The Influence of John Calvin on Today’s Churches

Last night on Reformation Sunday, I gave the Second Annual Reformation Address to our congregation, entitled “The Influence of John Calvin on Today’s Churches.” The following is my sermon transcript.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c4/John_Calvin.jpg

THE INFLUENCE OF JOHN CALVIN ON TODAY’S CHURCHES

INTRODUCTION

Although the month of October is notoriously celebrated for a pagan holiday, October 31st is the day that all Christians should also celebrate, not because of Halloween, but because it is the 491st anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95-Theses he posted on the door of CastleChurch in Wittenberg, Germany, which helped fuel the Protestant Reformation.

So around this time of last year, I gave our first Reformation Address on the life of Martin Luther and the role that he played. One of my reasons for the Reformation Address is for our church to have a better and deeper appreciation and understanding for our historical faith and our heroes of faith. It is always a troubling sign if Christians or churches have no historical connection or no historical understanding of church history. It is often said that without knowing the past, we cannot know our present, and certainly, we would not know what to do tomorrow.

With all the resources that are available for us today, this generation is perhaps the most ignorant generation when it comes to having some working knowledge of biblical truths and historical theology. That is why I feel the greater need for me to give the Annual Reformation Address, and hopefully, some of these heroes of faith can become your heroes of faith as well. Here, let me just quickly insert a pastoral advice. If you don’t have any spiritual heroes or heroes of faith in your life, then get some. And one way is to do some biographical readings.

In the past 12 months, how many biographical readings have you done? You may have read something on theology, biblical study, and Christian living, but how about a biographical reading on one of our heroes of faith?

I want to encourage you to read at least one book on or by one of our heroes of faith in a year. Do you know who Augustine is? Or, Martin Luther? Or, any of the Puritans? Are you familiar with Charles Spurgeon? J. Gresham Machen? Or, Martyn Lloyd-Jones? We cannot remain ignorant to church history. You would not understand why or how today’s churches are so impotent if you don’t understand our past. We are here today as a result of yesterday; and where we would be tomorrow is based on the decision we make today. And based on what I know of today’s churches, I’m very concerned about where our churches would be tomorrow. Again, do some readings on the past, so that you would have a better grasp of our present condition, if you genuinely care about where you would like to be tomorrow. Granted, these heroes are not perfect and we do not elevate them in a cultic sense by any means. But we can learn tremendous things from these people that God sovereignly chose to do mighty things.

One of my favorite encouraging words on this regard comes from Don Whitney and his book Simplify Your Spiritual Life, which he encourages his readers to imitate spiritual heroes because “we would be encouraged by their love for Christ, their devotion to prayer, and their passion for the gospel and the things of God.”[1] He also argues for another strong advantage for imitating spiritual heroes. He writes:

Having the right heroes also helps to protect us from spiritual and theological error. As the following verse warns, “Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines” [Hebrew 13:9]. All human heroes will lead us into error if we follow them uncritically and without discernment. But to have no heroes for fear of being spiritually polluted is to overreact. The right heroes are right almost all the time. By speaking the Word of God to us, sharing insights we haven’t been given, using analogies and illustrations we haven’t considered, and formulating truth in ways that make things clear to us, the right heroes will protect us from far more error than they may give us.[2]

In this Second Annual Reformation Address, the man that I have chosen for the hour is John Calvin, or Jean Calvun in French. Some have said that between Paul the Apostle and Luther the Reformer, Augustine was the greatest man God gave his church. If that is the case, according to B.B. Warfield, then between Luther the Reformer to our day, the greatest man God gave his church is none other than John Calvin.[3]

With that in mind, let me simply tell you at the onset of this message what you are about to hear. I will not merely load you with a bunch of historical facts. You can get those facts by simply reading books. For me, historical facts are nothing if they do not have any bearing on me today. Therefore, the bulk of my address is to show you what type of influences Calvin has on today’s churches. In fact, that is the thesis for this talk. I will attempt to show you that many Bible-driven churches since the Reformation follow the same set of convictions that Calvin used to reform the churches in his days, as well as ours. But before I go any further, let me briefly share his background.

Prior to His Conversion

John Calvin was born on July 10, 1509 at Noyon, in Picardy, which is the northern providence of France, located 60 miles northeast of Paris. If you do the math, next July of 2009 the Christendom would celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Calvin, which many Bible conferences around the world are already preparing for next year.

