As a good Presbyterian, my first exposure to classic Systematic Theology was reading John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. At first, I wondered if I really wanted to study theology. The two-volume systematic was a different kind of reading. It wasn’t overly complicated, but it was exhaustive. Written in the 16th century, it was foreign to me culturally and methodically. I still have the highlights and notes in the margins from my first reading, but those treasures then were rare. After the first reading, I hoped that the readings would get better, and I purposely kept Calvin at arm’s length.
Then I came across something called The Golden Book of the True Christian Life.* It is a sampling from Calvin’s Institutes that focuses in specifically on the meaning of the Christian life. This booklet completely changed my view of Calvin, and sent me back to the Institutes. It wasn’t that I needed to find better writing, but that I needed a better understanding of what was written.
I wanted to share with you excerpts from the opening chapter of the Golden Book, that you too may find the always approachable nature of John Calvin’s teaching on the meaning of the Christian life.
Scripture is the Rule of Life
The goal of the new life is that God’s children exhibit melody and harmony in their conduct. What melody? The song of God’s justice. What harmony? The harmony between God’s righteousness and our obedience. Only if we walk in the beauty of God’s law do we become sure of our adoption as children of the Father. The law of God contains in itself the dynamic of the new life by which his image is fully restored in us; but by nature we are sluggish, and, therefore, we need to be stimulated, aided in our efforts by a guiding principle.
Holiness is the key Principle
The plan of Scripture for a Christian walk is twofold: first, that we be instructed in the law to love righteousness, because by nature we are not inclined to do so; second, that we be shown a simple rule that we may not waver in our race. Of the many excellent recommendations, is there any better than the key principle: Be thou Holy, for I am holy? Holiness is not a merit by which we can attain communion with God, but a gift of Christ, which enables us to cling to him and to follow him.
Holiness means full obedience to Christ
Scripture does not only show the principle of holiness, but also that Christ is the way to it. Because the Father has reconciled us to himself in Christ, therefore he commands us to be conformed to Christ as to our pattern. The Lord has adopted us to be his children on this condition that we reveal an imitation of Christ who is the mediator of our adoption. Therefore:
- Since God has revealed himself as a Father, we would be guilty of the basest ingratitude if we did not behave as his children.
- Since Christ has purified us through the baptism in his blood, we should not become defiled by fresh pollution.
- Since Christ has united us to his body as his members, we should be anxious not to disgrace him by any blemish.
- Since Christ, our head, has ascended into heaven, we should leave our carnal desires behind and lift our hearts upward to him.
- Since the Holy Spirit has dedicated us as temples of God, we should exert ourselves not to profane his sanctuary, but to display his glory.
- Since both our soul and body are destined to inherit an incorruptible and never-fading crown, we should keep them pure and undefiled till the day of our Lord.
External Christianity is not enough
Let us ask those who possess nothing but church membership, and yet want to be called Christians, how they can glory in the sacred name of Christ? External knowledge of Christ is found to be only false and dangerous make-believe, however eloquently and freely lip servants may talk about the gospel. The gospel is not a doctrine of the tongue, but of life. Let nominal Christians cease from insulting God by boasting themselves to be what they are not, and let them show themselves disciples not unworthy of Christ, their Master. Our religion will be unprofitable if it does not change our heart, pervade our manners, and transform us into new creatures.
Spiritual Progress is necessary
We should not insist on absolute perfection of the gospel in our fellow Christians, however much we may strive for it ourselves. There would be no church if we set a standard of absolute perfection, for the best of us are still far from the ideal, and we would have to reject many who have made only small progress. Perfection must be the final mark at which we aim, and the goal for which we strive. But let everyone proceed according to his given ability and continue the journey he has begun. Let us not cease to do the utmost, that we may incessantly go forward in the way of the Lord; and let us not despair because of the smallness of our accomplishment. Though we fall short, our labor is not lost if this day surpasses the preceding one. The one condition for spiritual progress is that we remain sincere and humble. Let us keep our end in view, let us press forward to our goal. Let us steadily exert ourselves to reach a higher degree of holiness till we shall finally arrive at a perfection of goodness which we seek and pursue as long as we live, but which we shall attain then only, when, freed from all earthly infirmity, we shall be admitted by God into his full communion.
* Calvin, Jean. Golden Book of the True Christian Life; a modern translation from the French and the Latin by Henry J. Van Andel. (Baker Book House; Grand Rapids, MI, 1952).