It is a humble task for me to review a book on a great theological giant of the past such as John Calvin, especially when it is written by multiple authors that I consider to be the great theologians of the present. The very mention of the name John Calvin sparks controversy, and throughout the years I have come to believe Calvin as either the most loved or most hated man in Christianity today.
The book – John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology was put together in celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of Calvin’s birth in 2009. Over 20 authors in twenty chapters have taken on the task to write about the different areas of Calvin’s life that take us beyond the debates, controversy, and straight into the heart of the man, the pastor, husband, and father. The result of this work by contributors such as Jerry Bridges, Sinclair Ferguson, Steven Lawson, and John MacArthur among others is a well-rounded look at the man John Calvin and the theology that shaped every facet of his life.
The book begins with an in depth historical look at the question that many people today still do not know and struggle to understand – Who Was John Calvin? Derek Thomas gives us a biographical sketch of the man and his life which paves the way for the rest of the book to unfold.
One of my favorite chapters in the book is titled Calvin’s Heart for God written by Sinclair Ferguson and it is in this chapter that my own biases and perceptions of Calvin were challenged. Ferguson gives us a glimpse into Calvin’s heart and devotion to God through Calvin’s own writings through the years.
Calvin himself declares his need of God in his own life as he penned the words “Until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by His father care, that He is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond Him, they will never yield Him willing services. Unless they establish their complete happiness in Him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to Him.”
Sinclair Ferguson tells us that Calvin seemed to have been conscience of two things that shaped him: God’s sovereign renewal and his progressive transformation into the likeness of Christ.
Whatever perceptions you may have about the man John Calvin, one thing you walk away with after reading this book is his intricate understanding of the character of God, and of his own desires to submit every area of his life under the authority of Christ.
Calvin’s theology, his preaching, and teachings are what Eric Alexander defines as “Christocentric” inferring that he allowed nothing and no one to displace Jesus Christ from His Supreme place in every sphere of life.
Calvin has been depicted by many as a tyrannical figure in Christendom, a monster, a murderer even, but these do not paint a very accurate view of his life. You won’t gain that kind of a view from his writings, nor from the history of his life, which was an incredible revelation for me in the chapter by W. Robert Godfrey titled “The Counselor to the Afflicted” which is one of my favorite chapters in the book.
“John Calvin – The Great Counselor” certainly isn’t something that most people think of whenever think of Calvin, but as this chapter shows us – he was a man who loved the church and the family of God. Calvin’s own heart as a shepherd was reflected by the spiritual, physical, and emotional needs of his sheep, where Calvin devoted most of his time ministering. This was evidenced greatly in his commentaries on the book of Psalms which he referred to as “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.”
Each Chapter stands alone yet builds upon the life, character, and ministry of Calvin, leaving the reader with a greater understanding of one of the most misunderstood men in Christian history.
Although there are five chapters devoted to explaining the famous ‘five points of Calvinism’ the book paints a larger picture of John Calvin whose doctrine went far beyond the points that have wrongly defined the man and his ministry. What you uncover in the pages of this book is a man who loved God, who was devoted to the Gospel with all of his heart, soul, and mind. Calvin’s perception of the Christian life went well beyond five points.
In his famous work ‘Institutes of Christian Religion’ Calvin says this:
“We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: In so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s let us therefore live for Him and die for Him. Let all the parts of our life strive toward Him as our only goal.”
A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology is a must read for anyone trying to understand the not only the theology of Calvin, but the passion that drove Calvin to pursue Christ and treasure Him with his very life.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is serious about their study of theology, regardless if they agree with the five points of Calvinism because as this book shows us, there is so much more to this man’s life and ministry. If you are interested in studying the life of John Calvin there is no better place to start than here.