Calvin's Life: Lessons from Geneva

John Calvin arrived in Geneva in June 1536.[1] He intended to stay one night. Fleeing from persecution in his homeland of France, he planned to take up a scholar’s life in Strasbourg, but war forced him to take an unusual route that included the French-speaking city of Geneva. Calvin had no interest in Geneva, or for the busy, public work of a pastor. But before he could set out the next day, he was visited by a fiery, red-haired preacher who had recently convinced Geneva’s city council to leave Roman Catholicism and declare for Protestantism. William Farel was looking for someone to bring organization and theological leadership to his cause. He believed he had his man in the recent author of the Institutes. Calvin turned down his invitation, reiterating his plan to settle in Strasbourg. However, Farel proceeded to warn Calvin that God would curse him for retreating into a quiet life of study when the church had such great need.[2] Calvin took Farel’s threat as divine direction for his life.

After taking up his pastoral duties, Calvin presented a church order to the city council in January 1537. It included plans for a catechism, confession of faith, and the practice of church discipline. Calvin’s intent was to teach the people of Geneva to embrace Biblical convictions and hold them accountable to the same. Church and state overlapped considerably in his day, and the expectation would have been that those who did not hold the confession would be dismissed from the city as well as the church. But the city council members objected to entrusting excommunication to the church ministers. Accustomed to serving as the final authorities in both spiritual and civil matters, they saw it as potentially disruptive to divide those jurisdictions with the pastors.

The council also wanted Geneva to conform to the worship practices of the neighboring city of Bern, and though Calvin did not hold the minor differences he had with Bern as essential, he and his pastoral colleagues believed it was the responsibility of the Church, not the State, to decide such matters from Scripture. When the council determined, without consulting the ministers, that Communion would be served on Easter of 1538 with unleavened bread as was the custom in Bern, and forbade ministers to excommunicate, Calvin decided he could not serve Communion to anyone until the conflict was resolved. The city council banished him just two years after he first arrived.

There are several lessons from Calvin’s first stay in Geneva. One is that our callings do not always match our desires exactly. Like Calvin, you may be in a location or role that you do not want, but unless you are there in direct rebellion against God, he evidently wants you there at present, and may even intend you to stay. That’s a countercultural conviction in an age that always asks us if we love and enjoy what we do. But often the good of others is a more important indicator of Christian vocation than personal preference. After all, we serve a Savior who commands us to deny ourselves and follow him in his example of doing the same for us.

Another thing to ponder is that we will all be forced eventually to weigh principle against practicality. We may disagree if Calvin was right to insist on the church’s right to self-government in this instance or whether he should have gone along with the common practice of the day to avoid exile and extend his ministry, but we do know God eventually brought him back to Geneva – and with greater influence once the council gained appreciation for him in his absence. Even then, however, he did not enjoy total say even in ecclesiastical matters. We will face similar situations in our own church settings, whether to take a stand, or live to fight possibly greater battles later. Whatever we think of Calvin’s decision, we should give thanks for the freedom our churches enjoy in Western society today. A final lesson then is that God is in control of our lives. If we belong to him, we can trust his wisdom and power to bring good to his church and glory to his Name, however our desires and decisions fit into his plan.

Steven McCarthy is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Walton, NY, and a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. He is currently a Th.M. student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI. He and his wife have three children.

[1] The narrative account following relies heavily on W. Robert Godfrey, John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 35-42.


[2] Calvin, Preface, Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979), xlii-xliii.



Steven McCarthy