John Calvin’s Life & Legacy
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John Calvin’s Life & Legacy

Igniting The Fires of Revival

Who Is John-Calvin and What Is Calvinism?
John Calvin, Protestant Reformer and Pastor 1509-1564 | Painting by Calvin Bryant.

It is hardly disputed that John Calvin is one of the most influential–if not the most influential– of the Protestant Reformers. His life and teaching ignited the flames of revival across Europe and early America. His lasting effect on today’s world goes beyond Reformed theology and touches most spheres of life including governance, early American history, the rise of democracy, and social norms. Even if you do not know it now, your life has been affected by John Calvin. Throughout this 4-part series, we hope to demonstrate Calvin’s great significance both at the time he was alive and now by walking you through milestones, ideas, and events that marked Calvin’s life.

In part one, we will present a brief overview of Calvin’s personal history. In part two, we will seek to explore his various writings and demonstrate the need for more people to pick up and read his works. In parts three and four we will focus on Calvin’s lasting impacts. More particularly, in part three we will examine his immediate impact in Geneva, Switzerland in the 1500s, and in part four will discuss the legacy Calvin has handed down all the way to the present time in the United States. We hope that through this short series on Calvin, you will be inspired to learn more about and from this giant in the faith.

From the Church to the Law

The origin story of our hero begins on July 10, 1509. Although famous for his time in Switzerland, Calvin was born in Paris, France to his mother, Jeanne le Franc, and his father, Gerard Cauvin (French spelling of Calvin). His mother died early in Calvin’s childhood leaving behind him and four siblings.

Calvin’s father was ambitious and hoped to elevate his family’s standing. At the time, France was still heavily Roman Catholic, so Calvin’s father heavily encouraged him to join the official priesthood of the church. Joining the priesthood would ensure a free education and future job security. Calvin, obeying his father, became a servant of the Roman Catholic Church and studied diligently in hopes of upgrading from his humble beginnings. However, as time went on Gerard felt that his son would be better off financially as a lawyer. Calvin then, at the age of 12, went to study law at the University of Paris.

It was there that Calvin pursued subjects such as political philosophy, literature, art, theology, and more. His dad particularly had visions of his son becoming a famous humanities scholar. Toward that end, Calvin dedicated himself to the study of Roman law and philosophy at the Universities of Paris, Orleans, and Bourges. He launched his academic career with the publication of his first complete book in 1532 at the age of 23, a commentary on the Roman leader Seneca.

John Calvin 1509-1564 | Geneva, Switzerland

Back to the Church

During the 1520s and 30s (while Calvin was studying humanities), Martin Luther’s movement for the reformation of the Roman Catholic Church was ricocheting all over Europe. In Roman Catholic France, Luther’s ideas were not readily accepted. Indeed, at Calvin’s own college, there was a mission statement to refute Luther’s beliefs. Calvin seemed unaffected by the Reformed ideas encroaching on Europe. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and continued onward to peruse a doctorate in philosophy.

Although scholars dispute who exactly exposed Calvin to the ideas of the Protestant Reformation, many suggest that it was his friend Nicolas Cop, the official pastor of Calvin’s University. Once Calvin interacted with Protestant and Reformed teachings, his life completely changed. He writes about this in the preface to his commentaries on the Psalms, saying:

“Thus it came to pass, that I was withdrawn from the study of philosophy, and was put to the study of law, to this pursuit, I endeavored faithfully to apply myself, in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by the secret guidance of His providence, at length gave a different direction to my course. And first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought to a teachable frame my mind, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true piety, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor,” (Calvin, Commentaries on the Psalms, 1557).

He continued his studies but became passionate about the importance of the Scriptures and the furthering of the Reformed Church.

Public Life

While Calvin was still at university, his friend Nicolas Cop preached a sermon extremely friendly to Protestant teachings. It is rumored that Calvin himself wrote this sermon. Regardless of the authorship, the sermon caused an uproar and forced Cop to flee to Basel, Switzerland. Calvin implicated in Cop’s teachings was also set on the run toward Switzerland.

During his travels, Calvin made many connections with other Reformers (mostly other exiles), including William Farel. William Farel was another Frenchmen who fought hard for the Protestant faith and founded many churches across Switzerland. Farel is responsible for a large number of events throughout the Reformation period, but he is most often known as the man that persuaded Calvin to go to Geneva, Switzerland in 1536.

