One of my favorite sections in the Institutes is Calvin’s section on the Christian life. As much as I love his exposition of the creed, or his theological-polemical engagements with Osiander, the “Papists”, and the “Enthusiasts”, Calvin shines when discussing the practical. Beyond Calvin the theologian and biblical scholar, there was Calvin the pastor–the man who was passionately concerned that all of human life be lived before God and in light of the Gospel. This might surprise many readers but the Reformation wasn’t simply a narrow theological debate about justification and the thoughts we think on a Sunday morning, but rather a restructuring of Christian life and practice. It was about, as James K.A. Smith puts it, “the sanctification of ordinary life.” For that reason Calvin was concerned not only with teaching doctrine, but the life of piety that flows from that doctrine.
A Life of Self-Denial and the Cross
Calvin writes, “We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him.” (3.7.1) Therefore, in this life between the first and second comings of Christ, a saint’s life is one of self-denial. In order to be fully devoted to God, love our neighbors in difficulty, and bear up under adversity, we must deny ourselves and look to God alone for our blessedness.
In order to do this well, he encourages his readers to consider to the cross, because the cross of the Christian is the chief part of self-denial:
“But it behooves the godly mind to climb still higher, to the height to which Christ calls his disciples: that each must bear his own cross [Matthew 16:24]. For whomever the Lord has adopted and deemed worthy of his fellowship ought to prepare themselves for a hard, toilsome, and unquiet life, crammed with very many and various kinds of evil.” (3.8.1)
To many of us, it is surprising to think that we are called to carry crosses. “I thought Christ had the cross so I wouldn’t have to?” That is true, but only in a certain sense. It is true that because of Christ’s suffering and death, we no longer have to face the penal judgment of God, or worry about the ultimate victory of the powers that he defeated on it. (Col. 2:14-15) Still, the active life of discipline and self-denial, scorn, pain and difficulty that he endured, (“while he dwelt on earth he was not only tried by a perpetual cross but his whole life was nothing but a sort of perpetual cross”), is also a model for those of us who would be made holy as God intends us. As Calvin puts it: “Why should we exempt ourselves, therefore, from the condition to which Christ our Head had to submit, especially since he submitted to it for our sake to show us an example of patience in himself? Therefore, the apostle teaches that God has destined all his children to the end that they be conformed to Christ [Romans 8:29].” (ibid.) The Christian then, should expect difficulty and suffering in this life.
The Benefits of the Cross
While nobody ever accused Calvin of being an optimist, he didn’t think that the Christian should fear submitting to the cross–there is comfort in its shadow. Following Paul, he says taking up our cross allows us to know the beauty of sharing of Christ’s sufferings in a way that enables us to participate in his glory. (Phil. 3:10-11) “How much can it do to soften all the bitterness of the cross, that the more we are afflicted with adversities, the more surely our fellowship with Christ is confirmed! By communion with him the very sufferings themselves not only become blessed to us but also help much in promoting our salvation.” (ibid.)
More specifically, Calvin sees at least six benefits to the cross we are called to bear in this life.
1. The cross leads us to perfect trust in God’s power (3.8.2) We are too quick to give ourselves credit when life goes right or our accomplishments receive praise. We trust in our own awesomeness. We think that our goodness, or wisdom, or strength is the cause of our good life and that we really have this handled. It is only when difficulties and suffering comes our way, when disease hits, markets crash, relationships break, that we are humbled and taught to rely on God’s power and strength in all things. Only the cross kills our arrogance, shows us our inability, and drives us to the perfect source of strength, God’s gracious sustenance.
“Believers, warned…by such proofs of their diseases, advance toward humility and so, sloughing off perverse confidence in the flesh, betake themselves to God’s grace. Now when they have betaken themselves there they experience the presence of a divine power in which they have protection enough and to spare.”
2. The cross permits us to see God’s perfect faithfulness and gives us hope for the future (3.8.3). God’s faithfulness matters most when we are in the pit. It is in the tribulations of this life that we find God’s unswerving commitment to his children to be proven to our hearts. When we see him act faithfully in our current travails, we are given hope for God’s future faithfulness. “Hope, moreover, follows victory in so far as the Lord, by performing what he has promised, establishes his truth for the time to come.”
