Introductory Note:

Introduction to John Calvin
Born at Noyon, France, and educated at the University of Paris, John Calvin (1509–1564) grew up in an atmosphere of wealth and nobility. His father wanted him to study theology, but John felt a yearning to study law. However, he had keen insight as a theologian and the heart of a pastor. Although he was never ordained, he became the curate of St. Martin de Marteville in 1527. In 1534 he was converted to Protestantism, which resulted in two short imprisonments.

In 1536 he wrote his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion at the young age of twenty-six. By 1541 he had gone to Geneva, Switzerland, and had influenced that city to the point that he had gained a large following. Under Calvin’s leader- ship, and in spite of opposition to him, Geneva became famous for its high moral standards, economic prosperity, and educational system. Many consider him to have been the father and founder of both the Presbyterian and the Reformed Protestant churches.

He was deeply influenced by the writings of Martin Luther and St. Augustine, especially Augustine’s strong predestinarian theology. It is safe to say that no theologian holds a higher or clearer understanding of the sovereignty of God than John Calvin. He was well known for his stern temperament and austere lifestyle. The following selection deals with self-denial, which Calvin believed to be essential in the life of every Christian. As with other devotional masters, the words of Calvin are sobering to the modern mind-set that sees restraint in wholly negative terms.

Renovaré Team

Excerpt from Devotional Classics

EXCERPTS FROM Gold­en Book­let of the True Chris­t­ian Life

1. A Very Excel­lent Key Principle 

The Divine law con­tains a most fit­ting and well ordered plan for the reg­u­la­tion of our life; yet it has pleased the heav­en­ly Teacher to direct us by a very excel­lent key prin­ci­ple. It is the duty of believ­ers to present your bod­ies a liv­ing sac­ri­fice, holy, accept­able unto God” (Rom. 12:1, KJV); this is the only true worship. 

The prin­ci­ple of holi­ness leads to the exhor­ta­tion, Be not con­formed to this world; but be ye trans­formed by the renew­ing of your mind, that ye may prove what is the will of God” (Rom. 12:2). It is a very impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion that we are con­se­crat­ed and ded­i­cat­ed to God. It means that we will think, speak, med­i­tate, and do all things with a view to God’s glory. 

2. Our Only Legit­i­mate Goal 

If we are not our own, but the Lord’s, it is clear to what pur­pose all our deeds must be direct­ed. We are not our own, there­fore nei­ther our rea­son nor our will should guide us in our thoughts and actions. We are not our own, there­fore we should not seek what is only expe­di­ent to the flesh. We are not our own, there­fore let us for­get our­selves and our own inter­ests as far as possible. 

We are God’s own; to him, there­fore, let us live and die. We are God’s own; there­fore let his wis­dom and will dom­i­nate all our actions. We are God’s own; there­fore let every part of our exis­tence be direct­ed towards him as our only legit­i­mate goal. 

3. The Most Effec­tive Poison 

Oh, how great­ly we have advanced when we have learned not to be our own, not to be gov­erned by our own rea­son, but to sur­ren­der our minds to God! The most effec­tive poi­son to lead us to ruin is to boast in our­selves, in our own wis­dom and willpow­er. The only escape to safe­ty is sim­ply to fol­low the guid­ance of the Lord. 

Our first step should be to take leave of our­selves and to apply all of our pow­ers to the ser­vice of the Lord. The ser­vice of the Lord does not only include implic­it obe­di­ence, but also a will­ing­ness to put aside our sin­ful desires and to sur­ren­der com­plete­ly to the lead­er­ship of the Holy Spirit. 

The trans­for­ma­tion of our lives by the Holy Spir­it, which St. Paul calls the renew­al of the mind, is the real begin­ning of life but for­eign to pagan philoso­phers. These philoso­phers set up rea­son as the sole guide of life, of wis­dom and con­duct. But Chris­t­ian phi­los­o­phy demands of us that we sur­ren­der our rea­son to the Holy Spir­it. This means that we no longer live for our­selves, but that Christ lives and reigns with­in us (Eph. 4:23; Gal. 2:20).

