Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The previous article on John Calvin’s doctrine of the Christian life showed that, in addition to the law as the rule of the Christian life, Calvin found in the New Testament an important pattern of the life of every true Christian (Standard Bearer, Oct. 15, 2003). With specific reference to Romans 12:1, “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God,” Calvin defined this New Testament pattern as the believer’s belonging to God. The entire life of the Christian is formed by his conviction that he is not his own, but belongs entirely to God.
A life formed by this conviction and conforming to this pattern has certain characteristics. Three of these characteristics are service of God, self-denial, and bearing the cross. The previous article mentioned these characteristics, briefly explained them, and demonstrated that Calvin taught them as fundamental to the Christian life.
A fourth characteristic of the life of every Christian, according to Calvin, is contempt for this present earthly life and hopeful meditation upon the future heavenly life—the life that the Christian will enjoy after death and especially upon the return of Christ. This characteristic is related to the preceding—bearing the cross—inasmuch as tribulation—the cross in one’s life—has the unavoidable and salutary effect on the Christian that he learns to despise this life and hope with ardent longing for the coming life.
In urging this characteristic as part of the pattern of the Christian life, Calvin used vigorous language. He used language that is much too strong for our age, but language that our age, particularly Reformed saints in our age, very much needs to hear. If we were to address Reformed and Presbyterian people with Calvin’s statements on the necessity of holding this earthly life in contempt, without informing them that the statements were those of Calvin, most would respond by screaming, “World-flight!” “Anabaptist!” They would charge, with the sublimest, unwitting irony, that we lack a “Calvinistic” world-view.
“(We must) despise the present, and . . . aspire to the future life.”
“This life, estimated in itself, is restless, troubled, in numberless ways wretched, and plainly in no respect happy.”
“All we have to seek or hope for here is contest.”
“When we think of the crown we must raise our eyes to heaven.”
“Our mind never rises seriously to desire and aspire after the future, until it has learned to despise the present life” (Inst., 3.9.1).
“There is no medium between the two things: the earth must either be worthless in our estimation, or keep us enslaved by an intemperate love of it.”
“We (must) hasten to despise the world, and aspire with our whole heart to the future life” (Inst., 3.9.2).
Calvin exercised some sharp spiritual/psychological examination of every one of us.
Every one of us, indeed, would be thought to aspire and aim at heavenly immortality during the whole course of his life. For we would be ashamed in no respect to excel the lower animals; whose condition would not be at all inferior to ours, had we not a hope of immortality beyond the grave. But when you attend to the plans, wishes, and actions of each, you see nothing in them but the earth. Hence our stupidity; our minds being so dazzled with the glare of wealth, power, and honors, that they can see no farther. The heart also, engrossed with avarice, ambition, and lust, is weighed down and cannot rise above them. In short, the whole soul, ensnared by the allurements of the flesh, seeks its happiness on the earth (Inst., 3.9.1).
Calvin went on to explain that he intended that we view this life as preparation for the glory of the heavenly kingdom and, therefore, do not make this life the end, or goal, or main thing. He guarded against misunderstanding of his exhortation that we despise this life by warning that “contempt” is not hatred of earthly life, or ingratitude to God for it. “This life, though abounding in all kinds of wretchedness, is justly classed among divine blessings which are not to be despised” (Inst., 3.9.3).
Viewing earthly life as preparation for the better, heavenly life, the Christian does not tremble in terror of approaching death. Rather, he desires death. “No man has made much progress in the school of Christ who does not look forward with joy to the day of death and final resurrection (II Tim. 4:18; Titus 2:13)” (Inst., 3.9.5).
In his explanation of the Christian life as cross bearing and, therefore, a despising of earthly life in hope of the heavenly, Calvin made plain that he saw no “golden age” of carnal millennial ease and glory in store for the church in history.
Thus, indeed, it is; the whole body of the faithful, so long as they live on the earth, must be like sheep for the slaughter, in order that they may be conformed to Christ their head.
