Jealous for the Glory of God: The Leadership of John Calvin


John Calvin is arguably the most brilliant mind that has ever graced the Christian church.  Love him or hate him, the French lawyer-turned-pastor spearheaded the Protestant Reformation alongside the likes of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli.  His influence throughout the centuries cannot be understated.  To put things in perspective, whole denominations inside the American church follow Calvin in almost all of his parts (take the Presbyterian Church in America [PCA] and the United Reformed Churches, for example), and his influence in academia is wide-sweeping.  Leading theologians R.C. Sproul, Michael Horton, J.I. Packer, and Al Mohler are all “Calvinists” in one form or another.  The question, then, is as follows: How did he do it?  How could one man have played such a powerful role in the transformation of both the church and the culture in which the church resides?  The purpose of this brief essay is to answer these questions.  First, it will explore the far-reaching influence of the leading Protestant reformer; then, it will consider a few of the leaders who had a profound impact upon him; finally, it will seek to draw a few conclusions for how Calvin’s leadership can help leaders in the twenty-first century.

A Concise History

Space fails this writer pertaining to the mentioning of all the details of the life of Calvin.  Even some of the most significant events in his life will have to be omitted due to the succinct nature of this essay.  Nevertheless, an accurate portrait of the leadership influence of the reformer can be sketched.  Born in France during a particularly tumultuous period, both politically and religiously, Calvin was exceptionally gifted academically.  As one of his schoolmasters put it: “His childhood was spent in his own district among boys of his own age under a pedagogue and master of scholars; but he outstripped the others, thanks to his quick intelligence and excellent memory.”[1]  Eventually, Calvin employed his gifts in the area of law.  According to his father, a career in the legal field would be far more lucrative than pursuing theology.[2]  This, along with his love for classical literature, laid the framework for his unrivaled ability to critically read and comment upon the Scriptures.  In the history of the church, there has not been a more excellent exegete of the Bible than John Calvin.

But Calvin was not always a Christian, of course.  Later, he would, however, recount his conversion using vivid imagery:

God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life.  Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardour.[3]

This intense desire, Michael Horton aptly notes in the subtitle of his book, was to glorify and enjoy God forever.[4]  It was this desire that made Calvin such an impeccable leader inside and outside the church.  His influence continues to reign precisely because his vision and aspiration was to guide his people into the fullness of joy for the glory of God.  As a pastor, he earnestly sought to expound the Scriptures so that those sitting under his authority might be drawn by the Spirit to Christ.  As a theologian, he worked tirelessly to comment upon the Bible and also published his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion with the purpose of pointing Christian disciples to the practice of piety.  Furthermore, Boulton notes, “For Calvin this practice of piety is itself a divine gift, a gracious way for disciples to participate in a life of communion with Christ.”  [5]

But he was not always a theologian.  Indeed, the story behind his being called to the pastorate is quite an interesting one.  Hoping to retire to the quiet life of a teacher and scholar, Calvin did not intend to become a pastor in the modern sense of the word.  Yet his life experienced a remarkable turnaround.  Calvin himself tells it best: “William Farel forced me to stay in Geneva not so much by advice or urging as by command, which had the power of God’s hand laid violently upon me from heaven.”[6]  Threatened with eternal judgment, Calvin reluctantly took up the pastorate in Geneva.  Two years later, in 1538, both Calvin and Farel were expelled from Swiss city.  He was eventually lured to Strasbourg by Martin Bucer, who used the same types of threats against him as Farel had.  Overall, “Calvin saw himself as both a teacher and a pastor, called to restore the preaching of the gospel to the church of Christ, by restoring the right way to read the Scripture both to pastors and to unlearned laity.”[7]

Calvin’s singular goal, to glorify God and enjoy him forever, was the primary reason his leadership influence is so extensive today.  Everything he undertook in his life was geared towards fulfilling this goal.  His stand against what he deemed to be the evil empire of the Roman Church, and the subsequent Reformation that came as a direct result, continues to impact Western society.  This contribution is nothing short of incredible.  Protestant orthodoxy sprang from the Frenchman’s efforts to reform the church.  As a leader, Calvin’s legacy lives on, particularly because of his desire to see God glorified in the entirety of life.  He embodies the ideal leader, for his intense hunger to do anything to see his ultimate goal come to pass is unmatched in recent history; in this case: that the church would be full of Christians seeking to glorify and enjoy God forever was his definitive goal.  That he was so focused on this goal throughout his life demonstrates his impeccable qualities as a leader.

