Pillar Journal

Twelve Reasons Calvin is Important Today


Honoring John Calvin may seem a little peculiar to people today. Calvin did not do anything as dramatic as heal a man with his passing shadow or nail his Institutes of the Christian Religion to the door of a cathedral. His teaching, which may be summarized as “the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves,” is hardly the kind of stuff that most would consider important half a millennium after it was written.

So why is Calvin important today? Why do we celebrate his legacy? What did he teach and do that merits perpetual remembrance in the church of Jesus Christ? I asked that question of three dozen Calvin scholars and friends. I received scores of pages in response. In this concluding article, I will share with you the gist of what I received.

Twenty-four of the thirty-six friends I contacted responded. Many of the respondents mentioned similar or identical reasons for Calvin’s continuing importance. For convenience, I have grouped all the responses under twenty-one headings, each corresponding to a role Calvin played. Nine of these were mentioned only once by my correspondents. They are:

  • Calvin the historian, who unfolded redemptive history for us
  • Calvin the polemicist, who combated error and heresy on every hand
  • Calvin the pilgrim, who longed for home with eschatological hope
  • Calvin the traditionalist, who respected tradition so long as it was biblical
  • Calvin the catechist, who stressed the need to catechize children
  • Calvin the deacon, who showed sympathy to the poor
  • Calvin the vocationalist, who developed a sense of the sacredness of work
  • Calvin the law-promoter, who taught the law as a rule of life for believers
  • Calvin the author, who promoted God’s kingdom through scores of writings on an astonishing number of subjects

Though these nine roles teach us much about why Calvin is important today, I want to concentrate on the twelve that received more than one vote from my correspondents I will briefly develop each of these, quoting heavily from this correspondence. [These quotations, all of which are derived from personal e-mails sent to me in the summer of 2009, are not footnoted.] Behind each heading I have placed the number of correspondents who listed the role as one of the three primary reasons Calvin is still important to study today. The reasons follow the order of the number of responses, moving from the least to the most. I trust you will find these results as fascinating as I do.

Reason #12: Calvin models for us a proper recognition of the importance of education—especially seminary training, which is the backbone of the Christian enterprise…

Reason #11: Calvin models for us the wide-ranging impact of his theology on Western European and North American civilization, whether it be the rise of the Western democracies; the development of economic life and international commerce, scholarship, and scientific discovery; or the promotion of the values of human dignity, personal freedom, social justice, and the rule of law.[I thank Rev. Ray Lanning for his assistance on this section.]…

Reason #10: Calvin models for us how to teach and practice evangelism and missions…

Reason #9: Calvin models for us how to faithfully pastor the sheep of God as under-shepherds of the Chief Shepherd…

Reason #8: Calvin models for us how to bring all of life under the rubric of a biblical, comprehensive piety…

Reason #7: Calvin models for us what good commentaries ought to be and thereby sets a high standard for all successive Protestant commentaries…

Reason #6: Calvin models for us what it means to maintain a high view of the church and her worship without idolizing her or falling into the absolutism of Rome…

Reason #5: Calvin models for us how to hold an exalted Trinitarian view of God…

Reason #4: Calvin models for us how to preach God’s Word faithfully and powerfully in an expository, experiential, and applicatory manner to God’s glory, the edification of believers, and the salvation of the lost…

Reason #3: Calvin models for us how to live an experiential Christian life of suffering and persecution in humility and godliness…

Reason #2: In bequeathing The Institutes of the Christian Religion to us, Calvin models marvelous systematic theology by combining the best of exegetical, doctrinal, historical, and pastoral theology for the church rather than for the academy…

Reason #1: Calvin models for us how to handle the text of Scripture with conscientious fidelity…

Let me close by answering a question you may be asking if you have not read Calvin up to this point: Where shall I begin? I recommend that you begin with three edited books that get to the heart of what Calvin was all about: The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, which is an extract from Calvin’s Institutes (3.6.5–10) on how to live as a Christian in this world; The Soul of Life: The Piety of John Calvin, which presents forty-five bite-size pieces of Calvin with chapters on his life and piety; and 365 Days with Calvin, which provides small doses of Calvin’s commentaries and sermons, with practical applications appended to each day’s portion. [John Calvin, The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1952); Joel R. Beeke, ed., “The Soul of Life”: The Piety of John Calvin (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009); Joel R. Beeke, ed., 365 Days with Calvin (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008, and Leominster: Day One Publications, 2008).] All three of these books are easy to read. But don’t stop there. Having gotten a taste of Calvin, you will be surprised how easy it will be to transition to Calvin’s Institutes, which may look daunting, but is anything but. Read a section or two of the Institutes every day and complete the book in one year. You will not be sorry. Upon completion, you will be, by the Spirit’s grace, a far more informed, mature, Christ-centered, and sanctified believer than when you began.

Excerpt From
Calvin for Today
Joel R. Beeke