Most deplorable, therefore, would their situation be did they not, by raising their mind to heaven, become superior to all that is in the world, and rise above the present aspect of affairs.
As he suggested when he explained that contempt for earthly life is not ingratitude to God for it, Calvin saw in the New Testament as a fifth characteristic of the Christian life that the Christian use the benefits of earthly life rightly. In general, this will consist of using “its [the earth’s] blessings only in so far as they assist our progress [to the heavenly kingdom], rather than retard it” (Inst., 3.10.1). Following the pattern of the New Testament, Calvin warned against two dangers. One is the binding of the conscience, whether by oneself or by others, with the unbiblical restriction that the Christian may use earthly things only if they are absolutely necessary. In his treatment of Christian liberty, later in the Institutes, Calvin expressed the spiritual danger of this ascetic view of the Christian life in a classic statement.
Many think us absurd in raising a question as to the free eating of flesh, the free use of dress and holidays, and similar frivolous trifles, as they think them; but they are of more importance than is commonly supposed. For when once the conscience is entangled in the net, it enters a long and inextricable labyrinth, from which it is afterwards most difficult to escape. When a man begins to doubt whether it is lawful for him to use linen for sheets, shirts, napkins, and handkerchiefs, he will not long be secure as to hemp, and will at last have doubts as to tow; for he will revolve in his mind whether he cannot sup without napkins, or dispense with handkerchiefs. Should he deem a daintier food unlawful, he will afterwards feel uneasy for using loaf-bread and common eatables, because he will think that the body might possibly be supported on a still meaner food. If he hesitates as to a more genial wine, he will scarcely drink the worst with a good conscience; at last he will not dare to touch water if more than usually sweet and pure. In fine, he will come to this, that he will deem it criminal to trample on a straw lying in his way (Inst., 3.19.7).
The second danger is an immoderate use of earthly things amounting to licentious self-indulgence. “Many are so devoted to luxury in all their senses, that their mind lies buried: many are so delighted with marble, gold, and pictures, that they become marble-hearted—are changed as it were into metal, and made like painted figures. The kitchen, with its savory smells, so engrosses them that they have no spiritual savor” (Inst., 3.10.3).
Positively, although “the liberty of the Christian in external matters is not to be tied down to a strict rule,” there are two laws governing the Christian’s use and enjoyment of earthly things. One is that he use the world as not abusing it, as I Corinthians 7:29-31 teaches. This is a use that does not involve making too much of the world, so that the world and its things divert the Christian from seeking the heavenly life. The Christian will avoid gluttony, excessive drinking, ostentatious dress, pride, and luxury.
Calvin was especially fearful of luxury in the life of one professing to be a disciple of Christ. Although advocating the middle way between ascetic self-denial and licentious self-indulgence, Calvin exhorted a moderation that sins more on the side of the former than of the latter: “We wish men would follow a moderation closer to abstinence than to luxury” (John Calvin, “Concerning Luxury,” in Ford Lewis Battles, Interpreting John Calvin, Baker, 1996, p. 329).
The second law directing the Christian’s use of earthly things is that he bear poverty peaceably and patiently.
Implied by these two laws is a third law: Live earthly life using and enjoying the creatures in the consciousness that we are stewards of these things. For our use of earthly things, we must one day give account. “We must, therefore, administer them [earthly things] as if we constantly heard the words sounding in our ears, ‘Give an account of your stewardship'” (Inst., 3.10.5).
Sixth, and finally, the New Testament patterns the Christian life by requiring that the Christian view and occupy his place in everyday life as a divine calling—a “vocation.” Calvin spoke of one’s “mode of life.” He referred to one’s earthly station, or job. Viewing his job as a calling, the Christian will not rashly and restlessly abandon it for another. He will patiently bear whatever “inconveniences, cares, uneasiness, and anxiety” attend his “mode of life,” “persuaded that God has laid on the burden.”
Viewing your station, no matter how lowly, as a divine calling “will afford admirable consolation, that in following your proper calling, no work will be so mean and sordid as not to have a splendor and value in the eye of God” (Inst., 3.10.6).