Calvin entered the University of Paris at the age of 14, and mastered almost everything he turned his attention to, including a brilliant writing style and masterful skill in logic and logical argument. At the age of 19, he graduated with his Master of Arts degree. And at the age of 22, he mastered a classical literature and published his first literary commentary. It was no brainer that classical literature was his passion and he already established himself as a respectful scholar in classical literature. However, all that changed when God called him with his effectual call.

His Conversion

No one really knows when Calvin was converted, other than sometime between when he was 22 to 24. Although I have not discovered many detailed accounts of Calvin’s conversion, what is clear is that he left the promising career as a classical literary scholar for the Reformation cause. Perhaps there is nothing more worthy of the Reformation cause than the contribution of his published works.

His Published Works

In the spring of 1536, he published his first and famous Protestant literature – the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which basically was a short theology book to instruct Christians what they should believe. He wrote the Institutes because he felt that there was no helpful doctrinal literature available for Christians and churches at the time. What began as a short little treatise on Christian doctrine in 1536 went through several revisions by Calvin, and ultimately, published its final and definitive edition in 1559 as a bulky systematized theology book. In fact, by this time the Institutes have divided into four major theological sections or “books.” And they are as follows: Book One “The Knowledge of God the Creator,” which includes a thorough treatment on both natural and special revelations; Book Two “The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ, First Disclosed to the Fathers Under the Law, and Then to Us in the Gospel”; Book Three “The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow”; and finally, Book Four “The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein.”

There are different translations of the Institutes available today. If you are interested in purchasing a copy for yourself, I would highly recommend you get Ford Lewis Battles’ edition, edited by John T. McNeill, which is considered the standard work. Recently, in 2006 this work was reprinted in two volumes by Westminster John Knox Press.

However, Calvin’s contribution to the Reformation cause did not end with the Institutes alone. He is, perhaps, better known for his another mammoth-lifetime work, namely, his Bible expositional commentaries on the whole Bible, though there are some biblical books that he did not work on. It is amazing that though he has been dead for almost five centuries, he still speaks. Personally, I frequently use his commentaries when I am working through a particular text of Scripture, and I have found him to be very helpful as one of my teachers.

Now to the remaining of our time, let me talk to you about what I really want to address, namely, to show you what influences Calvin has on today’s churches. I think this would better help you get to know who Calvin was and how he shapes our churches. With that in mind, let me point out Calvin’s four influences.

1. Calvin was a true biblical exegete.

That is very obvious when you read through his expositional commentaries on the Bible. However, for many centuries prior to the Reformation, the typical hermeneutical methods were allegorizing and spiritualizing the text. Having such methods, the church can say about anything she wants to believe what the Bible says and means. Such hermeneutical gymnastics were a license for much of ecclesiastical abuses.

But for Calvin, the meaning of the text was the meaning of the text. What drove him to handle the Word with such precision was due to his commitment to biblical exegesis. In fact, he is considered the father of the modern day grammatico-historical method of hermeneutics. To answer what grammatico-historical hermeneutics is, it is simply an interpreting rule in which the interpreter considers the historical context and grammatical structure for the specific text that he wishes to understand in the way that the biblical author originally intended to convey.[4]

Calvin understood that without the proper exegesis of Scripture, there is no expositional preaching. In other words, biblical exegesis is the foundational work for proper expository preaching. That is why he often worked from the biblical texts, usually from Hebrew or Greek, so that he can understand the way the original writer intended to mean.

It is also important to note that what influenced Calvin to such a high commitment to biblical exegesis is due to his commitment to God’s glory. One researcher said, “When he (Calvin) studied, it was to behold the majesty of God. Thus his sermon preparation was not primarily for others; it was first and foremost for his own heart.”[5]

2. Calvin helped define what a true church is.

If Luther helped rediscover the doctrine of justification by faith, Calvin helped rediscover how to dispense such truth, namely through a God-ordained church. I believe Calvin took the Reformation further than Luther did. Many historians believe that Luther was satisfied with a church as long as the gospel was preached. But Calvin could not be content with what seemed to be a lackadaisical attitude. He said, “We cannot think so narrowly of our office that when preaching is done our task is fulfilled, and we may take our rest.” For Calvin, a mark of a true church is not merely that the gospel is preached, but that it is obeyed and followed. It is from this notion that Calvin helped rediscover for the church to exercise church discipline on members who refuse to obey the word. As I mentioned earlier, Calvin helped rediscover, not discover, because the mandate for the church to exercise church discipline is already stated in Scripture. In other words, it wasn’t Calvin who came up with the doctrine and practice of church discipline; he simply reiterated what Jesus already commanded.

