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A Man on Mission

John Calvin’s gaze was Godward. He was a pious man, driven by God’s majesty and a love for Scripture. His holy pursuit, as we shall see, was to live according to Isaiah’s timeless wisdom, “… But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isa. 66:2b). But aspiring to live according to Isaiah 66 and actually carrying it out are two different things. Like you and I, Calvin was a fallen man, a sinner. He battled sin and stared temptation in the face. He went into the “boxing ring” of life each day and fought the world, the flesh, and the devil.

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The first sentence in the Institutes demonstrates how keenly aware he was of his own finitude and propensity to sin. He writes, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”[1] Calvin understood that apart from grace, sinners would flee from God and forsake his law. Apart from sovereign grace, sinners would utterly repudiate the Word of God and the promises of God.

Calvin continues, “Because of the bondage of sin by which the will is held bound, it cannot move toward good, much less apply itself thereto: for a movement of this sort is the beginning of conversion to God, which in Scripture is ascribed entirely to God’s grace.”[2] The grace that Calvin speaks about, not only delivered him from the bonds of a Roman Catholic system of works; it freed him from the penalty of sin and the power of sin.

He adds: “On the other hand, it may be proper to consider what the remedy is which divine grace provides for the correction and cure of natural corruption … God, therefore, begins the good work in us by exciting in our hearts a desire, a love, and a study of righteousness, or (to speak correctly) by turning, training, and guiding our hearts unto righteousness; and he completes this good work by confirming us into perseverance.”[3]

While Calvin frequently acknowledged the sin that he was delivered from, he also rejoiced in the Savior who enabled him to live a life to the glory of God. The same regenerating work of the Holy Spirit that transformed his stony heart into a heart of flesh was also responsible for sanctifying Calvin’s thoughts, will, desires, and the general course of his life. It was the Spirit of God who prompted saving faith. It was the Spirit of God who prompted obedience. Indeed, it was the Spirit of God who led Calvin down the narrow path (Matt. 7:14), the pathway of the blessed man (Ps. 1:1-3). It was the Spirit of God who prompted his Godly gaze and his holy pursuit. It was the Spirit of God who guided Calvin to the shores of the Celestial City. It was the Spirit of God who transformed John Calvin into a man of humility, a man of contrition, and a man who trembled before the Word of God.

A Humble Man

A humble man is someone who is lowly in disposition. Here is a man of low position, one who is undistinguished and has a modest opinion of himself. A humble man behaves in an unassuming manner and is devoid of haughtiness.

C.J. Mahaney writes, “Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.”[4] Mahaney’s approach to humility finds deep support in the Bible:

“Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Pet. 3:8).

“Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4).

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

Calvin Was Humble Before His God

He understood his position before a holy God. He was intensely aware that he was a recipient of God’s grace (Rom. 3:24), that he had been saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (Eph. 2:8-9). Consequently, he understood that his only boast was the cross-work of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul echoes this realization in his letter to the Corinthians: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). The boast of the apostle is Calvin’s boast as well: “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).

Calvin understood the absolute contrast between the sinfulness of man and the majesty of God, what theologians refer to as the Creator-creature distinction. In a typical lucid moment, the French reformer writes, “… Man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.”[5] Such is the pattern of Calvin’s humility. This man was humble before his God.

Calvin Was Humble Before People

Humility is the foundation of Christian character that Calvin modeled so well in his life and ministry. Such a posture, however, was not easy for the zealous reformer. The legalists opposed him and the libertines named their dogs after him. But he remained steadfast. He remained humble despite the hatred which was foisted upon him. His attraction to men who model humility shows the supreme value he placed on this virtue: “A saying of Chrysostom’s has always pleased me very much, that the foundation of our philosophy is humility … So if you ask me concerning the precepts of Christian religion, first, second, third, and always I would answer, ‘Humility.’”[6]

Calvin himself weighs in on the importance of humility: “Those who have joined together the two things, to think humbly of ourselves before God and yet hold our own righteousness in some estimation, have hitherto taught a pernicious hypocrisy. For if we confess to God contrary to what we feel, we wickedly lie to him; but we cannot feel as we ought without seeing that everything like a ground of boasting is completely crushed.”[7]

John Calvin was a consistently humble man who understood the value of a lowly disposition. Surely his life is a worthy model for us to emulate.

