John Calvin’s Conversion and Gospel Fruit

Ellen G. White describes the events leading up to and including Calvin’s conversion to Christ and his repudiation of Rome and the Papacy.  She shows how bigoted a Catholic Calvin was, and that when he “heard of the new doctrines with a shudder, nothing doubting that the heretics deserved the fire to which they were given”,she writes, “A cousin of Calvin’s, who had joined the Reformers, was in Paris.  The two kinsmen often met and discussed together the matters that were disturbing Christendom.  ‘There are but two religions in the world’, said Olivetan, the Protestant.  ‘The one class of religions are those which men have invented, in all of which man saves himself by ceremonies and good works; the other is that one religion which is revealed in the Bible, and which teaches man to look for salvation solely from the free grace of God’.  ‘I will have none of your new doctrines,’ exclaimed Calvin; ‘think you that I have lived in error all my days?’…….But thoughts had been awakened in his mind which he could not banish at will.  Alone in his chamber he pondered upon his cousin’s words.  Conviction of sin fastened upon him; he saw himself, without an intercessor, in the presence of a holy and just Judge.  The mediation of saints, good works, the ceremonies of the church, all were powerless to atone for sin.  He could see before him nothing but the blackness of eternal despair.  In vain the doctors of the Church endeavoured to relieve his woe.  Confession, penance, were resorted to in vain; they could not reconcile the soul with God.  While still engaged in these fruitless struggles, Calvin, chancing one day to visit one of the public squares, witnessed there the burning of a heretic.  He was filled with wonder at the expression of peace which rested on the martyr’s countenance.  Amid the tortures of that dreadful death, and under the more terrible condemnation of the church, he manifested a faith and courage which the young student painfully contrasted with his own despair and darkness, while living in strictest obedience to the church.  Upon the Bible, he knew, the heretics rested their faith.  He determined to study it, and discover, if he could, the secret of their joy.

In the Bible he found Christ.  ‘O Father,’ he cried, ‘His sacrifice has appeased thy wrath; His blood has washed away my impurities; His cross has borne my curse; His death has atoned for me.  We had devised for ourselves many useless follies, but Thou hast placed Thy word before me like a torch, and Thou hast touched my heart, in order that I may hold in abomination all other merits save those of Jesus’…..”  (“The Triumph of God’s Love” [originally titled “The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan] by Ellen G. White, p 130, pub Pacific Press Publishing Association 1950, 1957; with reference to Wylie bk. 13, ch 7, and Martyn, vol 3, ch. 13).

John Calvin: Church planter and trainer of missionaries

In the 1550’s, while Calvin was at Geneva he received many refugees fleeing Catholic persecution; while they were there, sitting under his preaching and pastoral care, many of them began feeling burdened for their homeland and wanted to take the gospel to them.  So Calvin taught them theology and how to preach, and he assessed their moral character before sending them out.  And once they were involved with their work he prayed for them constantly and corresponded with them frequently to support, advise, and encourage them as much as he could.

By 1559 the church at Geneva had planted 100 churches in France and by 1562 there were more than 2000 churches there.  Some of these churches were so successful that they had to conduct three services every Sunday to cater for the many thousands who attended them.  He also sent missionaries to Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands, the Rhineland and Brazil.  Calvin’s heart was for the preaching of the gospel and during the last ten years of his life, missions were his “absolute preoccupation”.  For example, in a sermon on 2 Timothy 1:8-9, Calvin said “If the gospel be not preached, Jesus Christ is, as it were, buried.  Therefore, let us stand as witnesses, and do him this honor, when we see all the world so far out of the way; and remain steadfast in this wholesome doctrine….let us here observe that St Paul condemns our unthankfulness, if we be so unthankful to God, as not to bear witness of his gospel; seeing he hath called us to it”.


William Carey: Father of modern missions

It is well known that the man who began the modern missionary movement was a Baptist Christian named William Carey.  However, it doesn’t seem to be as well known, or at least acknowledged, that Carey was a Calvinist in the Particular Baptist (Calvinist) churches; and he and some of his Calvinist friends founded the Baptist Missionary Society in order to take the gospel to the heathen.  So the first modern missionary and the first mission society and the impetus for all missions since then came, humanly speaking, from within Calvinism.  Obviously, these Calvinists understood the essential link between predestination and the gospel.

Compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses….

Ever since William Carey there has been a stream of Calvinist missionaries.  In fact, many of the most famous and well known missionaries were Calvinists.  For example:

  • John Eliot – first missionary to the American (Algonquian speaking) Indians (1600’s).
  • David Brainerd – missionary to the Mohawk Indians in 1700’s.
  • Jonathan Edwards preached during the First Great Awakening and he recorded what God was doing during that revival.  His sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” caused many to turn to Christ.  He was a missionary to the Housatonic American Indians.
  • William Tennent, founder of the Log College, a theological training college where many preachers were trained; these men preached during the First Great Awakening.
  • Samuel Davies preached the gospel to the slaves in Virginia, and many hundreds were saved.
  • Robert Moffat took the gospel to “darkest Africa”
  • David Livingstone also took the gospel to Africa
  • Robert Morrison, missionary to China
  • Peter Parker, missionary to China
  • Adoniram Judson, missionary to Burma, bible translator, and church planter
  • John G. Paton, missionary to the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu)
  • Charles Simeon, Church of England minister and founder of the Church Missionary Society.
  • Henry Martyn, missionary to India and Persia
  • Samuel Zwemer, missionary to Bahrain, Egypt, Arabia and Asia Minor – known as “The Apostle to Islam”

This is only a partial list.  Over the centuries there have been many hundreds of unknown Calvinist Christians from Reformed churches who have taken the gospel to the lost all over the world, and they are still doing it today.  So let’s not hear any more of this ill-informed misinformation that Calvinism doesn’t believe in or practice evangelism.

The real reason for lack of evangelistic zeal in some Christians and churches is not wrong doctrine, as some perceive it, but fear, weakness, worldliness, and lack of the Holy Spirit; this is the case in both Calvinistic and Arminian churches.

Calvin misrepresented and maligned

Calvin has the reputation of being a very harsh man.  Unfortunately, much of what people today think they know about him is probably gained from a vengeful monk who vilified Calvin in print.  “But Calvin’s theological certitude withstood many challenges and conflicts, including the trial of Jerome Bolsec, a former Catholic monk who had become a Protestant physician.  Bolsec vigorously countered Calvin’s doctrine of predestination – the very underpinning of his clerical and civil authority.  (Bolsec was banished and later wrote a slanderous and historically destructive biography of Calvin.) In 1553, as public support for Calvin again ebbed lower, his supporters were once again galvanised by the arrest , trial, and execution of Miguel Servetus, the infamous author of a book that discounted the more universally accepted and fundamental doctrine of the Trinity.  Servetus had been arrested when he travelled to Geneva, and was later burned at the stake, though Calvin appealed for a more humane execution” (Preface to “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” p. xiv).