John Calvin: Calling


John Calvin’s Calling as One-Of-A-Kind: The story of Calvin’s call to the pastorate in Geneva is famous. My wife and I have made his calling a regular conversation point as we discern God’s calling in our lives to lead us to pastor a church. The uniqueness of Calvin’s calling scares my wife and I. Here’s why: John Calvin, after completing his doctoral studies in France, desired to live a life of scholarship, writing and teaching (probably aiming to use The Institutes as a class text, that would have been a fun class to be a part of). He longed to retire to Strasbourg (modern day France) to achieve this life of scholarship. However, troop movements prevented them from taking a direct route to Strasbourg and they were forced to detour through Geneva, Switzerland. It was here that a man by the name of Guillaume Farel sought out Calvin to employ him to the ministry in Geneva, though this was not even remotely a desire of Calvin’s. Calvin recounts in his own hand what happened:

As the most direct road to Strasbourg, to which I then intended to retire, was shut up by the wars, I had resolved to pass quickly by Geneva, without staying longer than a single night in that city. [A person discovered me here] and made me know to others. Upon this, Farel, who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me…he proceeded to utter the imprecation that God would curse my retirement and the tranquility of the studies which I sought…I was so terror struck, that I gave up the journey… [1]

God called Calvin in a unique way, by the forceful counsel of a minister and a curse. This is a one-of-a-kind calling. I do not know another pastor who has been terrified into the pastorate or urged in such a manner as Farel employed. I said previously that this example of God’s calling scares Kim and I. We have prayed that God would return us to the proximity of our families (Colorado and Washington). Our Strasbourg is the Western US. We are faithful Christians captive to God’s will and we are scared, as I’m sure Calvin was too, that God will call us somewhere else than our desire (aka Geneva). We lived in New Jersey for three years and joked often (all the while praying that God would not make it so) that Jersey would be our Geneva. This scares us. But we know, as did Calvin, that God’s will knows best and if He sees fit to call us somewhere far from family, we will answer Him faithfully. Calvin did and look what happened!

John Calvin’s Calling as Ordinary: While Calvin’s calling was one-of-a-kind, it was also ordinary. The very term “calling” implies a common definition. Calling implies a person being called and a person calling. Just as we would call a friend on the phone, we are the caller and they are the person being called. The Christian understanding of calling is one in which God directs our steps. This can be a calling to be in relationship with someone, a calling to minister vocationally or simply a calling to love others as Jesus has instructed us. But the common thread throughout this understanding of calling is that it is something in which God has initiated by His will. God, through Farel, called Calvin to minister in Geneva. Calvin’s understanding of calling and God’s will fanned into flame his understanding of God’s sovereignty. So too every person’s calling to an endeavor is orchestrated by God. This is normal. God called Calvin, not Farel and Calvin certainly didn’t call himself. This is what every pastor goes through as they seek vocational ministry, a particular call from God. I heard the call while preaching in class at Princeton Theological Seminary and have since been discerning where my Geneva might be. But it must be a people and place to which God calls me. This is the essence of the Christian understanding of calling, God’s sovereign will. I pray that His will would direct us West to a people that I can shepherd and herald the Gospel to, but it is His calling, not mine. To you I bow my knee Lord, just as John Calvin exemplifies. It is your will and calling we seek and in that we praise you!

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1. T.H.L Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), 53.

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