John Calvin is one of those figures that you either hate or love. Perhaps no man has ever been more slandered and calumniated by his foes, and more respected and venerated by his friends, than John Calvin. Those who hate him look upon him as a cruel and arrogant person whose work was oppressive, and who definitely had a hand in the “murder” of Servetus. Those who love him on the other hand, consider him to have been a gift from God, a bulwark of the faith and a pivotal figure particularly in shaping the theology of the Protestant Reformation as well as positively influencing the development of western civilization.

John Calvin is probably best known for his role in shaping the political identity of Geneva, and for his authorship of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Both of these aspects of his work would be interesting to write on and deserve to be known by all. In this article, however, I wish to briefly reflect on an area that is often overlooked and possibly neglected. And it concerns the relationship between piety and ministerial effectiveness as seen in the teaching, life and ministry of John Calvin. Let us begin with some observations on:

Calvin’s teaching on piety and the ministry.

John Calvin’s thoughts on this important subject are reflected mainly in his comments in the Pastoral Epistles. But before we turn to that, we must read Calvin’s definition of piety. He wrote: “I call ‘piety’ that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces” (Institutes, p.41). In his first catechism, Calvin writes, “True piety consists in a sincere feeling which loves God as Father as much as it fears and reverences Him as Lord, embraces His righteousness, and dreads offending Him worse than death.” (Catechism, p.2). Having captured this definition, let us now observe how Calvin looked at piety as it related to the Christian ministry. And we begin with his teaching on:

(a) The relationship between a pastor’s pedagogical engagement and his piety

Commenting on 1 Timothy 4:16, Calvin wrote: “There are two things of which agood pastor should be careful; to be diligent in teaching, and to keep himselfpure” (Calvin’s Bible Commentaries on 1 Timothy, p.93). For Calvin, it was not enough to be diligent in teaching. “Doctrine” he said, “will be of little avail, if there be not a corresponding goodness and holiness of life” (Calvin’s Bible Commentaries on 1 Timothy, p.91). In Calvin’s thinking, theological understanding and practical piety are inseparable. To underline this point, he highlights two important ideas in his commentaries:

Piety—a pastor’s chief care: As opposed to those who viewed eloquence, titles and outward dignity as a pastor’s greatest achievement, Calvin declared in his comments on 1 Timothy 4:7 that godliness is a pastor’s “proper occupation, his labour, his chief care” (Calvin’s Bible Commentaries on 1 Timothy, p.87). The pastor is not the Jack of all trades who gropes for everything and consequently blunts his ability to undertake his priority tasks well. In Calvin’s view, a pastor would be doing what was of the highest importance if he devoted himself “with all his zeal, and with all his ability, to godliness alone.” By godliness, he understood Paul to mean “the spiritual worship of God which consists in purity of conscience.”

Piety—the true ornament of a godly minister: In his comments on 1 Timothy 4:12 he writes about “the true ornaments of a godly minister”. Here, he was drawing a contrast between what the Roman Catholic clergy viewed as “true ornaments” namely, the crosier, the ring, and the cloak, and what must be an evangelical minister’s true ornaments, namely soundness of doctrine and holiness of life. Calvin saw this holiness of life as consisting of four parts; namely, charity (i.e. love), spirit, faith, and chastity. Calvin argued that a pastor must“live in such a way that he is worthy of applause and not open himself to contemptboth by his ignorance, and by a detestable example of life, or by levity or other abominations” (Calvin’s Bible Commentaries on 1 Timothy, p.91). For Calvin, this meant having ardour or zeal for God—which is what he understood by the word “spirit”—and beingchaste, which he understood to mean purity of the whole life. In Calvin’s view (and indeed in Paul’s), a pastor, even a youthful one, must labour to excel in each of these virtues—which indeed are his true ornaments.

It is all very well to say piety is absolutely important for effective ministry. But how is this piety to be attained? Calvin leaves us in no doubt as to how.

(b) Piety’s means

Bible reading, study and meditation: In his comments on 2 Timothy 3:16, John Calvin highlights the various and manifold advantages derived from the Scriptures. They include instruction, reproof and correction—all this for the purpose of making the man of God perfect. For Calvin, the word “perfect” means “a blameless person, one in whom there is nothing defective” (Calvin’s Bible Commentaries on 2 Timothy, p.66). What Calvin was trying to say is that, with the Scriptures in hand, the man of God does not only have a means to make himself godly and happy (Psalm 1:1–3) and therefore qualified to be God’s mouthpiece, but also has a sufficient means to meet all of the needs of the people he is called to serve.

Prayer: Calvin supplies two reasons why pastors must pray. In his comments on prayer in Acts 6:4, the first is “the common salvation of the church” in which he must, like Moses, be the ring leader (Exodus 17:11). The second is so that “we don’t lose all our labour bestowed upon plowing, sowing, and watering” (1 Corinthians 3:7).

He says, “Therefore, it shall not suffice to take great pains in teaching, unless we require the blessing at the hands of the Lord that our labour may not be in vain and unfruitful” (Calvin’s Bible Commentaries on the Acts of the Apostles, p.193,194).

