Slideshow image

I will say it. I love John Calvin. 

It is sad to me that most contemporary Christians know nothing about John Calvin and if they do, it is normally negative. But here is the thing: John Calvin gets a bad rap. He really does. These posts are not meant to exonerate Calvin, just paint him accurately in his historical context. We begin with a short biography and a few words about his personal discipline. Enjoy!


Born July 10, 1509 in Noyon, France, Jean Calvin was raised in a staunch Roman Catholic family. The local bishop employed Calvin's father as an administrator in the town's cathedral. The father, in turn, wanted John to become a priest. Because of close ties with the bishop and his noble family, John's playmates and classmates in Noyon (and later in Paris) were aristocratic and culturally influential in his early life.

At the age of 14 Calvin went to Paris to study at the College de Marche in preparation for university study. His studies consisted of seven subjects: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Toward the end of 1523 Calvin transferred to the more famous College Montaigu. While in Paris he changed his name to its Latin form, Ioannis Calvinus, which in French became Jean Calvin. During this time, Calvin's education was paid for in part by income from a couple of small parishes. So although the new theological teachings of individuals like Luther and Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples were spreading throughout Paris, Calvin was closely tied to the Roman Church. However, by 1527 Calvin had developed friendships with individuals who were reform-minded. These contacts set the stage for Calvin's eventual switch to the Reformed faith. Also, at this time Calvin's father advised him to study law rather than theology.

By 1528 Calvin moved to Orleans to study civil law. The following years found Calvin studying in various places and under various scholars, as he received a humanist education. By 1532 Calvin finished his law studies and also published his first book, a commentary on De Clementia by the Roman philosopher, Seneca. The following year Calvin fled Paris because of contacts with individuals who through lectures and writings opposed the Roman Catholic Church. It is thought that in 1533 Calvin experienced the sudden and unexpected conversion that he writes about in his foreword to his commentary on the Psalms.

For the next three years, Calvin lived in various places outside of France under various names. He studied on his own, preached, and began work on his first edition of the Institutes—an instant best seller. By 1536 Calvin had disengaged himself from the Roman Catholic Church and made plans to permanently leave France and go to Strasbourg. However, war had broken out between Francis I and Charles V, so Calvin decided to make a one-night detour to Geneva.

But Calvin's fame in Geneva preceded him. Farel, a local reformer, invited him to stay in Geneva and threatened him with God's anger if he did not. Thus began a long, difficult, yet ultimately fruitful relationship with that city. He began as a lecturer and preacher, but by 1538 was asked to leave because of theological conflicts. He went to Strasbourg until 1541. His stay there as a pastor to French refugees was so peaceful and happy that when in 1541 the Council of Geneva requested that he return to Geneva, he was emotionally torn. He wanted to stay in Strasbourg but felt a responsibility to return to Geneva. He did so and remained in Geneva until his death May 27, 1564. Those years were filled with lecturing, preaching, and the writing of commentaries, treatises, and various editions of the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

— Dr. Karin Maag, H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies


John Calvin had a legendary self-discipline and he did not like to talk or write about himself.

Here is an excerpt from one of his biographies:

“The location of Calvin’s grave is unknown, and that was the way he wanted it. Nothing would have horrified him more than the monument to the Reformation in Geneva with its enormous image of the Frenchman. He deliberately wrote next to nothing about himself and his life.”

So what made this man great? Well, there were a lot of reasons, but what I want to focus on in the next few paragraphs is the discipline of John Calvin.

Now it should not be a shock to any student of church history that every “giant” was disciplined to a certain degree.

Theodore Beza (Calvin's spiritual son in the faith) wrote,

“He (Calvin) worked hard at his university studies and there are still trustworthy men alive today who were on intimate terms with him at Orleans and who can testify that he often stayed up till midnight to study and ate hardly any supper in his eagerness for his work. Each morning when he woke, he would stay in bed for a few moments while he recalled to mind all that he had studied the previous day and mulled it over, so to speak.”

Another biographer stated,

“An evening repast (i.e. dinner) was followed by followed study and prayers, and finally bed at nine. It may have been brutal, but it instilled in Calvin a disciplined pattern of life and work he would maintain until his death. Unless prevented by illness, the mature Calvin rose daily around four and his long work day was punctuated by prayer and simple meals.”

Every time I read these anecdotal stories I always wonder, “What will my kids or my closest friends say about me?”

Will they remember me as a man of discipline, a man who was driven by my devotion to Christ? I hope so. But for me, the question I need answered is this, “What drove this degree of discipline for Calvin?” I think the primary factors was the brevity of life and spreading the glory of God. 

It is hard for the 21st century Christian to truly grasp the regularity of death for the 16th century person. Most children did not make it to adulthood (Calvin’s only son died two weeks after birth) and therefore, time for Calvin was against him and never for him.

Invincibility is the disease of the post-modern man, but certainly not for the Renaissance man.

Calvin writes, 

“Embark upon a ship, you are one step from death. Mount a horse, if your foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there is a serpent lies hidden. Amid these tribulations must not man be more miserable, since, but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck.”

Was Calvin uniquely dark and morbid? No. In actuality, he is the poetic and theological voice of a generation who lived with the Grim Reaper smoking right outside their humble abodes.

So, are you disciplined? Are you disciplined for the right reason? Does the bible speak to the concept of discipline? It does.

But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. (I Timothy 4:7-8)

Let me offer you one biblical principle:

All discipline should make God big and the Christian small.

Many non-Christians are disciplined. They structure the hours of the day so they can be effective and productive. This is noble. Yet, this does not mean their discipline is pleasing or meritorious before God (Romans 3:10-18; Isaiah 64:6).

The discipline of the Christian, whether spiritual or physical, must be driven by a desire to please God and to make His name great.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31)

This type of gospel-driven, Christ-centered, God-exalting focus gives the Christian a proper view of this present life and the life to come.

Here are a few questions to provoke some self-examination:

  • Are you working out to honor God or look good for others?
  • Are you memorizing scripture to magnify God’s name to the nations or to display your intelligence and  make a name for yourself? 
  • Would your closest friends say that your discipline has cultivated humility or arrogance? 

Now let’s flip the questions around.

  • Does your lack of discipline help display the greatness of God or does it diminish your gospel witness?
  • Are your aware that your lack of self-control is not only a sin, but reveals a heart with little or no affections for Christ, who not only saved you but sent the Holy Spirit to indwell and empower you to live according to His will (Rom. 12:2)?
  • Do you show the same indifference to other areas of your life (entertainment, hobbies, sleep, sex, food, etc.)?

John Calvin struggled to find balance in the area of discipline. Most historians believe he stripped years off his life by succumbing to the temptation of asceticism.

May I leave you with the words of King Solomon, who knew something about discipline and the dangers of living to magnify self rather than the Creator of the Universe.

The Preacher (King Solomon) sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth. The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Ecclesiastes 12:10-13)