A Contrite Man

The Old Testament virtue of contrition comes from a Hebrew word that means “stricken, smitten, or crushed in spirit.” A person who demonstrates biblical contrition assesses himself in light of Scripture. Such a person has a feeling of intense remorse and bears the weight of guilt for his or her sinful shortcomings.

Yet, the Bible offers hope to the contrite person: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18). John Calvin, as we shall see, modeled the virtue of contrition.

Calvin Was a Man of Christ-exalting Contrition

His contrition was Christ-exalting because he willingly acknowledged the One he had offended and that Christ alone could forgive him and free him from his sin. No work could forgive him; no prayer could forgive him; no priest could forgive him.[8]

As beneficiaries of the Protestant Reformation, this is a truth we often take for granted. Even worse, some professing evangelicals have begun to subtly fall under the spell of the Roman Catholic church and either forget free grace or ignore it altogether. Now is the time for a new reformation; a radical rekindling of the precious truths that drove men such as Calvin, Luther, and Knox to their knees in contrition as they celebrated the free grace that was theirs in Christ alone!

A Trembling Man

John Calvin was a man who trembled at God’s Word. Recall the great reality of Isaiah 66:2b – “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” Calvin notes, “Therefore illumined by (the Spirit’s) power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men.”[9] So the Protestant reformer not only held the Word of God in high esteem; he trembled at God’s Word.

Calvin Revered the Truth of God’s Word

The Word was preeminent in the mind of the Reformer. Steven Lawson writes:

“Calvin stood firmly on the chief cornerstone of the Reformation – sola Scriptura, or ‘Scripture alone.’ He believed Scripture was the verbum Dei – the Word of God – and it alone should regulate church life, not popes, councils, or traditions. Sola Scriptura identified the Bible as the sole authority of God in His church, and Calvin wholeheartedly embraced it, insisting that the Bible was the authoritative, inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God.”[10]

The Word of God was the highest authority in Calvin’s life. The sola Scriptura principle governed his life, fueled his resolved, and kindled his affections.

Calvin Responded to the Truth of God’s Word

The preacher from Geneva was a fallen man. But the Holy Spirit quickened his sinful heart. The Holy Spirit regenerated Calvin’s recalcitrant heart which enabled him to respond obediently to Scripture and glorify the Lord. To that end, he proclaimed the Word of God faithfully with all the passion he could muster.

Calvin Rejoiced in the Truth of God’s Word

He rejoiced in mysterious doctrines like the Trinity and the hypostatic union. He rejoiced in difficult doctrines like eternal punishment and predestination. And he rejoiced in paradoxical doctrines like the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man and the coupling of evangelism and election. Indeed, this is a man who trembled at God’s Word.

[special]Note: This is an excerpt from David Steele’s book, A Godward Gaze: The Holy Pursuit of John Calvin.[/special]

You may also like:

  1. 9 John Calvin Facts You (Probably) Didn’t Know 
  2. John Calvin: Who He is, What He Did, and Why He Matters 


[1]  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster Press), 35.

[2]  Ibid, 2.3.5.

[3]  Ibid., 2.3.6.

[4] C.J. Mahaney, Humility: True Greatness (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005), 22.

[5]  Institutes, 1.1.3.

[6] Ibid., 2.2.11.

[7] Institutes, (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 3.12.6.

[8] “Rome required three things in repentance, i.e, compunction of heart, confession of the mouth, and satisfaction of work – they at the same time teach that these are necessary to obtain the pardon of sins.” See John Calvin, Institutes, 407. Luther shows that “those who set down these three parts of repentance, speak neither according to the Scripture nor the ancient fathers.”

[9]  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster Press), 80.

[10] Steven J. Lawson, The Expository Genius of John Calvin, 25.

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