A brief caveat before we begin: If when you hear or read the name John Calvin you roll your eyes or your blood starts to boil, this post may or may not be for you.
John Calvin is one of the giants in the history of the church. He is one of the greatest Christian thinkers and theologians to ever live, and has influenced much of what we call evangelicalism today as well as modern-day government. Calvin was also an astute interpreter of Scripture amassing a thorough commentary set on each book of the Bible that each serious theology student and pastor should own. History knows him as “The Theologian.” And his greatest work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, is one of the most significant literary works of the 1500s. Truly, it is one of the greatest religious works of all time.
Calvin is one of my theological heroes and has shaped much of my understanding about who God is and how he operates in the world. In some places within evangelicalism it is taboo to follow Calvin. Some churches would even go so far as to discourage the reading of Calvin. This is not to mention the crazed anti-Calvin zealots who would all but crucify anyone who mentions his name. You know, those churches who’s first question in an interview is always, “What do you think about Calvinism?”
Calvin is associated with the soteriological doctrine bearing his name, and this is usually all most people know about him. Believe it or not, the man John Calvin was much more than a proponent of the biblical doctrine of unconditional election. He was a devoted, passionate, and self-sacrificing pastor. I love to read biographies of Calvin because his devotion as a pastor and the sacrificial love he had for his flock inspires me.
One of the greatest misconceptions about Calvinism and Calvin in particular is that neither the doctrine nor the man care about missions because it is logically inconsistent with the soteriological doctrine of unconditional election and limited atonement. In other words, many people believe Calvin was not evangelistic because he believes God is in total control of salvation.
John Calvin was born on July 10, 1509. In honor of Calvin’s birthday, I want to share some evidence that shatters these anti-Calvinistic claims. Say what you like about Calvin. It is fair to disagree with his soteriology. There are many things about which I disagree with Calvin. He was by no means perfect, and taking part in sending Servetus to burn at the stake is, to say the least, a stain on his legacy. But one thing you cannot do is doubt his heart for those without Christ. Calvin wasn’t after a legacy. He was after the glory of God being magnified throughout the world.
In 1553, Calvin wrote a letter to five young Frenchmen who were about to be martyred for taking the gospel into France. This is a beautiful expression of love for God, his gospel, and his missionaries. John Calvin loved God and people with dramatic passion. This letter clearly communicates his missionary zeal and pastoral heart:
We who are here shall do our duty in praying that He would glorify Himself more and more by your constancy, and that He may, by the comfort of His Spirit, sweeten and endear all that is bitter to the flesh, and so absorb your spirits in Himself, that in contemplating that heavenly crown, you may be ready without regret to leave all that belongs to this world.
Now, at this present hour, necessity itself exhorts you more than ever to turn your whole mind heavenward. As yet, we know not what will be the event. But, since it appears as though God would use your blood to seal His truth, there is nothing better for you than to prepare yourselves for that end, beseeching Him so to subdue you to His good pleasure, that nothing may hinder you from following whithersoever He shall call…Since it pleases Him to employ you to the death in maintaining His quarrel, He will strengthen your hands in the fight and will not suffer a single drop of your blood to be shed in vain.
Your humble brother, John Calvin
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church in East Bernstadt, KY. He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their son, Jude Adoniram.