John Calvin: Inspiration for Modern Day Reformers

John Calvin, born July 10, 1509 turns 500 this year. Many congregations, seminaries, and denominations are marking the occasion with special John Calvin ‘days’ and conferences. I’ve had the prvilege of presenting on Calvin at a two day conference in Ottawa this past September, and a one day conference in Toronto this past Saturday. 

I am one-part grateful for these particular speaking opportunities, and one-part curious. I am not a Calvin scholar. I have no special credentials to teach on 16th Century theologians. My best guess for why someone like myself would be asked to make such a presentation is that my passion for the current relevance of John Calvin’s theology might have leaked out.

Ask me which book, outside of the Bible, has most influenced my theology and the answer is Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ask me my preferred commentary series to help my sermon prep and my answer is Calvin’s Commentaries. In short, John Calvin continues to have a huge influence on how I think about God and how I think about the role of the Church in this world. Indeed, his writings are impressively relevant nearly 500 years later.

Leading up to Calvin’s 500th birthday, I will endeavour to post a number of articles celebrating the Reformation and Calvin’s ongoing influence on Christian ministries today.

In his early years, Calvin might have been voted the most unlikely candidate to bring such substantial leadership to the Reformation in Europe. I say this thinking of Calvin’s upbringing and early academic training. You see, John Calvin was raised within the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin’s father had actually intended him to enter the priesthood. John Calvin’s brother, Charles, did become a Roman Catholic priest but was later excommunicated. Moreover, Calvin’s primary area of study was in Humanism. But as a testament to God’s sovereignty, Calvin, the Roman Catholic humanist, was transformed into a Reformation leader engrossed by a passion for God’s glory.

In my presentations on Calvin I identified 4 primary emphases with the Institutes:

GLORY (God’s)

GUILT (man’s)

GRACE (God’s)


And sewing these emphases together is the Providence of God.

One of my favourite quotes from the Institutes comes in ‘book 1’:

Man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty. (I, II, III)

One of the enduring features of Calvin’s ministry is his capacity for expressing in words the majesty of God. This God-exalting emphasis within Calvin’s writings has indelibly marked my own ministry. Calvin continues to remind me that a passion to promote God’s glory ought to drive and animate all that we do. And I am indebted to Calvin for the reminder that I best understand my guilt not by looking within but by gazing at the majesty of God. To regard Calvin’s theology as simply man-abasing is to skip a vital step. Calvin’s God-exalting theology brings man’s predicant into clear focus. For this, I am ever grateful.  

2 thoughts on “John Calvin: Inspiration for Modern Day Reformers

  1. Thank you, Mr. MacPhail. This is excellent, and reminds me of many things I thought I had learned but do not think about often enough.

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