Bearing the Cross: John Calvin and the Adversities of Life
Consider the cross of Jesus Christ—that rough-hewn beam of torture and sacrifice, at once both curse and horror and wonderful instrument of redemption and salvation for sinners (Isa. 53:5–6; Eph. 2:13–16; Col. 1:19–20). John Calvin, the Genevan Reformer, was a man well acquainted with the cross. In his childhood, he was regularly taken by his pious mother, Jeanne LeFranc, to hear Mass at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Noyon, France. It was in that hallowed place that he would see the bloody likeness of Jesus Christ hanging on the cross. No doubt, this sight made a strong impression on the young boy. It represented not only the suffering and death of Jesus Christ but also, in the medieval Roman Catholic theology he grew up in, an ongoing sacrifice to be experienced over and over again through the Mass.
As a young Latin scholar in Paris, and later as a student of theology and law, it appears that Calvin began to question this particular meaning of the cross. The pamphlets of Martin Luther that were regularly flooding Paris at that time were, more than likely, a catalyst for his questions. He wondered if there was something more to the cross than the ever-present bloody tableau of Jesus Christ hanging between heaven and earth, and he began to doubt that Jesus continued to suffer over and over for the sins of the people, since this was in direct opposition to Scripture (John 19:30; Heb. 9:24–28; 10:11–14). In his letter to the Roman Catholic cardinal of Carpentras, Jacopo Sadoleto (1477–1547), he wrote:
But then a very different form of teaching arose; not one that led us away from the Christian profession, but one which brought us back to its fountainhead, and by, as it were, clearing away the dross, restored it to its original purity. Offended by the novelty, I lent an unwilling ear, and at first, I confess, strenuously and passionately resisted it; for—such is the firmness or willfulness with which men naturally persist in the course they have once undertaken—it was with the greatest difficulty that I was brought to confess that I had all my life been in error. One thing in particular made me adverse to those new teachers; and that was reverence for the Church…. At last, my mind being prepared to give the matter serious attention, I saw—just as if light had broken in upon me—in what a pigsty of error I had wallowed, and how polluted and impure I had become. With great fear and trembling at the misery into which I had fallen, and far more at that which treated me in the prospect of eternal death, I could do no other than at once betake myself to Thy way, condemning my past life, not without groans and tears.
Here we read of Calvin’s sober acknowledgement of his own ignorance—into “what a pigsty of error I had wallowed,” and his commitment henceforth to live according “to Thy way,” indicating his spiritual conversion and resolve to live as a disciple of Jesus instead of an adherent of Rome.
Consider as well this brief autobiographical passage from the preface to his Commentary on the Psalms. Calvin candidly wrote these remarks in 1557:
When I was yet a very small boy, my father destined me for the study of theology. But afterwards, when he considered that the law commonly raised those who followed it to wealth, this prospect suddenly induced him to change his purpose. Thus it came to pass that I was withdrawn from the study of philosophy and set to the study of law. To this pursuit I endeavored faithfully to apply myself, in obedience to the will of my father. But God, by the secret guidance of His providence, at length gave a different direction to my course. And first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, though I was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor.
From this revealing testimony we see that his heart had become “immediately inflamed” with the gospel message. The Lord “gave a different direction to his course,” and Calvin was profoundly changed by a “sudden conversion.” Although he could not have anticipated all the adversity and sorrow this change would bring into his life, he nonetheless firmly identified himself from this point on as a disciple of Christ. The message of the cross became a much more personal concept, which he could no longer ignore with intellectual indifference.
