Calvin, Piety, and the Heart of Ministry
Part 2

[Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part survey of Calvin’s understanding of pietas for ministry today. For Part 1, click here.]


God is Lord over the day-to-day circumstances of a Christian’s life as well as Lord of the heart, mind, and will of believers. Hearts enlivened by the Word of God through the work of the Holy Spirit are changed and instructed to bear the cross of discipleship through a life of pietas. How is the Church confronted with the God of creation and re-creation? And how does the Holy Spirit normally bring about the necessary work of regeneration in the lives of the elect unto a life of pietas? How will the Church faithfully pray and praise with sincere understanding?

The answer to these questions, for Calvin, can be found nowhere else than in the Scriptures read and faithfully preached. Such a foundation, coupled with the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of God’s people, always maintains the basis for a life of piety. Calvin understood that the fuel and foundation for pietas are the same for all of God’s people through every season and emotion of life.

The French Reformer experienced much pain in life and could have reacted bitterly to the providence of God. In the unhappiest of moments, however, Calvin directed himself and others to the true knowledge of God. He believed the Scriptures contain true knowledge and, as such, are the only foundation for a life of godliness. The Scriptures reveal to the Christian a right knowledge of God and self so that when enlivened by the Holy Spirit, this true knowledge expresses itself through heartfelt prayer and praise. A life of authentic prayer and praise, for Calvin, is simply a life of faithfully living out the applications of Scripture. According to John T. McNeill, Calvin’s theology is “his piety described at length.”[1] As such, Calvin maintained the Scriptures to be the source out of which all God’s means of grace flow.

The Word and the Holy Spirit

What Calvin saw in the Scriptures concerning a life of pietas, he experienced in the book of his own life lived out as a witness to the watching world. For individual Christians as well as the elect at large, Scripture is the foundation of orthodox thinking and living. But without the Holy Spirit, there is no power unto godly thinking and living. Only when the Holy Spirit joins the Word does the reading and preaching of Scripture become a powerful instrument of God’s will unto salvation, finding expression in a life of pietas. God supplies both the Word and the Holy Spirit, but the Lord calls servants of the Church to read and preach Scripture faithfully to the Bride of Christ. Calvin insisted that the Church must trust the Lord to do a powerful work of transformation and sanctification.

As Word and Spirit graciously come together, this supernatural work is fundamentally expressed in a life of pietas by an evident faith in Christ and submission to Christ through a life of cross-bearing. Calvin writes, “Therefore our mind must be otherwise illumined and our heart strengthened, that the Word of God may obtain full faith among us.”[2] Because of God’s promise to transform people, the Reformer writes, “The whole course of our life ought to be guided by God’s word; for otherwise we must be involved on every side in the darkness of ignorance; and the Lord does not shine on us, except when we take his word as our light . . . without the word, there is nothing left for us but darkness.”[3] Calvin established the closest possible relationship between the Word of God read and the Word of God accommodated through preaching as central to his ministry among a people largely ignorant of God’s truth and cold to His praise.[4]

The Goal of Godliness

As Calvin became aware of the fundamental importance of the Word and the calling of pastors, he identified himself and other pastors as servants of the Word of God. Where do the elect find adequate knowledge for such thinking and living? Calvin maintained a singular goal for godliness, or pietas as soli Deo gloria, for the sole purpose of magnifying the sovereign God he found in Scripture who pours His love into the elect’s heart. The truth of God’s saving love in Christ Jesus can only be found in Scripture. This special accommodation of God is necessary for human beings to live out what Calvin considered to be the true life of piety before the Lord. A life truly lived for God is a life resting upon the sovereign God of Scripture who unites a spiritually dead person to the resurrected Christ. Through such union, then and only then do Christians have the power to live their lives with zeal to illustrate the glory of God in thought, word, and deed with a heavenward gaze upon the Lord.[5]

In light of such a self-evident commitment to the necessity of Scripture for true living, Calvin penned his Institutes of the Christian Religion as a handmaid in the study of Scripture.[6] In fact, the Ecclesiastical Ordinances Calvin drew up for the Genevan City Council (1542) upon his return from Strasbourg state that the duty of all pastors is to faithfully “announce the word of God for instruction, admonition, exhortation, and reproof.”[7] This is why Calvin put the greatest effort into his expositional commentaries, preaching, and theological writings, because he believed the recovery of Scripture to be fundamental in bringing about orthodox worship and godly living that would result in reform. He desired to see the faithful conformed in their thinking and behavior to the faith of the Scripture.[8] In his view, without God’s special revelation to mankind, there could be no conformity to true piety. But as Scripture informs a heart changed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, then men can live out their created purpose. Such a life of pietas can cry out:

Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal [Rom. 14:8; cf. 1 Cor. 6:19]. O, how much has that man profited who, having been taught that he is not his own, has taken away dominion and rule from his own reason that he may yield it to God![9]

Calvin held an all-pervasive view of God’s sovereign control and taught that because the covenanting God redeems, justifies, adopts, and sanctifies His people, they are delivered from the dominion of sin unto a life of piety in which the glory of the Lord may shine through them. To realize a greater reflection of God’s glory, Calvin insisted that the reading of Scripture be accompanied by the true preaching of Scripture. Together, these two become a divine tool essential to accommodating God’s living word of Christ, generation after generation. According to Calvin, without this means of grace, “piety would soon decay if the living preaching of doctrine should cease.”[10]

Piety and Preaching

Calvin’s concept of the harmony between Scripture and faithful preaching ran deep. He believed that when any faithful minister of the gospel preached the Scriptures, God gave His people a sign of His presence in His stooping down and meeting with them. As God draws near to His people in the preaching of His Word, they are transformed as they are convicted of sin and truth. The Reformer spoke vigorously against any who would deny the power of the preached Word. He wrote, “If anyone thinks that when the Word of God is preached the air is being beaten with an empty sound, he is quite wrong. It is a living reality and full of a hidden energy which leaves no part of a man untouched.”[11] The Holy Scriptures and the Holy Spirit teach both the congregation and the preacher.

