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A Letter to a Grieving Father

John Calvin (1509-1564) is best known as a distinguished theologian and leading Protestant Reformer. However, it must be remembered that he functioned first and foremost as a pastor to the congregation of believers at Geneva for 25 years, and at Strasbourg for a brief interlude of 3 years. The esteemed Calvin scholar Jean-Daniel Benoit had the following to say about Calvin’s pastoral ministry,

The work of Calvin is immense and varied. Theologian, churchman, organizer of Protestantism in France, founder of the Academy of Geneva, public lecturer, Bible commentator, preacher at Saint Peter’s; Calvin was all of these. But to forget or to neglect the fact that Calvin was essentially and above all a pastor would be to misunderstand precisely that aspect of his personality which discloses the essential unity of his work, and to overlook the deep source of those waters which fecundate the entire field of his activity. In fact, theologian though he was, Calvin was even more a pastor of souls. More exactly, theology was for him the servant of piety and never a science sufficient unto itself. His thought is always directed towards life; always he descends from principles to the practical application; always his pastoral concern occurs. [Jean-Daniel Benoit, “Pastoral Care of the Prophet”, fromJohn Calvin Contemporary Prophet. 450th Anniversary Volume celebrating the birth of John Calvin. Edited by Jacob T. Hoogstra (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker book House, 1959), 51.] 

This consolatory letter, written by Calvin to Monsieur de Richebourg, shows the caring heart of the young minister of the gospel. Calvin was only thirty-one years old at the time he penned this letter, and he was away on an important mission to Ratisbon, Germany where he represented the city of Strasbourg at an ecclesiastical gathering. Two deceased men are mentioned in Calvin’s benevolent letter; (1) Louis, the young son of Monsieur de Richebourg, and (2) Claude Ferey, the distinguished Professor at the Academy of Strasbourg and Louis’s personal tutor. Sadly, both men were carried away by the Plague that swept through Strasbourg with deadly consequences in April, 1541. Calvin writes,

The son whom the Lord had lent you for a season, he has taken away. There is no ground, therefore, for those silly and wicked complaints of foolish men: O blind death! O horrid fate! O implacable daughters of destiny! O cruel fortune! The Lord who had lodged him here for a season, at this stage of his career has called him away. What the Lord has done, we must, at the same time, consider has not been done rashly, nor by chance, neither from having been impelled from without; but by that determinate counsel, whereby he not only foresees, decrees, and executes nothing but what is just and upright in itself, but also nothing but what is good and wholesome for us . . .

In what regards your son, if you bethink how difficult it is, in this most deplorable of ages, to maintain an upright course through life, you will judge him to be blessed, who, before encountering so many coming dangers which were already hovering over him, and to be encountered in his day and generation, was so early delivered from them all. He is like one who has set sail upon a stormy and tempestuous sea, and before he has been carried out into the deeps, gets in safety to the secure haven . . .

But what advantage, you will say, is it to me to have had a son of so much promise, since he has been torn away from me in the first flower of his youth? As if, forsooth, Christ had not merited, by his death, the supreme dominion over the living and the dead . . . However brief, therefore, either in your opinion or in mine, the life of your son may have been, it ought to satisfy us that he has finished the course which the Lord had marked out for him. Moreover, we may not reckon him to have perished in the flower of his age, who had grown ripe in the sight of the Lord . . . Nor can you consider to have lost him, whom you will recover in the blessed resurrection in the kingdom of God.

Neither do I insist upon your laying aside all grief. Nor, in the school of Christ, do we learn any such philosophy as requires us to put off that common humanity with which God has endowed us . . . set bonds, temper even your most reasonable sadness; that having shed those tears which were due to nature and to fatherly affection, you by no means give way to senseless wailing . . . May Christ the Lord keep you and your family, and direct you all with his own Spirit, until you may arrive where Louis and Claude have gone before . . .

Here we have an open window into the heart of John Calvin. And surprisingly, for some skeptical readers, it reveals a heart that is warm and tender towards those who suffer through the trials of life rather than one which is cold and hard. It is the heart of a true shepherd and pastor to his people. May we learn from Calvin’s compassionate example.

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The full text of Calvin’s letter can be found in: Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters (vol. 4). Edited by Jules Bonnet, translated by David Constable (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, reprint 1983), 246-253.

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