One of the most important contributions to the reformation of the church at this time was Martin Luther’s “theology of the cross.” This well-known concept has been discussed by a large number of theologians and pastors. Alister McGrath summarizes:
For Luther, Christian thinking about God comes to an abrupt halt at the foot of the cross. The Christian is forced, by the very existence of the crucified Christ, to make a momentous decision. Either he will seek God elsewhere, or he will make the cross itself the foundation and criterion of his thought about God. The “crucified God”—to use Luther’s daring phrase—is not merely the foundation of the Christian faith, but is also the key to a proper understanding of the nature of God. The Christian can only speak about the glory, the wisdom, the righteousness and the strength of God as they are revealed in the crucified Christ. For Luther, the cross presents us with a riddle—a riddle whose solution defines the distinctively Christian understanding of both man and God. If God is present at the cross, then he is a God whose presence is hidden from us. As Luther observed, citing Isaiah 45:15, “Truly you are a hidden God!” And yet the unfolding to that hidden presence of God in the scene of dereliction upon the cross holds the key to Luther’s protracted search for a gracious God. No one would dream of seeking God in “disgrace, poverty, death and everything else that is shown to us in the suffering of Christ”—nevertheless, God is there, hidden and yet revealed, for those who care to seek him.
McGrath explains the revolutionary change that Martin Luther brought about in the European church, where in late medieval Roman Catholic theology the emphasis was on a “theology of glory.” Rather than seeking the glory of God by philosophical speculation and by the accumulation of personal merit, Luther insisted that God could only be found at Christ’s crucifixion and his atoning work on the cross. Luther’s way of expressing this truth opened up the gospel in a way that people had not heard for centuries. Stephen Nichols helpfully illustrates the distinction between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross:
The theology of glory celebrates works and what humanity can do; the theology of the cross celebrates Christ and what he alone can accomplish. The theology of the cross also deals a crushing blow to a life that is consumed by the self…. The theology of glory exalts the self…. The theology of the cross forces one to look outward, away from the self, and upon seeing Christ, to realize its true and desperate need.
Luther’s “theology of the cross” was primarily concerned with a proper theological approach to understanding the redemptive-historical significance of Christ’s sacrifice, and Calvin built upon this to develop a practical view of “bearing the cross.” As a result, Calvin’s “theology of the cross” must be seen as an expansion and progression of Martin Luther’s theology.
Calvin’s Understanding of the Crucifixion
It is evident from Calvin’s explanation of Christ’s cross in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that he clearly understood the importance of Christ’s crucifixion. He thoughtfully writes,
The cross was accursed, not only in human opinion but by decree of God’s law [Deut. 21:23]. Hence, when Christ is hanged upon the cross, he makes himself subject to the curse. It had to happen in this way in order that the whole curse—which on account of our sins awaited us, or rather lay upon us—might be lifted from us, while it was transferred to him. This was also foreshadowed by the law….What was figuratively represented in the Mosaic sacrifices is manifested in Christ.
Here Calvin shows his careful understanding of the Old Testament sacrifices and their importance for Christ’s own sacrifice as “shadows of the things to come” (Col. 2:17). He also recognizes how a double imputation takes place in the sacrificial and substitutionary work of the cross, as he explains:
Here, then, is the meaning of this saying: Christ was offered to the Father in death as an expiatory sacrifice that when he discharged all satisfaction through his sacrifice, we might cease to be afraid of God’s wrath. Now it is clear what the prophet’s utterance means: “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” [Isa. 53:6]. That is, he who was about to cleanse the filth of those iniquities was covered with them by transferred imputation. The cross, to which he was nailed, was a symbol of this, as the apostle testifies: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, when he became a curse for us. For it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree,’ that in Christ the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles” [Gal. 3:13–14; Deut. 21:23]. (Inst. 2:16:6)
Armed with Luther’s helpful distinction between the glory grasped through human endeavor and the glory received through humble trust in Christ by the knowledge that his sacrifice on the cross both paid for our sin and removed its stain, Calvin drew from it a practical application for Christian life. He called it “bearing the cross” and saw it as a mark of self-denial and Christian discipleship (Matt. 16:24; Luke 6:40; 1 Pet. 2:21–28). Not only is the cross the place where sin is absolved and forgiveness found; it is also a symbol to him of all of the adversities that Christians suffer while here on the earth.
