Calvin’s conversion are not known with any definiteness. It is put somewhere between 1531 and 1533. Calvin himself was extremely reserved about all matters of a personal nature. His only reference to his conversion is an obscure one in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms. In a letter to Sadoleto, the Cardinal, he wrote:

“Every time that I looked within myself or raided my heart to Thee, so violent a horror overtook me that there were neither purification nor satisfaction which could in any way cure me. The more I gazed at myself the sharper were the pricks which pressed my conscience, to such a point that there remained no other solace or comfort than to deceive myself by forgetting myself… And there was one thing especially which kept me from believing these people (referring to the Protestants), that was reverence for the Church. But after I had sometimes listened and suffered being taught, I realised that any such fear that the majesty of the Church might be diminished was vain and superfluous. And when my mind had been made ready to be truly attentive I began to understand, as if someone had brought me a light, in what a mire of error I had wallowed, and had become filthy, and with how much mud and dirt I had been defiled. Being then grievously troubled and distracted, as was my duty, on account of the knowledge of the eternal death which hung over me, I judged nothing more necessary to me after having condemned with groaning and tears my past manner of life, than to give myself up and to betake myself to Thy way…”

His wrestling with God, as evident from the above quote, was as intense as that of Martin Luther. Also, in his Preface to the Psalms, he gives us a glimpse of his own experience. In setting forth his credentials to expound on the Psalms, Calvin compares himself with David, whom God chose from the sheepfold to be in a position of authority, in that, God chose Calvin from humble beginnings to be a preacher and minister of the gospel:

And first, since I was too 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 other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardour. (1984, pp. xl, xli).

By the end of 1533, it is certain that He had already espoused the evangelical cause. He was forced to flee Paris for his life after being implicated (with a friend named Nicholas Cop) of proclaiming Christ alone as the man’s mediator with God. He found refuge in the city of Basel where the first edition of Calvin’s Institutes was published in 1536 (Piper, 1997). Later in the same year of 1536, Calvin headed to Strasbourg in order to lead a quiet scholarly life. A local war had caused the road to Strasbourg to be blocked and forced Calvin to travel through the city of Geneva, a city that had been nominally Protestant for about a decade (Packer, 1988:211). It was here that the fiery Guillaume Farel, a local Protestant pastor, warned Calvin of the curse of God that would be upon him if he refused to stay and help in the work of reformation in Geneva. Reluctantly, Calvin agreed to abandon his planned life as a student and writer of theology.

In this way, at the age of 27, Calvin began a career and an itinerary as the reformer, pastor, churchman and mentor. He was to spend most of the rest of his life in Geneva although he would visit other places from time to time.

Family Life and Ministry

At the age of 31, Calvin married Idelette, the widow of a friend. She had two children from her first husband. She and Calvin had a premature son who died at two weeks old. They had a daughter who died at birth and another child was born prematurely and died. Idelette’s health declined from there on, and, eventually, she died in 1549, after nine years of marriage to Calvin. At the time of her death, he referred to her as “my excellent life-companion, who if it had been necessary would have faced with me not only exile and poverty, but even death.” Calvin saw her as his best friend and supporter, and her death left him overwhelmed by grief. He never married again.

Calvin and Farel laboured together in Geneva and strove to bring the lives of the citizens of this great city in line with Scripture. In 1538, they were banished from the city when they attempted to deny the Lord’s Table to those who were living in open sin. Calvin went into exile in Strasbourg from 1538 to 1541. He pastored a Protestant congregation made up of mainly French-speaking refugees. In fact, it is in Strasbourg that he met and married Idelette. In September, 1541, Calvin reluctantly returned to Geneva, having been invited to come back by the City Council there. And for the rest of his life up to his death, he laboured in Geneva to maintain the Protestant cause. The magistrates and the people eagerly joined with the reformer in the first heat of their freedom and zeal. Great and marvellous changes were wrought in a short time upon the manners of the people; where license and frivolity had reigned, a strict moral severity began to characterise the whole attitude of the people. This, however, was not an easy road to travel. A spirit of rebellion to the rule of the reformers lingered on especially among people animated by an easier and liberal spirit known in the history of Geneva under the nick-name of Libertines. A struggle with this party continued until 1555.

In 1559, Calvin founded the Geneva Academy which attracted harassed theological students from all over Europe. Here they were trained and sent back to their own people, equipped with the whole armour of God, especially prepared to preach the gospel of pure grace. Calvin continued to take part in the affairs of other Protestant communities. He gave shelter to refugees (among them, John Knox, who later became the champion of the gospel in his own country of Scotland), maintained a vast correspondence with other reformers, kings and nobles, and wrote extensively. Apart from his monumental Institutes, he produced treatises and Bible commentaries on most books of the Bible.  It is to Calvin that credit is due for clarifying the doctrine of the Reformation and placing it upon a solid and enduring foundation. 

Unflinching Faithfulness to the End

We may look at the plethora of Calvin’s writings and think that he had it easy to write all these volumes. Nothing can be further from the truth. His workload was borne at the expense of his health.  Calvin suffered constant migraines and stomach pains. His poor health led eventually to colic and the spitting of blood, as well as unbearable pain from his haemorrhoids. On 27th May, 1564, at the age of 54, the great reformer breathed his last and entered into the glories of heaven. He remained faithful to his God right through to the end. In the words of his last will and testament, dictated on 25th April, 1564, almost a month before his death, we see the brightness of his faith:

In the name of God, I, John Calvin, servant of the Word of God in the church of Geneva,… thank God that He has shown not only mercy toward me, His poor creature, and… has suffered me in all sins and weaknesses, but what is much more, that He has made me a partaker of His grace to serve Him through my work… I confess to live and die in this faith which He has given me, inasmuch as I have no other hope or refuge than His predestination upon which my entire salvation is grounded. I embrace the grace which He has offered me in our Lord Jesus Christ and accept the merits of His suffering and dying, that through them all my sins are buried; and I humbly beg Him to wash me and cleanse me with the blood of our great Redeemer,… so that I, when I shall appear before His face may bear His likeness. Moreover, I declare that I endeavoured to teach His Word undefiled and to expound Holy Scripture faithfully, according to the measure of grace which He has given me (Beza, 1993:99–103).  

Nearly 500 years after his death, Calvin’s legacy and influence lives on. The church of Christ will forever be grateful to God for the life of this Genevan Reformer. 


Beza, T. (1993) The Life of John Calvin. Darlington: Evangelical Press.

Calvin, J. (1958) Calvin’s Commentaries: The Psalms. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans Pub. Co.

Dunn, S. (1981) The Best of John Calvin. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Packer, J. (1988) “John Calvin and Reformed Europe” in “Great Leaders of the Christian Church” ed. John D. Woodbridge. Chicago: Moody Press.

Piper, J. (2004) “The Divine Majesty of the Word: John Calvin: The Man and his Preaching” [Online]; Accessed 14 December 2004; available from http://www.desiringgod.org/library/biographies/97calvin.html.