John Calvin's Conversion in His Own Words

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John Calvin, like many Reformers such as Zwingli, Farel, Viret, and Beza, recounted how God reached out to them in grace and took them from a life of religiosity to one, as Calvin described his friend William/Guillaume Farel, "who burned with an extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel." 

Calvin describes this process in his own words in his introduction to his Commentary on the Psalms (from 1557) as well as in a letter to Cardinal Sadoleto in 1539.
As you read the following accounts, take note of the following:

a. the grace and power of God to reach out to him and "subdue" him

b. how he was stuck in "a mire" of "superstitions"

c. his former unteachableness

d. an insinuation that he was involved in a change from false godliness to "true godliness"

e. the change from religiosity to "a burning desire."

f. fear of embracing useless novelties and so offending the established Church

g. an extrication from his fears of judgment.

But as he [King David]  was taken from the sheepfold, and elevated to the rank of supreme authority; so God having taken me from my originally obscure and humble condition, has reckoned me worthy of being invested with the honourable office of a preacher and minister of the gospel.

When I was as yet a very little boy, my father had destined me for the study of theology. But afterwards, when he considered that the legal profession commonly raised those who followed it to wealth, this prospect induced him suddenly to change his purpose. Thus it came to pass, that I was withdrawn from the study of philosophy, and was put to the study of law.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 endeavoured 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 (or unexpected) [Latin subita] conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, 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 godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire.

Source: John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), xl-xli (preface).

"I, O Lord, as I had been educated from a boy, always professed the Christian faith. But at first I had no other reason for my faith than that which then every where prevailed. Thy word, which ought to have shone on all thy people like a lamp, was taken away, or at least suppressed as to us. And lest any one should long for greater light, an idea had been instilled into the minds of all, that the investigation of that hidden celestial philosophy was better delegated to a few, whom the others might consult as oracles— that the highest knowledge befitting plebeian minds was to subdue themselves into obedience to the Church. Then, the rudiments in which I had been instructed were of a kind which could neither properly train me to the legitimate worship of thy Deity, nor pave the way for me to a sure hope of salvation, nor train me aright for the duties of the Christian life. I had learned, indeed, to worship thee only as my God, but as the true method of worshipping was altogether unknown to me, I stumbled at the very threshold. I believed, as I had been taught, that I was redeemed by the death of thy Son from liability to eternal death, but the redemption I thought of was one whose virtue could never reach me. I anticipated a future resurrection, but hated to think of it, as being an event most dreadful...

Then, because thou wert a stern judge and strict avenger of iniquity, they showed how dreadful thy presence must be. Hence they bade us flee first to the saints, that by their intercession thou mightest be rendered exorable and propitious to us.

"When, however, I had performed all these things, though I had some intervals of quiet, I was still far off from true peace of conscience; for, whenever I descended into myself, or raised my mind to thee, extreme terror seized me—terror which no expiations nor satisfactions could cure. And the more closely I examined myself, the sharper the stings with which my conscience was pricked, so that the only solace which remained to me was to delude myself by obliviousness. Still, as nothing better offered, I continued the course which I had begun, when, lo, a very different form of doctrine started up, not one which led us away from the Christian profession, but one which brought it back to its fountain head, and, as it were, clearing away the dross, restored it to its original purity. Offended by its [i.e Protestantism's] novelty, I lent an unwilling ear, and at first, I confess, I strenuously and passionately resisted it ... One thing in particular made me averse to those new teachers: reverence for the Church. But when some time later I opened my ears, and allowed myself to be taught, I perceived that this fear of detracting, however slightly, from the majesty of the Church, was groundless.

Source: Calvin's Reply to Cardinal Sadoleto (Basle, September 1, 1539) in Henry Beveridge, Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and letters, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1844), 62-6 [

For reflection

  1. Although Calvin did not move from paganism to Christianity, but rather from religiosity to "true religion" what might his example teach those who have "a form of godliness" perhaps from being around church circles, but have never known how their heart can be "inflamed with so intense a desire" to follow Christ.
  2. Calvin sees his allegiance to the religiosity that surrounded the Church as a type of bondage. Where does healthy loyalty to a church start and end, and where does it become a bondage?
  3. Is it possible that there are people in our church pews who only know Calvin's pre-conversion state? If so, how should it be addressed?
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