WE may well believe that the death of Berquin filled the heart of the young evangelist on his way to Noyon with thoughts of sorrow. He had been absent from his native place for six years; he returns a young man of twenty, the same pale-faced student, yet vitally changed. He is received by the towns-men with differing feelings.
The church at Pont l’Eveque was readily opened to him; and there, in the hearing of those who had known him as a boy, he expounded the Scriptures. The results were exactly as recorded in those living pages, true in all times and places: “And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not” ( Acts 28:24).
Himself relates of this period that God “led him and whirled him about,” so as to leave him no repose in any place whatever, till “He had brought me into the light and into action.” This will doubtless explain to us why Calvin stayed only about two months in his native town. God had a larger sphere for him to fill; and when this is the case, God leads His servants by a way that they knew not. Even opposing circumstances concur with those that seem favorable to bring to pass what He ordains.
We therefore follow the Reformer back to Paris, which was at this time the seat of the government of France, the center of learning, and the theater of much disputation and strife about truth. The “old” and the “new” doctrines met in daily conflict, and were eagerly discussed by men in all ranks of society. Calvin knew both systems; and was therefore capable of entering into the arguments on both sides with the advantage always thus attaching to experience. Besides, his naturally astute and logical mind had been disciplined by his legal studies; while at the same time, it had been sanctified and sweetened by the entrance of the gospel. It is most evident that, in choosing Paris for his abode, the Reformer was led by God into the sphere most fitted for him and for the work he was to accomplish.
He took up his abode in the house of a merchant, Etienne [Stephen] de la Forge, who was an ardent lover of the truth, and who was afterwards burned for his attachment to it. Calvin speaks of this good man as one “whose memory ought to be blessed among believers as a holy martyr for Christ.” It was in this house that Calvin began to hold assemblies for preaching, at first privately, afterwards more openly. It is to be remarked that at this early period the Reformer concluded all his discourses with the words: “If God be for us, who can be against us?” This reveals to us that he had counted the cost, and that he was determined in the strength of God to go forward in the path he had chosen. Of this fact a French writer of the period gives the following striking testimony, the more remarkable because a Roman Catholic: “Devoted otherwise to his books and his study, he was unweariedly active in everything which concerned the advancement of his sect. We have seen our prisons gorged with poor, mistaken wretches, whom he has exhorted without ceasing, consoled or confirmed by letters; nor were messengers wanting, to whom the doors were open, notwithstanding all the diligence exercised by the jailers. Such were the proceedings by which he commenced, and by which he gained, step by step, a part of our France. Thus it went on till, after a considerable length of time, seeing men’s minds disposed to his cause, he wished to proceed more rapidly, and to send us ministers, called ‘preachers,’ to promulgate his religion in holes and corners, and even in Paris itself, where the fires were lit to consume them.” F2 Our heartiest thanks to this historian for his noble tribute to the already ardent, yet unobtrusive labors of our Reformer. Quiet, untiring, laborious zeal in the cause of the gospel marked the preacher’s movements in these early days.
In 1532, Calvin issued his first publication from the press, a Commentary, in Latin, on the “De Clementia of Seneca.” I have referred to a copy of this book, and find it signed on the title-page: “Lucius Calvinus civis Romanus.” From this time he laid aside his French name, Chauvin, and became known as Johannes Calvinus. The majority of Calvin’s biographers have somewhat stumbled at this publication, no doubt feeling that it was a departure from his gospel work. Many of them, therefore, seek to excuse it on the ground that he wished to induce the king to manifest less severity against the Protestants, and more “clemency” towards the gospel. After carefully weighing the arguments for and against this view, I may venture to express an opinion. The author himself says nothing of the kind, either at the time or later, in his Letters or his Prefaces. I rather judge that we have in this book one of those noted instances wherein God was at work unseen, bringing to pass “His bright designs” out of darkness. The work was a masterpiece of writing, in the most elegant Latin, and at once procured much fame for its author.
Attention was drawn to the man as well as to the book; and the reputation of the man of letters was to prepare the way for the Reformer. Paul’s early education often in later days secured him an audience as a preacher; and thus it was to be with Calvin. His “Commentary” on Seneca would make men read his “Commentaries” on Scripture when they should see the light in days to come.
These days of Gospel seed-sowing were perhaps the quietest of Calvin’s life. Avoiding disputations with the Sorbonne doctors, and quietly going with “the Book” from door to door, he won many a soul from the kingdom of darkness to the realm of light and truth. Dark clouds, however, were gathering on the horizon; and thunders were muttering in the distance, the signs of an approaching storm.