This year—July 10, 2009, to be exact—marks the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. A central figure in the 16th-century Protestant Reformation and spiritual father to countless millions of Christians since, the man deserves a celebration.
But when it comes to celebrating, Calvinists find themselves in a bit of a pickle. Giving honor to a person, we think, can tend to subtract it from God, who rightly deserves it. Moreover, giving honor can feed the human craving for congratulation and thus thwart the Christian call to remain humble. Calvinists remember Calvin’s words: “To covet wealth and honors . . . to gather together all those follies which seem to make for magnificence and pomp, our lust is mad, our desire boundless.” Thus Calvinists rarely over-celebrate anything.
We go at celebrations, well, Calvinistically—modestly and with considerable restraint. (Someone once quipped that for Calvinists the duty to joy sometimes takes a little effort.)
How then to celebrate Calvin’s birthday fittingly—in a manner that acknowledges his legacy as a pastor, civic leader, theologian, and Reformation pillar, but steers clear of hype and lavish praise of humans?
A good way, I suggest—Calvin himself, I think, would approve—is to mark the occasion by recalling some of the deep gospel truths he rediscovered for his day and then affirming them afresh for ours.
This article is the first in a new series I’m thinking of as “A Few Things I Learned from John Calvin that I’d Like to Teach My Spiritual Children.” Each month I’ll aim to restate a cardinal Calvinist teaching that has shaped me, and which I believe is still worth holding on to with all our might—and which, in turn, can hold us too with all its might.
Consider these truths as maps drawn for us by a trustworthy Christian explorer, charts to steer the fragile little boats of our lives home safely.
You deserve to know a bit about who I am and what prompts me to write. I’m nothing more—or less—than an unusually ordinary person who has been extraordinarily blessed.
I’m quite old too. More and more I feel the pinch of the psalmist’s words: “Each man’s life is but a breath” (39:5). And of Yogi Berra’s too: “It gets late earlier and earlier out there.”
I’ve come to realize how much my life has been influenced by John Calvin and by folks in the Calvinist tradition. They’re my spiritual ancestors. From them I’ve received truths to live by—and soon to die by. I feel a depth of gratitude for them
I can scarcely put into words. I am, therefore, a convinced Calvinist Christian.
But the past is not my favorite tense—really it isn’t. The future is. And why? Because years ago, I heard Jesus asking me—as he asks every generation of his followers, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). Those words moved me to give my entire life’s work to teaching and pastoring young(er) people. I wanted to do what I could for their sake—and for Jesus’.
So while I check my Christian ancestors to keep my bearings, I have my eyes trained on my heirs. I want to keep handing on the Reformed Christian tradition, to help young people to know and live by these truths too.
I invite you to an adventure toward the past. If you’re on board, join me in a little prayer, the one Calvin himself prayed aloud each day with his students as a preface to his lecture:
May the Lord grant that we may engage in contemplating the mysteries of his heavenly wisdom, with really increasing devotion—to his glory and to our edification. Amen.