It was there that Calvin became a public teacher and preacher of the Reformation. Although, both Calvin and Farel were kicked out of Geneva briefly in 1538 for attempting to get rid of all Roman Catholic images of God. They both returned in 1541 and were able to establish a Protestant outpost in Geneva through the preaching and teaching of the Scriptures and through the passionate proclamation of the love of Jesus Christ.

Calvin then helped form a new government in Geneva based on the Word of God, overthrowing any remaining Roman Catholic influences. Here he established an academy for the education of future generations, preached at the local church, started charities for the poor, set up the prototype of church government for future presbyterian denominations, and was a member of the ruling council in Geneva known as the Consistory. 

In Geneva, Calvin spent the remainder of his life writing, teaching, preaching, taking in refugees, and training missionaries. It was in Geneva that Calvin began writing his most famous work, The Institutes of Christian Religion. He began writing it at the age of 26 and continued to add and revise it all of his life. Although the Institutes were distributed and read during Calvin’s life, the final version of it was published after his death.

Private Life

Not much is known about Calvin’s home life. He was a particular man and had high standards for any future wife. He was approached multiple times by candidates suggested by friends but remained unmarried until Martin Bucer (a German Reformer) recommended Idelette Stordeur. 

Idelette was a widow with two children. Calvin was a frequent guest in her home both while her husband Jean Stodeur was alive and after his death. During those visits, Calvin was able to witness her godly character and admired her graciousness. On August 17, 1540, they were married. Together they lived an active life. The Genevan Consistory granted them a small mountain-top home and a modest annual salary. Idelette is said to have created a warm home and helped Calvin take in many refugees and host multiple future famous theologians.

Idelette and Calvin never had children as they all died at birth or shortly after. This was devastating to both Calvin and Idelette. However, they were committed to prayer and reading the Scriptures to help them deal with their immense grief. In 1549, after nine years of faithfulness to her husband and the Lord, Idelette died. Calvin was faithful to his promise to treat her two children as his own. After the death of his wife, Calvin continued to teach, write, preach, and train future generations of preachers until his own death on May 27, 1564, at the age of 54.

Far-Reaching Influence

Calvin’s missionaries from Geneva went all over the globe in the 1550s including as far as Brazil. In 1555, the Roman Catholic Queen in England and Scotland, Mary Tudor (aka Bloody Mary), exiled all the Protestants. This sent many theologians Calvin’s way, including Scotland’s most famous Reformer John Knox. Calvin housed these exiles, trained them, and sent them throughout Europe carrying the gospel wherever they went. Calvin continued to train many famous theologians including Pierre Viret, Theodore Beza, and Francis Turretin and has influenced millions more.


John Calvin was first and foremost a man of faith dedicated to the pure worship of the one, true, and living God. His whole life was marked by vigorous study and a drive for the precise communication of the truth. After his exposure to the Protestant faith, he funneled his skills and passion into helping reform the church. Calvin’s life is a reminder for us that God can use anyone at any time to proclaim His name. Calvin’s legacy is a call for us to hold fast to the truth of God.

Read more about John Calvin’s doctrines of Reformed Theology
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John Calvin’s Written Work
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John Calvin’s Written Work

Calvin’s Writings Impacted The World

John Calvin's writings. Who is John Calvin and what is Calvinism?
John Calvin, Protestant Reformer and Pastor 1509-1564 | Painting by Calvin Bryant

In our first post in this series, we introduced John Calvin as one of the greatest heroes of the Reformation. We sketched his personal and professional life and told of his passion for God and his labor for the Church. In this next part, we will explore Calvin’s written work.

You may be thinking, “Why would you dedicate a whole post specifically to Calvin’s writings?” The answer is simple. Through his writings, we gain a much better insight into who Calvin was, his effect on the world, and his heart for Christ and fellow Christians. His writing has stood the test of time and contains many truths and gems to be unveiled. As we briefly walk through Calvin’s work, we may also learn something along the way. 


It has been said that Calvin lived the life of forty men. He was so productive, that historians still haven’t been able to form a comprehensive list of all of the books, letters, tracts, and commentaries he wrote—never mind all of the countless other works authored by those he directly influenced.

