THE time was now approaching for a thirst for a higher wisdom to be implanted in the soul of young Calvin. Tenderly, reverently, and not without feeling, have the words “call by grace” been placed at the head of this chapter. Who that has passed through this vital crisis, variously described though the somewhat differing terms in essence mean the same—as regeneration, conversion, the new birth, and effectual calling, can record it, of himself or of another, without emotion, without devout and holy gratitude? Who can even look back to the dawning of eternal life in his own soul without humbled admiration and chastened joy? There was a time, even now not remote, when it was common to use the expression “effectual calling” to describe the fact of “passing out of death into life” ( John 5:24; 1 John 3:14); the fact ascribed by Paul to the sovereign grace of God: “And you hath He quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins” ( Ephesians 2:1).
The time, the appointed time, for producing this change in the soul of Calvin was drawing near, all unknown to himself. There is a singular beauty; as well as a singular force, in that word “yet” in Acts 9:1: “And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.”
As much as to imply: the hour is coming, and is very near, though he knows it not, when Saul shall breathe prayers instead of threatenings. This is the hour indicated by Jesus in John 5:25: “The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and they that hear shall live.”
We should like to know much more than we do of the secret working of the Spirit of God in the conversion of Calvin. I have perused the principal of the many biographies of the Reformer; but all of them are deficient on this point. Here and there, in his Prefaces to his Commentaries, and more fully in his Letters, we find just such scattered details as make us long for more. But, weighing all these accounts, there are, as I judge, three chief facts that stand out most prominently above all others, and in which we must now proceed to trace the co-working of God’s providence and grace.
There is, first of all, what is always first, and always at the beginning least perceived by its subject, the secret drawing of the Holy Spirit of God.
Whatever open facts in one’s outward life, whatever special occurrences of providential leading, this is assuredly the central mainspring, the efficient motive-power, that governs and guides all of them. And as one principal object of these pages is to magnify the free grace of the great Author of life, it is fitting that this object be plainly avowed on this early page, though it will be expanded in a later chapter.
Then, second, descending from the fountain to the stream, from the secret purpose to the open operations, there would be the effect produced by the martyrdoms which at that time were causing many minds in Paris to ponder. We do not certainly know that Calvin saw the burning of James Pavanne or of the hermit of Livry; but whether so or not, he must have been conversant with the feeling of the people with regard to these and other martyrdoms, and must have formed an opinion as to the meaning of them.
But, third, and this can be more clearly traced, there was the intimacy of Calvin with his countryman and cousin, Robert Olivetan, who was afterwards to have the honor of being one of the first to preach the “new doctrine” at Geneva, and who was one of the first by whom Calvin heard it preached. It is very evident that the conversations between the two relatives were used by the Spirit of God to lead Calvin into the light of day and into the liberty of the gospel.
The fires which burned the martyrs led the cousins to discuss the two religions. Robert took the side of God and truth; John defended the “church” and himself. The battle proceeds from day to day. There is no sign of victory for either side at first. The arguments used by Olivetan are drawn from the Word, and must prevail at length; but the logical mind of John Calvin was not one that would readily yield to argument. Any new thought must be slowly assimilated, and weighed in all its aspects. It could accept nothing as proved until the proof was clear and absolute. But one advantage of this careful analysis and severe testing would be that whatever was once accepted would remain unmovable. “There are only two religions in the world.” This appears to have been the sword-thrust from the lips of Olivetan which silenced his cousin. He persisted in showing that one religion was invented by man, and consisted in the supposed merit of good works; and that the religion that came from God was wrought in the heart by God Himself as its Author and Finisher.
In plain terms, he pleaded that salvation is entirely of grace, through faith, not of works, but the gift of God. “There are only two religions in the world.” What was true four hundred years ago is true to-day. In the seventh of Matthew are seven solemn contrasts. Two gates—strait and wide; two ways—narrow and broad; two trees—good and corrupt; two kinds of fruit—good and evil; two builders—wise and foolish; two foundations—rock and sand; two houses—the one that stood and the one that fell. Happy the man who by divine grace has the first of these two religions. Reader, have you?
The arrow of conviction having thus by the hand of the Holy Spirit been fixed in the heart and conscience of the young student, none but the same hand could draw it out. Calvin could not comfort himself, nor would he accept comfort from his cousin. But Olivetan did all he could to persuade Calvin to study the Scriptures. While this to us at this day seems trite advice, we must remember that at that date it was not so easy to follow it, besides the danger incurred in doing so. But God continued to show him more clearly every day that there was no salvation by the works of the law or by human merit; that the law could only curse him, and that his own works were defiled and dead. Herein was the whole of the Reformation being enacted first in the soul of the Reformer. It is ever so.
None but a saved sinner can preach salvation by grace; none but a crucified man can preach a crucified Christ. “Every time I went down into myself,” he tells us of this conflict, “or raised my heart to God, so extreme a horror fell upon me that no purifications, no satisfactions, could cure me of it. And the more closely I considered myself, the sharper were the goads that pressed my conscience, so that there remained no other comfort than to forget myself.”
True indeed for John Calvin and for every burdened and oppressed sinner, struggling under the pain and pressure of conviction of sin. It is only in looking away from self, and looking to Jesus, that the burden rolls from the heart.
In this trouble of soul, Calvin went to the Bible. He opened, he read, he discovered. As he continued to open the Word, it was opened to his renewed understanding. As he read, it was read to him by its Author. As he discovered its holy doctrines, they were applied to him by the hand that wrote them. In them he learned thin essential truth: “Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” ( Acts 4:12).
At length the day dawned, and the darkness fled away. As he read and looked away from self, he came to this: “But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed” ( Isaiah 53:5).
By the application of this word he “received the atonement,” joyfully believing in Jesus. “O Father,” he responded, “His sacrifice has appeased Thy wrath; His blood has washed away my impurities; His cross has borne my curse; His death hath atoned for me!”
On that day salvation came to that heart ( Luke 19:9), and the Reformation in France was begun. The entrance of God’s words gave light to Calvin, and lighted a candle that is burning to this day.