There is a temptation when we look back on figures in history to view them as a finished product; individuals who began their life’s journey in as prolific of a manner as the way they ended it. The Reformed tradition often gets this wrong when we look back on figures like John Calvin. We know of his incredible achievements, yet there is another side to John Calvin: a man who suffered much and caused sufferings for others, a man who got as many things wrong as he got right, a man who struggled with the sins of pride and poor temperament. I have learned much from Calvin’s works and his successes, but I’d like to suggest at least four lessons that we can all learn from some of his mistakes and failures in his early years of ministry.
By 1536 John Calvin had begun his work of ministry in the city of Geneva, Switzerland. He showed much promise in his zeal and understanding of the Scriptures. By 1535 he already had a first edition of The Institutes printed, and it was a complete enigma to everyone how a twenty-five-year-old man who never had formal theological training could write such a magnificent work. Older pastors and Reformers were inclined to take interest in his success and training.
We have letters that were exchanged between at least two of his mentors: Martin Bucer and Simon Grynaeus. In these letters we find a furious and intemperate Calvin who made accusations of his mentors. Bucer’s response to Calvin was firm, and he told Calvin that everything he did was out of love. Calvin understood what Bucer was implying: for all of his theology, Calvin lacked love. Bucer’s rebuke crushed Calvin.
In a similar fashion, Simon Grynaeus wrote to Calvin and rebuked him for his rancid language toward other church leaders. Grynaeus pointed out Calvin’s arrogance, and told him he was too prideful over his education and superior intellect. Between these two men, Calvin was crushed by the weight of his own relational sins. His youth and immaturity brought out his lack of love, his arrogance, and his pride.
Lesson 1: Youth breeds immaturity. Speaking as a person in ministry who hasn’t yet passed the age of thirty, this is a lesson I don’t like to hear. Like Calvin, I have often committed the arrogant sin of making accusations toward older leaders in ministry that were simply a result of me not being able to see the full picture. Certainly no one should be despised for their youth (1 Tim. 4:12). Yet this doesn’t change the fact that youth and inexperience is fertile soil for pride and immaturity. Young Christians would be wise to give the proper weight to the insight and experience of older brothers and sisters in the faith.
Calvin’s pride and arrogance had not yet gotten the best of him. Along with William Farel (another Reformation leader in Geneva), they had entered into a conflict with a council in Berne (the capital of Switzerland) over the minor issue of liturgical rites that should be used in the worship of the church. Calvin soon began denouncing the Bernese Council from the pulpit, calling them the “council of the devil.” He was quickly labeled as a hot-headed troublemaker, especially after he and Farel began refusing communion rites to the whole city of Geneva. The Bernese Council ordered Calvin and Farel to leave the city within three days.
What happened next still astonishes me and breaks my heart. Calvin and Farel headed to Zurich, but stopped in Berne to try and make a deposition while they were there. The two men openly lied to the Council and presented a very tailored account of the conflict, claiming that they had never opposed the Bernese liturgical rites and that a conspiracy had been mounted against them. Calvin’s attempt to win over the Council by openly lying to them backfired, and his reputation was severely damaged.
Lesson 2: Words have the power to destroy. Gossip and envy are the greatest enemies of God’s people. There is no quicker way to tear down unity in the church than with our words. This was clearly the problem in the church James addressed in his epistle, as his rebukes over taming the tongue come just before his admonishment about the envy which was tearing apart the church (James 3:1-4:4). All it takes is saying one thing we shouldn’t have said, and then it is out there forever to wreak havoc on relationships and friendships. In Calvin’s case, his words both publicly and private brought disaster and ruin. Not only did his personal relationships and reputation suffer, but the broader church in Switzerland suffered as well. It is important for Christians to resolve never to speak ill of another, or we too will bring similar consequences on our life and in our churches. Gossip and slander are never worth it.
A synod arose in Zurich made up of the leading Swiss churchmen and reformers. Multiple issues were discussed at this synod, in particular an ongoing dispute with Luther over the Lord’s Supper. Calvin and Farel were also a subject of discussion, and it was to their shame when they realized that they were regarded as the problem in Geneva, not the victims. In the eyes of these leading reformers, they had committed the horrid sin of bringing discord and division to the church.