Before surveying his works, however, it will be helpful to note that Calvin was not a lone man on an island. He believed that knowledge and truth were best learned within the community of faith. He was influenced and sharpened by the best minds around him. We know from his letters that he had direct contact with other Reformers of his day. He was also affected by the generation of Reformers that came before him including John Wycliffe, Desiderius Erasmus, and even Martin Luther himself. 

More importantly, Calvin made sure to root his work in the history of the Church. He wanted to demonstrate that Reformed Theology was not just a new invention but rather a recovery of the true and original faith. Toward that end, Calvin made sure to incorporate the works of Christians from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries (these Christians are commonly referred to as the Church Fathers). He was particularly influenced by St. Augustine of Hippo (born in 354 AD). As the Roman Catholic Church of the day claimed that they were the true, original Church, Calvin stood against them with his extensive knowledge and use of Church history in his writings, proving that the Reformation recovered the Biblical faith.

The Institutes

Calvin’s most seminal work is easily the Institutes of Christian Religion. As we’ve said before, he began this work at the age of 26 and worked on it for his whole life. The work was first published in Latin in 1536 and was later published multiple times during Calvin’s lifetime in French. The book soon became a blueprint for the Protestant faith and the basis for governments and church denominations throughout the centuries. The Institutes have since been published in English and translated into many other languages and are lauded for being the most important work from the Reformation period.

In the original French version, Calvin wrote a preface to the French King, Francis I, explaining his intention for writing the book. Essentially, he says he wrote the book to convince the king and others in Europe to accept Reformed theology as the historic and scripturally accurate faith. However, as Calvin kept working on the Institutes, he realized a deeper reason for writing. He wanted a book that explained the Christian faith to people brand new to theology. In the new preface, he noted,

“Although Holy Scripture contains a perfect doctrine, to which one can add nothing, since in it our Lord has meant to display the infinite treasures of his wisdom, yet a person who has not much practice in it has good reason for some guidance and direction, to know what he ought to look for in it, in order not to wander hither and thither, but to hold to a sure path, that he may always be pressing toward the end to which the Holy Spirit calls him,” (Calvin, Institutes, French Edition 1560).

Calvin structured the book in four parts to mirror the parts of the Apostle’s Creed and the book of Romans. He began with the doctrines of God’s majesty and man’s sinfulness. Then, he moved to the doctrine of Christ’s coming to the world for the salvation of sinners. He then discusses the importance of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life. And finally, he closed the Institutes with a defense of the institutional Church. Calvin was adamant that the Institutes be used as a reference source and guide for the overall sweep of Scripture not as an endpoint in itself. He taught that summaries of theology are important but that they should lead us to deeper Scriptural reading.

Commentaries & Sermons

Calvin tirelessly urged people to get into the text. Toward that end, Calvin spilled much ink explaining and illuminating the meanings of Scripture. He is often referred to as the best Reformed exegete (aka interpreter) of the Bible. He wrote many individual commentaries on most of the books in the Bible, including a verse-by-verse explanation of all 150 Psalms. Over 400 years after their publication, these commentaries remain in print and are of great value to Bible students around the world. His written explanations of Scripture are so vast that publishers cannot contain them even in a 46-volume set!

Calvin’s sermons are also in print and are too many to number. His work is timeless in that it speaks to the challenges of every new generation and has inspired countless Christians with its theological depth. When one is confused about a passage in the Bible, it is always useful to check if Calvin wrote about it (and he usually has), as he can clarify the meanings of a verse like no one else.

Tracts and Letters

In addition to his work on the Scriptures, Calvin wrote over 1,300 letters and even more tracts. He wrote to many types of people including kings, queens, governors, paupers, widows, imprisoned Christians, and more. His letters cover a broad range of topics ranging from the significant issues of the Church of the day, like the importance of the Lord’s Supper to the life of the Church, to more personal concerns, such as the comforting of a grieving congregant.

A great theme throughout his letters is an utmost concern for the glory of God. In his public letters, he is constantly defending the faith. In 1543, he wrote the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, to explain the true meaning of the Protestant faith. In this letter, he explained that the Reformation was about reclaiming the faithful worship of God, more important than the salvation of man was the honoring of God according to His own revelation.

