John Calvin: The Struggling Pastor’s Best Friend – Leland Brown

While many pastors might turn to John Calvin for faithful exposition and solid Reformed theology, he may be the last resource they consider when the elders are about to vote for their termination or when the all-caps email comes hours after Sunday’s sermon.

Even to Calvin’s theological friends and fans, he’s often merely a great theologian—most of us don’t see him as a resource for the struggles and sufferings of ministry.

But Calvin’s ministry was opposed for most of his time in Geneva, and he wasn’t even made a citizen of Geneva until five years before his death. So in addition to being a great theologian, Calvin was an opposed pastor who suffered much at the hands of his own people and spent the lion’s share of his ministry not getting his way. With that in mind, it should be no surprise that Calvin wrote a great deal about the peculiar sufferings that attend pastoral ministry. We can see Calvin as a profound resource both for the work of modern pastoral ministry and for the various trials that attend ministry.

Sufferer-in-Chief

For Calvin, the pastor was edifier-in-chief—the key agent in God’s work of building up the church. But as edifier-in-chief, the pastor was also sufferer-in-chief. In C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, Aslan describes a good king at war as the one who is “the first in the charge and the last in the retreat.” For Calvin, Christians were constantly at war with the spiritual forces of darkness, and pastors were to be the first in the charge and last in the retreat: as the edifiers-in-chief, they were therefore the sufferers-in-chief.

Two primary images constitute Calvin’s picture of spiritual warfare in the ministry: first, pastors are being “armed” by Christ in their gifts for their office; second, pastors are “standard-bearers” in the army of God—those who lead God’s people and therefore suffer the fiercest assaults of the Devil.

Pastoral Gifting as ‘Arming’

Calvin portrayed the gifting of pastors for ministry as their arming for battle. He reasoned that a pastor’s giftedness and sound doctrine must be tested before he’s ordained because “those whom the Lord has destined for such high office, he first supplies with the arms required to fulfill it, that they may not come empty-handed and unprepared.”

A pastor’s spiritual gifts are weapons in his hands; his preparation for ministry is preparation for war. Therefore, no candidate should be ordained for ministry unless he already has these weapons available. After describing pastoral gifting as arming, Calvin noted that this was the pattern of the Lord himself, who, “when about to send his apostles, provided them with the arms and instruments which were indispensably requisite.”

A pastor’s spiritual gifts are weapons in his hands; his preparation for ministry is preparation for war.

Three of the passages that Calvin cited in support of this statement refer to the gifts of speech given by the Spirit (Luke 21:15; 24:49; Acts 1:8). In other words, when pastors exercise their gifts and preach the gospel to edify the church, they engage in acts of war and must be armed by the Spirit to do so. Moreover, these armaments are “indispensably requisite” for anyone who would engage in pastoral ministry.

Pastors as ‘Standard-Bearers’

Pastors must be armed because they contend with Satan himself, who rages against the advance of the gospel. Calvin’s commentary on 2 Corinthians 10:3–4 brings together the themes of edification, ministry as warfare, and pastoral suffering, showing why pastors necessarily suffer in their work. Calvin’s comments on the phrase “the weapons of our warfare” are worth quoting at length:

The life of a Christian, it is true, is a perpetual warfare, for whoever gives himself to the service of God will have no truce from Satan at any time, but will be harassed with incessant disquietude. It becomes, however, ministers of the word and pastors to be standard-bearers, going before the others; and, certainly, there are none that Satan harasses more, that are more severely assaulted, or that sustain more numerous or more dreadful onsets. . . . For we must take this into account, that the gospel is like a fire, by which the fury of Satan is en-kindled. Hence it cannot but be that he will arm himself for a contest, whenever he sees that it is advanced.

Calvin described the ministry of the gospel as warfare; war is an “apt similitude” for ministry. At the end of the passage, he reasoned why gospel ministry is warfare: the gospel “en-kindles” (that is, sets on fire) the fury of Satan.

Calvin wrote often of Satan’s work against individual Christians, but here he specifically articulated Satan’s fury against the general advance of the gospel through its faithful ministers. The edifying ministry of the gospel, at the heart of pastoral calling, infuriates Satan, who “arms himself for a contest” whenever he sees the work of the gospel advanced—whenever he sees a faithful pastor exercising his office. So, although all Christians will suffer the onslaughts of Satan, ministers are special targets of his assaults because they are the “standard-bearers” of the church.

