A Little Book on the Christian Life by John Calvin
“There are two main parts to the instruction from Scripture on the Christian life that follow. The first is that a love of righteousness, to which we are not naturally prone, must be implanted and poured into our hearts. The second is that we need some model that will keep us from losing our way in our pursuit of righteousness.”
This short book is an extract of a single chapter of the second edition of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, originally entitled “A Distinguished Little Book on the Life of a Christian Man.” It was first published in 1550 as a stand-alone work in booklet form, and was later published as different versions with the titles Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life and A Guide to Christian Living. With this 2017 new edition, translated from the official Latin edition of The Institutes, the editors state as their goal “to produce a translation that we believe Calvin himself would have been pleased with…aimed at faithfulness not just to Calvin’s meaning but, so much as possible, to his own words,” and to “make Calvin’s meaning as clear as possible to English readers.”
The five chapters contained in this little book are as follows:
- Scripture’s Call to Christian Living
- Self-Denial in the Christian Life
- Bearing our Cross is a Part of Self-Denial
- Meditation on our Future Life
- How the Present Life and its Comforts Should Be Used
There are many valuable nuggets and much meat for thoughtful contemplation to be found here, but I will just share some main ideas I took away from each chapter.
As a believer and follower of Christ, we are called to a life of holiness. Not only is an unbeliever unable to do anything that is pleasing to God, but a desire for holiness is completely foreign to the heart of an unregenerate man. But when by the work of the Holy Spirit a heart of stone is replaced with a heart of flesh, the believer is given a new love and desire for righteousness. Not only that, but along with this desire, He gives us a new nature with the ability to live holy lives, and this is what we are commanded to strive for.
For true doctrine is not a matter of the tongue, but of life…Doctrine is rightly received when it takes possession of the entire soul and finds a dwelling pace and shelter in the most intimate affections of the heart…In order for doctrine to be fruitful to us, it must overflow into our hearts, spread into our daily routines, and truly transform us within.
Calvin recognizes that we will not be able to do this perfectly, even though that should be our goal, and one that we will attain “when we have escaped the weakness of the flesh and have been received into His perfect fellowship.” Meanwhile, Calvin exhorts the reader,
Let us move forward according to the measure of our resources and pursue the path we have begun to walk. None of us will move forward with so little success that we will not make some daily progress in the way…However much our successes fall short of our desire, our efforts aren’t in vain when we are farther along today than yesterday.
A mindset of self-denial is directly opposed to the philosophies of the world that encourage us to “love yourself,” “take care of Number One,“ “be who you want to be”, and “be the master of your own destiny.” Conversely, the Scriptures tell us that as believers, “we are not our own for we are bought at a price,” and that we are to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:2). Calvin says,
How far has he progressed who’s been taught that he is not his own – who’s taken rule and dominion away from his own reason and entrusted them to God. For the plague of submitting to our own rule leads straight to ruin…Let then our first step be to abandon ourselves…turning our minds over completely to the bidding of the Spirit of God.
This is a concept that men who are outside of Christ know nothing about. Denial of self is first and foremost with reference to God – bowing ourselves to His will and glory in all things. But it is also with reference to our fellow man, ie. putting their interests, needs, and well-being before our own (Phil. 2:3). This does not come naturally and requires the supernatural work of God. Calvin states that,
Each of us thinks we have just cause for elevating ourselves and despising all others in comparison to ourselves – our self-love ruins us with such blindness…There’s not one who does not nourish a high opinion of himself within. Everyone flatters himself and carries, as it were, a kingdom in his breast.
This section had so much that was instructive and convicting, for example:
We will never achieve genuine meekness except by having our hearts saturated with self-denial and respect for others…Once self-denial has occupied the heart, it crowds out the evils of pride, arrogance, and pretentiousness as well as greed, lust, gluttony, cowardice, and everything else that is born of self-love.
Calvin reminds us that everything we have we receive as a gift from God, and we are to use it for the good of others not for ourselves. We are to be seeking the kingdom of God, not the advancement of our own little kingdom. Everything that we desire, expect or pursue must have in sight the blessing and honor of God, not our own. And the blessings that result from learning self-denial include restfulness, peace, and contentedness.
