Rev. Kuiper is pastor of Southeast Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“Beloved, now are we the children of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope purifies himself, even as he is pure.”
It is an amazing fact of church history that when the Reformers battled hard against salvation by the works of the law, they did not throw away the baby with the bathwater. They did not throw out the biblical doctrine of good works with the foul water of works’ righteousness. They insisted, against Rome, that salvation was by faith alone without man’s works in any sense. That they gave large and proper place to good works of thankfulness as the fruits of salvation was due to their humble submission to the Scriptures. For them, all theology, all doctrine, all matters of the Christian life were ruled by Scripture alone. They went where Scripture sent them; they emphasized what Scripture stressed. This was true of Martin Luther and this was true of John Calvin. We will restrict ourselves in this article to the teachings of John Calvin as delineated in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, especially the section entitled “The Lord of the Christian.” We will examine his teaching in connection with the return of Jesus Christ at the end of the world, and the Christian’s lively hope for that return. (All references and quotations are taken from the Institutes, translated by John Allen, Vol. I, Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1949.)
Hope is the expectant, certain longing that burns within the child of God for the bodily return of Jesus Christ at the end of the ages to take His church unto Himself and to make all things new. Hope is expectancy. It looks forward into the unseen future, when God’s promise is fully come; for hope that is seen is not hope, but a man hopes for what is not seen. Hope is certainty. Without a shadow of a doubt, without any fear of being put to shame, the saint is absolutely convinced, not only that Christ will return, but also of his own part in the great resurrection unto glory and life. And hope is longing. With patience we wait for it, but it is never out of our hearts and minds. We cannot wait, even as we must wait!
Every aspect of hope is based on the resurrection of our Savior from the dead, for we read in I Peter 1:3 that we have been “begotten again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Christ’s resurrection is a sample of our resurrection. As He was raised up the third day as our Head, so shall it be with every member of His body. His resurrection is the proof of our inheritance. God raised Him up in announcement that His justice was satisfied and the title to our inheritance secured. Christ’s resurrection is the power of the new life. When His heavenly life is given us in regeneration, we have all of Christ, including the blessed hope.
Hope is really the power of the Christian’s life as he makes his pilgrimage through this present life. Hope keeps him on the way to Zion, correcting him when he goes astray. Hope powerfully encourages him when he is weary, disappointed, and doubtful. And hope is the power that sanctifies him as long as he is in the body of this death. He who has this hope purifies himself!
Calvin grounds the life of holiness, first, in the divine admonition, “Be ye holy; for I am holy” (I Pet. 1:16). In language that breathes covenant theology, and that hints at the covenant as friendship, he sees the purpose of salvation that God might associate Himself with us. “When we hear any mention of our union with God, we should remember that holiness must be the bond of it; not that we attain communion with Him by the merit of holiness, but because it is the peculiar property of His glory not to have intercourse with iniquity and uncleanness” (p. 747). Further, because our future is to inhabit the holy city of Jerusalem which God has consecrated to Himself, this heavenly city cannot be occupied by impure inhabitants. “Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart” (Ps. 15:1, 2).
Secondly, Calvin grounds the Christian’s holiness in the pattern that God has provided, that we should be conformed to the image of His Son (Rom. 6:4; 8:29). Since Christ has reconciled us to God from our degenerate, fallen state, we should exhibit His character in our lives. He argues that since God has revealed Himself to us as Father, since Christ has purified us in His blood, since the Spirit has dedicated us as temples to God, it would be the basest ingratitude on our part if we did not “exert our most strenuous efforts to preserve our bodies and souls pure and uncorrupt till the day of the Lord” (p. 748).
The French Reformer was no perfectionist. He did not insist that one who breathes anything other than the perfect gospel cannot be a Christian. He did not require evangelical perfection. For then all would be excluded from the church. “What then? Let us set before our eyes the mark, to which alone our pursuit must be directed. Let that be prescribed as the goal towards which we earnestly tend. For it is not lawful for you to make such a compromise with God, as to undertake a part of the duties prescribed to you in His word, and to omit part of them at your pleasure” (749). Encouraging us always to strive, reminding us that growth in sanctification comes with small, daily steps, he holds before us the victory that is ours when Christ returns. “Til we have arrived at a perfection of goodness, which indeed we seek and pursue as long as we live, and shall then attain, when divested of all corporeal infirmity, we shall be admitted by God into complete communion with Him” (p. 750).
Holiness involves the Christian in a twofold, simultaneous action: separating himself from sin and dedicating himself to God, or fleeing from sin and fleeing to God. Calvin finds a large part of holiness, therefore, in self-denial. He discovers the principle of the Christian life in Romans 12:1, 2, that we are to present our bodies as living sacrifices to God, by not being conformed to the world, but by being renewed in our minds. And he shows the reasonableness of this kind of service since we are not our own but the Lord’s. In language that anticipates the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day I, he writes, “We are not our own; therefore neither our reason nor our will should predominate in our deliberations and actions. We are not our own; therefore let us, as far as possible, forget ourselves and all things that are ours. We are not our own; therefore let us not propose it as our end, to seek what may be expedient for us according to the flesh. On the contrary, we are God’s; to Him, therefore, let us live and die. We are God’s; towards Him, therefore, as our only legitimate end, let every part of our lives be directed. O, how great a proficiency has that man made, who, having been taught that he is not his own, has taken the sovereignty and government of himself from his own reason, to surrender it to God” (pp. 751, 752)!