When we hear the notion of the marks of true church, there are many people who actually and ridiculously believe that this is an invention by some modern day ultraconservatives, such as John MacArthur and his book The Master’s Plan for the Church, or Mark Dever and his book The Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. Such statement is a reflection of their ignorance to the Bible and historical theology.

Many believe that the Bible contains the truths of God and that the Bible is the word of God. This is true for many people today and it was certainly true with many people even prior to the Reformation. But as you know, there is a huge difference between saying that you believe the Bible and actually knowing what it says, and this is where Calvin came to help. What Calvin did was to systematize all that the Bible says about various topics, including the marks of true church.

So, what are the marks of a true church? According to Calvin, the church is constituted by 1) the preaching of the word, 2) the right administration of the sacraments or ordinances, namely, the Lord’s Supper and baptism, and 3) exercise of the church discipline. Eventually, those marks became the marks of the Reformed churches. We owe Calvin for his unflinching commitment to the purity of the gospel and the purity of the church. For Calvin, the issue was not either or (meaning, the gospel or the church), but both – because you cannot have the one and not the other. He believed that the true gospel would be preached in the true church, and anything less would be impossible. For example, a false church would not preach the true gospel, and a true church would not preach the false gospel.

For Calvin, any church that would ignore or refuse to exercise church discipline is disqualified categorically as a church. But the issue is much deeper than what may appear at surface, because this involves what is implied or does not implied at a church. Let me explain what I mean. When a church does not practice church discipline, what does that imply about the church? It implies that the church is not concerned about sin, holiness, and many other things. And if sin and holiness are not taken seriously, what do you think their view of the gospel would be? I can assure you, it would very much be characterized as an easy-believism, which is not the true gospel. Also, when a church does not have the proper view of the gospel, sin and holiness, the church would more likely have erroneous views of God, which now attacks the very core of who God is, which is what blasphemy is.

When it comes to the subject of church discipline, a question frequently comes up, that is, how to do it properly? I think what Calvin taught and practiced in his day are simply brilliant. In fact, many Bible-driven churches have followed his advice ever since then. Let me quickly share what they are with you.

In order for a local church to properly exercise church discipline, the church must, first and foremost, teach on the subject. How can a church practice church discipline if they don’t know what it is? This can be done regularly from the pulpit and during a catechism class (the teaching/equipping ministry). In fact, Calvin seemed to imply that this topic, along with other crucial doctrines, should be included in the church’s doctrinal statement (4.8.1).[6] That is why in many Bible-preaching churches, the subject of church discipline, is included in their statement of faith.

Biblically, the purpose of church discipline is twofold: first, to lovingly restore a member from sin to repentance, and two, to protect the unity and purity of the church. The attitude in which the Bible teaches to do so is not out of self-righteousness like that of the Pharisees, but having the best interests for the individual we want to restore. So, next time when you are approached by a brother, a sister, or a leader with a loving rebuke or correction, please be quick to hear and slow to speak (and even slow to anger). A self-centered tendency is for you to automatically put up a wall or be defensive, but in all reality, such attitude and action reveals more about your prideful heart than anything else. Keep in mind that when you are approached, he or she has the best interests for you as your brother or sister, and more likely, that person may feel more awkward than you are. Always be respectful when you receive a rebuke or a correction. More likely, the brother or sister that has approached you, have already gone through Galatians 6:1 principle before confronting you, so be respectful and mindful that such person has nothing but the best interests for you.

3. Calvin exemplified expositional preaching and preacher.

To me there is nothing more our churches today are so desperately in need of than expository preaching and expository preachers. In our churches today, exposition has replaced entertainment, preaching with performances, doctrine with drama, and theology with theatrics.[7] For Calvin, preaching was job number one. In fact, he constantly urged the pastors of all Christian churches to devote their primary duty to preaching the word. According to Steve Lawson,

The church is always looking for better methods in order to reach the world. But God is always looking for better men who will devote themselves to His biblically mandated method for advancing His kingdom, namely, preaching – and not just any kind of preaching, but expository preaching (emphasis his).[8]

The reason why he had such unflinching commitment to expository preaching was due to his utter conviction for the sufficiency of Scripture. Calvin believed that though there are parts of Scripture that may appear to be obscure, the parts that are not obscure are powerfully sufficient to convict the conscience and bring the person’s knees to the lordship of Christ. He said, “However much obscurity there may be in the Word, there is still always enough light to convict the conscience of the wicked” (3.24.13).[9]

One writer concludes:

Every preacher who expounds God’s Word brings a body of core values with him into the pulpit. These foundational commitments inevitably shape his preaching. His pulpit ministry is governed by what he believes Scripture to be, what place he assigns to preaching, and how he believes his preaching ought to be conducted.[10]

What was so unique about Calvin’s preaching at his time was that he took his congregation through a regular, systematic, verse-by-verse fashion through various books of the Bible. That was almost unheard of at his day. Hence, his church in Geneva became the center of ongoing biblical expositions during the Reformation, where many Protestants in Europe sought the shelter there to eat and drink from the word and go back to their countries and replicate such style of preaching.