Followers of Christ are called to “take up their cross daily,” so what does this mean? For one thing, it means that we don’t view the evil, trials, and hardships of this life as victims, but as sharers in the sufferings of Christ. If we have been crucified with Christ and raised with Him, then we should also expect to walk the same path He walked, which included humiliation, poverty, sadness, pain, loneliness, rejection, and temptation. Calvin says, “The more we are afflicted with adverse circumstances, so much more certainly is our communion with Christ confirmed.” These things test our endurance, prove our obedience, humble us, develop our patience, strengthen our faith, and remind us that without Him we are nothing. For,
unless our own weaknesses are regularly displayed to us, we easily overestimate our own virtue, being by nature inclined to attribute all good things to our own doing…[W]e brazenly exalt ourselves before God Himself, acting as if our own abilities are sufficient without His grace.
It is good for us to lose confidence and trust in ourselves; this serves to mortify sin in our lives and to sanctify us. And it’s important that we don’t compare the trials and suffering that we experience with that of fellow believers. In comparing our remaining sin to disease, which varies from one person to the next, Calvin comments,
Our heavenly doctor, having purposed to restore all of us to health, treats some more leniently. Meanwhile, He applies stronger remedies to others. But none of us is left untouched by or remains immune to His medicine – He knows we are all diseased.
Being called to endure does not mean we will not experience times of grief, doubt, or sorrow, but we will be brought through these times as we look to Christ as our comfort, strength, and help. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).
We are so easily entangled and caught up with this life now – so much of our hopes, desires, goals, pursuits, and priorities are of an earthly nature. The writer shares some thoughts to help direct our hearts to the future life that we look forward to, something many of us don’t think about often enough. Here are some of the key thoughts that stood out to me.
We should never be so enamored and tied to this world that we lose sight of our eternal home, for we are merely pilgrims passing through. The Lord knows that we are inclined to hold on to this life and all that belongs to it, so He uses the evils, sorrows, and difficulties to help lessen our love of it and loosen our grip on it. As we witness and experience the miseries of life, it gives us a greater desire and longing for the life to come (Rom. 7:24).
That being said, we aren’t to have a hatred for this world, but to recognize it as God’s gift to us and to recognize His blessings in it. The joy, beauty, and goodness we enjoy and experience now is merely a tiny foretaste of that which we will enjoy for eternity. Randy Alcorn talks about this in his book entitled Heaven, which I commend to you on this subject. In fact, no professing Christian should have a dread or fear of death, knowing that it is the means that will usher us into a blessed eternity with our Saviour.
And having an eternal perspective can also give great comfort when we see the wicked and ungodly of this world prospering and enjoying particularly as they dishonor and reject the God who has given them the blessings that they enjoy, not to mention the very breath they breathe. We can actually have compassion for them, knowing that if they don’t repent and turn to God, the life they enjoy here and now is the best that it will ever get for them.
We have liberty to enjoy, in moderation and with restraint, the things in this life, without exercising in self-indulgence or hedonism. We are called to be good stewards of what the Lord entrusts to us, and knowing that every good gift comes from above, we are to be grateful for the blessings God bestows on us and use them for the good of others and for His glory. Calvin observes,
We won’t go wrong in the use of God’s gifts as long as we let their use be governed by their author’s purpose in creating and designing them for us – for truly He created them for our good, not our ruin.
Of course, we know that God blesses individuals differently according to His providence (which John Flavel addresses in his book, The Mystery of Providence). Like the medicine the Great Physician uses to produce holiness, as mentioned earlier, He uses abundance or deprivation according to His purposes in the lives of His children for their good. Calvin exhorts the reader:
Let believers learn to bear scarcity with no less calm and patience than they experience abundance – all with moderation. The one who seeks to hold on to the things of this world lightly…puts to death every care and affection which might lead him astray or hinder his meditation on heavenly life and his zeal for the improvement of his soul.
[On the other hand,]
Those who have few possessions must learn to endure patiently their humble circumstances, not becoming agitated with excessive longing after things.
Lastly, we each should consider the life and circumstances to which God has called us, and to live it in obedience to Him as we seek to do His will and please Him until our time on earth comes to an end.