Lesson 3: Unity and charity have priority over winning an argument. In other words, we want to win people – not arguments. Calvin was learning a lesson that many evangelicals need to learn today: have unity in the majors, and charity in the minors. The way we dispute amongst ourselves about doctrinal disagreements still needs to reflect the kind of love and unity Jesus prayed for in the Garden (John 17:20-26).
By this point, Calvin was beginning to learn all of these lessons too. He had bruised pride and a shattered ego – and it showed. Calvin doubted his calling to serve the church and was hesitant to resume the work again. In one letter to another church leader he wrote, “For though when first I took it up I could discern the calling of God which held me fast and by which I consoled myself, now, on the contrary, I am in fear that I would tempt him if I were to resume so great a burden, which I have already felt so insupportable.” Calvin drifted and felt a loss of purpose or meaning. Over the next three-and-a-half years, he meditated on these lessons he had learned. By the time he returned to Geneva in 1541, he had grown in wisdom and maturity and in many ways became the winsome and pastoral leader we regard him as today.
Lesson 4: Growth doesn’t come without resistance. It’s just as true for us physically as it is spiritually. One of the repeated themes of the Bible is that the Lord uses pain and trial to refine us more into the image of Christ (Hebrews 12:3-17. 1 Peter 1:3-7). When we first become Christians, many of us walk around with a kind of spiritual swagger. Through trial and affliction, the Lord gives us a limp to remind us of our daily need for his grace. Don’t underestimate what God is doing in your difficult season.
 Material for this article was taken from Bruce Gordon’s biography, Calvin. Particularly, chapters five and six.
If You hadn’t rescued me;
yes, You rescued me – that is key.
Never would I have known the difference between love and pain,
true feelings a heart of stone could not contain.
I’d probably have had more time,
but then who would I thank for this gift of rhyme?
Without You, life would be simpler – easier, even;
my existence would be absent much of my grieving.
Oh yes, Your yoke is easy and Your burden is light –
but not when I’m striving with all of my might!
If You hadn’t rescued me;
yes, You rescued me – that is key.
Never would I have met my wife,
as that curly-haired pastor says, “A parable for life.”
By all accounts my accounts would be lined,
but then You never would have been mine.
Without You, life was clean, neat – controlled;
the senseless beating of this dead soul.
Yet Your breath – new life does it bring!
Filling these collapsing lungs with the breath to sing.
If You hadn’t rescued me;
yes, You rescued me – that is key.
Never would I have laid my life down for You,
in some feeble attempt to mimic Your Son’s obedience to you.
Health, wealth, recognition – ever was I seeking!
A slithering corroboration with the fall, always repeating.
Without You, life could be whatever I made of it;
until a small spark was lit.
You knit me, now mold me; restore my eyes to see –
the glory of the One who rescued me.
Yes, You rescued me – that is key.
This excerpt is taken from The Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 2: Systematic Theology, Chapter 23.
This progression (of sanctification) has respect, not only to the individual, but also to the church in its unity and solidarity as the body of Christ. In reality the growth of the individual does not take place except in the fellowship of the church as the fellowship of the Spirit. Believers have never existed as independent units. In God’s eternal counsel they were chosen in Christ (Ephesians 1:14); in the accomplishment of their redemption they were in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14-15; Ephesians 1:17); in the application of redemption they are ushered into the fellowship of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:9). And sanctification itself is a process that moves to a consummation which will not be realized for the individual until the whole body of Christ is complete and presented in its totality faultless and without blemish. This points up the necessity of cultivating and promoting the sanctification of the whole body, and the practical implications for responsibility, privilege, and opportunity become apparent.
If the individual is indifferent to the sanctification of others, and does not seek to promote their growth in grace, love, faith, knowledge, obedience and holiness, this interferes with his own sanctification in at least two respects. 1) His lack of concern for others is itself a vice that gnaws at the root of spiritual growth. If we are not concerned with, or vigilant in respect of the fruit of the Spirit in others, then it is because we do not burn with holy zeal for the honor of Christ himself. All shortcoming and sin in us dishonors Christ, and a believer betrays the coldness of his love to Christ when he fails to bemoan the defects of those who are members of Christ’s body. 2) His indifference to the interests of others means the absence of the ministry which he should have afforded others. This absence results in the impoverishment of these others to the extent of his failure, and this impoverishment reacts upon himself, because these others are not able to minister to him to the full extent of the support, encouragement, instruction, edification and exhortation which they owe to him.