3. The cross trains us to patience and obedience (3.8.4) Difficulty gives us occasion to practice obedience and patience. Virtues such as these cannot be exercised when life is going swimmingly. “Obviously, if everything went according to their own liking, they would not know what it is to follow God.” Obedience in the face of difficulty is what forms a golden character, one tested in the furnace of adversity. (1 Peter 1:7) Patience is developed only when we are called to endure situations that are unpleasant. It is in the troubles of this life, not the joys, that we learn to submit fully to God’s good commands and patiently await God’s vindication and comfort in our adversity.
4. The cross is medicine for our sin-sick souls (3.8.5) Calvin sees our fleshly or sinful desires, our ill-will, as a sort of recurring illness or medical condition that, if not kept a close eye on, would grow or deteriorate due to laxity. The crosses that we bear in this life function as a medicine, a sort of chemotherapy, or possibly as physical therapy, for the soul according to the particular conditions we struggle with such as pride, lust, anger, self-centeredness. Through the ministrations of our great physician, our souls are healed and treated according to his wisdom:
Thus, lest in the unmeasured abundance of our riches we go wild; lest, puffed up with honors, we become proud; lest, swollen with other good things—either of the soul or of the body, or of fortune—we grow haughty, the Lord himself, according as he sees it expedient, confronts us and subjects and restrains our unrestrained flesh with the remedy of the cross. And this he does in various ways in accordance with what is healthful for each man. For not all of us suffer in equal degree from the same diseases or, on that account, need the same harsh cure. From this it is to be seen that some are tried by one kind of cross, others by another. But since the heavenly physician treats some more gently but cleanses others by harsher remedies, while he wills to provide for the health of all, he yet leaves no one free and untouched, because he knows that all, to a man, are diseased.
5. The cross is fatherly discipline (3.8.6) If God is a father, then at times he will discipline us according to our misdeeds so that we mature and grow into the kind of children that look like their father. Just as any parent knows to correct a child’s lying or unkindness with a light (or heavy) punishment as the situation calls, so at times our cross is connected to some disobedience we are walking in. This is not judgment, but parental concern that motivates his permission of certain troubles that awaken us to our foolishness. Calvin quotes Proverbs 3:11-12 here,”My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, or grow weary when he reproves you. For whom God loves, he rebukes, and embraces as a father his son.” As the author of Hebrews says, it is through God’s discipline that we know we are legitimate children whom God cares enough about to displease for a short time. (12:8) God works through the cross to lovingly correct his wayward sons and daughters, demonstrating a love concerned not merely with the happiness of his children, but with the deep joy that comes with goodness.
6. The cross is suffering for righteousness sake (3.8.7) Calvin goes on, “Now, to suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake is a singular comfort. For it ought to occur to us how much honor God bestows upon us in thus furnishing us with the special badge of his soldiery.” To many of us it is a foreign way of thinking, but in the New Testament the apostles’ rejoiced at being thought worthy of the honor or suffering for the sake of Christ. (Acts 5:41) Jesus himself says,”Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:10-12) As Calvin points out, the suffering itself is not good, but because these sufferings are the source of great honor, for God will not fail to reward the faithful believer in the Kingdom to come because of goods lost here. “If, being innocent and of good conscience, we are stripped of our possessions by the wickedness of impious folk, we are indeed reduced to penury among men. But in God’s presence in heaven our true riches are thus increased. If we are cast out of our own house, then we will be the more intimately received into God’s family. If we are vexed and despised, we but take all the firmer root in Christ. If we are branded with disgrace and ignominy, we but have a fuller place in the Kingdom of God. If we are slain, entrance into the blessed life will thus be open to us.”
In these various ways the cross that comes into the life of the believer can be a great comfort and hope. In light of these meditations we can see how Calvin can say,”Hence also in harsh and difficult conditions, regarded as adverse and evil, a great comfort comes to us: we share Christ’s sufferings in order that as he has passed from a labyrinth of all evils into heavenly glory, we may in like manner be led through various tribulations to the same glory.” (3.8.1)
May we also come to consider the goodness of God in the cross.
Soli Deo Gloria