A Few Notable Influences

It should be obvious to the reader that Calvin did not just magically attain this God-entranced vision for the world without the help of a few godly leaders along the way.  Any serious examination of Calvin would be incomplete without mentioning the extraordinary impact that the likes of Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, and Philip Melanchthon had upon him.  Each of these men, in their various ways, profoundly shaped Calvin’s life: Luther for his theology, Bucer for his view of ministry, and Melanchthon for his personal friendship especially.

Next to Calvin, Martin Luther stands as one of the most important sixteenth century reformers.  The aggressive and, at times, rhetorically violent Luther set fire to the world by posting his ninety-five theses on the doors of All Saints Church in Wittenburg.  The former Catholic monk had his own remarkable conversion and subsequently became the bitterest of enemies to the Roman Church.  Calvin appeared to have a strikingly high view of Luther.  Zachman notes, “Calvin addresses him as the ‘very excellent pastor of the Christian Church, my much respected father.’”[8]  It is abundantly clear from their writings that Calvin follows the theology of Luther especially closely.  In this way, Luther had a massive impact on Calvin.  Moreover, it is probable that the writings of Luther were the efficient cause that the Spirit of the Lord used to enlighten Calvin’s mind, converting him to the Christian faith.  Zachman claims, “It is quite likely that Calvin viewed Luther as his father in the faith, as the one who brought him to faith in the gospel, most likely through his own reading of Luther’s 1520 treatises The Freedom of a Christian and The Babylonian Captivity of the Christian Church.”[9]  Therefore, let it be established that Calvin’s conversion and theological leanings were a direct result of the work of Luther; without the labors of the German, the world may never have heard of the Frenchman.

In terms of the major influences of Calvin’s life, Martin Bucer sits next in line after Luther.  After Calvin’s expulsion from Geneva, Bucer “refused to let Calvin go back into hiding, comparing him to Jonah in his desire to flee from his calling from God to be a teacher and pastor in the church.”[10]  Calvin recalled the episode in his own words:

Then loosed from my vocation and free [to follow my own desire], I decided to live quietly as a private individual.  But that most distinguished minister of Christ, Martin Bucer, dragged me back again to a new post with the same curse which Farel had used against me.  Terrified by the example of Jonah, which he had set before me, I continued the work of teaching.[11]

Obviously, then, Bucer had an enormous impact on the life of Calvin.  Another mentor that Calvin deemed to be a father in the faith,[12] Bucer’s influence must not be undervalued.  Were it not for Bucer, the idea of Calvin as being a deeply pastoral minister, which has been preserved throughout the centuries, may have never materialized.  That is, despite the fact that Calvin’s work is typically viewed only in theological terms, it is important to realize just how pastoral he really was.  He did not do theology for its own sake; rather, “Calvin consistently crafts his ideas for the sake of practical formation, and so ultimately for the sake of ongoing companionship and union with God in Christ.”[13]  The pastoral side of Calvin came about primarily because of the influence of Martin Bucer.

