Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

John Calvin’s description of the Christian life in book three of his Institutes of the Christian Religion makes every charge that the Reformed faith minimizes holiness of life, not so much false as absurd.

What a grand, gripping, humbling, sobering, moving description of the Christian life this is. It is no wonder that this section of the Institutes was very soon published separately and that it still is published in English as a separate booklet, The Golden Booklet of the Christian Life.

Our ministers must preach this biblical description of the Christian life to the congregations. Preaching the Christian life as Calvin presents it is the preaching of doctrine. It is the preaching of doctrine in doctrine’s necessary and glorious fruits and ends. Calvin expresses the right relation of doctrine and life:

To doctrine in which our religion is contained we have given the first place, since by it our salvation commences; but it must be transfused into the breast, and pass into the conduct, and so transform us into itself, as not to prove unfruitful (Inst., 3.6.4, tr. Henry Beveridge, Eerdmans, 1957; all quotations from the Institutes in this and the following articles are from the Beveridge translation).

When we preach the Christian life, we should warn our people—and ourselves—that “doctrine is not an affair of the tongue, but of the life” (Inst., 3.6.4).

Such is the compressed wisdom, beauty, and power of Calvin’s treatment of the Christian life in this section of the Institutes that it defies any adequate summary. One can do justice to it only by reading it in its entirety. I urge every reader to do this: read chapters six through ten of book three of the Institutes. In this article, and a following, I call attention briefly to the main lines of this classic pattern of the Christian life according to a Reformed understanding of it, quoting a few of the more striking statements about the Christian life by the Reformer.

What Calvin gives is the pattern of the Christian life. He is concerned to “point out the method by which a pious man may be taught how to frame his life aright, and briefly lay down some universal rule by which he may not improperly regulate his conduct” (Inst., 3.6.1). This pattern is drawn from Holy Scripture. The pattern describes how the Spirit works in every one who is united to Christ by the bond of faith. The Spirit works in such a way that we are called to be active in approximating this pattern.

Because we are active in ordering our life according to the pattern revealed in Scripture and realized by the Spirit, Calvin begins with the motivations for living the Christian life. We should strive to be holy as the God to whom we are united is holy. Our life should express Christ. And every benefit God gives us calls us to an appropriate thankfulness (Inst., 3.6.2, 3).

As regards the pattern of the Christian life, Calvin says that, “although the Law of God contains a perfect rule of conduct admirably arranged, it has seemed proper to our divine Master to train his people by a more accurate method, to the rule which is enjoined in the Law” (Inst., 3.7.1). Plainly, the subject is the objective standard, or rule, that forms the Christian life of us all. Calvin holds up the law—the ten commandments—as “a perfect rule of conduct admirably arranged.” Here is the well-known “third use of the law”—the use of the law as rule of a holy life—characteristic of Calvinism. But the phrase advocating the law as the standard of the Christian life is concessive: “although.” The force of the sentence is to promote another, “more accurate method” that will shape us to the Christian life God intends for us. This “more accurate method” is the doctrine found especially in the New Testament, particularly Romans 12:1ff., that the elect believer is not his own, but God’s. That we belong to God is the implication of the exhortation in Romans 12:1, “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God.”

Even more than the law, the truth of our belonging to God must pattern our life.

The great point, then, is, that we are consecrated and dedicated to God, and therefore should not henceforth think, speak, design, or act, without a view to his glory…. But if we are not our own, but the Lord’s, it is plain both what error is to be shunned, and to what end the actions of our lives ought to be directed. We are not our own; therefore, neither is our own reason or will to rule our acts and counsels. We are not our own; therefore, let us not make it our end to seek what may be agreeable to our carnal nature. We are not our own; therefore, as far as possible, let us forget ourselves and the things that are ours. On the other hand, we are God’s; let us, therefore, live and die to him (Inst., 3.7.1).

All that follows in Calvin’s description of the Christian life is a thorough, consistent working out of the truth of our belonging to God. In describing the Christian life, Calvin does not explicitly use the law as the rule, but New Testament teachings concerning self-denial, bearing the cross, and the like.

What immediately strikes everyone familiar with the Heidelberg Catechism is that Calvin’s rule for the Christian life is the same as the believer’s only comfort. The same truth that is the comfort of the gospel—belonging to God—decisively forms and shapes our Christian life.

What will the life be that conforms to the law and more especially to the truth that by the redemption of the cross and the renewal of the Spirit we are not our own but the Lord’s?