(c) Motivations for pursuing godliness in the ministry

Calvin laid before his readers many motivations for pursing piety in the ministry. Here are some of them:

A double salvation: Calvin wrote in regard to this point: “It is no ordinary spur to excite the thoughtfulness of pastors, when they learn that their own salvation, as well as that of the people, depends on the industry and perseverance with which they devote themselves to their office.” And “…as the unfaithfulness or carelessness of the pastor is ruinous to the church, so the cause of salvation is justly ascribed to his faithfulness and diligence” (Calvin’s Bible Commentaries on 1 Timothy, p.94).

Sense of being filled and ‘satisfying’ God: According to John Calvin, “He who has godliness wants nothing, though he has not those little aids; for godliness alone is able to conduct a man to complete perfection”. In addition to this, “We ought to apply ourselves altogether to piety alone; because when we have once attained it, God asks nothing more from us…” (Calvin’s Bible Commentaries on 2 Timothy, p.66).

A help in resisting avarice: Avarice has ruined many a minister. According to Paul, godliness is the prophylactic for it. Calvin spoke to this issue when he commented on 1 Timothy 6:11. Consequently, every person who shall be devoted to the pursuit of ‘righteousness,’ and who shall aim at ‘piety, faith, charity,’ and shall follow patience and gentleness, cannot but abhor avarice and its fruits” (Calvin’s Bible Commentaries on 1 Timothy, p.132).

A sure way of bringing glory to the head of the church: The goal of piety, as well as the entire Christian life, is the glory of God. The pious man, according to Calvin, confesses, “We are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal” (Institutes, p.43).

Calvin’s piety—in life & ministry

Calvin underlined what he taught by the example of his own life. His life was marked by an irrepressible godliness. This is easily demonstrated in five areas of his life:

(a) His godly character

Note five characteristics we need to underscore in regard to this:

He was simple and contented: Calvin was an excellent example of a man who had godliness with contentment (1 Timothy 6:6). “A great simplicity and moderateness marked every aspect of his domestic affairs. Throughout life, he remained almost penniless. He steadfastly refused any monetary preferments, and gave liberally from his meagre stocks to those in need. His house and furniture in Geneva belonged to the council, and his personal effects were so scanty that it was no major task to dispose of them in his will.”

Colladan, his secretary, wrote in regard to this matter, “As to his ordinary life, everyone will bear witness that he was very abstemious, without any excess or meanness, but a praiseworthy moderation. One fault that he had was that in his abstinence he took little regard to his health, mostly being content for many years with a single meal a day and never taking anything between two meals.”

He was meek and humble: A good deal of trouble had been given in Geneva by Troillet, who was unworthy of the position to which he aspired. But when death laid his finger on this man, he sent for the pastor he had so abused and wronged. Calvin hastened to the dying man, forgave him, and comforted him.”

He was captive to the Word of God: Calvin bowed in utter submission to the Word of God. To him, it was not only the Word of life, but also the sceptre by which Christ ruled in the church. His most strenuous labours were devoted to understanding and explaining that Word in expositions matchless in their depth and clarity.

He could write as he lay dying; “I have not falsified a single passage of the Scriptures, nor given it a wrong interpretation to the best of my knowledge.” “Calvin sees the will of God to which one has to submit, in all of Scripture… Calvin takes the whole Bible absolutely seriously: this the secret of his being reveals” (Stickleberger).

He had a biblical work ethic: An outstanding feature of his godly life was his unrelenting industry. He was always busy. His secretary, Nicolas Colladan, writes concerning his master’s ceaseless busyness, “I do not believe there can be found his like. For who could recount his ordinary and extraordinary labours? I doubt if any man in our time has had more to listen to, to reply to, to write, or things of greater importance. The multitude and quality alone of his writings is enough to astonish everyone who looks at them, and even more.” He never ceased working, day or night, in the service of the Lord, and heard most unwillingly the prayers and exhortations that his friends addressed to him every day to give himself some rest. Another contemporary described him as “a bow always strung”.

Dr. Hoyle also commented: “What shall I say of his indefatigable industry, almost beyond the power of nature; which, set against our loitering, will, I fear, exceed all credit? It may be the truest object of admiration, how one lean, worn, spent, and wearied body could hold out. He gave, every week of the year through, three divinity lectures. Every other week, over and above, he preached every day; so that I know not whether more to admire his constancy or theirs that heard him. Some have reckoned that his yearly lectures were one hundred and eighty-six, and his yearly sermons two hundred and eighty-six. Every Thursday he sat in the presbytery. Every Friday, when the ministers met to consult upon difficult texts, he made as good as a lecture. Besides all this, there was scarce a day that exercised him not in answering the doubts and questions of different churches and pastors. Scarcely a year passed wherein some volume came not forth.”

He had godly courage: For all his personal sensitivity, Calvin was inflexible and courageous when the honour of God was at stake. Stickleberger writes, “His convictions grounded in Scripture were immovable, and he asserted them with the zeal of the Prophets of the Old Testament.”