Philip Melanchthon reigns third on the list of Calvin’s influences.  Lifelong friend of Calvin, Melanchthon was an especially brilliant teacher and interpreter of the Holy Scriptures.  The influence of Melanchthon is simultaneously simple and difficult to trace, however, partly because he and Calvin were so close.  Thus, it is quite complicated to discern which areas of Calvin’s life Melanchthon had no real impact on.  One thing that is quite clear, though, is that Calvin held a remarkably elevated view of the role of a teacher principally because of Melanchthon.  In his own words, “Philip Melanchthon has given us a great deal of light by reason of the outstanding character of both his learning, industry, and the skill of all kinds of knowledge in which he excels, in comparison with those who had published commentaries before him.”[14]  This high praise of Melanchthon, coupled with the deep friendship that the two enjoyed, shows the sizeable impact he had on Calvin.  It would be difficult to avoid the conclusion that Melanchthon’s ability as a teacher had tremendous bearing on Calvin.  Additionally, Calvin’s excellence as a teacher can be largely attributed to Melanchthon.

Contemporary Application

Having recounted a few of the major events of Calvin’s life and work, and also having considered three of the more significant influences upon him, the final part of this essay will seek to establish several contemporary applications based upon the foregoing treatment.  Exploring the intricacies of the French reformer’s life is fascinating chiefly because so many of the details can be used to formulate practical points of application for the modern reader.  Each of the three aforementioned men who influenced Calvin provide their own examples of leadership.

From Martin Luther, readers can discover the influence that indirect leadership can have.  Luther’s writings had a great impact on the life of Calvin, though it is not clear whether the two enjoyed a formal relationship.  Leadership results are not always immediately visible.  In this case, Luther could not have comprehended the kind of impression that he had upon Calvin.  Yet, because of his unwavering desire to stand up and be counted for the cause of Christ, Luther’s leadership immensely shaped Calvin’s own thought.  From this, modern Christian leaders can learn that following Christ, at great personal cost and peril, may have significant impact on other Christian leaders in the future.

Martin Bucer demonstrates another discernible point of application for the modern reader.  His ability to speak into Calvin, which at times was certainly unfavorable for the both of them, shows the importance of having relational capital with followers.  Opportunities for leadership are rarely straightforward, and they are seldom painless.  This is clearly seen in the case of Bucer.  When Calvin had apparently given up on being a teacher, Bucer spoke a rather difficult truth for him to hear: namely, that God’s call cannot be avoided.  In terms of practical application, the discerning reader can ascertain the following: leadership often involves taking steps to push your followers in directions they may not want to go; yet these steps are necessary for their own personal growth as well as the expanding of God’s kingdom.

One final leadership principle that can be taken from the life of Calvin is the importance of a relational aspect in the leader-follower relationship.  Philip Melanchthon, Calvin’s closest friend, epitomizes this notion.  While leadership success is not always dependent upon the quality of relationships (see the influence of Martin Luther above), it certainly does not hurt to have healthy interaction.  The modern reader can discover the significance of building relationships between followers and leaders.  If the two roles are closely connected and seeking to achieve the same goal, the likelihood for success is increased greatly.  Melanchthon’s impact on Calvin undoubtedly demonstrates this truth.

John Calvin was a man who revolutionized the world.  His passion for the glory of God was clearly manifest throughout his life, giving rise to the importance of his leadership.  Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, and Philip Melanchthon, each in their own unique ways, helped shape Calvin’s thought and work.  Their impact upon him was absolutely crucial to his own formation.  The profound influence they had on him can show modern readers several leadership principles that can be applied today.  These include indirect leadership by following Christ, the importance of speaking into followers’ lives in difficult and sometimes painful situations, and the significance of having relational capital with followers.  Each of these principles should be examined and applied in the lives of Christians all over the world, for it is with these notions that readers can find a profound amount of leadership success in all areas of life.

[1] T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 19.

[2] Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 18.

[3] Ibid., 33.

[4] Michael Horton, Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever (Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2014).

[5] Matthew Myer Boulton, Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 50.

[6] Randall C. Zachman, John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian: The Shape of His Writings and Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 21.

[7] Ibid., 27.

[8] Zachman, John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian, 17.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 22.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Boulton, Life in God, 5.

[14] Zachman, John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian, 24.

Thanks for reading.  Have a comment or question?  Leave it below.

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