Calvin’s Practice of “Bearing the Cross”
Calvin comprehensively addresses this concept in his Institutes (3:8:1–11). In “Bearing the Cross, a Part of Self-Denial,” he writes:
But it behooves the godly mind to climb still higher, to the height to which Christ calls his disciples: that each must bear his own cross [Matt. 16:24]. For whomever the Lord has adopted and deemed worthy of his fellowship ought to prepare themselves for a hard, toilsome, and unquiet life, crammed with very many and various kinds of evil. It is the Heavenly Father’s will thus to exercise them so as to put his own children to a definite test. Beginning with Christ, his first-born, he follows this plan with all his children. (Inst. 3:8:1)
Based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:24—“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”—Calvin applies the agonizing travail of the cross to a “hard, toilsome, and unquiet life, crammed with very many and various kinds of evil,” while assuring the reader that these afflictions are not a random part of life, but the “Heavenly Father’s will.” While Christians should not think that we are exempt from trials and difficulties in this world, we can be comforted by the knowledge that they are permitted by God to purify and perfect us.
Calvin certainly had personal experience in “bearing the cross.” During his ministry in Geneva, he was compelled to endure accusations, false charges, illnesses, insults, sorrows, the loss of reputation, physical intimidation, and an overt threat on his life. Calvin biographer Emanuel Stickelberger paints a bleak picture of his time there:
For many years, until 1555, the Reformer had to swallow so many humiliations that a healthier one than he would have had to become sick of them. His propositions were rejected, his warnings scorned. He could not walk across the street without being mocked, “There he goes, neighbor. I prefer to hear three dogs barking than to listen to him preach.” “Did you know, hell has only two devils, and there goes one of them!” Children called after him, twisting his name, “Cain, Cain!” More than one dog answered to the name “Calvin.”
One memorable week before Easter Sunday in 1538, the three ministers of Geneva—William Farel, Elie Coraud, and John Calvin—refused to serve the Lord’s Supper to the people due to the widespread turmoil and unrest within the city. The Small Council of Geneva voted to remove the pastors and gave them three days to leave. James McKinnon, a scholar of the Genevan Reformation, tells how the Small Council was unilaterally supported by the citizens:
The people threatened to throw him into the Rhone. At night they sang derisive songs and fired shots before his dwelling, and the memory of these demonstrations haunted him to his dying day. “You may imagine,” said he to his colleagues on his deathbed, “how these things astonished a poor, timid scholar such as I am and always have been.”
Many years later, Calvin was faced with another life-threatening controversy. T. H. L. Parker, an eminent Calvin scholar, describes the chaotic scene that took place in 1547 in the chambers of the Council of the Two Hundred, which almost cost Calvin his life. The conflict came about when two prominent men in Geneva, Ami Perrin and Laurent Maigret, were suspected of treason. Both were arrested and imprisoned, and the town divided when Perrin (who represented the anti-Calvinists) was released and Maigret (who was a close friend of Calvin) remained in jail. Parker cites a letter that Calvin sent to his colleague Pierre Viret:
Fighting broke out, and Calvin, in another street, heard the uproar. “Numerous confused shouts were heard from that quarter,” he wrote to Viret. “These meanwhile increased to such a pitch as to afford a sure sign of insurrection. I immediately ran to the place. Things looked frightful. I cast myself into the thickest of crowds, to the amazement of almost everyone. But the whole mob made a rush towards me. They seized me and dragged me hither and thither lest I should suffer some injury! I called God and men to witness that I had come for the purpose of presenting my body to their swords. I exhorted them, if they intended to shed blood, to begin with me. Even the worthless, but especially the more respectable part of the crowd, at once grew considerably cooler. At last I was dragged through the midst to the Senate. There fresh fights arose, into the midst of which I threw myself. Everyone is of the opinion that a great and disgraceful carnage was prevented from taking place by my interference. My colleagues, meanwhile, were mixed up with the crowd. I succeeded in getting everyone to sit down quietly. They say that all were exceedingly moved by a long and vehement speech, suitable to the occasion, that I delivered.”
