John Calvin’s theology has been misrepresented and subjected to much criticism by many over the years: in particular, his doctrine of total depravity. We hate those who squelch our pride by dismantling our self-righteousness and exalting God’s sovereign grace.
But in reality, Calvin was the finest exegete, the greatest systematic theologian, and the profoundest religious thinker the Reformation has produced.

He was Bible-centred in his teaching, God-centred in his living, and Christ-centred in his faith; he integrated the confessional emphases of Reformation thought – by faith alone, by Scripture alone, by grace alone, by Christ alone, for God’s glory alone – with supreme clarity.

He is ruled by the following convictions: God is all, and man is nothing, and praise is due to God for everything good. These convictions permeated his life, right up to his final direction that his tomb be unmarked and there be no speeches at his burial, lest he become the focus of praise instead of his God. These same convictions permeate his theology too.

The final version of Calvins ‘Institute of the Christian Religion (1559), in which the consistent teaching of the sixty-six canonical books is topically spelled out, is a systematic masterpiece, one that has carved out a permanent niche for itself among the greatest ChristIan books.
Calvin himself was also a pastor; he was reported to be preaching many times in a week in Geneva; he also wrote commentaries on all the books of the Bible (except Revelation) besides the ‘Institute of the Christian Religion. What was and is remarkable is that he did all these despite ill-health, suffering from gout, kidney stones, and other serious ailments. It was said that he preached his last sermon when he was so ill that he had to be supported to the pulpit.

Perhaps excerpts from certain aspects of his theology may cause us to be thankful that God raised such a man – the following is taken from the book “Calvin on the Christian Life” by Michael Horton:

“The object of faith is not merely “God”, Calvin argues, but the triune God. Yet this still is not the bull’s-eye at which saving faith aims. The triune God is revealed in Christ. This, however, is still not definite enough: not only Christ as the facilitator of union with God or one among many intercessors or as the supreme example to follow in order to become united with God, but as the saving God incarnate as He is clothed in His gospel.
A saving union with God occurs only through union with Christ, who is God with us and also us with God. To be in Christ is to live in God, not just before him, because Christ is the divine Lord and human servant of the covenant. “Ungrudgingly, he took our nature upon himself to impart to us what was his, and to become both Son of God and Son of man in common with us.” United to him, we now enter into that familiar relationship that he enjoys with the Father and with the Spirit.”

Ponder upon what Calvin communicated. Clearly and accurately, he taught the divinity of Christ and Christ as the God-man; he taught the uniqueness of Christ and pointed out that Christ alone is the divine Lord and servant of the covenant; he revealed the incarnation and how God (Christ) becomes man by taking our nature upon himself to impart to us what was his (Union with Christ and Imputation), enabling us to enter into the sweet fellowship of the triune God.

On ‘grace’, ‘repentance’, ‘sanctification’ briefly:

“The point of being recipients of God’s grace is to be active distributors of his love to others. We receive from God and give to others. Grace not only gives, it also activates our giving – not to God, but to our neighbours. Since grace liberates nature, it is opposed not to our activity, but to our merit. That’s the way it is throughout our life. We are always passive receivers of salvation, but we are active in our living out of that daily conversion – dying to ourselves and living to God in Christ. With faith lodged only in Christ, we are far from passive in putting to death indwelling sin. And we are therefore called repeatedly in Scripture to press on, to grow up, to train ourselves, to bear the fruit of the Spirit in our relationships with others, and to strive with all of our might to say no to sin and yes to righteousness. All of this we can do, though imperfectly, because we are already united to Christ and are indwelled by His Spirit.

Every believer fights against insurgents within and without, the remnants of a defeated foe. This growth is not automatic. We may quench the Spirit by refusing his promptings. When we fail to avail ourselves of the means of grace, we shrivel on the vine. Furthermore, if we don’t communicate with our Father and if we abandon the fellowship of our brothers and sisters, we become drifters instead of pilgrims. The gospel gives us a secure place to stand as we fight this battle with all our might and man.

Paradoxically, it is the acknowledgment that we are simultaneously justified and sinful that fuels our commitment to press on in the race…Sanctification is real, but it is not complete. “Christ by his Spirit does not perfectly renew us at once, or in an instant, but he continues our renovation throughout life”. Sin’s dominion has been toppled, but still indwells believers. Not only at the beginning, but throughout our Christian life, we derive all of our righteousness from Christ, not from ourselves…It is the one who is assured of God’s favour in Christ alone who is free to love his or her neighbours simply for their own sake and for God’s glory, rather than for one’s own self-improvement and self-justification.
Work-righteousness is the enemy of genuine holiness by cutting the tree at its root, but the gospel creates faith in Christ , which puts forth branches of love and bears the fruit of good works. The gospel is the deathblow to antinomianism and legalism alike.

We see the ‘gems’ in the writings and teachings of this servant of God. The translation of his writings into ‘modern English’ enables many to dig deep into the ‘wells of his wisdom and understanding’. Most of all, it helps believers in living the Christian life on proper doctrines and theology, and not be ‘tossed about’ by every wind of doctrine that blows our way.