We see, therefore, the endless respects in which interaction and intercommunication within the fellowship of the saints are brought to bear upon the progressive sanctification of the people of God. “If one member suffers, all the other members suffer with it; and if one member is honored, all the others rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). The truth of our inter-dependence within the solidarity of the body of Christ exposes the peril and contradiction of exclusive absorption in our own individual sanctification. How eloquent of the virtue which is the antonym of independence and aloofness are the words of the apostle: “And he (Christ) gave some apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints unto the work of the ministry, unto the edifying of the body of Christ; until we all come in the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”! (Ephesians 4:11-13; Romans 12:4ff.; 1 Corinthians 12:12ff.; Colossians 2:19).
The following is an excerpt of my favorite scene from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia book series. This excerpt comes from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 7. One of the characters of this story, Eustace, has just been turned into a dragon. Nobody likes Eustace, for he was a vain, cruel and selfish little boy who was “accidentally” sucked into Narnia with two of the main characters, Lucy and Edmund. One day Eustace had went out on his own and out of his greed he stole a dragon’s treasure. What Eustace did not know was that in Narnia, stealing a dragon’s treasure turn’s you yourself into a dragon!
This terrible transformation causes a change in heart in Eustace, for he now realizes how much he hates being a dragon and how nasty he used to be to his friends. Eustace now just wants to be a good help and friend to those dearest to him, even if he is a dragon.
But then, the oddest of things happens…Eustace encounters a certain lion and recounts the story to Edmund…
Eustace: “Well, anyway, I looked up and saw the very last thing I expected: a huge lion coming slowly toward me. And one queer thing was that there was no moon last night, but there was moon-light where the lion was. So it came nearer and nearer. I was terribly afraid of it. You may think that, being a dragon, I could have knocked any lion out easy enough. But it wasn’t that kind of fear. I wasn’t afraid of it eating me, I was just afraid of it – if you can understand. Well, it came close to me and looked straight into my eyes. And I shut my eyes tight. But that wasn’t any good because it told me to follow it.”
Edmund: “You mean it spoke?”
“I don’t know. Now that you mention it, I don’t think it did. But it told me all the same. And I knew I’d have to do what it told me, so I got up and followed it. And it led me a long way into the mountains. And there was always this moonlight over and round the lion wherever we went. So at last we came to the top of a mountain I’d never seen before and on the top of this mountain there was a garden – trees and fruit and everything. In the middle of it there was a well.”
“I knew it was a well because you could see the water bubbling up from the bottom of it: but it was a lot bigger than most wells – like a very big, round bath with marble steps going down into it. The water was as clear as anything and I thought if I could get in there and bathe it would ease the pain in my leg. But the lion told me I must undress first. Mind you, I don’t know if he said any words out loud or not.”
“I was just going to say that I couldn’t undress because I hadn’t any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that’s what the lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bathe.”
“But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that’s all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I’ll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this underskin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe.”
“Well, exactly the same thing happened again. And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.”
“Then the lion said – but I don’t know if it spoke- ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.”
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know – if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” said Edmund.
“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it because perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. You’d think me simply phony if I told you how I felt about my own arms. I know they’ve no muscle and are pretty mouldy compared with Caspian’s, but I was so glad to see them”
“After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me – “
“Dressed you. With his paws?”
“Well, I don’t exactly remember that bit. But he did somehow or other: in new clothes – the same I’ve got on now, as a matter of fact. And then suddenly I was back here. Which is what makes me think it must have been a dream.”
“No. It wasn’t a dream,” said Edmund.
“Well, there are the clothes, for one thing. And you have been – well, un-dragoned, for another.”
“What do you think it was, then?” asked Eustace.
“I think you’ve seen Aslan,” said Edmund.