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Insights on Success from John Calvin

There’s a section in John Calvin’s two-volume edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion called “John Calvin to the Reader.” In just four short pages, Calvin provides many insights and takeaways on success.

john calvin success

Here are five of those takeaways.

1. We should not presume on success. Calvin writes, “In the first edition of this work of ours I did not in the least expect that success which, out of his infinite goodness, the Lord has given”(3). It is good to be expectant, but it is arrogant to be presumptuous. We should pray, work hard, and expect God to glorify his name through our efforts, but we shouldn’t think that everything we touch will turn into gold. God doesn’t owe anyone success.

Not presuming on success is difficult to grapple with for image-conscious believers. Or if you’ve seen God’s hand move powerfully in the past, you may assume that he will inevitably use you again in an obviously demonstrable way in the future. Not necessarily. Peter preached to about 3,000 people (Acts 2:41), but that never happened again. 1 Pray and hope for fruitfulness, but it is best not to have unrealistic expectations for every endeavor we partake in.

2. Success is given from the Lord. Success is a gift from God. Notice Calvin’s phrase above, “. . . the Lord has given.” We study, strategize, pray hard, get advice, and give our best efforts, but in the end, all success comes from God.

When Paul put himself in his place to the Corinthians, he told them, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). Paul and Apollos are not robots; they had to do something (e.g, plant and water). God works through means. But unless God’s power enables growth, those who plant and water do so in vain. Any success you experience in life is a direct result of God’s grace toward you since it is God who provides health and gifting and opportunities to make success a reality.

3. Success should humble us. “But when I realized that it was received by almost all godly men with a favor for which I never would have ventured to wish, much less to hope, I deeply felt that I was much more favored than I deserved. (3)” The widespread success of Calvin’s Institutes (which he added to multiple times) genuinely surprised him. A similar feeling should overcome us when our efforts are fruitful. We are not far from spiritual shipwreck if we write a book that sells well and think, “Of course it sold well. After all, I wrote it.” Confidence in God’s power and in one’s calling is essential for non-insecure labor, but we should view ourselves as unworthy servants who are merely doing what we are called to do (Luke 17:10), and any all success should cause us to put forth praise and thanksgiving to our Lord.

4. The point of our spiritual gifts is to glorify God and serve others. Not to make ourselves look more awesome, but to reveal the awesomeness of God, and to help a few people along the way (1 Peter 4:10). Calvin describes his experience with quartan fever (a form of malaria). He thought this quartan fever was going to kill him. This ailment inspired him to press on to finish his Institutes, not to leave a name for himself, but for the sake of the faithful: “. . . the more the disease pressed upon me the less I spared myself, until I could leave a book behind me that might, in some measure, repay the generous invitation of godly men” (3).

Christian leaders should be hard-working, but the aim of our protestant work ethic is not so people will remember us, but to glorify God and serve others. Calvin’s self-testimony was that “God has filled my mind with zeal to spread his Kingdom and to further the public good” (4). Hopefully, we can say the same. Working hard to honor God and serve the church for the right reasons is one of the most satisfying experiences in life.

5. If others benefit from your work, it’s okay to ask them for favors in return. Such was the case with Calvin: “Farewell, kindly reader, and if you benefit at all from my labors, help me with your prayers before God our Father” (5). Personality permitting, it’s not wrong for authors to ask readers to write a positive review on Amazon if their book is well-received. Fruitful podcasters shouldn’t feel guilty for raising funds via Patreon. If someone has benefitted from your work, at least on occasion, it’s allowable to ask for something in return for your work, whether it’s prayer, money, or a positive review on iTunes.

Success is a gift from God to be enjoyed and stewarded well. As God blesses our efforts, may we show our thankfulness through proper recognition that it derives from his hand (James 1:17).

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

Notes:

  1. Got this insight from Zack Eswine. I should add: Peter never again preached to that many people insofar as we know from the New Testament.

About David Qaoud

David Qaoud (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is associate pastor of Bethesda Evangelical Church in St. Louis, Missouri, and founder of gospelrelevance.com. His work has appeared on The Gospel Coalition, For the Church, and Banner of Truth. He lives in St. Louis with his wife and son. Learn more.