The preacher, however, has been called by God to sit at the feet of Christ, soaking up all that God has to say via His Scripture. Calvin maintained that the preacher must first be a scholar and have the Scriptures written upon his heart before he can take them to the people. Parker writes, “The knowledge of the Bible, so necessary in a preacher, is not a purely intellectual knowledge; it is, as Calvin was never tired of saying, ‘a knowledge of the heart.’”[12] Calvin referred to the instruction of the preacher in various illustrative ways. He stated that the preacher must first have been “a disciple”[13] and must have been “in the school of the sovereign Master.”[14] He must have “read” Holy Scripture in such a way that he has a faithful understanding of it.[15] The entirety of the preacher’s doctrine must be drawn from the law, the prophets, and the apostles.[16] Having accomplished all this, and only then, the man called of God is in position to execute his office of passing on only what he has learned[17] based exclusively upon the “pure teaching”[18] and taken only from “the pure Word.”[19]

The preacher has nothing to offer the people of God in and of himself; instead, he offers the whole counsel of God as it is faithfully read and preached. When his preaching is accompanied by the empowering gift of the Holy Spirit, the minds and hearts of God’s people are renewed in the right understanding of self, created in the image of God and redeemed by the Son of God, ready to offer sincere prayers and praise to God. Those illuminated by the Holy Spirit behold God’s will in the Scriptures and the preaching. Calvin writes:

Let us note that it is not enough for us to receive the Word which will be preached to us by the lips of a man. It will be nothing but a sound which can vanish in the air without benefit to anyone. But after we have heard the Word of God He must speak within us by His Holy Spirit.[20]

For Calvin, grace and gratitude are central to a life of pietas that marks the elect through knowing the truth of Christ and living out of the power of Christ before the watching world. The visible marks of the truly pious manifest in a life of sincere repentance, obedience, prayer, and praise. Pietas, for the Genevan Pastor, was the nexus holding together orthodoxy and orthopraxy and illustrated in a life of doxology.

Calvin, as a man of his times, made a conscious decision to describe the core of the Christian life by the term pietas and the core of false religion by its antonym, impietas. Such an unambiguous approach to life and ministry would be a blessed breath of fresh air in our tepid and anemic churches of today. Calvin saw no bifurcation of truth known and truth experienced. One cannot know the truth without experiencing the truth, and one cannot experience the truth without knowing the truth. Calvin’s concept of true life is a life of pietas. The only true life, the only legitimate life, is the life rescued from impietas by God’s sovereign grace. The true life of piety is lived out of God’s grace given to His elect in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone. Such a life knows and experiences the God of revelation and redemption and illustrates this true knowledge by living a life more and more in conformity to God’s Word in His world.


[1] I. John Hesselink, “The Development and Purpose of Calvin’s Institutes,” in Articles on Calvin and Calvinism: Influences upon Calvin and discussion of the 1559 Institutes, ed. Richard C. Gamble (New York: Garland, 1992), 215-216.

[2] Calvin, Institutes, III, ii, 7.

[3] John Calvin, Commentaries On The Catholic Epistles: 1 Peter, 1 John, James, II Peter, Jude, trans., John Owen, XXII vols., Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. XXII (Grand Rapids: Baker; reprint, 2003), 388.

[4] Richard A. Muller, “The Foundation of Calvin’s Theology: Scripture as Revealing God’s Word,” in Calvin and Hermeneutics, ed. Richard C. Gamble (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992), 399.

[5] Calvin and Battles, Piety of Calvin, 14.

[6] See Calvin’s prefatory letter written to the French King Francis I in which the reformer gives the reasons he wrote his summa pietatis, Calvin, Institutes, 10.

[7] J. K. S. Reid, Theological Treatises (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1954), 58.

[8] T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching (Edinburgh: Westminster / John Knox Press, 1992), 1.

[9] Ibid., III, vii, 1.

[10] John Calvin, Commentaries On The Four Books Of Moses Arranged In The Form Of A Harmony, trans., Charles William Bingham, XXII vols., Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. II-III (Grand Rapids: Baker; reprint, 2003), II, 230.

[11] Jean Calvin, Ioannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia., ed. Wilhelm Baum, Edward Cunitz, and Edward Reuss, 59 vols., Corpus Reformatorum (Brunsvigae: C. A. Schwetschke, 1863-1900), LV, 50.

[12] Parker, Calvin’s Preaching, 39.

[13] Calvin, CO, LIII, 263.

[14] Ibid., 263.

[15] Ibid., 413.

[16] Ibid., 410.

[17] Ibid., 411.

[18] Ibid., 263.

[19] Ibid., 512.

[20] Jean Calvin, Sermons on the Epistles to Timothy and Titus, 16th-17th-century facsimile editions (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust; reprint, 1983), Sermon 13, I Timothy.