Ligonier National Conference - Steven Lawson
Steven J. Lawson is the senior pastor of Christ Fellowship Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala., and serves on the ministerial board for Reformed Theological Seminary and the board of directors for the Master’s College and Seminary. Dr. Lawson has also authored many books including Famine in the Land, Foundations of Grace, and The Expository Genius of John Calvin.
Pastor Lawson’s assignment was to address The Legacy of John Calvin. This is no doubt a daunting task, since Calvin’s influence was massive. Even Spurgeon said of Calvin, “Among all those who have been born of women, there has not risen a greater than John Calvin. No age before him ever produced his equal, and no age after has ever produced his rival.” Calvin stood at the head waters of the Reformation, and we know stand down stream.
Lawson provided a few headings to help us get a grasp on John Calvin’s legacy.
I. A Theological Standard
Calvin was the architect of reformed theology — he was the standard even in his day. Luther was a volcano, spewing out numerous fiery ideas. But Calvin was the systematizer — he arranged and ordered the theology of the Reformation. Lloyd-Jones that apart from Calvin, the Reformation would have died out by the end of the 16th century.
First, there was The Institutes of The Christian Religion. It was a theological tour de force written when he was 25-26 years old, and published a year later. He had been a Christian for only one year prior to writing it. Whereas Rome charged the Reformation as a theological novelty, Calvin’s work showed that in fact Rome was the novelty. It was the Reformation that was properly built upon the Scriptures and the church fathers. Calvin gave structure to the great truths of the faith.
Calvin taught the doctrines of grace. Calvin covered 75% of the Bible just with his commentaries alone - thousands of pages of published verse-by-verse analysis of Scripture. He wrote catechism and tracts. So his writings were diverse in their form and content.
Calvin taught the doctrines of grace, and believed that God alone saves. In matters of the trinity, providence, justification by faith alone, the nature of the church, Calvin was a pillar bearing witness to the truth: the exegete of the Reformation. Calvin combated the church-state union of the Roman Catholic Church, and other false doctrines.
Calvin gave “a pattern of sound words” on just about every topic. Future confessions and future catechisms would in reality stand on the shoulders of John Calvin.
II. A Christian (Reformed) World-View
Calvin’s teaching caused believers to live out their belief in a practical, life-changing way. A reformed world-view emerged from Calvin’s teaching. The sum of this view was Soli Deo Gloria. Calvin taught that every activity that humans pursued should be done to the glory of God. “For from Him and to Him and through Him are all things.” Warfield said, “No man had a more profound view of God than John Calvin.” Calvin taught that a man could no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic could remove the sun by scribbling the word “darkness.”
Calvin saw every attack on justification by faith as an affront to the glory of God. Ditto for transsubstantiation, indulgences, and other Roman teaching and practices. Rome’s was a man-centered theology. What drove John Calvin was zeal for the glory of God. So it is only natural that over all his theology would be “the glory of God.” Calvin wrote: “We are God’s. Therefore, let us live for Him and die for Him.” The relentless pursuit of the glory of God, for Calvin, was manifest in six areas:
A. A Protestant Work Ethic
Before the Reformation, the doctrine of vocation was thought to be exclusively for the clergy. Calvin’s teaching on work elevated all areas of lawful work to a level of dignity, worth and value. Every calling of God was sacred for Calvin. This dignified work, and imbued energetic industry, whereby common labors were being done unto the Lord. Calvin thought that all watch makers (for example) would give an account to God someday for every watch they made.
Calvin taught that it was glorious to love God with all of one’s mind. Education in Calvin’s day was an elitist institution, only for monks or priests. But Calvin developed the Geneva Academy: the college and the seminary. His desire was that every person be properly trained for whatever work God had called them to do. Calvin beleived in a “learned laity” that would excel in their work for the glory of God. Thomas Jefferson actually tried to purchase the Geneva Academy and bring it to the USA. That’s how impressed he was with it.
C. Society — Law and Order
Calvin thought there were various uses for the law. The law displayed the glory of God, it revealed the righteous standard of God, and showed us our need for a Savior. But it also provided a guideline for living. It was in the law that Calvin found a pattern for “the punishment fitting the crime,” for the protection of the weak, and for the preservation of life. Mankind must not be left to natural law — the law written on man’s heart.