It has been said that you don’t know the character of a man until you see how he acts in the midst of trouble. Here, then, is a window into the character of John Calvin—an earnest Christian and faithful pastor, ready to lay down his own life for the sake of his flock.
The Necessity of Bearing the Cross
The essential point of Calvin’s “bearing the cross” is that earthly suffering is a necessary part of life. He states that we “pass our lives under a continual cross,” saying that the Lord uses the many differing afflictions of life—such as “disgrace or poverty, or bereavement, or disease, or other calamities”—to beat back our tendency to repose ultimate confidence in our own flesh. Far from being a negligent God who carelessly allows his children to continue in immature ignorance, Calvin reminds us that God is a wise Father who uses the many adversities of life to expose our pride and to bring us to a place of humility before him.
But as for us, there are many reasons why we must pass our lives under a continual cross. First, as we are by nature too inclined to attribute everything to our flesh—unless our feebleness be shown, as it were, to our eyes—we readily esteem our virtue above its due measure. . . . He can best restrain this arrogance when he proves to us by experience not only the great incapacity but also the frailty under which we labor. Therefore, he afflicts us either with disgrace or poverty, or bereavement, or disease, or other calamities. Utterly unequal to bearing these, in so far as they touch us, we soon succumb to them. Thus humbled, we learn to call upon his power, which alone makes us stand fast under the weight of afflictions. (Inst. 3:8:2)
He goes on to point out that “many good things, interwoven, spring from the cross.” In particular, we learn to trust in the sovereign God who declares, “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all of these things” (Isa. 45:7). Calvin reminds us:
Now we see how many good things, interwoven, spring from the cross. For, overturning that good opinion which we falsely entertain concerning our own strength, and unmasking our hypocrisy, which affords us delight, the cross strikes at our perilous confidence in the flesh. It teaches us, thus humbled, to rest upon God alone, with the result that we do not faint or yield. Hope, moreover, follows history in so far as the Lord, by performing what he has promised, establishes his truth for the time to come. Even if these were the only reasons, it plainly appears how much we need the practice of bearing the cross. (Inst. 3:8:3)
Several additional benefits arise when God uses “cross-bearing” to bring about changes in the Christian’s life and character. Calvin mentions: “to test their patience and to instruct them to obedience” (Inst. 3:8:4), and when we “go wild…puffed up with honors, we become proud…the Lord himself, according as he sees it expedient, confronts us and subjects and restrains our unrestrained flesh with the remedy of the cross” (Inst. 3:8:5).
This does not mean that all Christians are equally afflicted. We don’t know why some people struggle with anger or others must labor against poverty or discrimination, but we know that no affliction is visited on anyone apart from God’s holy and wise counsel, and that all these “crosses” are ultimately for our benefit. Moreover, past offenses and failures are brought to the surface of our minds when we struggle under current difficulties, which impress upon us the depth and gravity of sin and our need to mortify it in our own lives (Inst. 3:8:6). These may be “consequences of sin” that can be directly traced to our wrongs, or the reality of the common curse making itself felt in our lives. Calvin notes that discipline and chastisement are also legitimate components of “bearing the cross”:
When we recognize the Father’s rod, is it not our duty to show ourselves obedient and teachable children rather than, in arrogance, to imitate desperate men who have become hardened in their evil deeds? When we have fallen away from him, God destroys us unless by reproof he recalls us. Thus he rightly says that if we are without discipline we are illegitimate children, not sons [Heb. 12:8]. (Inst. 3:8:6)
What should our response be when we suffer various afflictions? Calvin contends that when loved ones die, we should “weep the tears that are owed to our nature” and not feel compelled to suppress them stoically.
