Calvin’s Lasting Impact in the Global Church

As a 16th-century Reformer, Calvin brought significant changes to the church that he led in Geneva. Yet the changes and renewals he implemented in his time did not affect only that city or last only during his lifetime. They went far beyond the geographical boundaries of one city, or one country, or even one continent. Calvin’s thoughts and church practices have impacted Christianity all over the world for almost five centuries.

Calvin was a second-generation Reformer. When you think about the Reformation of the sixteenth century, you might think right away of Martin Luther. And that’s understandable. Luther initiated changes in the church, moving it away from the medieval theology and practices that he believed to be incorrect and unbiblical. While Luther wanted to change many things about the church, at the center of his disagreement with the church was the issue of justification, or salvation, by grace alone. The medieval church in which Luther grew up taught that we are saved by God’s grace in Christ together with our good works. In addition, the church taught that God still required a temporal punishment for sins people had not confessed, sins that had not been pardoned by God through the authority of the church. And even after sins were confessed, the church insisted God’s justice had not been satisfied, and therefore people still needed to receive punishment. They would undergo this punishment in purgatory after they died. Remission of that punishment was made available by the church in the form of an indulgence. In practice, the church could issue a letter to a person to demonstrate a certain kind of penance. It later devised a plan that would allow people to bypass their time in purgatory if they purchased a letter that the church issued, called a “letter of indulgence.” When people purchased a letter, depending on the sum of money they paid, they could secure complete freedom from purgatory. And even better, they could also purchase letters of indulgence for other people, such as their parents, who had died and were believed to be going through the fire of purgatory. Luther disagreed with the selling of the letter of indulgences because the practice diminished the significance of the death of Christ for our salvation and put at the center of our salvation “good works” in the form of purchasing the letter. Following the teaching of the Bible, Luther emphasized that salvation is only by the grace of God.

In this and other respects, Calvin continued Luther’s work. The two didn’t agree on every point, but in his teachings Calvin, like Luther before him, consistently argued that we are only saved by God’s grace. We can do nothing to earn our own salvation. But Calvin did not stop with making changes in the theological teaching of the church. He developed an extensive plan to implement the changes. The first step he took was to insist on people’s knowledge of the teaching of Scripture. Still in the footsteps of Luther, Calvin wanted people to worship, hear the Bible and sermons, say their prayers, and recite their creed all in their own mother tongue. Luther had started this by translating the Bible into German. Before Luther, Latin was the language of the Western church. You can easily imagine that ordinary people living in Germany who only spoke German would not have had a clue what the priests said at Mass. Before the Reformation, people went to church not to understand the message of the Bible but only to receive the Eucharist, which would later amount to the grace of God, or salvation. While there was beautiful music in the church, the choir sang in Latin, so ordinary people did not actively participate in the singing. They were there only to partake of the Eucharist.

Calvin wanted the people in Geneva to hear sermons in French so that they could understand them well. In addition, he wanted people to sing the psalms, recite the Apostles’ Creed, and pray the Lord’s Prayer in French. He intended that all these participatory activities at church should be integral parts of worship that would build people’s understanding of God, themselves, and their relationship with God. Therefore, in matters concerning worship, Calvin worked hard to ensure that people gained knowledge of God by regularly going to church. He developed a way for the church in Geneva to sing the psalms that were easy for them, putting the texts into metrical form in the familiar language. Calvin’s insistence on including the congregation in singing at church is one of the lasting influences of Calvin on the church all these years later. Calvin was not the only Reformer who sought to change how the church worshiped, but his emphases upon hearing God’s Word and singing the psalms have deeply informed the church to this day.

The Reformation of the church that took place under Calvin in Geneva was not just about theological doctrine and worship in the church. It was also intended to reform people’s lives. To ensure this, Calvin insisted on church discipline, which was upheld by a body called the Consistory, consisting of all the ministers of the church in Geneva and twelve councilors from the different councils of the city. I will discuss the Consistory later in this book. At this point, I just want to underline that as a leader, Calvin wanted to ensure that people became followers of Christ who would know the teaching of the Bible and live accordingly. The Consistory was there to ensure that the people did both. While it is perhaps understandable that Calvin had to take such an approach in maintaining discipline, it is also understandable that people did not like such strict discipline. In subsequent years and even centuries, the Consistory has received a bad reputation. However, Calvin’s insistence on discipline has had a lasting impact on Christians all over the world by showing how Christian faith must be reflected in daily living.

People often think of Calvin as a dour, stern, and cold theologian who only thought about doctrines. However, I find him to be a warm pastor who cared deeply about God’s people and whose influence on his own tradition and the global church is undeniable. I hope in the next chapters you will meet a man who loved God deeply and who did all that he could to ensure that people would get to know God intimately, worship him with all their hearts, and live as Christians who glorify God all the days of their lives.

Excerpted from An Explorer’s Guide to John Calvin by Yudha Thianto. Copyright 2022 by Yudha Thianto. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois.

Yudha Thianto
Yudha Thianto

Yudha Thianto is professor of theology at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.