There are not many men after the apostles who have been as influential in advancing the cause of Christ as John Calvin. Not even those who know little about him or oppose him have been outside the sphere of his influence, albeit unconsciously. The irony is that Calvin was a frail-bodied and fairly reclusive, shy, sickly man, who preferred the quietness of the study rather than the platform of public life, unlike most famous people.

But is Calvin relevant today? Absolutely! Calvin is of little use only to the ignorant and theologically useless. There are three areas through which I can exhibit the significance of Calvin today.

His life

  1. A godly man. The first thing that must strike us about John Calvin is his relationship with God. Although he says little about it himself, Calvin was undoubtedly a God-fearing, God-focused and God-honouring man. He is one of those theologians who had such an exalted view of God that you cannot read his writings without being struck by this. This may account for his self-effaced character. For all his endowments and attainments, Calvin was an exceptionally humble man. His sternness, firmness and resolute commitment to discipline should not veil this fact. One described him as: “careless of wealth, of titles, of honours; indifferent to pomp, modest in his life, apparently humble, sacrificing everything to the desire of making others like himself.” Paste this humility onto the backdrop of his aristocratic education and taste. Yes, Calvin was a polished French gentleman, who was socially well-refined. We can, after all, be educated aristocrats who are at the same time godly and humble.
  1. A cultured mind. Calvin also teaches us the value of tuning up the mind. In Calvin you see a perspicuous thinker. So clear was his thinking that he makes such friendly reading. Complex things are made simple by Calvin. This could explain his reticence to comment on the book of Revelation. He probably felt unready to present it in the simplest way possible, given its highly symbolical character. Calvin was generally averse to spiritualisation and fanciful interpretation of scripture, or what he called “frivolous curiosity.”

Though written in the 1500’s Calvin’s writings are among the most reader-friendly. This is a unique feature that speaks of the enduring relevance of the Genevan Reformer. Today we have many writers, far inferior to Calvin in intelligence, who seem more bent on displaying their learning and wit than educating God’s people. Obscurity or complication is their hallmark.

In case you think Calvin was lucky to be born with a fine-tuned mind, you are mistaken. Study—intense study—is what bred such a mind. At university he was the most distinguished student of his day. Why? He studied almost night and day! Private study was his hobby. Calvin was persuaded that “reading makes a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man,” and so he expressed his judgement on what he read by writing extensively. Our minds are like wild horses which need scrupulous efforts to tame them for great achievements. Calvin’s mind-building exercises inform us that if we are to contribute significantly to the wellbeing of mankind in our day, our minds must be constantly in the gym.

  1. A hard working man. Calvin’s work rate is not just amazing, it is shocking. For over half his life, he led three divinity lectures every week throughout the year, preached several times a week, sat in presbytery meetings every Thursday, wrote large commentaries on almost all books of the Bible, wrote numerous letters, counselled many seekers, participated in theological debates, and much more! More work meant less sleep. What industry! At the end of each week, even one in which we feel exhausted, let us pause and ask ourselves how we have fared compared with Calvin. It is one thing to admire or even aspire for Calvin’s achievements, but another to pay the price for this by way of hours of hard work.

It is the more striking when you consider that Calvin worked this hard under intolerably stressful circumstances. Political pressure hounded him out of Geneva after only two years. He endured attacks from haters of reform and from heretics like Servetus, etc. So sickly was Calvin that he toiled under the pain of a chronic headache, tummy upsets and cramps, a frail chest that left him coughing blood, etc. He was asthmatic. Widowed after only nine years of marriage, he toiled without the care and comfort of a wife the rest of his life.

Almost to his death, Calvin still worked. “Do you want the Lord to find me idle?” he asked those who urged him to rest his ailing body. Is it not sad that, for many of us, even mild afflictions are happy excuses for not serving him who endured the cross for our redemption?

We have reason to believe Calvin’s incessant toil sadly broke his health, at age fifty-four. Calvin exerted himself to a fault. Yet for those who only see themselves serving under an atmosphere that is absolutely congenial, failure to which they must quit, surely Calvin stands as a rebuke. In him we see endurance par excellence. What an amazing man!

  1. His writings
  2. Insightful. It is not just the amount Calvin wrote but the quality of his writings that is jaw-dropping. In him is an incredible depth of insight that leaves you wondering what optical strength God lent to him to see truth only Bible students of subsequent centuries were supposed to see. So profound were his insights and so clear his expression of them that the conclusion that their author revealed them to him is inescapable. Even the best gifts depend on the power of the Spirit of God to be effective.

