The Deepest Reason We Obey

Calvin had a way of cutting to the heart of things when he wanted to. In chapter 6 of Book 3 of the Institutes he discusses the Christian life, the object of God’s regenerating (life-giving) work in our hearts by the Spirit, a life lived in obedient harmony with God’s righteousness. He points out that, over the years, various moral philosophers have given capable enough accounts of what we ought to do and why we ought to do it. (3.6.1) Now, they’re good as far as they go, but, of course, scripture gives far better reasons, rooting our motive for righteousness more securely, among other reasons, in God’s own holiness, our desire to be in communion him, and a desire to be numbered among those inhabitants of the holy city. (3.6.2) But Calvin goes further and says that, as great as these are, scripture gives us a deeper reason still:

And to wake us more effectively, Scripture shows that God the Father, as he has reconciled us to himself in his Christ [cf. 2 Corinthians 5:18], has in him stamped for us the likeness [Hebrews 1:3] to which he would have us conform. Now, let these persons who think that moral philosophy is duly and systematically set forth solely among philosophers find me among the philosophers a more excellent dispensation. They, while they wish particularly to exhort us to virtue, announce merely that we should live in accordance with nature. But Scripture draws its exhortation from the true fountain. It not only enjoins us to refer our life to God, its author, to whom it is bound; but after it has taught that we have degenerated from the true origin and condition of our creation, it also adds that Christ, through whom we return into favor with God, has been set before us as an example, whose pattern we ought to express in our life. What more effective thing can you require than this one thing? Nay, what can you require beyond this one thing? For we have been adopted as sons by the Lord with this one condition: that our life express Christ, the bond of our adoption. Accordingly, unless we give and devote ourselves to righteousness, we not only revolt from our Creator with wicked perfidy but we also abjure our Savior himself.

Then the Scripture finds occasion for exhortation in all the benefits of God that it lists for us, and in the individual parts of our salvation. Ever since God revealed himself Father to us, we must prove our ungratefulness to him if we did not in turn show ourselves his sons [Malachi 1:6; Ephesians 5:1; 1 John 3:1]. Ever since Christ cleansed us with the washing of his blood, and imparted this cleansing through baptism, it would be unfitting to befoul ourselves with new pollutions [Ephesians 5:26; Hebrews 10:10; 1 Corinthians 6:11; 1 Peter 1:15,19]. Ever since he engrafted us into his body, we must take especial care not to disfigure ourselves, who are his members, with any spot or blemish [Ephesians 5:23-33; 1 Corinthians 6:15; John 15:3-6]. Ever since Christ himself, who is our Head, ascended into heaven, it behooves us, having laid aside love of earthly things, wholeheartedly to aspire heavenward [Colossians 3:1 ff.]. Ever since the Holy Spirit dedicated us as temples to God, we must take care that God’s glory shine through us, and must not commit anything to defile ourselves with the filthiness of sin [1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16]. Ever since both our souls and bodies were destined for heavenly incorruption and an unfading crown [1 Peter 5:4], we ought to strive manfully to keep them pure and uncorrupted until the Day of the Lord [1 Thessalonians 5:23; cf. Philippians 1:10]. These, I say, are the most auspicious foundations upon which to establish one’s life. One would look in vain for the like of these among the philosophers, who, in their commendation of virtue, never rise above the natural dignity of man.

-John Calvin, Institutes 3.6.3

To sum up: Why does Calvin say we obey? Because God has saved us in Christ.

Christ’s Cross and Ours: Some Thoughts on Suffering and the Life of Faith

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.”

Conclusion

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

Wrath or Love? Calvin on Why Jesus Goes to the Cross

Why did Jesus die on the cross? Was it because of God’s wrath or rather because of his love? Here’s one of my favorite passages where my boy Calvin breaks it down. For those of us trained to think in caricatures of Calvin as the perpetrator of a cold, legalistic theological system, his answer might be surprising:

Although this statement is tempered to our feeble comprehension, it is not said falsely. For God, who is the highest righteousness, cannot love the unrighteousness that he sees in us all. All of us, therefore, have in ourselves something deserving of God’s hatred. With regard to our corrupt nature and the wicked life that follows it, all of us surely displease God, are guilty in his sight, and are born to the damnation of hell.  But because the Lord wills not to lose what is his in us, out of his own kindness he still finds something to love. However much we may be sinners by our own fault, we nevertheless remain his creatures. However much we have brought death upon ourselves, yet he has created us unto life. Thus he is moved by pure and freely given love of us to receive us into grace. Since there is a perpetual and irreconcilable disagreement between righteousness and unrighteousness, so long as we remain sinners he cannot receive us completely.

Therefore, to take away all cause for enmity and to reconcile us utterly to himself, he wipes out all evil in us by the expiation set forth in the death of Christ; that we, who were previously unclean and impure, may show ourselves righteous and holy in his sight. Therefore, by his love God the Father goes before and anticipates our reconciliation in Christ. Indeed, “because he first loved us” [1 John 4:19], he afterward reconciles us to himself. But until Christ succors us by his death, the unrighteousness that deserves God’s indignation remains in us, and is accursed and condemned before him. Hence, we can be fully and firmly joined with God only when Christ joins us with him. If, then, we would be assured that God is pleased with and kindly disposed toward us, we must fix our eyes and minds on Christ alone. For actually, through him alone we escape the imputation of our sins to us — an imputation bringing with it the wrath of God…

For this reason, Paul says that the love with which God embraced us “before the creation of the world” was established and grounded in Christ [Ephesians 1:4-5]. These things are plain and in agreement with Scripture, and beautifully harmonize those passages in which it is said that God declared his love toward us in giving his only-begotten Son to die [John 3:16]; and, conversely, that God was our enemy before he was again made favorable to us by Christ’s death [Romans 5:10]. But to render these things more certain among those who require the testimony of the ancient church, I shall quote a passage of Augustine where the very thing is taught:

“God’s love,” says he, “is incomprehensible and unchangeable. For it was not after we were reconciled to him through the blood of his Son that he began to love us. Rather, he has loved us before the world was created, that we also might be his sons along with his only-begotten Son — before we became anything at all. The fact that we were reconciled through Christ’s death must not be understood as if his Son reconciled us to him that he might now begin to love those whom he had hated. Rather, we have already been reconciled him who loves us, with whom we were enemies on account of sin. The apostle will testify whether I am speaking the truth: ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ [Romans 5:8]. Therefore, he loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness. Thus in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.”

These are Augustine’s words.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis  Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 2.16.3-4

Soli Deo Gloria