Likewise, in his personal letters, Calvin displayed deep concern for his brothers and sisters in the faith to hold fast to Christ. He writes a particularly poignant note to five Christians imprisoned and waiting for their execution:

“Even so, my brothers, be confident that you shall be strengthened, according to your need, by the Spirit of our Lord Jesus, so that you shall not faint under the load of temptations, however heavy it be, any more than he did who won so glorious a victory, that in the midst of our miseries it is an unfailing pledge of our triumph,” (Calvin, Letter To the Five Prisoners of Lyons).

Heart of a Pastor

More than anything, Calvin had a bleeding heart for his fellow believers. In his writings, he sought to teach ordinary people the Scriptures and encourage them to keep their faith amidst life’s difficulties. He taught on a variety of issues still relevant for us today. Consider this sermon on Job where Calvin discusses the desire to leave this life during difficult situations:

“… let us keep us within the compass of desiring to live and die at Gods pleasure, so as we may not be given to our own will, but so as we may make as a sacrifice of it in that behalf, that our living may not be to ourselves but to God, so as we may say, Lord, I know mine own frailty. Nevertheless it is thy will to hold me in this world, and here I am, and good reason it is that I should tarry here: But whosoever it shall please thee to call me hence, I make no great accompt of my life, it is always at thy commandment, to dispose of it at thine own pleasure,” (Calvin, 13thSermon on Job 3).

What an encouragement to hold steadfast to God’s will, knowing that He orders the course of life and death.


Calvin was so influential on Reformed theology that without his works it is impossible to imagine the Reformed faith passed down to us today. More than that his writings touch on all aspects of the Christian life and life in general that they are profitable for anyone.

If there is anything you should take away from this brief exploration of Calvin’s written work, it should be to read more Calvin. You would be doing yourself disservice if you didn’t. You can begin by reading his commentaries on the Psalms or his sermons on Ephesians. Or try reading the Institutes and see how Calvin would explain the faith to a beginner.

Read more about John Calvin’s doctrines of Reformed Theology
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John Calvin’s Life In Geneva
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John Calvin’s Life In Geneva

24 Years of Ministry & Service

John Calvin, Protestant Reformer and Pastor 1509-1564 | Painting by Calvin Bryant

John Calvin spent most of his life in Geneva, Switzerland. It was in that city of approximately 13,000 citizens, that Calvin did the bulk of his teaching, preaching, and caregiving. It was in Geneva that Calvin served the poor, took in refugees, and taught countless Christians the true faith.

Much has been written, said, and asserted about Geneva and Calvin’s influence there. Many have called it heaven on earth, while many others have claimed that Geneva was a strict totalitarian state that regulated the private lives of individuals. Obviously, somewhere between those extremes lies the truth.

Because there is so much misunderstanding about the history of Geneva and Calvin’s role in it and because the happenings in Geneva have so much influence on life today, we thought that it was important to give this topic its own article. Perhaps by the end of it, we may have a more measured view of history and our predecessors in the faith.

A Few Prerequisites

Before diving in, it will be helpful to set out three key points:

  1. The Genevan government’s practice of regulating the private lives of its citizens predated Calvin’s arrival.
  1. The Genevan government’s practice of regulating the private lives of its citizens was not unique at the time. In the 1500s, all governments were doing exactly that. It was not a question of whether religion would be enforced, it was a question of which religion.
  1. Although Calvin was heavily involved in the government of Geneva, he was only one of many. His word was not law. He abided by the rules in place just like any other citizen.

Life in Geneva

So, what is the big deal about Geneva? Unlike most governments today, the church was heavily involved in the civil procedures and general rule over the citizens. This meant that the church influenced government policy in all spheres. In Geneva, there were laws restricting adultery and drunkenness. There were also laws that regulated marriage, education, and churchgoing. And while some may paint this as a gross abuse of power, a closer look reveals an overarching theme of love and care.

There are a lot of existing records of trials, judicial procedures, and church councils from Geneva that historians continue to sift through today. A lot of the time people will try to pick out a few examples that prove that Geneva’s Christian government was strict and unfeeling, but for every one of those examples, you can find multiple counterexamples demonstrating a true sensitivity to real-life problems and issues. The leaders at the time thought deeply about the proper care for the poor, the uneducated, and the vulnerable. Indeed, the government in Geneva often addressed issues the rest of the world hardly cared about at that time, like the reduction of street fights and the criminalization of abusing children.

While Geneva—as shown in the existing records—was not a sanitized paradise on earth, it was a city whose citizens and government officials strove to do what was best for one another according to the teaching of the Scriptures.

Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland. John Calvin is the second character from the left side.
Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland. John Calvin is the second character from the left side.

Government Structure

As we mentioned above, the church was involved in the government. This involvement, however, was not totalitarian. Instead, the structure of the Geneva government was essentially split into two main parts: 1) the consistory (or the church council) which was made up of pastors, elders, deacons, and doctors (theologians); 2) the civil magistrate (what we think of as the government today) which was made up of two legislative councils.

Normal citizens were selected to serve in either part of the government on a rotation. In essence, Geneva was a Republic built around and for its citizens. The structure of the government looked a little bit like this:

 Structure of the government in Geneva, Switzerland at the time of  John Calvin
Structure of the government in Geneva, Switzerland at the time of John Calvin

It should be noted that while the Consistory and the Civil Magistrate worked hand-in-hand, they had different focuses. The Consistory primarily oversaw the examination of new pastors, the proper implementation of the sacraments (discussed here), and the care of the poor. The Civil Magistrate primarily oversaw the punishment of criminals and the general enforcement of laws

The Tyrant of Geneva?

But what did Calvin have to do with all of this? Many have tried to paint Calvin as a tyrant that ruled Geneva through the Consistory with an iron fist. But the reality couldn’t be further from that. Calvin first came to Geneva as a pastor wanting to preach the good news of the Gospel. His massive intellect and heart for others soon led him to draw up a catechism, a confession of faith, and a constitution that the government of Geneva readily accepted.

In 1541, Calvin wrote the Ecclesiastical Ordinances and established the Consistory. He went on to become the moderator of the Consistory, however, this did not mean that he had sole power in Geneva. He was consistently checked by the other pastors, elders, deacons, and doctors in the Consistory, as well as the 260 people in the Civil Magistrate. By no means did Calvin do whatever he pleased, but the things he was able to enact had a lasting effect.

Calvin labored to make Geneva a city that would be an example of a flourishing Christian life and a center for Gospel truth. He firmly believed that the Reformation could only take hold in Europe and beyond if people understood and applied God’s word in their everyday lives. Thus, he put a huge emphasis on education. He set up primary and elementary schools that any child could attend, devised a system to teach adults how to read and write, and established the first Protestant university in the world.

The founding of this university was one of Calvin’s favorite accomplishments, as it meant that Geneva’s citizens could be edified by sound teaching. Indeed, people from all over Europe came to study and teach at Calvin’s University, bringing Reformed theology to the popular level.

God’s Glory and Man’s Good

It is helpful to understand Calvin’s Geneva in contrast with the Roman Catholic government at the time. In Calvin’s day, the Roman Catholic ‘magisterium’ had sole rule in many cities, placed unfair burdens on their citizenry, and required the false worship of God.  When he wrote the constitution of Geneva and Ecclesiastical Ordinances, Calvin was fighting against the Roman Catholic form of government and hoping to secure a fuller life for the people around him. In Calvin’s Geneva, the government existed to promote man’s good and protect God’s glory.

Man’s Good

During Calvin’s time in Geneva, systems for the care of the poor, orphans, elderly, and the most vulnerable were put in place. There were actions taken against financial monopolies and exploitive prices. In fact, the price of food was so low in Geneva there was hardly anyone that ever went hungry. This was an anomaly in 1500s Europe.

Calvin additionally ensured that all the ministers were trained properly to handle domestic disputes, prevent street thefts, and support local trade. He also ensured that the church would discipline members who oppressed their workers and maintained unachievable working hours. Every place where a person’s life could be improved, Calvin sought and fought for it.

God’s Glory

Alongside all the improvements for the general well-being of citizens, Calvin fought for the purity of the church. He helped create guidelines for the proper worship of God, the teaching of the Scriptures, and the living of a Godly life. Calvin also rooted out heresies and wrote incessantly to clarify any theological misunderstandings.

Furthermore, he helped the Civil Magistrate establish blasphemy laws and outlaw any form of idolatry or corrupt worship. This may seem extreme to our modern ears, but remember what we said at the outset, it is not whether religion will be enforced, it is a matter of which religion will be enforced.

Calvin firmly believed that the proper worship of the one, true God should be prioritized above everything. He believed it was the duty of the Civil Magistrate to protect and defend that worship. He wrote:

This proves the folly of those who would neglect the concern for God and would give attention only to rendering justice among men. As if God appointed rulers in his name to decide earthly controversies but overlooked what was of far greater importance — that he himself should be purely worshiped according to the prescription of his law,” (Calvin, Institutes, 20.9).  


