Pastors would do well to engage with Calvin not because Calvin was so great in himself but because he sought to surrender himself to God in all his motives, thoughts, and actions, for God’s glory and not his own. That is our vocation—surrender to God.
When I first discovered Calvinism, I utterly despised it. For years, I fought against Calvinism with all the free will I could muster. Nearly twenty-five years ago, as a student of theology and the original languages, I pored over Scripture, and I read everything I could get my hands on to help me understand what the Bible teaches about God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility as it pertains to salvation. I knew what Calvinism taught, and I knew what the Bible taught—or so I thought—and I was firmly convinced that Calvinism distorted the biblical teaching about the character and work of our triune God. I was equally convinced that John Calvin was deluded at best and devilish at worst.
But God finally showed me I was dead wrong, and it was hard—very hard. That realization was a crucible for me, and I came to the agonizing conclusion that the teaching of Calvin is in fact the teaching of sacred Scripture, and I could either accept it as such or reject Scripture as the inspired and only infallible rule for faith and life. In the end, I recognized I had no real option. As I cried out to God, “Why have You made it this way?” His humbling reply felt like a slap in the face: “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” In the ensuing years, I don’t believe I ever went through what many have termed the period of “cage-stage Calvinism.” That was largely because it was still so hard for me to get comfortable with affirming the doctrines of grace, having fought against them for so long, and I greatly sympathized with those Christians who struggled to grasp those doctrines. I still do sympathize.
Ultimately, it wasn’t Calvin who convinced me of the truth; it was the Holy Spirit and the Word of God that convinced me. And it wasn’t just my understanding of God and salvation that changed; it was my understanding of everything that changed. It was then that I began to have a more charitable heart when engaging with Calvin, not to mention the Reformers, the Puritans, the Reformed confessions of faith, and all our faithful forefathers of the past. Through my remaining years of undergraduate study in Bible and theology and through my years in seminary, I began to more thoroughly engage with Calvin, and I found that by engaging with Calvin I began to engage with Scripture in a more careful and thorough way.
When I became a pastor, I studied Calvin even more, and I have found that Calvin has served me in more ways than I could have imagined, and in turn, he has served our congregation as well. In reflecting on the manifold ways God has used Calvin to shape my life and ministry, I propose the following few thoughts on why pastors should engage with Calvin.