D. Free market capitalism
At the heart of a free market was the recognition of certain virtues: hard work, the right to private ownership, private investment, the blessing of God upon one’s labor, risk taking, the nobility of profit, the importance of caring for the poor out of own’s profit. Wherever Calvinism went, productivity, industry, and a society growing in wealth could be found. This is a part of Calvin’s legacy.
E. A Reformed Church
Due to the influence of Calvin, the church in Geneva was Reformed, and that, too, would spread elsewhere. The Scripture was primary. Preaching was central to the life of the church—Calvin moved the pulpit to the center of the church’s archetecture. Every architectural line would aim toward a pulpit with an open Bible. Calvin fenced the Lord’s supper to believers. Church discipline was practiced. A separation of church and state: each would look after their own domain. The church was led by Jesus Christ, not a Pope who could somehow speak infallibly. Pastors/teachers — a plurality of elders. The regulative principle.
F. Democratic Society and Personal Liberty (A Decentralized Republic)
Calvin wrote on the dangers of an absolute monarchy. He wrote on the need for “checks and balances.” Calvin even argued for branches of government — a symmetry and balance that would provide stability. He called for a balance between divine sovereignty and human sovereignty. Calvin called for the greatest allegiance to be given not to any earthly authority, but to God alone.
Just as their should not be the autonomy of one pastor, Calvin believed in a plurality of democratically elected leaders who could direct the laws of a nation. Such ideas were influential in Calvin’s day, and in the birth of the United States of America as well.
III. An International Influence
Geneva had become a refuge city for many who had escaped from Bloody Mary and other oppressors. Many would later return to their homeland and spread the Reformation. They become convinced that humans were mere stewards of the mysteries of God — they returned to England, to France, and to other regions — some to face the death of martyrs.
Calvin begot Calvinists — men and women with a “can do” attitude in life and ministry. They would perculate throughout the Roman Empire. It went into France — by 1562, Calvin’s influence was massive (several hundred Reformed churches). In that day, about 10% of France were open confessors of Reformed teaching (this in spite of France being an officially Catholic nation which persecuted detractors).
Calvinism was taken to national politics in the idea that “The Law is King” (rather than “The King is Law”). The Geneva Bible, and the Westminster Confession of Faith, and later the Puritans — all this came from the legacy of Calvin. Oliver Cromwell, who sought a constitutional republic to replace the monarchy of England. No Calvin, no Cromwell; no Cromwell, no Constitution; no Constitution, no US Constitution. It was Calvin’s ideaology which influenced the pilgrims who came to America. The earliest and most influential settlers in the United States were Calvinists. They brought with them the Bible and the Reformed theology of Calvin. That theology was dominant in New England.
President John Adams noted that religious liberty owed much respect to the legacy of Calvin. Even Jefferson, a deist, was impressed at what the Geneva Academy produced. The great colleges of New England (Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth) were originally founded to train Calvinistic preachers. The Declaration of Indepence was written largely by Presbyterian elders who did not want a monarch to rule over them.
George Bankcroft, a noted US historian, has written about Calvin: “Calvin was the founder of popular education, the free school. The Plymouth settlers were Calvinists. He that would not honor the memory of Calvin knows but little of the origin of America’s religious liberty.”
The two leaders of the Great Awakening (George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards), who would launch a strong missionary movement, were committed Calvinists. This was a huge influence for John Carey and Andrew Murray — men who gave their lives to missionary activity, entirely undergirded by the truths of the doctrines of grace: that God had elected a people for Himself from the foundation of the world. The truth cannot be ultimately resisted by the sinful heart. God would build his church.
Time does not permit to the listing of the great scientists who were influenced by Calvin’s world view. Reformed Baptist, Reformed Independents, Dutch Reformed, and numerous other Calvinistic denominations and high-profile Calvinistic leaders today: so much soN that Time Magazine has recognized Calvinism as one of the ten major ideas changing the world.
What is the future of Calvinism beyond our day? It shall endure until the end of the ages, because biblical Calvinism is nothing other than the preaching of the Word of God. The Word of God, and its preaching, shall endure forever.