Calvin worked in Geneva for over 24 years, trying to bring about reform in the city and beyond. He never achieved a heaven on earth. Let’s face it, who could? He was far from perfect, but he produced vast improvements in the standards of living and in the purity of worship with lasting effects on Geneva, Europe, and even in the Americas and Africa.

Was Calvin like a Protestant Pope?  No—he worked within the system and time that he was in to bring about the change he thought was necessary. He is a good example to us of how to work within our systems today. We will look at this in more depth as we explore Calvin’s impact on the United States in the last part of our series.

All in all, we should remember that Calvin was a man of his context attempting to achieve something new: an unflinching application of the Word of God to every sphere of life. Let us hope to do the same in our lives.

Read more about John Calvin’s doctrines of Reformed Theology
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John Calvin & Early America
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John Calvin & Early America

Shaping American History, Religion, & Culture

John Calvin has been named among the Founding Fathers as one of the greatest influences on the founding of the United States.
John Calvin, Protestant Reformer and Pastor 1509-1564. The beautiful American mayflower symbolizes the Calvinists well. It is a hardy wildflower that grows in clusters and spreads naturally throughout northern and southern Eastern America.  In like manner, Reformed theology spread naturally from Maine to Georgia making America a beautiful place to live freely both religiously and politically.

Although John Calvin lived almost a full century before the first American colonies were founded, he has been named among the Founding Fathers as one of the greatest influences on the founding of the United States. Indeed, scholars continue to credit Calvin’s influence with shaping much of American history, religion, and culture, some even calling him the “virtual founder” of the nation.

While there is no doubt that Calvin’s ideas, writings, and life have been used as catalysts for much of the American project, we must be careful to distinguish between Calvin as a person and how Calvin’s teachings have been used in history. Despite Calvin’s contributions to American society, Calvin was neither a revolutionary fighting the British nor a citizen living under today’s secular government and therefore cannot be used to justify or condemn any one American belief or practice. Understanding this, we will be able to see how Calvin’s beliefs and teachings have and continue to shape social thought in America and beyond.

In this last part of our series, we will consider five elements of Calvin’s teaching that directly influenced the American understanding of freedom and government and walk through a few applications of these elements in American history. By the end, we hope to give you a few takeaways to apply in your own life.

Three of the Founding Fathers, kneeling in prayer. The teachings of John Calvin (Reformed theology or Calvinism) were very influential in early American life.

Man’s Depravity

As we talked about earlier, Calvin stressed the sinfulness of man in his teachings. He taught that only God was good and that without God, man could do nothing good. While Calvin’s priority was to convince people to follow Christ and His commandments, Calvin also knew that corruption in human institutions was inevitable. He created systems to help curb this corruption. For Calvin, the solution to a corrupt and overarching government was to control the effects of man’s depravity and to set up a society motivated toward the common good.

We can clearly see Calvin’s concern for unchecked power in the way he set up the church and government structures in Geneva. Calvin understood that all men were fallible and thus designed a system of limited power. This was revolutionary at the time because the pope, bishops, and clergy were usually regarded as the ultimate authority in both the church and the government, with no checks on their power. Calvin instead built a church organization based on a council of elders, not a hierarchical system. Here, authority was vested in many church elders and leaders, not one bishop. This would deter any leader’s natural inclination to abuse power.

Checks and Balances

Calvin also applied this church system of internal checks on power to civil governments. While he believed that the civil government was established by God and that civil disobedience was wrong, he taught that the civil government’s authority was limited. Calvin believed that the government exists to obey God and serve its people. As such, it cannot create laws that require any citizen to sin against God. God’s law was an external check on a government’s power.

Calvin also taught that a government ought to have internal checks. He wrote about the preferred form of government in the Institutes, saying, “Owing therefore to the vices or defects of men, it is safer or more tolerable when several bear rule,” (Institutes, Bk IV. Ch. 20). He believed that a government, at the very least, should be aristocratic, meaning that a king was to rule alongside a council of nobles. These nobles would then be able to defend the people against any abuse of power. This is sometimes called the doctrine of lesser magistrates. The lesser magistrates act as a check for any unlawful authority claimed by a higher magistrate.