In medieval and premodern warfare, standard-bearers were the soldiers who carried the distinctive flag of a military unit and led the unit to battle. Evidently, Calvin understood the standard-bearer as both the leader of the unit and the best target for an enemy’s attacks. He was especially exposed to the enemy’s sight because he carried the unit’s standard. Additionally, capturing an enemy’s standard was one of the best ways to demoralize and dishonor an opposing force, making the standard-bearer a particularly good target for attack.

Using this image, Calvin designated pastors as the distinctive leaders who bear the gospel as the banner of the church and advance the cause of the gospel by their faithful ministry to the church. This weighty privilege makes pastors the most frequent targets for Satan’s assaults because he knows that the best way to disrupt and dishonor the church is to destroy its leaders.

How to Handle Suffering

Calvin didn’t only warn pastors that they would suffer—he also counseled them on how to prepare for and handle suffering in ministry. Interestingly, this counsel was distinctive from the counsel he gave believers for handling the normal trials of the Christian life.

Courage and Preparation

While Calvin counseled suffering believers to entrust themselves submissively to God’s providence, he admonished pastors to proactively prepare themselves to suffer and consider whether they had the courage and bravery necessary to fulfill their office. Calvin gave “unwavering firmness of courage” to hold to one’s doctrine unto death as a prerequisite for elders. The previously quoted passage from Calvin’s commentary on 2 Corinthians 10:3–4 also averred that a pastor must be “furnished with courage and bravery for contending; for he is not exercised otherwise than in fighting.”

Since unceasing spiritual battle is the reality of ministry, all who would be pastors “should carefully consider with themselves, whether or not they were able to bear so heavy a burden.” Ministry will always be filled with difficulties and sufferings, so the frank assessment of one’s ability to bear those difficulties is an essential part of examining one’s call to ministry.

Setting the Heart on Christ

Considering the sufferings attendant to faithful ministry, pastors must set their hearts and minds wholly on Christ’s future return and present love. In his commentary on 1 Peter 5:4, Calvin listed the wide variety of discouragements and difficulties of ministry and said, “Lest, then, the faithful servant of Christ should be broken down, there is for him one and only one remedy—to turn his eyes to the coming of Christ.”

Ministry will always be filled with difficulties and sufferings, so the frank assessment of one’s ability to bear those difficulties is an essential part of examining one’s call to ministry.

The return of Christ will bring the pastor his great reward and now motivates his faithful labors amid many difficulties. Though he said setting one’s eyes on the return of Christ was the “one and only remedy,” Calvin also encouraged pastors to set their eyes on the love of Christ.

In his commentary on John 20, after demonstrating that no pastor can serve faithfully if he only looks to the approval of men, Calvin asserted, “No man, therefore, will steadily persevere in the discharge of this office, unless the love of Christ shall reign in his heart, in such a manner that, forgetful of himself and devoting himself entirely to Christ, he overcomes every obstacle.”

Pastors who look to the love of Christ will be enabled to forget their comforts and reputations and be able to persevere in a work that so often costs them those comforts and reputations.

Allow Calvin to Help

Calvin is a resource to struggling ministers: he offers them a path forward, not out of their sufferings but through them with patience. Present evangelical leadership culture tends to assume that unpopular and opposed leaders are either doing something wrong or need to go look for a better position; Calvin assumes they’re doing something right and that they need to stay. He is that rare voice that commends patiently staying the faithful, difficult, and unpopular course in ministry.

We assume that unpopular and opposed leaders are either doing something wrong or need to go look for a better position; Calvin assumes they’re doing something right and that they need to stay.

Additionally, Calvin commends a much-needed balance between personal tenderness and convictional courage in the way pastors remain faithful. If heeded, Calvin’s admonition to exercise courage but to also be tender with and willing to suffer for one’s people would cure a thousand ministry leadership ills. With the present challenges and looming future evangelical leaders face, Calvin’s balanced counsel to courageously and tenderly stay the suffering course couldn’t come at a better time.

The irony could hardly be greater: the theologian most frequently caricatured as a cold, ivory-tower systematizer may be the beleaguered and discouraged pastor’s best dead friend and counselor. Allow Calvin to be more than a great theological resource for you. Let him be the sympathetic help and guide when you’re seeking to be faithful but are pressed and vexed on every side.

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