(b) His response to the call to the ministry through William Farel’s imprecation

Calvin had no intention of becoming a preacher, let alone a pastor. His preference was for a secluded corner somewhere to confer with scholars, to read, and to write. In addition to this, he felt himself too timid, weak and fainthearted by nature. Farel on the other hand was persuaded that God had sent Calvin to Geneva to assist in the work of reformation there. There was a clear conflict of wills between the two men. Farel, concluding that he was not going to convince Calvin to stay, was eventually moved to issue an imprecation, the substance of which was: “You are concerned about your rest and your personal interests. Therefore I proclaim to you in the name of Almighty God whose command you defy: Upon your work there shall rest no blessing.” His facial expression tensed; by force he gripped the hesitant Calvin, his countenance so close that he could feel his streaming breath: “Therefore, let God damn your rest, let God damn your work!” Calvin was finished. Burdened under the weight of a great, invisible hand, he melted. As he offered his hand to the preacher, a tear rolled over his caved-in cheek. “I obey God!” were the words with which he signalled his surrender. Calvin was not prepared to resist a God he so greatly feared and loved.

(c) His considerations in choosing a wife

When choosing a wife, Calvin was guided by godly considerations. Before he married, he set down the criteria for the kind of woman he preferred to marry in the following words: “The grace which might capture me for a woman is discipline, gentleness, modesty, good house-keeping, and patience.” Charm and fancy were relatively unimportant to him.

(d) His passion for God’s glory

It seemed natural to Calvin, and was certainly no effort to him, to refer all back to God. Everywhere we find underlying all he wrote the thought that God alone is all and does all, “It was more God’s work than mine,” he says of the birth of his Institutes.

(e) His labours as death approached

Theodore Beza wrote of his untiring diligence even in the eventide of his life: “In the year 1562 it might already be seen that Calvin was hastening with rapid strides to a better world. He ceased not, however, to comfort the afflicted, to exhort, even to preach, and to give lectures. The following year his sufferings so increased that it was difficult to conceive how so weak a body, and exhausted as it had been by labour and sickness, could retain so strong and mighty a spirit. But even now he could not be induced to spare himself; for when he was obliged, against his will, to leave the public duties of his office unfulfilled, he was employed at home, giving advice to those who sought him, or wearing out his amanuenses by dictating to them his works and letters. When we besought him to refrain at least during his sickness from dictating and writing, he answered, ‘Would you that the Lord should find me idle when He comes?’ The year 1564 was the first of his eternal rest, and the beginning for us of a long and justifiable grief” (Theodore Beza, Life of John Calvin, p.66–81).

Calvin’s piety and its accomplishments in the ministry

Calvin’s labours were incessant. He preached on average every day, and often twice a day in Geneva for 25 years. Through this he trained refugees and other preachers. He sent many men into the mission field, especially to France and South America. He wrote prolifically. The world remembers him not so much as a preacher, but as the author of many thick volumes. He wrote 39 commentaries on the books of the Bible. He wrote hundreds of letters and tracts on various issues. He wrote books, the most important of which is the Institutes of the Christian Religion. And through his teachings and followers, he contributed to the shaping of western civilization.

To what was Calvin indebted for all the courage, learning, industry, and success, which he possessed? Theodore Beza’s answer was: “To a deep and settled piety…During the short period of thirty-one years, he lived and laboured ever mindful of the coming of his Saviour; and was distinguished by study, contemplation, watchfulness, thanksgiving, and prayer”. He was up against many foes, but he didn’t pick up arms to defeat them, like Ulrich Zwingli did. His whole attitude is captured in a sentence which formed part of a letter he wrote to William Farel: “The hierarchy of the church of Rome, both in England, in Ireland, and Scotland, can only be overcome by out-preaching, out-praying, and out-living them.”


At the end of his Life of John Calvin, Theodore Beza wrote, “Having been a spectator of his conduct for sixteen years…, I can now declare, that in him all men may see a most beautiful example of the Christian character, an example which it is as easy to slander as it is difficult to imitate.” The challenge before every gospel minister is to try and imitate Calvin even as he imitated Christ. Only the living out of Calvin’s kind of life can make a positive difference to our personal, marriage, family and church lives.

Guizot, the French historian, ended Calvin’s biography thus: “Calvin is great by reason of his marvellous powers, his enduring labours, and the moral height and purity of his character. Earnest in faith, pure in motive, austere in his life, and mighty in his works, Calvin is one of those who deserve their great fame. Three centuries separate us from him, but it is impossible to examine his character and history without feeling, if not affection and sympathy, at least profound respect and admiration for one of the great Reformers of Europe and one of the great Christians of France.”


Battles, Ford Lewis (Ed). John Calvin’s Catechism. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Beza, Theodore. Life of John Calvin.

Calvin, John. Commentary on 1 Timothy.

Calvin, John. Commentary on 2 Timothy.

Calvin, John. Commentary on Acts.

Calvin, John. Institutes of Christian religion.