Practical Christianity 

Calvin also stressed that Christians should live and work in their communities for the common good. He had a practical view of the faith. He taught that Christians should “foster and maintain the external worship of God, [] defend sound doctrine and the condition of the church, [] adapt our conduct to human society, [] form our manners to civil justice, … cherish common peace and tranquility, (Institutes, Bk IV, Ch. 2). Maintaining the peace and tranquility of a nation is the job of the government and of the people.

Toward this end, Calvin encouraged his church members to work hard and commit to charitable giving and service. He taught that good and moral men should be chosen for political office out of the pool of eligible citizens. Calvin also continually proposed societal reform through education. His example led to the founding of many American universities, including Princeton University. Calvin argued that if the citizenry were educated and virtuous, it would be easier to maintain a virtuous and people-oriented government. He taught that people were stewards of everything God has given. As stewards, it was the duty of all people to work toward the reformation of their own societies.

Freedom to Worship

Calvin defined a good government as one that protects and maintains the true worship of God. In the Institutes, he writes that the Scripture “warns that whatever benefits we obtain from the Lord have been entrusted to us on this condition: that they be applied to the common good of the church,” (Institutes, Bk. 3 Ch. 7).

The gift of authority given to governments was meant for the flourishing of the church. This meant that governments were not to inhibit a Christian’s right to worship God. In Calvin’s day, the Roman Catholic governments in Europe often prohibited true worship and imprisoned or killed their citizens for reading the Scriptures, participating in the Lord’s Supper, and proclaiming the faith publicly. Calvin argued that a government that did these things had failed in its very purpose. His teaching that the Scriptures were the only standard by which to judge the right worship of God had far-reaching effects on the proper understanding of the role of government in religion and faith.

Representative Government

Calvin’s establishment of representative bodies, such as the council of elders in the churches and government of Geneva, had a profound influence throughout Northern and Western Europe. As his teachings spread, churches and governments everywhere began adopting his representative structure.

Later Reformers, such as Calvin’s student John Knox, applied this representative style more directly to the civil government. This application was then handed down through Scottish and British Calvinists to the 17th and 18th century Scottish and British immigrants who arrived in America ready to establish a government structured by interdependent branches, marked by a separation of powers, and existing to serve its people.

Among the most passionate advocates of these ideas was John Witherspoon, a Scotsman and probable descendant of Knox, who became the president of Princeton University and taught James Madison, the future 4th president of the United States.

Calvin’s ideas of limited power, representative government, and freedom had a profound influence on the founding of the United States of America. Unfortunately, modern America has largely forgotten the purpose of our God-given freedom is to declare God’s glory.

Legacy in America

It is easy to see how the above ideas have shaped the American experience, but it is helpful to explicitly point out a few applications. Calvin’s teaching about man’s depravity formed the framework for the compacts and government structures of the original colonies. The original colonists applied his doctrine of lesser magistrates to hold their political leaders under the limitations of God’s law.

This doctrine was also used to defend the colonists’ resistance to British abuses of power. Calvin’s emphasis on the glory of God and the establishment of His true Church directly influenced the mission of many of the first Americans. Consider the opening of the 1620 Mayflower Compact (this was written by the very first Pilgrims in America):

“Having undertaken for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith [], a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering. and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid,” (William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation).

This phrase, “for the Glory of God and the advancement of the Christian Faith,” directly echoes Calvin’s call for people to establish a government for the good of the people and the true worship of God.


Calvin’s teaching marked America in its infancy and has continued to shape its culture. However, as times have changed and individuals have become less Christian, so has the nation. Part of this is because, while enjoying and implementing Calvin’s ideas of limited power, representative government, and freedom, Calvin’s successors quickly forgot his main goal.

Calvin did not defend freedom for freedom’s sake. And he certainly would not promote American freedom for America’s sake. Instead, Calvin believed that all governments and people ought to use their freedoms to declare God’s glory.

What does this mean for us today? It means at least two things. First, we should continue to work hard like Calvin. We should work hard for the good of our churches, families, local communities, state and national governments, and countries. Secondly, we should continue to boldly proclaim the gospel in every sphere of life.

Read more about John Calvin’s doctrines of Reformed Theology
Reformed Theology, The Beginnings

Learn more about the gospel of Jesus Christ and how it can change your life

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