[By Tim Keller, H/T B2W]

For much of his life, John Calvin had two close friends — Farel and Viret. Farel was very hot-headed and out-spoken, while Viret was of very mild temperament, an instinctive peace-keeper. Farel often came to Geneva and stayed at Calvin’s home, where, sometimes with Viret, the friends would have long talks about theology and current events over a glass. Calvin delighted in the company of his zealous friend. Nevertheless, as time went on he came to see that Farel’s inflexible nature made him a doughty defender but a limited propagator of the gospel. He often sent his own discourses and letters to Viret, whose job was to moderate his language. Calvin himself had been more hot-headed as a young man, and he worked to curb his own tongue.

After Farel inappropriately denounced a prominent woman in Geneva from the pulpit, which turned her whole family against him, Calvin wrote him a remarkable letter:

“When you have Satan to combat, and you fight under Christ’s banner, he who puts on your armor and draws you into battle will give you the victory. But…we only earnestly desire that insofar as your duty permits you will accommodate yourself more to the people. There are, as you know, two kinds of popularity: the one, when we seek favor from motives of ambition and the desire of pleasing; the other, when, by fairness and moderation, we gain their esteem so as to make them teachable by us. You must forgive us if we deal rather freely with you…You are aware how much we love and revere you…We desire that in those remarkable endowments which the Lord has conferred upon you, no spot or blemish may be found for the malevolent to find fault with, or even to carp at.”

Here Calvin draws an extremely important distinction. There are two very different motivations for adapting and accommodating our message to the sensibilities of a group of people. The first motive is ‘ambition’ — we do it for our sake, for our own glory and approval. The other reason we may accommodate people is for their sake, so that we can gradually win their trust until they become open to the truth they need so much. The first motive will so control us that we will never offend people. The second motive will help us choose our battles and not offend people unnecessarily. The Farels of the world cannot see any such distinction — they believe any effort to be judicious and prudent is a cowardly ‘sell-out’. But Calvin wisely recognized that his friend’s constant, intemperate denunciations often stemmed not from a selfless courage, but rather from the opposite — pride. He wrote of Farel to Viret saying, “He cannot bear with patience those who do not comply with his wishes.”

There’s a reason for gaining people’s esteem that is not vain-glorious, and, at the same time, there’s a motivation for boldly speaking the truth — that is vain-glorious.

The letters of Calvin and the information for this came from the great new biography by Bruce Gordon, Calvin (Yale, 2009) pp.150-152.

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