For nearly a quarter century, John Calvin had led the Swiss city of Geneva with tireless devotion. In the process he not only brought the city to a place of great prominence and prosperity, he had planted the seeds of our modern democratic freedoms, our representative governing institutions, our free and open economic markets. In addition, he expounded a winsome and practical perspective of the Reformation doctrines of grace.
On this day in 1564, the man who had done most to stamp his intellect on the Reformation, on Western Civilization, and on the modern world, preached his last sermon. Unable to walk, he was carried to church in a chair. Just a month later, he succumbed to illness and died.
When he first came to Geneva in July 1536, he intended to spend just one night. He had just recently published the first edition of his magisterial work of systematic theology, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. In Paris, he had received a fine classical education—in preparation for a career in either the church or in law. As a result, he had a highly developed and disciplined mind.
William Farel, who was the leader of the Protestant movement in the city of Geneva at the time—and one of the most prominent evangelists and preachers anywhere in Europe—saw in Calvin the gifts and callings necessary to take Reformation to the next necessary stage of development. He attempted to persuade Calvin to stay. But the young man resisted his pleas. The city was not ready, he argued, for authentic and consistent reform. It seemed to him that sin ran rampant through its streets, day and night. Farel would not take “no” for an answer—he fulminated with warnings as if from the Lord. In the end, Calvin finally relented. Thus began an odd partnership between the fiery Farel and the scholarly Calvin.
Alas, it quickly became apparent that Calvin was right about the condition of the city. Within a year the two reformers were expelled from the city. When given the news, Calvin calmly replied, "If we had sought to please men, we should have been badly rewarded, but we serve a higher Master, who will not withhold from us our reward." He settled into a much quieter life as the pastor at nearby Strassburg.
But the citizens of Geneva eventually had a change of heart. Calvin and Farel were invited back. At first, Calvin again resisted, knowing that years of fierce opposition lay before him if he accepted. But he was once again compelled by conscience—and by Farel’s tenacity—to return. And thus began the remarkable transformation of the city into a beacon light of freedom, virtue, and faithfulness that shaped the world in ways that millions—who may never have heard of the name of Calvin—enjoy to this day.