July 10, 2009, marks the quin-centennial of the birth of one of the most influential men in history—John Calvin. Born in France and trained as a lawyer, Calvin became associated with the Swiss city of Geneva. Calvin, through his systematizing of Biblical doctrine, helped to perpetuate the Protestant Reformation.
Calvinism as a theological system is most known today for its commitment to God’s sovereign rule over the world. This sovereignty includes predestination—the truth that the Triune God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, including the salvation of the elect, or those whom He has chosen from before time began to be His people.
This Calvinistic viewpoint has seemed to many to carry a dark and foreboding aspect. However, in actuality, this Biblical teaching was celebrated during the time of the Reformation, as believers, many of whom were being persecuted, could be assured that nothing could wrest them away from the care of a heavenly Father who regarded them as the apple of His eye.
The doctrine of predestination is one facet of divine grace. Another is the teaching that a person is justified, or pronounced “not guilty” before God, on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, received by faith alone. Justification by faith alone was key to the Protestant understanding of salvation, and Calvin continued this emphasis that Martin Luther had begun.
Another essential doctrine was that of sola scriptura—“only the Scriptures.” In contrast to the Roman Catholic approach of putting church tradition on a par with the Word of God, Protestants believed that what God has written is the only infallible rule of faith and life. Calvin and his followers were more rigorous than the Lutherans in applying this doctrine to the worship and government of the church.
Calvin’s influence was felt far beyond the walls of Geneva. In France, Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Great Britain, Calvinists rose to places of prominence. Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in Scotland, where John Knox, who had sat under Calvin’s instruction, thundered forth his teaching.
Calvin was concerned with more than strictly church matters. He was a scholar of great learning. He reformed the civil government of Geneva, and helped to turn it from being the cesspool of Europe into its model city. His ideas of freedom and individuality created a climate that led to the overthrow of oppressive regimes; indeed, competent historians have argued that Calvin should be viewed as being the founder of America.
Scripture tells us that we should remember the great acts of God in history. It is quite fitting, therefore, on this five hundredth anniversary of Calvin’s birth, to recall his life and ministry, and to seek to emulate his motto: “My heart I offer to Thee, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.”