When I began reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, my goals were to become more clear on what he actually taught (as opposed to what others taught in his name), to find out whether I agreed with him, and to see what I could learn from him. Over several months I made my way through the entire book, interrupted somewhere in the middle by reading through some of the writings of Jacob Arminius which corresponded to the topics in the Institutes that I was especially interested in (see my other posts for more details). Afterward, I made my way back and finished the rest of Calvin’s tome. At times it was slow going, and at times I couldn’t stop reading. Interestingly, I found that the bucket of ideas which I had attributed to Calvin were really only a small portion of the ideas and teachings presented within the pages of the Institutes. Calvin had much more to teach Christians than TULIP.
As with most teachers I’ve had, I found that I agreed with some of his ideas and disagreed with others. Some seemed well founded in scripture, while others seemed somewhat contrived. Some of Calvin’s ideas spoke as if he were writing them today, challenging me in ways which revealed that I am, inherently, the same as the men of his time, or of any time since we began walking the earth. Others seemed out of place, their relevance having passed with the times. Those revealed that Calvin was a man of his own time and context, responding to specific challenges that were unique to those living in the Europe during the Reformation.
Of the many topics he covered, his final chapter on The Christian Life stood out to me as timelessly relevant, imminently practical, and incredibly challenging. In particular, I was challenged and convicted at three points: first, we are not our own and belong wholly to God; second, we are to deny ourselves daily in seeking the will of God and the good of our neighbor; and third, we must not love the world and what is of the world, but remember the vanity of our present life. None of these ideas are new. They each come straight from the pages of scripture and the mouth of Jesus, yet in this presentation Calvin’s pastoral disposition shows through the pages as he reminds his readers of those timeless truths.
I would like to draw attention to some of the scriptures that I think really hit home the ideas I mention above. First, in 1 Corinthians 6, after reprimanding the Corinthian church for sexual immorality and lawsuits between one another, Paul calls us to live wise, self controlled, and pure lives because we can no longer claim to own even our own bodies before God. Paul exclaims,
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
1 Corinthians 6:19–20 (ESV)
Christ paid for our sins on the cross, but not only that, when we trust in him, we willingly submit to his Lordship over all of our life. We can’t hold any part back for ourselves as though He doesn’t have claim on that.
Next, Jesus calls us to the pursue him and his will when he instructs his disciples:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.Matthew 16:24–25 (ESV)
I find it interesting that we often teach this verse as though it says “let him die to himself”, as though Jesus wants us to obliterate our personality and our desires, making ourselves nothing but empty vessels ready to act on any command like robots. In reality, after he calls us to deny ourselves and take up our cross, which is to be willing to share in his sufferings, he roots that command in our love for ourselves and our life (both of which are gifts from God). He doesn’t call us to have no love for ourselves, but instead to love Him, to think soberly of ourselves, and to not count ourselves as more important than others. Make no mistake, we are called to die to sin (1 Peter 2:24, Romans 6), but as far as our desires are concerned, we are asked not to kill them, but to purify them to the Lord (Romans 12:2, Psalm 37:4, Proverbs 13:12, Philippians 4:8).
I feel that the third idea, that we ought not love the world, is often the most difficult to practice, at least for me. John instructs us,
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.1 John 2:15–17 (ESV)
Our eyes and hearts are drawn to the possessions and experiences of others. Social media can amplify this challenge; however, we would be lying to ourselves if we thought this problem was a modern problem. The desires of the flesh and eyes and the pride of life have been our biggest pitfalls since the beginning, and perhaps they are the easiest to fall into. People can’t usually see when I covet their possessions or experiences. They can’t tell when my simple congratulations are actually bitterness in disguise, or when deep down I judge myself to be of more worth than my brother. Because these sins are invisible, they become easier to let ourselves slip into and to ignore them when we do. If you sense them in yourself, don’t despair. Instead thank God that he is working in you for your sanctification and hasn’t left you alone in your sin, then ask him to help you put them to death. His word assures us that he is always willing to help the believer fight sin, and he has given us the indwelling Holy Spirit for just that reason.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.Galatians 5:16 (ESV)
Life is full of challenges. Trying to walk faithfully in righteousness before our God is especially so, but God has given us his Holy Spirit who sanctifies us, and we are becoming more like Christ each day. It may not feel as though we are always progressing, but Christian, be sure that as long as you call Jesus your Lord, each day brings you closer to him and to looking like him. The Holy Spirit will complete his work in you, and you can count on that. The job will not be completed in this life, but there is no scenario where the believer, assuming he continues in his faith, will not end up walking in perfect righteousness before our Lord. Knowing that we are guaranteed to inherit the righteousness of Christ at our glorification frees us to walk boldly in him today. When you are feeling the weight and the pain of this life, look to Jesus and say with the Apostle Paul:
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.Philippians 4:13 (ESV)
I want to add a postscript that I don’t really have time to unpack. In addition to the Holy Spirit, God has blessed us with three essential tools to aid us in this life: Scripture, Prayer and the Church (as in other believers). We can’t hope to look more like Christ if we aren’t hearing from him and talking to him, and the isolated Christian is a weak Christian. God has given us brothers and sisters to help support and encourage us. We don’t have to agree on every point of doctrine; as a matter of fact, I’d suggest that if you do, one of you isn’t doing much to grow yourself (our faith is based on the living and active word of God, not on a list of manmade platitudes, however well intentioned they are, but that is a topic for another post). I need growth in each of these areas; in particular, I find that my prayer’s are often lacking the depth of an earthly relationship, and I am quick to isolate myself from other believers due to my own introversion.
Calvin, J. (2014). Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541 ed.) (R. White, Trans.). Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust.
Image Credit: A Plan of the Road From the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, Adapted to The Pilgrim’s Progress. John Bunyan, 1821. Credit: Cornell University: Persuasive Cartography: The PJ Mode Collection. CC BY