4. A Great Advantage 

Let us there­fore not seek our own, but that which pleas­es the Lord and is help­ful to the pro­mo­tion of his glo­ry. There is a great advan­tage in almost for­get­ting our­selves and in sure­ly neglect­ing all self­ish aspects; for then only can we try faith­ful­ly to devote our atten­tion to God and his commandments. 

For when Scrip­ture tells us to dis­card all per­son­al and self­ish con­sid­er­a­tions, it does not only exclude from our minds the desire for wealth, the lust of pow­er, and the favor of oth­ers, but it also ban­ish­es false ambi­tions and the hunger for human glo­ry with oth­er more secret evils. Indeed, Chris­tians ought to be dis­posed and pre­pared to keep in mind that they have to reck­on with God every moment of their lives. 

5. Leav­ing No Room 

Chris­tians will mea­sure all of their deeds by God’s law and will sub­ject their thoughts to God’s will. If we have learned to regard God in every enter­prise, we will be deliv­ered from all vain desires. The denial of our­selves (which Christ has so dili­gent­ly com­mand­ed his dis­ci­ples from the begin­ning) will at last dom­i­nate all the desires of our heart. 

The denial of our­selves will leave no room for pride, haugh­ti­ness, or vain­glo­ry, nor for avarice, licen­tious­ness, love of lux­u­ry, wan­ton­ness, or any sin born from self-love. With­out the prin­ci­ple of self-denial we are either led to indul­gence in the gross­est vices with­out the least shame, or, if there is any appear­ance of virtue in us, it is spoiled by an evil pas­sion for glo­ry. Show me a sin­gle per­son who does not believe in the Lord’s law of self-denial who can will­ing­ly prac­tice a life of virtue! 

6. Near­er to the Kingdom 

All who have not been influ­enced by the prin­ci­ple of self-denial and yet have fol­lowed virtue have done so out of a love of praise. Even those philoso­phers who have con­tend­ed that virtue is desir­able for its own sake have been puffed up with so much arro­gance that it is evi­dent they desire virtue for no oth­er rea­son than to give them a chance to exer­cise pride. 

God is so far from being pleased either with those who are ambi­tious of pop­u­lar praise, or with hearts full of pride and pre­sump­tion, that he plain­ly tells us they have their reward” (Matt. 6:5) in this world and that repen­tant har­lots and pub­li­cans are near­er to the king­dom of heav­en than such persons. 

7. The Rem­e­dy of All 

There is no end and no lim­it to the obsta­cles of the one who wants to pur­sue what is right and at the same time shrinks back from self-denial. It is an ancient and true obser­va­tion that there is a world of vices hid­den in the soul, but Chris­t­ian self­de­nial is the rem­e­dy of them all. There is deliv­er­ance in store only for the one who gives up self­ish­ness and whose sole aim is to please the Lord and to do what is right in his sight. 

8. A Well-Reg­u­lat­ed Life 

The apos­tle Paul gives a brief sum­ma­ry of a well-reg­u­lat­ed life when he says to Titus: The grace of God that bringeth sal­va­tion hath appeared to all, teach­ing us that deny­ing ungod­li­ness and world­ly lusts we should live sober­ly, right­eous­ly, and 

god­ly in this present world; look­ing for that blessed hope, and the glo­ri­ous appear­ing of the great God and our Sav­ior Jesus Christ who gave him­self for us, that he might redeem us from all iniq­ui­ty and puri­fy unto him­self a pecu­liar peo­ple, zeal­ous of good works” (KJV).

Paul declares that the grace of God is nec­es­sary to stim­u­late us, but that for true wor­ship two main obsta­cles must be removed: first, ungod­li­ness (to which we are strong­ly inclined), and sec­ond, world­ly lusts (which try to over­whelm us). 