First, it will be a life of the service of God. “Let this, then, be the first step, to abandon ourselves, and devote the whole energy of our minds to the service of God. By service, I mean not only that which consists in verbal obedience, but that by which the mind, divested of its own carnal feelings, implicitly obeys the call of the Spirit of God” (Inst., 3.7.1).

Second, the Christian life is self-denial. Calvin distinguishes self-denial toward the neighbor and self-denial toward God. As regards self-denial toward the neighbor, Calvin exposes our wickedness in seeking self and despising the neighbor (Inst., 3.7.4). He grounds our love of the neighbor in “the image of God, which exists in all, and to which we owe all honor and love” (Inst., 3.7.6). Calvin warns that outward deeds of goodness to the neighbor are not enough. We must have inward, sympathetic love of the needy neighbor. Christians should “put themselves in the place of him whom they see in need of their assistance, and pity his misfortune as if they felt and bore it, so that a feeling of pity and humanity should incline them to assist him just as they would themselves” (Inst., 3.7.7).

Self-denial toward God is resignation of ourselves and all we have to the Lord’s will (Inst., 3.7.8). We are to depend only upon God’s blessing for the success of our earthly life. We must bear adversity patiently. Describing the troubles of life in vivid detail, Calvin writes that the believer can bear them without cursing God or resisting, because he has “resigned himself entirely to the Lord, placing all the course of his life entirely at his [God’s] disposal” (Inst., 3.7.10).

At this point, certain observations are in order. What is this aspect of the Christian life but living our belief and confession of divine sovereignty? How radically different is the Christian’s self-denial toward God from the thinking of the world of the ungodly: “Assert yourself!” “Stand up for your rights!”

A third characteristic of the Christian life that the Spirit works in us and that we must strive for according to the pattern of belonging to God is bearing the cross. Calvin tells us that this is an aspect of self-denial. I make a confession. By this point in his description of the Christian life, Calvin has stretched me to my limit, and beyond. I am ready for his “Amen” to the Christian life. Whereupon Calvin says, “The pious mind must ascend still higher” (Inst., 3.8.1).

“Still higher”?

“Still higher”!

“Still higher,” because although Calvin has already foretold for us a life of trouble, now he tells us that we must expect to share the sufferings of Christ. This is cross-bearing: sharing the sufferings of Christ. Every one of us, none excepted, must prepare for “a hard, laborious, troubled life, a life full of many and various kinds of evils.” The pain of these evils is “the bitterness of the cross,” that is, the bitterness of the cross of Christ in our lives (Inst., 3.8.1).

Our cross is not atoning suffering. Rather, it is our sharing in the hatred and reproach of Christ by the wicked. “In maintaining the truth of God against the lies of Satan, or defending the good and innocent against the injuries of the bad, we are obliged to incur the offence and hatred of the world, so as to endanger life, fortune, or honor” (Inst., 3.8.7). God imposes this cross upon us to prove our sonship: We obey God in love, when obedience is painful and costly.

Precious benefits come to us from bearing the cross. The cross teaches us not to depend on our flesh. Through the cross we experience God’s faithful help, as we rest on Him alone. In response to the cross, we manifest our endurance by grace. The biblical name for this endurance is patience. The cross in our life guards us against wanton rebellion against God, which is the danger when all goes well for the Christian. Calvin sees earthly prosperity as a threat to the Christian life.

Thus, lest we become emboldened by an over-abundance of wealth; lest elated with honor, we grow proud; lest inflated with other advantages of body, or mind, or fortune, we grow insolent, the Lord himself interferes as he sees to be expedient by means of the cross, subduing and curbing the arrogance of our flesh, and that in various ways (Inst., 3.8.5).

The cross chastises us for our faults. And the cross bestows honor upon us. To suffer for the sake of Christ and righteousness is “the special badge of his [God’s] soldiers” (Inst., 3.8.7). “We now see,” says Calvin, “how many advantages are at once produced by the cross” (Inst., 3.8.3).

Although Calvin grants that the cross inflicts real and deep sorrow, which sorrow on our part is not sinful, nevertheless, in view of the benefits of the cross, we can and should bear the cross cheerfully (Inst., 3.8.8). Indeed, so Calvin concludes, the benefits of the cross enable and require us to be thankful for the cross, with all its bitterness. This is the explanation of the Bible’s exhortations to Christians, to be thankful for all things, evil things as well as good things. The explanation is not that we enjoy the bitterness. We do not. Nor should we. But we are thankful for the cross in our life in view of the benefits God brings us through the cross.

… to be concluded