This week, I finished Bruce Gordon’s, Calvin, a highly recommended biography of John Calvin. While there is so much to learn from the book, I have found myself reflecting on one consistent theme from Gordon’s biography: John Calvin sacrificed his life to promote the Gospel. In fact, Calvin’s life was a prolonged martyrdom. We can’t imagine the focused and unrelenting work of the reformers.
John Calvin was a refugee, and he lived a life filled with great passion, political clashes, and endless theological disputes. Calvin did everything from writing biblical commentaries, theological treatises, and polemical tracts to delivering multiple sermons a week, teaching students, leading the Company of Pastors, and traveling to important conferences in Swiss and German lands.
The demands of Calvin’s life wore him down, and he required the assistance of his wife, brother, peers, and secretaries to maintain his productivity. Gordon speculates that Calvin’s work sent him to an early grave. Bruce Gordon, Calvin 339 (2011).
Calvin had the intellectual ability to do anything he wanted in his native France, but his conscience compelled him to flee from all that was known and comfortable. To his fellow Protestants who remained in Catholic lands, such as France, Calvin believed that there could be no compromise with Roman practices. True religion was to be maintained up to the point of exile or death.
While most of us would assume that death would be “Option B,” this sober and illuminating letter from Calvin suggests otherwise.
Believe me, I had fewer troubles with Servetus and have now with Westphal and his like than I have with those who are close at hand, whose numbers are beyond reckoning and whose passions are irreconcilable. If one could choose, it would be better to be burned once by the papists than to be plagued for eternity by one’s neighbors. They do not allow me a moment’s rest, although they can clearly see that I am collapsing under the burden of work, troubled by endless sad occurrences, and disturbed by intrusive demands. My one comfort is that death with soon take me from this all too difficult service.
As quoted in Bruce Gordon, Calvin 233 (2011).
What are we to make of this? Clearly, at that moment, Calvin viewed the demands of his life to be worse than burning. I don’t think that this was some passing lament. Calvin’s situation in Geneva was always tenuous, and his influence across Europe waxed and waned.
To Calvin, the Christian life is a prolonged martyrdom. All Christians must give up worldly comforts and live a life of service to God and neighbor. Some will perish quickly at the hand of the government. Others will pass away peacefully in old age after a long life of faithful service. In all cases, suffering is to be expected.
Calvin’s commentary on Matthew 24:43 is an illustrative example of Calvin’s heavenly disposition. Calvin wrote, “God does not bestow the honourable title of his children on any but those who acknowledge that they are strangers on the earth, who not only at all times are prepared to leave it but move forward in an uninterrupted ‘course towards the heavenly life.'” As quoted in Gordon, Calvin at 335. From Gordon’s biography, you get the sense that Calvin lived in anticipation of death and the life to come.
While it is foreign to us, Calvin’s perspective is not depressing or dour. Death is the fate of every living thing on the earth. To be a martyr for Christ in this life is a small sacrifice compared to the joy of eternal life. Calvin would instruct us to pity not the Christian martyr. Pity instead the man who lives for the insignificant and dies in the fog of his distractions.