A Bonus Book Summary from Books At a Glance
By Jenny-Lyn de Klerk
Table of Contents
- Life of Calvin
- Letters of John Calvin
- Last Discourses of John Calvin
This selection of Calvin’s letters shows the deep concern he had people around him and the reformation at large as he encouraged pastors, rulers, and believers to persevere in faith and help bring reform.
Calvin is not often remembered for being a pastor, but this important part of his life is clearly seen in his letters. This selection of seventy letters from the nineteenth-century English edition was determined based on which letters highlighted his friendships in ministry, compassion for others, passion for the truth, and commitment to reformation work.
The Life of John Calvin
Calvin was born and raised in France and received an excellent (and strict) education. He was training to become a priest but left this course behind after his father fell out of favor in the Noyon cathedral and then advised Calvin to become a lawyer instead. After Calvin’s conversion, he fled France for religious reasons and ended up staying in Geneva after Farel convinced him. Calvin’s first years of preaching and ministering in Geneva were filled with troubles and he soon left for Strasbourg. There, he got married, worked as a pastor, and wrote his commentary on Romans. Yet, he was soon called back to Geneva and decided to return despite his strong desire to stay in Strasbourg because he felt compelled to help God’s church. Upon his return, he continued his pastoral ministry and preached several days per week, later dying at peace with God.
Letters of John Calvin
In sum, these letters show both personal and public aspects of Calvin’s life and ministry. Most are addressed to pastors, rulers, and believers. First, Calvin wrote often to fellow ministers, some of whom were his personal friends, and thus was concerned both about their personal lives and their ministries. It is also clear that they also cared for him. For example, after his wife’s passing, Calvin wrote to Farel that “I do what I can to keep myself from being overwhelmed with grief. My friends also leave nothing undone that may administer relief to my mental suffering” (p. 94), and he would later write to another minister who lost his wife in order to comfort him. He also grieved over Beza’s illness, saying he cared about him as a friend but also recognized his great contribution to the church. His correspondence with friends also contains information about personal issues like publishing books, medical troubles, and his opinions about current events, as well as the many ministry-related situations, like couples getting divorced, changes in worship, and instructing believers to read the Bible.
In addition to comforting and encouraging them, he sometimes challenged and disagreed with them. For example, he was shocked and unhappy to hear about Farel’s marriage late in life to a young woman, and though he reminded others that they should be thankful for Farel’s work in ministry, he also suggested that something had to be said about the situation in public since Farel was a public figure. He also wrote to Cranmer several times to commend him on his work but also remind him to not be lukewarm, saying he should use his position and power to do good and remember that the people looked to him as an example. Similarly, he wrote kindly but firmly to Melanchthon about expressing his views on election and the Lord’s Supper for the good of the church. Further, after hearing about how Luther had been treating the people around him, Calvin encouraged Melanchthon to stand up to him since one person should not have all of the power. He also wrote to encourage those who had influence over the finances at universities and churches to ensure funds were used to support students and pastors who were doing their work well, rather than those who were not. Last, he was grieved to hear of the death of ministers. Calvin clearly valued this role in general and his personal friends who were pastors.
Overall, these letters to fellow ministers show Calvin actively trying to bring unity among Protestants. He explicitly expresses this desire and also writes to various reformers seeking or maintaining their cooperation in the work of reforming. In fact, though this may lead readers to assume there was a lack of unity, Calvin’s letters actually show the high degree of interconnectedness between Protestant churches as Calvin communicates with so many ministers that include information about other churches and ministers.
Second, he sometimes wrote to magistrates or rulers to seek their help or encourage them in their reformation efforts. These letters take on a different tone as Calvin sought to respectfully address those in power who he did not know personally. For example, he advised Edward VI that reformation work was very hard and takes a long time but is worth it. He also informed him about undesirable conditions in the universities and would later ask him to help him release a man from prison, writing “should it be your good pleasure to exert yourself for him . . . in the person of one man you will console many who are at present greatly dismayed, while the foes of truth are fully intending to triumph if they succeed” (141). He also sent Edward VI an exposition of a psalm and was upset when he died, fearing that England would take a wrong turn. In sum, Calvin was willing to use his own power and do whatever it took to help his friends and the reformation work they were doing.
Last, he often wrote to believers about reforming their churches and persevering under persecution. He both challenged them and encouraged them. For example, he told the prisoners at Lyons to prepare for death and hold to their confession of faith. He also wrote to the English believers in Frankfort who were fighting about liturgy, saying he was upset to hear that those of the same faith were having problems, instructing them to not argue about slight differences but rather teach those who are ignorant. He even wrote to some believers who gave into the pressure of persecution and renounced their faith. Though grieved by these situations and hoping to be gentle, Calvin reminded them that they had committed a serious sin against God, made other believers stumble, and should resolve to not give in in the future.
Overall, these letters show that Calvin deeply cared about people and the reformation efforts at large. Though he believed this was primarily a work of God, he also understood the important role he and his fellow ministers, ordinary believers, and even rulers, had to play in it.
Last Discourses of John Calvin
This section includes Calvin’s will and letters to the Genevan authorities and ministers towards his death. It shows that after all of the trials he and others endured, he was thankful for their work and loved them, as did they love him.
Copyright 2019, Books At a Glance
Books At a Glance book summaries are available by subscription only and except for brief quotes may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express, written permission.[To continue reading this summary, please see below....]
Buy the books
Letters of John Calvin