Recognizing the difficulty of forsaking all carnal considerations and devoting ourselves exclusively to God and the neighbor, Calvin quotes Titus 2:11-14, commenting that “Paul recalls our attention to the hope of blessed immortality; apprizing us that our efforts are not in vain, because, as Christ once appeared as a Redeemer, so, at His final advent, He will manifest the benefits of the salvation He has obtained. Thus he dispels the fascinations which blind us, and prevent our aspiring with becoming ardor to the glories of heaven, and at the same time teaches us that we must live as strangers and pilgrims in the world, that we may not lose our inheritance? (pp. 754, 755).
The difficulty of self-denial is to be found especially in our natural desire to have preeminence above others. Each of us has within him the heart of a king. And we possess an amazing ability to deceive ourselves. Our own vices we consider trivial, and we even try to turn them into virtues. The virtues of others we refuse to acknowledge, seeking rather to diminish them. We easily forget that whatsoever abilities we have are the free gifts of God, and that we are to honor others for their God-given gifts, and especially for the image of God in them. “For we shall never arrive at true meekness by any other way, than by having our hearts imbued with self-abasement and a respect for others” (p. 756).
How difficult to seek the advantage of our neighbors! How contrary to our natures to exercise charity with kindness and long-suffering. The lawful use of God’s gifts is the liberal giving of them to others. “Let this, then, be our rule for benignity and beneficence — that whatever God has conferred upon us, which enables us to assist our neighbor, we are the stewards of it, and must one day render an account of our stewardship; and that the only right dispensation of what has been committed to us, is that which is regulated by the law of love” (p. 757). The needy may be worthless and contemptible in our eyes. They may be of no advantage to us, have never done us any good, may in fact have provoked and injured us. No matter. They are to be embraced in the arms of love. For we are debtors to our neighbors.
But what of the morrow and of our needs in the future? Should we not lay up against the day of pestilence, disease, death, and war? We do well to consider daily the paternal goodness of God. We are the sheep of His pasture. And all things are ordained by Him. The rule of piety is to acknowledge that God is the Governor of all things. He discharges both blessings and calamities with kindness and justice. As the saints await the return of Jesus Christ, they are thankful in prosperity and patient in adversity.
The Reformer from Geneva describes the bearing of our crosses as an important branch of self-denial. A true disciple of Christ must take up his cross. God dealt with His only begotten Son in this way, and He continues in this way with all His children. “Why then should we exempt ourselves from that condition to which it behooved Christ our head to be subject; especially since His submission was on our account, that He might exhibit to us an example of patience in His own person” (p. 765)? This is part of our being conformed to Christ. It enables us the better to partake of His resurrection.
Calvin assigns five reasons for cross-bearing in this life: 1) That we may learn our extreme frailty, in order to invoke God’s strength, and stand. 2) That we may learn patience, be quickened in hope, and rely upon God in the future. 3) That we may learn obedience, even as Christ learned obedience by the things which He suffered. 4) That we may learn to examine ourselves regarding the past, to discover past offenses and make the proper corrections. 5) That we may learn the blessedness of suffering for righteousness’ sake, not only in the defense of the gospel, but in the vindication of every just cause.
Calvin was no Stoic, and he had no time for their iron-hearted philosophy. Jesus left us an example of shedding many tears, of experiencing terrors, and of being sorrowful unto death. He was the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Christ teaches us that “the world shall rejoice, but ye shall weep and lament” (John 16:20). When the master theologian writes of these things, he reveals a pastor’s heart! He has great concern that the people of God not despair under their crosses. He would excite them to reverence for God, who appoints all our afflictions, and to submission to His will in all things with cheerfulness.
The author of the Institutes counsels us unto a contempt of the present life, in order that we may be excited by a contemplation of that life which is to come. God shows us the vanity of this present life by sending us wars, tumults, exile, famines, family troubles, diseases, etc., so that we learn that nothing can be expected on this earth but conflict. We may think of happiness and a crown only when we raise our eyes to heaven. He writes, “There is no medium between these two extremes; either the earth must become vile in our estimation, or it must retain our immoderate love” (p. 776). We must despise this world in order to meditate wholeheartedly on the life to come.
But Calvin was no ascetic. Our contempt of earthly existence may not lead us to hate life or fail to be thankful for God’s gifts. All of God’s temporal gifts are designed to advance our salvation. With a rather neat argument, Calvin says, “Here we begin in various blessings to taste the sweetness of Divine benignity, that our hope and desire may be excited after the full revelation of it” (p. 780). Scorning unbelief which says, “The greatest blessing is not to be born, and the next, to die immediately,” Calvin sets forth the biblical view of death. “If heaven is our country, what is the earth but a place of exile? If the departure out of the world is an entrance into life, what is the world but a sepulchre? What is a continuance in it but an absorption in death? If deliverance from the body is an introduction into complete liberty, what is the body but a prison? If to enjoy the presence of God is the summit of felicity, is it not misery to be destitute of it? But till we escape out of the world, ‘we are absent from the Lord'” (p. 781). Therefore he counsels us to follow Paul, who was ready to glorify God in life and in death, and leave the limits of life and death to God’s decision. Answering the objection that permanence is the best and highest state, he agrees and states that “we ought therefore to direct our views to a future immortality, where we may obtain a fixed condition, which is nowhere to be found on earth” (p. 782). That believer has made good progress in the school of Christ. He joyfully expects both the day of his death and the day of his final resurrection.
Living out of hope, striving after holiness, denying self, and bearing his cross, the child of God experiences what it means to be accounted as sheep for the slaughter. He keeps his thoughts on heaven, looks beyond the appearance of things, and firmly believes that God will one day receive the faithful into His kingdom while casting the wicked into inextinguishable fire. “To conclude in one word, the cross of Christ triumphs, in the hearts of believers, over the devil and the flesh, over sin and impious men, only when their eyes are directed to the power of the resurrection” (p. 784).