Not only Calvin had a high view of preaching, but he also encouraged Christians to have a high regard for those who are called to preach. You can imagine if you would to sit under the ministry of Calvin for many years, not only you would develop a deep appreciation and affection for the word, but also to those who are called to preach the word. In fact, Calvin alluded the preachers to be “the very mouth of God.” He said:

Those who think the authority of the Word is dragged down by the baseness of the men called to teach it disclose their own ungratefulness.For, among the many excellent gifts with which God has adored thehuman race, it is a singular privilege that he deigns to consecrate to himself the mouths and tongues of men in order that his voice may resound in them (4.1.5).[11]

4. Calvin balanced the need for theologian-pastor and pastor-theologian, and scholar-pastor and pastor-scholar.

Without a doubt, Calvin was no average Joe. His exceptional God-given gifts are evidenced in his works. What I appreciate so much about Calvin is though he possessed incredible scholarly mind, he was an under-shepherd to a local church. And I believe he wonderfully balanced the need for theologian-pastor and pastor-theologian, and scholar-pastor and pastor-scholar. Let me explain what I mean.

There is no doubt a difference between someone who is theologian-pastor and pastor-theologian, and scholar-pastor and pastor-scholar. A theologian-pastor or scholar-pastor is a pastor who thinks theologically and is trained to read scholarly works. Hence, he is trained to think and teach theologically and even produce some scholarly works, but nonetheless, he is a pastor first and foremost. When I think of theologian-pastor or scholar-pastor, I think of notable men like R.C. Sproul, John Piper, and others. Perhaps many pastors may not have the same caliber like that of those notable men, but at least, they need to be trained to read and be engaged in theological and scholarly works. If not, how are the churches going to be informed and combat against aberrant movements like the Emergent Churches, Open-Theism, and New Perspectives of Paul?

Then there are those who are pastor-theologians and pastor-scholars. These men may not be called to pastor a church, but they are called to teach and train future pastors. They have exceptional theological and scholarly trainings to equip men in colleges and seminaries, but they do so not only to dump facts and theories on their students, but also interested in heart-transformations. These are theologians and scholars first, but they do so with a shepherd’s heart. In this realm, I think of notable men like D.A. Carson and others.

You see, all these men are needed in our churches. Again, it’s not either or, but both. There may be possible debates as to where Calvin would fit in, but what is important is that Calvin wonderfully modeled the balance.

CONCLUSION

The goal of this message is not to exalt John Calvin. But it is to celebrate God’s sovereign choice in using this particular servant to equip and edify his church for the glory of God. I would be happy, as a result of this message, that next time you hear your pastor talking about Calvin and Reformation or Calvin and Reformed theology you would now discern that he’s not talking about the Calvin from Calvin and Hobbs, but John Calvin.

SOME HELPFUL READINGS ON CALVIN

  • Theodore Beza, The Life of John Calvin.
  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 Volumes, translated and indexed by Ford Lewis Battles.
  • David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback, A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes.
  • Steven J. Lawson, The Expository Genius of John Calvin.
  • John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy.
  • Benjamin B. Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism.

SOME HELPFUL READINGS ON CALVINISM

  • James M. Boice and Philip G. Ryken, The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel.
  • Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware, Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace.
  • David N. Steele, Curtis C. Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented.

[1] Donald S. Whitney, Simplify Your Spiritual Life (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2003), 117.

[2] Ibid., 118.

[3] Benjamin B. Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 26.

[4] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999), 70.

[5] Steven J. Lawson, The Expository Genius of John Calvin (Lake Mary: Reformation Trust, 2007), 40.

[6] John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion, 2 volumes, translated and indexed by Ford Lewis Battles, edited by John T. McNeill (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 2:1149-50.

[7] Lawson, xi.

[8] Lawson, 18-19.

[9] Calvin, 2:980-1.

[10] Lawson, 24.

[11] Calvin, 2:1018.

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