John Calvin: Reluctant Reformer

John Calvin: Reluctant Reformer

A Daring Escape
John Calvin tugged on the last knot in his "chain" of linen bed sheets. Every tie had to be secure since he needed this home-made "rope" to make his escape. On his way to the open window, John paused by the looking glass. Surely no one would recognize the professor now dressed in the shabby clothes of a poor farmer. "God help me," he prayed as he gathered the "rope" and tied the final knot firmly to the heavy bedpost. Seeing no one in the darkened Paris Street, he quickly slipped over the sill and shimmied down the wall with a satchel containing some clothes and books. The hoe thumped to the ground first, and then John felt his feet touch. With the hoe over his shoulder, the 24-year-old teacher strolled out of town, trying his best to look casual.

Why was it that this distinguished and quiet scholar needed to escape from Paris in the middle of the night? Recently, John had written a sermon challenging people to obey the Bible and not the church officials. Now he was paying the price. The officials wanted to throw him into prison, maybe even kill him. With a fake name and his new clothes, John hoped to make it to a safer place. He dreamed of the day when he could stop running and settle into a calm life studying and writing about the Bible. For the next few years, he would live as a hunted man. But no matter what came his way, John decided he would keep teaching. "I will not be quiet just because the authorities don't like what I'm saying."

Secret Meeting in a Cave
Water dripped from the ceiling and light from torches played on the walls of the cold, stone cave. John gazed intently at the shadowy faces of the young men who had risked everything to come hear him teach. If the French authorities found their Protestant meeting, they'd all be arrested. This cold, dark cave was a far cry from the comfortable middle class home he had grown up in, yet John felt honored that God called him to teach in such a place at such a time. Seeing his fellow refugees so hungry for spiritual food, John took a deep breath and began to tell of the things that had changed his life. "Good works will never save you. Only Jesus can do that. Put your faith in him!"

During his three years of running, John found time to write one of the most important works of the era. In The Institutes of the Christian Religion, he stressed that God is in control and that the Bible can be trusted. These ideas caused quite a stir and made John Calvin even more of a wanted man.

Finally John left France for the free city of Strasbourg in search of a quiet place to do more writing. However, God had other plans, and on his way John was detoured through Geneva, a place whose bad reputation was well known. "I'd rather not go near this filthy town," John thought as he passed the drunken men and women scattered along the street. "I'll just spend one night and be on my way in the morning!"

Two Terrible Years
At the inn that night, Geneva's most prominent preacher, William Farel, came to John with a request. As they sat down to a meal of bread and cheese at a rough wooden table, Farel's voice was somber. "This town is a mess. There is so much immorality, and people don't seem interested in the gospel."

"Yes, I noticed," John said.

Then Farel dropped a bombshell. "I need help to clean this place up, and I believe you are the man for the job."

John nearly choked on a piece of bread. "Thank you, but I would rather not. I am not cut out for church leadership. I wish to study and write." There was no way he wanted to stay in such an immoral place!

The man's eyes flashed, and he brought his hands down hard on the table. "You are concerned about your rest and your personal interests. I proclaim to you in the name of Almighty God whose command you defy: upon your work there shall rest no blessing. . . If you do not stay and help me, you will be going not against me, but the Lord himself!"

John couldn't find his tongue, he was so deeply shaken. No one had ever spoken to him in that way before. He looked around at the candles casting shadows against the wall, trying to avoid the curious stares. He didn't want to stay, but he was even more terrified of not obeying God. "It seems as though God has stopped me in my tracks," he thought. "I must help Farel in spite of my fears."

The next two years were among the worst of his life. The city government had been trying to curb the drunkenness and gambling, but the people ignored them. John preached in the churches about clean living, but few would listen to him. "That John Calvin is a nuisance!" they said.

John was miserable. "Why have I come here?" he wondered. He suffered from stomach upsets and constant headaches, and his asthma often flared up. "Have I heard you correctly, Lord?" he prayed. "Was it really You who called me here?" He was glad when he finally had to leave.

Get out of Town!
"Get out of Geneva!" ordered the Geneva city officials. "We don't want you here anymore." Although it wasn't a nice thing to be shown the door like that, John wasn't entirely unhappy about it. It was his way out. He promised himself, "I will never get mixed up in church administration again!" He went to live in Strasbourg to teach and write as he had always desired. John's friends convinced him he should look for a bride and promptly began introducing him to ladies they thought he should consider! After about a year of such match making, John turned his eye toward Idelette Stordeaur. Their happy marriage lasted nine years before she died.

In the meantime, Geneva continued its downward slide into all things evil. The officials began to see the wisdom in the reforms John had attempted. "Please come back," they begged. Sensing that this was God's call on his life, he returned in 1541.

For the rest of his life John stayed in Geneva. He worked to bring about moral and spiritual reform by trying to make a government based on Scripture. He gave churches a system for leadership. In Calvin's system, the people had a say in who would be their leaders. These ideas would eventually be used in democratic societies. Slowly but surely the town of Geneva changed its ways. It became a center for academics and a place where persecuted Christians could safely live. Although John found great satisfaction in writing important books, perhaps his biggest contribution was in bringing God's light to a darkened city.

Make It Real!
Questions to make you dig a little deeper and think a little harder.
  1. Calvin preferred a quiet life reading and studying about God, yet he followed God's call to be a pastor in a town that was very sinful. How did this experience help him to learn more about God?
  2. Calvin believed the Bible taught that doing good things cannot get a person into heaven. What did he say is necessary to go to heaven?
  3. Calvin allowed the people in the church to have a say in choosing their leaders. Do you think this was a wise and good thing?
  • Suggested reading:
    • The Reformation by Sarah Flowers (World History Series, Lucent Books)
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