What truly impacts me about his life is his being ‘soaked in Scripture’ and his diligence, discipline, perseverance, love, and humility – always seeking
God’s glory and nothing for himself – this is indeed the path and character of true Christian discipleship.

The bodies of four centuries of Calvinists lie moldering in the grave, but Calvinism goes marching on – so wrote the late J.I. Packer – and how right he is!

In response to queries on Calvinism

The controversy regarding Reformed Theology has been raging for many years. Much has been written from both sides of the controversy. However, after looking extensively into this (and Scripture), and also recognising Calvin to be a godly, humble servant of God, I tend to agree with Reformed Theology.
We need to first note the revelation of God through the Bible. It is clear that after the fall of Adam, who is our representative, sin entered the world the way a virus enters into the body, infecting all mankind from that time on. Sin has corrupted our ability to love and obey God with our whole hearts, strength, and minds; sin has ‘infected’ every part of us (i.e. Total depravity), so that we are all born in sin and guilt, corrupt in our nature, and unable to keep God’s law. That does not mean that we are devoid of free will; we can will and choose, but in the context of our fallen nature, we tend to choose what is contrary to God’s law and instead, we choose what heightens our self-centredness and gives pleasure to the idols of our hearts. The consequence of sin is death (physical and spiritual) for all – all are condemned to be put away from God and to be eternally punished. Total depravity only means every part of our faculty has been corrupted and stained by sin.

God could have left us to our own devices but because God so loves the world, He sent the second Adam, His Son Jesus Christ, to rescue mankind, at a great cost to the Father and the Son (the gospel as expounded by Paul in the book of Romans, particularly chapters 3 to 6). If we were left to our own devices, all of us would perish. But now God, in His grace, love, and wisdom provides a way back to Him; but it has to be ‘received’ through faith and repentance. The Bible teaches both the Sovereignty of God and the Responsibility of Man; we may not be able to reconcile these two truths because of our finiteness but they are true notwithstanding. Like in the case of Pharaoh, it is true that he hardened his heart, and it is also true that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh. It is true that Joseph’s brothers betrayed him and were responsible for their evil deeds; yet it is also true that God sent Joseph to Egypt in order to save Israel from the famine and destruction.

So we are right to say that God is sovereign and He permits evil; but it is also true that in His sovereignty, God uses evil to combat evil and rebellion (like using Babylon to destroy Jerusalem); He uses evil to bring about good and He also uses evil to mould us and transform us into the image of Christ. How He does it in detail escapes us – He is infinite, beyond time and space – we are finite and limited in our understanding. As far as salvation and justification are concerned – it is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for His glory alone – there is nothing we can contribute to our salvation (remember the book of Galatians) and man is generally too proud to accept that he has no contribution whatsoever and he only deserves death and condemnation. God, in His sovereignty, chose him (and the Bible does not give us the reason why and how), but it is also true that although he has nothing to contribute, God expects him (through the ministry of the Holy Spirit who draws him to God and His love) to respond in faith and repentance. Only then would the Holy Spirit unite him to Christ and the union with Christ effected regeneration, salvation and a new creation. But God expects him not to remain where he is, but to go on to grow, to become holy, and to persevere, to obey, and to walk by faith, trusting in God and His goodness.

That, essentially, is reformed theology on the gospel and salvation. It does not violate the grace, love and wisdom of God; there is no place to argue about fairness – all of us are doomed to die eternally anyway – there is no place to put God into our limited understanding and insist that He be the God we think He should be. God is God; we are not God. He is the Creator; we are the created – that is what it means -period. Who is to tell God what He ought to do; who can question His wisdom and perfection. It is enough that we know that He is the sovereign, loving, patient, wise, and perfect Creator. Job learned this well when he was astounded when God asked him where he was when God created the world,and caused the sun to rise, the storm to come forth etc. Job realised from all these that he is not even a tiny minute fraction of who God really is and he repented in ashes. Is it proper for us to question the love of God; are we in a position to tell God that He is unfair and unloving? God looks to him who is contrite and humble at heart, and this is the position of the created being before an awesome Creator who intends to correct all wrongs and to judge righteously ultimately before ushering in the new heaven and new earth.

Calvinism highlights for me the wondrous grace, love and goodness of God – it shows me how much He is willing to sacrifice in His love for me and the human race – it shows me a God who, before the creation of the world, decided to save me and others, not on the basis of any worthiness on our part, but simply because He is God and He is love. It also demonstrated how He did not give up on me and all the rest of mankind but He ‘chases’ after me and others until we appreciate His plan of salvation and His desire for us to be His people and He to be our God, despite all our failures, sins and rebellion.

Do refer to R. C. Sproul from Ligonier Ministries for more information. J.I. Packer, D.A. Carson, John Stott, Tim Keller – all these godly men are also Calvinists and they are excellent theologians in their own rights.