During this year  of commemoration of John Calvin and the many discussions of his remarkable work for the Lord, one element of his ministry has been neglected.
Calvin was a counsellor — par excellence.
I have just read through all of his letters as they were carefully collected, edited, and published by the Parker Society.1 Not only did many (most) of them focus on some practical personal problem that others were having — about which he offered biblical counsel — but it was counsel of a very robust sort; sometimes extending to pages.
Calvin didn’t mind telling people that they were thinking wrongly when they did, or even that what they did was reprehensible. But he always did so as a friend. When necessary to do so for the sake of the church as well as the individual concerned, he had no respect of persons. He would rebuke his closest friends (such as Farel or Viret) if he thought their words or actions were detrimental to the work of Christ. He did so, always in a helpful way, and in the spirit of friendship, but always putting the Lord before anyone or anything else.
But his counsel was not always of that sort. He counselled people in grief; those in suffering; many who were in prison, some of whom were facing death. He counselled kings and queens; insignificant people who sought help, and other leaders of the Reformation (including Luther — who didn’t take well to any criticism, even though Calvin was respectful and tender when doing so!).
The very first extant letter of Calvin, in 1534,2 was written about counsel he had given to a young girl who was being pressured into becoming a nun. He had laid out all of the facts and encouraged her to think carefully before making the decision; at the death of his own infant son, in deepest grief, he wrote, 'But he is himself a Father, and knows best what is good for his children.'3
In speaking of a case of discipline, he wrote, 'I shall treat her not according to what she deserves, but according to what my office demands.'4 Thus, he could divorce the personal from the unpleasant task itself when necessary.
No one can read through the vast correspondence, a taste of which I have just given you, without seeing that here is a man very much concerned about individuals and what he can do, as a minister of the Lord, to help them. He spent hours speaking with people who came to his home to seek advice; even welcoming some of them into his home to stay for periods of time. When necessary, he took the initiative to deal with the sins and heartaches of others. He began an academy, a hospital, and a foreign missions board. He visited the sick during the plague, until the elders of the city fearing he’d catch it, forbade him. Calvin was a counsellor — perhaps more so than any other Reformer. There is much to be learned from his letters both about the matter and the manner of counseling. His care for people was immense; for those who were suffering, it was unmeasured. And all of this, in addition to his prodigious theological works, while sick with various illnesses. Some of his letters were dictated from bed!
No minister of the Word can afford not to become acquainted with Calvin’s letters. To read through them is a course in pastoral theology not to be obtained anywhere else! Obtain, read, enjoy, become convicted, repent and follow!
1. The Trust publishes the 7-volume John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, ed. Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009). Calvin's letters make up Volumes 4-7.
2. In the Banner of Truth edition (Volume 4) this letter (to Francis Daniel) is dated 27 June, 1529 (Letter II). The earliest letter in the volume is from 1528.
3. Tracts and Letters, 4:344 (Letter XC, to Viret).
4. Tracts and Letters, 5:138 (Letter CCIV, to Farel).
Taken with permission from the Institute for Nouthetic Studies blog. Notes added.