Thus it will come to pass that, by whatever kind of cross we may be troubled, even in the greatest tribulations of mind, we shall firmly keep our patience. For the adversities themselves will have their own bitterness to gnaw at us; thus afflicted by disease, we shall both groan and be uneasy and pant after health; thus pressed by poverty we shall be pricked by the arrows of care and sorrow; thus we shall be smitten by the pain of disgrace, contempt, injustice; thus at the funerals of our dear ones we shall weep the tears that are owed to our nature. But the conclusion will always be: the Lord so willed, therefore let us follow his will. Indeed, amid the very pricks of pain, amid groaning and tears, this thought must intervene: to incline our heart to bear cheerfully those things which have so moved it. (Inst. 3:8:10)
Calvin himself experienced the untimely death of his wife, Idelette de Bure, after only nine years of marriage, as well as the death of his infant son shortly after birth. Calvin’s “bearing the cross” was not confined to intellectual exercise; he fully understood grief, loss, and sorrow.
Lastly, Calvin points out that true “spiritual joy” can actually be experienced in the midst of suffering. Bitterness over our difficult circumstances can and should be replaced with a firm reliance upon the sovereignty of God, a deep abiding contentment that he doesn’t willfully afflict or grieve the children of men, and joy in the knowledge that he will surely wipe every tear from every eye (Eph. 4:31; Heb. 12:15; Rev. 21:4).
Therefore, in patiently suffering these tribulations, we do not yield to necessity but we consent for our own good. These thoughts, I say, bring it to pass that, however much in bearing the cross our minds are constrained by the natural feeling of bitterness, they are as much diffused with spiritual joy. From this, thanksgiving also follows, which cannot exist without joy; but if the praise of the Lord and thanksgiving can forth fly from a cheerful and happy heart—and there is nothing that ought to interrupt this in us—it thus is clear how necessary it is that the bitterness of the cross be tempered with spiritual joy. (Inst. 3:8:11)
Many different crosses may have to be endured throughout one’s life, but in all these cases, Calvin argues that the Christian should “count it all joy” (James 1:2–4; 1 Pet. 6–7). Invaluable lessons can be learned in the midst of suffering, such as increased faith when persecuted for righteousness’ sake, humility as we remember the depth of our need for God, mercy when deprived of a loved one by death, patience in the midst of illness, repentance when dealing with the consequences of sin, and the resolute and steadfast character that comes from withstanding false accusation.
Calvin was mindful that the sufferings of Jesus Christ—who identified with sinners and became sin for us—were infinitely more severe that any human suffering we could ever experience. However arduous and terrible our own sufferings may be, they have never been nor ever will be as great as the awful suffering that Christ endured on the cross, and it is out of gratitude for that salvation that we ought to patiently endure the trials in our own lives.
For truly, Christians ought to be a kind of men born to bear slanders and injuries, open to the malice, deceits, and mockeries of wicked men. And not that only, but they ought to bear patiently all these evils. That is, they should have such complete spiritual composure that, having received one offense, they make ready for another, promising themselves throughout life nothing but the bearing of a perpetual cross. Meanwhile, let them also do good to those who do them harm, and bless those who curse them [Luke 6:28; cf. Matt. 5:44], and (this is their only victory) strive to conquer evil with good [Rom. 12:21]. (Inst. 4:20:20)
Here we have an example of a mature and godly Christian man who, having been tempered in the hot fires of adversity, emerges as a stronger and more resolute disciple of Jesus Christ. Let us learn from his example, and with our eyes fixed upon Jesus Christ, let us seek to imitate our Savior and Lord.
Rev. Marcus J. Serven (ThM, DMin, Covenant Theological Seminary) retired from full-time pastoral ministry in 2016 after serving for nearly thirty-seven years in congregations within several Presbyterian denominations. He is currently a member of the Presbytery of the Midwest (OPC) and resides with his family in Austin, Texas, where he is engaged in further research, teaching, and writing on the leaders and theology of the Protestant Reformation.