Many people forget that John Calvin was a pastor and not a professional theologian. He did try to show the practical implications of his theology. So when Robert White worked on a new translation of Calvin’s 1541 edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, they put part of book 3 of the 1560 French edition into a gift edition as A Guide to Christian Living.
I found this to be a handy little volume. Most mornings I would read a section after my daily time in the Scriptures. The sections are short, but usually there was plenty to chew on. It starts with “Scriptural Foundations for Christian Living” including the idea that Scripture is the foundation and guide for Christian living. Part of the foundation mentioned is our union in Christ.
“The news that God is now joined to us should remind us that holiness is the bond which unites us. Not that it is our holiness which brings us into fellowship with God, since to be holy we must first cling to him, that he might pour his holiness upon us and enable us to follow his call.”
While our goal is perfection, we will not arrive there until glorification. True holiness is internal, not external. It has external effects, but it is internal. Often the call to holiness can discourage even the best of us. We see the gap between where we are and were we want to be (even greater when we consider where God calls us to be: conformance to Christ). But there is pastoral sensitivity here.
“Let each of us go on, then, as our limited powers allow, without departing from the path we have begun to tread. However haltingly we may travel, each day will see us gaining a little ground. So let us aim to make diligent progress in the way of the Lord, and let us not lose heart if we have only a little to show for it. For although our success may be less than we would wish, all is not lost when today surpasses yesterday. Only let us fix our gaze clearly and directly on the gospel, trying hard to reach our objective, not fooling ourselves with vain illusions or excusing our own vices. We should always strive to improve from day to day, until we attain that supreme goodness which we are meant to seek and pursue as long as we live. We will finally lay hold of it when, freed from the weakness of our flesh, we are fully able to share in it- that is, when God receives us into his fellowship.”
He is speaking, at the end, of glorification not justification. That is good news for those who struggle with perfectionism. It is good news for those who are all to aware of their faults and sins. It is an encouragement for those prone toward sloth to continue to press forward.
Having laid the Scriptural foundation, Calvin then begins to discuss “Denying Self: The Key to Christian Living.” Far too few books today discuss self-denial favorably even though Jesus spoke of this as an essential element of discipleship. Self-denial flows out of the truth that we are not our own, but have been bought with a price. It is about consecration and the resulting submission of the Christian. Our lack of self-denial, at times, reveals the two great obstacles we all experience: ungodliness and worldly desires. He wants us to keep our eyes on Christ, our perfect Redeemer, to wean ourselves from such ungodliness and desires which seek to seduce and distract us. His understanding of self-denial is not simply asceticism, but also a life lived in service to others for the glory of God. Self-denial is about loving God and others more than we love ourselves. It must start in the heart. It is also a lift of trust, that God will provide for us instead of us trying to provide for ourselves.
“In sum, whoever depends on God’s blessing will not resort to base and crooked means to obtain the things men madly crave, because he knows such methods will never work to his advantage.”
Calvin then talks about “Living Under the Cross.” Just as the cross preceded the crown for Christ, so it must for all who are his as well (Romans 8). This is Calvin’s point- we will experience affliction and be prepared to walk thru it. Our fellowship with Christ is confirmed as we experience affliction (unless of course we abandon him because of the affliction). We learn dependence and the sufficiency of his grace thru affliction. Christ’s cross provides us with forgiveness and hope- our affliction is not the final word. Like Christ we learn true obedience thru suffering (Heb. 2). Obedience is not merely agreeing with God, but to be sought particularly when we don’t agree about the goodness of an action or its consequence. Obedience is often hard, contrary to our desires, or possibly subject to hardship.
“For all whom the Lord has adopted and received into the company of his children must prepare themselves for a tough, difficult life, full of toils and countless troubles.”
“He afflicts us, not to ruin or destroy us, but to rescue us from the world’s condemnation.”
All is not hardship though. Calvin reminds us of “The Glory of the Life to Come.” We need hope to sustain us in the midst of self-denial and the cross of affliction. We need to know it will be worth it. He speaks of scorning the world (thinking little of it in light of eternity). Such scorn is not to be confused with hating the world. It is about not living for this world, this life. We make use of the world, and can enjoy its many blessings because God put them there and they point us back to him. He reveals his goodness, in part, thru the blessings of this world.
“Earth is where we begin to taste the sweetness of God’s blessings, and where we are roused by the hope and the desire to see them fulfilled in heaven.”
He then moves to “The Blessings of this Present Life.” He wants us to properly use earthly goods, to live a well-ordered life. He wants us to avoid the extremes that so often plague people. We are not ascetics, forsaking all goodness and pleasure. And we are not libertines consumed with all goodness and pleasure on earth. We are to cultivate contentment instead of feeding greed or forsaking all pleasure. One thing that God provides to guide us is our calling, general and particular. All Christians are called to holiness by virtue of our union with Christ. We also have particular callings (husband, father, pastor etc.) which also guide us to live a well-ordered life. I must fulfill my responsibilities with regard to those callings before I satisfy my own personal desires. For instance, I love music and have had a large collection of CDs. Since getting married and then having kids I haven’t bought much music for myself. My primary responsibility is to provide for THEM, not me. My music is a luxury but I see many others in similar situations spend lots of money on their music. They must have a much higher salary than I do, or kids who eat far less.
So this is a challenging, as well as encouraging, book. I found it quite useful, as I noted, as devotional reading. Perhaps you will too.