The historian, S M Houghton, observes that “of all the reformers, none has conferred greater benefits upon the church of God than John Calvin, for none of them dug so deeply into the Scriptures by prayerful study, or brought so much fine gold of truth from the mine of God’s Word as he.”

  1. Intellectual and devotional. Calvin is also distinguished for writing both with his head and heart. Not only is the mind that reads his writings adequately enlightened, the heart is warmed too. Consequently he speaks to both head and heart. This is a skill that needs to be cultivated by more writers and preachers today. Exhorters, whose preoccupation is only cerebral, like sentimentalists to whom feelings are the centre of gravity, have much to learn from 500-year old Calvin. Calvin commentated, taught and preached intelligently and pastorally.
  1. Scriptural. Ignoring the strong language used on opponents in his day, Calvin in his commentaries steps aside at some considerable distance to allow Scripture to speak for itself. He allows evidencing truth to flow from Scripture itself rather than from outside it. It is this quality that enabled him to teach the hard-to-accept doctrine of predestination faithfully, fearlessly and convincingly. Bible commentators and preachers today do well to adopt this “scripto-centric” approach to their work. The lambs of God should not be burdened with irrelevant historical and technical detail that only appeals to a spiritually near-extinct species of men. God does not need anybody to apologise for him for raising tough truths in his Word. Our duty is to tell them persuasively using Scripture.
  1. Theocentric and Christocentric. Of course, Calvin was principally a theologian. Even then, the pre-eminence of God is so pronounced in his writings. Whenever you read Calvin, God is unmistakably on the throne, and man is not to be even near his footstool, save for Christ’s mediation. Because to him “Christ is the scope of all the Scriptures,” his expositions of both Old and New Testament effortlessly unfold the Saviour. Having read his writings, Calvin leaves you nearer to God. This is vintage Calvin!

It is amazing that five hundred years after his birth a man can still wield so much influence. There is a peculiar immortality about the name John Calvin. Do you know why? His writings ever so faithfully express the enduring truth of God’s Word. Such should be every teacher’s aim.

The most influential book Calvin wrote was the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Rightly has this been rated as the most important book ever written on the Christian faith besides the Bible. In it all the qualities cited above are beautifully demonstrated. His commentaries are as relevant today as they have always been. Excellent stuff! 

  1. His Integrated Thought

John Calvin was indeed an amazing man. He saw the universe as truly God’s in a way that many people failed to see. Of course many people see it this way, but in a Deistic manner: God is at best absent-mindedly involved in the world and at worst he is divorced from it. Because Calvin saw all things as God’s, he saw all things as falling under him and positioned for his glory.

This is why Calvin saw no contradiction working towards ordering society in a God-honouring manner, using the instruments of power or politics. Although at some point he acceded to the use of the legislative whip to sort out moral disorders, he however had a fairly good idea of the ideal, even if unclear about the modus operandi, at a time when this was too complex to figure out. The daggers often drawn by religion against the secular were put back in their sheaths by men like Calvin.

The representative principle inherent in his Presbyterianism, with the checks and balances it provided in its constitutional forms, was to find expression in civil government. In fact, it sowed the seed for civil democratic rule in 16th century Europe. Such was Calvin’s influence.

Calvin’s worldview led him to press for universal education at a time when this was inconceivable. Man, made after God’s image, deserved better, intellectually, he believed. Educationists who today pander to the intellectual sloth of the age, should note with interest that Calvin saw wisdom in seeing to it that the youth were taught the Greek and Latin classics along with logic and rhetoric. He placed an extraordinary premium on quality education. Through Calvin’s influence, John Knox (1514–1572), a Scottish Reformer, was ready to use academic instruments to extend God’s kingdom on earth. He did this by establishing a school in every parish for the instruction of children in Scotland. As a result, education made rapid progress in his country, with very high standards.

Calvin saw no contradiction in being at once a social-civil reformer, educationist, preacher, musician, counsellor, family man, etc. He had an integrated or holistic worldview. From this we learn that the wider world should not be starved of our various gifts (even spiritual gifts) and influence, as Christian people. We should not hesitate, as God grants opportunities, to employ our gifts to reform the moral-spiritual, social, economic and political lives of our people. A Christianity that does not have an impact on the world is futile.

Calvin was not a perfect man, of course. Whatever his imperfections, his legacy speaks for his greatness. His strengths overwhelmingly dwarf his weaknesses and earn him a place in the study pages of every serious Christian. In so doing we do not idolise him. We only take the Scriptures seriously which urge us: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).