Ungod­li­ness does not only mean super­sti­tions, but every­thing that hin­ders the sin­cere fear of God. And world­ly lusts mean car­nal affec­tions. Paul urges us to for­sake our for­mer desires which are in con­flict with the two tables of the law and to renounce all the dic­tates of our own rea­son and will. 

9. Sobri­ety, Right­eous­ness, and Godliness 

Paul reduces all the actions of the new life to three class­es: sobri­ety, right­eous­ness, and god­li­ness. Sobri­ety undoubt­ed­ly means chasti­ty and tem­per­ance, as well as the pure and fru­gal use of tem­po­ral bless­ings, and patience under pover­ty. Right­eous­ness includes all the duties of jus­tice that every­one may receive just dues. God­li­ness sep­a­rates us from the pol­lu­tions of this world and, by true holi­ness, unites us to God. When the virtues of sobri­ety, right­eous­ness, and god­li­ness are firm­ly linked togeth­er, they will pro­duce absolute perfection. 

10. Deliv­er­ing Our Minds from Every Snare 

Noth­ing is more dif­fi­cult than to for­sake all car­nal thoughts, to sub­due and renounce our false appetites, and to devote our­selves to God and our brethren, and to live the life of angels in a world of cor­rup­tion. To deliv­er our minds from every snare Paul calls atten­tion to the hope of a blessed immor­tal­i­ty, and encour­ages us that our hope is not in vain. 

As Christ once appeared as a Redeemer, so will he at his sec­ond com­ing show us the ben­e­fits of the sal­va­tion which he obtained. Christ dis­pels the charms which blind us and pre­vent us from long­ing with the right zeal for the glo­ry of heav­en. Christ also teach­es us that we must live as strangers and pil­grims in this world, that we may not lose our heav­en­ly inher­i­tance (Titus 2:11 – 14). 

11. Our Conqueror 

Let us dis­cuss fur­ther how real self-denial makes us more calm and patient. First of all, Scrip­ture draws our atten­tion to the fact that if we want ease and tran­quil­i­ty in our lives, we should resign our­selves and all that we have to the will of God, and at the same time we should sur­ren­der our affec­tions to him as our Conqueror. 

To crave wealth and hon­or, to demand pow­er, to pile up rich­es, to gath­er all those van­i­ties which seem to make for pomp and emp­ty dis­play, that is our furi­ous pas­sion and our unbound­ed desire. On the oth­er hand, we fear and abhor pover­ty, obscu­ri­ty, and humil­i­ty, and we seek to avoid them by all means. 

We can eas­i­ly see how rest­less peo­ple are who fol­low their own mind, how many tricks they try, and how they tire them­selves out in their efforts to obtain the objects of their ambi­tion and avarice, and then again to avoid pover­ty and humil­i­ty. If God-fear­ing peo­ple do not want to be caught in such snares, they must pur­sue anoth­er course: they should not hope, or desire, or even think of pros­per­i­ty with­out God’s blessing. 

Reflec­tions from Richard Foster

Calvin speaks life-giv­ing words when he reminds us that self-denial is an essen­tial part of any gen­uine life with God. The self-denial of which he speaks has noth­ing to do with hatred of the body, or with pun­ish­ment for the sake of pun­ish­ment, or with earn­ing mer­it through pow­ers of will and self-control. 

The more fit­ting image is of the ath­lete who enters a train­ing pro­gram appro­pri­ate for the devel­op­ment of mind, body, and spir­it. And, as we all know, self-denial is a nor­mal part of the reg­i­men of the ath­lete. We, like the ath­lete, must expe­ri­ence self-denial as a nor­mal part of our train­ing reg­i­men so that we may press on toward the goal for the prize of the heav­en­ly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).

Excerpts tak­en from Devo­tion­al Clas­sics: Select­ed Read­ings for Indi­vid­u­als and Groups (Richard J. Fos­ter & James Bryan Smith, Edi­tors. Harper­Collins, 1993.). This ver­sion of John Calv­in’s text is orig­i­nal­ly from Gold­en Book­let of the True Chris­t­ian Life, Bak­er, 1952.

Text First Published December 1989

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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